Essential Advice for Beginning Writers: An Interview with Kerri Majors

kerrimajorsKerri Majors is the editor and founder of YARN, the Young Adult Review Network, an online literary journal of YA short stories, essays, and poetry. As if this role doesn’t keep her busy enough, she is also the author of This Is Not a Writing Manual, a refreshing and candid memoir geared toward young writers. In it, she shares her own trials-by-fire, successes, disappointments, and thoughts on the writing life. This is the perfect book to share with the young writer in your life, and there are plenty of pearls of wisdom and inspiration for writers of all ages, beginners and veterans alike.

I sat down with Kerri to chat about what it means to be a writer, what makes for stand-out, top-notch fiction, and the writing mistakes she sees in her role as a fiction editor.

—by Rachel Randall, Managing Editor of Writer’s Digest Books

Why did you decide to write This Is Not a Writing Manual?

I never-ever-EVER thought I would write a book like this. In fact, I used to resist even reading books like this one—until I finally broke down and read Anne Lamott’s amazing Bird by Bird, which made me laugh and cry with recognition. Reading her book, then assigning it to my students for many years, began to break down my barrier to “writing books.”

Then I started running YARN and getting more and more immersed in the teen and YA writing community, and I began to see a real need for a book like TINAWM—a kind of mentor book like Bird by Bird had been for me as an adult writer, but a book that would be specifically for young writers (14- to 24-year-olds), to let them know that they were not alone on the long road of the writing life.

I tried to think back to the questions and dreams I had as a high school and college-age writer, and then I tried to address those concerns (I also canvassed some writer friends so that I wouldn’t just gaze at my navel the whole time). I wanted to offer a balance of very practical advice (like how to find a job that will pay your rent and feed your soul, and how to schedule writing into a busy life), and also emotional support (like how to deal with the jealousies inherent in writer-writer friendships, and how to put an astounding amount of rejection into perspective).

Have you always self-identified as a writer? 

It’s funny, but when I moved to New York City after college to intern at the Guggenheim Museum, I was totally convinced I was going to become a curator and dabble in writing on the side. It was my parents who knew I would wind up writing a book, and that in order to do it I’d have to devote my heart, soul, and time to it.

They were right and I was wrong, no doubt because they had watched me write and write and write and write for years, and they knew it was in me in a way even I didn’t know yet.  Though I would flirt with other careers, writing always pulled me back, again and again.  Eventually I got my MFA in fiction, and choosing to get an actual degree in writing kind of put a stamp of permanence and authenticity on my aspirations.

So, no, I didn’t always identify myself as a writer. But others did.

In terms of identifying myself as a writer at cocktail parties, and other public events—that didn’t come until much later, even after the MFA. It didn’t really come until I had a book contract in hand. Before that, it was always, “I’m a professor … and a writer,” or “I’m an editor … and a writer,” or “I’m a mom … and a writer.”  Now it’s, “I’m a writer, and I also edit and teach. And I also have a beautiful daughter … Now where did she go???”

What do you think it takes to be a Writer with a capital W?

At cocktail parties or in your own mind?

At cocktail parties, it’s probably the book contract, I’m not going to lie. Without the contract, I always thought it was more honest to say “I’m an editor/professor/mom, and I’m also working on a book.”  It goes back to that hobby/job debate you guys kindly excerpted from my book. It’s more than a hobby, it’s work, but without the contract, it’s not a job either.

In my own mind, I was a Writer for many years. Writing was always in me, and it was always the thing I was dying to tell someone about myself, after explaining what it was I actually did for a living.

Here is one major thing: You have to be a Writer in your own mind before you’ll ever be a Writer at cocktail parties. You have to take your aspirations and craft seriously, or you’ll never get anywhere.

After reading the book, some of the essays almost seem like therapy for the young writer. Did you deal with some of your inner “writing” demons while working on the book?

Oh, yeah. The most haunting chapters are the two about “Hating Your Best Friend” and “Hating Yourself.”  Those chapters were included in my book proposal, but I had no idea how I was actually going to write them until events unfolded, and I wrote a kind of journalistic rant that served as a first draft. Those were the chapters I fretted over the most.

