Too Hot to Handle

For young writers, the dangers of shining too brightly, too early

At 15, Ned Vizzini began writing about his personal experiences—camp adventures, first-time smoking, playing Nintendo, and trying to talk to girls—while a student at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan**. After a few of his essays ran in The New York Times Magazine and New York Press, an independent book publisher in Minnesota contacted Vizzini about publishing a compilation of the stories.

At 19, Vizzini had those stories published in his first book, Teen Angst? Nah . . . : A Quasi-Autobiography.

At 23, he wrote Be More Chill, a novel about a teenager who swallows a mini-computer that teaches him how to be cool. That brought him a two-book contract .

Six months later, he had a nervous breakdown.

"I guess 'nervous breakdown' is the right term," says Vizzini. "Yeah, that pretty much covers all the bases." While trying to write another book, he explains, he was battling depression and having trouble dealing with the pressure of fulfilling his contract, worried that he had already done his best work and that people wouldn't be as interested in him anymore when the novelty of his youth had worn off.

Vizzini sees that as the downside of getting books published at such a young age, and the fear is ever present in his mind. He says being published left him with big questions about where he could go next when other people spend their whole lives trying to get where he was. "That's not to say it was a curse. I mean, Dickens wrote his first book when he was in his early twenties," says Vizzini. "But you can get published young, flame out, and never get it back."

Even with that possibility, publishers, attracted to the prospect of finding the next fresh voice, seem to love the idea of young—sometimes very young—authors. Just this year, students from Barnard College, Brown University, and Harvard University have received book deals from both independent and major book publishers.

Then there's The Notebook Girls, a sort-of diary written by four teenage girls who chronicled their daily lives while students at Stuyvesant High School. Warner Books published the notebook in April, and it's now being made into a television show.

Readers seem simultaneously impressed and envious when young people achieve publication, which would explain the public fascination with another young author: Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan. Earlier this year, she received seemingly endless media attention first for landing a $500,000 book deal and later for plagiarizing passages of her novel.

Book contracts and the fame, optimism, and expectations that come with them can become too much for student authors. Viswanathan's case is an extreme one, but there's no denying the pressure that book deals can put on young people who initially write as a hobby. When Vizzini started writing his stories as a teenager, he wrote what he knew about—an approach many new authors take for their first books. But Vizzini never really expected to get published.

"It was just a bunch of stupid shit that happened in high school, and I wrote it all down," says Vizzini.

When the book came out, Vizzini almost immediately became disillusioned with the experience. "Right from the beginning, I was thrown into a world where whoring myself was the only option," says Vizzini. By that, he means he had to promote the book, spending all his free time distributing flyers and doing readings at bookstores and schools.

Vizzini then signed on with literary agent Jay Mandel at William Morris Agency, wrote Be More Chill, and received a two-book deal with Hyperion. The publicity and book promotion continued, but Vizzini lost interest. "The responsibilities eclipsed the fun of it," he says.

Then, when he was trying to write his next book to fulfill his contract, the pressure became too great. He thought about committing suicide and checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in November 2004 for five days. For Vizzini, there was too much to live up to. "Having a book published so young means you aren't made to rely on the charm, guts, and social skills that artists need," he says. "You've been delivered what everyone's been going for."

Vizzini's hospital stay ended up providing the inspiration for his third book, a novel about a young boy who has done everything he can to be admitted to an elite school but who becomes suicidal when he realizes his intellect no longer stands out among his peers. It's Kind of a Funny Story came out this year. Paramount bought the rights and is working on a movie.

It's perhaps easier for lesser-known young authors to handle their accomplishments. Caroline Woods wrote Haunted Delaware, a collection of ghost stories, when she was 16. She promoted the book herself to libraries and schools and has sold more than 4,000 copies. Woods, however, self-published her book using print-on-demand, so there were no six-figure contracts.

Woods, now 23, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, and an assistant to literary agent Sheree Bykofsky in Manhattan, has an optimistic view of her career with dreams of becoming a full-time novelist. She has just finished another book, titled Influence, a love story set during the 1918 flu pandemic; she started the book while studying abroad in Italy as an undergraduate. Bykofsky is representing her and has submitted the manuscript to book editors.

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