Tuesday, 9 March 2010


I'm going to add an addendum (what else?) to yesterday's post about whether the age of an author matters.

It seems to matter much more in children's / YA writing. This is borne out by conversations yesterday with children's agents.

Of course, there are many successful older writers for children. One of my closest friends is Vivian French, who is older than she looks (Viv, if you read this, we are only talking over 50 btw, not actually "old" - and you don't even look 50! A neat 45, if you ask me) and hugely prolific and successful - I never think of her as being any older than me, but she is, the lovely woman. In fact, if you'd like to read one of Viv's current super-modern fabulous works, you can do no better than take a look at the gorgeous The Robe of Skulls (Tales from the Five Kingdoms)series.

But, importantly for this point, Viv and other writers "of a certain age" have been doing this for years and know exactly what they're doing. They keep very up-to-date with what's happening in children's writing. Not because they should but because they love it and respect it.

However, too many older writers, especially debut ones, simply don't. You would not believe the number of people who retire and think they'd like to write some cute stories for their grandchildren in their retirement. They think it's so easy - after all, how hard can it be to replicate the little stories of one's youth? Very hard, is how. And if you think of them as little stories you're already lost. You would not believe the derivative crud that too many would-be writers come up with. I have seen it and wept.

This is not about physical age but voice, and just as actors may have voice-training, authors need it, too. Especially children's authors. And voice takes practice and is harder to achieve for the first time if you're older, trying to write for children. It's by no means impossible, but it is harder. The only way to do it is to read the right books voraciously and analytically. And to practise. Vivian French has been practising for years. And writers like her and Joan Lingard (another friend) are trusted because they've got the voice right and know what they're doing. There are many, many others, some of them friends of mine, but I'm not even going to mention them here in case they don't want to talk about age... The point is, they have earned their right to be published by years of practice and honing that voice and keeping up-to-date with what is required of modern writers.

But for those of you who haven't been published yet and are trying to write for children and teenagers, please note: anyone can be a modern writer, whatever one's age. But are you a modern writer or are you mired in the past? Because as an older writer you will have to try extra hard to prove that you're not stuck in the past, because - and here's where the prejudice comes - agents and publishers will suspect that you are, if they know that you are an older, unpublished writer aspiring to write for children. This may be unfair, and you may be wonderfully in tune with modern requirements, but they have learnt the statistical truth: that you are more likely to sound fuddy-duddy, and fuddy-duddy is out.

So, while it's not about age but outlook and modernity, it is the case that too many older writers for young people simply refuse to "write modern." It's not about being trendy or tacky - it's about being fresh and not being fuddy-duddy, patronising and twee. The refusal to move with the times means that agents and publishers end up being inundated with old-fashioned writing from older writers.

There's only one answer: get with it, folks! Keep your ears open, and read modern books in genre. Your age should not shine through in your voice. Your age should be entirely irrelevant and invisible.

I still come back to a previous point: why tell them your age?? Let them see your fabulous writing first and then discover your age later.

On the other hand, I'm afraid it's often rather easy to guess the author's age from the writing... You have been warned.


catdownunder said...

Yeak, it's like you have to have this like totally cool teen-speak and like you got to understand the issues... :-)
I have been trying to listen to what teenagers say - and not just what they say to me. (They actually use at least three or four quite distinct 'languages'.)
I am also trying to remember my own joys, confusion and misery at that age as well. The only thing to be said for my efforts so far is that a 19 yr old did "like totally understand" my birthday greetings - and I understood his response.
Oh why oh why did I ever get started on this? The problem is I do not actually feel old enough to write a book for grown ups! :-)

Stroppy Author said...

All good stuff...:-) But maybe having my 50th birthday party in a room borrowed from Faber was slightly rash - like shouting 'hey, publishers all, look how old I am!'

When I first starting to meet other children's writers in the flesh I was surprised at how old we all are. OK, I know some are not as old as me... but lots are, and older. I always rather liked that - it's not an area full of just young people.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

So, Nicola, you're saying I should be reading something other than the Bobbsey Twins? How about Nancy Drew? The original 1930's version? haha jk!

Lauri said...

My first romance novella (targetted to young black SA women) is coming out next month and when I submitted it to the publisher in their acceptance letter they ask me my age, they were surprised when I told them 46. They thought I was about the age of my protaganist- 26. I think I got the voice right.

