Tips for 20-Something Writers

If you’re a fiction or memoir lover, you have probably, at some point, fallen in love with a 20-Something title. Three favorites of ours: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar and one hilariously well-written debut, Girls in White Dresses.

Even if a 20-Something book is written by a 40-Something, it’s still perhaps one of the hardest genres to sell—maybe because its primary audience increasingly reads content on Facebook and blogs, which offer so much dishing-all that, well, why would you need to read it elsewhere? (Ironically, according to this report, Gen Y seems to be leading in terms of overall book buying.)

Do readers want a story that is aspirational but characters who are not always? Very possibly. If the heroine of the novel is too precious, polished, or perfect, makes no blunders, has only happy endings—well, they’re just not so likeable, are they? The best 20-Something characters can be down-on-their-luck and still, with exquisite wry humor, make us laugh. And they’re usually tough, not wallowing in pain the way our 20-Something selves may be.

Agents, receiving more submissions in the history of books than ever before, are seeing more and more proposals and manuscripts written by, or about, 20-Somethings. Before you seek representation, here are a few pointers that might be helpful to consider.

Write what you know…in limited capacity
Unless you’re writing a memoir, be imaginative. Observe others carefully; particularly those older than you. Maybe their stories are the ones you want to be telling.

Beware of “I”
Particularly in memoir, but also in fiction, a repetitive “I” can easily tire readers. Too many “I’s” usually also signals too much exposition – “I felt,” “I thought,” “I saw” etc. Try to let your characters’ behavior speak for itself. Use imagery and setting to show mood. If you’re seeing too many “I’s” on the page, cut these down to what’s absolutely crucial to be rendered in the first person.

Toughen your characters
Ask yourself: is the leading character of my novel too good? Does he make mistakes? As we watch his progression, do we feel happy, sad, and angry with him at various moments? Does he make us laugh? You don’t want a character that alienates his or her reader for having an impossibly good, or bad, life.

Make sure internal monologue and external dialogue are in equal balance
Many 20-Something books we see are either too dialogue-driven without the balance of reflection, or too self-reflexive without the “action” of dialogue. Remember that with a good book, you are creating a world, not just a life.  Only by going deeply into the minds of characters can we truly know them; dialogue achieves the limit of this, by demonstrating characters’ reactions. Conversely, too much inner monologue can be far worse in slowing the pace of a book, and creating a character that risks too much navel-gazing.

What is your favorite 20-Something book? Tell us @lucindalitnyc


Michele Sullivan

Michele Sullivan is the President of Caterpillar Foundation, the philanthropy arm of heavy equipment giant Caterpillar Corporation that has contributed over 685 million dollars worldwide to alleviate poverty. She has been named as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in U.S. Philanthropy and has served as a U.S. delegate to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Sullivan's forthcoming title LOOKING UP (HarperCollins) expands on her popular TED talk "Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness," highlighting the importance of perspective, making the first move, finding one's village, and learning to ask for help in life and business.