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Writing The First Chapter Of A Debut Teen Novel, by Janet Edwards

Every chapter of a novel is important but the first chapter has more work to do than any of the others. It has to do a host of things including introduce at least one character, hint at what sort of story you are telling and establish the setting. If your story isn’t taking place in the everyday world of today but in a different period of history, or a fantasy or future world, then just establishing the setting can be a major task.

The first chapter has to give the reader a lot of information, but in the right way. This is where the reader gets their first impressions of your story and your characters. Even more importantly if this is a debut novel, the reader is getting their first impressions of you as an author. Those first impressions really matter. This is when a reader decides whether or not you are a trustworthy guide to lead them on a journey through your story world.

Years ago I was at a writers group where someone read aloud the first chapter of the novel he was writing. During the discussion afterwards the author said something that I’ve always remembered. He said, “People have to keep reading until I choose to explain that in chapter five.” I was still very new to writing then but I instantly thought that those words were totally wrong.

People only have to keep reading a book in a few cases, such as where it’s required reading for school or college. The majority of readers are perfectly free to stop reading one book and choose another, or to do something else entirely. Teen readers in particular have lots of things competing for their attention. They are especially likely to abandon a book by a new author during the first chapter, because they’ve invested no time in the book, have no emotional link to the characters and have no previous experience to give them confidence in the author.

The first chapter has to introduce your story, it has to do it in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading and it has to build their trust in you as an author. Imagine the reader as a nervous passenger in your car. They’ve no experience of you as a driver, so they’re watching you suspiciously. If you start by driving through a red light they’re going to want you to stop the car and let them out. If you give them a smooth ride for a few minutes they’ll relax and start enjoying the journey.

This is why there is so much advice about how you shouldn’t start a book. There are certain things that are the writing equivalent of driving through a red light: instantly recognisable clichés that send alarm bells to the reader, starting with the weather, beginning with a scene that turns out to be a dream or having your character describe their appearance while looking in a mirror.

These appear at the top of every list of how not to start a book, and for good reasons. You can break any rule in writing if you do it well enough but you have to be an extremely good and original writer to carry off one of the major cliché beginnings without shaking the confidence of your reader.

The lists usually continue with other advice such as: don’t start with pure description, don’t start with a flashback and don’t start with your character alone in a room. Again there are good reasons behind all of these but they are about the potential difficulties of writing the scene. The reader, especially the teen reader, will get impatient with too much pure description. Flashbacks involve time jumps that can be confusing or irritating. A character alone in a room can be extremely boring.

If you believe one of these is the best way to start your story then you just have to dodge the potential problems that could annoy your reader and make it work. I started my debut novel, Earth Girl, with an angry girl alone in a room. It worked.


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Writing Teen Novels

Studying Creative Writing And Learning To Write Novels, by Steven Lochran

More than once I’ve been approached by an aspiring writer asking my opinion about studying Creative Writing at a tertiary level. Given the time and money it takes to attain a qualification, is it worth it?

I should say right off the bat that I majored in Creative Writing. Based on my experience I’d happily recommend it (no, I don’t get a kickback from my university for saying so – though if someone would like to get in touch with me, I have no qualms whatsoever about bribery).

Just because it worked for me it doesn’t mean that I see it as the only way to become a professional writer. There are plenty of authors out there who bypassed tertiary education altogether, dove straight into the business of being a writer and found tremendous success at it. It’s by no means a necessity to make it as a writer.

The benefit to formally studying Creative Writing is that it takes years and years of development and condenses it into an intensive, highly-focused period that exposes the student to multiple forms of writing and reading. The skills you develop through ten years of practice can be distilled down into three, provided you study hard enough, or you invent a time machine, but I’d probably stick with the study option.

When I was at uni, I tried my hand at feature writing, copywriting and sub-editing. I read brilliant books that I otherwise may never have given a chance, and learnt how to deconstruct a text by examining its intentions, its meaning and its execution.

In short, I was guided through the world of being a writer by people who were writers themselves and I was provided a knowledge base that serves me to this day, directly informing the writer I’ve become. But it was a costly experience (which I’m still paying off) and isn’t exactly a luxury that everyone can afford, unless, once again, you’ve invented a time machine (in which case you’re loaded and a Time Lord who doesn’t need my advice).

