The golden age of science fiction is said to be thirteen–that magical age at which readers discover and fall in love with the genre. But while some of those thirteen year olds become life-long readers, others don’t just want to read it–they want to write it too.
So what drives people to create rather than just consume? And why is it that so many young people with said creative impulse wind up becoming fans of—and, subsequently, creators of—science fiction, fantasy, and horror instead of other genres?
Tor Books editor Liz Gorinsky says that one factor is that aside from a few major exceptions like Harry Potter, there’s still that unfortunate correlation between liking SF/F/H and being socially removed from one’s peers. "Maybe because young people who feel like weirdos are likelier to respond to the keening call of the literature of the weird, or maybe because SF&F really can claim some of the great escapist literature, which is bound to be attractive to adolescents who are bored and frustrated with trying to fit in in middle school," Gorinsky says. "So it seems pretty natural that a certain percentage of those kids would parlay that satisfaction with the literature into a drive to create escapist fantasies of their own. In recent years that phenomenon has been augmented by the droves of teenagers and twentysomethings … who have found resilient, fulfilling communities within fan fiction circles and have consequently taken up writing genre tropes as a form of social commerce, but it’s too soon to tell how many of them will ever try their hands at original fiction."
The most prominent example of a youngster who has tried his hand at original fiction is probably Eragon author Christopher Paolini. Though he wrote Eragon during his teenage years, and he is only now in his early twenties, his books have sold millions of copies worldwide–and have now even been made into successful films.
A more recent success story is Drew C. Bowling, whose novel The Tower of Shadows was published by Del Rey in December 2006. Bowling began writing his novel during his senior year of high school and had sold it (as part of a three book deal) during his freshman year of college.
Even younger than these two is Amelia Atwater-Rhodes; her first novel, In the Forests of the Night, was published in 1999 when she was just fifteen, and she has gone on to publish a new novel every year since then.
These three are among the more high profile young authors, but many others have and currently are achieving success at a young age in the field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. There’s John W. Campbell Award nominee Brandon Sanderson, Stoker Award nominees Brian Freeman (a/k/a James Kidman) and Kealan Patrick Burke, Stephen Chambers, Anselm Audley, Catherynne M. Valente, and Scott Lynch, to name but a few.
So what is the reason for this? Is there something about these genres in particular that makes them more receptive to younger writers?
To get a better understanding of this phenomenon, I spoke with four young authors like those mentioned above, to find out how they managed their success and what’s responsible for it.
Cherie Priest, author of the critically-acclaimed Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Wings to the Kingdom, says that getting an early start helped her achieve writing success while still in her twenties. "I completed my first draft of my first novel when I was fifteen, and oh God help me it was terrible, but I finished it," she says. "I was sure it would make a million dollars, and I was convinced that people would be beating down my door to buy it and turn me into an overnight sensation. [But] I made all the standard etiquette mistakes, I committed every possible query error, and I shattered rules of writing that Strunk & White never even imagined."
Crystal Rain author Tobias S. Buckell says that his success came as a result of focus and goal setting, with lots of hard work and passion for writing. "I’ve seriously wanted to be a writer since I was 15, and certainly thought writing was interesting since even younger," he says. "I have a quote on my desk by H. Jackson Brown that says ‘Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.’ I try to remember that when I complain about not having enough time to work on the things I want to achieve in life."
Tim Pratt, the Hugo Award-winning author of The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Blood Engines, says that starting young and perseverance is what led to his early success. "I started submitting stories in high school, though I didn’t sell anything until the end of college," he says. "You do something long enough, and keep trying to better yourself and expand your skills, and you’ll attain some facility. I really like writing … it’s cheap and easy recreation for me. I didn’t have any strategies, really, except to keep writing and sending stuff out, which is both basic and essential."
Author David Barr Kirtley hasn’t yet attempted a novel, but he achieved great success in the short story market in his teens, which has continued in his twenties. "I’ve been writing fiction regularly since my earliest childhood, so the success I’ve had is the result of two decades of hard work," he says. "First I submitted to contests for young writers. Success there was a strong hint that I possessed an unusual talent, and that made me more confident about taking risks and making sacrifices to nurture that talent. I also investigated the markets for short fiction. I read the magazines and studied their guidelines. I read dozens of books on writing. I took writing classes in college. I attended writers workshops, such as Clarion. I wrote and submitted regularly, and collected dozens of rejections, and didn’t give up. I got to know other young writers, and swapped info on writing techniques and the literary marketplace. I studied the writers I most admired, going so far as to copy out whole novels longhand to examine every detail. I attended author readings, [and] I devoted as much time as I could to reading and writing."
But their successes did not come without sacrifices. Every writer, no matter what age, must give up much of his or her free time in order to write, but for many young people the things they give up are the things they’re most drawn to: Television. Parties. Videogames. "I read and I wrote with most of my free time," Buckell says. "I’m a pretty social person; it was hard at times to pass up on all that fun to keep my eyes on the prize, but I don’t regret those sacrifices for a moment. It was hard at times to sit down and tell myself I had to work for several hours on a story when people were heading out to party …. But I believed in myself, and believed that it would be cool to have my novel sitting on a shelf in a bookstore. And it was every bit as cool as I’d hoped."
Priest struggled with the lack of leisure time as well. "For the last few years, it seems like I’ve had nothing of the sort — because I’m constantly operating under deadlines," she says. "It’s like being a permanent senior in college, with infinite term papers hanging over your head. Every time I sit around and watch a movie, take a nap, lounge in front of the TV, or surf the internet, in the back of my head there’s a little voice saying — ‘You really ought to be working on the edits for that next book.’ … But there’s no such thing as a day off."
