This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Jordyn Turney reveals how she came to take her writing seriously, even if no one else did…
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I really don’t. Stories have always been a part of my life and from the beginning I knew I wanted to make them. We were the rare family that had a home computer in the early ’90s and my dad teaching me to save documents when I was still in the single-digit ages is one of my most vivid memories. By the time I was sixteen I’d written two painfully short (and really, just painful) novels and countless other horrible poems and less-horrible short stories. I hadn’t begun querying, but I was reading Miss Snark, Nathan Bransford, and every other publishing-industry blog I could find. I took every bit of writing advice I could find, especially from published authors, and hadn’t quite figured out how to separate what works from what doesn’t. I didn’t fully realize that what worked for others wouldn’t work for me.
One thing that everything I was reading seemed to agree on was that you needed a critique partner or group. The closest I had to either of those things was a best friend who wrote primarily fan fiction and didn’t like YA. It was nice that she wrote, sort of, but not exactly helpful.
And then, mostly by accident, I found the number to a local writers’ group. A week later, armed with a pen, notebook, and my most recent short story, I met my group. Some of them had written memoirs and were self-published; others wrote short fiction and were either pursuing publication or writing purely for hobby. They were all a good thirty to fifty years older than me, which first intimidated me and then, when I realized it seemed I knew more about publishing than they did, confused me. None of them wrote in my genre, YA, but that was alright. Critique was critique and I desperately needed to improve.
Every week we met at the bookstore, bringing pieces to read if we had them. Any given week there was between five and ten of us, all with pens and notebooks to take whatever notes the others gave us. For a while I brought short stories, and then I started another novel. This one was different than the previous two. It was harder to write. It was more personal, closer to the type of novel I wanted to be writing. But I was struggling. The story, told from the alternating POVs of two sisters, wasn’t coming together how I wanted. The characters weren’t either. In trying to make them unique and give them distinct voices, I couldn’t quite get away from making the sisters horrible stereotypes: the older, smarter, sort of bitter sister and the younger, more fun, entirely superficial one. At the time I couldn’t pinpoint the problems quite so well; all I knew was that the words I was writing weren’t working, something indefinable was wrong with the story, and it needed help.
I took it to my writing group, nervous about what they might think. It was different from anything that the rest of them wrote, and even different from most of the stories I’d brought to them. So I read the first two chapters—one from each sister’s viewpoint—and waited, anxious.
They liked it. No, that’s not quite right: they loved it. It was funny, they said. I’d really captured the teen voice, they said. They were amazed that I was writing a novel. Their critiques were small things, like dialogue tics. They were line edits, not rewrites or major revisions. They were similar to the notes I got on my short stories, which was a relief.
At home I looked over my novel and there was still something wrong. Cleaning up the characters’ dialogue didn’t fix the problem that I still couldn’t define, and I didn’t understand why my critique group couldn’t see it. Something was wrong.
I stopped looking forward to the writing group meetings. I went back to working on the novel on my own and brought short stories, some of them ones I’d written months earlier, to the group. Stories they liked, but didn’t have any concrete critiques about, only vague thoughts and more line edits. And over the weeks this thought grew in my mind, this annoyance with the whole process of printing things and reading them and waiting for critique that never really came. I didn’t see the point. It was nice to have people like my writing, but I didn’t feel like my writing was good enough for people to really like yet and besides, this was a critique group: they were supposed to tell me what was wrong with my words, not what was right with them.
It annoyed me and that annoyance grew into this nagging thing that never let me alone. If the ladies in my group were to be believed, I was a great writer. And I couldn’t be a great writer, because even I could see that my writing wasn’t that good. I didn’t understand plots. I couldn’t outline. My characters were brightly painted, but flat and cardboard-like. I was reaching, but not quite far enough. I was trying, but things weren’t coming together. I was climbing.