So yeah, fessing up to my less attractive emotions (envy, hate, self-loathing) was not fun, but I hope other writers will benefit from reading about my experiences. I don’t think I can prevent anyone from feeling those bad things; rather, I hope I can help writers feel less alone when they do feel them.

 You’re privy to a lot of fiction submissions through your role as editor of YARN. What really “wow’s” you in a piece?

A strong voice and/or unique story that really zings off the first page. One that really blew me away last year was “Zig to the Zag”—the rapper-poet voice is just so spot-on and one-of-a-kind, plus there is mystery (what happened to the purse?) from the first page. But another story with a quieter voice and awesome-from-the-get-go story also blew me away, and won an award from the SCBWI: “Swimming Naked.”

YARN has published many other excellent stories, but those two always stand out in my mind as “slush” submissions that immediately grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go.  That’s also key—a great first page is one thing, but keeping up the voice and story for another 5 or 15 pages is tough, and essential.

 And what is the number-one mistake people make? 

I don’t think there is one I can name. I mean, the most common mistake is “boring writing.” But boring can mean so many things: lackluster prose, seen-it-before plot, cliché characters, not enough action, too much introspection … the list goes on, and each writer’s brand of “boring” is going to be specific to their writing style and habits.

The only way to avoid “boring” is to workshop your work in classes or writing groups that will give you honest feedback and help you target places that need help. Writers need to find readers they admire and trust, whose feedback they are willing to take. If they do, their writing will not be boring … at least not eventually, after lots of practice.

What do you think are the top three essential qualities to a good piece of fiction? 

Voice, character, story.  Not in that order.  All three are equally important.

What do you wish a more experienced writer had told you when you were first starting out?

In the book, I talk about the advice I got as a young writer, and I am grateful to have gotten one key piece of advice early, when I was in college: “Don’t do anything that will kill your creative writing.”  Simple to say, hard to follow.

In addition to that, I wish an experienced writer I really trusted and admired could have handed me a great Malcolm Gladwell essay called “Late Bloomers,” which talks about the difference between artists who find success early and those who find it late. I think it might have set my mind at ease when I discovered that I was not, in fact, Jonathan Safran Foer.

In conjunction, I wish that a more experienced writer could have sat me down and told me that no matter how much talent I had, success was probably going to take a long time.  Publishing moves slowly. It’s highly subjective. It takes a long time to hone your craft. And all of that is okay. Maybe even desirable.

This Is Not a Writing ManualIn celebration of This Is Not a Writing Manual‘s release, we’re giving away two copies of the book. To enter, leave a comment in this post telling us about the writer you’d love to give this book to (it could be a gift to yourself, too–no shame in that!) Deadline is August 30, 2013.

Happy writing,


Rachel Randall is the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books.

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

58 thoughts on “Essential Advice for Beginning Writers: An Interview with Kerri Majors

  1. sarah123T

    Hi Rachel! thank you for your decision to share your chat with Kerri about what it means to be a writer. Talking about me, when I need to write something I just wrote it. And I think that writing allows us the opportunity to view things from multiple perspectives, entertaining views we might never consider if they were in our own lives. I have been always interested in such a question:” Is a person has been born as a professional writer?”

  2. domdom

    hum, I have tons of writing reference books, I’ve probably never finished them all page to page, but I treasure them like diamonds, I’m always excited to look through them to get an idea etc, and I love learning new things. You never stop learning after all. I loved this article so much, thanks .

  3. davidlaw

    I simply want to tell you that I am new to weblog and definitely liked this blog site. Very likely I’m going to bookmark your blog . You absolutely have wonderful stories. Cheers for sharing with us your blog. reality tv

  4. davidlaw

    blog quite often and I genuinely appreciate your content. This great article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new details about once a week. I opted in for your Feed as well. You can also visit mine Superior Singing Method

  5. davidlaw

    It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I want to read more things about it! penis bible free download pdf

  6. debrakbeasley

    I want to give the book to myself. I would like to be a freelance writer. This is a book I think I can use in my writing . I would like to write for Readers Digest and other freelance writing magazines.

  7. writing help

    Hi, good article!

