On Writing: How Are Teen Authors Perceived?

“Some people break all the rules and get published. You could cross a road blind-folded and not get run over. That doesn’t mean that crossing the road blind-folded is a good way to live a long life.”

–  Nicola Morgan


This post hits home, because I’m a teen author myself. I have been since I turned thirteen, though I’m not exactly one of those types who scores a major book deal by the time they hit puberty. I fit into the much larger category of teens who write books but haven’t broken into the industry yet. I have, however, gotten four full requests from literary agents, including the woman who represented The Hunger Games…so, hopefully that bumps me slightly towards the “publication” clan.

It seems like teen authors are everywhere these days, doesn’t it? When I started high school, NO ONE knew that I was a writer, not even my close friends and family. Why? Because I felt like zero other teenagers were interested in that sort of thing, and of course when you’re fourteen, the last thing you feel like being is different.

Now? 180 flip. Not only do I enjoy being weird and breaking social norms, but teens who like to write are becoming more and more common. Okay, maybe teens who like to write full length novels are still a bit rare, but even that movement is blossoming thanks to NaNoWriMo (which, incidentally, I’ve never done. Hmm…)

But how are these teen authors perceived by adults?

We teens would love to believe that everyone sees us and immediately starts rooting for us. “Oh, you’re only FIFTEEN and you’re trying to get a book published? Bless your precociousness! May you lead the charge against a society that believes kids can’t change the world.”

Let me be clear, I’m all for the “kids change the world” movement and even hope to be a part of it. But unfortunately, I think most adults take the pessimistic approach: they see a teen writer and think “good hobby, but you’re probably way too young to succeed at something like this.”

Want to hear the best part?

I agree with them.

Hypocrite! you guffaw at your screen. Caleb, you’re saying teens shouldn’t be authors, yet here you are doing the THING.

Not quite. First and foremost, I absolutely do think teens should write. I think all teens should test to see if they like expressing themselves that way, and if they find they do, then write and write and never stop. Whether it’s for yourself or the blog world or whomever, if writing (or ANYTHING!) is your passion, I believe it’s not only healthy, but important, to embrace and pursue it.

No, no, when I say most teenagers probably aren’t a good match for the publishing business, I mean just that: the publishing business. The get-a-literary-agent-and-sell-to-a-publisher business. I don’t think the majority of teens are cut out for it.

Do I still sound bitter? Alright, nitpickers, check this: most PEOPLE aren’t cut out for the publishing business, whether they’re fifteen or ninety-seven or forty-three or twenty-eight. But beyond that, I’ll build my case.

Hey, teenagers. Yes, you people. I want you to picture yourself, who you were, one year ago. And I’m willing to bet that you would literally throw that person down a flight of stairs if you met them today.

There are worlds of psychological findings—not to mention common sense—that show how prone teenagers are to dramatic development as they approach adulthood. What high school senior dresses or acts how they did coming into high school? We grow up, yo.

It's Reality!

But here’s the thing! Let’s say an ambitious teen author slapped together a novel by the age of fifteen and started querying agents. Now, what do you think the twelfth grade version of that author would think of their book, if they glanced over it three years later?

Sounds like a horrifying situation, doesn’t it? It is, my dear readers.

I would know. I lived it.

I tried to be one of those hotshot teen authors. No, correction…I wanted to be the first hotshot teen author. (Yes, teens have gotten books published occasionally, but how many of those books have done that well? And don’t you dare cite Eragon; I’ll fry that fish later.)

I wanted to be the breakout kid, the one who actually becomes a bestselling teen author and actually turns a profit and actually makes it before finishing high school.

Then I grew up and realized that maybe, that was a tad unrealistic.

Is it good to have goals? Of course. Is it good to pursue them? Yes! But the thing is, when I first started trying for publication, I hadn’t grown up yet. I followed all the querying rules and I knew what I was up against, but sadly and quite simply, I just wasn’t good enough yet.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone with a similar dream. Maybe you HAVE grown up by age fifteen and are ready to go! But I’m just saying, I wasn’t, and while I wasn’t necessarily a terrible author, I was no where near ready to be published.

Which of course begs the question I know some people are thinking.

How do you know you’re ready NOW, you nincompoop?

