Me (and Others) on Teenage Writers, in the Chicago Tribune
Posted on January 3, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 36 Comments
The Chicago Tribune has done a story on teenagers getting their work published (either self-pubbed or be imprints specifically looking for teen writers), and asked my thoughts on the phenomenon. My quotes are down near the bottom of the piece. Spoilers: I think most teens aren’t ready to be published, but I also don’t think it’s terrible that some of them just can’t wait. Check it out.
One thing I said that didn’t get into the piece which I think is worth noting is that my main concern with teenage writers is not that they publish before it’s optimal, but that in their rush to be published, they end up giving away more contractual rights than they should (and negotiate contracts without the benefit of adequate representation). This would not be a good thing.
Writers get better by writing. I have no problem with this trend as long as no one demands I read the results.
So, there’s hope for me?
I picked up a few ‘young adult novels’ earlier, and the distinct sense I had when reading them was that it was middle aged writers writing about hot people romances in high school.
Maybe I picked the wrong books, but it didn’t seem that relevant to me. Or particularly interesting. For one thing, I’m not American so I haven’t gone to High School.
I don’t see it as particularly problematic if we teenagers are published. Go teenagers! If some of them are good writers, maybe some of them will write books about people who aren’t so hot in High School. Maybe they’ll write about interesting stuff.
Speaking as a teenager who writes some very YMMV sci-fi, I agree completely with Our Glorious Lord Host, may His name be praisèd.
The sole teenage author I have read besides myself and some (non-published) writing buddies is Christopher Paolini, who built a decent world, explored it, built a loveable cast of secondary characters to counteract the bland protagonist, gave us a great variation on dragons (I am a huuuuuuge fan of the way Saphira is portrayed)–and then he let it all crash and burn in book 4.
Seriously, I’ve read Eragon fanfiction that was astronomically better than book 4 (which I shall not name). He clearly thought that he was doing great, went on an ego trip, and carefully removed EVERY SINGLE THING that made the series fun so that Eragon could kick ass and take names, then leave all of those pesky obligation things behind.
I actually put my copy of that book on my Shelf of Shame, next to the Left Behind box set that a fundamentalist cousin sent me and the Twilight books that my annoying father got me as a gag gift.
So yeah, teen writers suck. At best, they are YMMV. At worst? AUGH MY EYES MAKE IT STOP. Yeah, I was like that, until I figured out my writing voice. Yeah, I’ve gotten better. Yeah, I still have a LOOOOONG way to go to get out of YMMV territory. But there is hope, as Our Host says.
I assume you’re talking about fiction. Teenagers are absolutely capable of writing/publishing non-fiction. Heck, even I did it.
I’d say the ego-boost for young writers is as or more important than the contractual rights – unless they’ve written the next Harry Potter.
@Colin, Sturgeon’s Law says “90% of everything is crap”, and that’s as true of YA literature as any other creative field. There’s a great deal in the category besides hot people romances in high school, and a lot of it is written by people between 18 and 30, rather than middle-age. There’s certainly some nostalgia going on, but that’s not all that can be found.
It’s true that a lot of YA is set in the US. Hopefully that’ll become a smaller percentage of the category over time. I’d love to read some stuff set in the UK, or Australian, or Canada… or China or Russia. More diversity is almost always a good thing.
As someone who has been writing (though not publishing) since middle school, I have to say most of Scalzi’s list is spot on–maybe even all of it. I cringe at the thought of self-publishing having been enough of a thing when I was a teenager that I might have attempted to publish some of my writing at that time.
None of which is to say I am not incredibly impressed with teenagers who manage to get quality stories published. I definitely had that as a goal when I was younger. Hannah Moskowitz being a fantastic example of someone who managed it. It was really cool to be able to see part of her journey to publication in the blogosphere and on sites like absolutewrite.
Not really. Very few ego boosts are worth being ripped off. Contractual rights are important from the very first book sold.
Even if they’re not terribly well written, some of these by and for teen novels might be a good resource for adults who want to write for teens. I don’t have any kids of my own, and while I have some very clear memories of what it feels like to be a young adult, I’m hopelessly out of touch about what it feels like to grow up in an era where they have metal detectors and lockdown drills at suburban high schools, bullying is 24-7, thanks to social media, helicopter parenting is the accepted norm (and often encouraged/expected by kids, rather than resented) and texting is the primary way to connect with and hang with friends. These books probably are treasure troves of information about what the day to day mechanics of navigating our current world as a teen feel like.
Of course, my first love is fantasy, so I don’t really have to worry about texting and so on. Unless I want to invent some sort of magic that allows instant and constant communication.
If there’s a generation of kids who love reading and writing, then power to them.
I went to read the linked-to article, but, unfortunately, not being a resident of the US, was denied access to it. Bugger.
