November 30th, 2018

What We Can Learn from Teen Writers

Harrison Demchick

In my years as a book editor, I’ve had the opportunity to work with all sorts of different authors in all sorts of different contexts, whether it’s directly through book editing or more broadly in lectures given at writer’s conferences and conventions. But nothing has been more rewarding to me than working with young writers.

I’m talking teenagers. High school students. Kids who are already well on their way to publication. Each year I return to my high school, a magnet school for the arts, to discuss fiction and publishing with the seniors and sophomores. I mentor one of the seniors in a year-long fiction project. I’ve also run a course for young writers at a conference, and it might surprise you to learn that several of my paying clients over the last couple years have been teens (and their very supportive parents).

Most of them haven’t published anything yet. But then again, neither have most of my first-time clients. And one of the most important things I’ve learned in the course of working with these talented young writers is that all of us—anyone pursuing writing—has a lot to learn from them.

Lesson #1: Make the Time to Write

One of the greatest obstacles to writing is time. We know that. We have jobs and obligations. We have family and friends. We have meetings and bills.

But think about it: Are we really busier as adults than we were as teens? Teenage writers have hours of school every day, and then hours of homework at night. They have essays and extracurricular activities. Often they have jobs too. Yet somehow, in spite of all of that, a select few—those seriously dedicated writers I’m fortunate enough to meet—somehow make their way toward finished short stories, publishable poems, and even complete novels. How do they have the time?

The answer is: They make it. And we should all do the same. Time for writing doesn’t just happen, and there will always be a million reasons not to do it. It’s crucial to carve out the time, every week, to knuckle down and write. It needs to be a priority. The only way a writer can balance high school and a completed manuscript is through sheer force of will.

Lesson #2: Writing is Learning

As a book editor, it’s my job not only to make your novel stronger, but also to teach you how to be a better writer. One of the great things about working with younger writers is that they, too, see editing as a form of teaching. When you’re in school, learning is an expectation, and accordingly young writers are driven to absorb the lessons of the editing process. They want to understand the connection between characterization and conflict. They want to grasp the importance of causation in narrative structure. They want to utilize specific detail in their descriptions.

The truth of the matter is that we all have room to grow as writers, whether we’re eighteen or eighty. Moreover, we all need to grow as writers. Our manuscripts improve only if we’re willing to acknowledge our weaknesses and work to overcome them. We need to see ourselves as students, because students embrace the fact that they will know more tomorrow than they know today.

Lesson #3: Revise Aggressively

When you edit a novel, sometimes you’re put in the unfortunate position of having to tell a writer that their manuscript is going to need what basically amounts to a total rewrite. It doesn’t mean that the draft lacks promise, or that the author isn’t talented—simply that the problems require wholesale revision. Still it’s an arduous undertaking, and few things impress me more as a book editor than a second draft that improves upon the first in inventive ways well beyond my own expectations.

I’ve seen seriously impressive revisions from writers of all ages, but writers in high school (and also, for one memorable project, college) seem uniquely adept at it. Because they’re driven, and because they embrace writing as a learning experience, young writers are more natural, I think, at applying agility to their revisions. You need to be willing to do whatever you have to do to strengthen the story, even if it’s a good deal more difficult and more intimidating than clarifying a plot point here and reorganizing a sentence there.

One of my best clients turned an imaginative but seriously problematic first draft—deep, endemic issues with characterization and logic, even before considering struggles emerging from English being her second language—into an engaging and exciting supernatural YA debut. That is revising with aggression, and whatever college accepts her will be enormously fortunate to do so.

Lesson #4: Get Your Writing Out There

Let’s be realistic here: It’s not as if all teens are as talented and motivated as the ones I’ve worked with. Not every high school student is enthusiastic about learning. Not every aspiring writer makes the time for writing.

But the ones I do work with have made significant choices to make this possible. The students who attend my high school made the choice, as teens, to devote at least the next four years to pursuing the craft of writing. The students who attend writer’s conferences chose to put themselves in an environment where they could learn more and hone their craft. And the students who actually hire me as an editor? Sometimes they have a very supportive parent, and sometimes they’ve saved up themselves, but either way they’ve chosen to devote their typically limited resources toward achieving their dream.

It’s no coincidence that these same young writers tend to be ahead of the game when it comes to developing query letters or finding cover art. They take these steps because their goal is not just a finished novel. They’re pursuing publication, and pursuing it with passion.

That takes not only determination, but courage. And no matter where you are in the writing process—a first-time author of any age, or the writer of multiple novels ready once again to launch into marketing—those are the traits you need.

We may see those young writers who already have a completed manuscript to their name as ahead of the game, and they are. But maybe we’re a little behind too. If we take the same steps these young writers have—if we make the time, and learn, and revise, and send our writing out into the world—then we can all grow and improve on our way to publication.

And if you’re the parent of one of these young writers, then, well, you don’t need me to tell you that your kid is something special. If you give them the opportunity to pursue their goals, there is no limit to what they’ll accomplish.

What do you think? Can we adults learn from the kids?

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Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as women’s fiction, literary fiction, mystery, young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Harrison is also an award-winning screenwriter whose first feature film, Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. He’s the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012), and his newest short story, “Magicland,” will appear in the October 2018 edition of Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism. He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally (http://thewritersally.com).

14 responses to “What We Can Learn from Teen Writers”

  1. Julie Glover says:

    Revise aggressively is the trait I really hope to have. It does seem harder now to change course in some ways than when I was younger, but it's always worth it. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. lrtrovi says:

    Dishing up tough advice is not always easy, but necessary. Thanks for the reminder and I hope to recapture some of that teen enthusiasm and bring it to my writing. A great post, thanks.

  3. dholcomb1 says:

    my niece/goddaughter has a blog, a website, and is a great writer. she tends to write more about college life, challenges for young females in society, and some social justice. but, I have seen literary posts, too. a senior in college, I can't wait to see where her writing leads.

    denise

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    I'm so impressed with the young writers I see. I remember being that age and alternating between feeling like I knew everything, and like I knew nothing at all. That feeling of wandering through your growing up is a priceless gift to bring to the page.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • I suppose that is part of it, Jenny. When you think you know everything, you can write with confidence. When you think you know nothing, you have a lot to learn. And you need to be able to do both those things.

  5. Laura Drake says:

    Reminds me of the Inspirational Quote I have about keeping a learner's mentality....
    'Experience is just the name we give our mistakes.'

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • johntshea says:

      'Experience is just the name we give our mistakes.'
      I'm VERY experienced so!

    • johntshea says:

      Thanks for a challenging and inspiring article. It's quite a while since I was a teen, but my WIP is YA, so I do try to channel my inner teen!

      • I hadn't thought about genre when I wrote this post, but there are probably some interesting things to be addressed there too. A lot of the younger writers I've worked with are writing young adult novels, often YA genre fiction, because that's what they're reading. But one was working on a spy thriller--and wrote it beautifully. And right now, I'm mentoring a high school senior working on a series of interconnected literary short stories. So I suppose you could say that, while you're channeling your inner teen, they're channeling their inner adults.

  6. Fae Rowen says:

    What a great post, Harrison. Thank you for showing us the lessons we, as adults, can revisit—or remember, from our younger days. As a teacher, I've seen my students make time to learn what is important to them. As an adult, I need to remember-and cultivate-that passion for what interests me, especially when the responsibilities of adulthood seem to narrow my options.

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