letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 216
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: romantic suspense

Dear Authors:

I have noticed a marked increase in the amount of queries coming from minors, that is authors under the age of 18, over the last few months. I believe the youngest so far was 12. In light of Boingboing reporting today that a high school student is facing felony charges for writing a zombie story*, I wanted to write today to support these young authors and their creativity.

I do not know what is inspiring this age group to not only finish novels, but to get out there and actually submit them – particularly when their writing might make them subject to problems with their schools or families. Perhaps it’s the success of the Paolini books (any other very young author stories like his?) or the fact that authors like Ursula K. LeGuin first began submitting when they were 11 years old (even if that story was rejected).

One of the interesting things to me as an agent is to note how professional their submissions are. They take great care with their letters and review the submission guidelines and send what is requested. I think this speaks very well to their potential. Since I get quite a number of query letters every week that are just full of grammatical and spelling errors, not to mention those that are simply a waste of both the author’s time, and mine (e.g. poetry, screenplays, and other things I say I don’t represent), their efforts stand out to me.

I have yet to offer representation to a minor, but it’s certainly not on account of their lack of trying. I suspect it is simply the same issue as with submissions by adult authors. I need to find a story that I fall in love with that I also believe I can sell. I wish them all the best as they continue to create, write, and submit, and I hope they are not discouraged by the challenge that publishing oftentimes presents.

* apparently, this story also showed up on Boingboing back in 2005 and there’s a lot more to the story, but I think the point is still relevant

22 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. There’s a young author in Quebec (the Montreal Canadian province) who published her first book when she was ten, having written it when she was nine. She went on to write four more books in the same universe, though the other books weren’t centered on the same characters. It was always interesting for me to follow her story because I was exactly the same as her, except I hadn’t submitted anything. Granted, the book was less than a hundred pages and with 18-point font, but still. She’s also exactly the same age as me. I wrote my first “novel” when I was nine/ten. And I’ve always been completely convinced that my writing is better than hers. 😉
    Also, recently, in Quebec, another book was published by a youngster, who was twelve or thirteen, I believe. They probably wanted to jumped on the bandwagon, although the first girl’s first published some years ago. Anyway, back to this one. The girl amazed her parents when she showed up with an amazing novel. They went on to publish it, and of course, it was published. Then, a few weeks later, a French man discovered that the book was a copy/paster of his work, which he’d put on the Internet. The publisher hastily stopped printing the book and gave the actual author the royalties.
    But I have a question. Say you get a submission from a 15-year-old. The query/synopsis/manuscript is not very good at all. Three years later, they’re 18, and they submit something else. I realize that after three years, the old submission would probably be long forgotten, but theoretically, could the poor first query influence what you think of the new one?

  2. Hi, Jennifer. I’m sponsoring a “Write a Book in a Year” club at the high school where I teach. I started it mostly because I was working on my book, and I thought that there was no reason I should have the fun! Also, there’s little support in the high school for kids who want to write creatively and no support for those who want to tackle a bigger project.
    When I announced the first meeting, I thought I might see two or three kids–after all, as everyone knows, high school kids hate to write–but I had thirty kids and six teachers show up at that meeting.
    It was amazing!
    We’re 10 weeks into the school year, now, and twenty-five kids are still coming to the meetings regularly to report their progress, share ideas, and to support each other. We have a club wikki and blog. You can see the blog at http://writeabookinayear.edublogs.org/
    There are kids out there who want to write.

  3. It seems like creative writing is taught at a younger age and encouraged more in schools these days. There are now many programs like NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program that help these aspiring authors get started. I wish these programs had been around when I was a kid!

  4. I’ve gotten quite a few from young authors as well and you’re right: more often than not, they’ve taken the time to research the guidelines and spell-check their letters. It’s really wonderful to see how seriously they take their writing.
    I’ve wondered about whether taking on a minor as a client would entail legal difficulties re having them sign an agency agreement, and a publishing contract. I haven’t run into that situation yet but I was curious as to whether you’ve given that any thought as well. When Chris Paolini eventually signed with Knopf, he had turned eighteen years old so they dodged a bullet. (He’d written the book when he was fifteen and his father helped him self-publish.)

  5. I remember that Amelia Atwater-Rhodes was fifteen when her first novel was published. Or maybe sixteen, and it was written when she was fifteen. I was incredibly jealous, although like Paolini, Atwater-Rhodes’ writing was really not ready to be widely published. But I guess there’s stuff out there that is published when it shouldn’t be. 🙂

    • What happened with Paolini was that Carl Hiaasen’s nephew (who was 12 at the time) had a copy of it and raved about it incessantly; Hiaasen took it to someone at his publisher who then took it to an editor at their children’s division.
      I met Chris Paolini and was his media escort for one weekend at San Diego Comic-Con. I asked him how old he was when he’d started his book and I think he said he was twelve when he started writing it. (Nice kid, too.)
      Here’s to perseverance! 🙂

  6. BTW, here’s the outcome of the William Poole case:
    Basically, he ended up with all charges dropped except a contempt of court charge when he went near a school after being explicitly ordered not to by the judge. (He was with a friend picking up the friend’s sister. The judge didn’t seem to care.) Anyway, he ended up with time served + 2 years probation on that charge. The other charges were unprovable.