On the subject of teens and writing, though, I was someone who not only wrote a novel as a teenager, but actually had a friend do a book report on it for English class! Unfortunately, while I still regard the premise of that novel to have been quite original and interesting, my execution of that premise was, quite frankly, lousy. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a sequel to the novel that was even worse (not least because I made my favourite character from the first a virtual clone of myself, right down to him having exactly the same life story I did!), and then a third instalment that went absolutely nowhere and ended up never being finished. Oh, and the first book (and quite possibly the sequels too) was written in (rather untidy) longhand in SMELLY PENS in a number of exercise books. These pens (so-called because of the pleasing, fruity scents of their respective inks) came in a variety of colours, all of which I used in the composition of my “masterpiece” (I even used a yellow one – it’s a wonder the aforementioned friend was able to read the thing!).
I’m not sure if the author in question was a teenager, but when I was at university, the uni rag did a piece on a student who’d managed to get a publishing deal. Unfortunately, from what I recall of it, the deal (as the author described it) didn’t sound that great; it basically boiled down to “Since we’re actually bothering to publish your crap; and since you’re young, desperate and dumb, you have to make whatever changes to your book we say you do, and otherwise do whatever we tell you! MUHAHAHAHA!” So, yeah, possibly someone who let their desire for an ego boost get in the way of getting their paid writing career off to a good start.
Floored: Love your “Shelf of Shame” idea. Not sure if I’d have anything to put on one myself, save perhaps for a book on “psychic pets” my parents got me as a Christmas present one year. Oh, there might’ve been a few other candidates over the years (eg something on the “Silva Mind Control Method”, as well as a number of trashy horror novels by a British writer called Guy N. Smith), but I got rid of those!
BTW, I wouldn’t worry too much about being a YMMV writer, as I think every author will be one of those to a certain extent. Indeed, I’ve noticed that no matter how much success or critical acclaim a writer may enjoy, there’ll always be people who won’t like their stuff, and, among those, always at least one unkind soul who’ll claim they can’t write, period.
@Zosimus I don’t know how advisable this is for you, but google “public proxy server” for a list of ’em, find one in the USA, paste in the URL at it and who knows, maybe you’ll be able to see the page.
[Deleted because today JvP is apparently having a hard time being on topic and if he can’t do that he’s going to find himself in the moderation queue – JS]
[Deleted, see above – JS]
Sorry. I can be wrong when I think I’m being on topic. [returns to lurking]
Hey, if the writing’s good, I don’t care if the author’s three frackin’ years old! I just read _Zen in the Art of Writing_ by Ray Bradbury, in which he says he started writing 1000 words per day beginning at age 11. At that rate, you could have your first million words out of the way by the time you hit high school. Bradbury started publishing stuff at age 18. Teen writing is not a new thing, what’s new is that more teens are doing it. I’m with wagnerel here: these are reports from a country I’ve never lived in, and I’m curious.
John FYI, the Chicago Tribune story you linked to is behind a paywall — if you’re not a subscriber, you can’t read it.
It wasn’t yesterday, THOSE BASTARDS.
[Shatner] PPPPPAAAAAAAAYYYYYWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [/Shatner]
Yeah, paywalls suck.
Rick, JS: At 7:46P it loaded fine. Ditto at 7:51
Perhaps things I have no way of knowing about happened, or perhaps the C. Trib is doing the NYT thing that allows (allowed?) non-purchasers to read as many articles online as they could have through the glass of a newspaper vending machine.
IIRC, on those rare occasions when the NYT had [three?] articles that had headlines that falsely implied that I’d like the story I could get the 3rd one by deleting all of the cookies they’d dropped, or by using a different browser.
BTW, I saved an .mht (search on “mhtml” if you don’t but want to know what that means) of it. If the CT sends me a notarized letter that says that I may and if I get-the same day or so-an email from JS that includes your email address I’d be happy to plan to send you a copy.
@Floored: Pay walls get money, some of which is used to pay people money that they can use for luxuries like food and shelter.
What sucks about pay walls is the broken one. I am logged in, I am paid up, but they have a reoccurring problem that has been annoying me for about three days out of ten since about mid November.
@dana1119: I disagree on your point that the ego-boost is more important than the contractual rights.
I’m not saying the ego-boost to a delicate adolescent psyche isn’t important. But it would suck if the 14-year-old discovered too late that the contract stipulated that the publisher doesn’t pay minors, meaning no royalties until the teen author is over 21. (How many books continue to generate strong royalties after seven years? Not many.)
There have been many writers—both novices and seasoned professionals—who have gotten screwed by unscrupulous or incompetent publishers. All their hard work gets locked up and earns nothing for them because they didn’t pay attention to the fine print in a contract. Just ask Stan Lee how it feels to watch a movie based on your work earn over $1 billion and you get squat out of it.
To anyone: if you get a new contract, it is an excellent investment to hire a contract lawyer—especially one who is familiar with the publishing industry—to sit down and go over it with you so you understand what is really being spelled out in that contract. It could make the difference in your writing being a hobby or a career.
William? I think “hire” covers this, but _your_ lawyer. Other party’s lawyer is not your lawyer.
One needs one’s own lawyer.
@Shawn: Yes, getting your own lawyer is what I meant by hiring one.
Just to expand a little, you should go to the offices of several lawyers at the least to meet with them before choosing one. It is important you choose someone with whom you are comfortable working. Interview them as though you were hiring them as an employee, because that is exactly what you are doing.
