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How To Find A Literary Agent, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Based on the writers I’ve known, there are four basic ways to find an agent:

1. Query an agent through Literary Marketplace, or another reference book that lists agents who are accepting solicitations. Write up a very polished letter, no more than a page or so, in which you describe your book, say why it has commercial appeal, tell the agent why you are contacting her in particular to show you’ve done your research, and if that agency says you can do so in their submission guidelines, send in the first chapter of your book. Repeat a few dozen times until you find an agent who wants to take you on. This is how I got my first agent, who managed to sell my first book before we parted ways for mutual reasons, and though the partnership didn’t last, I’ll be forever grateful to her.

2. Go to a writing conference and pitch your book to an agent. This is how I got my second agent. I met her in person, we had a certain simpatico, I showed her the first paragraph of something I was working on, and she said she’d be willing to look at my work. I sent her my novel and she accepted me as her client. The nice thing about finding an agent this way is that most writing conferences aren’t going to invite bum agents to their gig. They want only reputable agents from competitive agencies, so you can be fairly certain that an agent at a conference like this is going to be a real professional. (This isn’t an excuse not to do research of your own, though!)

3. Go through a writer friend you know. If your friend has a good agent and doesn’t mind sharing, you can ask him/her to put in a good word for you. Then write an excellent query letter, and send in a fabulous piece of writing that doesn’t make your friend look bad to her agent. The only problem with this approach is that it can be really hard to get turned down by a friend’s agent, and unless you are super-cool about it, your friendship can be affected.

4. Sell your first novel yourself, then hire an agent to negotiate the contract for you and represent you thereafter. I know two different writers who found their agents this way, but I think this is getting harder to do these days and fewer publishing houses accept un-agented manuscripts.

Finding an agent can be time consuming and difficult, and the task is so daunting that some beginning writers want to skip this step. They do so at their own peril, because if they can’t find an agent who wants to represent their book, they’re going to have an even harder time finding an editor who wants to publish it. In other words, if your work isn’t good enough for an agent, it’s definitely not good enough for an editor. Yet. So if you’re going to put in all that work to make your book good enough, you might as well find someone who can be your business partner and defender. It’s tough out there; it’s good to have someone you can rely to always be on your side.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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Writing The Engelsfors Trilogy Together, by Sara B Elfgren and Mats Strandberg (guest article)

We hardly knew each other - but the ideas we had were too good to resist. So we took a leap of faith, in the same way you do when you fall in love with someone and move in together, even though statistics tell you that a lot of relationships end up in break-ups and heartbreak.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how incredibly naïve we were, sitting in a café in Stockholm, deciding that we were going to write together – not just one book but three books that we decided were going to be 500+ pages each, with multiple points of view and long story arcs. Or maybe we weren’t naïve; maybe we were megalomaniacs. Either way, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

When we are writing this blog post, the first two parts of The Engelsfors Trilogy (The Circle and Fire) have been published here in Sweden. We are working on the third and final book, The Key. The response to the trilogy has been overwhelming. The books will be translated into 20+ languages, including English.

Working together is wonderful. Writing can be one of the loneliest jobs on Earth, but we have each other. Our ideas get so much better when they bounce them back and forth between us. If one of us is tired or despairs, the other one can help with pep talks and take-away dinners. We get to share the joy of success, or having written a really good sentence, with someone who is equally involved. Plus, we always have company when no one turns up at a book signing.

We are lucky and we know it. It has made us realize even more how badly things could have gone. Because writing together is also really hard. You have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. Sometimes you are going to disagree on major issues in the book. You are going to be locked up in a room together editing for days and nights, sleep-depraved and sick of the whole thing.

We often get questions about writing together. How does it work? And how do you make it work? There probably aren’t any universal answers to these questions. But here are some of the things that we have learned.

1. You don’t have to be friends

We weren’t friends before we started writing together. This may have made things run smoother, since we didn’t share a common history. These days however, we know a lot more about each other than some of our ‘real’ friends do. Writing YA fiction has forced us to talk about our own teen years, our innermost fears and our views on life and death. But we rarely socialize.  Talking about work on the phone ten times a day is enough. We are looking forward to hanging out once the trilogy is finished, though. So if you have a gut feeling that you could work well together - be brave and go ahead and try. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t – but if it does, you’ll have an amazing time.