  7. I wrote my first book at 15, then wrote a second one at 16. I’m 19 now.
    It’s possible that younger writers are typically more strigent about following guidelines and doing research because they’ve been raised to use computers as their primary source of information, whereas older generations have traditionally used other means.
    Other authors contracted and/or published in their teens include Robin Schneider and Ned Vizzini. Teen authors really aren’t as uncommon as people think.

  8. I think it’s great to hear about so many teens submitting and following guidelines. I wonder if programs such as NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer Program have any effect on teens who stick with their novel until it’s finished.
    I signed with my agent when I was 19 (I’m 21 now) and there were several authors who were published in their early twenties that inspired me to submit and finish that first draft.

  9. Another contributing factor to the professionalism (related to the familiarity w/computers which another commenter mentioned): fanfic. This has exploded with the Web. You could always find kids (including me, when I was a kid!) writing “sequels,” knock-offs, parodies… But the audience was limited to a fairly small number of people, in a fairly small geographic range: within pass-around distance.
    Now, I think people who’ve been practicing their writing on 10Kish-word fan fiction, multiple times over, with responses from other writers as well as readers… well, it’s kinda scary what they must be able to accomplish.
    (That “able” presumes of course that the market itself will be elastic enough to support them.)

  10. Well, the fact that they’re teenagers in school is to their advantage.
    They’re used to changing the way they do things for different teachers; they write papers to fit specific formats and templates, which is basically what a query letter turns into; they have to follow instructions for written submissions on a daily basis.
    I think it makes them more flexible to do things by the book and the way people want them, without complaint or the need to cut corners.

  11. I wonder how much of it has to do with them being awestruck enough to actually follow the rules and pay attention to detail, vs. the many adults who “just don’t have time for the rules” or “the rules don’t apply to them” because they think the world owes them something.

  12. Someone above me mentioned Atwater-Rhodes, who I have great respect for. The girl is creative and prolific as all hell.
    Ironically, her first novel – published when she was 15 – is really the only one I’ve liked. I’ve read a few more and they were okay, and once she started the shapeshifter series I felt like the books just got ridiculous.
    But I still have (and occasionally reread!) my copy of In the Forests of the Night. It’s cliched but very heartfelt, and I fell in love with the characters when it first came out.

  13. That’s great news for those of us just about ready to throw in the towel on this texting, LOLing, video game playing generation.

  14. It’s so encouraging when agents mention their high respect for young writers. It give us a little bit of hope way down here! 🙂 Thank you for giving me that little push of enthusiasm today.
    To God be the glory,
    A SF writer

  15. “Minor” Queries
    A decade ago, I started teaching a class to gifted/talented summer school kids called Writing To Get Published. My intent was to save them the stumbling around I did for ten years after I wrote my first story at 13. I introduce them to formatting both MS and query letters, show them the current copy of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Markets and “force” them to use it. I also have them experiment with various genres of writing. The final product is supposed to be a submittable MS in proper format, with SASE, cover and editor’s name. Hey — maybe one of those MS you got was from one of my kids!

  16. Young authors
    I’m pleased to read that, contrary to what I’ve heard, not all agents are “hardtails.”
    I think it is great when young people try writing, though it does make me feel a bit old and slow to pick up the hobby/career.

  17. Kids have been writing–and finishing–novels forever. It’s just that now, with online crit groups and writing boards and (mostly) agent/editor/author blogs, the process of publishing is no longer one big mystery. Now they not only have finished manuscripts, but typed ones, and easy-to-follow tutorials for what to do with them.

  18. I’m 14 years old and working on a novel. I am hoping to get it published, and there’s something I’ve been wondering about. Do you have to put your age in a query if you’re a minor? It seems to me that an agent might just reject because you’re a minor, not based on the writing. Could anyone hlpe me with that? And, by the way, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes wrote In the Forest of the Night when she was 13 and published it when she was 14.

    • I don’t suppose one is required to put their age in the query – in many cases people only do it if they feel it is relevant to what they are writing. A minor _would_ need to reveal their age before signing any agreement of course, because their parent or legal guardian would need to also be involved.
      As for whether age has an effect on perception…. One supposes it must, whether consciously or not. I personally try to base my response on the text, but your mileage may vary with other agents.

  19. I think this is a good trend we’re seeing. It’s nice to see young people using their creative energies in such positive ways. Compared to ten years ago, how — if at all — has the industry opened up for young authors, and in terms of queries and submissions, by what percentage do you believe it has increased over the last decade?
    I know I would have never thought about sending my work off to publishers at that age. I would have been too intimidated. I stuck with local writing competitions at that age.
    And I do think, as you mentioned, that this has a lot to do with Paolini’s success.

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