Monday, March 7, 2011

Teenage Authors: Practice or Publish?

A few days ago, I ran across a Goodreads user status expressing ‘hurt’ over the fact that a prominent writer had called teenagers’ writing ‘sucky’. This user was obviously referencing John Scalzi’s blog post, 10 Things Teenagers Should Know About Writing, and its companion post, On Teens and the Fact Their Writing Sucks. These posts were written a while ago, but obviously they’re hitting tender spots even today.

Now, perhaps it was not very polite of Scalzi to bluntly declare that teenage writing sucks, but then who could possibly accuse John Scalzi of exercising tact in any situation? Unfortunately for him, his attention-grabbing tabloid headline detracted from the real message he was trying to send. All over the internet, teens went up in arms claiming that their writing did NOT ‘suck’. But maybe if they had read the post further, they would have discovered that what Scalzi was saying held at least a modicum of truth, if not more.

I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I’ve had my work published in papers, in school and college magazines, and when I was fifteen, even in a collection of children’s short stories. But when I look back today and read my prior work, all I can do is cringe and think... my work sucked!

Before I go any further, there are a couple of things I want to make clear. The first is that this post is a generalization, and as such, applies to a large majority of the population, but not all. Secondly, the views I’m expressing here are mine and mine alone; in fact, a couple of my co-bloggers, who are teen writers themselves, might take exception to what I’m saying. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I hope what I’m saying resonates with some people at least!

So what is my number one reason for supporting John Scalzi? It’s the lack of life experience. As a lifelong reader myself, I’ve always known the power of the written word, and I’ve always been proud of my skill in wielding that power. Even as a teenager, I believed I had talent, and I think that belief was not misplaced. But raw talent, no matter how phenomenal, is never enough. It’s like finding a big-ass rock in a mine and knowing it’s a diamond. It’s not enough to know for yourself that’s it’s a diamond. You need to be able to cut and polish it so that it shines brightly enough to convince the rest of the world that it is, in fact, a diamond.

Life experience is what gives you the skills to cut and polish your talent into something recognizable to the world at large. And how many teenagers have experienced enough to be able to confidently say that they've tasted enough of what life has to offer? How many teenagers can confidently say that they can engage with themselves in self-critical debate?

And again, the entire process does not depend on life experience alone. If there’s one thing I remember about being a teenager, it’s how big and immediate everything was! I had no sense of perspective whatsoever. If I was hurt by someone’s actions, it’s because they were doing it to hurt me; if the boy I liked didn’t like me back, the entire world came crashing down about my head. It was hard to detach myself from a situation so that I could study the other characters and figure out their motivations and compulsions. And I don’t think this is just me. I think this applies to a LOT of teenagers out there; with Scalzi’s post, it is obvious. All those hundred of teens who left indignant comments saying my writing doesn’t suck, never stopped to a) read the entire post and b) think about the fact that maybe it wasn’t aimed exactly at you, yes you, sitting right there reading that post.

A lot of people say, “Her writing isn’t bad, for a teenager”. Christopher Paolini did a great job with Eragon, considering he was only a teenager. Alexandra Adornetto should be cut some slack for Halo, because she was only sixteen when she wrote it. Is this the parameter by which you want to be judged? I don’t. I want people to say, ‘Your writing is fabulous.’ Full stop. No addendums, no excuses, just a plain statement of fact that my writing is good enough to stand on its own.

So here’s what Scalzi is saying to teen writers (and I agree); he’s saying that your writing might be good enough in comparison to your peers, but it’s doesn’t play in the big leagues. How many authors can you name under the age of twenty who have written a thought-provoking, profound novel in any genre in the last fifty years? Please understand that there’s a reason I’m restricting the time limit. It has to do with boring things like life expectancy, age of maturity, standard of living, etc that will ruin my argument if not limited.

Unfortunately, in real life, being published is not a validation of your talent. If that were so, none of the teen writers I’ve cited above would have gotten anywhere close to a publishing contract, let alone raked in the millions they have. And under no circumstances am I saying that once you grow up, you will definitely become a great writer. Talent is the foundation stone upon which all the rest is built. If you don’t have the talent as a teenager, chances are, you aren’t going to magically acquire it later in life.

In further validation of my claims, let me ask my non-teen readers, how many of you have looked back at your teenage writing and not cringed? Or at the least, used that great qualifier, it’s not bad, for teen writing!

There’s another thing that I think is unfair about teen authors, and that’s the fact that their age is being used by publishing houses as a publicity gimmick. ‘Come check out this book by a twelve year old’ or ‘Read about true teenage love from the perspective of a teenager’; it’s all just a way to exploit the public’s curiosity. For those of us who spend hard-earned money on books that are touted to be ‘brilliant’, we can’t help but feel cheated. In place of good literature, we are given immature ramblings and a cheap thrill. I, personally, would not even pick up a book by a teenage author without impartial recommendations from people I trust, so firm is my conviction that teenagers ought to be practicing their writing, not publishing it!

