Ready or Not

Before I start, if you go to Books on my website and click on Other, you’ll see a sketch for the cover of my book of mean poems, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It. The final cover will have some color but won’t be much different from what you see. I adore it. It perfectly captures the book’s mood of malevolent complacency, and I can’t look at it without grinning evilly. The book won’t be out until April, 2012, so it’s way too early to pre-order.

On December 27, 2010, Jenna Royal wrote …I recently read an interview with an author who said that you shouldn’t try to get published as a teen, just keep trying to improve your writing skills and not try to put your writing out there because it isn’t worth your trouble and the rejection is too hard on your self-confidence at this point. What are people’s thoughts on this? I for one know that I’m not going to try publishing until I know that I’ve got something worth putting out there, that I’m really proud of, something that I’ve put myself into and polished and perfected until it’s the best it can be. Even if I feel I have something like this, should I still wait?

Jenna Royal, you asked about teens, but at least part of your question applies to every age as well.

I sent the first book I ever wrote straight out to publishers (I was thirty-nine). It had merit, and I thought it was great, but it was unpublishable. I hadn’t read a children’s book in many years and had no notion of what was going on. My story line was simple, possibly good for young children, but the ideas I explored (art appreciation) were more appropriate for a much older audience. The two parts didn’t go together, and the manuscript was universally rejected.

So I started educating myself and kept sending picture book manuscripts out. I was not shy, and although rejection made me unhappy, it didn’t devastate me. Were my later stories (the ones that never were accepted) good enough to be published? I don’t know. I did my best and released them into the world.

I’ve talked about my road to publication in other posts, so I won’t repeat here. Years later, while I was still unpublished, an editor visited a writing class I was taking. He said that the two fastest ways to get published were to write on a subject nobody else knew much about or to write something completely great. And I thought, Then I’ll never get published. The only subject I knew thoroughly was welfare policy, which wasn’t promising for a children’s book, and I didn’t think I was writing anything great or ever would. I was working on Ella Enchanted at the time, which turned out well. But I still don’t think about writing a great book when I write. Mostly I think about figuring it out and getting through it.

There are many ways to divide the world into two categories. You may have heard the theory that everyone resembles either a pig or a fox, which I don’t see. But I believe people divide into those who over-appreciate themselves and those who under-appreciate themselves. It’s hard to advise on sending work out to a publisher without knowing which group a person falls into.

Alas, over-appreciators, in my experience, rarely have the insight to know what they are. So they flood publishers’ slush piles with bad books insufficiently revised and are the reason everyone else has to wait so long for an editorial response. If you are the rare over-appreciator who recognizes this quality in yourself, you shouldn’t put anything into the mail or cyberspace until at least three people say it’s ready.

If you’re a severe under-appreciator of any age, you should push yourself to get your work out or you never will and readers will be the losers.

Another problem with being an under-appreciator is that if an editor rejects your work, you may say to yourself, Aha, I knew it wasn’t any good. Then you may never send it out again. You don’t know what was going on at the publisher when your manuscript was read. An editorial assistant may have sat down to a stack of submissions up to the ceiling. Four hours later he was drooling and muttering gibberish to himself and unable to identify the next Jane Austen if he came across one of her manuscripts.

One way to get a sense of the worth of what you have is to set it aside for a few weeks. If you under-appreciate you may be surprised at the high quality of what you’ve written. If you over-appreciate, you may be able to see the flaws.

In this process of deciding whether to submit a manuscript, you may want to ask yourself how you handle rejection. If you take turndowns hard, I don’t say not to submit, I say think about supports to help you if – and more likely when – rejection comes. Tell friends what you’re doing. Assemble a cheering section. If you’re in a writers’ group you’ll have your pals’ misery to keep company with. Read about all the famous writers whose work was initially rejected. There are collections of rejection letters for renowned books. Buy one or borrow one from your library.

You may also want to start small. Lots of kids’ book writers begin by submitting stories to children’s magazines before submitting to book publishers. If you’re writing for adults, there may be online publishing opportunities that may be easier to break into than the big publishing houses. If you’re a teen or even younger, googling young writers will lead you to opportunities. I’m not saying you have to start small, only that you can if that’s where your comfort zone is.

As for being a teen per se, I can’t imagine that an excellent manuscript wouldn’t get the same treatment if it came from a teen as if it came from an older person – that is, its excellence may or may not be noticed, as in the example above of the exhausted editorial assistant. Sometimes good writing isn’t picked up.

Do I think a teen can write a terrific story or book? I imagine so. Some of my students have been very talented.

On the other hand, a few years ago I came across my folder from my creative writing class when I was a senior in high school. Now I’ve lost it again, but one story sticks out in my memory. Before I tell you about it I need to reveal a little about my family history. My grandmother and my aunts – my mother’s mother and her sisters – criticized my mother often, not in a helpful way or even a forthright way, but in snide, indirect digs. I knew, and I was totally on my mother’s side. I hated the three of them. When I was in middle school my aunt got sick, and the story I found was about an unpleasant, selfish old lady in a hospital.

