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Teen Writers Come of Age

Teenagers see the world through a completely different lens than adults do. Teen writers can show you the world through our eyes, and what it’s like to be growing up today.

Teenagers see the world through a completely different lens than adults do. Teen writers can show you the world through our eyes, and what it’s like to be growing up today.

From horror writer Amelia Atwater Rhodes to animal fantasy writer Nancy Yi Fan, more and more young adults are now writing books for other young adults and emerging in the writing world, providing a unique perspective that adults could never give.

This guest post is by Jamie S. Margolin, Margolin is a teenage writer who is a passionate environmentalist, dipping her toe into YouTubing and Mock Trial and way too into politics for her own good. When she isn’t training in the gym or plotting her path to the White House, Margolin’s writing. Currently, Margolin is completing her novel about the intricate and highly competitive world of rhythmic gymnastics, where a true champion is one in a million. Her work has appeared on, What NOT To Do When Writing YA Books (Advice From a Teen Writer), and in Teen Ink, where six of which earned Editors Choice awards and were voted #1 by readers.


Some teen writers, like Kody Keplinger were lucky enough to really make it big. While most high school seniors were out partying and tapping at their phones, Kody was piecing together what is now a bestselling YA sensation, “The Duff.” The book is about a high schooler, Bianca, whom her classmates call “the duff” behind her back. AKA,designated-ugly-fat-friend; the one in the group who makes everyone else look better. The Duff immediately caught fire in the YA community, and in 2015, it was turned into a major motion picture.

So how did the success story begin? Well, Kody began writing the book after feeling she was “the duff” herself.

"I was in the second semester of my senior year of high school. This girl was telling a story about her weekend and said she hated it when guys refer to her friend as 'the duff' and told me it meant 'designated ugly fat friend,'" Kody told Teen Vogue. "I remember thinking, 'I am so 'the duff' of my group.' So I started talking to all my friends about it and they thought they were 'the duff.' It became a thing where we realized all of us were 'the duff' of the group, so I decided to write a book about it.”

“The Duff,” which was written by Keplinger when she was just 17 years old, captured the interest of the producers because of its original voice and unpretentiousness. Lane Shefter Bishop found Kody Keplinger's THE DUFF which she discovered as an obscure rough draft book. Shefter Bishop fell in love with THE DUFF and became a producer on a mission. She immediately called the agent for Kody Keplinger and said "give me two weeks to shop this book, I know I can set it up." This is exactly what Shefter Bishop did. “I discovered Kody Keplinger, author of THE DUFF, who wrote the novel when she herself was only 17. “She has the high-school voices down pat, but this is someone who knows how to write because the emotion woven throughout is dead on,” executive producer Lane Shefter Bishop said, “There’s a lot going on [in the book] and a lot of complexity underneath it all. I brought the book to big screen and continue to keep my finger on the pulse of teen storytelling by carefully creating loglines that fit both their age and youthful perspective. “ Amazingly, THE DUFF was the very first project Shefter Bishop set up on her own. An Emmy Award winning director, Lane Shefter Bishop,is the CEO of VAST Entertainment, the "go to" book-to-screen adaptation company. " Mine is the only company that specializes in early sneak-peeks at quality literary works. The gems I find are priceless," says Shefter Bishop. Her book, Sell Your Story In A Single Sentence: Advice from the Frontlines of Hollywood really spells out what Shefter Bishop is all about, and explains why CNN calls Shefter Bishop "The Book Whisperer."

"I think a lot of authors dream their book will become a film.” Kody said in an interview with Teen Vogue. “But I never thought it would happen to me.”

Then there's Amy Zhang, who at 16 wrote her debut novel, “Falling into Place”,which became a Top Ten Indies Next Pick. Now I’m not going to go on blabbing about how cool it is that a sixteen year old wrote a successful novel, because that’s exactly what Amy detests. In an interview with blogger, Patrice Caldwell, Amy said this when asked why she wished to be a traditional author:

“Honestly, I guess my main reason is that I don’t want to be marginalized by my age. I didn’t mention my age in any step of the querying process because I wanted to get signed for my work. I don’t want the fact that I’m sixteen to matter.”

But even though Amy insists that her age doesn’t matter, her agent, Emily Keyes of Fuse Literary, says representing a teenager has it’s differences from representing an adult:

"The main perk of representing a teen author of YA is the voice. I see a lot of YA that sounds like adults pretending to be teens. When the author is a teen, it's authentic."


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Even though young adult literature written by young adults can be rewarding, it’s quite a struggle for the writer to balance writing with well, being a teen. This is what Amy said in that same interview with Patrice Caldwell, when asked if she had any challenges directly related to being a teen writer:

“Gosh, yes. I guess the biggest challenge is trying to find the time to write. I try to write at least ten hours a week, but the problem is that I’m fairly involved at school and in my community. It was manageable until this year. Frankly, I was too ambitious. I thought I could take all of my APs and maintain my grades, keep my leadership positions in all of my clubs, and be the editor-in-chief of our newspaper and the captain of our Forensics team and play sports andpiano and violin and be a literary intern and study for SATs and ACTs and blog and kind of keep up my social life and still write. But to do that, I usually have to get up around 4:00 to get in two hours of writing before school. Unfortunately, I rarely get home from school before six, and usually get to bed around twelve.

Yeah. So I have sleeping marathons on weekends and chug caffeine like there’s no tomorrow. Carpe diem, right?”

Tell me about it. Amy’s struggle is the struggle of many teen writers share- including me. In fact, the only reason I found time to write this thing was because I stayed up to some ungodly hour last night tackling research papers and reading-analysis assignments and math homework, and before that I was at physical therapy, trying to recover from an overuse injury I got from training as a competitive rhythmic gymnast, and before that I was at school, rapidly trying to finish slapping together the school yearbook before the printing deadline….where was I? Oh yea, being a teen and a writer is… a juggling act, to say the least.

