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.

ntrnt

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.

Three in Ten Thousand (On Publishing: Intro)

“Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.”

–  Joyce Carol Oates

 

Yes, I made the meme myself.

Yes, I made the meme myself.

Though it may have escaped your attention, I’m sort of a quirky individual. I have a few strange habits. One is remembering every date of every social event I’ve ever been to. Another is my occasional tendency to drop the phrase “no pun intended” when I’ve just said something that really isn’t punny, just to screw with people. But perhaps my strangest habit is my consistent fixation on getting my manuscript published.

Make no mistake: this blog post isn’t supposed to hold advice. None of mine really were, though I slipped into preachy mode a few times…something I had no right to do. Yes it’s my blog and my internet space, but in the end, I’m here to share my thoughts on a subject. And, when it comes to the subject of publishing, how I plan on at least lasting longer in the battle if not surviving it.

So yes, I’ll be posting on the various stages of publishing, and you’ll have to put up with my instruction-manual-esque approach to them. Make no mistake, readers: I’m probably as lost as you here.

That being said, let’s get cracking.

Here are the stages of publishing, assuming you’re going the traditional publishing route, which I’d highly recommend:

  • Finish the manuscript (see, erm, all of my previous posts)
  • Write a query letter
  • Send to literary agent(s)
  • Agent likey likey; agrees to represent you in the big bad world of publishing
  • Agent eventually—hopefully—gets publishing deal
  • Roll in stacks of money together (just kidding)

So those are the blog posts you have to look forward to from me, at least for the immediate future. Starting with the dreaded query letter.

I’d now like to take the rest of this blog post to drive something into all of my readers’ brains, whether they’re aspiring authors or innocent bystanders:

The odds of getting a book published are nearly impossible.

I just wrote what will probably be one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever written in my life. The odds of getting a manuscript published are literally three in ten thousand.

Let me break down the process, since I probably don’t have you convinced yet.

Take any given literary agent in the United States. Assuming they live by average statistics, they get around thirty query letters a day. So, to whip out my math wizardry, that’s about 11,000 query letters a year, give or take. And of those 11,000, statistically speaking, said agent will sign on eight of them.

Now do you see why it’s so hard to get a book published?

No? Alright, I can keep going.

Assume you have indeed gotten signed on by an agent. You now have to wait for said agent to contact various publishers, and one of them has to agree to publish it. On top of taking anywhere from a month to a year (and perhaps longer), this isn’t guaranteed to happen. Yes, your odds are astronomically better with an agent than without, but there’s still no certainty in getting a book published until you’re holding it in your hands.

The most solid statistic I have is the one I started with: your odds at publication are three in ten thousand. As are mine.

Which would be great if I was an adult.

But I’m not. I’m a teenager. Which means my odds plummet down to…let’s see…has any kid ever actually gotten an agent?

I’m sure some have, but I don’t know of any. Plenty of kids have self-published, but anyone can do that. Getting an agent, then a publishing deal? Yeah, not so much. Statistically speaking, what I’m trying to do here is impossible, or might as well be. The publishing industry is one of the cruelest in existence. It doesn’t slow down, and it doesn’t wait for anyone. It just spits them out.

And now do you see why it’s so hard to get a book published?

I know what you’re thinking here, especially if you’re an adult: kid, you have plenty of time to do this, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, wait until you mature a little more, blah blah blah.

As clichéd of an answer as this might be, I need to say it: I don’t need to do any more growing up. Or at least, I don’t think so. I’ve been working on this manuscript, this story, since I was thirteen. The story has been in my head since fifth grade. And honestly, the time feels right. For the first time in six years, it feels right.

So, just to recap: the publishing industry is one of the most insanely difficult industries in which to survive. Yes, I’ll most likely fail. And yes, the odds I have of even getting the attention of an agent are hilariously low, to the point where no sane person would ever take them. But luckily, I’m not completely sane. Never have been.

No pun intended.