2. Make sure you share the same vision

Firstly, discuss the practical stuff. What does it actually mean to work together? Do you share the same views? We are, for example,  both extremely detail-oriented. For us, it would be a nightmare to work with someone who is not. Not to mention what a nightmare we would be to the wrong partner. These things are important to talk about before you start working together. Think about what potentially annoying traits you have, and tell your partner about them. Try to ask the right questions about him or her, get answers on issues that are important to you.

Also, talk a lot about books, film and tv shows that you like and dislike. We bonded over things like our love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Carnivàle, Curtis Sittenfeld’s book Prep, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let Me In and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But we also bonded over things we didn’t like, for instance certain character clichés in the YA genre. Make sure you have a common ground.

We also share some important views on life. Our goal is to write books that entertain, but your personal opinions on for example ethics are always going to shine through. Make sure you can agree on them.

It’s important that you share the same vision for the book, and that you agree on that what’s best for the book always comes first.

3. Get to know your story and your characters

When the book is still just an idea, the air is full of possibilities. Make the most of this period, before the hard work begins.

From the beginning we decided what would be the main conflict in every book. That gave us a sense of security, and inspiration.

We discussed our characters thoroughly, making lists of their different traits and their home situations. We even made playlists for them with what we guessed were their favourite songs. We had fun. We fantasized. You can’t, and probably shouldn’t, decide on everything about the characters before you start writing but it’s great for the process to know basic things about them and have general ideas about how they relate to the other characters.

4. Agree to agree

When you begin writing, have lots of meetings to talk to each other often and in detail. Make sure your mental hard drives are in sync. We decided early on that we were both going to agree on every line in the books. Nothing, not even the smallest detail, is ever going to be ‘Mats’ thing’ or ‘Sara’s thing’; everything should be ‘our thing’. This means that we can’t start blaming each other afterwards if we make mistakes or have regrets. It also means we have to ignore our pride. It’s hard to kill your darlings but even harder when your partner kills them. We never try to win an argument just for the sake of winning when we disagree on something.

5. Don’t be afraid to compromise

Compromising has gotten a bad rep. It makes you think of a situation where no one is really happy. What we have found is the complete opposite; when we have two completely different ideas, one of us either convinces the other or thinks of a new option. These ‘compromises’ have, in retrospect, become some of our favourite parts of the books.

6. Find your method

When we wrote the first book, The Circle, it completely took over our lives. We called each other in the middle of the night, we sent text back and forth, editing and re-editing ad nauseum. Perhaps this was a necessary part of our process, for us to find our common language. Before we started working on the seconde book, we realized that we had to set some rules. For instance, no work-related calls after 6 pm, only emails.

Our process has evolved into this: we have meetings where we break down four chapters and discuss in detail what happens in them. Then we write two of these chapters each, switch texts with each other and edit without mercy. When we get our chapters back, we read them and then discuss them, until we find a version that we both like. Sometimes we take breaks and get a rest from the text. Then we read from the beginning and edit. Once we have a first draft, we go back and edit the whole thing from then beginning, over and over.

7. Be generous but not self-effacing

Don’t try to count how many words you each have written. Statistics aren’t going to show if you share the same work load. There are weeks when one of us have too much stuff on their plate, personal problems, or other work. It all levels out in the end. If you do feel like you are taking more responsibility or have to save the other one’s sloppy writing one time too many, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Don’t let it simmer until it becomes really infected. Be prepared to take criticism - in fact, be happy for it because it means that your partner cares enough to want to solve the problem. Always question yourself: do you pull as much weight as the other one? Honestly?

8. Don’t let the sun go down on an argument

We all have bad days. You are going to have arguments, mostly about stupid things that only seem important when you are over-worked and sleep-deprived and the concept of a social life seems a distant memory. A bad mood is okay – for a couple of minutes. Let it out. Then make up and say you’re sorry. Don’t let your partner be sad or upset for a second longer than necessary.

9. Don’t forget your pom-poms!

Work, especially the editing process, consists of a lot of problem solving. Finding flaws and fixing them. Make sure you give each other credit. Show appreciation. A partner with boosted self-confidence and energy is also much more fun to write with.