My writing was okay. But reading the story as an adult I was shocked at how meanspirited it was. When I wrote it, I knew that I was imagining my aunt as the main character. She and my other aunt and my grandmother are long dead now, and I still don’t think of them fondly, but today I couldn’t approach them as characters or, if they could be brought back to life, as people in such an unsympathetic way. I’ve grown up.

I don’t mean to suggest that teens are heartless. I wasn’t heartless myself. And you may be nothing like me. You may at a young age be able to get inside the mind and spirit of lots of different sorts of characters. You may have oceans of empathy. But you may lack some other depth of experience or character growth that will improve your writing later on. It would be terrible if, at fifteen or eighteen, you were finished, complete, as good as you were going to get.

So, write and send your writing out if you want to test the waters. If you have early success, how lovely, and how marvelous that the best is probably still to come.

Here are two prompts:

∙    Improve on my early effort. Write about an unpleasant, selfish old woman in the hospital, but reveal her inner life, so the reader feels for her. Why is she in the hospital? How sick is she? Does anyone visit? Is there anyone she especially wants to see?

∙    Over-appreciation and under-appreciation can pervade any aspect of life, not only writing. A dragon descends on the greater metropolitan area of Cincinnati, wrecking homes and incinerating maidens in Ohio and Kentucky. The governor of each state sends an adventurer to dispense with the monster. Unbeknownst to the governor, one adventurer is an over-appreciator and one is an under. Write about how each one prepares to encounter the dragon and how it comes out. If you like, turn the action into a story, a novel, or a seven-book series.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Really good advice for over and under-appreciators! In both instances it seems to be the best course of action to get plenty of feedback and a little space from your story before re-evaluating. I am always second-guessing my work and so I definitely intend to do both.

    As far as teen writers go, I think that is an amazing time for creativity, but like you said, it is very hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes and empathize. Your emotions as a teenager can run so high that it's hard to have a peripheral vision, so to speak. I know that I could be extremely single-minded as a teen. My mom and I were often at odds about what kind of friends or boyfriends I had, as well as other things, and most of the writing I did at that time was about how misunderstood I was 🙂 A very natural thing for a teen to feel, I think, but when I look back and read what I wrote then, I realize how unaware I was of anything but my own overwhelming feelings. Writing was a great outlet, but I think now that I have grown and experienced so much more, my writing is more rounded, and better, I hope.

    Not to say that there aren't some great teen writers out there, and several published! I just know I wouldn't have been ready as a teen.
    Anyway, all this to say, I agree! Sorry for writing a book on here.

  2. I have a general question about submitting to publishers–not really something that needs to go on the list, but something I've been wondering about.
    Can a writer submit their work to more than one publishing house/agency at once? or do you have to try them one at a time? And if one accepts you (joy of joys!), can you tell them you want to wait and see if someone else will too?
    just wondering…

  3. What a fascinating discussion, and wonderful advice! One of my favorite authors, Gordon Korman, published his first book when he was twelve. He went on to publish five or six more during high school. Now, 30 years later, he's published dozens of books and his writing has certainly gone in a different direction–BUT, those earliest books are my favorites. They're hysterically funny, and I prefer them to his more recent books. So, there's at least one example where I am SO glad a writer didn't wait to try publishing.

    But, on the other hand, the stories I wrote at twelve and thought hilarious, I would not want to try publishing… Seems like this is a case where age is only a number, and the bigger question is where you are as a writer.

  4. Interesting post. I am a teenager and I have been writing stories for years. I am fully aware that most of them are awful, but there are a few that I am still working on and that I think have potential. I agree with Jenna Royal about not publishing anything unless you are really proud of it, but I won't let my age stop me from trying to be published once I feel that my story is ready. However, I understand that your writing can grow and change as you get older. My brother has several published short stories, and he says that he cannot even read his first one any more, and yet that one is my favorite because it has more humor and fun to it than his later stories do.

  5. @marveloustales
    You couldn't have said it better: "Seems like this is a case where age is only a number, and the bigger question is where you are as a writer." That's so true—it's not about whether you're a teen or older, it's about how well you can write. In general, most teens are not experienced enough in life or in writing to have something publishable. But there are always exceptions. (And how will you be a good adult writer if you didn't practice during your teens? Keep writing!) 🙂

    I recommend that you go to a bookstore sometime and look for the book Writer's Market (there's a Christian version too, called Writer's Market Guide). In there you'll find which publishers are accepting submissions on which topics, whether they want exclusive submissions or not, etc. These guides (there's a new one every year) also include helpful articles for writers looking to get published.

    Since these books get outdated so quickly, I don't recommend you buy one. Just go to B&N or your local bookstore and take a look.

  6. @Charlotte I agree with April that you should take a look at that book. There are also usually copies at your local library.
    As a quick guideline, generally the rule is that you can send to as many agents as you'd like at a time. If one offers representation, you can ask them to wait until you hear back from others. If this happens, you should get a hold of all agents looking over your work as quickly as possible and let them know what's happening.
    Publishers vary a lot more, and you would have to check with each one to see what they accept. I'd suggest checking out some agent blogs. They usually have a lot of information about the submission process.

