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Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

The headline of an article published on September 13, 2012 in the Los Angeles Times announces, Most Young Adult Book Buyers Are Not Young Adults.

My kneejerk reaction to this was, ‘WELL, DUH.’

When I was a teen I never had any money.  I got all my books out of the public library and the school library.  Every now and then I would love a book so much that after I’d read it about, oh, five times, I’d beg my grownup caretakers (my grandparents) to buy it for me.  Occasionally a new book would be released in a series or by a favourite author which I desperately wanted as soon as it came out, and then I’d have to ask for it for Christmas or my birthday or something.  Or, if I really couldn’t wait, I’d buy it and not go out for lunch for three weeks.

My teenage daughter is caught in the same bind, except that I have more money to spend on books than my grandparents did, and my daughter doesn’t have to wait for her birthday or go without lunch.

If you read beyond the headline of the LA Times article, you’ll see that the statistics say 55% of buyers of books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 18 years or older.  Of these, 78% claim to be buying the books for themselves.  Let’s twist these statistics another way.  Out of 100 sample shoppers buying YA books, 45 are between 12 and 17.  Another 12 are buying books for their children or grandchildren.  45 plus 12 makes 57… So in fact most young adult books bought in retail ARE actually bought for young adults.  Maybe ‘most young adult book buyers are not young adults,’ but it looks like most young adult book readers are.

The thing that astonishes me is that 45% of people buying books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 12 to 17 year olds.  Nearly half of all printed YA books purchased in retail stores are bought by this disenfranchised segment of the market?  That seems like good news to me.

The other good news here is that adults are reading teen books, too.

Patricia McCormick, in a New York Times blog post defending the power of young adult literature, points out why adults might be interested in reading books aimed at teens.

McCormick comments that YA fiction is innovative and risky, and points to some of the more exciting literature to come out in the past ten years – in addition to the obvious (such as the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series).

As a reader who never stopped reading books aimed at teens, even after I stopped being a teen, I kind of wonder what all the fuss is about.  As a writer who is constantly badgered with the question, ‘But why are your books young adult?’, I am proud and honoured to be part of this risky business, where the pay is lower, the stakes are higher, the audience is fickle and the bar for excellence is constantly being raised.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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Writing Teen Novels

Creating Conflict For Your Character, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

In this post and the next I’ll show you how I apply some common writing tactics to my own work. Today I’ll talk about my first novel, Happyface.

One rule that I found useful when trying to think up events to take place early in the book was the idea of rocks and shields: the idea that your character exists in a world where rocks are constantly being thrown at him or her, so your character seeks shields for protection.

In Happyface, rocks come at the protagonist all throughout the book. The tragedy that starts him on his journey can be considered one such rock. Happyface and his mom move to a new town near the start of the book, leaving his father and brother suddenly absent. Happyface’s story is about reinvention and hiding from his past. These are his goals. So what are the rocks?

An early rock is the presence in this new school of Mr Mulvey, his English teacher. Mulvey went to Happyface’s old school and taught his older brother. Mulvey knows Happyface and his family story. For someone trying to hide everything he was before, Mulvey, well meaning as he is, becomes a dangerous presence.

Another rock comes from the Moon sisters; best friends of Happyface’s crush, Gretchen. They’re over-protective of their friend and intensely nosey. Happyface is constantly trying to throw them off his trail and keep himself a mystery but they want to know who this kid is and, more importantly, who he was.

The arrival of Chloe, his old crush from his old town, also ramps up the intensity and reveals a lot of holes in Happyface’s story that has everyone questioning his reliability. Happyface’s mom is also a rock, in the midst of a breakdown and wanting to keep past events in the present.

As for shields, Happyface has those too. His sketchbook is one – it’s a diversion and it keeps his story straight, it makes his fake stories real. His entire “Happyface experiment” is a shield – he fully immerses himself in this social experiment that takes up his days and nights as a way of erasing a painful past and occupying his mind. Gretchen is a shield. His head-over-heels infatuation with her is a way of avoiding reality. His obsession with becoming popular, with having friends, is all to avoid his home life. If he loses them, he loses everything; all he has is a dark, broken, sad family life to return to.

Another writing method I used in Happyface is a character web – the idea that each character in some way illuminates a different part of Happyface. Around dorky Mike, who is shades of a former Happyface himself, Happyface becomes an alpha male, and talks down to him. Around Frog and Oddly, his “fan club,” Happyface truly feels like the popular kid in school. Around Gretchen he’s vulnerable and scared. Around Misty and Karma Moon he plays up the comedian role, not a care in the world.

