And the real answer for every one of these kids, so far, has been "You're not ready to do that yet."
No, it's not based on some silly belief that young people can't be writing publishable work. I believe some of them are. But none of the teen writers who have specifically asked me that question and then shown me their work were ready for querying. They weren't ready for publishing. They needed more editing, more revising, and ultimately, more practice.
Some of these kids read and write enough to become competent, then impressive, then maybe publishable. At that point my advice changes a little, pointing them to resources for peer editing and query tips. I don't give that advice to people who aren't ready to query. Sometimes I'll tell them straight up that they aren't ready to query. Sometimes I'll give them a few pointers and knowingly let them do their thing, because at that stage sometimes they're just not going to listen--they think you're being a naysayer just because of their age, and they wholeheartedly believe they're the exception. That doesn't really work when I have no "rules" that you have to break. I have no preconceived notions about young writers. If your writing is immature and underdeveloped, I will give the kind of advice I give to anyone whose writing is immature and underdeveloped. It just so happens that most immature, underdeveloped writing comes from immature, underdeveloped people, and the good news is that they get better.
So what do you do if you meet an adult whose writing just isn't there?
That's the main purpose of this blog entry. I want to discuss my position on what the heck you say to adults who just plain won't ever get there.
Picture this. You're working with an adult writer whose writing is terrible. Or maybe it's just mediocre. In some way, it's 100% clear to you that this person doesn't have it and probably will never have it. And they want to publish. They want to know why they keep getting rejections. They want your help.
So do you tell them? Do you tell them "This just isn't your thing, man. You need to let it go"?
I say no.
I wouldn't ever tell a hopeless writer that they'll never amount to anything.
Why not? Well, for three reasons.
- It's pretty damn mean.
- They will perceive YOU as an unsupportive jackass rather than perceiving THEIR WRITING as the problem.
- It won't work. If they love writing, they won't quit, even if they're horrible at it.
But I won't tell them to quit. Even though honestly the majority of people I've given editing advice to won't ever succeed in the mainstream publishing world. (And of course I should note that it's not like I'm one of the gatekeepers in said mainstream publishing world. I'm not an acquisitions editor or a representative for a publisher. But as a person who's been editing fiction and nonfiction for over a decade, I can certainly tell you what isn't there yet, even if I might be wrong about what's good enough.)
But some of us never will.
And unless you're an agent or a publisher, I wouldn't bother saying "no" to those folks. They will see the writing on the wall once they cross their personal threshold of how much rejection they can endure. Or maybe they don't have a threshold of that sort and they'll just keep going. You don't have to discourage them, and you shouldn't--not just to spare their feelings, but because it's not worth doing. If the publishing industry can't crush it out of them, it doesn't belong being crushed out. It's something they love and something they want, and telling them they're wasting their time would be a waste of YOUR time (not to mention a bad move if you want to continue on friendly terms with that person).
And even though it's probably unlikely if you've got an adult with no self-awareness of their work's low quality . . . you never know when they might surprise you.
"Read more, and keep writing" is the advice I give to developing writers. Writers of all ages have breakthroughs, and while it's rare for a mature writer to transform from a hopeless writer into a publishable one, it isn't impossible.
When you're chasing a dream with odds like these, "It's not impossible" sometimes starts to sound pretty good.