Catdownunder- it's not about writing in teen-speak. If you do that you'll be cutting your legs off before you get in the door. Books take about 2 years to get from manuscript to the shelf and teenspeak changes daily. Teens, like all readers, can recognise a fraud and they don't like it.

Sally Zigmond said...

Yep. It's attitude rather than age that counts.

I have come across debut writers who say things like: 'My grandchildren just love my stories and these young publishers are still wet behind the ears.' Or even worse, 'Children are forced to grow up too soon these days and have to read nasty, scary stuff. I love enchant little people with my sweet stories about Susie Spider and Florentina Fly.'

Whilst this is condensed and seems highly exaggerated, it's typical of some older writers I've met who think they know better because they are older and wiser.

I am probably the oldest writer here. I may look my age (I don't care, quite frankly!) but I like to think I keep up pretty well with the times and modern technology even if I don't use it all. And most of what I read is what is in the bookshops now.

But then again, I don't write YA or Children's books. Nor do I broadcast my age although I'm perfectly relaxed about stating it--unless I find the question rude or irrelevant.

Thomas Taylor said...

All good points. I met an aspiring children's writer (of that certain age) recently who told me in great detail that 'young people today' lack moral guidance, and that she intends to supply it with her fiction.

Good luck to her, and gawd help those at the pointy end of her writing!

SF said...

Ah, I was wondering about the children's/YA aspect of yesterday's post. Thanks for the addendum! As I suspected, the gist is, 'Age matters, but it doesn't matter'.
If I ever submitted a manuscript, I wouldn't put my age on it. It's like putting your age on your CV - just asking for pre-judgements!

Nicola Morgan said...

Catdownunder - nooooooooooooooooooo! When have I EVER, in about a quarter of a million words on this blog, EVER said you have to write in any way the same as how a young person speaks?? Never! In fact, on the occasions when i talk about writing for teenagers I specifically say you should not do this.

I'm glad Lauri made this point,too. I read your (Cat's) comment while I was out at a meeting and i have been desperate to get back to my desk and set you straight.

I am like so totally going to have to do a post about this!

(btw - teenagers use as many different languages as any other age-group - it's not distinct but very very fluid, as language is. We have to try to take a snapshot and make it reflect a generality.)

Writing in a non-old-fashioned voice is about things like sentence structure, syntax, sentence length, topic, lack of moralising. Writers who are not in tune with modern books (NOT modern teenspeak, but modern books) will tend to write in an old-fashioned Enid Blytonesque (eg) way. It's something you have to absorb by the doing of it, rather than have me outline any "rules".

Stroppy - I agree: lots and lots of us "of a certain age". Unpublished authors need to get the voice right, not have face-lifts!

KarenG - !

Sally - yep, it's attitude. Writing for young people tends to bring out the worst in a beginner writer. It's agents and publishers for children who see the worst examples of poor voice, and often (but not always) it is age/attitude-related.

Lauir - hooray!

Welshcake said...

Nicola, you say: "they keep very up-to-date with what's happening in children's writing. Not because they should but because they love it and respect it."

This is SO important, IMHO. I've come across a few aspiring children's/YA authors who don't seem to have a true love of children's literature and don't read it.

Emma Darwin said...

Another good post - makes it so clear! I don't write YA, but it applies to all of us.

Catherine Hughes said...

Can I make a suggestion? I work with a small group of teenage beta readers - my article on them was in last month's Writers' Forum, which I think is still on the shelves.

I don't use much teen speak in my YA novels. And yet, the teens who read them for me say the way I write works for them. They pick up on my biggest flaw, which is to avoid using contractions in direct speech when my teenage characters certainly would. My teen team help me to ensure that I get the voice right and, so far, that hasn't involved any, totally, like, teenagerisms in my characters speech!

It does, however, involve the use of a certain brand of humour and in subtly manifesting the fact that most teenagers are more vulnerable than they might portray themselves to be. It's hard to put my finger on exactly how the teen team have helped me to get it right (if, indeed, I have) but I know I'd do a hell of a lot worse without them.

It helps that I have kids of that age, but drag a niece / nephew / teenager off the street in to help you and see what I mean!


Precision Grace said...

I'm going to be 39 soon. Hold your gasps fair maidens, it is not a crime! (I think. Haven't checked. It may very well be, what with the young people nowadays rebelling against free bus passes and what not).