Each crush of his reveals one of his “masks”. Together they showcase the idea that he’s always had this chameleon aspect to his personality. The book is never about popularity or about love, Gretchen is never the actual goal of the story, but it’s a book about becoming comfortable with yourself. The happy ending is being able to take off the mask.


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Writing Teen Novels

Developing An Idea Into A Complete Story, by Andy Briggs

It all starts with a sudden explosion of thoughts and concepts that rebound from one another until they start to form the kernel of an idea. It is this precious idea that is going to consume months, if not years, of your life as you nurture it into a story. It’s that tiny idea you thought of on the train, in school or walking the dog that is going to make you get out of bed each morning and hammer away at a keyboard.

So it better be good.

How does this idea evolve into a book? You will start working out the beginning, middle and end – the core three acts that bond your story together. Most of the time, these will be utterly wrong and you will find yourself rewriting your opening, reworking the middle and having no idea how it is all going to end until you get there. Having a notion of where the story might go is enough. Your characters will begin to develop from this. You’ll find yourself bending and twisting the story to fit their needs – try and resist this. You want the story to be a challenge for the characters to navigate, so don’t be concerned about their health and safety.

Now your characters are forming, your plot is also falling into shape. A couple of key scenes will probably have sparked into existence; jot them down and keep them for later.

With the raw elements of characters and rough plot you have reached a fork in your evolving quest. Do you sit and plan the story as best you can, so you know what information each chapter has to convey and what turns your story will take? Or, do you jump in and start writing with no clear idea on where your story is going? Both methods are equally valid, and it often comes down to the individual’s personal tastes. I like to plot – I think this comes from starting my career writing movies. With scripts, you need a solid structure and have a finite number of pages to play out your story. For the novelist, at this moment in time, you have a blank canvas and infinite pages.

Whichever path you have taken, your story will unfold and you will begin to find the characters are not behaving quite the way you want them to. This is because you are giving life to them with each sentence, and no matter how well you think you know them, you don’t. It will feel as if they are taking you in a different direction from what you originally intended. I feel it is pointless trying to change their minds, you may as well go with the flow – but remember, you are the Creator. Don’t let them get away with leading you down an unplanned path. When this happens, I throw down a challenge within the story to derail them and bring them back on the course I plotted. People say you should love your characters – but drama comes from conflict, and you should be causing as many problems for them as possible.

As you plough through your story, you may discover those brilliant plot twists or scenes you dreamt up no longer fit the story. Don’t try to force them in, otherwise your story will seem disjointed. New scenes will evolve from the problems you have thrown at the characters. Rather than force a great idea into an unyielding story, set it aside for another book. Good ideas will have their moment; just remember their moment may not be now.

After navigating through writer’s block, casting misfortune on your characters and typing until your fingers are numb, you finally have a book. You may suddenly realise the ending was not what you had in mind, or, on the lucky occasions, have an ending that surprises you. You may also discover that your beginning doesn’t set the right tone – which probably means you have entered the story at the wrong moment. Try other entry points to see what works.

The most important point is that you now have a complete story: pages of drama and tension that all came from a random idea. As a writer, there is no greater thrill than reaching that moment.


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Writing Teen Novels

Month In Review (May 2013)

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On Character Development For Novelists, by Kate Forsyth

Why is it that some books you read linger in your heart and mind for the rest of your life, while you have trouble remembering much about another book only a few days later?

It is because some books have characters that seem to leap off the page, vivid and alive. These characters have a story to tell that moves and challenges you, making your pulse hurry and your throat thicken, making you turn the pages faster and faster because you so desperately want to know what happens next.

How do we, as writers, create characters who sing and dance and leap? How do we tell a story that makes someone we have never meet sigh, laugh out loud and weep?

To me, character and plot are the most important cogs in the well-oiled machine that is a working story. It is also where many writers fail.

Let’s start with character, the mainspring of any story’s mechanics.

Character building is, I think, one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel, and the one factor that can transform a mediocre book into a marvellous one. Usually our favourite books are the ones in which we wish the main character was our friend.

When writing about the books of Edith Nesbit, Noel Streatfield invented what she called the ‘bus test’: ‘One way of gauging the aliveness of a family in a children’s book is to ask yourself “Would I know them if they sat opposite me in a bus?”’

I think this is a test for all characters in all books - could you, for example, recognise Jo March and her sisters? Would you recognise Harry Potter or Miss Havisham? What about Sherlock Holmes? Scarlett O’Hara? Peter Pan?