Well, I don’t. Maybe I’ll never be published. But that’s exactly why I have only ever tried for publication through the traditional querying method. No self-publishing, no teen writing contests, nothing. I play the big game, same as every other prospective adult author out there. This novel of mine is going to sink or swim completely on its own, damn it, and it’s very slowly starting to swim amongst interested agents.

That’s why I think I might be ready.

I used to think that when/if I ever became published, it would have something to do with my age. I even hoped it would. Now, I don’t even consider it as a factor. For one thing, I’m now in college, and I legally am an adult, even if I have a little bit of teenage time left. But more importantly, this thing is working, highly respected agents are interested, and it has zero to do with any marketability related to being a teenager who writes books for teenagers. For all they know, I could be some English professor trying their hand at the YA genre.


Would that angle help me, maybe, if I put my age in my query letter? May…be. Would agents—subconsciously or otherwise—read my novel through a skeptical lens, knowing I’m barely out of high school?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure they would.

My point is, I don’t want my age to influence any success I may have (if any) as a writer. I don’t want to be some wunderkind who breaks convention.

I just want to be a plain old, regular, boring, published author.

On Writing: When Have You “Made It”?

“There are two ways to get enough: one is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”

–  G.K. Chesterton


Success is perhaps the most basic of things that all writers ponder. From the minute you start hammering out that first draft of your novel, you picture sitting at a table in a little bookshop signing copy after copy for eager readers.

Well at least, that’s my fantasy. Those imagined by other people might include being a NYT bestseller, rolling in rich royalties, and having an internet fan base so large that the Twitter servers poop their pants.

The point is, no matter the specifics of your grand visions, one thing is common: every writer wants to “make it” as an author.

But what does this really mean?

To some people, it’s the moment they finally land an agent. Once I started getting full requests from agents, a lot of my friends and family were all, “Maybe you’ll get an agent! Then you’ll have finally made it!”

I disagree. Let’s go on a hypothetical journey and say you get a literary agent. For sure, that’s a rare and noteworthy accomplishment. Pop open the champagne! (Or in my case, sparkling grape juice). But have you made it yet? Is this where you’re ready to call it quits? I’d sure hope not.

Most people, I imagine, wouldn’t settle being happy with having an agent. They would want to try for a publishing deal. And surely, when that happens, then they’ll have made it!

So let’s say that person does get a publishing deal. And it even comes with a nice advance. Well now, you’ve truly made it, yes? You’ve jumped the final hurdle?

Except, out of every ten books published, only one of them turns a profit. So, I would imagine, the next challenge is to be that one that actually succeeds.

But let’s be optimistic! Let’s say you are that ONE, and not only is it successful, it’s wildly successful. People everywhere are reading your book and telling you how good you are. You get a plethora of requests to speak to students or do signings. And you might even have a shot at being on the New York Times bestseller list!

Have you made it yet? Or do you want to get on that list?

Well, of course you do.

And it happens! You get on the NYT bestseller list. You even crush the long-running reigns of the likes of Rick Riordan and John Green. Everyone knows your name. You make enough money to quit your day job. NOW, now you’ve made it, right?

But then there’s talk of movie deals.

You wouldn’t be interested in those, now would you?

I hope I’m not beating a dead horse here. What I’m trying to express in this drawn-out example is the fact that—sorry as I am to say it—there is no definitive point in the world of writing where you can dust your hands off, lean back and say, “I’ve done everything I wanted to.”

Why is this? Well, it’s because when one door opens, you want to move forward and open the next. That’s the natural, human desire for progress. As a first-time writer, your only goal may be to get a literary agent. But if this happens, your aspirations grow.

Many people imagine that once they get published, BAM! They’ve made it. They think their desires won’t expand.

Perhaps all those people are right. I wouldn’t know myself; I’m not a published author. But I have thought about it plenty, and I’ve asked myself that magical question: if I get a call saying my book is going to be published, will I be satisfied with my career as a writer?

Of course I won’t. I’m much too selfish for that. I want to be the best. I want to be remembered. I want to change the world.

Sure, these are good goals, and if I do accomplish them, great. But I need to stay grounded, too. And I need to accept the fact that, much as I’d like to say “I made it,” I probably won’t ever be satisfied with where I am.

