Dear Aspiring Writer Me -- Jen Doktorski
If all has gone as planned, you will find this letter just as I’m stealing away from Bigler Hall unseen and dashing across the street to a silver DeLorean, which awaits my arrival to take me back to the future. You’ll find these words of wisdom from an older, blonder you on the eve of an appointment with Maya Spence, your freshman advisor at Penn State, who wants to speak with you about declaring your major.
When you get home from class, you’ll plop on your bed and stare for a while at the cinder block walls adorned with posters of Patrick Swayze and Alf because yes, you were that exactly that uncool. Then you’ll page through the course selection catalog and try to decide between majoring in biology, in the hopes of becoming a veterinarian, or English, as a step toward becoming a writer. My letter will slip from between the catalog’s pages just as you’re about to conclude that becoming a vet will take much too long (we’re talking close to ten years, right?), and opt, instead, to major in English with a concentration in non-fiction writing. You’re not yet ready to admit that what you really want is to become a children’s book author, and my letter is not meant to rush that admission, or change your mind about your choice in major. But there are a few things I think you should know.
1. You do eventually become a published author of young adult fiction. At this writing, your first two books have been published and your agent is shopping a third. That’s the good news. That bad news is you could have gone through veterinary schools twice already and still be younger than you were when your first novel debuted. Do not let this dissuade you. You made the right choice. You and I both know—since we’re both you, or me, depending on how you look at it—that you can’t balance your checkbook without using a calculator or counting on your fingers. How far did you think those seriously-lacking math skills were going to take you?
2. You’ll spend more than a decade writing non-fiction, first as a journalist, then as a communications specialist and speechwriter, and later as a freelance writer. Don’t think of these jobs as wasted time. Being a journalist taught you to write fast and accurately on a deadline. It also taught you to be curious. It gave you entre to different worlds, and helped you explore challenging topics and write about them in a way that made it easy for people to read and understand. The people you’ve met and the places you’ve been have shaped and inspired you. The truth is what grounds your made-up stories.
3. Never forget why you wanted to write fiction in the first place. You’re too shy to be a stand-up comedienne, but you always wanted to make people laugh. Know this: funny doesn’t win awards. But don’t let that dissuade you. Someday you’ll get an email from a 15-year-old girl who said she hated reading until her mother gave her your books. Now she reads all the time. Cherish those comments from real, teen readers and forget about leaving space on your cover for a nice, shiny seal.
4. Rejection never gets easier. You were well into the double digits when you finally connected with the right agent and she sold your first novel. Rejection continues even after you’re published. Everyone is not always going to like everything you write. Sometimes, they’ll even hate it. And that leads me to my final bit of advice.
5. Don’t quit. At certain times you’ll want to but then you’ll remember that quitting will only ensure that you’ll never get published. But if you keep writing, revising, submitting, reading, and doing everything in your power to perfect your craft, well, then, there’s always hope that the right agent and editor will come along and want to help you get your stories out into the world.
Shortly before you sign your first contract with a publisher, a very wise six-year-old will say something to you that you will remember for the rest of your life. “Mommy, even if no one buys your book, you’re still an author.” Smart kid. Remember that, and everything else I told you.
All the best,
Your future self
PS You’ll have to wait quite a few years, but when it comes out, read Stephen King’s On Writing. He says it all much better than me.