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Choosing The Right Story For Your Teen Novel, by Paul Volponi

Rooftop by Paul Volponi

After having written 10 novels for young adults, I believe that the most challenging aspect of writing a YA novel is choosing the right story. Why?  You’re probably going to live with that story every day for a long while. In my case, it usually takes me anywhere from 10 months to a year to complete a novel. Then, following the initial writing process, there will probably be several more months of working with the editor representing the publishing company, making modifications on the novel. So there is little doubt that you need to choose a story that inspires you. Now, if you are writing to satisfy yourself, that’s terrific. Pick a story that speaks to you and have at it. If your goal is to be published, however, there are some things to keep in mind about story selection, especially if you have never sold a novel before.

First, be careful about picking a subject that is too esoteric. Even if your manuscript is solid, you may have a hard time getting a publisher to commit to a story about a sport such as crew (rowing). Yes, millions of people are passionate about it. But unless you completely write the eyes out of that story, publishers looking for sales might pass it by for a story on a more mainstream sport. As a personal example, even after solid successes with Black and White, Rikers High and The Final Four, I could not get a major publisher to embrace an idea for a novel based on martial arts. Also, books on historical fiction, such as the American Revolution and the Civil War, seem to have a very high bar to get over, probably because those subjects are tackled so often by writers.

Next, make sure the voice you have chosen for your novel is appropriate. If you are writing for young adults (age 13 and up), the voice should be one to which teens can relate. That may mean pulling back on your vocabulary. Remember, you’re speaking to teens, not your superbly read friends. I find that some fledgling writers fall into the trap of trying to impress people with their knowledge, instead of trying to tell a good and relatable story. Check out the voices in a handful of current novels in the genre in which you are interested. Listen to hear if you’re in a similar key. If not, have a good reason why, not because you have misjudged your audience.

The length of a manuscript can also be important. For example, if you are writing a novel for reluctant teen readers, you probably don’t want to produce a 100,000 word tome that would scare them off from reading it. On the other end of the spectrum, a shorter YA novel probably runs about 30,000 words.

On this final point, let me be very clear – you should always write about situations that inspire you. You should never be afraid to step out of the box if that’s where your creativity takes you. I have seen several terrific manuscripts from first-time novelists that break all the rules. Some of these manuscripts get glowing praise from editors. But in an odd turnaround, sometimes those same editors ultimately decline to publish, saying it’s not a good business decision for them. So, if getting published is your ultimate goal, choose a story and its corresponding elements carefully.


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Black and WhiteRikers HighThe Final FourRooftop     GenesisWinter TownShock Point

Writing Teen Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice piece, Paul! Remember me? Your old editor?

    February 8, 2013
  2. Paul Volponi #

    I learned a lot from Jill Davis. She’s a major reason my novel Black and White has been read in high schools for so many years. Thanks, Jill. –Paul

    February 9, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (January 2013) | Writing Teen Novels

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