My #1 Tip For Teen Novelists

At least a couple of times per week, I hear from young novelists. They all have the same two basic concerns:

  • “I’m only 12 years old [or 15 or 17 or whatever]. Will anyone take me seriously?”
  • “Do you have any tips for me?”

Randy sez: Since these two questions seem to be universal with writers under the age of 20, I’ll deal with them today.

First, is it possible for a 12 year old fiction writer to be taken seriously?

Yes, of course. IF the writing is good. The same is true if you’re 22, 42, or 102. Age doesn’t matter. What matters is quality. If you have great writing, you’ll be taken seriously. If your writing is really lame, then you won’t. Simple as that.

Now the problem is that the average amount of time it takes to become a good writer is five to ten years. One of my friends took 26 years to get published. I took 11. I have some friends who got their very first book published within a couple of years of starting writing. (Grrrrrr!)

Quality takes time. If you’re only 12 years old, then the odds are pretty high that you just haven’t put in enough time yet to become a good writer. (The usual estimate is that it takes an average of 2000 hours of writing time to get good enough to be published. Of course, some super-talented writers take fewer hours, and some writers just plain don’t have the talent and will never get published no matter how many hours they put in.)

If you’re 12 now and start writing consistently, you’ll probably get published at a much earlier age than the guy who starts writing seriously at age 29 (which is the age I started). A head start is a head start.

There’s one other issue with young writers, of course, which is that a 12 year old just doesn’t have as much of that pesky “life experience” as someone in their thirties or forties. And life experience is one of the main ingredients that go into fiction writing.

Bottom line, if you’re 12 years old, go ahead and write fiction with the expectation that you have a chance at getting published someday. The key word here is “someday.” Probably won’t happen this year. Or next year. Probably won’t happen before you graduate from high school. Could happen sometime during your college years (and how cool would that be, to be already published when you graduate from college?)

There’s just no reason to put off learning to write fiction. The sooner the better. Start today. If you have talent, never give up. If you don’t have talent, then that’ll become clear eventually and you’ll naturally turn to something else for which you do have talent.

Now on to that second question, about “tips” for writers. I’m not sure why, but this request seems to come only from teens. I can’t remember an adult ever asking for “tips” on fiction writing. I won’t speculate on the reasons for that — it’s just my observation.

And the simple answer is, “No.”

Writing fiction is a complex task that nobody ever fully masters. It’s like being a chess grandmaster or a brain surgeon or a fighter pilot. A few tips just aren’t going to cut it. You’ll never do brain surgery with a couple of tips on slicing open a head. You just won’t.

Tips won’t make you a novelist. Here are the four things that will:

  • Talent.
  • Training.
  • Practice.
  • Critiques.

Talent is what you’re born with. If you have talent, then be grateful to God or your parents or the blind shuffling of DNA, whichever you think most appropriate to thank. Talent is required, but it’s also overrated, in my opinion. Lots of people have talent. Most of them don’t do much with it.

Training is what you get from teachers like me, from web sites like this one, and from books. Training massively speeds up your learning process, because it gives you a thousand rules of thumb for what usually works and what usually doesn’t. There is no substitute for training. The day I discovered Dwight Swain’s classic book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER was the day I started making real progress. Part of the reason I wrote my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES was as payback to the writing community for the years of training I got.

Practice is the hard work you put in, day after day, year after year. Millions of writers have talent. Hundreds of thousands of them get training. But only tens of thousands of them ever put in the practice time that it takes to become a publishable novelist. If you want to be a writer, then write. A million words is usually enough.

Critiques are the feedback you get from other writers and from editors. Getting critiqued is painful. So is running hills, but hills make you strong. Getting critiqued makes you strong. You need to be careful about who you get critiques from. You have to find somebody who knows what they’re talking about and who also gets your writing. You may find a critique group with several other writers. You may find a critique buddy. You may find a professional freelance editor. Every writer is different, so the group or buddy or editor that works for other people may not work for you.

So that’s my tip on fiction writing — there are no tips. There are no easy roads to glory. If there were, everybody would be a bestselling author earning a fabulous living while lounging around the pool.

I don’t know the exact number, but I would guess there are maybe a thousand authors in the US who earn a full-time living writing fiction. There are tens of thousands more who earn a part-time living.

But just about all published authors have plenty of talent and work their tails off. Most of them, early in their careers, got the training they needed and found a critique group or critique buddy or freelance editor who really got them.

If a teen writer has talent, there is no reason he or she can’t someday get published. Not right away, but someday. Just add training, practice, and critiques.

And by the way, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is coming up in November. If you want to have some fun and get a bit of group discipline to write a 50,000+ word novel, there may be no better way than by doing NaNoWriMo.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


  1. Linda October 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    This is so timely. The Defy the Dark Anthology that’s coming out soon had a new author contest. The winner would be published in the anthology alongside some pretty big names in YA literature: Aprilynne Pike (Wings) and Carrie Ryan (Forest of Hands and Teeth). It wasn’t discovered until afterward that the winner was only 16. You can read about it on the Publisher’s Weekly website:

    I just wish I would’ve been practicing away when I was 16 instead of feeling like I was too young!

  2. Sarah LaChance October 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    I’m not a teen but I believe much of my writing fits into this genre. This article is encouraging to me. Thank you for sharing!

  3. amy November 6, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Yeah, you have to practise a lot to bring out the good writer in you. here are some things you can do to get yourself to write more number of words per day. Eliminate distractions, don’t procrastinate and apply time management techniques. Apart from that outlining what you are going to write also helps immensely.

  4. Taylor Stonely November 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    “Writing Fiction for Dummies” that Randy mentioned is a must have if you are serious about writing. That is where I started and I have finally caught the bug of writing, and I’m 44 years old!

    There are a number of other good books to read, which you can see on the following list that I have compiled:

    Good luck, and happy writing!

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