I hope no one mistakes this for ungratefulness. Just because I’m unsatisfied with where I am does NOT mean I am unhappy. I accept that even getting to the “agent” stage is difficult, and I’m grateful to have made it that far. I’m thankful for all of the helpful feedback and all the time people have taken to assist me on my journey. But my desire for progress is driven by my desire to show all those people they didn’t waste their time. I want their faith in me to be rewarded.

If I go the rest of my life without making it ANY further in the publishing game, fine. What’s meant to happen will happen, and I don’t need a publishing deal to be happy in life. But that desire for progress will always be there, no matter how far I go.

All that being said, if I ever do get a publishing deal, I’m totally going to say, “hey everyone, look, I made it.”

Why, you ask?

I’m not sure myself. I think it has something to do with the fact that a publishing deal would mean I could hold my writing in my own hands, as a tangible stack of paper with a professional cover. Printed books have something beautiful about them, and perhaps if I ever have my own, then that’ll be enough for me.

Right now, I just hope I get the chance to find out.

What about you? When will you have “made it,” if ever?

On Writing: Is “Natural Talent” All You Need?

“Before you can win, you have to believe you are worthy.”

–  Mike Ditka


I’ve blogged about this subject before. In a post from last year, I outlined my thoughts on whether writing is a talent someone is born with, or if it’s a skill everyone has equal chance at mastering. I concluded that it was a little of both, going on to say:

“[Rick Riordan] took ten years to get his story good! J.K. Rowling only took three with hers. Stephen King took less than that. Many would argue those two have more natural writing ABILITY, and I would agree with them. Riordan probably had to spend more time building his talent; had to revise his story dozens of times, and had a tougher time getting published than JKR or King. But he did it, same as them.”

A year later, I still agree with all that. Back when I wrote that post, I was a kid with forty rejections and no progress in the publishing industry. Today, I’m a kid with four full requests from agents, including the woman who represented The Hunger Games. Perhaps in a year, I’ll be further. Who knows? My point is, I’m no Shakespeare or even a Riordan or Rowling, but with a few years of hard work, I’ve made progress. I believe everyone has equal chance of doing the same.

Get to the point, Caleb.

Right. Since we’ve closed out that debate, I want to move on to a related topic: in the industry of publishing, is “natural talent”—if such a thing even exists—all you need to make it?

My answer, in short: no.

Let’s back up. First of all, have you ever been in a position where someone has confused your hard work with natural talent?

It happens all the time to me. People will hear about this progress I’ve made towards publication, and they tell me something like, “Wow, you must be really gifted!” or, “You must be a great writer.”

I certainly don’t mind the compliment, but I’m still trying to figure out if it’s fair to say I’m a talented writer. On one hand, saying that talent is proportional to progress is certainly a reasonable assumption. But on the flipside, I think if someone were to sit in the chair beside me while I take hours to research agents and revise my query letter, then perhaps they would re-think the idea that natural talent is all you need. I don’t think it is.

I’m not trying to sound ungrateful; the support of people around me is what keeps me going, and like I said, maybe they aren’t entirely wrong to believe talent equals progress. But having seen the harsher side of the publishing industry, I can say almost for certain that talent is no guarantee of success.

I’m speaking mostly to my fellow writers here, the ones who have had to craft a query letter and send those proposal emails and cross every finger, toe and other bendable body part for good luck. If an author were suddenly endowed with all the writing talent in the world, do you think they’d make it in this business eventually?

That’s what literary agents like to believe. How many times have we heard agents say, “If your book is good, it will find a home eventually”? More times than I can count. And yet, how many times have we also heard, “Even the greatest writers get rejected”?

I’m no calculus expert, but I think somebody’s lying.

You’re just bitter, you whiny child, you growl. If someone had J.K. Rowling’s talent, they’d make it easily.

At which point I would remind you that Rowling herself was rejected by thirteen publishers, AFTER she got an agent. What’s more, when she wrote a crime novel last year under a pseudonym, barely anyone picked it up until the author’s true identity was revealed.