Priest and Buckell both used online writing to help with their fiction writing. "One of the things I did was create a blog to chronicle my attempt to become a writer in public back in 1998," Buckell says. "I felt that declaring something in public and trying to achieve it in front of an audience would light a fire under me, as well as keep me on task regarding my goals. And it did just that. And more. The blog spun out of control into becoming a way in which my readers found out about me, and a way for me to interact with them, as well as other authors around me."
"Writing online has done a lot to help hone my sense of audience," says Priest. "It’s one thing to sit at home and type on a laptop, hoarding your words and telling yourself that they’re beautiful; it’s another thing altogether to know with absolute certainty that people are reading and evaluating them. It’s hard to do, at first. It’s tough to put yourself out there and take whatever blows may come. But it’s something you have to get accustomed to — and writing for an internet audience is something of a crash course in finding out what works and what doesn’t."
Writing because you love the work is the only way to approach becoming a writer, Pratt says. "If you don’t get satisfaction from the act of writing — I’m not saying it has to always be fun, but it needs to be satisfying on some level — then quit," he says. "Try not to pay attention to awards, or how many stories your friends or enemies are selling, or any of that stuff. At least, don’t pay it as much attention as you pay the actual work of writing."
Kirtley adds: "No matter how good you are, don’t depend on ever making a cent from writing fiction. Have another source of income. [Also,] If a teacher ever tells you that writing has to be done a certain way, that teacher is wrong."
Speaking of teachers, one reason younger writers may be finding success in the genre is because over the years it has gained more credibility as a viable form of literature. As a result, academic institutions have become more open to including SF in their curriculum. Many colleges offer classes that focus on genre writing or literature. The University of Kansas even has a Center for the Study of Science Fiction, which was founded and is directed by SFWA Grand Master James Gunn–whose efforts are largely responsible for this newfound academic acceptance. Previously many would-be authors were discouraged from writing SF in college, and so gravitated toward other kinds of writing, such as mainstream lit, only to later to return to their first love: SF.
But high schools are now more receptive to genre literature as well, with many works being used as assigned reading. Most of us probably had to read Brave New World, 1984, and Flowers for Algernon in high school–three brilliant science fiction novels that are classified as Literature (with a capital L) rather than science fiction–but it was not until the last ten years or so that high schools have commonly taught modern, core-genre works such as Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Neuromancer by William Gibson, and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.
But is that all that’s responsible for this recent influx of new, young talent in the genre? Perhaps, perhaps not. Could it have something to do with the sheer amount of sophisticated SF that’s available to eager readers? Kirtley thinks so. "When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the very concept was considered so shocking and grotesque that she was widely denounced," he says. "Obviously that society isn’t going to produce a tidal wave of young SF writers. Even my parents’ generation grew up with a relative scarcity of fantasy and science fiction. You could read or watch most of what there was, and it was still something of a fringe interest. By contrast, our generation has come of age in a pop culture landscape in which conceptual audacity is a given. The entire iconography of my childhood, from television (Transformers and Dungeons & Dragons) to movies (Back to the Future and Ghostbusters) to video games (King’s Quest and Metroid) to books (Narnia and Prydain) is that of fantasy and science fiction. Obviously young writers today are going to want to write fiction that reflects the world we grew up in."
Pratt isn’t so sure that the sophisticated SF being published is responsible (because today’s youths aren’t being exposed to it), but instead points to the way SF has flourished in other media. "I think SF is just part of the background noise of the culture now," he says. "The most popular multiplayer gaming sites are fantasy-related (a lot more kids play World of Warcraft than will ever read a book of fiction voluntarily!). Many of the most popular movies of all time are SF and Fantasy (and some of those movies are even based on books, which, as a writer, I find a bit heartening). There’s tons of SF and fantasy stuff on TV. … It’s even becoming more acceptable in college classes, among the intelligentsia; they just gave a MacArthur Genius Grant to a guy [Jonathan Lethem] who published stories in Asimov’s! It’s over, dude. Science fiction won."
Buckell says that a lot of writers in their 20s and 30s seem to have been heavily influenced –or at least tempted into the field–by Star Wars and Star Trek. "I think most of them then go on to find out the amazing breadth beyond those properties that the field has to offer," he says. "I meet a lot of younger writers who started out writing ‘fanfic’ [fan fiction] in those worlds, who then moved on to doing their own original work."
Priest, meanwhile, sees another revolution of sorts: the influx of female readers and writers of SF. "My genre writer buddies [and I have] been talking amongst ourselves about how many young women (in particular) have found their way into genre fiction — even into areas like hard science fiction that have been largely dominated by men, historically speaking," she says. "Our general conclusion is that this is due to the fact that we are the first generation of girls who were raised with strong, sophisticated female role models in genre fiction. We grew up on Princess Leia, Sarah Connor, and Ellen Ripley — and we won’t settle for writing about brass-bra-babes in need of rescue. But … it’s more far-reaching than feminism. Better genre fiction means more genre fiction. More people want to read it so more people want to publish it, and therefore publishers are looking for more people who write it."
So what does this trend mean? It means that the field is in capable hands. Like the authors mentioned above, SFWA Grand Masters Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison all got their publishing careers started at a young age. But will these young turks of today become the titans of tomorrow? It’s too early to say, but their successes show that it can be done, and that if you have the creativity, persistence, and proper work ethic–then you can do it too.
This article originally appeared in Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2008. Some minor updates/corrections were made when posting the article online in January 2008.