Now let me point out in the midst of all this, I have several friends who are teenagers. They write great reviews that are sometimes funny, sometimes profound, sometimes bitingly sarcastic. There have been times when I’ve looked at review and gone, Boy, I wish I could write like that. But you know what, as a writer and a reviewer, let me tell you that writing a book is a whole different kettle of fish. Reviewing, especially responsible reviewing, is not easy; but writing requires a whole different skill set. It’s like the difference between drawing the plans for a house and actually constructing it yourself. As reviewers, we can only speculate about what the author has already done. As a writer, you need to do the whole damn thing – build the world, the characters, the story. It’s like having to lay the foundation for a whole new world in your head, from scratch. And that’s why good reviewers do not necessarily make good writers, and vice-versa.

So here’s what I’m saying. Write, write as much as you can and keep writing. Review books, keep a diary, blog, but don’t stop writing. At the same time, though, it’s not enough to practice your grammatical and structural skills. The true depth of a story lies in a writer’s head and heart, in his ability to be sympathetic, empathetic and creative, and these are not things you will learn cooped up in a house in front of the computer. You need to work, meet people, try out new things, and one day, you’ll look back and say, wow I was pretty good as a teenager, but today, I’m the best I can be.

So that's my opinion of teen writing, please don't stone me! You CAN comment, though! :) And in our next post, Jillian will be discussing the predominance of Mary Sues in YA literature. Be sure to come back for that!


  1. This is so very true, Vinaya. I've been thinking a lot about it lately as I see more and more very young authors published. Many of them have writing skills, but few - something to write about. (It is particularly noticeable in the genre of dystopian/science fiction.) They lack experience, they lack comprehension of the world, human nature and relationships. I think publishers do them disservice putting out such raw works so early in their careers instead of giving them time to develop both their writing and view point.

  2. Hah, you take the Scalzi post and discuss it in a non-offensive way. I do agree with what you're saying to a certain extent.

    While age is a factor to consider, I think the length of time that you've actually been writing determines your chops as a writer. Of course, Stephen King's earlier books were way better than his later books. Christopher Paolini gets worse as he continues writing. Ditto for Anne Rice.

    Then we have people who've graduated from Brown that don't know how to use a thesaurus properly.

    While a lot is dependent on age--like I'd never be able to write a protagonist over the age of thirty, at least not until I'm over the age of twenty--more depends on experience.

    And that's the problem. We have first time novelists getting published which is a huge no-no. I've written three novels. They suck. I thought they were brilliant at the time. If a fifty-year-old started writing for the first time, I can guarantee that my stuff would be better than their stuff.

    Everyone, not just teens, should take a full writing course, the earlier the better. I think the problem with Scalzi's post was that he targeted teens, which by and large aren't the main problem. It's the 30+ agents and editors that treat them like godsend. They're the ones who need to practice.

  3. I agree with you, Vinaya. I remember going back to stuff I wrote and couldn't get over how horrible it was. No, not the kiddy fairy tales from fourth grade - it was fanfiction I'd written three years ago. More proof? The first fifty pages or so of my nano novel are a nightmare of commas, because between the first and the fifteenth of November 2010 I discovered proper dialogue punctuation. Just goes to show.

    But like Corey, I think that the length a person has been writing is more important than actual age. You may have talent, but you need to use it or lose it.

    I am baffled by the 'child-genius' hype that seems to be the fad, not only amongst writers but amongst singers as well. I mean, do you know of a single child prodigy that didn't completely burn out by the time they reach maturity? Mozart, sure, but he didn't turn out so well, did he?

  4. Nice post. I'm glad that I didn't publish as a youngster not because my writing always sucked (though it certainly lacked perspective, something which undoubtedly has improved my work), but because I had no idea what kind of writer I was going to be. When I was 18 I was writing melodramatic contemporary and quasi-Beat poetry about smoking weed and fucking (two things I hadn't even done at that point). Almost a decade later, I'm writing sci-fi. In what kind of ways could I have pigeonholed my career by pursuing publication? Why is Amelia Atwater-Rhodes still writing vampire novels? Etc.

  5. Very late post here, but this blog post is so spot on. I couldn't finish Eragon because I found it derivative and not well written, definitely not even close to worth all of the hype. I did, however, excuse Paoletti because he was a teenager when he wrote it. What can't be forgiven is the publishers who move forward with something that isn't up to the "big leagues" simply because it was written by a teenager.

    Besides, how many writers - adults - spend years honing their craft, writing novel after novel that never see the light of day because they aren't good enough until at last something emerges that is good enough. There is no shame in practicing. And good for any teen who has the fortitude to write an entire book. Keep at it.

    All of this said, one of my favorite books ever was written by a teenager. S.E. Hinton was 17 when she wrote The Outsiders. I would argue with anyone that this book is a classic on every level. I've read it at least once a year since I was 13 and love it just as much some thirty-odd years later.

  6. S.E Hinton is definitely the champion of teen writers. I'd even say her over
    Mary Shelley.