My long-winded conclusion: talent is NOT everything in this industry. It won’t carry you across the finish line. Harsh to say, but I think talent is more like your entry ticket to the race. You still have a lot of work to do before you win it.

I don’t mean to lecture, because I don’t even know if I’ll make it. I’d like to think I will someday, but I also don’t want people to chock that up to natural talent, because believe me, I’m not bursting with gooey bits of golden blood from the writing gods. I started a crappy writer, worked my way up to not-crappy, and perhaps someday or another I’ll set foot into ‘good writer’ territory.

But no matter what happens to me or anyone else, I think the bottom line is this: talent alone isn’t enough, hard work alone isn’t enough, and luck isn’t enough. It’s a tricky balance between the three, I think; but, it’s important I also say, I believe that with enough willpower, you can increase any of those three in the amounts you need.

So, all that being said, I think there’s only one grand force in the world that, if you have it, can guarantee you’ll make it eventually.

It’s called willpower.

On Writing: Facing Rejection

“You can’t give up. When a lot of people don’t get published, it’s not because they couldn’t have, it’s because they gave up. They didn’t keep at it, they didn’t finish that story they were thinking about finishing, they got one rejection note…and they thought it was the end of the world. You have to keep going.”

–  Rick Riordan


Roughly a month ago at about this time, I was sitting pretty in agent-ville. After sending out around ten queries, three literary agents asked to see my full manuscript, all within two weeks of each other.

I had a rush like you wouldn’t believe. Sure, it was the end of my first year of college and I was busy with finals. But agents were interested in MY book! I didn’t just get lucky with one query, there were multiple agents—including the agent who represented a little series called The Hunger Games—who said they would “love to read my novel.”


And here we are a month later. And, as I’m sure you could’ve guessed, my walk on sunshine was recently put to an abrupt end with three big fat rejections.

Technically, it was two written rejections and one silent one, but the two written ones were incredibly nice. Agent 1 thought I had a fantastic premise and sympathetic protagonist, but the voice didn’t feel quite right. Agent 2 thought I showed wonderful flashes of humor and did a great job of “demonstrating the awkwardness of adolescence,” but thought the story relied too much on telling rather than showing.

In short: I’m back to square one.

Naturally, this means I’ve sunk into a pit of sadness which has forced me to cast off my family name, run away to a foreign land, and become a homeless street beggar like Bruce Wayne did in Batman Begins.

Just kidding.

Am I disappointed? Well, of course. But the thing is, with everyone constantly blabbing about how “subjective this industry is,” it’s pretty tough to expect anything besides a rejection. So, when it happens, I’m not too fazed by it.

Still, rejection in general is rough. Every writer faces it; hell, I’m willing to say every artist faces it, whether you’re a photographer or painter or author.

So, how’re we going to tackle this?

I’ve read about many authors who reached the point of lighting rejection letters on fire. While I’m always up for a nice pyro-themed escapade, such a thing would require me to dig up the email and print it out, which is far too tedious.

What else have we got?

Well, Stephen King secured his letters to his wall with the help of a trusty nail gun. Good approach, but knowing my luck I would hit an electrical wire or something and electrocute myself, then the form rejections would look pretty pleasant compared to my resultant death by cardiac arrest, now wouldn’t they.

No, the only symbolic thing I do when I get rejections is throw ‘em in a binder I keep on my dresser.

Why ever would I do that?

Glad you asked!

Several reasons. First, I believe deep down that someday, somehow, I’ll make it in this crazy industry known in publishing. I’m not sure how it’ll happen, or when, but I believe it will. I don’t want to come off as overconfident, but you have to have a little faith with this kind of thing, you know? And when (if) the day comes that I do make it, I want to have that binder by my side, so I never forget what it took to get there.

Second, much more importantly, I keep all my rejections because once all the gripes and curses are said and done, every “no” from an agent is a learning opportunity.

Most people see agents as terrible individuals whose sole purpose for existence is to choke the life out of young writers’ dearest dreams.


But! Agents are human beings too. And even if you’re mad at them, they have a reason for turning down your work, and that’s worth considering.

“But you’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, you driveling hooligan,” many of you growl darkly. “How can I learn anything if I’ve only ever received Dear Author forms?”

