Monday, May 7, 2018

What Teenage Authors Should Know…

At age 12 I decided to start my writing career, and, despite what many people told me over time, I highly recommend beginning young, if you can. I also recommend beginning old. Mostly I recommend starting now. Hell, if you’re sitting here, reading this blog, there’s a 99% chance you’re either an author or want to be, 1% that you’re my therapist. If you’re thinking about starting a book and haven’t yet, all I can say is age can always be an excuse, no matter what it is.

Certainly, people have their ageist issues. I have been told by six people, verbatim, that “You shouldn’t start writing until you’re thirty.” These were not people who did much writing themselves.

Just because you’re young doesn’t mean anything. At the beginning of last summer, in fact, I teched a festival of one-acts and found my favorite, the best crafted play, was by a seventeen-year-old girl. Yes, I’ve also picked up on a juvenile tone of voice that seems to trend in younger writers, but it’s not completely absent from the older community, and the best way to overcome it is practicing.

But as a young writer, looking back on the things I wondered about as a teen versus what I think now that I’m in my late twenties, I have some advice for people like myself.

Bigotry is real, and sometimes legitimate.

People will judge you for your age, no matter what it is, really. It’s something that I recommend to all authors to leave out of your bios and query letters unless there’s a particular purpose for including it.

If you are under the age of 18 and are looking to contractually sign with someone—such as an agent—you do need to mention it somewhere initially, otherwise it can be misleading. They have the right to know if they’re going to have to negotiate with a third-party in order to get anything done. But other than that, don’t give people reason to prematurely make assumptions about you. Don’t start with, “Charley Daveler is a 16 year old girl.”

I questioned this myself because I thought, “Isn’t it more impressive to realize that I’m only 16 and written a book? Isn’t that a selling point?”

No, it isn’t. If you’re writing at the quality that they would accept you no matter your age, then yes, but they’re not going to give you credit if your work doesn’t speak to them because both business and art are very different than an education. You’ll have to be up to snuff period, and your age actually is a huge red flag.

Teenagers are hard to work with.

This may or may not apply to you personally, but even if you are a level-headed, kind, hard working person, you still need to be aware that most teens aren’t and tackle that assumption gracefully.

Query letters aren’t just about having a good story, they’re about showcasing how professional you can be. Agents have to deal with arrogant and entitled nutcases constantly; no matter your age, you need to subtly tell them you’re an easy person to work with. If they see a teenager, you have a strike against you, so you need to work extra hard to prove you’re not like that.

There’s a good chance that you are.

Hormones have larger effect than you’d think. It wasn’t until I was about 24, as I patiently allowed a customer to complain at me about her meal, that I realized just how much your body chemistry controls your tolerance. I would have never been able to let her talk to me that way when I was 22—it would have emotionally perturbed me just because of the juices that were flowing. As I get older, I find I don’t react physically the same way. I never would have suspected it when I was living it; it wasn’t until I had the comparison to realize just how much hormones messed with me.

The other side is simple inexperience. You’ll find new authors of any age to be a pain due to uninformed expectations, but most older people have some life experience. As a young person, it’s possible you’ve never even had any sort of job before.

-Teens tend to quit when it gets hard. I work in a restaurant that pays very well and is comparatively laid back too many of the other jobs I’ve had. We have problems because of teenagers coming in and quitting when they had to do something they didn’t want to—bus tables—or got diplomatically lectured for obvious mistakes—you can’t take your lunch break during lunch rush.

-They are less likely to take criticism well, or be aware of their own failings. This ties directly into inexperience, not age. Taking criticism well is a skillset that comes from practice. People who haven’t been criticized tend to get upset, period. As for self-awareness, psychologists believe the newer you are in an area, the higher you mistakenly evaluate your ability (and the more skilled you are, the lower you rate yourself). You’ll see this occur in a lot of new authors, no matter the age, but with older people, it’s more likely that you’ve experienced an epiphany of your failings in some other skill and can supplement that awareness to your personal evaluation in writing, i.e. you’ve realized the more you know, the more you understand how much you don’t know.

