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Language In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.

I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it one from a bookshelf or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important now that we have the widespread use of electronic communication – texting, tweeting, tagging – where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.

A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except”.

At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”

The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. Today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant”. From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition”. They can begin to master language painlessly and even pleasurably in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.

No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there is always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read”, the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about”. But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.

Tweets and texts are fine – and fun – in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. However, language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Bringing History To Life In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

History rarely ranks as a favorite subject of children and teens. I didn’t like it when I was younger; I found it boring and irrelevant to my life. Now, being older and much wiser (haha), I realize that history is simply an ongoing collection of amazing stories of heroism, suffering, adventure and achievement. Topics such as these are relevant to everyone, and that’s what I build my historical fiction novels around.

The key to making history relevant to teens is to put a teen character at the scene of a historical event, the outcome of which will critically impact that teen. He or she doesn’t have to actually participate, unless there were enough anonymous players in that event that you can realistically slip in your character, but more likely he or she will observe the events, be affected by them and perhaps contribute in a secondary manner. The important thing is to vividly illustrate how that moment in history changed the circumstances of that teen’s life. That’s what teen readers can relate to.

Secondly, think like a teen when you’re doing your research and pluck out the really interesting historical tidbits. Yes, for accuracy you might mention the number of soldiers on the battlefield or how many days it took to make the canoe trip, but be sure to include the eye-popping details that make readers go “ooh!” Talk about the cave with the thousands of glowing spiders, the outlaw that cut off the ears of his victims and sewed them onto his belt or the rumours of a ghost that walked the school hall. Teens (and adults) are always interested in the “truth is stranger than fiction” details that you dig up.

There’s another key point – the digging. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using primary sources. Too many writers rely on Wikipedia, the internet in general and perhaps a few research books checked out from the library, and unknowingly incorporate widely accepted but incorrect information into their historical fiction. You have to dig and dig and dig to find a contemporaneous account of your historical event. Journals are the best source; journals kept by teens are amazing. I especially like hunting through out-of-print catalogs and used-book stores and have uncovered many valuable reference materials there.

I was browsing the Daedulus catalog early into my research for Firehorse when I came across a book entitled Growing Up In Boston’s Gilded Age: The Journal of Alice Stone Blackwell, 1872-1874. I was floored. My protagonist was a teen female living in Boston in 1872! I quickly ordered the book, which was written as a diary, and learned the intimate details (food, clothing, weather, hobbies) that were pertinent to Alice and which thus brought my character, Rachel, more vividly to life. On another occasion I was researching a story about a family traveling by wagon across the United States in 1860. Perusing the selection at a favorite used-book store, I happened across the journal of a man in that time period who had walked nearly the exact route. He entered all the details of what he saw and what his life was like, including the really interesting stuff: how the telegraph lines were attached to living trees, that miners had set up bowling alleys in camp, and why a cat who could catch mice was literally worth its weight in gold.

As much as possible in my historical fiction I put my protagonist in physical danger. I want my teen reader to empathize with that character. I want him or her to experience a lung-stripping sprint from attackers; a heart-thumping search through a haunted attic; a sweaty, dizzying trudge beneath a blazing sun. Important historical events usually involve life-or-death scenarios, and that makes for a page-turning teen novel.

History overflows with thrilling stories that can engage teen readers. Put your young protagonist in the middle of the event and bring it to life.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Writing Novels Teens Want To Read, by Diane Lee Wilson

Today’s teens have a lot of options for entertainment: YouTube videos, social media, surfing the internet, computer games and even old-fashioned movies (whether watched on DVDs or downloaded). Where does reading fit in? How do you keep a teen turning the pages of a novel when the entire world is vying – via beeps and chimes and ring tones – for his attention? That’s a tough challenge for today’s authors of teen novels.

Content is what comes to mind first: content that piques teens’ interest and then, once they’ve opened the book, pulls them along through every page with a vivid, fast-paced story. The key is figuring out what will pique this teen’s interest. It can be the genre of the moment – such as the ubiquitous (but perhaps now fading) vampires and werewolves – or one that’s on the horizon: dystopian novels have been earmarked by some literary experts as the next predominant theme. Or it can be – if well-written and well-presented to a publisher – a genre that hasn’t been visited for a while. When JK Rowling wrote the first book of her Harry Potter series, wizards and sorcery weren’t a popular theme. Many publishers turned her down but she had the foresight and the writing skills to craft a story that captured the imagination of teens (and adults) around the world.