I sympathize with that, because I was there, too. Before this novel that received three full requests, I queried another project which, for a while, received nothing but generic rejections. And I was frustrated that agents couldn’t just give me a reason why they were passing.

I can’t fix that problem. All I can do is repeat the wise guideline included in every edition of Guide to Literary Agents: if you send out 10-15 query letters and don’t receive a single positive response, SOMETHING. IS. WRONG.

And of course, this advice is even more infuriating. “Oh, so if I’ve already sent out fifteen queries and have only gotten generic passes, then you’re telling me I should quit trying?”

Yes and no.

I believe that advice in GLA is sound, and having reached that dreaded 15-letter threshold before, I know how tough it is to accept. But if you reach that point, the way I see it, there are two options:

  1. Keep sending out queries, hoping that you’ll be that one person who beats the odds.
  2. Set your project aside for a month or two, then come back to it with fresh eyes, and don’t query again until you’ve revised.

Oh, I know how tough that second option is, guys. I know because it’s what I’m about to do with my own work.

I took option one with my last project, and it got nowhere. I’ve learned from my mistakes. And I know it sucks, but in the end, that’s what dealing with rejection is all about: improving yourself, and moving forward.

I’m not happy about having to set aside my novel, wait, go back and revise it, then start the whole query process over again. But I will, and that’s what I’d urge anyone in my position to do as well.

Here’s to moving forward.

On Writing: Writing and Pitching a Series

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”

–  John Dewey


A few weeks ago, I received a question on one of my older writing posts. This was from someone who was writing a series, but having trouble making book one “long enough” to reach books two and three. This question intrigued me enough to write a post about it.

There are a lot of people out there whose advice goes something like this: “If you want any shot in being published at all, completely forget about ever doing a series and just write this one book, you naïve plebeian.”

I half agree with that philosophy. First of all, I know exactly what it’s like to pitch a series, because I’ve done it before. When I was sixteen, I began querying a YA Fantasy project I’d been working on for a few years. At this point, I’d written most of the books in my potential series of seven.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why I didn’t get very far with that. I was spreading out my creative energy so thinly across multiple projects, I wasn’t devoting all my attention just towards the first one.

Since then I’ve shelved the fantasy project and focused my efforts on my contemporary YA novel (which is up to three full requests, yay!) but, I do plan to come back to the fantasy project someday. And I do plan to pitch it as a series.

However, there’s a right way to do that.

Again, I truly sympathize with the ideology of plotting out an entire saga, and having tons of elements from book one affect things in books six or seven. But I also think that for a series to truly flourish, you have to let yourself “re-create” it along the way, know what I mean?

For my fantasy series, I knew exactly what I wanted to happen in all of the books; at least, for the most part. I certainly knew enough for that to influence the way I wrote book one. And when I come back to it, I’ll revise book one carefully, keeping certain parts intact so they can set up events in future books. But, I also can’t let these feel out of place during the story.

There are many people—and I used to be one of them—who get so excited about the events in book two or three that they rush book one. This is entirely understandable, but it doesn’t fit well in the publishing business. Book two won’t see print if book one sucks. It just won’t.

With you and I both agreeing that’s unfortunate, what can we do about it?

Glad you asked!

How I approached my “series problem” is I took a deep breath and told myself that I will always be a creative person. And I will always get new story ideas. And if I channel every drop of my creative energy into just (just!) book one, then when the time comes to write book two, there will be more creative energy there to write that one, too.

See what I’m getting at? It’s a balancing act. On one hand, you should keep the series potential in mind, and maybe let that influence certain plot points in book one. But on the other, much more important hand, you have to let yourself get creative and put all your effort into book one, so that it can do well enough on its own. That won’t happen if you “just make it long enough” to be a bridge towards sequels.

Another thing that sucks, but you have to keep it in mind anyway: each book should have its own story arc which builds up, reaches its peak, then gradually concludes by the end of the novel. Do you have to wrap everything up? Of course not! That would defeat the point of a series. But look at the Harry Potter novels. Sure, the whole threat of the Dark Lord taking over is there for the entire series, but each book has its own self-contained adventure (the Triwizard Tournament, the Chamber of Secrets being opened, etc.)

