I Was a Teenage Writer
I started writing fan fiction at the age of eleven. I’ll try to keep total embarrassment at bay and refrain from mentioning what kind of fanfic I wrote, but I spent hours every day at the computer, writing stories and reading others’.
By age thirteen, I’d moved on to Harry Potter fan fiction, which instead of slowing me down, only made things worse. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words in a few short years, and I loved every single comment I got. Even the bad ones.
By age fifteen, I started to write my own original novel. It was terrible. Let’s just leave it at that. But I continued to write and write and write, more hundreds of thousands of words per year, some original and some fanfic. And once I realized that this was something that people could do for a living, I became convinced that in order to be noticed and published, I would have to get an agent and a publishing contract when I was still in my teens. Preferably high school, of course, since seventeen and a high school junior is much more impressive than eighteen and a college freshman. (This is my own teenage brain talking here. Both are seriously impressive.)
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d written half a dozen novel-length stories. Most of them I shoved in the drawer, but a few of them I did try to shop around to agents. I had a few bites and one agent I worked with for two years, but I never signed anything. Not in high school.
I was horrified. How was I supposed to be a successful writer if I wasn’t published by the time I went to college?
Miracle of miracles, I signed with an agent as a college freshman. Finally, someone had seen my potential. Eighteen wasn’t seventeen, but it would have to do. Except that contract only lasted a day before, due to circumstances likely beyond her control, the agent had to take back her offer.
Talk about painful. It was four years before I could bring myself to submit again, even though I continued to write. Inwardly I’d always known my work would have to stand alone and not just stand out because of my age. Who wants to be told “You write well for your age!” anyway? It always seemed a bit of a backhanded compliment to me, but there you have it. I still wanted to be traditionally published as a teenager.
The pressure was enormous –not because of any my father put on me, or even society. It was pressure I put on myself. I had to get this done now, else I’d never be good enough without the hook of being a teenager to lure readers in, and I didn’t want to be a failure at age twenty. But on my twentieth birthday, that’s exactly what it felt like. My birthday not only came with a new digit in front of my age, but also the realization that I was never going to be a teenage author like Amelia Atwater-Rhodes or S.E. Hinton. And it was crushing. I’d failed something monumentally important to me, and there was no possible way I was ever going to be published now.
Two years later, I was signed by one of the best kid-lit agents in the business. A year after that, I signed my first publishing contract.
But that all seemed impossible on my twentieth birthday. If I wasn’t a teenage author, then what was I?
I’m not alone. A lot of teenagers spend their lives writing and hoping for that big sale when they’re still young enough for it to stand out. Maybe it’s that extra push it would give them for marketing. Maybe, like me, it’s that fear that if they’re not young enough to be an oddity, they’ll never get published at all.
But here’s the thing: if you work hard at it, if you keep it up, if you learn your craft and don’t let anyone tell you your time is up…well, there’s still no guarantee. It’s kind of like medicine: there’s never any guarantee. But the only way to make sure you fail is to stop trying.
The pressure for teenagers to be great, especially in this day and age, can be crushing. Whether it’s athletics or GPAs or popularity or writing, it feels like a race. There are so many milestones in those first twenty-two years — important birthdays, graduation, more important birthdays, more graduations — that it’s easy to set a mile marker for yourself and say “If I’m not published by X, I’m going to quit.”
Don’t. Unless you can. Then stop.
You have to love what you’re doing, and if you’re writing for the joy of it, no one should ever be able to tell you to stop. Not even the DMV, when you receive that first driver’s license that doesn’t have MINOR printed on it. If you’re writing to win a race with yourself, stop. Or at least stop the race. Life isn’t a race, and success at too young an age, before you’re mentally prepared —
How terrible would it be to be like one of those child stars? To hit your peek at age sixteen and to spend the rest of your life trying to match it? Or even come close. Imagine what the likes of Stephenie Meyer face now: the entire world expects excellence from her, and how is she going to live up to that with her next book? What about JK Rowling? Christopher Paolini?
Setting goals for yourself is important, but setting time limits — and that’s exactly what they are, limits — is only going to hinder you. And make you feel like a failure when you haven’t reached them. Failure’s all well and good (see this awesome speech by JK Rowling), but there’s no use in setting yourself up for it. Being a teenager — or any age when you’ve only been writing for a few years — is a time when you should be learning, not setting difficult hurdles. Concentrate on doing what you love, and you’ll give yourself the best chance of success in the long run.