Several young writers have recently posted comments asking about whether their novels are the right length for young-adult publishers.
I'm delighted to see so many ambitious writers, and I wish them all every success. But they shouldn't ask me—they should ask the publishers.
Here, for example, are the Penguin Young Readers Group Submission Guidelines.
These guidelines are typical of what you can expect. Yes, they are brutal. Yes, they are discouraging. This is a very tough business. Only a handful of people actually make a living by writing novels, and for the young-adult market the handful is even smaller.
But don't give up. Here's what I suggest you do:
1. Look at who's published the books you really like—the books that made you want to write your own. Google them and look for the link to their submission guidelines. No guidelines? They don't want to hear from you. Don't waste your time. Look elsewhere.
2. If they do offer guidelines, follow them. If they say they look only at manuscripts that agents submit to them, look at sites like WritersNet, which has a page of agents who handle young-adult stories.
3. Do not expect these agents to jump on your manuscript just because you're a kid who wrote a story. Musical prodigies sometimes perform at Carnegie Hall. Literary prodigies almost never break into print.
4. If you do find an agent who actually takes your manuscript, understand that the agent does not expect to make any money from it. The agent will get 15% of your royalties. Fifteen percent of $10,000 is $1,500—not enough to pay the rent for two months, and you're unlikely to earn $10,000 to begin with. The agent hopes that after two or three novels, you might attract enough readers to earn a few thousand dollars in royalties.
5. If you have an agent who's willing to shop your manuscript around, great. But get right to work on the next story, and don't worry about the first one. If it does sell, the publisher will want a follow-up. If it doesn't, the new manuscript will probably be better than the first one.
6. If all else fails, think about this: Almost no teenager publishes a novel. But a teenager who writes a novel knows that it doesn't take your whole life to do it. It's a lot of work, but you can finish a novel in six weeks or six months or a year. Then you can write another one, and another one.
One of my mentors, when I was a kid, was Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter and novelist. His novel Johnny Got His Gun, published almost 70 years ago, is still read and revered as perhaps the greatest American anti-war novel.
Trumbo worked for ten years on the night shift of a Los Angeles bakery in the 1920s and 30s. In that time he wrote six novels and over 80 short stories. None of them sold. Finally he sold a short story. Then another. He wrote Johnny in six weeks while also working as a screenwriter.
He couldn't have written it as a teenager, or as a first novel. He needed to write a lot of fiction, novels and short stories, just to teach himself the craft.
So I'm delighted that you're writing a novel, or that you've finished one. By all means try to find a publisher, but don't give up just because the first one turns you down.
If you want to succeed in this business, Trumbo told me, you need just two things: ego and energy. You need to think that the ideas in your head are so important that the rest of the world ought to know about them. And you need the energy to write and market them, which may take years.
If you're in your teens and already writing novel-length fiction, chances are you have both ego and energy. So keep at it. Write what matters to you, and eventually some publisher will realize that it will matter to a lot of readers as well.