Skip to content

Using Your Memory To Write Better Teen Novels, by Shawn Goodman

On creating teen voice: There’s the usual stuff about listening to what kids talk about, the rhythms of their speech etc. It sounds good, but as often as not the results are corny dialogue, idioms that don’t work or make sense, outdated clichés and other missteps. It’s better to just tell a good story with a strong, unique voice.

How? I think it has something to do with anamnesis, science fiction writer Phil Dick’s word for the loss of amnesia. Applied to YA fiction it means that we adults have forgotten what it’s like to be an adolescent. Sure, we remember the snapshot moments or the intensely emotional ones but the truth or magic is in the small things, like Holden Caulfield’s ducks, or the kid in Spinelli’s Milkweed who hunts through the dead city to find a pickled egg for his sad mute friend (he finds just a pickle and an egg – but it’s good enough), or Vern Tessio, from Stand By Me, who says that cherry Pez is the perfect food. The point is that we too have these images and stories but we no longer have access to them. In the process of growing up and assuming jobs, kids and SUVs with third row seats, we’ve forgotten about our pickled eggs and cherry Pez memories. We’ve forgotten about the anarchy-shaped cigarette burns in the bucket seats of Jeff Riscioli’s ’73 Camaro. As a dedicated member of the punk scene, Jeff dotted the glowing end of an unfiltered Camel into the vinyl to form a crude, charred letter A. He later crashed the car into a dumpster in the Twin Fair parking lot.

So the trick is to lose our amnesia. How? I don’t know. Listen to a track from when you were in high school, like ‘Just One Kiss’ by the Violent Femmes. Say out loud the name of your partner in Biology lab (Jennifer Renkens, a pretty blonde who fainted at the sight of her own blood during the blood-typing unit).

Recall your first car (’59 VW Microbus, bought at Angelo Bomasuto’s father’s hot dog stand for $700). Remember your first knock-down fist-fight in which you got pummelled by Rob Radloff on the Washington Avenue train tracks. Remember how he was later killed by a train on those very tracks in your senior year.

Picture your prom date (the same Jennifer who fainted in Biology lab). Remember whatever you want, or whatever you can. Just get better at remembering the small things; the details and half-feelings. Close your eyes and hear the music. Feel the rhythm of how you and your friends talked. That rhythm – the flow, the cadence, the back and forth of whispers in class, and insults in the cafeteria, the laughing and shouting – is what it’s all about. That’s how you lose your amnesia.

***

Shawn Goodman’s author website: www.shawngoodmanbooks.com

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

     Rikers HighHappyfaceThe Night She Disappeared

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Writing Novels For Teens… When You’re Not One, by Dandi Daley Mackall

I love writing for teens: mysteries, romance, horse novels, historicals, humor… Most of my readers are too polite to ask, but I’ll bet a number of them wonder how I can keep writing for teens when I’m not one and haven’t been one for a very long time.

Great question, right?

I have a great answer. My best and worst teen moments are frozen. When I need a power-packed, authentic teen emotion for a work-in-progress, I bring out my frozen moments, loaded with the same angst and intensity as any contemporary teen moment. I have a freezer full of them.

Frozen moments can give any writer an edge in developing powerful scenes and realistic characters. So, what exactly is a frozen moment? In Larger-Than-Life Lara (Dutton/Penguin), my narrator explains a moment she’ll never forget like this:

All of this happened in just a couple of seconds, I guess, but it felt like it was a frozen piece of time. . . Sometimes whole countries and even the whole world has stuff happen that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Like Mrs. Smith said she knows people who were alive when President John F. Kennedy got shot and killed dead. And every single one of them can tell you where they were and what they were wearing and who else and what else was in the room with them when that president got shot and killed.

And I believe her because I can tell you exactly where I was on the day of 9/11, when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. I was home sick from school, only I was faking sick. I was all by myself watching TV. Only I’m not supposed to let on I was by myself because the social worker will get after my daddy again. I was wearing the pajamas I hate because they have kites on them and I’ve never ever had a kite, even though I would really like one.