If you’re uncertain about studying Creative Writing at a university level, you can always look at a short-term course, but even simpler than that would be a writer’s group. They’re easier to find than ever before thanks to the internet, and can provide direction in a way you’d never benefit from on your own. It’s not always easy to hear other people’s opinions on your work, but it’s always invaluable.

If even that level of commitment is a challenge, I’d recommend simply being a student of life. Read a lot. Write a lot. Examine the stories you engage with and analyse what makes them work. Pull apart stories that don’t work and ascertain why. Don’t mindlessly consume. Enquire. Be curious. It’s only through being engaged that you yourself can become an engaging writer.

It’s only a time-flux capacitor that makes time travel possible.

…I’m sorry. I’ll stop now.


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Writing Teen Novels

Why I Write Novels For Teens, by Emma Pass

When I was a teenager, ‘teen’ as a distinct literary genre didn’t exist on the scale it does now. At my local library, you could find series like Sweet Valley High and the Point Horror books, along with the occasional ‘issue’ novel, but when you got tired of the children’s section (where these books were also shelved) you moved on to adult books without a backward glance. By the time I realized I wanted to be an author, aged 13, I was existing on a steady diet of Stephen King, Michael Crichton and various other thriller and SF writers, and the stories I wrote were full of grown up characters doing grown up things.

As I got older, I started experimenting with different types of writing. Maybe I should be a crime writer. What about poetry? How about writing literary fiction? I even, very briefly, toyed with an idea for a picture book. Nothing worked. I was trapped on one side of a thick glass wall, with the writer I wanted to be on the other side. I could see her, but I had no idea how to get there.

Then I went on a weekend course run by a well-known children’s and teen author. I’d never come across her before, so, not wanting to appear ignorant, I read some of her books before the course started. It wasn’t so long since I’d been a teenager myself, and as soon as I started to read, I was hooked. Here was a writer expressing the rollercoaster emotions of those years exactly. After the course – which was fun and inspiring – I visited the teenage section in my local library and bookshop and discovered that, in the years I’d been struggling to become a writer for adults, teen literature had quietly grown into a genre in its own right.

It was around that time that it occurred to me that perhaps I should try rewriting the literary novel I’d been struggling with – which, coincidentally, featured a teenager as the main character – as a teen novel.

The novel wasn’t any good. In fact, it was terrible. But it was the first project I’d had fun with in as long as I could remember. The first characters I really connected with. The first ‘proper’ novel I ever finished, redrafted (seven times!) and queried. By the time it was done, I knew I had found ‘my’ genre, and I knew I had, at last, broken through the glass wall.

So what do I enjoy most about writing teen novels? Firstly, it’s the characters. I remember being a teenager so clearly – what a strange time it is, when the adults around you often treat you like a child, yet you’re expected to assume adult responsibilities and deal with problems that often feel far too big for you to cope with. It’s a unique space to be in, where everything is new and challenging and intense, and for me that makes writing for and about teens utterly fascinating.

Then there’s the sheer scope. A quick glance at the teen fiction section in any bookshop or library will show you that you can write about anything. You can write about teenagers in space or teenagers on the run from sinister police forces or teenagers fighting zombies or teenagers just going about their ordinary lives, and all the challenges that brings. There are no limits. Someone once asked me, “When are you going to start writing for grownups?” My answer? Not yet. Possibly never. I’m having far too much fun!


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Writing Teen Novels

Writing Science Fiction For Both Teens And Adults, by Janet Edwards

When I began writing my debut book, Earth Girl, my aim was to write something that would appeal to both teens and adults. Achieving that meant working out what I needed to do differently for a teen reader from an adult reader, and finding a way to successfully combine the two. This didn’t just involve general issues, such as character ages and dialogue, but some that were genre specific. I was writing science fiction. I started thinking through my story, considering what I’d have to change to make it appeal to teen readers.

Earth Girl is set on Earth over seven hundred years in the future. After the invention of interstellar portals, people live on hundreds of colony worlds scattered across space. Obviously, I had to mention interstellar portals, and refer to other future technology as well. Did I need to simplify that technology for teen readers? Of course I didn’t. Teens today have social lives that revolve around constantly changing technology.

