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Monday, September 27, 2010

On Being a Young Author – Does Age Matter?

Today's guest blogger, successful seventeen-year-old author Kate Coursey, answers the question, "What's it like to be so young?" 

I decided to be a writer when I was eight years old. Books had always been a big part of my life, but it wasn’t until the day I finished Lord of the Rings that I informed my mother I was destined to be a novelist. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Mom, I’m going to write a novel.

Mom: That’s nice, sweetheart.

Me: It’s going to be published.

Mom: Great. Please get your shoes off the couch.

The rest, as they say, is history, and from that day on I churned out a novel-length manuscript once every few years. I had a panic attack when I was 11 years old. My life was wasting away before my very eyes, and I still didn’t have a book deal! That mindset, the idea that I must publish early, preferably before the age of 18, stayed with me until late 2009 when I started to think seriously about publication. During December I closeted myself away, outlining stories and characters in a notebook, which became too big to fit in my school bag. I began to recognize the ups and downs of being a young author; while I have an all-access pass to the brain of a teenager, I lack the perspective of someone looking back on their adolescence.

Let’s face it. High school is different now than it was thirty, twenty, even ten years ago. As a writer of YA fiction I get the opportunity to experience high school 2010 firsthand. I know about the drugs, the sex, and all the other taboo subjects teenagers don’t mention to their parents. When choosing a slang word or phrase, I don’t have to wonder, “Would a teenager actually say this?” I spend all day with 17-year-olds. I am one. But at the same time, there’s something to be said for age and distance. Adult writers have retrospective insight that’s impossible to replicate as a teen.

I started attending conferences at the beginning of 2010. I had spent the winter researching agents and publishing, with the intent of querying my fifth novel, The Hamsa’s Song, by the end of May. The more I ventured into the business world of publishing, the more I came to realize adult writers form very distinct opinions about me as a young author. Some are impressed with my dedication. Others are polite but skeptical. They brush me off as a child, a teenager who obviously does not have enough life experience to write a compelling story. As I networked with more and more people, I received variations of the same question:

“What’s it like to be so young?”

To which I always responded (in my head, at least) “What’s it like to be so old?”

I find one of the hardest parts of being young is trying to find my place in an industry dominated by adults. When David Levithan called to tell me I won the Scholastic Push Novel Contest, one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind was the issue of credibility. Suddenly I had it. At the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in June, I found the attitude of adult writers shifted drastically in light of my award. People took me more seriously. I got to meet with an agent, won the first page contest, and learned the value of a savvy critique group. I had never gotten feedback on my writing before, and since then I’ve made an effort to find critique partners and spend more time on revision. But perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I gained at WIFYR came from Mary Kole at Andrea Brown Lit. She told me, “I don’t care how old you are. When I choose to represent a project, I choose based on the quality of the story. Age is insignificant. It’s the writing that counts.”

Being 17 affects how I view the world. My truth is different from that of an adult’s, and it shows in the way I tell my stories. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a young author, but in the end it comes down to the writing, the characters, and whether or not you have the dedication to see a novel through to the finish. To all the young authors out there, don’t be too focused on publishing early. The average author debuts with his or her fifth novel. Writing takes time. I’ve had some success in the world of publishing, but I know I still have a long way to go.

Age is a statistic. Writing is a craft. At the end of the day, what counts are the words you put on the page, not the number on the birth certificate.

Kate Coursey lives and writes in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her debut novel, The Hamsa’s Song, won a Gold Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and is currently undergoing revisions at Scholastic Press. She writes mainly YA fantasy fiction. In her spare time Kate plays competitive soccer, attends West High School, and eats copious amounts of junk food.


Krista Van Dolzer said...

Great article, Kate. I started writing when I was eight, and I had a panic attack around eleven, too:)

Windy Aphayrath said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Kate! So glad I got to meet you at TKE earlier this month!

Stina said...

Great post, Kate! You have the advantage of knowing what's important to teens, and you don't come off as if you're peaching to them. Many adults writing YA struggle with that.

Anonymous said...

Ha! This is basically the story of my life except, I didn't start *quite* so early (around 14 for me), but even being in college, people have this crazy idea that I'm young for a novelist and get all impressed because I'm querying agents. I roll my eyes and tell them that by my timeline, I'm running WAY behind in getting published.

Unknown said...

I'm so impressed, Kate! I wish I had started as young as you did.

I love what you said age being static (but probably for different reasons - LOL).

You go girl!

Anonymous said...

This is awesome. Go YOUNG writers!!! I love seeing young writers going for their dreams. I was at a book signing for a YA author and there were tons of teens there. I talked to two and they'd been writing for a while now and I could see the fire in their eyes.

LOVE it.
Write on! Write on!

Kaye George said...

I must admit, Kate sounds like she has her act together. I hope she goes far!

I probably wrote my first novel(ette) at about 8, but wrote picture stories before I could write. My mistake was taking time off from writing consistently for way too many years.

Don't quit, Kate! No matter what.

Julie Musil said...

I'm super impressed. When I was 17, there's no way I could have accomplished what you have. Great job!

Jo Schaffer said...

Wow. What amazing focus. I think there are so many more young authors out there waiting to happen that may just need a little encouragement. (=

Char. said...

Wow the beginning sounds just like myself! If you have a blog or an account in a writer's community somewhere I'd love to get in touch with you! I'm 16 and struggling :(

Elana Johnson said...

What a great post! I love the "age is a statistic." :)