Then there’s the legal stuff, which can be quite a struggle for both the agent and the writer. Publishers can tend to resist teens, or be wary of contracts when the author is a minor. In some states, people under 18 cannot legally enter into a binding legal agreement. And under other circumstances, teen writers are "voidable" which means they can decide not to honor contracts when they become 18. This makes publishers uncomfortable, because they don't want to produce and promote a book and pay the author, only for the author to later decide to void the contract.

But despite all this, Emily Keyes says, “I'd say it's still worth it to pursue. Your publishing dreams might not happen right away but nothing worthwhile does.”

Some people wonder, when exactly did this whole young-author phenomenon start? Well, no one knows exactly who the very first minor to write a book was. I’m pretty sure there were teenagers who wrote on cave walls back in prehistoric times. But there are no solid facts on the first book ever published by a teen writer. Even so, we do have records of many other young writers of the past.

One of the most well-known and successful authors in history (who also happened to be a teen) was Mary Shelley. She was born in 1797, and at the age of 19, she wrote what is considered the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, which Thomas Edison then adapted into film as one of the first horror movies ever made- talk about success!

Being a teen writer today is not the same as it was in Mary Shelley’s time. It’s different because, well, publishing has changed. Gone are the days of 1000 page debut novels with rambling descriptions of landscapes and little cottages in the woods. Just like adult writers, teen writers have to adapt to the times. Publishing is a full-blown industry now. More and more people are trying to get published, which makes for a lot more competition. Now, agents and editors filter through the overwhelming amount of writers who want to see their novels on the shelves of bookstores. The industry has changed and teens, just like adults, are changing with it.

But at the same time, teen authors then and now aren’t too different. We're just writers who are still average kids; slightly troubled and very confused, who write what comes out of our hearts.

Many also wonder, is being a teen writer a disadvantage or a new trend? Well, it can be both. Young people can be put at a disadvantage because people don’t take us seriously thanks to our age. People see that we’re young, and immediately think-naive, unprofessional, inexperienced-without even getting to know us first. Are there naive, unprofessional, inexperienced teen authors? Of course there are, and the same goes for adults. But that doesn’t mean we all don’t know what we’re doing.

Some people complain teen’s books are being published simply because they’re young, but I disagree. Like I said before, our writing offers a different perspective to readers, one that adults simply can’t present.

One writer gave the world a much needed childhood insight in a time were fear and hatred ran ramped. Her name was Anne Frank. She shook the planet with her innocent yet wise voice through her books, “The Diary of a Young Girl” and “Tales from the Secret Annex.” Anne was a Jewish teen living under Hitler's cruel regime.

To avoid being deported to a Nazi concentration camp, Anne’s family and another squeezed into the attic of an old work building, and stayed in hiding for over two years. Anne recorded her experiences in her diary, which is a raw, authentic and heart-wrenching memoir about both her own life, and the war that was going on right outside her Annex window.

Us teens are also able to catch the mistakes in the YA books we read- mistakes adults don’t seem to notice. Then, knowing first-hand what annoys the living daylights out of teens, we don’t make the same mistakes in our own novels.

“The word dystopia has recently become a dirty word in the YA sphere.” Claire Fraise, sixteen-year-old author of YA dystopia “Imperfect” said in an interview with Book Marketing Buzz Blog,

“Why? Because most YA books are formulaic. They tell the same stories. Writing a dystopian novel has become like a mix-and-match game: Yes, I definitely need to have a totalitarian government. Love triangle? Gimme! Ooh, mysterious, womanizing, sexy bad-boy who falls madly in love with the protagonist? Must. Have. It often feels like the genre contains one core story that is told hundreds of different ways through hundreds of different filters. It’s infuriating. I love dystopian stories (obviously) and, to me, there is nothing more exciting than reading a fresh take on the futuristic-adventure concept. So, let’s go writers. Let’s leave the clichés to rot and come up with something awesome. The readers are ready.”

In fact, the very first YA book ever published was not written by an adult, rather, a minor. Her name is S. E. Hinton, and she wrote what is considered the very first YA book of all time when she was just fifteen. The book is called “The Outsiders” and Hinton wrote it in 1967 after seeing a lack of books catered towards teens and the issues they faced. The Outsiders took the world by storm, becoming a major motion picture and it is, to this day, being used to teach in schools.

Despite all the challenges being young poses, it can be pretty nice to be a young author. You get that much more time to perfect your craft, and learn at a young age what most writers don’t learn until they’re in their 50’s. And of course, what’s more impressive on college applications than, “I’m a published author?”

Some people wonder if like some young actors, young writers will lose their success once they grow older. But that’s not really the case.

Gordon Korman is a former teen writer who at age 12, wrote and published This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, which then turned into a series. At 17, Gordon received an Air Canada Award for promising Canadian authors. And he hasn’t stopped there. Today in his middle-age, Gordan Korman is still whipping out successful books, including some volumes in the bestselling series, “The 39 clues.”

Another good example is Amelia Atwater Rhodes, who wrote YA horror novel, “In the Forests of Night” when she was just thirteen years old. It was published when she was fifteen, but Amelia didn’t stop there. She’s been turning out books practically every year since, and now, in her thirties, she shows no signs of stopping. Her newest book, “Of the Abyss” is her first book for adult readers.

I think it’s fair to say writing has really spiced up the lives of all the authors who I mentioned above. Yet again, not everything changes with a book deal. Thirteen-year-old middle-grade author, Jake Marcionette said this in an interview when asked about how much his life changed with the publication of his debut novel Just Jake: “Not too much. I still have to do the dishes and take out the garbage.”

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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