Sometimes characters just appear in your imagination with a strong voice all of their own.

Sometimes you need to build them painstakingly from the ground up and wait for them to come to life.

I often find it takes about the first quarter of the first draft (around 20,000 words) for my characters to really begin to move and talk naturally. So don’t worry if you find it takes you a while to really connect - this is quite normal.

William Faulkner said: ‘It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands upon his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.’

Character 101

First, let’s consider what exactly a ‘character’ is.

Characters are the people who populate your story.

Characterisation: the process by which a writer makes those characters seem real to the reader.

Protagonist: the hero or heroine; the primary character or point of view with whom the reader connects and empathises

Antagonist: the character or force that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story.

Foil: character whose behaviour and values provides a contrast to the protagonist in order to highlight their personalities i.e. weak to strong, quiet to talkative

Antihero: protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He may weak and ineffectual; or greedy and cruel. It is much harder to build empathy for an anti-hero.

Static character: does not change throughout the work and the reader’s knowledge of that character does not grow.

Dynamic character: undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. Usually the protagonist of a story is a dynamic character and their growth towards self-realisation and wisdom is the true narrative arc.

Flat character: embodies one or two qualities or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary.  Can sometimes be:

Stock character: embodies stereotypes such as the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘the cruel stepmother’ and so forth.

Round characters: more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They can grow and change and ‘surprise convincingly’.

Showing and Telling: Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Usually authors use a combination of both.

Showing: allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is.

Telling: the author describes and evaluates the character for the reader.

Characters can be convincing, whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated.

Character Tags:  everyone has certain individual mannerisms such as chewing their nails, sitting with one foot on top of the other, playing with their hair, etc. Try to find one or two that will help define each character i.e. a nervous girl who chews her bottom lip, a confident man who stands too close. A character tag can evoke the personality of a character far more powerfully than whole paragraphs of explanation. However, be careful not to overuse them.


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Writing Teen Novels

Voice In My Teen Novels, by Kashmira Sheth

When I first started writing I had a hard time understanding what voice was and how I could give distinct voices to my characters. Should I have them talk with an Indian accent? Would that be enough? I didn’t think so.

I read more books, looking for voice, and as I wrote my first novel the concept became clearer. Voice is how people express themselves. It has to do not only with accent, but also with word choice, with sentence structure, with figure of speech, and most importantly with how a character views the world and themself. Beyond all that there is time, place and culture to consider.

There are regional differences in how any language is spoken. Characters speaking in English from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or India sound different from one another. They pronounce things differently, greet each other differently and put emphasis on different syllables. In some parts of the world, people may spit sentences out so fast you wonder how they were able to keep them from getting tangled up.  In others, people may draw out their words slowly and carefully like each sound is a nugget of gold that they have to weigh precisely.

Depending on their age or background some characters use short, simple sentences. Some use long and convoluted ones that go on and on, with the help of punctuation, and if you are not paying attention, their meanings could be lost.

Then there are figures of speech. Our inner world is colored with our outer world. The physical surroundings, including weather, seasons, terrain, plants, animals, and people have a profound impact on how they express themselves. For example, a character living in a desert might use a spiky cactus to describe a prickly personality, while a character living near a rocky beach may compare it to sharp rocks. A character’s profession will also shape the way they talk and think.  A poet may describe a sunset differently than a scientist, even though they are both watching the same sunset at the same time and same place. The metaphors and similes our characters use or don’t use reflect their environment and their backgrounds. This makes up part of their voice.

Our character’s position in life will influence how our character views the world, which in turn will impact their voice. If she is a princess she is going to view world differently than if she is a chambermaid. They both may be living in the same palace but they view it differently, they express their thoughts differently and they expect others to communicate with them differently. Again, who they are will give each of them a unique voice.

Time, place and culture will also impact our character’s voice. A modern day princess will express herself very differently than, say, a princess in the 14th century.  Also, a 14th century Indian princess might talk differently to her father than a Russian princess during the same time.

What has worked for me is to know my characters well. Then I concentrate on the scene. Once I have a scene in my mind, and see my characters moving and interacting with other people in their physical space, the voice comes out naturally.

Voice was not as elusive as I had thought.


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Writing Teen Novels

Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its second month of articles for 2013, from this year’s line-up of novelists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:

- provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to

- relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.