Despite the success of the Harry Potter series, I think that most teens are averse to tackling thick books. I think most teens want a book they don’t have to make a huge commitment to read. Shorter chapters are one way to entice teen readers to give a long novel a try. If you break it up into smaller servings, teen readers can get through a chapter or two with ease and perhaps, feeling that they’ve made progress, might hang around for a few more chapters. (This isn’t limited to teen reading habits. I have a good friend in her sixties who reads daily and says she loves books with chapters that may be only two or three pages long. That way she can sneak in reading whenever she gets the chance and feel as though she’s making progress.)

I think authors of teen literature have be on their game if they’re going to attract and keep the attention of teen readers. The opening lines have to be barbed hooks. The writing has to be vivid, crisp and smartly paced. The main character must meet and overcome one hurdle after another and not indulge in too much introspection. Conversation is always good – it’s easy to read and keeps the pages turning.

No matter what competition arises to tempt teens from reading books, stories will always be told. Good writing will always have an outlet. When I hear people talk about blending video and audio into books – creating video-books – I get excited. I think it would be very cool to read a story on a tablet that incorporated judicious use of sounds and artwork to enhance the story. (I say judicious because I don’t want it turned into a movie, just an extra sensory element.) It’s one more way to grab teen readers and get them to spend time reading.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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What Is At Stake For The Characters In Your Teen Novel? by Diane Lee Wilson

Within your story, what’s at stake for your protagonist? Are the stakes set high enough and are the risks real enough that your readers will care about what happens? No matter what genre of teen novel you’re writing, the stakes for your protagonist have to amount to life itself. In other words, at some point in your story (preferably about half of the way through) your protagonist has to face a life and death situation in order to overcome it and evolve into a true hero.

For those of you who aren’t writing murder mysteries, this doesn’t have to be a physical death (although teenaged literary heroes such as Harry Potter have embraced death – and, of course, survived it). But the stakes still have to be high enough that, should the protagonist lose, the consequences would be the equivalent of death. Such consequences might be the loss of one’s true love, great public humiliation or a personal failure. In any of these situations the hero might admit, “I’d rather be dead,” and the reader will suffer along. In a wonderful analysis of the craft of story writing called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters author Christopher Vogler states, “Heroes must die so that they can be reborn. The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth.”

I was recently reminded of this need to challenge the protagonist again and again when I watched the Pixar film Finding Nemo. I’m a big fan of Pixar’s unique characters and rich storytelling, and their writers’ ability to pull at your heartstrings. But I’d forgotten what an emotional roller coaster this particular film was and is. In only 100 minutes the little clownfish Nemo and his dad narrowly escape death more than a dozen times: by shark, jellyfish, deep sea angler fish, aquarium water pump, plastic baggie, crab, seagull, underwater mine explosion, strong currents, being flushed down a sink, dropped on a dock, caught in a net and crushed by a net. In addition, there are many crises that feel like imminent death: the ocean’s too big, the destination is too far, I’ve lost my map, my friend has forsaken me. Even with all of these near-fatal scenes, at no point in the story did it feel like the creators were creating artificial dangers; they simply put two heroic characters in one very difficult situation after another and allowed them to use their personal strengths and intense familial love to attempt to reunite – and Finding Nemo is ostensibly a children’s story! Imagine what you can do with a teen’s story.

Nearly every day of a teen’s life is fraught with emotion and crisis. Happiness blooms from the fleeting smile of a member of the opposite sex and tears from an apparent snub. Life is over after a failed test, a broken heart or parental restrictions. The reactions to these events may seem overly dramatic to an adult (and especially to a parent) but to a teen these crises feel like death itself. Understanding what your protagonist most values will allow you to place that thing at risk – even time and time again – and that will make your story intensely interesting to your teen readers.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

***

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Writing Teen Novels
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Writing Narrative Point Of View In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

When I was an aspiring novelist I went to listen to a talk by an author of eighteen (wow!) novels. He was giving advice on how to write a novel and one of the first things he said was, “Don’t write in first person. It’s too difficult.”

Gulp. I’d already begun a novel, had about four chapters finished, in fact, and the way I heard the story in my head was clearly in first person. I didn’t find it difficult. Hmmm.

Lesson learned: What doesn’t work for another author may work for you. Each writer has different strengths; some are great at characterization, some can keep their stories going at breakneck speed, some use the language beautifully. Do what’s right for you. For me, I like first person and I think it’s particularly good for teen novels.

A story told in first person is intimate; you’re inside this person’s head, observing the world through his or her eyes. Thus it’s natural for a reader to form an empathetic bond with the protagonist. Since teens, especially, want to know what other teens are thinking, putting your teen novel in first person is a natural draw for them. They’ll envision themselves in the main role, and enjoy the power or the adventure or the romance offered in the story. No doubt your protagonist will put a “teen spin” on things and that will further engage the reader.

