Advice for Younger Writers

Guest post from Dori Butler

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Always. But wanting to be a writer is probably a lot like wanting to be a baseball player. Or a movie star. A lot of people want it, but most will settle for something else.

One thing that sets me apart from other people is I’m determined. Some might say stubborn. I’m also relatively patient. When I want something, I go after it. And I don’t give up until I get it.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. I’ve had a lot of doubts about my writing through the years. There have been times I wondered if I was wasting my time…times I considered giving up…times I wished I could look into a crystal ball and see whether I was ever going to get anywhere. Would I ever get published? Would I ever publish a book? Would I ever publish a book with my name on it rather than someone else’s? Would I ever publish a series? That’s what I really wanted to do…publish a series of my own.

Now that I’m more than twenty years into my writing career, I know the answers to those questions. If I could actually talk to a younger version of myself at various points my life, and offer some advice, this is what I would say:

Dear 21-year-old Dori,

Dori at 21
Dori at 21

You’re just starting your adult life. You’re married, but you don’t have any kids yet. You’ve just made the decision not to go on to graduate school. Instead you’re going to be a children’s book author! Part of you is wondering if you’re making the right decision. Don’t worry…you are. But you won’t really know that for a while yet. And even when you do know it, some of the reasons why it was a good decision will surprise you.

So what are you working on? An eight-book picture book series called Plato Goes to Obedience School. Wow. Eight books, huh? All about a cocker spaniel who goes to obedience school. You don’t realize this yet, but you don’t have enough story there to sustain one book, much less eight. You’ve got the start of a character, but no plot. No. I’m sorry, you really don’t.

Let me ask you this: What does Plato want? What is he willing to do to get it? What is he going to DO in each of these eight books to move the story forward? Where’s the conflict? Where’s the adventure? Where are the high stakes? You need to read A LOT more picture books if you think you want to write picture books. You need to learn the elements of a good story. In fact, maybe you should think about writing just one good story at this point. It’s too early to be thinking about a series.

I know you really want to write a series. But trust me, you’re not ready. And Plato Goes to Obedience School is NOT series material. By the way, six-year-olds don’t even know who Plato was, so you might consider changing the name of that dog. Yeah, I know…that’s really your dog’s name, but nobody cares. Please, do me a favor. Don’t send that series proposal out. Just keep reading, keep writing, keep learning. One day you will publish a series of your own. It’ll even be a series about dogs! But it’s not going to be Plato Goes to Obedience School. It’s just not. Put this away and don’t ever show it to ANYONE! You still have so much to learn…

–Middle-Aged Dori

Dear 29-year-old Dori,

IowasignI know…you never saw yourself living in Iowa, of all places, and yet here you are. Let me tell you this: you’re going to come to love Iowa and your life there. Really, you are. And your new friend, Carol? She’s going to change your life because she’s going to tell you about book packagers. She’s going to show you how to approach them, she’s going to read your Sweet Valley Twins audition piece, she’s going to be your biggest cheerleader next to your husband, and you’re going to get hired as a writer for the Sweet Valley Twins series. You’ve already published a bunch of magazine stories, but these are going to be your first published books. They may not be “your” books, but you’ll find subtle ways of making each one your own while remaining true to the series. This is going to be a great experience for you. You’ll get a 10-page outline for each book you’re contracted to write and then you’ll have 4-6 weeks to write each one. I know that doesn’t sound like much time, but don’t worry. You’ll make every deadline. You’ll learn how to structure a novel, match a series voice, maintain a character over several books, work with an editor, meet a deadline, revise, and you’ll actually get paid to learn all this.

SweetValley93Caution: you’re going to get so good at this that the assignments are going to come one after the other. And you have two little kids now. You’re going to actually make some money as a writer, but you’re not going to have time to write anything of your own. And one day you’re going to wake up and realize that everything you write sounds like a Sweet Valley Twins book. So here’s a piece of advice: slow down a little. I know it feels good when someone calls you up and offers you a contract, but learn to say no once in a while. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I’d like to, but I just can’t do another book this month. Could I do one next month instead?” And then use that month off to recapture your own voice.

–Middle-Aged Dori

Dear 32-year-old Dori,

SlidingSo you think you’re ready to try again. You think you’re ready to propose your own middle grade series. You’ve learned all you’re going to learn from writing Sweet Valley Twins books. You’ve continued to publish magazine stories. You’ve even published a few picture books with regional publishers. But what you really want is your own middle grade series. You’ve read a bunch of other people’s series. You understand what makes a series. You even have an idea: you want to write about a girls’ baseball league. That’s not a bad idea.