The future Earth I was describing was very different to our world now. Did I need to simplify my world building for teen readers? Again my answer was no. Teens are as good as, or better than, adults at picturing and identifying with imaginary worlds.

My story was about a girl who was among the one in a thousand people whose immune systems couldn’t survive anywhere other than the semi-abandoned Earth. For the norms who could portal freely between other worlds, Jarra was a second class citizen, a ‘throwback’. Teens might have less experience of some things than adults, but they’d understand perfectly about someone being the one left out, rejected and called names.

I considered a whole list of things, but eventually I came down to just one key difference between my adult and teen readers. Almost every adult reading my book would have read dozens, if not hundreds, of other science fiction books. A significant number of teens reading my book would be reading science fiction for the very first time.

That was the one key point I kept in my head when writing Earth Girl. There were no limits on what I could write about, but I had to make everything clearly understandable to someone reading science fiction for the first time, while not boring others who’d been reading it for years with explanations they didn’t need. That was a challenge. I had to watch every word I used, but authors should be watching every word anyway.

I actually hit my biggest problem in my second book, Earth Star, because of one particular word: arcology. Using it would mean a great deal to some of my readers familiar with science fiction, but nothing at all to others. My main character, Jarra, was talking about a place called Ark. I needed her to use the word arcology, to show where Ark got its name, but I had to have her use it in a way that was self-explanatory. I added a few extra words in her dialogue that some readers won’t need, but which tell others that an arcology is a closed, self-sufficient habitat. In the case of Ark, it’s underground with its own recycled air and water.

I have a theory that my one key fact for writing science fiction for teens may be true for some other genres as well. All I really know is that remembering it seems to have worked for me. I’ve heard from adults who’d been reading science fiction for fifty years and enjoyed Earth Girl. I’ve also heard from teens who’d never read science fiction before and loved it.

The first science fiction and fantasy books I read will always be very special to me. One of the great things about writing for teens is that your book may become one of those very special books your readers will always remember.


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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the final month of articles for 2013 from this year’s multi-national line-up of novelists. Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia. Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

What I Read When I Was A Teenager by Elizabeth Wein

Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels by Bernard Beckett

Bad Habits To Avoid While Writing by Andy Briggs

Handling Feedback About My Novels by Carolyn Meyer

Writing Honest Depictions In Your Novels by Paul Volponi

Writing Good Dialogue For Your Novel by Lish McBride

Creating Characters With Flaws by Kashmira Sheth

Writing What You Know by Beth Revis

The Young Adult Fiction Industry by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Writing The Opening Lines Of A Novel by Kate Forsyth

How I Became A Writer by Monika Schroder

On Being Nice As A Writer by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Marketing Your Teen Novel On A Medium Sized Budget by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Working With An Editor On A Teen Novel by Diane Lee Wilson

*** ‘Month In Review’ Updates For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia. *** Writing Teen Novels

Working With An Editor On A Teen Novel, by Diane Lee Wilson

Having a manuscript accepted for publication is a heady feeling. You’ve arrived! You’re soon to be a published author. The sky’s the limit now! Look out, world.

Congratulations are definitely in order. Simply completing a manuscript is an accomplishment, but to have your work rise from the thousands of submissions and be recognized as worthy of professional publication is truly something to be proud of. Now, don’t let your success go to your head. There’s a lot of work yet to do and a good deal of it is humbling.

Publishing a book is a business. It’s a partnership between you and the publishing house. Don’t be arrogant and assume that your manuscript is the best thing to ever cross an editor’s desk. It’s not. So be prepared to work with your editor to make it better. After happily signing all of the contracts and mentally spending your first advance check, you’ll receive your precious manuscript back in the mail – with handwritten criticism all over it! Here’s where you remind yourself that your editor is working in your best interests; he or she knows the teen market and knows what sort of writing sells. That’s what you want, right? To market – and sell – your best possible work? So read through the comments carefully and as objectively as possible. I recommend arguing the points that you really feel strongly about, but don’t pick fights over little things that don’t really impact your overall story. Your editor prefers a different word here or suggests deleting a sentence or two there? Fine. Trust them to do their job.