    I am a retired professor and have recently joined a renowned writing service as a writing analyst for assignment writing. Though I have been a writing lover and have taught English literature for decade but I still find this profession a bit new…thanks for sharing this useful piece of information

    Writing Help
    Writing Analyst

  8. Dale

    I’d like to give this book to my twenty-something daughter who is studying public health, but has been writing stories her whole life. And then I’ll read it second.

  9. lglase1

    I would give a copy of this book to myself first and then pass it on to the two awesome ladies, Suzanne and Carol, in my Writer’s Group. We’re a small group of three, but chock full of great writing information and advice. I am soaking it all in since they are both published authors and I am just rejoining the writing scene after raising a family. The three of us deserve this book and the best part is, we can pass it around!

  10. Kpia

    I recently found this website and I am so excited because after letting my passion go to sleep (or take the back burner) for a very long time it has now resurfaced and is stronger than ever. I am finally at a place in my life which allows me to write. I am currently working on the most precious piece, one that has taken years to develop but is now taking shape on paper. I would be so thankful for the opportunity to receive this book because even after so much hard work I am certain the material presented will enhance my work.
    I look forward to one day getting it published and trust that many young women will be helped and encouraged through the story of Sandy Sheppard.
    Thank you for your consideration. Good luck everyone!

  11. CallieWVU2

    I have tons of writing reference books, I’ve probably never finished them all page to page, but I treasure them like diamonds, I’m always excited to look through them to get an idea etc, and I love learning new things. You never stop learning after all. I loved this article so much, that I was kind of upset when I noticed a typo in the article, because I love Writer’s Digest so much, and that the typo involved a quote from Kerri Majors herself, was even more upsetting. Here it is: I don’t think I can prevent anyone from feeling those bad things; rather, I hope I can help writers “will” feel less alone when they do feel them. I’ve put in quotations the word that doesn’t belong. I’ve been noticing a couple of typos over the years with Writer’s Digest, one of the speakers in a conference was a “Pelations Manager” I just hope that someone is really keeping an eye on the articles before they are submitted to the public. Because Writer’s Digest has been around for so long to see things like this, just breaks my heart a little.

  12. CiaraRyan

    I would love to get this book- I’m a 14 year old writer, and I have never really found a good teen- oriented writing book that treated us as serious writers, not just high schoolers that want to survive the upcoming writing assessment, and it sounds like this book could be just that. It would definitely be a gift to myself, and chances are that one of my fellow writer- teenager- friends- will be stealing it from me at some point, too. Thanks!

  13. fotogrllt

    I would love to have two copies of this book. I am a natural born writer–I got four self-published books out– who doesn’t know what boring means. I also have edited my fair share of badly written papers by young folk both in high school and college and need a fresh approach to explaining how to write better. (Maybe I wouldn’t need that extra glass of wine in the evening). I would also give a copy to my daughter who likes to write but needs some help. This book sounds like it would neutralize her “I know mom” syndrome that adult kids develop during their teenage years.

  14. Turtle8

    I have bought and read quite a few books about writing fiction within the last two months. This may seem a lot to some people but remember no one can learn enough about what they want to do for a career or for the rest of their life and that is why want to give this to myself.

  15. memarino

    I can relate to your comments. What I have learned: ‘Never abandon your passion.” It is a lesson learned over my life. Now I am using my time and energy to get on track. My passion has always been writing. In spite of the detours and distractions, I always come back to writing. I only hope I will be forgiven for the time I have lost, the connections I did not make, the networking I’ve missed. I have been working my craft for several years and have completed my first novel. Thank you for your words. Wish me luck and endurance.

  16. qtsands34

    I am going to be honest and give it to myself! I would love to explore my inner ability to write, so I could definitely use the help! All I know is the book I am trying to write is a fiction. I have some good ideas I would like to incorporate into the book, but definitely need to figure out how to get things moving.

  17. Annette.Sharp

    I would love to give myself this book! I am not a young writer but writing has always been a passion. I am now 49 and have been in and out of writing for the past 30 years, spinning through a revolving door. Only my immediate family know of my dream to become a writer. They have believed in me – but it has been me who has been blocking that path. It is exactly as Kerri said “You have to be a Writer in your own mind before you’ll ever be a Writer at cocktail parties. You have to take your aspirations and craft seriously, or you’ll never get anywhere.” I am ready to believe in myself and make the commitment.

