I’ve worked with a number of writers over the years, and all have been desperately eager to get into print, and the younger they were, the more desperate they were. The very youngest believed they were ready—“right now, right this minute”—to be published. Hearing that they were not ready, or that their writing needed a lot of work, or that they might be ready some day, if they took some classes and gained some life experience, was often devastating to them, no matter how kindly the delivery of the words. Some refused to believe it. Some got mad and stomped off. Some have told me I was, “…wrong, just wrong. You just don’t understand.” Which proved my point, though how could I say that? I couldn’t.
There was a comment / question this week, here at MW, from one such young writer. Recently, I got a private email from another. I’m going to paraphrase (okay, rewrite) the pertinent part of their questions and build upon my response, because I could have said so much more than I did. I could have taken the time to be kind, to delve into the mystery of writing, the joy of writing, and the desire to write that climbs like an orchid, blooming in the shadowed jungles of our souls. I could have written this post and sent it to them.
>>Can a 14 year old get published? Right now. Right this minute?
Oh my. I can hear myself in that question. That urgent, intense need. That over-the-rainbow dream of the impossible vision (delusion? Please say it isn’t a delusion) that might, just maybe, be possible after all. That dream that I could write a book and sell it to a publisher. That I might see it in print, and hold that first book in my hands and breathe in the scent of the success of my dreams. I wanted to be published just badly, that urgently, that desperately. The realistic answer to these young writers’ plea, just as the realistic answer to my own plea, is / was no. It likely won’t happen while you are a kid. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand. I was that teen a few years ago. When I was a teenager, I lived and breathed writing. I yearned to write, I yearned for publication, with such a passion that it was overwhelming to me; it consumed me like a fire burning in a mirrored room. It was all that there was for me; everywhere I looked inside me, that fiery raw desire was all that I saw. That flaming, blazing need ate at me just as a fire devours dry wood, in a shower of bright, burning sparks and a raging fury.
I prayed to be a successful writer. I meditated to be a successful writer. I took every writing course I could find in high school and in higher ed. I read everything I could find on how to be a professional writer. I studied the lifestyle, the work habits, the way those lucky, possibly-mythical, wonderful writers got paid. I bought every book on writing I could find, and the librarians located and held books on writing that they thought I would like to read. One even told me I could tear the order form for Writer’s Digest out of the library’s copy and take it home. SHE LET ME DEFACE A LIBRARY BOOK! (That was how I felt. That she was letting me do something illegal and therefore something that proved I deserved to be in print. J Not so of course. But that moment of kindness was like a pledge for my goal.)
I hung on to that subscription for weeks, babysitting until I had the yearly subscription fee for WD. My mom wrote a check and sent it in for me. My dad (bless his heart) laughed at me. It wasn’t a mean laugh. But it was a laugh that said, “You are a silly child to hope for something so impossible and so unlikely to support you.” Which is why I never told him I wrote until after I sold my first book. I needed to be published. I needed it with all my heart and soul and every desire within me. I needed that validation, that confirmation that my dream was not a false and whimsical thing, all smoke and mirrors filled with imaginary flame.
But I wasn’t ready to be published at age 15. Or 16. Or even 22. I thought I was. In fact, with all the youthful exuberance and determination I possessed, I knew I was ready to be published. But I wasn’t ready. I really wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to be told, “no,” over and over again. I wasn’t ready to deal with the business end of the industry, to write coherent letters and emails to agents and editors. I wasn’t ready to see a marked up copy of my work or to receive a 5 – 7 page rewrite letter, with only 12 lines of positive things on it and all the rest of the single-spaced pages full of “suggestions” and plot weaknesses.
There are so many teens who want to be published today! Right now! I’ve never nurtured that dream, that flaming desire. I’ve offered practicalities, like the above paragraphs. And how do the yearing ones react? Often my comments are followed by something like, “Mom and dad can handle the letters! With my first big check I can hire someone to help me with that business stuff!”
I didn’t reply to the dream, but to the demand. Realistically, maybe I am correct. But I am not kind. In this business, you have to be able to learn and learn fast, how to deal with agents and editors. You have to be able to develop relationships with people you may not like very much, and would never choose as pals, because you have to work with them. You have to be able to handle contracts—you, not your lawyer or your parents or your teachers or even your older friends. Can you get others to look them over? Sure. Many writers do. But the ultimate decision on whether to sign a contract committing you, the writer, to deadlines and responsibilities is yours and your s alone.
Are some very young writers ready to be published? I don’t know. I’ve never met one who was really ready. No. Not once. Maybe he or she is out there. But I’ve never met a writer younger than 20 who was ready. When I say that up to a teen writer, they all point to the kid (now a man) Christopher Paolini, who wrote the Eragon series. “See! It happened to him!”
“Yes,” I inevitably say back. “It did. And his parents believed in him so much that they self published his work and quit their jobs and then they traveled around the country for years selling his books at cons and renaissance fairs until they sold 100,000 and got the attention of New York. Are your parents going to do that? Otherwise, that book would never have been published because it is not well written. He got better as a writer when he got older. But that first book, was…simply not.
Stubborn angry faces. That is what I get in reply, every single time. But then the voice of reason was not what I wanted at that age either. I wanted to be shown the way to achieve my dreams, not given a pin to bust the bubble of my hopes. My dad busted my bubble. My mom nurtured it. Guess which parent I listened to? So I know how it feels.
That is why I got Misty’s permission to use her reply to the young writer here at MW. It was more kind and more upbeat and more nurturing than anything I would ever say. Misty always writes toward the potential, the possible, the never-give-up hope of the writer-to-be. And she is utterly correct.
My letter was full of the above stuff… And did not speak to the dream. My reply was less positive—a lot more like what my dad might have said. We are the product of our upbringing and the warping of our souls by life and living and disappointment. That isn’t an excuse. It isn’t. And for that, and for my reply, I am sorry.
(paraphrased)>>Can a 14 year old get published? Right now. Right this minute?
Misty Massey said:
Absolutely. Anyone who writes a compelling story has a chance of being published. A middle schooler would probably have a few more legal steps to deal with, since a minor cannot enter into a binding contract, but that’s the least of your concerns at this point.
The most important thing you can do is write a good story, with characters who come alive off the page. Let an adult you trust read it, and then take her advice to heart. (Not your mom or dad – you can share it with them of course, but they love you, and they’ll be looking for ways to build you up. Choose a teacher or a librarian, someone who will tell you what needs fixing.) Let a peer you trust read it, and listen to what he says, too. Make sure your copy is as grammatically correct and free of spelling errors as you can make it before you ever send it anywhere. When you finish writing and revising the story, do your research on agents, so you don’t waste your time sending your story to the wrong people.
She spoke to the dream. If you read between the lines her answer did not promise the writer anything or say, “Yes, you are ready!” But she did say, “Keep on working, keep on writing. The dream is possible, someday, even if not now. You can do it!
Thank you Misty, for feeding dry tender to the flame that burns in the mirrored room, that consuming, fiery, desperate dream to be published. The young writer I was, the writer who still stands in front of the flame in my soul, needed it. A lot.
I’m asking our readers to do something special today, one of two things, or even both, if you have the time and the desire:
Do you have an image for the dream in your soul? Can you give it words?
Do you have kind words for the young writers here? Something nourishing and uplifting? Share it with them, with the dreamer and the young writer inside us all, please.