I never was a teenage author. But I tried to be.
The book I started when I was sixteen was not finished until I was twenty six and never got published. It was a terribly dark story about confused memory and an identity crises surrounding sexuality of a teenage boy, which sounds awfully dated today. If it had been published in 1981, it might have been hailed as the harbinger of many novels that came after it, but by the time it was finished it was very stale.
In the late eighties, when cellphones were so large they usually occupied about half the space in an average briefcase, and personal computers still mostly ran on MS-DOS and email could only be received by stationary desktops, I predicted that electronic messages would one day be received on pocket-sized portable devices. And not only email, but there would be something like personalized bulletin boards on which people around the world could post. And I came up with a story about a girl who had exactly such an instrument and got mixed up in a murder. She posted her plight on the machine and messages from concerned people flooded in from around the world. Her postings where re-posted around in a chain and readers called for help or offered assistance as she ran and battled for her life. Had I finished the novel, and published it, I would have been credited for inventing Twitter. Back in the day, everybody thought the plot was way too far fetched. If I wrote the story now, it would be terribly stale.
I wrote before that you should never set an age target for your writing debut. If your goal to is to become published by any given age, 20 for example, you are bound to fail. Setting an age target is a terrible idea. It virtually guarantees that you will not be published in a very long time. If you are young, you should focus on writing better today than you wrote yesterday, and not on whether some publisher out there will like your work enough to invest in it. That will probably be a shortcut to being published.
It is very tough to get yourself conventionally published as a teenager. Let’s face it. Grownups are sick of teenagers. People with the money and power to publish and promote books do not follow teen culture. Every generation of adults have felt that the teen culture of their children to be worthless, and it has been repeated every decade. Some savvy businessmen realize that there is money to be made in teen culture. That is where most hit movies come from. But such people are exceptions to the rule. The rule of thumb is, if your parents do not like the music, the artists, or the art forms that you follow, most professional publishers do not like them either.
In fact, it is tough enough for grownups to get published. There are stories all over the internet about people who struggled for ten, twenty, or thirty years, honing their craft and pushing themselves until they finally got one book published. I have published one book, nearly completed another, contributed chapters to several technical books, translated several volumes, wrote some academic papers and magazine articles, but at 52 years of age, I have never published a work of fiction. And if that is all I have to show after 40 years of writing, the chances are, your writing career will be just as tough.
That said, there must be some ways to increase your odds at getting published at an early age. There have been some successes.
Some of the basic stuff applies to writers of any age. Such as you must read a whole lot of fiction in order to write fiction, with special emphasis on reading outside of your genre. You must do writing exercises such as those found in Le Guin’s Steering the Craft and Barbara Baig’s Spellbinding Sentences to improve your writing skills. You must re-write many times before you send your manuscript to anybody because the first draft always sucks. You have to read a lot of books on how to write and how to edit. You have to look at your own writing objectively and admit that it sucks when it sucks.
On top of all that, there are some things specific to young writers that they should watch out for. The following list is the advice I should have followed when I was under 20 years of age.
- Tone Down the Rhetoric.
If you have to write about how grownups do not understand young people’s problems, keep it to a minimum. Agents, editors, and publishers hear the same thing from their own children every day at home. It is the last thing they want to face at work.
- No Fan Fiction
Fan fiction is what you write for fun. It is not for publishing. Just the nightmare of securing the rights to use characters that other people already have the copyright to will turn off most publishers.
- Avoid Fantasy
If you must write stories with fantastical elements, set the story in the world you know. Teen writer Alexandra Adornetto set the Shadow Thief in Drabville, which, as the name implies, is a pretty ordinary place. DO NOT embark on elaborate world building. That requires a lot of scholarship and is not recommended if you want to debut early.
- Write About the Here and Now
A writer of any age can write about a dystopian future, wizards and dragons, or plots to conquer the world. Only a teenage writer can write about the social dynamics of modern-day high schools. I can write about high school life, but it will be about high school in the 1980’s. Only you can write about your environment in today’s world. If you must write about monsters, throw the monster into that world.
- Start Small
Do not try to write that magnum opus at the first try. Start by submitting short stories to small publications. Everything that gets printed on paper is something on your resume. This is where your youth becomes an advantage. While it might be embarrassing for an old man to list on his resume that he submitted a short story to a minor news letter, it is a triumph if you are young.
- Don’t Preach
While you might be passionate about the environment, gender equality, racial conflicts, or income disparity, there are much more qualified writers who can write about those things. If you are writing a work of fiction, those things never need more than a passing mention. Understand that those things are not your strengths.
- Write Fresh
As I illustrated above, a fresh idea can turn stale pretty quickly. If you have a fresh idea, don’t try to build a major novel out of it. Write any story. The length does not matter. That Twitter story could have made a pretty good short story. The important thing is to get it out there while it is still fresh.
- Focus on Growth
Your editor, agent, publisher, or anyone else involved with your work, will not be impressed with your wisdom, insight, or life experience. They have more of them. So don’t showcase how wise you are or how much you “get” the world. Instead, focus on growth. The main character changes from one thing to another in the span of the story. That character arc of a little child growing into something bigger is the thing young writers excel at writing. Focus on that.
- Don’t Shoot for the Moon
You do not have to write a masterpiece. You need to finish something good enough and get it out. If you try too hard you will only delay the completion of your work. Do not shoot for something needlessly “literary”. You do not deliberately try to aim for “high brow”. It only makes you look silly. If you must aim, aim for low brow.
- Therapy Writing is Not Publishable
There is nothing wrong with writing to preserve your sanity. Just keep it to yourself. If you write for your own mental well being, that is not for public consumption. Also, if you need psychiatric help, get it. There is nothing cool about being a chronically depressed writer. Get off the pain.
Getting published is not about making money, becoming famous, or sticking it to the man. It is a little bit about self-realization, but when you are very young, that could become the main thing. You should realize that your relationship with the act of writing changes with age. When I was a teenager, I thought getting published would be a big in-your-face to all the people who dismissed me in the past. That is a very poor attitude for writing, and if it shows in your work it could be fatal. Remember that Harry Bernstein, who started writing at the age of 16, did not get published until he was 96.
Most importantly, don’t be an ass. When people treat you like a kid, you should not get openly hostile. You are a kid. Prepare to be treated like one until you are past 30 or 40. At which point, you will be treated like you are too old.
It is not a tragedy to be NOT published by a certain age. So your target debut age should not be etched in stone. The more you obsess over the time of your debut, the later your debut is going to be. So don’t get stuck on the idea of getting published early. Stay focused on writing something better today than you wrote yesterday, and do lots of writing exercises and keep reading a lot.