The room smelled like tobacco and bananas. There was a buzzing from the TV because Daddy hooked it up himself to cable so we didn’t have to pay, and sometimes it looked like it was snowing, even on shows like Jungle Animal Planet. Then I was changing channels and saw a plane stuck in a skyscraper, with smoke and fire and people screaming. So I thought it was a movie and I’d watch it. Only… well, you know the rest…

But the stuff about frozen moments is important because if you land into one, then you got some good material for your story. Because you can call it up in your head again and have everything you need right there. It doesn’t go away on you, like other memories. It’s frozen. And this can be a good thing or a bad thing.

My unscientific take on recent brain studies is this: When an emotion is strong enough, our brain is branded with the memory. That’s my secret as to why I can continue to write for teens. Every novel I’ve written contains a variety of frozen moments. Some series, like Winnie the Horse Gentler, Backyard Horses and Starlight Animal Rescue, use frozen moments to bring back the horses I rode bareback through my teen years.

In The Silence of Murder (Knopf/Random House), which won the Edgar Award for Best YA Mystery, a mother delivers a slap to her son in chapter one. I witnessed such a slap when I was a teen, and I never forgot it. My first sentence in The Secrets of Tree Taylor (Knopf/Random House) is my frozen moment from an early morning in my little Missouri town:

The morning the gun went off, I was thinking about Tolstoy and the Beatles, and maybe, if I’m being honest here, a little about Ray Miller and how his eyes were perfect little pieces of sky.

So, fellow aging authors, the good news is that we don’t have to stop writing for teens, not even when our teens grow up and have teens of their own. Just keep that literary freezer filled with frozen moments. Slang changes and clothing styles morph, but teen angst is teen angst.

***

Dandi Daley Mackall’s author website: www.dandibooks.com

Dandi Daley Mackall on Facebook
Dandi Daley Mackall on Twitter

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

     Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Structuring Your Novel: Using A Chapter Summary, by Karen Wood

This article follows on from my previous article Structuring Your Novel: Chapters and Their Endings.

When I first ventured into writing fiction, it seemed everyone wanted a chapter summary – manuscript appraisers, agents, editors, publishers, marketing teams – they all wanted chapter summaries!

I thought it was because they didn’t have time to read the entire story. They wanted a quick summary of what it was about. I found the task tedious and surprisingly unsettling. Did I really have to list every single chapter? Could I not just write a synopsis?

My first publishing contract was for the first three books in what turned out to be my Diamond Spirit series for teens. These stories were very character driven, i.e. I relied heavily on the strength of the characters to carry the narrative forward. In all three books I got to the 70% stage and then thought, How on earth am I going to end this story? What is this story even about?

I think this is a point where many aspiring writers come to an abrupt halt. Some call it writer’s block. I say there’s no such thing.

As I set about resolving the predicaments my characters had got themselves into in Diamond Spirit, threads began to unravel in the earlier chapters of the manuscript. I had to go back and weave them back in. I began to have continuity problems. I lost count of how many times I had to go back and rewrite Diamond Spirit. To be honest, I don’t know how my editors stuck with me.

If I had revisited those chapter summaries everyone had asked me to write, I would have saved my self an awful lot of rewriting.

First, what is a chapter summary?

It is simply 2–3 sentences summarising each chapter, using bullet points or chapter numbers.

A chapter summary is your story laid bare – no padding, no witty dialogue, no flowery verbose. It is an incredibly useful tool to critique the bones of your story.

Is the premise a good one?

If you are having trouble writing a concise chapter summary, chances are, the premise is flimsy. There is no central story/action line. No mission.

While writing a chapter summary you will soon see where you need to trim the fat and where you could flesh out various themes, i.e. what is relevant to the central mission and what is superfluous waffle. If you don’t delete the superfluous, you can be sure your editor will, no matter how pretty your words are.