Articles for February 2013

5 Things Writers Of Teen Novels Should Know by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Plot, Character And Hooptedoodle In Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Setting In Teen Novels by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ And What Makes A Good Teen Novel by Beth Revis

Writing Personal Stories For Teens by Stephen Emond

Writing Novels For Teens Versus For Adults by April Henry

Writing Series Fiction, by Anne Cassidy (guest article)

Writing My Novel ‘The Gypsy Crown’ by Kate Forsyth

Are Teen Novels Literature?  by Bernard Beckett

The Novel Writing Process by Lish McBride

What Makes Great Young Adult Fiction?  by Sam Hawksmoor

Writing Characters In Historical Novels For Teens by Carolyn Meyer

In Praise Of Copy Editors: Masters Of Accuracy by Monika Schroder

Using Imagery In Your Novel Writing by Kashmira Sheth

Coarse Language in Teen Novels by Paul Volponi

Underdog Characters In Teen Novels by Diane Lee Wilson

Choosing And Voicing Characters For My Teen Historical Novels by Pauline Francis

Overcoming Writer’s Block by Andy Briggs

Narrative Drive Is Not Related To Literary Merit (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

This months articles and writing my teen novel

Bernard Beckett wrote: To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store. From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? […]But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Amy Kathleen Ryan wrote: Setting isn’t just a place and time. Let’s imagine that Jane Austen and Stephen King have both visited the same Georgian era house, and both felt inspired to set a scene in the attic. In addition to the quaint sewing table and a smoky fireplace, Austen’s setting would include a rigid set of expected manners, an even more rigid English class system, and probably a whole regiment of charming rogues out to ruin the honor of vulnerable yet spunky young women. King’s setting might include a chainsaw with a bit of human hair caught in the gears, a menacing creeping mist, and a universe of bizarre magical beings just waiting for our blue collar hero to prick the membrane between our world and theirs.

Diane Lee Wilson wrote: To be an appealing character, an underdog simply cannot be miserable all of the time. Readers want to hear a story of a person overcoming a difficult situation. She doesn’t have to gleefully sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” on every other page, but she must vibrate with an inner strength.

Monika Schroder wrote: Copy editors must surely be patient and just a bit wise. I am sure that they often shake their heads at mistakes we writers make. These people who work through a manuscript with such thorough attention to detail have my full admiration. It is thanks to them that a clean and accurate manuscript finds its way to the printer.

Writing my teen historical novel, set in 1939 Poland (and discussed in my January Month In Review post), is a matter of creating a compelling story which is also the product of in-depth research. A teen novel in which storytelling takes a backseat to the historical setting is not going to cut it with a lot of teen readers and a historical novel in which in-depth knowledge takes a backseat to plot is not going to cut it with a lot of historical novel readers. The secret to managing this balance well cannot be fully explained in the space of this article. It requires a range of storytelling components to work together to create an overall story experience, which has to work in different ways for different readers.

The answer to Bernard’s question about whether teen fiction is literature depends on the definition of literature being used. If you take literature to encompass all written fiction then teen fiction (that is,  fiction intended primarily for teenage readers or with one or more prominent teenage characters, that is age-appropriate for people aged 13-19 years) then of course teen fiction is literature. Various people will differ in exactly what they mean when they say teen fiction or Young Adult fiction, and many people may not have thought much about some of the finer details of what does or does not fall under the term in the sense that they use it. If literature is taken to mean quality fiction, then I think most people would agree that some teen fiction will match that description and some teen fiction will not. However, the problem would then become deciding what is quality fiction and what is not.

Writing a novel suited to teenage readers does not automatically make it any more or any less worthy than one suited to adult readers – and there is plenty of crossover readership between each kind of novel. As Amy and Diane demonstrate, the nuances of setting, character, and so on, and how they are conveyed to readers is something that authors of teen novels and authors of adult novels consider and work into their writing. As Monika discussed, teen novels also benefit from the input of copy editors – as well as general editors and other publishing professionals – to arrive at the book readers will experience . As with adult novels, different novels will receive different levels of attention from skilled publishing professionals.

The 1939 Poland setting is an important aspect of my novel-in-progress but, as Amy touched on, more important is how I handle the setting in telling the story of my characters. My main character could be considered an underdog, as a teenage boy in the city of Bydgoszcz in western Poland at the time of the German invasion and occupation, but more important than the obstacles standing in his way is what he does in the face of such obstacles. All the storytelling components must come together and work in unison to create a good novel; from the big picture concept to copyediting to the subtleties of characters’ personalities and relationships.


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Writing Teen Novels


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