I frequently hear from young writers who are working on a novel. Almost always, they assume that their age is working against them. But is it? I’ll address that question today.
Colby posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy! I’ve been a fan and follower for around a year now, but I have a question that never seems to get addressed in any book or e-zine or article on fiction writing anywhere I’ve seen. I am guessing that there are many others out there who have the same sort of question.
You see, as it is my question/problem lies in one thing – my age. I’m a 15 year old to be exact. I’ve studies plenty of books on writing, written a good bunch of just about everything, won dozens of awards for writing in school, and have been seriously planning and plotting (and am almost ready to begin) my current novel for over a year. I have (surprisingly) been to a writers conference (which did earn some peculiar stares from all the…ahem…more elderly individuals, and, of course, have read plenty of novels in my lifetime. Plus I currently have and enjoy your “Snowflake Pro” software, and am planning on purchasing your WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES.
What do I need to do differently if I want to be a novelist as a teenager? What do I do when I get my first novel finished? Is it like I just send my manuscript/book proposals out and hope a kind-hearted agent receives my work with glee willing to work around any schooling I have, let my mom drive me to any meetings, and have a parent or guardian sign any paper work?
Does your “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior” 1 year-ish program still apply for me? I would love to be published before leaving high school to help with future careers as well as the fact that no college can disregard the fact that a student is published when applying for a scholarship.
I might not be making a lot of sense, but I was just wondering if there is anything I should do differently and if so what and how since I am a teenager. Two of the advantages I see are: 1- I am writing toward target readers of my exact age, so if I like it…. and 2- I will have an entire high school of target readers to market to if I do get published.
Randy sez: Colby, you’re correct that there are a lot of young writers who are asking similar questions. As I noted a couple of days ago on this blog, I hear from writers younger than 18 all the time. Often, they’re much younger than 18. Almost always, they assume that their age is working against them.
It isn’t. If you’re under the age of 25, your age isn’t working against you at all; it’s working for you. The only thing working against you is your inexperience in life. Writing is about life. The more life you’ve lived, the more likely you are to be able to express it in an emotively powerful way. It’s quite possible to live a lot of life before you’re 15. My friend, Mary DeMuth, (whom I’ll be interviewing in my next e-zine) had already accumulated more hellacious life experiences by the age of 15 than most people do in 100 years.
On to Colby’s question: What should he do differently than most writers when he finishes his novel?
There is only one thing he should do differently. Remember that when you write a query letter to an agent, you always include one short paragraph about yourself. In Colby’s query letter, he should insert a sentence in this paragraph that says, “I’m 15 years old.”
He should write the rest of his query letter and his manuscript exactly like an adult would write it. Which is to say, professionally. He should write a killer hook for his book in the query letter. He should describe the story in no more than one paragraph. He should write the story exceptionally well. The ONLY clue that he is not an adult should be that one sentence, “I am 15 years old.” There is no reason to apologize for being that age. There is no reason to emphasize how cool it is to have written a novel so young. If the writing is good, there will be nothing to apologize for, and the agent will be able to figure out that this is a cool project.
Agents and editors have no prejudice against teen writers who write like professional writers. Agents and editors have terrific prejudice against teen writers who write like amateurs. Agents and editors have that exact same prejudice against writers of any age who act like amateurs. Act like a pro and your age will work incredibly in your favor.
Colby, when you get your novel finished, polish it up and make it perfect. My book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, will tell you how to do that. (Remember, however, that success in writing takes both talent and training. Books supply the training; you have to bring your own talent to the table.) Once the book is as good as you can make it, choose some appropriate agents and send them query letters. Again, my book spells out the steps you need to take to approach an agent.
You are not going to ever rely on the kindness of agents. You are going to rely on the greed of agents. You are going to rely on agents reading your work and saying, “My God, this kid writes fantastically well! I’ve got to sign this kid before those other weasels do, because I can sell this kid’s work and earn a buck.” There is absolutely no other acceptable reason for any agent ever to work with any author, teen or fogey or anything in between.
As for the question of whether my article, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” applies to teens, the answer is yes. It applies to everybody. You really can’t hurry the process. It’s possible to radically slow down the process by trying to cut corners. So the best thing you can do is to avoid behaviors that slow down the process. The biggest mistake writers make is failing to give themselves the time to develop naturally into the best writer they can be.
I took my middle daughter Gracie to a writing conference with me when she was 13 years old, because I saw that she had talent for writing. She had a great time and met another young writer her own age. She refused to go to the “teen track” workshops. Instead, she went to the classes she felt like going to. She’s now studying journalism and math at a major university and doing Xtremely well. But she hasn’t written a novel, because that just wasn’t something she’s wanted to do.