Is there a satisfying story arc?

A chapter summary can show you the rise and fall of tension in your novel; the pacing of your story. You can analyse how well your characters have developed, changed and survived their ordeals.

Have I resolved all the burning questions/plot threads?

As you begin to write the end of your novel, a chapter summary of what you have written so far will provide a list of all the issues that need to be resolved. You can cross check that all the threads have been neatly tied off, or not so neatly if you prefer. It will also help you to avoid continuity problems.

My second rural romance novel Rain Dance was told from alternating view points. The story begins with pious vegetarian, Holly Harvey, being forced to move to the country. Her viewpoint alternates, chapter for chapter with Kaydon Armstrong, the son of a beef farmer who is battling a severe drought in regional New South Wales.

I wanted to tell two stories simultaneously, bringing the hero and heroine together in a way that was full of presumptions and discord. I wanted the novel to be about finding empathy between city and country.

Writing a chapter summary for each and tabling them side by side helped me bring Holly and Kaydon’s worlds together in a way that considered tension, pacing and plausibility. I could manage the development and change of each character as they came to understand and appreciate each other.

I am now a lean mean plotting machine. I can write a chapter summary for an entire book, and in fact an entire series, before beginning to write the novel. I also find a chapter summary useful to refer to when writing a blurb, synopsis or pitch to potential publishers. When you rely on writing to make a living, this is a fine thing. It is efficient and time-saving. It is a valuable skill.

***

Karen Wood’s author website: www.diamondspirit.net

Karen Wood on Facebook

***

United States (and beyond)

     

United Kingdom (and beyond)

     

Australia (and beyond)

     Winter TownHold Me Closer, Necromancer

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Structuring Your Novel: Chapters And Their Endings, by Karen Wood

Much is advised about writing the opening lines of a book and creating a satisfying ending. But what about the huge amount of material – about 50-70,000 words – in between? How does an author arrange their story so as to keep pulling the reader through?

The first stage of the editing process is often a ‘structural edit’ and it deals with this problem.

This is something I struggled with when writing my fourth novel, Golden Stranger, and I will share with you some helpful advice given to me by the commissioning editor at Allen and Unwin, Sarah Brennan.

To begin with – Have a strong central theme and action line. Golden Stranger was about the rescue of maltreated horses, in particular those used in a wild horse race. Sarah advised me to, ‘make clear at the start what the core mission is. Connect everything else to this mission. Every chapter should contribute to this storyline.’
A core mission can come in the form of a burning question. In Golden Stranger, I had three burning questions that linked all the events together:

  • Can Shara rescue the golden colt?
  • Can she clear her name?
  • Can Corey be trusted?

The first burning question was the core mission of the story. The next two were the sub plots. The more these questions crackle and flame, the more tension and excitement. Keep stoking the fire.

Once you pin down the burning question, everything will begin to flow.

Chapter breaks – A chapter should be a unit of meaning, and should clearly take the story one step forward. For example, one conversation might be sufficient if it kicks events off in a new direction, provides a revelation, or brings up a new obstacle. If it doesn’t do those things, keep it as a vignette, just part of a chapter. Sometimes two or three chapters can be seen as constituting one event and can be amalgamated into one.

Chapter endings – Strong chapter endings are vital to keep pulling the reader through. These may come naturally once the chapter division is reviewed. In general, they should have some kind of resonance with a big theme of the book (the burning question), should prompt curiosity or sympathy or some other feeling of connection in the reader. Often they will come at an intense moment. Ideally they will create suspense or a sense of urgency that will make readers eager to turn the page.

Each chapter ending should drive home the effect of the latest gain or setback, so readers are left in no doubt as to what has changed in the course of the chapter. It should hint at the future and propel the story forward.

This is the last few lines of chapter two in Golden Stranger:

Shara briefly considered telling Corey what she had done. He would be okay, he was Elliot’s brother. His dad was the local vet. But she pulled herself up. He was also totally pro-rodeo. He lived and breathed it. So instead, she snorted. ‘Read the paper tomorrow.’ She pushed past him and made a bolt for the river and her waiting friends.

