On Being Old and New, a guest post by Amanda Sellet
In the game of Chutes and Ladders that is publishing, some squares are hard to avoid. “Oops, Your Plot Has a Soggy Middle” for one, or “Womp Womp, Another Form Rejection.”
Other hazards are more personal, lining the unique path each of us takes toward the endgame of A Published Book. For me, one of those was the author photo.
Plot twist: I’ll be 49 when my debut novel releases this May. Although I long since bade adieu to the fantasy of making a 40 Under 40 list, as a YA author I am conscious of writing for young people when I am … less than young myself.
This is not just a surface-level issue, regrets about skin elasticity aside. The whole idea of being a “debut” implies dewy newness, an awkward fit when your lived experience as a Gen X teen qualifies as historical fiction. My pop culture references are from a different century. Far from being a digital native, I grew up blissfully free from the panopticon of social media. In my day (gather round, kids!), colleges sent acceptance letters by mail, on actual paper – and once enrolled, you were almost certainly indoctrinated into the wrong wave of feminism.
Yet surely something has been gained along with the crow’s feet? For perspective, I surveyed several fellow debuts about stepping onto the kidlit stage as a non-ingenue.
Home and Away
Although our own childhoods are disappearing in the rearview mirror, many of us live and/or work with kids every day. As parents and teachers, we have a front-row seat for the fears, fandoms, and (in the case of MG readers) fart jokes that drive today’s youth.
“My 12-year-old son is my biggest writing influence. I craft all my stories for him,” said Adrianna Cuevas. The author of THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ, out July 31, also taught Spanish and ESOL to her target audience for sixteen years.
“It’s much easier to have an authentic MG voice when you’re constantly communicating with your intended readers,” agreed Tanya Guerrero, a writer and parent whose first book, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, released March 31. Guerrero’s prior career developing K-12 educational materials also underscored the importance of representation and diversity in writing for kids.
In some cases, an author’s non-writing career doubled as research for their book.
“I spend a lot of time with young women who are recovering from terrible experiences in school mathematics,” said Amy Noelle Parks, a professor of Mathematics Education at Michigan State University. Her debut, THE QUANTUM WEIRDNESS OF THE ALMOST KISS (out January 5, 2021), offers a different vision: a boarding school full of young women who love math and science.
Betty Culley’s work as a pediatric hospice nurse directly informed her debut novel-in-verse THREE THINGS I KNOW ARE TRUE, which Culley described as, “a book I couldn’t have written before then.”
For Alex Richards, author of the July release ACCIDENTAL, her previous job in TV production “helped bring me out of my shell, talking to strangers, digging deep to find the heart of a story, etc.”
Off-the-job training can also have a profound influence on writing practice.
“I have two kids, a precocious nine-year-old and a severely autistic non-verbal eleven-year-old who needs 24/7 care, which my husband and I share,” explained Jamie Pacton, author of the May release THE LIFE AND (MEDIEVAL) TIMES OF KIT SWEETLY. “Being these particular children’s mother has taught me a lot about long games in life and writing; how to find joy in small things; it’s grown my patience and helped me think about the struggles other people face, even with small things like communicating basic needs.”
Age can also bring a new sense of determination. After years of working in practical (read: more likely to pay) fields like teaching and journalism, Cathleen Barnhart, author of the recent MG release THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO, made a now-or-never decision. “I had a bit of an emotional freak-out and decided that I needed to walk the writer walk, even if I never published anything. I had to own being a writer.”
For many members of the over 40 club, the passing of time also means greater freedom from expectations. Why write literary short stories when you love middle grade, or try to follow the market if your heart isn’t in dystopian YA?
“The writing I did in my 20s and 30s was largely professional,” said Cuevas, “completely devoid of fart and poop jokes. The horror! I was also writing to satisfy my audience, which often led to inauthenticity. Now, I feel secure enough to write stories I enjoy. I don’t think ‘younger me’ would’ve had the courage to do that.”
On Roads Not Taken
The writing landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. Pacton pointed out how much easier it is to find information about the industry now, not to mention the online access points of pitch contests and social media.
On the other hand, there are only so many hours in a day. Parks was getting a Ph.D. while raising a family; Culley wrote her first novel at 18 then went back to school to finish her degree, followed by years spent homeschooling her children while working nights as a labor and delivery nurse.
“Sometimes I regret that I didn’t ‘honor the gift’ during those years,” Culley said, “but the work I did and the life I lived made me the writer I am now.”
Fortunately for all of us, writing isn’t as physically demanding as gymnastics or even opera. Plenty of writers keep working many, many decades past their teen years.
“One thing publishing at this point in my life has done is help me realize that you have lots of time,” said Parks. “Just because you can’t do everything all at once, doesn’t mean you can’t do it all eventually.”
However old you are, fellow writers, take heart. Age has its compensations.
As for the author photo, I hear they have these things called filters nowadays.
Buy BY THE BOOK and other fine titles by authors of all ages from Amanda’s local indie The Raven Book Store: https://www.ravenbookstore.com/
Meet Amanda Sellet
Amanda Sellet had a previous career in journalism, during which she wrote book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU. After a mostly coastal childhood, she now lives in Kansas with her husband, daughter, and cats.
Find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/amandajsellet
Web site: https://www.amandasellet.com/
About BY THE BOOK
In this clever YA rom-com debut perfect for fans of Kasie West and Ashley Poston, a teen obsessed with nineteenth-century literature tries to cull advice on life and love from her favorite classic heroines to disastrous results—especially when she falls for the school’s resident Lothario.
Mary Porter-Malcolm has prepared for high school in the one way she knows how: an extensive review of classic literature to help navigate the friendships, romantic liaisons, and overall drama she has come to expect from such an “esteemed” institution. When some new friends seem in danger of falling for the same tricks employed since the days of Austen and Tolstoy, Mary swoops in to create the Scoundrel Survival Guide, using archetypes of literature’s debonair bad boys to signal red flags. But despite her best efforts, she soon finds herself unable to listen to her own good advice and falling for a supposed cad—the same one she warned her friends away from. Without a convenient rain-swept moor to flee to, Mary is forced to admit that real life doesn’t follow the same rules as fiction and that if she wants a happy ending, she’s going to have to write it herself.
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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