My Early Writing Mistakes and Lessons

Hey guys. Hope you’re all good.

Writing is almost never easy. It’s a lesson that pretty much every writer has to learn and accept at some point. Quite often, an aspiring writer will get the thought in their head that, because they’ve read lots of interesting and well-written books, that they’d be a master at it right away. Then, they often pick up their pen, open their word processing program of choice, or load their typewriter, only to learn that that couldn’t be further from the truth. And as they write, they find themselves making various mistakes, and hopefully, learning a few lessons.

I grew up reading three of the most popular and best-selling middle-grade and Young Adult book series of the ’90s and early 2000s—Goosebumps, Animorphs, and Harry Potter. Their popularity was undeniable—you’d be hard-pressed to walk into an American elementary school classroom during that time and not come across a book depicting R.L. Stine’s psychotic ventriloquist dummy, Slappy, on its cover; or one showing an attractive teenager transforming into a wild animal in a way that you knew would likely give you nightmares later; or an uncharacteristically thick children’s book that had a young boy riding a broomstick on its cover. There were a few years where it seemed that every kid in my class was reading those books. I devoured every title in all three of those series, as well as a smattering of titles in other popular series such as The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, The Ghosts of Fear Street, and The Hardy Boys. And because I was reading the most popular children’s books of the time, and had read so many of them, I felt that I could write something just as good. No problem.

Mistake number one. I learned very early on, at around age eight, that books don’t just pop into existence, and that good stories are not as easy to craft as most people would like to think. In the second grade, everyone in my class was tasked with writing an entry for an upcoming Young Authors Competition, an annual national contest where grade-school age children are asked to write a story, which they then submit to their teacher. The teacher then picks the story that they feel is the best from their class, and that entry then goes on to compete with those from other classes in the school. The winning entry from the school then goes on to compete with other local schools, and then the winner of the local competition enters the state-wide competition, followed by the final stage, the national contest.

I was just beginning to get into the Goosebumps series at that time, but my favorite book around that time was a children’s book about a group of kids who go on a journey through our solar system. The story I wrote for the Young Authors competition wound up being almost a carbon copy of that book. I’d changed a few moments here and there, and the characters in my story were named after classmates of mine, but it followed the same premise. At the time, I didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with that, but as I got older and learned what plagiarism is, two things occurred to me: that essentially copying someone else’s work is bad, and that coming up with a good, original idea was not as easy as it had first seemed.

By the time I’d gotten to the eighth grade, I’d had a lot more experience writing. By that time, the Goosebumps series had ended, my beloved Animorphs was winding to a close, and Harry Potter was only just beginning to become a phenomenon. I found myself enthusiastically trying to emulate the authors of those books. My English and writing teachers up to that point had seemed to like my work—I always did very well in those classes. That year, a student teacher for our English class named Mr. Hargot, assigned for everyone in the class to write a short story, just a few pages long, and gave us a week to complete it. Being the overachiever that I am (I’d imagine that, in the UK, I’d be considered a “swot”), I wound up writing about six or seven pages that I dubbed Wolf Trouble, about a couple of kids who live on a farm who begin investigating when several of their animals start getting hurt or disappearing overnight. It wasn’t the most interesting or thrilling read, but I was proud of it at the time. Mr. Hargot, however, was not impressed with it. From the moment I’d told him what it was about, he seemed disinterested in everything about it, and his disinterest was reflected in the grade I got on it. At the time, I was furious. He’d given much higher marks to the two- and three-page stories classmates of mine had scribbled the same morning that the assignment was due. Some of them had finished writing their stories just moments before Mr. Hargot had collected them. Couldn’t he see how much effort had gone into Wolf Trouble? Didn’t he notice the Stine-esque suspense, the Applegate-esque humor, and the Rowling-esque turns of phrases peppering my story? I sat in my seat near the front of the classroom, angrily eyeing the big, red D that had been scrawled in the upper corner of Wolf Trouble‘s cover page, unable to believe it. Surely he was kidding, right?