My advice to young writers is the same as for anyone else: Study the craft of writing. Don’t try to cut corners. Give yourself time to learn the skills. The publishing industry doesn’t hate you or fear you. The publishing industry doesn’t care about you at all. The publishing industry just wants to earn a buck. If you write well enough that some publisher somewhere can earn a buck by collaborating with you on a book, then you’ll get published. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s really that simple.
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.
Pauline Youd says
I seriously hope what you say refers to fogies, too.
Some of what I hear is that agents and publishers want someone young so they can guide their writing career for many years to come. I don’t think I write “old,” but my name gives me away. Parents don’t choose Pauline for their daughters any more. Should I change my name, publish under my first two initials and last name, or just continue to improve my craft and learn to market more effectively?
Randy sez: Be who you are. You can’t be anybody else anyway, so be who you are and don’t worry about what you heard somebody thinks the agents and publishers might want.
Gracie Ingermanson says
I’m Randy’s daughter. Here’s my take on age, from the perspective of a former teen writer.
There are unique challenges to writing as a teenager. (There are also unique challenges to writing in any stage of life, but I’m not a good source on those.) I don’t think prejudice is one of them.
When I went to writing conferences and critique groups, I didn’t get the impression that people took me less seriously because I was a teen. The writers that critiqued my sample chapters were encouraging and helpful and gave me suggestions appropriate for my writing level (I was a beginner).
For me, there were two major age-related issues, both related to the writing process itself.
The first, which my dad alluded to, was the gap between the types of things that happen in my favorite genres and the types of things I’d personally experienced.
The second big issue was that my writing style and perspective on life changed faster than I could write. Whenever I got a few chapters into a novel, I found that the ideas I began with no longer made sense or felt real to me, because I saw the world in a different way than I had a few weeks or months before.
In the end, I decided to put aside novel-writing for a while, focus on my other interests and get older.
That being said, not every teen writer faces the exact same issues and plenty of them work past whatever they’re dealing with and finish their novels. I think that’s the main area where age/maturity is a factor.
Thanks for the help, guys. I’ve been seriously studying writing for the past year or two, and was pleased to see that the four main writing books I’ve been studying from were all recommended by Randy: TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, STEIN ON WRITING, PLOT & STRUCTURE, and SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS.
That along with the help of Randy’s ezines, blog, the Snowflake Pro software, and the soon to be had WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES book and as said I’ll have the training.
Just talent left, along with mustering out a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius…
If you want an example of a teen author you don’t have to look far. Christopher Paolini the author of the Inheritance Cycle, wrote Eragon at the age of 15 and was was eventually published.
Heather Ivester says
Hey, Thanks for this great article! I have several teens who’ve written to me asking for advice on writing, and I tell them to work hard and go for it!
For any writer, it’s easier to publish short non-fiction than a full-length novel, so I think teens should start building a file of clips just like any writer who wants to publish professionally. Write for the school paper, church, magazines that cater to teens, blog posts, etc.
Chicken Soup for the Soul is putting out a new book for teens and is looking for stories written by teens. The deadline is December 31, 2010. I think that would impress any agent if an aspiring teen novelist could list this as a clip!
Obinna Ozoigbo says
No time, no age, is too late for an author to get published. Sidney Sheldon is someone we should learn from. He left Broadway for fiction-writing (novels) at much later age, perhaps fifty. But his works of fiction have sold more than 300 millions copies, and have been translated into so many languages. Some of his books are still selling, especially his autobiography “The Other Side of Me” (I just bought a copy of it). Even if you’re 60, therefore, do not relent. Hold the dream! Only determination, in the face of oppositions of all sorts, will make the dream come true. However, if you’re 10 or 15, know that life is like a journey; as you keep moving, you keep gathering experience. (But note that you cannot gather experience while remaining at a place for an unnecessarily long time. You must keep moving. When you fall, arise and move on, because that is what life is all about, after all.) You may not make a good writer (or novelist) until you gather enough experience. It is only when you have gathered enough that you can share with people. You cannot give what you do not have. And that is that. But if you know (or you’re very sure) you’ve gathered enough already, like Randy’s friend, Mary DeMuth, you’re bound to fly beyond limits, definitely–just like the eagle!
Athena Fitzgerald says
Hey anyone should be able to write a book if they try. No agent should care if you are fifteen or if you are fifty. What matters is talent and perseverance,if you keep trying and it’s your dream then go for it.Nobody is stopping you but yourself.