I continued going to the writing group months after that initial nagging annoyance, figuring that even a lackluster group was better than no group at all. I eventually brought more chapters of the novel, and hoped someone would know what was wrong with it, but it was as if nobody realized there was anything wrong with it. They all loved it, and everything else I wrote, which perplexed me until, finally, as one of the women told me how fortunate I was to have started writing so young, something clicked in my mind.
And that something was this: I was not a great writer. I was a young writer—a teenager in a room full of women who had lived a lifetime—and they were amazed at that. They were all very nice, well-meaning ladies, but they were too impressed by the fact that I was sixteen and writing a novel to be serious about it. They were handling me with kid gloves because, well, I was a kid.
But it wasn’t helpful. I’d wanted to get better and it wasn’t happening. The fact that they were so impressed made it difficult to get honest feedback instead of being patted on the head for my efforts. What I wanted—what I needed—was that honesty. I finally decided, one of those days standing outside of the bookstore as I waited for my mom to pick me up, that I wouldn’t go back. I wasn’t getting anything out of it. The only way I was going to get better was by looking at my writing and being really, brutally honest about it. I decided that I was going to take my writing seriously even if nobody else did. I could be a great young writer or I could, maybe, someday, be a good writer. Period. No age limit. And I wanted to be a good writer.
So I stopped going to the writing group that wasn’t helping and I started to get serious. I learned how to edit. I learned how to plan, even if I still couldn’t outline. I forced myself to write plots and figured out how to give my characters dimension. I rewrote. I rewrote again. I learned how to make it through writer’s block and then, on the other side, how to give up on something that wasn’t working. I found out what advice worked for me and what didn’t. And though I never found another writing group, I found other writers who took me and my writing seriously, whose critiques and suggestions were so harsh they made me want to scream, but so honest and true that I couldn’t ignore them.
I got better.
I’m 22 now and after a handful of novels in-between, I’ve brought back the original idea of that writing-group novel as an entirely new book. I didn’t know how to write it then; I wasn’t good enough to write a dual-POV story or create characters within that story who were believable and realistic. It took years to get here and I’m still climbing, still reaching, but I think probably I always will be. And I don’t have a book published, or a book deal, or even an agent, though I want those things so much. But I look at my work and I’m proud of it, and I think that those things I want so desperately will come. Because I am a good writer. Period. No age limit.
Jordyn Turney is a book blogger and aspiring YA author who tweets constantly, drinks too much iced tea, and loves television. Since the age of 16 she’s been published in the essay anthology Red: Teenage Girls Write on What Fires Up Their Lives, as well as the Huffington Post.
Visit Jordyn’s blog “Ten Cent Notes” at tencentnotes.blogspot.com.
Follow @jordynface on Twitter.
Want more in this blog series?
The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.
Here are the posts in the series so far:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Gayle Forman: on overcoming bitterness
- Sean Ferrell: on the Writer who never arrives
- Eileen Cook: on a “nasty” book and a teacher’s advice that inspired her
- Christopher Barzak: on how short stories changed his vision for his novel
- Saundra Mitchell: on deciding to quit and walk away
- Eric Luper: on not writing for trends
- Gretchen McNeil: on how “everything happens for a reason”
- Julia DeVillers on the life-changing fan letter she wrote when she was ten
- Daisy Whitney on the book that opened her eyes to writing YA
- Brandy Colbert on the book that inspired her to find her voice
- Courtney Summers on redefining failure
- Sarah Darer Littman on turning off the noise
- Léna Roy on how she came to call herself a “writer”
- Megan Crewe on not choosing the “right” path
- Jennifer Echols on her eighth anniversary of not being stupid
- Blythe Woolston on how she accidentally became a writer
- Karen Mahoney on the discouraging moment that kept her from showing her writing for years
- Steve Brezenoff on how facing both death and birth became a turning point for his writing
- Christine Lee Zilka on how she fought to keep writing after a stroke at age 33
- Kim Purcell on rewriting her book from scratch (giveaway open through March 2!)
- Camille DeAngelis on “the laughter of sanity” (giveaway open through March 5!)
- Timothy Braun on being true to yourself and your writing
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.