And I often think to myself (it's ever so hard to think to someone else), how nice it would be to write (and have published) on of those nice little stories for short noisy people (no, not dwarves). But now you tell me this is not easy and that I may very well be too old and out of touch with what little noisy people's parents want to buy?!

Another dream squished.

*like, sigh*

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm a substitute teacher, so I spend a lot of time with teens and preteens. I think this keeps me current on the age and reminds me of what it's like to be them. My biggest gripe about "kids today" is they all have cell phones and they're constantly texting - which doesn't work well in a book.

catdownunder said...

OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH! Misunderstood again - despite the smile at the end of it. What I was trying to say is that you have to LISTEN to - NOT NOT NOT write the way they actually speak. (It would be unreadable.) You have to be able to understand the different languages they speak. I do not mean the vocabulary or the slang - that is something different. I was so sure Nicola, of all people, would understand what I meant.
Oh, I am going to curl up in a little ball and give up trying to communicate with humans. It's all my fault too.

Anonymous said...

My name is Ciaranne and I am nearly 12 and Catdownunder asked me to say this before I go to school. She told me about what you are saying because we talked about it before when she wrote a book for me. It was a realy good book and everyone in my class and lots of other girls read it.
We dont want to read lots of the specail words we use. I think that is called slang. What we want is for you to make it sound like you understand us so you have to listen to us talking to us and not just to you.
If this does not make sense then Cat can explain some more and she is good at listening to us. From Ciaranne.

catdownunder said...

Hope that is okay with you Nicola. She came out with the "you have to listen to us talking to us and not just to you". I thought it was too good not to share so I let her loose before she left - but did not check her spelling or ask for the endorsement! If you don't want her paw prints here please wipe them.
Everyone else, no she is not my daughter! Ciaranne is a neighbour's child

Nicola Morgan said...

hello Ciaranne - thank you for getting in touch but Cat has got the wrong end of the stick! I don't know how I can say it more clearly so that she will understand: we KNOW that we aren't meant to use slang and talk like teenagers. This post was NOT about using teenage language or sounding like a teenager and I have tried to make that clear but obviously not clear enough. I don't know what else I can say because I keep saying it. If Cat looks at the things I've said about writing for teenagers she would see.

It's NOT your fault and I'm not cross with you at all, I promise, because you haven't been reading the blog so you don't know me - but believe me, I have always said that when adults write for teenagers they should not be trying to sound like teenagers. It's not what we do as professional writers.

I do understand young people. I was a teenager once and I am a mother. I read teenage fiction and listen very very hard. I have also written two books about the brain, one about the teenage brain and one about younger brains. I have had about 90 books published for young people and my readers have never once told me I didn't write in the right way for young people.

Please tell Cat that she has not understood what I'm saying but I don't know what else to say!

catdownunder said...

Nicola! All this reminds me of a lecture in law school. The lecturer was not getting the point across. As the tutor was going to be absent some of us had been to a tutorial prior to the lecture. I ended up asking the lecturer 23 questions in a row (someone else kept count) in order to get the point across to everyone else. The problem was that he could not find another way to say what he was saying.
I think we are at the same sort of cross purposes here. Let me see if I can put it differently and not be like the lecturer. If I get it wrong this time tell me to stop plastering cat hair on your pages.
What I was trying to say is:
(1) We need to listen to teenagers talking to us, talking to each other, talking to other adults in a variety of settings. It is hard to hear.
(2) This is not about their vocabulary or sentence structure but about the underlying language they use. We do not have to write that language but we have to be able to understand it in order to communicate because writing is about receiving as well as sending messages.
(3) No, we do not want to sound like them because that would be talking down to them and it would date what was written very rapidly.
(4) Nicola, is there just a small, small possibility that the word I should have used is 'voice' as in getting it right?
If that is not right then there is no hope for me. My tail and whiskers are drooping.
Humble apologies everyone. For a would be writer I am clearly not very good at getting my message across.

Jo Franklin said...

This is a very interesting post for me. I attend a writing for children workshop every week. I absolutely love it and love the other attendees and get very involved with what they are writing.

This workshop is in the day - the attendees are therefore people who are able to go to college in the day - a lot of those people are retired.