I went to the physically closest lawyer. He talked fast and and didn’t get that I saw him look at his phone before it range, and he didn’t get that I heard that no one was talking to him when he answered with “I told you to hold my calls, I’m talking to a very important client!”
I was just asking him how much he charged for an action that I could do with two phone calls, one of which had me on hold for several centuries. –“Your call is as important to us as you are. Please don’t fuck off and die until we have your credit card info.”
We’re getting a bit off topic here, it looks like.
Uhm, when I was a teenager I knew what writing was. Uhm, got nothin’
I wanted to read the article, but wasn’t allowed to (being Canadian).
The great thing about about the usual assumptions that teenagers shouldn’t be published (like the girl whose novel written for college applications was bought, then turned out to be plagiarized, at least in part), is there is always an exception. I was recently listening to an interview with Gordon Korman, who writes middle-grade books (I read them at that age), and wrote his first novel in class at the age of twelve. It was published by Scholastic when he was fourteen. He published five books before finishing high school.
And now he is fifty, and he has eighty books that have been published. (I still love the early ones: The MacDonald Hall books — aka the Bruno and Boots series — and I Want to Go Home, which is about a kid trying to escape from summer camp)
Sadly, I cannot read this article unless I pay for a subscription. Please update us when/if the article will be available to be read without having to give up my credit card #, because it sounded interesting. Thanks :)
Aside: IMO William was on topic and I was not.
Why I’m talking: I haven’t noticed an it does/doesn’t work vis Go see what I said to somebody else about people who can’t see the article.
O K a y.
I can can get the full article via free proxy servers in both the Netherlands and China, and was surprised that the one from China did better than the one from the Netherlands.
Those who can’t get the article may need to note that some countries ban websites that have keywords such as as “how can I get my boyfriend to stop raping my son.”
Oh, that is so over the top, but valid.
Is there anytime that come down on the side of writers? If the question is not getting a good deal, or not getting published, it’s should be a no decision. Most of these teens will not get published again. This is their only chance.
“Most of these teens will not get published again. This is their only chance.”
The nation’s predatory scam artists posing as publishers thank you for this comment, dpmaine. It’s precisely this sort of sentiment gets people screwed out of money, their rights and their work.
So, yeah, once again, you’re entirely wrong about something. If the choice is between not publishing and being screwed by a publisher, the correct choice is not to publish. That way you retain all the rights to your work. If the work is good enough to get published, it’s good enough to get published by someone who is going to treat you fairly. Your smack about most teens not getting published again is just that, a smack. If they’re genuinely good enough to be published as teens, then it’s actually likely they’ll be publishable as adults. If they’re not and they were simply being preyed upon, then again, best they were not published at all.
[Deleted because anything dpmaine wants to say at this point is subsumed by the fact that he’s a tiresome jerk as he says it. Dpmaine, I sincerely hope you are not nearly as unpleasant in person as you come across in your comments. Your challenge in the future is to address arguments you disagree with without being unduly obnoxious to the person on the other end of the argument. Hint: If at anytime you feel yourself reaching for a personal attack, stop. If you can do that, swell. If you cannot – and you have yet to give any indication of being able NOT to – then you are going to lose the ability to comment here. Good luck with your new challenge! – JS]
. If they’re genuinely good enough to be published as teens, then it’s actually likely they’ll be publishable as adults.
And what if they AREN’T genuinely good enough? Not everyone as good as you, and not everyone will be able to be published as an adult. There is VASTLY higher supply in book publishing than there is demand for content. The VAST majority of even *very talented* authors never get published. You yourself have pointed this out.
What you are saying is for those (teen) authors who have some talent, but are not talented enough to get published as an adult by a traditional publisher, they must suffer so that other authors don’t get a deal that isn’t up to your subjective, largely unwritten, largely upper-middle class standards.
This is not good enough. You have no way to tell any teen author who is on the bubble of being published by one of these non-traditional publishers:
1. That there will even be traditional publishing 3-7 years from now.
2. That they will ever even get a second look in the future.
3. That money they could earn now is less than money they might be able earn in the future.
4. That the money they earn in the future is worth more than the money they could earn right now.
Now, if you COULD promise those things, here is an idea. You could sign them to a deal, that pays them something now, for the future right of first refusal. That way they don’t get screwed and they can save themselves for a traditional publisher down the line. If you are feeling generous, you can put in a clause that allows any other publisher the right to buy out your option at cost plus reasonable interest. Is this a business you would invest your money in?
The answer is of course not. The vast majority of authors who are being looked at by these non-traditional publishers will never break mid-list.
The entire industry is out there looking for solutions to prevent the collapse of publishing as you know it today. Telling an aspiring author to hold out for a better deal today is just wrong, it’s assuming that the future is as least as bright as it was for you. That’s not always going to be the case.
Fair enough. I carefully calibrate what I say to match your tone. I assumed that responding to your criticisms I was permitted to give as good as I got. I understand now that this is not the case and that the discussion must be more one-sided. Your house your rules.