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 Years later, while I was still unpublished, an editor visited a writing class I was taking.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!