The standard of writing in the workshop is varied. Some are published writers, some deserve to be published and some probably won't ever make it. But I can honestly say that age has nothing to do with it. Some of the older writers have greater experience and write better than the younger ones.

I count myself as one of the younger ones. I'm sure that I was the youngest in the class one term - aged 42.

And I agree whole heartedly with Nicola. It's imperative to read up to date fiction so that as a writer you move with the times.

With picture book writers, I think that bringing stories of grannies to the table has it's own charm. Often Grannies are buying or reading the books. But equally we have one writer who has just sold his book with a heavy emphasis on toilet humour.

And when one of my friends sighs and says 'I'll be dead before I see this series in print,' I just tell him to get on with living and writing the damn thing. Which he is doing most excellently.

I think if anyone is concerned about their own age they should keep quiet about it. Get that agent/publisher hooked with your great contemporary tale and uuber pitch letter and they will go with it - even if they won't sign you up to a 5 book deal.

Crikey, all this talk makes me realise I better get on with my WIP before I hit the bit five oh.

adele said...

Following this thread with interest as I will be 66 in less than a week and not a bit ashamed to admit it! My YA novels have mostly been historical (by which I mean even the Sixties)!

For my adult novels which are all contemporary at least in part,I run the ms past my daughters (one of whom is a Fiction Editor!) who are very good at telling me when my characters are 'speaking' or 'thinking' in a non-modern way!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I have a fourteen year old reader. :) Hopefully, she'll keep me young (ish).

Anonymous said...

Very interesting but I would take issue with the Crabbit over her understanding of what the Cat wrote. It is not the way I read it at all. I took the Cat's comments as referring to the underlying language, not the surface words. (I assumed that the "Smile" at the end of the first sentence was intended as a bit of fun, a statement not to be taken seriously.)
I think the Cat has raised a very serious issue and it was dismissed much too rapidly. Language is not just what appears on the surface. YA do not use language in the way adults use it. Those of us who wish to write for them need to be aware of the way they use it even if we do not or should not use it.

Nicola Morgan said...

"Anonymous" (not sure why you need to be anonymous but never mind - it's your right!) - first, I haven't dismissed Cat's point, simply pointed out that she's entirely missed my point and it's very important (to me) that I make myself clear. Second, Cat did say, "it's like you have to have this like totally cool teen-speak and like you got to understand the issues... :-) I have been trying to listen to what teenagers say" - which seems to me to refer to teen-speak, and my point is that that is not what I was saying. She also then uses, in quotes, the phrase "like totally understand", which again is not about underlying language as you suggest, but actual language. Cat's friend, Ciaranne, then also made a point which suggested that I had not misunderstood Cat's point!

All I care about is that my orginal meaning was not muddied: I was not talking about teenage language, but the voice of the story, which is not the same as the voice(s) of teenagers. I am talking about modern story-telling, not modern speaking. I want to make that absolutely clear. So, in order to make sure that everyone understood that this is not about "teen-speak" (Cat's word), I needed to rectify that.

I have not dismissed her point, just corrected what looked very much like a misunderstanding of my point. Cat and I know each other and if I say "noooooooo" i hope she realises that there's a smile on my crabbit face when I say it! But I will keep correcting any example which I find where my message has been misunderstood - and yes, I admit I have now become a bit frustrated by this because this is a separate issue and i've said I'll blog about it separately. Remember: this post was about author age, not teenage language. I was encouraging writers to read modern books, not go round listening to teenagers in order to copy them!

I'd hate this to be an argument but I need to keep saying this. Cat may have raised an interesting issue but it's not what I was talking about and it's very clear that there was a direct misunderstanding of my point, which I don't condemn or dismiss anyone for.

I make my point again from a comment: "Writing in a non-old-fashioned voice is about things like sentence structure, syntax, sentence length, topic, lack of moralising. Writers who are not in tune with modern books (NOT modern teenspeak, but modern books) will tend to write in an old-fashioned Enid Blytonesque (eg) way. It's something you have to absorb by the doing of it, rather than have me outline any "rules".

catdownunder said...

Yes Anonymous(e) - careful I will chase you of you come out of your mousehole!
I should not have teased Nicola by using teen-speak because it did lead to a misunderstanding - my fault. I would never use teen-speak or 'modern' slang when I was actually writing something. I do not want to sound like Enid Blyton OR Jane Austen!