As a young person, you are likely to get a lot of writing advice along the lines of “practice makes perfect,” implying that you are still young, you have your whole life ahead of you, and you should focus on “practicing” your writing, stashing it all away someplace where no one other than friends and family will ever read it and honing your skills for the day when you will magically transform into a Real Writer.
This is a load of hooey. If you write, you’re a writer, regardless of age. And age should not be a barrier to sending out stories to short fiction markets or novels to agents and publishers. There are plenty of reasons not to submit, of course, but none of them should be simply that you’re too young. I have a secret for you: Nothing happens overnight when you turn eighteen, or graduate from high school (or college), to make you into a pro writer.
However, it is true that not all writers are ready to embark on the journey of story submission. In this post, rather than focusing on the circumstances under which you shouldn’t submit, I will instead focus on four criteria you should meet before you start sending your fiction out into the world.
- You and others see pronounced improvement in your writing since you started writing seriously. The reason people are always telling teenagers to wait until they’re older to think about sending stories out is that most of them have only just started writing. And only one or two absolute geniuses are brilliant when they first get out of the gate. If you haven’t been writing for at least a couple years, you probably should wait a while to develop your skills. This is true for adults as well–not every writer gets started young, and adults aren’t magically good at writing straightaway either. However, if you’ve been writing and finishing things for a few years and you are at the point where you look back on your early writing and cringe in horror, and your long-term readers start remarking on how good you’ve become, it might be time to think about letting some of your recently completed stuff loose.
- You have had your writing critiqued, and have revised with these critiques in mind. Every story can always be improved upon, and critiques are absolutely critical for being sure your story is actually saying what you want it to say. Read my post on getting critiques for further advice in this vein.
- You are proud of your finished product. If you find yourself hesitant about a particular story or scene, trust yourself. There have been innumerable times when I’ve sent out a story with the niggling feeling in the back of my head that perhaps the ending wasn’t quite strong enough, or the main character’s personality not strongly enough defined, and inevitably my rejection letters reflect this. If you read your story through and finish your read-through thinking, “This is awesome,” that is the story to submit. If you don’t think your writing is any good, editors aren’t likely to see things differently.[*]
- You are ready for rejection. It is a fact of writing life that you will be rejected. Repeatedly. Probably multiple times for every story you send out. You cannot submit a story expecting it to be grabbed up by the first editor who lays eyes on it. Or the second, or third, or fourth. Most of your stories probably won’t be fished out of the slush pile at all. There are enough writers out there churning out the stories that editors need to be extremely picky, and a lot of perfectly good stories are never published. I try to treat story acceptances as bizarre, almost random events that just happen to sometimes crop up at the end of the submission process in place of the normal rejection. If you think your writing self-esteem will suffer if your stories are rejected, wait a while longer before you start submitting.
If you’ve met those criteria, you should probably pretty up your latest masterpiece and send it off. But before you do, keep the following in mind: When you submit, do not call attention to your age. In fact, avoid including any information in your cover letter that might clue the editor in to the fact that you’re younger than the average submitter. If an editor reads in your cover letter that you are only sixteen (fourteen, eighteen, twenty-two) or infers your age from the fact that you mention publication in your high school or college literary magazine, she or he might approach your story as amateur writing, knowing that you can’t really have been at it all that long. For this reason, it is not a good idea to include your age in your cover letter if you do decide to submit your fiction as a young adult. Some young writers think that this will impress editors (“Only fifteen and s/he can write this well? Wow!”), but the fact of the matter is that no editor will purchase your story unless it impresses him or her when judged against every other story they receive, and including your age might just make the editor want to pat you on the head and tell you to send them something when you’re older, before they’ve even read the first line of the story itself.
One last thing to keep in mind: Don’t treat story submission as an activity having the end goal of getting published. You are young, you do have your whole life ahead of you, and while getting published at such an early stage in your writing career might be exciting, it’s not really necessary. When I first started submitting stories at 18, I considered it practice. I just tossed a few things out so that I could get a handle on the process and start getting a feel for the various markets and their editors. And it worked. Now, at the ripe old age of 23, I have what I consider a pretty good idea of the types of stories most speculative fiction (or at least fantasy, since that’s my genre) venues like, and I’m much better able to tailor my submissions accordingly. (I don’t really think it needs saying, but just in case: This does not mean you should submit stories you aren’t proud of to editors in the name of “practice.” If you repeatedly send editors bad stories just to see what happens, they will remember you, and will approach future submissions with considerable apprehension.)
There will be posts here in the future on such topics as proper manuscript format and finding appropriate markets, and one from me expanding on my views on story submission as a goal in and of itself. So hang around for lots more practical advice on getting your stories out into the world.
[*] There is an exception in the case of writers with writing self-esteem issues, of which there are many. If you are one of those writers who never thinks their writing is awesome, find trusted critique partners who can advise you on whether you should submit your stories, and which one(s) to submit.
I’m Elena Gleason, Alpha alumna of 2005 and 2006. My stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine, and I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can visit me online at http://www.elenagleason.com.