Find the latest great book that had you totally hooked and flick through the chapter endings. You’ll get the idea.

***

Karen Wood’s author website: www.diamondspirit.net

Karen Wood on Facebook

***

United States (and beyond)

     

United Kingdom (and beyond)

     

Australia (and beyond)

     I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeTarzan: The Greystoke LegacySaraswati's Way

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Beating Writer’s Block, by Skye Melki-Wegner

You sit down at your desk to write. You stare at the computer screen. You place your hands on the keyboard and…

Nothing.

Sound familiar? We all know that dreaded feeling of uncertainty – the fear of blanking out, or writer’s block, or whatever you prefer to call it. It might occur at the very start of a manuscript, or halfway through, or even when you’ve trapped your heroine halfway up an erupting volcano and can’t figure out how she’ll escape with all her limbs intact.

Of course, it can help to simply open your eyes and look around you. Story ideas are lurking everywhere! That couple arguing on the bus? Use them. Your aunt’s habit of storing her souvenir tea towels in chronological order? Use it. The old man shuffling past you on the street and singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ under his breath? Use him.

Of course, this can be a little tougher if you’re writing speculative fiction (especially Epic Fantasy or Sci-Fi). You’re unlikely to find many Beatles-singing octogenarians in your fantasy world’s mysterious forest, or find a tea towel collection on a spaceship hurtling towards a distant moon. However, I think that the advice still works; you just have to twist it a bit.

I write YA fantasy novels, set entirely in fictional worlds. Obviously, I can’t just look out the window, see an idea and dump it wholesale into my novel. If I did, there would be an awful lot of suburban streets and mailboxes in my fantasy worlds. Instead, when I’m stuck for ideas, I look around me and ask: “What if…?”

In my first trilogy, Chasing the Valley, I needed a way for a gang of teenage fugitives to escape from a city. My heroes were on the run, pursued by the tyrannical king’s hunters, ready to flee into the wilderness. They desperately needed a form of transportation. The obvious answer was horses, but horses are pretty common in fantasy novels and I wanted to invent something a bit different.

I remember sitting at my desk, staring vaguely at the floor, wondering what I could use as an alternative. At that very moment, my dog walked past. It struck me that my dog looked a little bit like an oversized fox. The idea came at once: What if they rode on giant, alchemically-warped foxes?

So I invented the foxaries: enormous, vicious foxes for my characters to ride like horses. These creatures ended up being a huge part of the trilogy, but they might never have existed if my dog hadn’t happened to wander past at that moment – and if I hadn’t asked myself: “What if…?”

Next time you’re out of ideas, why not take a moment to look around you? Instead of staring blankly at your computer screen, look out the door, through your window or into the next room. What can you see? What can you hear, smell, taste or touch?

At first glance, it might just be a mailbox, a dog or a tea towel. If you can somehow twist that object, or flip it upside down, you might just spark an awesome new idea for your manuscript.

***

Skye Melki-Wegner’s author website: www.skyemelki-wegner.com

Skye Melki-Wegner on Facebook
Skye Melki-Wegner on Twitter

***

United States (and beyond)

  

United Kingdom (and beyond)

  

Australia (and beyond)

  Across the Universe

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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.

***

Janet Edwards’s author website: www.janetedwards.com

Janet Edwards on Facebook
Janet Edwards on Twitter

***

United States (and beyond)

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

     Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorCode Name VerityShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)Winter Town

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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.

***

Steven Lochran’s author website: www.stevenlochran.com

Steven Lochran’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

Wild Card by Steven LochranWar Zone by Steven Lochran    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

Wild Card by Steven LochranWar Zone by Steven Lochran    

Australia (and beyond)

Wild Card by Steven LochranWar Zone by Steven Lochran     SparkTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 219 other followers

%d bloggers like this: