Too Young to Publish

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/fourteen/fifteen/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.

Being young can be an advantage in getting published. I was first published when I was nine. A short poem in The Newcastle Morning Herald (now The Herald). My mother sent it in and it was published with my age listed. While the poem was clearly a work of genius, odds are that if I hadn’t been nine, it wouldn’t have been published. As it happens I was more embarassed by the publication than I was proud. The kids at school teased me to buggery for the rest of the year. Happy days.

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.

What happened?

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.

The teenage me was cast into deep, dark despair by this. On my seventeenth birthday I had a midlife crisis. There I was seventeen years old and still no novel published! I was a complete and utter failure! What was wrong with me?

Another easy answer: I wasn’t good enough yet and I wouldn’t be good enough until I’d learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. Until I got past thinking my first drafts were perfect and that rewriting involves a wee bit of chipping at the surface of a story. It’s much, much harder than that. And, I’m belatedly learning, more fun too.

If you’d have told me back then I wasn’t good enough and had a lot more to learn about writing I would not have believed you. Actually come to think of it, people did tell me back then. But they were polite about it saying that I had a "great deal of promise" and a "bright future ahead". Blah, blah, blahdy blah. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to be published immediately! Before I hit twenty-one or, worse, thirty and was too decrepitly old to enjoy it.

Now, of course, I’m incredibly grateful that no one did me the disservice of publishing me back then. I’ve kept a lot of my juvenilia and, well . . . it shows promise.

I have a couple of friends who were not so fortunate. They were first published in adult venues when they were still teenagers. Both of them are horrified that their learning and growing as a writer has been done so publicly and that there’s nothing they can do to make all that evidence of early missteps go away. They both wish they’d spent more time honing their craft and less time desperately trying to get into print.

But how do you hone your craft?

Read a lot. Write a lot. In that order. There are very very few good writers who aren’t also good readers.

Never send off a first draft for publication. Even though the temptation to do so is enormous. I mean you wrote a complete draft! A whole poem/story/novel! It has a beginning, a middle and end! The sense of accomplishment is enormous you can’t wait to show your work of genius to the rest of the world.

Resist that feeling.

Wait a few weeks after writing something, then reread it, rewrite it (and I don’t mean just fixing typoes), then give it to some people you trust for comments. (Not your parents. Most’ll just tell you it’s wonderful no matter what.) If you have friends who read a lot give it to them. Or to a teacher you trust. Give it to as many people as you can think of. Trust me, most of them will not get back to you with comments.

Ask the ones who read it to tell you when they got bored. Ask them to tell you the plot. This is a great way to figure out if your readers are reading what you think you wrote. It’s amazing how often they aren’t.

When they get back to you with all their comments, rewrite it again. Many of the comments will be intensely annoying and boneheaded and will make you want to end the friendship with the idiot who said them. Resist your urge to do so. Resist the urge to tell them how moronic they are. Also resist the urge to cry (I still haven’t quite mastered this one). Instead look for parts of your story/poem/novel that all readers had problems with. Figure out how to fix it. Most likely the solution you find won’t be the one they suggested. (Later on when you’re published you’ll find this also applies to your editors.)

Learning to take criticism is one of the major prerequisites of being a professional writer. Once your work is accepted for publication, your editor will criticise what you have written and ask you to rewrite it. Usually many, many times. And after it’s gone through all those rewrites she will often forget to tell you good it is. There will be few gold koala bear stamps. Your editor’s primary concern is to get rid of that which sucks. It should be yours too.

Just as important: don’t get too caught up in the praise your readers offer you. If your readers only have good things to say about your manuscript, enjoy it, but then be suspicious. Very few pieces of writing are perfect first go. (I rewrote this essay several times and then gave it to Scott to read and it could still stand a bit more rewriting.)

Once you’ve made your manuscript as good as you can possibly make it—if it’s a novel that should take months, maybe even years—then and only then do you send it out for publication.

But how do you get a novel published?

With great difficulty. Getting published is very, very hard no matter how old you are. Most novels never find their way into print. Even really good ones.

Ian Irvine outlines the whole process in his essay, The Truth About Publishing (the link’s in the menu on the left). I strongly advise reading the whole document through to the end. It’s depressing, but it’s also very very useful. I wish I’d read it back when I was fifteen.

Good luck. Do not despair when you are rejected. Welcome to the club. There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t been rejected. Many, many times.

New York City, 13 August 2005

The Hebrew translation is here.

For those young writers who are angered by this please read my clarification.