Advice to teens wanting to publish

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There’s a question I’ve been asked a lot lately: What’s the next step after writing a book in order to get it published?  I know this is a common question but the twist is that I’ve gotten this question from teens and from parents and teachers of teens.

The question should have an easy answer — revise the book, revise it some more, research the industry and start querying agents.  This is pretty much my standard advice to that question.  But when it comes to teens querying, I find myself a little hesitant to give that advice.  It’s not that a teen isn’t perfectly capable to writing a spectacular book and getting it published (there are plenty of great writers who sold their first books as teens: Jen Lynn Barnes, Jessica Burkhart, Kodly Keplinger to name a few).   But instead I sometimes wonder if teens are jumping the gun — looking at the industry as a sprint rather than a marathon.

So sometimes I answer that question by starting with a few qualifications:

First, as a friend pointed out during one of these conversations, the publishing industry can be blunt and brutal.  There are adults that have a difficult time taking the criticism and rejection and sometimes young authors aren’t prepared for this (esp. if they’ve only ever shared their work with people who do nothing but praise their efforts).   I know many authors who lost their love of writing once they published because of this.

Second, publishing is a job.  Simple fact: publishers have a bottom line and authors have to fit into that.  It’s a lot of responsibility and again, there are a ton of teens who are more than capable of fulfilling that level of responsibility but parents should also be aware of this before encouraging publication.  If you wouldn’t want your kid pulling late nights behind a cash register, understand that pulling late nights in front of a computer can be just as exhausting.

Furthermore, some teens like to write because it’s fun — they want to do it on their own time in the way they see fit.  Having an editor changes that.  Suddenly you have deadlines and other people wanting to steer the story.  Even adult writing friends of mine struggle with determining how much they’ll change a story in response to editorial guidance.

Third, how you sell your first book has a big impact on your career.  You’re creating a brand for yourself and establishing a threshold — unless you decide to change your name down the road, every decision you make impacts later decisions.  I’ve spoken with several authors who first published as teens and this is the point that most say they didn’t consider enough: how they began is how they continued.  One author pointed out just how much her craft grew as she went through college and lamented how her first book didn’t reflect that and yet that book has defined much of her career.

A corollary to this is that writing isn’t a sprint but a marathon (though sometimes it can feel like a series of sprints if you have lots of tight deadlines – lol).  I think it’s easy to look at “being published” as an end-point rather than the start of something new: a career.  If the teen just wants to be published, that’s one thing.  If they want to have a career, that means continuing to write and hit deadlines month after month, year after year.  That means sticking with it.  And sometimes… I just want to shout, “Go play and have fun while you still can!  Adult responsibilities will come soon enough!”

But then after giving those qualifications I realize that I’m selling a lot of teens short.  Because a lot of them out there are hugely talented, responsible and dedicated to their passions.  They’ve done their research and know what they’re getting into.  There’s no difference between them and any other writer I know except for age and really… should age matter that much?

So this is always my conundrum when faced with this question.  I’m torn between wanting to make sure a teen or parent of a teen knows what they’re getting into and encouraging them as I would anyone else.  To that end, I usually revert to the advice Maureen Johnson gives in this vlog (at the 2:20 mark): basically, writing a book and getting published are two different things and teens (and really everyone) should focus on writing and growing their craft first and not worry about the publishing part of things until after the craft is in place.

What are y’all’s thoughts on advice to teens wanting to publish

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14 comments to Advice to teens wanting to publish

  • I was a teen longing to get published, once. Although I do wish I was published already – I’m thankful I wasn’t published with what I had written, then. Because even if what I wrote was head-and-shoulders above the best efforts of virtually everyone else I knew as a teen, that’s a pretty far cry from being good (and, I might also point out, “everyone I knew” was a pretty poor sample size). And the truth is, yes I was a better writer than anyone I knew… but what I wrote was still crap.

    I’m much better today, many years later. Better enough that I’m embarrassed at the amateurish efforts of my teenage years (not embarrassed that I wrote it, but embarrassed that I truly believed it was of a publishable quality.) I still don’t know if I’m good enough to join the ranks of the published novelists. But I’m closer.

    Most teen novelists, quite frankly, aren’t there. Some are, it’s true, but most aren’t. So it’s a fine line to tread. Even if they aren’t there, yet, you don’t want to discourage them – because they may yet become truly great, and you don’t want to impede that. But if they jump the shark, so to speak, by publishing before they really get good they may never get a chance to prove they’re great… Honestly, I don’t know where to draw that line, nor how to walk it.

