Let’s talk about teen writers.
Let’s talk about the proliferation of advice for teens who write that has come with the realisation that we actually exist, thanks to the internet.
Let’s talk about a fundamental thing they get wrong.
Every piece of advice I’ve read for teen writers has made some good points, but done it in such a condescending and patronising way that I’ve refused to acknowledge it simply as a matter of principle. Many of the articles are written by authors with little interest in teenagers, but even when it’s by YA authors, it fails to take a few things into account.
They’re invariably aimed at teen writers, specifically targeting those who haven’t reached some arbitrary age after which they magically evolve into adults. And there are some things they say that just anger me beyond comprehension.
“Your writing sucks.”
This is important to realise, okay? All of us suck when we start. But that is NOT limited to teens. Whatever age you start writing, you’re going to be terrible at the beginning. Stop talking to teenagers as though the only reason they’re bad at this is because they’re young – all that’s going to do is discourage them from trying until they feel like they’re ‘old enough’, when what they need to be told is, “You suck, but keep going, and you’ll get better.”
Which leads me onto this:
“You’re just starting out.”
Now, let me make something clear. I am seventeen years old, approaching eighteen, and I have completed fourteen novels. (ETA: for a follow-up and explanation of why none of those have been published, please read this post!) I have published a collaborative novel on top of that, and I’ve written literally hundreds of poems. Not to mention I’ve been blogging for four years.
Before that, I was writing stories since childhood, and I attempted novels several times before I succeeded. Now, I don’t know how many books you have to write to get past the “starting out” stage, but I think we can just lay to rest the idea that because my age ends in –teen, I’m inexperienced. I know many traditionally published authors whose debut novel was only the third they’d ever written.
Fourteen books would suggest I’m not just “starting out”. So let’s stop that. One can just as easily be starting out at 25 than at 15.
“You don’t have enough life experience to write a novel.”
I’m not sure what qualifies as life experience. Having a job and a mortgage and a pension plan? I know teens who’ve been through more than most adults that I’ve met. Yes, it’s true, we might not have the wisdom that comes with age, but to be honest, neither do many other “young” writers who aren’t teens, so…
Oh, and while you’re at it, 50-year-old writer, please explain to me why you understand 21st century teenagers so much better than me. I’ll be sure to listen… right after I get back from, you know, being an actual teenager who does actual teenage things with other actual teenagers. Gotcha.
“Write everyday, because this is the most free time you’re going to have in your life.”
Wow, way to make assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, ‘write everyday’ is GOOD ADVICE. You should definitely do that. And I’m also not shortsighted enough that I can’t see how much time and energy having a job and a family is. I see my mother working until 11pm on a Saturday when she’s only paid for weekdays and I know she couldn’t write a novel.
But that statement infuriates me because it’s assuming that all teens have an easy home life. There are teen novelists who are caring for parents or younger siblings. There are teen novelists from abusive backgrounds who use writing as a means of escape. There are teen novelists with severe medical conditions or learning difficulties.
And even the teens that are privileged are usually contributing members of their community with a thousand and one other commitments. So please stop talking to them about their free time. Most of them squeeze their writing into lunchtimes, before school, late at night, and twenty-minute sessions while travelling to and from school.
If they write every day it’s because they make the time, not because it’s given to them.
“Learn about the publishing industry.”
This is also good advice. But it frequently assumes that teens have no idea how the industry works. I confess, at twelve I was ignorant. But I am seventeen and I still count as a teen … and I’m published. I know 14-year-olds with books available, 16-year-olds with two-book deals.
If anything, teens are going to be more aware of the ever-changing and increasingly digitalised publishing industry than their older, equally new-to-writing counterparts, because we’re the digital generation. Most of us grew up online or thereabouts, and we’ve seen how things have changed.
Most of the advice we’re given by our parents’ wannabe-writer friends in their 40s is about agents, publishing houses, and the old idea of snail mail submissions. They’re not published. And maybe nor are we. But we have an equal chance of being up-to-date, or even a greater one.
So stop assuming that we don’t know anything.
“Your novels are too influenced by your favourites.”
That’s a newbie author thing, not an affliction specifically limited to teenagers. It takes everybody a little while to find their voice when they start writing. I’ve seen stunningly original work from teenagers. I like to think I’ve had a few fairly unique ideas myself, too.
“Nobody wants to publish books by teens.”
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Head over to the Teens Can Write Too! blog for some listed teen authors. It’s not a modern phenomenon – Mary Shelley, anyone?
Oh, and newsflash? Not all teen writers are planning to send this particular book out into the open at this stage. Many of them are ‘practising’, writing several books and then editing them. Most of them probably won’t attempt publishing until they’re a bit older, but that’s largely because you scared them off.
Besides, if the only thing preventing a publisher from signing a book deal is the age of the author, well… self-publishing was invented for a reason. And this wasn’t it, but it damn well should have been.
Stop giving advice to teens that’s applicable to all new writers and not limited by age, and stop treating teenagers like they’re less good simply by value of not having passed the magical age of 20.
I am all for giving advice to people who are new to writing encouraging them to understand that their writing needs to improve, to find their own voice, and to keep going.
But don’t do it in a way that dismisses their talents, knowledge and abilities because of their youth. I can almost guarantee that a 30-year-old’s first ever novel is just as bad as a 16-year-old’s.
It’s not about age, it’s about writing experience. And the two aren’t a package deal.