Advice for Young Writers

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

(No one has all the answers... except Steph. Who does have all the answers. Every single one. Perhaps that's why you don't have any, because I'm hogging them all?)

So I've waited a couple of days to answer this because my thoughts were percolating. If you have seen the inside of my mind you will know that sometimes my thoughts can percolate for several years. But this is from a teenaged aspiring author, with a couple of really good questions, and I thought I'd take the opportunity to impart my wisdom (all 5753 days of it) on writing as a young person, whether or not you should pursue publication, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (love that word. Love it). Anyway, here's the original question:

Hey Steph! I'm a thirteen-year-old aspiring author, and firstly, I just want to say how amazing it is that you have found an agent at your age. That just gives me so much inspiration and warm fuzzy feelings. Secondly, I have a question for you. Well, a couple of questions. How many query letters do you ultimately have to send out? Were you one of the luckier ones, or did you have a sea of rejections to sort through? Also, did you put your age in your query letter? I've seen lots of mixed opinions about teens doing this, and I'd really just like to know if you did, in particular. Thanks a bunch!

Hi! Thank you!

First up, I'll answer your questions...
I was incredibly lucky with finding an agent. I queried three, and also entered the secret agent competition on the Miss Snark's First Victim blog. From this, I received three offers. I was absolutely obscenely lucky. I credit this to the stars being in exactly the right formation, and having the support of some really amazing people (including Sara Henry).

But here's the thing about queries and novels and the like: Don't think that you're a failure if you send out ten and don't have any takers. Some of the most amazing novels out there were rejected hundreds of times by agents and publishers. Just because I found an agent in a month doesn't mean my novel is any better than yours. It just means I have supremely awesome agent-mind-control powers.

A bit of a history of my writing: The novel I signed with an agent for was my third. I submitted my second novel to a few different Australian publishers, but that didn't work out (I got some lovely rejections though, with nice feedback notes. Do you like the phrase 'lovely rejection'? It's like a boy saying to me, "Steph, you're beautiful and funny and all, but I can't go out with you because you remind me of my grandma."). This isn't something I decided to pick up one summer and get published. I have worked hard at it, even if my stats say otherwise.

I did not put my age in my query letters. I said I was an Australian student, because I felt it was important they knew I was overseas (in case US agents couldn't deal with timezone differences - this wasn't a problem at all, by the way) and I said student, because, well, I'm a student. When you say student, you could be fifteen or you could be twenty-five.
When it comes to writing (and I'm going to revisit this later in the post) your age has no bearing. None at all. (Unless you are a twelve-year-old writing erotica. That won't go down well.) This is all that matters: Writing a publishable novel that you send to the right people, and also having the maturity to be able to take constructive criticism and realise that everything can be improved, and it's not an insult upon you or your writing, just someone who wants to help you to improve your work.
Now, some general advice I'm going to try and give in an entirely non-pretentious way:
  • It's not a race. Seriously, it isn't. I'm no better than you because I have an agent at fifteen. Really, that was just a lucky string of events. Have you seen Sliding Doors? Yeah. Neither have I. But there's a lesson in that. Though seriously, no one is going to care if you're not published until you're thirty. Or forty. Or fifty. Or one hundred and two. Writing is not like acting or dancing or singing. Your age doesn't matter. You have plenty of life to live, and writing shouldn't be the only thing in it.

  • This doesn't apply to me but: You need to live life first. Unless you're writing the stuff I am, which is all basically bleeding heart emo poetry. My novel's pretty much 200-odd pages of 'my life is so crap' and 'I'm so lonely and selfish...'. I can write this stuff well. But the thing is, I'm not saying you should stop writing. I'm saying you should go out and experience stuff and write it down and observe things and stuff like that. Participate in life. This is not an excuse for you to get drunk on Smirnoff Ice. I do not condone underage drinking.

  • You're going to be freaking embarrassed by the stuff you're writing now in a few years time. And that's okay. The point is not to stop writing because of it. The point is to write and get better and also be willing to accept critique. Know when someone's being mean, and know when someone actually wants to help you improve in your work. I'm not half-decent at writing because I'm a child prodigy (though I am really ridiculously good-looking, not that that has anything to do with anything but I thought I'd pop it in there) - I'm half-decent at writing because I worked hard to get to being half-decent. Realise you're not a child prodigy, and continue writing and learning.
  • Don't compare yourself to other people. It only ever makes you feel bad about yourself. And you shouldn't feel that way. You're amazing. You're going to accomplish your goals. Work hard at it, and it will happen.
  • Don't send out your work until you're ready. Research a lot. Write a lot. Be willing to write one or two practice novels (they won't feel like practice novels when you're writing them, but afterwards you'll know you can do better with the next one). Please don't write My Chemical Romance fan-fiction. Just don't.
  • I'd give more advice but I'm saving it for when I go back in time and meet my younger self. Which is from some movie, but I can't remember which.
Feel free to ask more questions in the comments, or you can ask anonymously here, should you be so inclined. Or you can email me.
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