-Teens are less likely to pick their battles and play the game. In some ways, this is a good thing. Teens are more likely to make creative decisions, question that status quo, and find more efficient ways to do things. But they are also likely to act unprofessionally, be rude, take time “reinventing the wheel,” and show disrespect for futile reasons. It’s important to achieve a balance in the arts and remember that looking trustworthy from first impression isn’t the same thing as being trustworthy, and if you’re not putting effort into areas that show, it’s highly likely you’re not putting in effort period.

-Teens are more likely to criticize… insultingly. Sometimes when a teenager criticizes, it’s not a sign of disrespect, more like a means to establish their voice. Again, that’s not a teen thing either. Lots of people try to impress others by putting them down—how can I know more than you unless you’re wrong?—but I see it most frequently with teens: the constant barrage of opinions, the staunch assertion they’re right, and the complete lack of malice when they say it. When they (I) think (thought) someone is capable and confident, they’re less likely to curb their ideas and look for ways to point out that they know stuff too, not aware that it’s actually incredibly insulting. You’re different than them because you’re a professional, so you can’t be made to feel bad by some teenager’s opinion.

Many people brag about their bluntness in criticism—which I find foolish—thinking that not being afraid to speak their mind is all that it takes to give good feedback. Giving constructive feedback is more than just having verbal diarrhea, but requires consideration, speaking with clarity, and not allowing yourself the catharsis of tearing someone down. It can feel good, empowering, to bluntly instruct other people in your thoughts, but isn’t the most effective means to help them improve their work and themselves.

Also, it takes maturity to realize that if someone is doing something different than you, they have their reasons. Respect is not about writing them off as stupid, but asking yourself, why are they doing it that way? Is it better? Is it partially better? Are both ways perfectly valid? Are there things that you’re not considering?

Teens are less likely to mind their own business with their coworkers, teammates, and even authority figures. They are more likely to boss you around. They are more likely to defend rudeness as the moral right.

Just because you are a teenager, doesn’t mean any of these things are true for you, but it does mean you have to do work to prove it’s not.

Red flags are superficial in nature. They are parts of deeper flaws that are exposed in subtle ways, so it’s often hard to tell if you’re stereotyping or protecting yourself. But no one can give everyone a chance, and so it’s up to each of us to acknowledge how we look on a first impression and consider how to make our fellow man more comfortable.

Not all teenagers are hard to work with. Some are much better than the adults to choose from. But if you’re a teen, it’s important to consider your flaws, tackle them, and learn how to showcase your qualities in a quick and accessible way.

As a teen writer consider…

-How self-aware am I?

Do others like working with you? What evidence do you have? In what circumstances? What are your biggest issues when working in a group? What are your writing strengths? Where do you want to improve? Do you like your work? If not, why are you submitting it?

These are not rhetorical questions, nor am I implying the answers should be against you. The trick is not to be humble or self-effacing, but honest. Try to see yourself from an outside perspective, understand your good side and try to fix your bad. But mostly, try to gauge how others see you and especially how you see yourself.

-What are reasonable expectations for a debut author?

The big mistake authors make is to think they’re the exception to the rule, and that destiny or God has their back. Do your research and make sure you understand what is statistically most likely to happen in the paths you choose. That way, you are less likely to be disappointed, more likely to keep up your motivation, and feel pleasure when you actually do something difficult. You are also less likely to say something foolish like, “I know I have a bestselling novel on my hands,” in a query.

-How do I look to others?

That’s the thing about being young. Our teenage years are when we first start to realize other people can see us. It’s unfortunate, because the moment we become aware of judgment, we are affected by it. But it’s hard to compare and contrast how we were treated when we were younger with when we’re older, how we saw teens when we weren’t them, and how our opinions about ages changed when we reached them.

