Major yay: I just found out Major Crush has finaled in the YA division of the Aspen Gold contest! I'm riding a streak of good luck with my books. Lately a lot of teens have been asking me for tips on how to get published--now! And because it looks like everything is going so great for me, I think they expect lots of encouragement from me. They have come to the wrong place. Yes, I'm a published novelist. Yes, I started early. A little perspective: I finished my first novel when I was 20. I got my first literary agent when I was 22. I finally sold a book when I was 35.
In all honesty, if you want to make a living as a novelist, my first piece of advice to you would be to run. Away. Screaming!!! It is easier to get into medical school than it is to get a novel published, and being an emergency room physician is probably a lot less stressful. (A little dig at my brother.) The best book I've read on the subject is Pat Walsh's 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might. My critique partner Cathy told me I ought not be recommending this book to people because it's depressing. I think it's realistic, and what doesn't kill you will make you stronger. Because the brutal truth is that, no matter what your age, once you start writing your novel, you probably won't finish it, and if you do, you probably won't be able to get it published.
Now if you read this and feel discouraged, good. Please go forth, major in architecture, be happy. If you read this and think, "That Jennifer Echols! She thinks she is all that! Who is she to tell me I don't have a chance? I'm going to finish my book and get it published no matter what anybody thinks, so there!" then YOU might actually be able to do it. The key here is that potential fame is not a reason to write, because it's probably not going to happen. Potential fortune is not a reason to write, either. Most writers don't make great money. Even if they're lucky enough to get one huge payment for a book, it doesn't amount to much if you look back at all the years they made diddly-squat from their writing. IMHO absolutely the only reason to write is that you LOVE TO WRITE (not love to have finished writing or love the idea of being a writer; there is a big difference), and if you never got published you would write anyway.
Still with me? Then here's my advice:
READ. Read everything you can. You need to write the book you want to read, so you need to have done a lot of reading to figure out what that is. All the published writers I know are book nerds.
WRITE. If you're not ready to start a novel, keep a journal. Write for your school newspaper. Enter short story contests. Be careful what you do online for obvious reasons of security and privacy, but theoretically I think fanfic would be a great way to flex your muscles. A reader mentioned The Boys Next Door fanfic to me and I am scared to go look because I don't really want to know what Lori and Adam have been doing while I have my back turned. But if stories you read or see on TV interest you and you want to continue them in fanfic, give it a shot. My best friend in high school and I used to stay up late rethinking Lois Duncan novels starring us and the boys we had crushes on, and I credit that experience with getting me started as a novelist. It forces you to think hard about what plots you find satisfying and why.
RESEARCH. Read all the books in your library about how hard it is to get a novel published. Be depressed. Be very depressed. Write anyway.
NETWORK. This key element was missing from the first thirteen years of my novel-writing life. I figured it was my book, I wrote it by myself, and I was going to get it published by myself. Well, two literary agents and eight unpublished novels later, I decided that wasn't working for me. So I joined writers' groups and talked to other people who were having the same problems I was having. Behold! I learned how to find and get the attention of a literary agent who could actually sell my work. Again, as always, you need to be careful joining online groups because you never know who's really on the other end of that modem. But if you're careful and tell your mom where you're going, you may gain a lot of benefit from making friends with other writers.
WAIT. Well, not necessarily. There's no reason you can't get published as a teenager. Some publishers may even see your youth as a marketing tool, because teens might want to read books by other teens. There are (as far as I know) positive examples of this like Christopher Paolini with Eragon and negative examples like Kaavya Viswanathan with How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (I haven't read either book but you can Google them to catch up on the respective brouhahas). I would never tell you not to pursue publication as a teenager, because what do I know? I just want you to approach with caution and be realistic. Don't put all your eggs in this rickety basket. What's your hurry? Work hard on your reading and writing, and major in something really interesting in college that can support you if your writing career doesn't. Having your soul stripped bare and kicked around the streets of NYC like a soccer ball is a lot easier to take when you're 35 than when you're 20, I promise. I've been there.