A Letter To My Younger Self, 20 Years Earlier, Who Is Just Starting Out Writing

Dear Jamie,

 

I know what you’re thinking. This is either something you are imagining, or a prank that Dan or Rich is playing on you. But let me assure you this is no prank. It is really me–that is, you, twenty years in the future–writing you now as you begin to write stories that you plan on submitting to magazines for the first time. I could prove this to you by listing the various historical events that have taken place between 1992 and 2012, but you would have to wait for many years to verify them. So let me try to demonstrate my authenticity out of the way by telling you what you are thinking.

Something has clicked in your head recently. You’ve been reading science fiction off and on for a dozen years. For a while, you mostly stuck to what you knew, Piers Anthony novels, but recently, you’ve been branching out, exploring more and more of the field. Something attracts you to these type of stories and you can’t quite put your finger on it yet, but it is the same thing that makes you want to be like the writers of the stories you read. So far, you haven’t really told anyone about your plan to start writing, but you’ll start in a few days with the very same friends you think are pulling a prank on you. In fact, you will get a gift from one of those friends before the holiday break–a book of quotation from Shannon–and in it she will have written, “I expect to read a quote from you in here someday.” That book still sits on your bookshelf twenty years later.

At first, you are going to write every story that comes to mind, no matter how bad or tentative the idea. Most of these stories will suck but you’ll be pleased with them for reasons you can’t quite explain. Let me tell you why you will be pleased with them. These were necessary stories. They are horrible, filled with stilted prose. They have almost no redeeming value whatsoever. Almost. But the thing is, they are complete stories. You finish each one of those miserable little things and by actually finishing the stories, you put yourself far ahead of most people who attempt to write. You are not frightened away by how bad they are because at this point, you don’t recognize that they are bad. It will take many, many stories before you develop this ability.

Actually, you are mostly excited about stuffing the finished manuscripts into big envelopes and sending them off to the long list of markets you’ve uncovered in Writers Marketplace. Taking those envelopes to the post office and sending them off make you feel like a real writer, even though you don’t yet know what that really feels like yet. You have the vision in your head of getting an acceptance letter someday–hopefully within a few week–and that vision thrills you. Just by sending out those stories you are putting yourself far ahead of those few people who complete a story. You are actually sending yours into the world to be judged by an Editor.

Soon, you will rediscover Isaac Asimov, through his autobiographies, and that will send you to new heights. You will discover the kind of writer you want to emulate more than anything else. Harness those feelings and keep the stories coming. When those first rejections start coming in–and believe me, they will come–use them as trophies to demonstrate to yourself that you are, in fact a writer. You can’t be rejected if you never submit a story and by the time you’ve been doing this for one year, you’ll have collected a fair share of these things.

Indeed, at times, it will be painful. You’ll get better at writing stories. You’ll start to get the hang of it. You’ll send off a story and think, maybe this one really does have a chance. And when that story comes back, it will be all the more disappointing. This is where the people who submit get weeded out. In this stage there are two things to keep in mind: the more rejection letters you collect the better. Because it means you are still writing and sending out stories. Persistence is the secret. Writing, like anything else, requires lots and lots of practice, unless you are a natural genius at it, which, let’s face it, you are not. Rejections shake even the strongest egos, but this is about more than ego. This is about succeeding in something you really want to do. That means keeping at it, even when the rejections seem like an endless flood.

And I’ll tell you something now, just to help keep that spark going. Eventually, you will sell stories, and each sale will be exciting. Eventually, you will see your name on the contents pages of the science fiction magazines you enjoy reading. And not only that–you will be a science fiction writer, accepted by your peers as such. The names you are becoming familiar with now, Malzberg and Silverberg and Steele. You will know these people. You will eventually meet them, and some of them will become your friends and mentors.

So, as you head home for winter break, with your mind working out that very first (horrible) story that you’ll bang out in Microsoft Word 5.5 in early January when you are back at school, remember that it doesn’t matter how bad the stuff seems at the beginning. It doesn’t even matter that if–in later years–you think it was silly submitting that story. It is all important that you write those stories, that you submit them, and that you learn from the experiences. Because twenty years from now, instead of sitting in your apartment on a cold winter day reading a letter from your future self, you’ll be sitting at your desk, with your kids napping, writing a letter to your past-self, reminding him that it does really all work out in the end if you put in the effort.

Happy holiday, and get working on that first story!

Best,

Jamie
December 9, 2012