  • Great (and tactful) advice, Carrie. Lately I’ve found myself having similar conversations with college age writers and feeling some of the same tensions and anxieties about my own advice. The savvier writers among them recognize that the elephant in the room when we discuss such things is that regardless of their talent as writers they need more life experience. How many teenagers are ready to write about those two crucial elements of fiction–love and death–with the requisite deep knowledge and sense of perspective that they need to make it feel real in print? Not many, I think.

  • Jumping in with a quick reply while I have power.

    Carrie, I totally agree with you and when AJ. The two teens I know who have the ability to make it as writers have been through hell and back: have lost loved ones, been very very sick themselves, lost their homes to flood/storm/or financial loss — that kind of hell. They were, in essence, never young. They are driven and focused and almost cold in their goals. There is no pie-in-the-sky attitude for them. The others are dreamers and think they will sell fast, get rich, and *never have to work*. Seriously. I was told that. And I stopped mentoring that young person instantly.

    I look back at my own teen writing and really can’t see the spark of talent that drove my 10th grade teacher to tell me write for a career. After many years, I made it into print, to discover that the job was just starting. And it is a J.O.B.

    Thanks for this post Carrie. I’ll be sending the link to young people who ask me that question.

  • As not only a writer, but also the father of a teen, I couldn’t agree more. My older daughter is very mature for her age. She writes well. If she was interested in writing fiction, I’m certain that she could write some quality stories. I’m also sure that NONE of it would be ready for publication, and more to the point, that she would not be ready to assume the professional responsibilities that come with being published. I don’t say this to find fault with her, but merely to echo what others have already pointed out: most teens are NOT adults. Most lack the life experience, the acumen and judgment required to guide themselves through the publishing world. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t write and hone their craft; merely that they’re not read to embark on a career. You wouldn’t allow an 18 year-old with a talent for biology to open up a medical practice. Writing professionally requires training and experience, too.

  • My first thought is: I wish I’d had this advice when I was twelve and trying to understand what all those weird things in Writer’s Market meant! (The library’s copy. It was 1994. I was twelve.)

    Stephen pretty much nailed the rest of my thoughts. Even through my twenties, I’ve gone through stages of evolution, of thinking I’m “ready” and then later realizing that I’m not. I’m at the point in that cycle where I’m about to learn whether or not this time I am. If not, then back to the drawing board. But I wish I’d known. This kind of advice is way better than a flat out “no”.

    Faith: when I was a teenager, I did have lofty dreams of success. But I had an unpleasant high school experience, so when I was that age I needed to hold onto those dreams to get me through. That said, I spent a lot of time writing during those years, not just dreaming, and the idea quickly evolved from “right now” to “someday”.

  • Great thoughts, y’all! Interesting point about life experience. I was on a panel with Jay McInerney recently where he said the same thing — he had to live life and fail a bit before he could truly write a great book. But I found myself comparing myself to that because I published fairly young (well, young in my eyes) and hadn’t had a string of hellish experiences to draw from (which is maybe why I write YA — I can draw on being a teen where I can’t draw on being a mother or feeling like an adult).

    I think that’s also the exact line that’s hard to find: encouraging writers at every stage without sugar coating it. I know I look back at the books I wrote right out of college and see them as much more amateur than what I’m writing now but I also home that in five years I look back at my first book and say to myself, “I can do better.”

    At a certain point, we all have to take the plunge to publish even knowing that we’re building our craft and hoping we continue to grow.

  • Julia

    Thanks for the fantastic post, Carrie — and everyone else for the great comments.

    I made my first two professional sales before I turned 18. I remember, because I had to get my parents to countersign the contract. Both were short stories to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and I made the sales after more than 4 years of steady rejections. During those years, I also wrote a novel that taught me a lot about writing — which, thankfully, will never see the light of day.

    The mentor who first encouraged me to do it was blunt about the challenges: I was asking someone to pay me for my words and competing with pros who’d been in the business for longer than I’d been alive. She said that if I was going to be bothered by rejection or to take it personally, I shouldn’t submit. She made it clear that it was admirable and wonderful to just write for oneself, and that publishing wasn’t a way to get strokes or find valorization. I wanted to do it, and I actually the experience of rejection to be rather empowering. I took it as a sign that I was a working writer.