Writing in first person also allows you, the author, to get to know your characters better. You’ll find that once they come alive and begin speaking, they’ll reveal more and more of themselves each time you sit down to write. I’ve been surprised by some of the deep-seated issues my characters have brought forth onto the page. They’ve come up with past hurts or long-repressed desires that have added an extra note of realism to the fictional story. This is part of the magic of writing, and I’ve never spoken to any author who hasn’t had at least one character take hold of a story and begin to direct its course. It’s often the main character’s personality traits, in fact, that help determine just how the story’s crisis will be resolved.

Tension is another benefit of writing in first person. Because the reader is seeing the world only through the protagonist’s eyes, he or she is discovering it right along with the hero. There is no omniscient narrator saying, “A thief lurked behind the door.” The protagonist can only note misgivings, or acknowledge an eerie feeling: “Had the door moved slightly with the wind or was that someone’s breathing? I knew I shouldn’t have come here alone.”

Wrapping yourself in the skin of one of your characters, listening to another’s thoughts and feeling their emotions, is for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s a free ticket to experiencing the world from a different vantage point. And when it’s over you get to introduce that character to readers and share with them an enriching story.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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To Write Better, Read More, by Diane Lee Wilson

I believe that every novelist strives to become a better writer, and I find that the craft of writing is improved by reading. So with that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

Read Literature. I’m VERY particular of what I read for pleasure while I’m working on a novel—especially if I’m just starting out and still trying to identify voice and mood and pacing. That’s because I find that whatever I’m reading at night invariably influences my writing the next morning. If my chosen author uses long sentences with many descriptive clauses, I find myself fitting more words between my periods. If the mood of my previous night’s read was somber then my characters tend to mope a bit. So, as peculiar as this may sound, I now go so far as to select for my personal reading a literary quality novel that A) is told in the same viewpoint as the one I’m writing; i.e., first-person narrative if I’m writing in first-person and so on; and B) one that is written in a style to which I aspire.

Now, I know that I am not going to create a Pulitzer-winning novel with my current work, but I’m happy to be inspired by one. Beautiful writing and great storytelling move me to produce. We write, after all, because we love language and stories, right? So choose to read the best books that you can and hope that osmosis works for literary talent.

Read Everything. Stay creatively inspired by reading anything and everything. You never know where you’ll find inspiration for your teen novel. It might be a newspaper article about a rising teen athlete and the challenges he/she combats. An essay in an historical magazine might prompt you to research an interesting teen from an earlier time. A random quote in an on-line publication might prompt you to say: My character would think that same way, and that might send your story in a different direction.

Also read for style. Personally, I love reading any column by a talented sports writer. In a limited amount of space I’m presented with intense drama, vivid language and fascinating personalities. I once again fall in love with the art of writing. I also enjoy perusing essays on the opinion pages of my newspaper where I’m reminded how to write passionately as well as succinctly.

Read Aloud. Sometimes hearing your words voiced helps you critique your work. So, when you’ve finished a chapter and polished it to your very best, let it sit for a day or two, then pull it out and read it aloud. And listen—hard—as you’re reading. Is the magic there? Are you drawn into the story? Are there places where you could improve the writing? Be hard on yourself; where can you make it better?

Read with a Group. Sharing your writing with a group of fellow writers isn’t effective for everyone, but I’ve been in a small group (just three of us) for fifteen years and I find value in two ways. First, I’m accountable. I have to produce. Typically my group meets every two weeks for about ninety minutes. We each email the other two members a chapter (or more) a day or two in advance of the set meeting. Then, after a short “catch-up chat” over coffee, we begin critiquing each other’s work. And here’s the second value: I receive two independent opinions of what I’ve written. Those opinions aren’t always aligned, but I can trust my two co-writers to be honest, and to keep me on my game. I’ve sometimes presented a chapter that I thought was pretty darn good, only to have them both tell me otherwise. Harsh reviews are never easy, but it’s much better to receive them in the early stages of a novel rather than to send a completed manuscript to an editor and have it rejected. Reading my work with my group makes me a better writer.

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Diane Lee Wilson author site: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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Writing Novels For Children Versus Writing Novels For Teens, by Diane Lee Wilson

When I set out to write my first novel my goal was simply to write the kind of book that I’d enjoyed as a girl: a horse-centric story set in a different land. My models were the wonderful books by Margeurite Henry (which include her Newbery-winning King of the Wind), the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, and a few other library finds, such as The Silver Brumby and Dapples of the Circus. That first novel became I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade and it was published in the U.S. by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, as well as in three other countries and languages. In the U.S. it was marketed as a “young adult” novel.