You understand now that series are all about character. You’ve created nine different girls, each with her own story. You’ve got action. You’ve got adventure. You’ve got friendship. You’ve got conflict. You’ve got characters who are doing things. And at the heart of it all, you’ve got baseball.

It would help if you were a little more passionate about baseball. Sure, you know how the game is played. You know a lot about the history of women in baseball. And A League of their Own is your favorite movie. But let’s be honest. You’re not really passionate about baseball. Not really. So why do you want to write about it?

What’s that? You say you’re writing about middle school girls…middle school girls who happen to play baseball. You’re not really writing about baseball.

Yeah, okay…I’ll buy that. Temporarily. Because, after all, you’re going to get really close with this series proposal. You’re going to send Harper Collins your list of characters, a synopsis of book one, ideas for the next three books, and two sample chapters (the only ones you’ve actually written) from book one. And they’re going to get back to you after a couple of months and ask you for the rest of book one.

That single phone call will inspire some passion for baseball. You’ll read a bunch of books about baseball; you’ll even start reading the sports section of the newspaper now and then. You’ll spend the next couple of months frantically writing the rest of book one and then you’ll send it off. And you’ll wait…and you’ll wait…and you’ll wait…

But guess what? HarperCollins will NEVER give you an answer. You’ll call them and ask about the status of your manuscript after six months and again after nine months. You’ll get some encouraging news both times, but they will never offer a contract, nor will they ever tell you they’re not interested. They’re just going to hold that proposal FOREVER.

Eventually you’ll find out that Peachtree is looking for girls’ series ideas. So you’ll send your series proposal to them. This time when somebody asks about the rest of book one, you’ll be able to send it right away because you’ve actually finished it. And guess what? They’re going to tell you it’s got “too much depth” for a paperback series (which is going to blow you away because you are the queen of the “your story lacks depth” rejection letter). But they’re going to offer you a contract for it as a stand-alone hardcover novel “with sequel possibilities,” and in 2003 Sliding Into Home will be one of your first published middle grade novels.

Don’t give up!

Middle Aged Dori

Dear 43-year-old Dori,

Mouse and Dori
Mouse and Dori
I know you just found out your oldest son is going to be moving halfway across the country, but really, get a grip! He’s not moving for another ten months. And he’s just moving to Seattle; he’s not moving to Mars. He’s going to be fine; you’re going to be fine; and you’re about to sell your own series!

You’ve been working with Albert Whitman & Co. for seven years now. You’ve written Boxcar Children books for them (which is a very different experience from writing Sweet Valley Twins books. You don’t get any outlines for Boxcar; you get to come up with the mysteries yourself. Too bad we can’t tell 7-year-old Dori, who LOVED the Boxcar Children series, that she would one day grow up to write them!). You’ve published five books of your own with Albert Whitman. And your editors there know you well enough to know that you’ve always wanted your own series. You’ve even discussed a series idea with them. All you need to do is write a couple of sample chapters and a synopsis of the first book, some character notes, and ideas for future books.

buddyfilesallWhat’s that? You’re not all that excited about the series idea you’ve already discussed with them? You’ve got a new dog that you’re training to be a therapy dog, and really, you’re all about the dog right now (and the kid who’s moving out in 10 months). In fact, the dog is actually taking precedence over the writing. But…it might be fun to write a beginning chapter book series from the perspective of a dog. Maybe from the perspective of a school therapy dog who solves mysteries. I know, that’s not what you and your editor discussed. And you’re worried this idea is a little too close to Plato Goes to Obedience School, which you understand now was a really BAD idea.

But keep going! You know so much more about writing and constructing a series now than you did when you wrote Plato Goes to Obedience School. And most important, you’ve got PASSION for this project! Don’t worry…Albert Whitman & Co. is going to love it!

–Middle-Aged Dori

P.S. Your dog is going to be an awesome therapy dog!

I feel very fortunate. I’m doing exactly what I set out to do. I’m living the life I always wanted to lead. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions about my writing future. For starters, I’d like to know: How long will the Buddy Files series continue? Do I have another series in me? Will I ever publish a YA murder mystery? Will I ever be nominated for an Edgar award? Is straddling genres and age groups a good idea or a bad idea? Will I stay with the same publishers or will I one day work with someone else? What other books are inside me? What if I never publish another book?

If I was given an opportunity to look into a crystal ball and see answers to those questions, I don’t think I’d look. I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing and discover the answers to those questions as they happen. After all, it’s the questions that keep life interesting. I wonder if 75-year-old Dori would agree?

I wonder what advice 75-year-old Dori might have for Middle Aged Dori?

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