    BTW, Faith’s comment about hard experience holds true in my case. For me, writing became an important way of alchemizing violence and grief.

  • kimko1o

    I AM a teen writer, and this post along with the comments have made me wonder…how much experience is enough experience? How do you know when you’re ready to publish? I’ve been writing seriously for two years, and looking back at what I wrote when I first started I’m embarassed to think that anyone had ever read it. But now…I’m starting to gain confidence in myself as a writer. I love writing, I rarely get stuck, and I like what I write. But I’m scared that a year or two from now, I’m going to look back on it with the same sense of embarassment. Does anyone have any…I don’t know…suggestions?

  • kimo1o — My two cents: 1) the whole looking back and hating what you’ve done thing never really ends. There might be something you like that survives, but most of it you’ll hate. That’s good. It means you’re continuing to grow as a writer — and, ideally, that should never end. 2) My suggestion for all teen writers is to test the waters with a short story or three. The feedback and rejection cycle is significantly faster than novels and sometimes more informative. And you don’t need an agent. Also, should you get published, short stories generally don’t have the same effect on your career (unless you hit it way out of the park), so you won’t suffer from what Carrie was talking about regarding being “type-cast.” Just my penny thoughts. Good luck.

  • My advice to anyone inexperienced with the realities of writing, and especially teens and young adults, is to find a good writers group – one with some experienced, published authors – that uses a Clarion style of critiquing. Having to sit quietly while several people dissect your story, identifying strengths and weaknesses, will quickly let you know a) how to take criticism, b) how much you still need to grow as a writer, and c) that no matter how good you are, someone won’t like what you write, and that’s perfectly okay.

  • Unicorn

    I started my first “novel” when I was nine years old, and one year later it was finished: 60 000 words of rubbish. Nine other stories longer than, say, 30 000 words followed and all of them were pretty dreadful. I’m now 14 and working on a novel that is also pretty dreadful but at least I know it and I think I know how to fix it. My current plan is to keep working on the two novels in progress, and to write a short story to the very best of my ability and attempt to get it published. Am I ready to be published? I don’t know. The way I see it, there’s only one way to find out.
    Thanks for a most helpful post and comments, y’all. Food for thought.
    Unicorn

  • @kimko1o, I’d second Stuart’s advice. My teenage years are a distant memory now – but when I look back at what I wrote in my early and mid-twenties, I still think that’s rubbish… because I’m better now than I was then, too. Every few years I go through a cycle where I find my quality and style and craft improving dramatically over what it was before. Still, you don’t really know you’re ready until you’ve made it, I think. And that means sending something out to see if it sticks. But I’d go with Stuart’s advice: short stories are “safer”. There’s less work involved in putting together a good short, and there’s less risk.

    If you choose that path, you’d probably want to start by submitting to the top magazines and short story markets in your genre, and if you don’t succeed work your way down. Over time, and many stories, you’ll find what level you’re at, and you’ll learn through practice and experience where you need to work on your craft to improve it.

    Additionally, if you happen to write in the speculative fiction genres (which I suspect is a pretty high degree of probability considering you’re following the Magical Words blog) you might also want to try submitting to the Writers of the Future contest or other contests. The value I see in submitting to this contest is that your work is judged purely on its own merits (they judge the stories blind, without the author’s name attached), and so the fact that you’re not (yet) published (assuming you’re not) or a known name won’t be taken into account – so how well you do in the contest might be a useful indicator of your actual skill level.

  • Addendum to add: you don’t have to worry too much if your short stories suck and the editors of the short story markets hate them, usually, because they typically get so many submissions the likelihood of yours sucking so much that they remember your name years later is… well… pretty minimal. In all probability, if it’s not to their liking they won’t get past the first couple pages anyway (because they’ve got a huge stack of other manuscripts to make it through that day).

    So the most probable response is a form rejection – which is a useful bit of feedback to say: keep working on it. Alternatively, even if you don’t sell, you may get feedback with some positive personal response included like: “This was a good story, but not right for our magazine at this time” which means you’re actually pretty close to doing it right! It may not be a sale, but that should be a huge confidence-booster.

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you for this article; it was *very* helpful! I won’t be ready to publish for a little while yet, but I will certainly use these tips when I am. (By the way, I literally have a copy of The Forest of Hands and Teeth on my desk in front of me. Amazing book! I love your character the the plot was very creative. I heard there was a sequel so I’m currently looking for it.)