Answers for Aspiring Teen Authors from Madeline Dyer
I met Madeline Dyer through the Facebook group YA Story Sisters, where a group of mostly small-press-published YA authors got together to discuss craft and marketing topics. While I knew some of the YA Story Sisters personally (notably Lisa Amowitz and my fellow Running Press author Maria E. Andreu), Madeline lives in the UK, an ocean away. I didn’t know that she was at the time an undergraduate student at the University of Exeter and only graduated two months ago, one year after the publication of her first novel, Untamed.
Since it usually takes 18-24 months for a publisher to bring out a novel, and I don’t know how long Madeline had been writing and submitting Untamed before then, it’s safe to say that she wrote this dystopian novel as a teenager. She isn’t the only teenage novelist I know. Last fall I spoke on a panel at the ALAN workshop with Hannah Moskowitz and Adam Silvera, who both started writing seriously as teenagers. Hannah’s first book came out before she turned 20 and Adam’s not long after.
When I started speaking in high schools when Gringolandia came out in 2009, I didn’t encourage the students to seek publication. Maybe because I spent my teenage and college years chasing boys and trouble, I felt that gaining life experience made for better writing in the end. In fact, it took me decades to understand and put into stories all the trouble I managed to get myself into in those years.
The success of many very young novelists has changed the equation, and now serious teenage writers feel they have more opportunities to get published and less time to make an impact. Aspiring young authors are close in age to their target audience, but every year takes them further away. In that way, they’re like their athletic peers who feel they have only so many years to make it to — and make it in — the major leagues before age and injury take their toll. While equating professional writers’ careers to those of professional athletes has its pitfalls, genres such as contemporary and paranormal depend on knowing the current slang (which can also date those books after five years or so). Nowadays, when I speak to teen groups, I continue to emphasize life experience, but I also make the counter-argument in favor of early publication and let each person decide for him or herself.
Now that her sequel to Untamed, Fragmented, is coming out, Madeline has gone a step further. She has set up a regular column on her blog to answer the questions of people like herself who are writing seriously and seeking publication as teenagers. In addition to her own responses, she has solicited the responses of other published authors who began writing as teenagers or who regularly offer writing workshops to teenagers. I’m one of the authors who she has invited to help answer the questions. Last week, the “Your Writing Questions Answered” series debuted with “How long should a chapter be, maximum and minimum?” And among those in the pipeline are:
“I’m great at writing short stories, but freeze up at the idea of a novel or full-length book. How do I take my idea and spin it into a full-length book?”
“What’s the best way to create a dystopian world?”
“I never know whether to write in first person or third and end up switching halfway though, whatever I write. How do you know what your book needs?”
“My characters don’t feel real when I write them. To me, they seem like characters (which is what they are, I know, lol!). But when I read other books, those characters seem like real. How can I make my characters seem more real? Any tips?”
“My question is about how to find a publisher. how do you do it?”
In addition to helping answer questions, I’ve offered to collect questions for Madeline. If you have any, please add them to the comments and I’ll pass them along. And stay tuned for Madeline’s guest post on Fragmented, coming next month!
Update: Madeline has sent me more information about her teenage writing career, and here it is. It’s impressive!
– I started writing seriously at 16, and was 16 when my first short story was published.
– Untamed was the fourth novel-length manuscript I wrote, and I was 18 at the time.
– I got the book deal for Untamed when I was 19
– and it published when I was 20. (And I also signed my second deal when I was 20 — now 21)
Thought-provoking as always, Lyn, thank you!
It is an unfortunate part of the current societal obsession with the “mostest” that we also want our artists to be Wunderkinder. In this sense, YA lit is only the most recent subset of the arts to submit to this phenomena, one that has been acting (often deleteriously) upon the other arts for quite some time–perhaps an unconscious response to aging baby boomers who hang onto their artistic hats tightly. As someone who came into her intellect quite early, but grew into owning her artistic gifts in several fields far more slowly as a result, I can only bemoan the situation and encourage all who want to pursue artistic greatness on their own timeline. My mother (giraffe.com) *began* her career as a well-feted artist well into her 40s.
Mother Theresa and Grandma Moses were not spring chickens.
I fit the same pattern as you, coming into my intellect far earlier than my artistic abilities and interests. I wouldn’t be the same writer without the experiences of my adolescence and young adulthood, some of which I’m rather fortunate I survived. These have given my fiction much of its edginess.
I’m probably going to blog more about this at some point, but the emphasis on youth and young creators comes with a certain uniformity. Books and workshops that didn’t exist in our day have raised the craft knowledge base, so that a young writer can reach a higher level without spending years floundering around, trying to figure out the Three-Act Structure or the difference between showing and telling. On the other hand, the lack of life experience leads to a lot more derivative work, as aspiring authors learn by reading other books and often break in by writing for packagers that provide a market-tested outline of the story in advance.
In this way, writing has become less of an art and more of a skilled craft.
It’s great that Madeline has offered to answer questions. Most of the teens that ask me the same question wonder how they can get published.
It seems that everyone wants to get published right away. I worry that they’ll get discouraged after a few rejections. That’s what happened to my daughter. On the other hand, she’s happy as an elementary school teacher, and who knows, she may return to writing fiction in the future.