I know for a fact that most agents, while possibly willing to sign on multiple books, prefer to be pitched them one at a time. That makes it easier for the writer, too. Now you only have to write one query letter, and one synopsis! If a book does well enough, and there’s the right amount of suspense at the end, there will be demand for a sequel.

Like anything in writing, it’s a balancing act.


Happy balancing.

On Publishing: “No Response” Agents (My Thoughts)

“Success is something you attract by the person you become.”

–  Jim Rohn


Two days ago, my dream agent requested my full manuscript, thus brightening an otherwise dreary Wednesday. However, I’m not here to talk about that, as there really isn’t much to discuss. Instead, I wanted to share my thoughts on the hot topic of agents and their varying degrees of interaction with hopeful queriers.

Translation: here are my thoughts on how some agents give the kindest rejections and others don’t even reply to you unless they want more material.

It’s an interesting topic, isn’t it? But after all, this is a strange industry. A cover letter is supposed to be a formal proposal that you’re submitting to a potential business partner. In any other industry, that would warrant a definite response. And yet in publishing, it’s becoming more and more common for agents to have a policy of, “I’m only going to reply to you if I like your letter.”

When I tell my friends of this, they usually respond with, “That would make me mad if I were you.” But honestly, it doesn’t. I understand that some agents are busy people and don’t have time to respond to every proposal they receive, especially considering that some queries are nowhere near coherent. But I do think that there’s a right way to reject people.

Some agents I’ve submitted to make it a point to respond to every query, and they say if you haven’t heard back within x-weeks, re-send. Those are my favorite kinds of agents.

Even if the rejection is your standard “Dear Author” form, at least I have closure, you know? I can check that agent off the list.

Personally, I would aim to have that policy if I ever became a literary agent. However, I understand that some people are still crazy busy and can’t manage to reply to everything. That’s why some agents use a policy along these lines: “While I try to respond to every query, if you haven’t heard back within x-weeks, please consider it a pass. You will receive an auto-confirmation when we receive your query.”

That last part makes a world of difference. I’m entirely fine with a silent rejection as long as I know it’s indeed a rejection, and not a glitch in my email system. Queries get lost in cyberspace. Agents’ emails crash, as do authors’. If I send a query and never receive so much as an auto-confirm, I’ll never be sure if it was read and passed, or simply lost in the internet.

Once again, I understand that agents are busy. Truly, I can appreciate that, and I have no hard feelings towards most. There’s only one type of agent I have a real problem with, and that’s the agent who promises to reply to all queries, then never does so.

A while ago, I queried one agent who looked especially promising. Her guidelines specified that she aimed to reply to all queries within a certain amount of weeks. I waited, the weeks went by, and no response.

Normally, I would’ve assumed my query was lost in cyberspace. But, as it happens, I was also following said agent on Twitter at the time. About a week after the response time frame had passed, she tweeted a sentence or two from several queries which she’d deleted without response because they were such a quick pass. Mine was among them, being cited for “lack of specificity.”


I’m not bitter about the rejection; hell, that’s the best kind, because it included feedback. But I would’ve preferred to hear that from an email, not a social media feed which I happened to check.

My bigger point here is that while I don’t hold a grudge against agents who treat queriers badly, I do have an enormous amount of respect towards the ones who are courteous—even in dealing with the slush pile. I accept this is a brutal industry, but I think that some agents (and I place extraordinary emphasis on ‘some’) view queriers as people who are so used to rejection that they won’t mind at all if their proposal is deleted without a promised response.

Again I say, I’m completely fine with agents who say, “If you haven’t heard within x-time, please consider it a pass.” No problem! Now I can mark my calendar and hold my breath. But likewise, if you say “You’ll hear from me in x-time, one way or another,” then prospective authors count on that.

The other thing I think people can sometimes forget is that the agent-author relationship is a professional partnership, and that requires mutual respect in equal amounts. If an agent sends me a kind rejection, even if it’s a form, I think, “Man, that’s a loss; he/she would’ve been great to work with.” But if an agent gives a specified period to reply and doesn’t (and obviously received and read it), then I admit I do feel a slight bit of, “Well, I’m not sure I’d want to work with them anyway.”