One thing I’ve learned is that words are not sacred and that no reader ever misses what isn’t there. When I receive the final galley of a novel for proofreading prior to going to print, I’m always impressed with how smooth the story seems. There is no sign of what has been argued about; nothing appears to be missing or altered. It’s an improved version of what I submitted.

Sometimes the suggested changes are far more than a word here and a sentence there. When I sold my first manuscript, I naively thought I was finished. I did not expect to receive so many criticisms and suggested changes. I was so overwhelmed, in fact, by the scope of what my editor was requesting that I got teary and said to myself, “I can’t do this.” But after reading through the comments again and gearing up for the additional work, I rewrote several chapters, deleted one entire chapter, added some more backstory and altered the ending slightly to account for a character that had disappeared. The revised manuscript, I have to admit, was better. It was tighter, faster-paced and more satisfying.

Each subsequent manuscript has had its own challenges and eventual transformation. In Black Storm Comin’ I was cautioned to delete language that would be deemed offensive by schools and school librarians. I had merely been writing dialogue that seemed typical for tough Western characters but, keeping in mind that I wanted to sell books to schools, I softened the language where suggested.

I’ve often had to change the opening chapter in my novels. I like mysterious and murky beginnings that are often pulled from events in the middle of the story, and I did that in my most recent novel, Tracks. But my editor reminded me once again that these can be too difficult for young teen readers to grasp and that if I want to sell books I had to make the story accessible.

On occasion I’ve stood up for elements of my original manuscript. If I feel very strongly that a character would indeed act as I’ve described or if I very much want to tell the story as a flashback, then I argue my case. I’ve found my editors (I’ve had two wonderful ones) to be very agreeable to my position when I argue it. The key is give and take; I adopt nearly all of their suggestions, holding firm on only a few points.

Ultimately, your editor wants you to have a successful novel and is advising you how to achieve that. I recommend heeding their advice. Publishing, again, is a business. You’re the artist but you need experienced people such as editors, illustrators and marketers to help you earn money from your art.


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Writing Teen Novels

Marketing Your Teen Novel On A Medium Sized Budget, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Do you have a medium sized budget to market your teen novel?  First, implement some or all of the options listed in the last couple of posts, then look into implementing these suggestions.


Upgrade to a professional web site.  Remember when I said the web site was the single most important marketing tool?  As soon as you can afford it, have a pro take over the design and execution for you.  Get recommendations from author friends to find out who is affordable.

Attend a national conference or bookseller event, i.e. ALA, BEA, IRA or SCBWI.  This is a great way to network.  Be sure to bring along your business cards.

Have a professional author photo taken.  A professionally taken photo may seem like a frivolous expense but a great pro photo can last you years.  Plus, you get the added benefits of photo retouching.

Have book-themed giveaways made for you.  One idea we love is having temporary tattoos made using your book’s cover or character.  Be sure to bring them along to events – and again, remember to get permission for any copyrighted images.

Pay dues to organizations, like the Children’s Book Council, The Children’s Literature Network, ALA and IRA.


Put together a media kit.  This is like a traditional press kit, but with an accompanying CD-ROM or DVD.  Content could included photos, an interview with you (have a pal be the interviewer), favorable reviews, etc.  Get creative.

Throw a high-concept launch party.  Provide book-themed food and beverages, and create activities that will also complement the book’s content.  Consider hiring an assistant to help keep younger children occupied (and happy).

Attend a key conference.  Treat yourself to attend a national SCBWI conference, for example.  The trip will be worth the expense.  Besides, it’s tax deductible.

Travel to meet your editor and/or agent.  If you’re worried about maximizing your time away, try to organize a school or library visit or bookstore event to coincide.

Organize a cool giveaway through your web site.  Purchase an iPod mini or a portable game system – whatever appeals to your readers – and make it the prize in a book themed contest.


Hire the services of a PR specialist.  You’ll still have to do some of the work on your own, but hiring a professional – especially one who specializes in the kid lit market – will give you a strong advantage.  Sure, you’ll pay for that advantage – but this is a person who can organize a mini-book tour, allocate funds for well-placed internet ads, etc.  At the very least, spring for a consultation that will set your self-funded promotional efforts onto the best track possible.


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Writing Teen Novels


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