  7. Oh my! I accidently posted my comment twice, so I had to delete one! Anyways…

    A very excellent post, I've been meditating on this subject recently.
    I think I fall into the rare category of over-appreciator. I wrote a manuscript and with only a few edits, I sent it out. After about 7 rejections and a meeting with my critique buddy I realized my manuscript was nowhere near as publishable as I thought. I know now not to send anything out until I'm sure its ready and I have five million drafts of it.
    My critique buddy thinks my new and improved manuscript we've been working on is ready so I'm going to try and pitch my idea to a few agents at a conference next month and we'll see how it goes…
    My point of view(and speaking as a teen). Yes, I'm by no means the best writer out there, I still have 1000 things left to master, most of the stuff I write is mush, but I have written a couple of things I'm proud of and after I edit the heck out of them to make sure they're as good as they're going to get- why not try? Life is short. I've got a lot left to learn and lots of room to grow. But for now I've got a critique buddy who will help me take the teen angst out of my writing and a story in my heart that I wanna share with the world 🙂 (And though I may not be ready to be published now, I'm sure I'll still love writing when I'm an adult) 🙂
    @marveloustales, wow, I never knew that about Gordan Korman. I love his work, do you know which book was his first?

    @ Ms. Levine, I love the cover for "Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It" can't wait to see the final version. 🙂

    Wow, this was a long comment…sorry everyone…

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine! 🙂

  8. Thank you for the insightful post! It made me think a lot about over-appreciators and under-appreciators, and about how much writing grows over time. I'm going to go explore your older posts for further thoughts and advice.

    Also, I'd like to thank you for sharing your writing with so many people over the years. The first book of yours that I read was Ella Enchanted, when I was about fifteen. I'm twenty-seven now, and my copy of Ella Enchanted is worn out from the times I've read it. I look forward to sharing it with my children soon. 🙂 My first book was published last year, and I know that if it wasn't for the treasure trove of novels I was able to read over the years–including yours–I wouldn't have learned nearly as much about telling stories. So thanks for being an inspiration to me, both now and when I was a teenager.

    P.S. I love the cover of "Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It." 😀

  9. Thank you for answering my question, Ms. Levine! I know I still have a long way to go as a writer, and I'm not ready to publish yet, but I also like what I'm working on, so maybe (hopefully) at some point in the future I will have something that I feel is ready. 🙂 I think that one of my problems is that I want things to be finished before they're ready to be. Sometimes when I've been working on a story for a while I just want to hurry up and get it done. I feel like I've worked on it long enough and I wish it were ready to be published.

    I don't know if I'm an over appreciator or an under appreciator. I go back and forth thinking I'm one and then the other. Usually when I first finish the first draft I feel like my piece is really great and hardly needs any work. But when I let it sit for a while I think it needs a ton of work and it's not nearly ready. Usually, though, I don't think of my writing as garbage, so perhaps I am over confident about my writing. I love the idea about the over appreciator and the under appreciator. It's a cool idea to think about definitely a prompt I will be trying out!

    Also, I saw the new cover for your book of poems. It's awesome, almost as good as the Tale of Two Castles one (which I absolutely love). 🙂

  10. I agree with Jenna Royal about sometimes being kind of an over appreciator and sometimes an under appreciator. I'm not even always sure, though I think I lean towards under appreciator. I like the prompt. 🙂

    Also, I was wondering if any of you knew about submitting poems for teen magazines or similar for publication. I've heard some bad things about sending poems to any teen kind of competition, though I'm not sure if it's reasonable. Does anyone know? Or would it just depend on the place?

  11. @Rose and Kitty – I've never really submitted writing to a contest. I used to get a magazine that had contests every month, but they were always based around a certain theme, and I found that I never had any ideas for writing something in that genre. Also, there was a length limit. I'm not so good with those. 🙂 plus there was a deadline. Not exactly my strong point either. I will check out that site, though. I think as I've gotten older I'm more likely to take part in a contest.

    By the way, to any teens interested in publishing shorter stories, I would recommend THE YOUNG WRITERS GUIDE TO GETTING PUBLISHED by Kathy Henderson. I believe Ms. Levine recommended it in Writing Magic, and I find it really helpful. It has some great insights on preparing your manuscript and stuff, and it also has a list of publishers and contests. A really great book. 🙂

  12. I recently introduced my little sister to Ella Enchanted, and she loves it! She's constantly giving me updates on what's happening in her book. Thanks Mrs. Levine!

    As for over appreciators and under appreciators, I also seem to go back and forth. Tomorrow I'm letting someone read my work in progress for the first time. One minute I'm panicking, the next I feel pretty confident, and then I'm panicked again. Oh boy…

  13. For anyone interested in submitting longer projects I know that Milkweed Press has an annual contest for anyone who writes middle grade or young adult books and the length limit is 400 pages on one of them (or last time I checked). I don't know when they do the contest every year but the website is

  14. For teens in high school, I know that there are the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards (Link: They judge everything from short stories to poetry to novel excerpts. YOu should only submit if you're really confident in your piece of writing, but these awards are REALLY prestigious and may help you get published later on.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I don’t know. There’s always a contract, and the signature of a minor may not be enough. But I’m not an authority on this.

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