Sartorias and Justine Larbalestier dish about whether young writers can get published. Justine:
Recently I’ve had a number of letters from teenagers wanting advice on how to get their novel published and wondering whether their age will make it harder for them to get it into print. Specifically, would they be discriminated against because they were only thirteen or fourteen or fifteen or sixteen or whatever?
The simple answer is no. When you submit a query letter to a publisher or agent you don’t have to tell them how old you are. You’ll be rejected or accepted on the quality of your submission.
She also goes on to say:
Up until I was 15, I had a number of other poems and stories published. Without motherly intervention even. Every one of them with my age beside my name. After that, nothing of mine was published until I was in my thirties.
Another simple answer: I started competing with adults. I stopped listing my age and started sending to more grown up venues. My work was not as good as that of the grown ups. I didn’t find my way into print again until I was way past my child prodigy days.
Like Justine or Sartorias, I also started out a young writer (I guess I still am according to some). My first serious attempts were when I was ~15 and started entering the Writers of The Future competition. Justine gives some good advice in general. Unlike Justine I don’t think anyone considered me a prodigy or anything decent (what my parents might say after-the-fact notwithstanding, they were very puzzled by the writing thing for a long, long time) or even above average. And I wasn’t. I was kinda stubborn though, and I kept at it.
I did shamelessly mention my age when I started submitting. My cover letter had a line in it that went something like ‘I’m an 18 year old SF/F writer recently moved to the states who is just starting out, as a result, any critique you might have in response to this piece would be extraordinarily welcome. Thanks, Tobias.’ It got me a fair number of editorial comments back that helped me out.
So I do think that focusing on the craft and Justine’s advice is great (at any level).
The place I got hung up on and stopped nodding and agreeing, and found I had to bookmark and respond (several weeks later now) was in Sartorias’ comments, where she says:
Age is necessary, I think…young authors who publish have a certain amount of skill at telling others’ stories, but except for Carolyn Glyn, there isn’t much original there. It takes us time and life experience to both get the skill–and have something to say that just isn’t regurgitation from our most passionate reading.
If you’ve read my blog over the years you might guess this always annoys me, because right now there are 14 year olds in New Orleans who are racking up the kind of life experience that a 30 year old in a factory in Ohio won’t ever achieve. The ‘life experience’ canard is one that annoys me. You don’t need to have aged like a fine wine to tell a good story, and there are many people who master their career at a young age because they spent a lot of time working at it.
I do think there is an apprentice period when working up to becoming a writer. It may be X number of garbage words, or X number of hours spent writing, or X years before things click, and it varies from writer to writer. But often enough I talk to someone jokes (half jokes) that I’m ‘too young to be published’ and I often find out in terms of words written, stories written, and years practicing, I have them beat. For 11 years now I’ve sat down and tried to write as often as I could during the week, and I’ve written over 100 short stories since I started at 15 (averaging about 1/month, if you think about it over the big picture), 1/2 of a novel at 17 that got lost in a hard drive crash, a full novel, and I’m close to finishing my second. I’m not Asimov (who started publishing in his teens, btw), but I’ve put in a fair amount of work. And
I’m always beating myself up about getting better to compensate for all the things I’m horrible at.
I really think the work and focus on learning and self-improvement put in has more to do with it than the age.
So, um, yeah, I respectfully have to disagree 🙂 Younger writers can get published, and you don’t need to collect a certain amount of life experience points to have something worth saying.
But, you will have to put in the work. Just like everyone else.
6 thoughts on “Can Young Writers Get Published?”
I’m sort of with Sartorias on that one. Although I agree that there are very talented writers who are also very young, the trend is that writing skill improves with age–virtually without limit. And although some young people have dramatic life experiences, what they lack is perspective–something that the thirty-year-old factory worker does have. Does that mean that a young writer should wait around until they are older? I don’t think so. I had a room mate in college who wanted to be a writer, but someone had told her that young people don’t have valuable life experience to bring to it, so she was waiting. I don’t think you should wait.
I was talking about this with a friend recently, and we agreed that what you do get from being older is a real sense of “this too shall pass.” You know that it’s not the end of the world if your car breaks down. Cars get fixed. You begin to have some insight not only into your own motivations, but those of others. There’s a good chance that by 30 or 40 you will have been called upon to make sacrifices for others, that you will have given up some of your vanity, that you’ll have traveled more and seen a lot of things, gotten fired from a job, fallen in love and broken up, given birth to a child, lost someone close to you, gotten religion and lost it again. Drama really isn’t a substitute for time.
So, sure, you might be a great writer at 17. If so, you’ll be even better at 30 or 40. 🙂 The other thing about having big life experiences at a young age is that it often takes decades to be able to bring that experience to the page. Those decades can’t really be rushed.
I did a ton of writing in my teen years, which culminated in a 400-page fantasy novel that I finished at age 17. Then I didn’t write again until I was 28. I was hearing a lot of “you don’t have the life experience” sort of thing, but also hearing “You’re so talented! Why do you want to waste yourself on SciFi/Fantasy?” So I did very little writing in my 20’s, which I deeply regret now.
I would say it’s not just about life experience, it’s also about craft, which you have to work at – every day. If you wait until you’re 40 to get started, I don’t think it matters how diverse your life experience might be, the craft won’t be there. You’ll be starting at square 1. On the other hand, a 17-year-old who has been writing every day since age 14 might be writing from a narrower range of experience, but they’ve put in some time learning the craft. Do you know what I mean?
I’m in a similar position to you, Tobias — fewer short stories and more unpublished novels in my case, but I started young, got very serious around 18, and just finished writing the sequel to my first novel (first one to be sold, that is). I think craft matters as much, if not more, than life experience (since all that experience won’t do jack for you if you can’t communicate it effectively), and craft is built up through practice.
Will age improve your writing? Yes, probably, for all the reasons listed. But I think it’s secondary in importance to craft, and I hatehatehate it when people take the attitude that young people shouldn’t bother trying until they’re older and more seasoned.
I was talking about this with a friend recently, and we agreed that what you do get from being older is a real sense of “this too shall pass.” You know that it’s not the end of the world if your car breaks down.
TB: Or you can get that by having gone through a rough childhood. I’ve had that attitude since about, oh, 5 years old. My favorite lab supervisor was a Sudanese refugee who was unflappable. Meanwhile, I have 60 year old professors who throw 4 year old like temper tantrums when they don’t get thinks they want because their whole lives have been sheltered.
I’m sorry, Catherine, we’ll have to agree to disagree 🙂
So, sure, you might be a great writer at 17. If so, you’ll be even better at 30 or 40. 🙂
Because you’re had more time to practice.
On the other hand, a 17-year-old who has been writing every day since age 14 might be writing from a narrower range of experience, but they’ve put in some time learning the craft. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, and I agree 🙂
TB:I’m sorry, Catherine, we’ll have to agree to disagree 🙂
CS: Aw, do we? *throws tantrum*
I think the above make some good points about craft, too. It’s very hard to hone your craft over ten or fifteen years without losing one’s youthful glow. Unless you start very early. 😉
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