I will tell you this: people don’t like teenagers. It’s not like high school when your teachers want to encourage you. You become competition that we feel like we have to handle with kid gloves, and if you do succeed, we wonder what the hell we’ve been doing with our lives.

The best thing you can do is to talk to others about how they perceive you. Ask older people what they think of teenagers, ask your friends how you hold yourself, as acquaintances to describe you to them. Most importantly, reflect on your actions and determine if they yielded the desired reactions from others.

-How can I make the lives around those I wish to work with easier?

Teenage boys have no spatial empathy. They’re always underfoot, standing in your way, stepping on things instead of over—it’s a strange phenomenon that doesn’t quite hold for girls. They don’t get, “Hey, she’s carrying a heavy object in my direction, I should hold open the door for her or at least step to the side.”

Unlike in academia, people don’t have to work with you, and if you demonstrate a certain level of self-involvement, they’re going to cut you free. Not all teens are especially self-involved, but it’s pretty frequent.

If, however, you develop foresight and concern for others’ needs without them expressing it, they’ll be impressed.

Little things like, “Someone’s going to have to pick up that trash, so I might as well do it,” or, “She’s going to need this object in a second, so I should push it over to her,” can do wonders. When writing a query, don’t just think about how to impress the agent, consider using words that express an interest in them and their needs. Start out by telling them why you picked them, and don’t make ridiculous demands just because you know you’re that good.

-What are the professional ways to tackle what I want to do?

Many new writers want to be immediately recognized for their genius and so don’t think they should have to be professional. They have typo-ridden queries and manuscripts, they don’t want to do any of their own marketing, they’re rude to their fellow writers and agents/publishers and even readers, they don’t shower, they just fight other people every step of the way with this attitude of “You should know my book is good!”

That’s not a teen thing. But as a teenager, it’s likely you lack experience in a professional setting period. It’s important to consider your goals, not sell out, but also learn how to put on a presentation, learn how to talk to people, and push yourself to being the best you can be.

Think about what you actually want to happen with your book and the best steps to making yourself seem capable despite your age.

-What is important to me? What isn’t?

As a teen, I at least was told to never compromise who I really was to appease others. Which is good advice, except that who am I actually? Am I my flaws? Do I have to stop procrastinating just because it makes other people’s lives harder?

It’s a more difficult aspect of writing; you need to reflect on your actual opinions and be honest about what you feel and why you feel that. Sometimes you need to stand up for an unpopular taste—many tastes are acquired and you do your book with passion, it will suddenly be the next big thing because it’s different. Other times, you need to suck it up and accept you’re just being stubborn and hurting your book because of it. And sometimes it’s somewhere in between.

It helps to start identifying your thoughts before someone tells you their opinion how you feel about things. You’re more likely to be honest with yourself if there’s not some buttface insisting, “No one likes it that way!”

-Do I know how to critically evaluate advice?

On that same note, the most important thing I have to tell a teenage writer is that people are much more inclined to give you un-thoughtout advice. Even though teens are more likely to speak their opinions, they’re also more likely to take you seriously, or at least not tell you off for being bossy. Where an adult will be more likely to stand up for herself, a teen is more likely to obey, even begrudgingly. For a lot of different reasons, a young person is a greater target for criticism, judgment, and micromanaging.

Before you go out into the professional world, you need to start learning how to recognize being taken advantage of while still handling criticism in a graceful and effective way. I have a lot of blogs on the subject, but my main suggestion is to always try and follow their train of thought and ask questions.


Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re too young to write.

The work from my earlier years was not perfect, but it had some great qualities to it that I’ve lost in my old age and am trying to return to. Many authors did their best work at a young age, and even if you’re not a top-notch writer now, the years of practice will do you good. I wouldn’t trade anything for my experiences writing as a teen, and I’ve never met a person who told me I was too young that was satisfied with his own work.

Trust yourself, work hard, and always remember that the confidence and energy you have now can propel you to great heights.

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