    1. fotogrllt

      Sounds like the universe is telling you who to unblock the path. Let go of all the negative thoughts. To be a great writer one must think it, proclaim it, and say it over and over again–I am a great writer and people are buying and reading my books. This is known as the law of attraction. The universe will send you what you believe, say, and live. I know–it works for me. I tell everyone I met I am a WRITER and I have four books on Amazon and I give them my business card for my web site. I have sold my books because I believe it, live it, and proclaim it.

  18. Thepowell

    I would love to give This is NOT a Writing Manual to my father. He has written numerous pieces, short stories and articles – all of which he hasn’t published yet. This book seems to be just the tool he needs to motivate him to finally share his riveting war memoir, poignant tales about his childhood in the South and his tales of raising a family while working 80 hours a week. I owe my love of writing and reading to him, and it would be great to present him with a token of my appreciation.

  19. AnastaciaWrites

    I am a children’s author, currently working on my first teen novel. But this book would not be a present to me; it would be for my amazing teenage daughter who is coming into her own as a writer! She currently has more followers on tumblr than I do 🙂


      Dear Kerri: Everything you said made sense-more than sense. Of course some of it we all seem to know but the rest is very helpful. And when you put it all together it’s comforting to have someone in my corner. I need to read it all and I need to take it to my writier’s group. Thank you for your words. jacqueline gillam fairchild

  20. sassy

    I am long past middle age, but it has taken me that long to understand and/or experience enough of life to know what I know about it is sufficient to suggest I can write well enough about it to help someone else. Living life is just as confused as understanding the first sentence in this comment. But, it is true nevertheless. Everything else is imagined, not living.

  21. Keith McLeod

    Dear Rachel:

    “Tell us one of your stories Keith,” is often said by business friends, “You should put them into a book.” My wife chastises me to write as well, “Do it for our kids.” Greg a business friend said to our breakfast club of business owners, “Keith has another letter to the editor in today’s paper. I have submitted many and they were never published. I have found a solution, the next time I write a letter to the editor I’m going to sign Keith’s name . . .”
    Rachel if I’m one of your winners I’ll commit to write a novel.

    Keith McLeod

  22. Katie

    “You have to take your aspirations and craft seriously, or you’ll never get anywhere.”

    This is me. I love to write but I don’t take myself or it seriously – I need to devote more love and attention to my writing and start to respect it!

  23. mom3twins

    I would love to have this book, along with the Bird by Bird book–I love Anne Lammott. All my life people have been telling me I’m a good writer, but I didn’t believe it until I started writing fanfiction, of all things, and now I’m addicted to crafting compelling stories. I’ve branched out into stories with characters of my own making, but I’m starting fresh, never having taken any creative writing classes or attending conferences in my 42 years. I’m getting serious now, so I find myself sucking up any and all writing advice like crazy.

  24. fwebster20

    A free copy of This Is Not a Writing Manual? I’m keeping this one for myself. I need all the help I can get. Try being 63 years old and all your life you’re been telling yourself you can write. So what do you do for a career for 35 years? You become a librarian, that’s what. You pet the books instead of write them. Well, now I am retired and the clock is ticking. Ladies of a Certain Age — you know what I’m saying here. It’s time to get that story out of me.

    1. fotogrllt

      Timing is everything in our chosen path of life. You did exactly what you were born to do to learn and experience the lessons needed to grow spiritually for that time period. If there are any regrets or doubts or fear about not writing sooner, let them go–you will acheive the next step needed in your growth. And as you move forward, do not allow fear to drop the roadblocks from success. We all do what we need to do in its proper time.

  25. laurenruiz05

    I just bookmarked YARN so I can share it with my authors, many of who write YA (I’m a freelance editor)! Thanks,

    Anyway, boring fiction really is the worst. I think many writers start out with boring, though, because they’re mimicking what they’ve heard (to me cliche and boring are conjoined), but with persistence, they break out of that.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.