It wasn’t until many years later that I happened to come across that copy of Wolf Trouble in an old folder. My obsessive habit of saving nearly every bit of writing I’ve ever done came in handy; I re-read the story, and by the time I’d gotten to the end, it was all I could do to not roll my eyes. Not at the giant, glaring “D” on the cover, but at my own writing. It was so obvious to me, several years later, that I was copying pretty much everything I’d ever seen my favorite authors do, from Stine’s cliffhangers to Rowling’s descriptiveness. It didn’t have a voice of its own, and as I didn’t have the skill of either author (or of Applegate), the entire story fell horribly flat. I realized, after reading it for the first time in years (and after consulting the internet), that it was okay to have favorite authors and be inspired by them. But you have to have your own voice, and that you have to tell your story your way, and not the way you think your favorite author would tell it. It’s easy for a reader to detect, and very rarely works out in the author’s favor.

The same school year that I wrote Wolf Trouble was a special one for me—it was the year I began writing a book called Tomb Terror, which has now become one of the titles in my series, The Indigo Chronicles. Tomb Terror was my first Young Authors competition entry since the second grade, and I was determined to make it good. The main teacher for my English class, a woman named Mrs. Majeske, told us the first week of school that she’d be looking for entries around Halloween. So I started writing immediately. And yes, the swot in me came out, as I wrote a 90-page book in just under two months. I was immensely proud of it, prouder that I’d ever been of anything I’d written previously. Mrs. Majeske’s reaction to Tomb Terror couldn’t have been more different than Mr. Hargot’s had been to Wolf Trouble. She liked it. She liked it so much that she held me back for a few minutes at the end of class one day to tell me how much she enjoyed it. She even asked me if I’d plagiarized a published book. Rather than take offense, I swelled with pride. Did that mean that she thought Tomb Terror was as good as something you might find in a book store?

Feeling very encouraged, I quickly wrote two more books that starred the same characters from Tomb Terror. The third one, The Witches’ Realm, was easily the longest thing I’d written up to that point—118 pages about a journey across a strange land where magic and mythical beasts were the norm. I was pretty proud of the book at the time. My mother bragged to anyone who’d listen that I’d written a nearly 120-page book. My great-aunt gushed to me how amazing it was. But, upon re-reading it a few years later, I realized that I’d made a very similar mistake to the one I’d made back in second grade. But this one was worse. Unable to come up with anything original regarding the magic and creatures in The Witches’ Realm, I wound up borrowing heavily from just about every book or television show I’d ever come across that involved magic, from Sabrina, The Teenage Witch to Charmed to, of course, Harry Potter. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t actually used words like “apparate” and “Acromantula” in the book. Yes, I used J.K. Rowling’s own creations in my book. Once again, I was plagiarizing. I actually physically cringe any time I read through that early draft of The Witches’ Realm. I had to consult it in order to write this blog, and was reminded of just how painful it is to read. It’s embarrassing. The notion that I needed to come up with my own magic, and my own creatures, didn’t occur to me until years later, after I finished high school. In recent years, I’ve completely rewritten The Witches’ Realm (as well as Tomb Terror and the then-second book in the series, which is now called The Legend of Shadow Island). In rewriting them, I realized that, when I was younger, I was a very impatient writer. In my haste to be able to say that I’d completed another book, I never spent the necessary amount of time focusing on pre-writing—figuring out who my characters are and why they behave the way they do, as well as the mythology and rules of the world I was building. Before starting on the actual rewrite, I spent months devising a unique system of magic, and creating creatures that were of my own making, though some do have a basis in legends and Greek mythology. I found that it made a WORLD of a difference. The current incarnation of The Witches’ Realm is something I’m actually very proud of. I do feel that it can be better, though, so I plan on doing another full rewrite of it within the next year or so. And as I write it, I plan on utilizing all of the lessons I’ve learned over the years. And, of course, I plan on making more mistakes and learning new lessons along the way.

Until next time,

Brandon

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