I’m sorry if I sound naïve or whiny, but what I’m trying to explain is that the kindness and respect of an agent, even a rejecting one, is a warm and welcome feeling in the business of querying. It truly does make a difference between my image of some faceless lady in an office versus a real human being who’s friendly and personable but simply doesn’t connect with my material.

In any case, the two agents reading my work at the moment have been every bit as respectful and friendly as I could hope for.

To them and every other agent out there who treats the slush pile kindly…thank you!

On Writing: The Most Important Element of Good Writing

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for”

–  Ralph Waldo Emerson


Today, I’d like to revisit an old post of mine.

My veteran readers might recall that a little over a year ago, I blogged about what I believe to be the two most important ingredients in writing a novel. In that post, I concluded that the two essential elements in crafting a good novel were thought and emotion.

In my own words:

“Thought goes beyond just using words, though. It also means putting thought into your story. I can’t define this too well other than to say it. Putting thought into story. Things like the complexity of Severus Snape’s past, or the elaborate explanation of crimes in Sherlock Holmes. These required conscious effort on the authors’ parts, and it shows.

“It’s my belief that people are quite wrong if they assume emotion is strictly for fiction writing and memoirs. Fact-based books without even a drop of emotional appeal don’t read well, and while their information may be correct, there tends to be limited success in conveying said information to the painfully bored reader. My AP World History textbook, loathed even by my patient teacher, is a perfect example of this.”

I then concluded that a story is well-told if it includes balanced elements of thought and emotion. My derived equation:

Thought + Emotion= Good Writing

However, that was a year ago, and my opinion has since shifted slightly.

Last year, I queried a fantasy novel I’d been working on since the age of thirteen. After three months, I got a full request from a literary agent who admired the story but ultimately passed on the chance to represent it.

One full request out of what…forty queries? At the time, it was an impressive accomplishment for me. I was seventeen, for Gods’ sake. But I think I knew, deep down, that the story just wasn’t quite good enough to make it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pleased with it, and I believe I can get it published someday. But it was missing something. I knew it then, and now, I see what it was:

A message.

Stick with me.

Let’s flash forward to a few months after the full request. August 2013, the last few weeks of summer before my freshman year of college. That was full of some crazy emotions for my friends and I. So naturally, I decided to write a short story with similar themes. Then I broadened my scope and decided to try writing a short story about the ups and downs of high school, in general. That short story became a novel.

I know, ‘high school novel’ is as generic as store brand milk. But the general niche of the novel doesn’t define it, and I promise, the story is more detailed than I’m making it sound. But my point is this: I wrote the novel centered around how confusing everything is during that last year between adolescence and adulthood. I created characters who act and feel like I do.

I wasn’t just writing to entertain, or to show off with flashy battle scenes. This time, I was writing a book so that when teenagers read it, they could think to themselves, “wow, I’m not the only one who feels all the crap I feel.”

And that’s what’s really driven me with this newest project. I want other people to read it so they can point to the page and go, “YES! Someone understands.”

Fun fact: This GIF also represents my reaction to "Fifty Shades of Grey"

Fun fact: This GIF also represents my reaction to “Fifty Shades of Grey”

That, I think, is the most important of writing: having a message. Not just writing a flashy story to entertain people, but rather, having something you want to tell them. In my case, it’s, “you aren’t the only one who’s overly nostalgic, or super awkward.” I go on Twitter and see fellow teenagers who are like, “I wish some nights lasted forever” or “I think I’m the only one who hates it when people change.”

And I want to throw this unpublished novel at them (gently) and say, “Look! Here’s a story about that! Here are characters who feel the same way you do!”

So, that’s what I think the most important ingredient of writing is: a message. You could also label this as a theme. Something you want your readers to know you believe. And hopefully, something they can relate to.

Therefore, I’d like to amend my previous formula:

Thought + Emotion= Good Writing

Or, more accurately, I’d like to expand it:

Thought + Emotion= Inspiration

Inspiration= Good Writing

Of course, this is all strictly my opinion, and the last thing I want to do is make anyone reconsider something they’re writing. But I do think that the presence of genuine inspiration can be a powerful factor.

Case in point, I recently began querying this new project, and the very first response I received was a full request.

Well, that’s a little better than the fortieth try, at least.