Recently I’ve seen an awful lot of authors giving advice to teens who write, and want to get published, along the lines of ‘don’t try to get published yet. Just don’t.’ In some ways, I completely understand where they’re coming from. One of the big tendencies of all writers, not just teenagers, is to ask, “How do I write a book and get it published?” in one breath.
They are two very different questions. And there is an awful lot to be said for advising people to focus on the book first, publication second. I completely encourage it. Don’t think about The Market just yet – think about what you want to write, what you care about, and about making this book the best it can be.
But the idea that teenagers are by default not yet ready to submit to agents and publishers bothers me. Because writers of all ages are by default not ready to submit. There’s a nifty post over at Hannah Moskowitz’s blog about her road to getting published as a teenager, which emphasises the fact that it’s about experience, rather than age. I can relate – the first book of mine that was published was not, by any means, the first thing I’d ever written. Not by a long shot. And, yep, I was a teenager when it was published. And when I see things like John Scalzi’s why teenage writers suck post (not the actual title but sort of sums it up), I can see some of his points, but not all of them.
So. Here’s my own list of Dos and Don’ts for teenagers who are interested in writing, who are writing, who are writing things long enough to be novels, and are looking into getting published.
Do write in the first person, and write about characters close to your own age. Your voice is one of the strongest selling points you have. Every writer has their strengths and this is one of yours.
Don’t write about people you know. Use details and traits to give a feeling of authenticity, but remember that the most important thing is that characters work on the page.
Do try to empathise with your characters. All of them. Even the horrible ones. Make sure that their motivations make sense. In real life, people can be horrible for seemingly no reason, but this doesn’t work on the page.
Don’t send your work off straight away. Once you’ve finished a first draft (even if you’ve been tweaking it as you go along), leave it alone for six weeks or so, then return to it and get revising.
Do use this time to do the publishing/marketing research or to start a new project or to take a break. Use it consciously as a break from writing, the kind that will make you want to get back to your novel with new energy after the six weeks has passed.
Don’t despair when you revisit your novel. If it seems to need a lot of work – that’s normal. Get to it. Always remember that there’s a gap between the first version of something, and the published book, rather than comparing your first draft to one of your favourite books.
Do ask friends or family to read your work, but choose them very carefully. What you want are people who’ll be honest but also specific. “It’s good” or “it’s bad” are equally unhelpful. You want to know what works and what doesn’t. This quote is worth keeping in mind:
”Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman
Don’t confuse writing for school with writing for publication. They’re not the same thing. English teachers vary from the Made-of-Awesome variety to the Why-Oh-Why-Did-I-Do-An-Arts-Degree breed, but most of them are pretty darn good at teaching you the syllabus – this is their job. The Made-of-Awesome variety may also have wisdom about writing beyond the confines of the syllabus, but don’t worry too much if they don’t. (Similarly, don’t worry too much about trying to apply writers’ advice to English essays.)
Do ask for advice – from teachers, librarians, your parents, authors you admire. Go to events where writers and editors and other publishing types are speaking. Ask questions. Do your research.
Don’t send the author(s) you admire your work. Many won’t read what you’ve written because they’re worried that if they’re working on something similar (which is often quite likely – we tend to admire authors who write about similar topics/themes to us) it’ll create a tricky situation for them. Many more won’t read what you’ve written simply because they do not have the time and/or energy to offer detailed critiques of the work of everyone who’s approached them. Reading with a critical eye takes a lot more work than reading for fun. Occasionally they might offer, especially if you’ve been corresponding for a while or you’ve met them in person, but do be aware that it is work and it is not part of their job as an author. (It’s always worth checking if they teach any writing classes, though – this is a separate but related job.)
Do ask the author(s) you admire specific questions – not just things they’ve answered on FAQ pages or elsewhere on their website, or ‘how to get published’. It helps as well if you’re giving an indication why you’re asking their opinion – not just as ‘a writer’. For example you might want to ask someone who writes for both young children and teens about that experience, or someone who writes in multiple genres about that, or someone who writes a series about that…
Don’t ask them if they can introduce you to/put in a good word for you with their agent or editor. (If this is something they feel comfortable doing, they’ll offer – it’s not something you ask of someone unless you’ve built up a relationship and they’ve seen your work.)
Do pay attention to the guidelines that agents and publishers have on their websites. If they say they only want the first three chapters, then… send them the first three chapters. If they’re not interested in fantasy, then… don’t send them fantasy. Simple as that. They want to see your creative brilliance and imagination in your writing, not in your approach.
Don’t use overly-fancy words or overly-complicated sentences in your approach to them. Keep it simple.
Do try to keep enjoying your writing, even if you’re beginning to take it seriously and think about publication. You need to love it at least most of the time.
(Anything else I should add? Let me know…)