One writer wrote to say, “I’m only twenty. How much, if at all, does my young age affect how seriously agents and editors will consider my fiction manuscript?”
When I look at a manuscript, I generally review the words first. I always figure I have to like the writing before we explore much of anything else. Most agents and editors will approach things that way, I think — so they’ll have no idea how old you are when they take that first look at your proposal. (In fact, I’m wondering why I’d need to know an author’s age… most writers don’t include that in their proposal.) So at least initially, your age isn’t going to matter much at all. What will matter is the idea and the writing.
If it’s fiction, the writing will matter first. If it’s nonfiction, they’ll probably review the idea first, then look at your writing. If they don’t like it, you’ll get a rejection notice and that will be the end of it — nobody will even know your age. But if they like your project, they’ll start looking at your platform and how you’d go about supporting your book. That’s when I suppose your age could matter. The publisher is basically want to know if you can help them market and sell your book. And this system is pretty well the same whether you are twenty or fifty or eighty.
That said, there’s a practical matter that needs to be brought up: Most twenty-year-olds don’t have enough life experience to create a good book. I’m sorry if that sounds impolite, but I’ve found it to be true. I think there is a depth that comes with age and experience, and it’s why there are almost no successful novelists in their early twenties, and even fewer nonfiction writers. They normally don’t yet have the maturity to know their own voice or bring their experience to bear on the project at hand.
I tend to think college writing programs flatten out writing voice by suggesting there is a “right” way to write. Many students take the courses, determine the correct way to write, and lose their voice. It takes time and experience to gain (or regain) that unique voice. And that, coupled with the fact that many writers in their early twenties haven’t had enough hard experiences to add depth to their character, has mitigated against the success of younger novelists. But that’s not to say it can’t happen. Shelagh Delaney was 18 when she penned A Taste of Honey, Mary Shelley was 19 when she wroteFrankenstein, and more recently we’ve seen 18-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s Icarus Girl. Still, it’s proven to be a steep hill to climb.