I get this question (or a variation on it) a lot so I decided to do a blog post about it. It’s amazing to see how much things have changed in twelve years, from when I applied to colleges. When I was in high school, the only successful teen writers I knew about were Sylvia Plath and S.E. Hinton, and they weren’t exactly from my generation, or anywhere near it. Now, I think teen writers look at Christopher Paolini, and how a lot of the publicity he got for his books was based around the fact that he was a teen. They look at Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, who has been successfully publishing for over 10 years, since the time she was 14.
Most disturbingly, they look at the (rather poor) example of Kaavya Viswantahan, whose pricey college admissions-consultant decided the best way for her to land admission to the Ivy League of her choice was to get in bed with a book packager and rip off a bunch of YA chick lit writers by collaging/plagiarising herself her own book and book deal.
Guys: publication is not a college admission stunt. If you look at successful writer examples of recent years, Atwater-Rhodes quietly took herself off to UMass, her home state school, where she majored in English and Psychology. She graduated magna cum laude and continues her career. Paolini chose to forego college in favor of concentrating on his book and book promotion.
And yet, people persist in believing that publishing a book is a stunt to be used to get into college, or that if you aren’t published at 14 or 18 or 19, you might as well throw in the towel.
[Note: Identifying details changed.]
I wrote you six months ago about getting my book published. thanks so much for your response. I have been sending queries to a lot of the agents that I could find online, but so far that progress hasn’t been too successful. I really want to have my book published for college reasons (I’d really like to pursue further in writing, and I feel that having a book published will show the colleges how serious I am about writing). I am getting a bit desperate and frantic.
Dear College Applicant and Young Writer,
I understand your frustration. This industry moves at a glacial pace and it can be extremely aggravating at times. However, it’s important not to be desperate OR frantic when you’re pursuing publication. Everyone I know who has been desperate go about making huge mistakes, like selling their book to a vanity press that takes their money and gives them a shoddy product (stay FAR AWAY from PublishAmerica and similar outfits) or signs with a scam agent who takes their money and disappears into
Bermuda. That’s no way to go about being serious about your writing.
You contacted me six months ago. Six months is a very short time in the world of publishing. I tried to get published for four years before I found an agent and sold a book. I wrote five books during that time. After one had been rejected everywhere it was appropriate to publish it, I wrote another. It might very well happen way faster for you, but how long it takes is not the most important thing. The most important thing is writing a great book and selling it to a publisher who is going to publish it well, distribute it everywhere, and promote the heck out of it.
You just need to keep plugging away — working on your writing, working on your queries.
Being serious about writing isn’t about racing toward publication. It’s about writing and pursuing publication in a serious and professional manner. The fact that you’ve written a whole book in your teens and are pursuing publication for it is an impressive feat, and one you should definitely mention on your applications (or get one of your teachers — especially an English teacher– who is writing you a college recommendation to mention). But getting published isn’t a college application stunt, it’s the start of a career.
I was very, very serious about my writing for those four years (after college) I wasn’t published. I wrote a lot, I learned a lot about
writing, and I submitted the books I’d written and polished. I was also very serious about writing when I was in high school, and the colleges I applied to knew it. To show colleges you are serious about your writing, the best thing to do is keep doing what you’re doing, and let them know. Let them know you’ve written and polished a novel, Let them know you are pursuing publication. That’s really focused and ambitious and accomplished of you — and whether or not you’ve actually sold the book matters a lot less.
Let them know (ideally through one of your teacher recommendations) that you are acing your English classes and taking all the
opportunities you can to get extra writing in (like writing for your school newspaper or literary journal, taking creative writing electives– I taught writing skills classes to younger kids while I was in high school — entering teen writing contests like the kind they have at libraries/schools/magazines, attending local writing conferences or book festivals). And, above all, write an extraordinary college entrance essay so they can see first hand what a great writer you are.
Good luck and keep writing!
This person had written a novel as a teenager, but if you haven’t, does that mean you’re 1) never going to get into college, 2) never going to write a novel, 3) never get published? No, no, and hell no. I had written a dozen starts of novels by the time I got into college. In college, I wrote another dozen starts. I didn’t actually finish a novel until the year after I graduated from college, because I said to myself, “Self, it’s time you put your money where your mouth is. You say you want to be a writer? Well, prove it. Finish a book.” I finished four before I sold anything, at the age of 26.
Guys, that’s still pretty damn young. And it’s so not a race, either. I’ve published five books, but I know authors who have published fewer books than me to far, far greater acclaim, money, sales, fame — and were older when they started.
Write as much as you want, pursue publication in high school… or don’t. It’s not going to leave a black mark on your career if you don’t write a book until you’re say, 30 years old (hello, Stephenie Meyer). And maybe you’ll be like Atwater-Rhodes or Paolini or any of the other folks who publish in high school or college (Jennifer Lyn Barnes is another example.) But don’t plan on publication as a “way” to get into college. These aren’t volunteer hours we’re talking about, and the publishing world is too slow and capricious to conform to the rapidity of the college application carousel.
(UPDATE: Read the follow-up post HERE.)