At the time, I’d never heard of that genre and, to my knowledge, had never read such a book. What, exactly, was a “young adult” novel? It was explained to me that young adult, or YA, books are intended for readers aged 12 to 18 and that my style of writing and subject matter naturally fit that reading level. Okay. Happy that my writing had found an audience, I continued to produce and have since published five additional YA novels, all historical fiction and all involving a horse or horses in some way.

I now know that what often sets apart a young adult story from children’s or adult novels is the age of the protagonist and the subject matter. I have been advised to keep my protagonists in the upper teen range (13-17) so that readers can envision themselves in the role. And I have had at least one scene (in Ravenspeak, in which my protagonist has to cut off her arm in order to survive) severely edited due to “overly gruesome details.” I’ve also, on occasion, had to modify a few expletives spat out by the less respectable individuals in my cast of characters. Other than these instances, my writing style seems to suit the YA genre. I try to keep the pacing fast and the details vivid.

While I am currently working on a seventh novel (again YA but contemporary rather than historical) I am also developing a series of books for the children’s market, specifically middle grade readers. This is still a learning process for me and I have been perusing the styles of other authors, studying voice and pacing and structure. I can see that the pages are fewer, the descriptive passages shorter and the plots simpler. I have read some bestsellers that I find unmemorable and I have uncovered a few gems that have told beautiful, rich stories in an enviably simple yet artful fashion. That is what I will strive for in this nascent collection.

I firmly believe that good writing can be produced for readers of any age and skill level. What’s most important is that the reader be interested and engaged in the story, and thoroughly enjoy the reading experience. And, since the chronological ages of readers don’t always mesh with their prescribed reading levels, I think there need not be any firm demarcation between books intended for children and those written for teens.

A final note: In considering this topic, I came across an informative discussion from people who are actually in school classrooms and libraries. It can be found at: http://childrenslitblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/childrens-literature-vs-young-adult

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Diane Lee Wilson author site: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionRaven SpeakFirehorseBlack Storm Comin'King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin ArabianThe Silver Brumby (Essential Modern Classics)The Silver Horse (Chain of Charms)

“When are you going to write a novel for adults?” by Diane Lee Wilson

Writers of teen novels invariably receive the (only slightly disparaging) question “When are you going to write a novel for adults?” The implication behind that inquiry is: You’re not a real writer until you write a real novel, one for an adult audience.

I have been asked that question, and it comes repeatedly from good friends of mine, individuals who are avid readers and whose opinions I value. In the literary world there is more caché, I suppose, in writing a critically acclaimed, bestselling novel for adults than there is in writing one for teens. Perhaps that’s one of the factors that drove J.K. Rowling to write The Casual Vacancy. But authors need not apologize for writing novels for teens, and here’s why:

Teen fiction can and is being written so well that it is part of the fastest growing segment in publishing. In the United States the children’s/young adult book market saw overall publisher revenues for last year rise a reported 12%. The books in this genre offer unusual plots, fast pacing, and strong characters with whom readers of all ages can identify.

That’s another key to the genre’s growth: readers of all ages. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “The young adult, or YA, category is particularly healthy as a result of blockbuster franchises and strong crossover readership. Many young adult books are read as much by adults as they are by their intended teen audiences.” Personally, I’ve received letters and emails from many moms who “just happened to pick up” a title of mine brought home by one of their children and then admitted to me that they “couldn’t put it down.” I’m glad to hear that my stories appeal to readers of all ages. I try to write good stories and I never “write down” to my intended audience.

Historically, teen literature has included some of the best-written, most memorable works of any genre, books that can easily hold their own with any “adult” literature. Such titles as To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451 and Catcher in the Rye regularly make “best books of the century” lists. Harper Lee’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

What’s timeless about good teen fiction is that it gets to the heart of the matter, and century after century matters don’t change much. Children and teens continue to question the adult world in which they find themselves, as they should. Because they’re not quite adults, and not quite burdened by society’s expectations of what is proper, they can ask the naïve questions. “Why is it like this?” “Couldn’t we do it differently?” And adult readers can respond to that voice within themselves that recognizes the truth in these questions, a truth that they’ve always known but which, over time, they’ve learned not to hear.

In a way, writing for the teen market is the most important genre of fiction writing because it provides a chance to say things truthfully. To ask for change. The best part is, a great number of the readers of these books are young enough and energetic enough and naïve enough to enact that change.

Finally, should none of these reasons pop to mind the next time you’re asked when you’re going to write a real novel, answer with a retort once shared with me. It goes like this: “Do you ask your pediatrician why he/she isn’t a real doctor?”

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionTracksRaven SpeakBlack Storm Comin'To Kill a MockingbirdFahrenheit 451Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

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