10. Take care of the boring/scary stuff

If you get published, hire a lawyer to draw up a contract regarding copyrights to all things related to your book/books. It’s not at all fun to think of all things that can go wrong in your working relationship but it’s a huge relief when it’s done. As improbable as it may seem when all is fine and dandy, bad stuff happens. The world is full of examples of bitter feuds that could have been avoided. Save yourself from worrying by taking care of these things once and for all.

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The Engelsfors Trilogy website: www.worldofengelsfors.com

Sara B Elfgren on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SaraBElfgren
Mats Strandberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MatsStrandberg_

The Engelsfors Trilogy is a #1 bestseller in Sweden and is being published around the world.

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Making Time To Write Your Novel, by Lish McBride

I dislike the phrase “finding time to write”. It implies that this precious time can be just stumbled upon, like maybe one day you might move the couch and find a whole pile of it and think, “There you are, you clever rascals!” Now, I don’t know how busy you are, but I feel like playing hide-and-seek with writing time might not be the best way to go about things.

Most people I know are really busy. If you’re a teenaged writer, you probably have school, homework, sports, drama, choir, chores, a job, friends and so on to juggle. If you’re an adult writer, your list is just as long, though obviously with a few changes. Waiting to stumble upon time just isn’t going to happen and quite frankly I think it sets up a bad habit. If you wait for time to arrive and the muse to strike, you’re never going to finish your novel.

I know what you’re thinking. “But if I just get published, everything will get so much easier. I’ll have so much writing time that people will have to move it just to sit on my couch! I’m going to write a million novels!” (Apparently, I’m obsessed with couches today.) I get this thought process; I really do. I had the same ideas. I’d like to say I’ve never been more wrong but, really, I’m wrong about a lot of things.

When I was trying to write my first novel in graduate school, I kept thinking about how hard it was to juggle school, writing, work and family, and how much easier things would be if someone bought my novel. I had this amazing fantasy of what my writing day would be like. I’d wake up after a great night’s sleep. I’d have breakfast and drink my coffee and ease into the day. Then I’d head to my office where it was quiet and maybe there was a window for me to look out of while having my deep thoughts. (My deep thoughts mostly consist of things like, “What would a pygmy chupacabra look like? How much swearing is too much? Can I work an obscure 80’s reference into the plot?) I would drink tea and write in an oasis of books, notes and tiny post-its.

Man, wouldn’t that be nice? The thing is, I just seem to be getting busier. I have a full time job, as many writers do. Unless you’re independently wealthy or marry someone who is, you will probably have to have one as well. If you’re lucky, it’s not forever. Most of us aren’t lucky. I volunteer once a week at 826 Seattle. I have an eight-year-old, which means school lunches need to be packed, soccer games attended and a lot of driving time in between. That’s already a lot. Then I have writing time and editing time. Plus I do a lot of extra things like blog posts, interviews and manage my social media like Facebook and Twitter. I consider these sorts of things part of the job. I like reaching out through the internet and talking to readers, bloggers and librarians but it does take time. I answer emails – which takes longer than you might think – and talk on the phone a lot. Then there are bookstore, library and school events. Some of these things may not seem like much. It only takes 5-15 minutes to reply to an email, but what if I have thirty emails that I absolutely have to reply to today. It adds up and you end up nickel and diming yourself to death, so to speak.

I’m not even going to get in to my to-read pile.

I don’t have days off; not really. Now, I’m not trying to whine. I choose to volunteer and I can say no to some of these things, and I do. I can’t do everything. So I have to be very careful with my time and choices. I don’t have an office (I live in an apartment) and I certainly don’t get to ease into my day. I do, however, get coffee. So while the quiet office oasis is an ideal, a far-off wispy dream that I am working toward, it is not yet a reality.

What I’m saying, my writing friends, is that you have to take a hard look at your life and prioritize. What must stay? Work pays your bills and feeds your stomach but you have to feed your mind and soul too.  It’s hard to create and write when the tank is dry. You’re not going to stumble across a pile of free time. You have to make it happen.

When I was struggling over my novel/thesis, I was trying to figure out how other writers did it. I remember checking out Kelley Armstrong’s website because she is very prolific and I knew she had kids. She basically stated that you have to schedule time to write. Treat it like an appointment, something that has to happen, like going to the dentist. Give it importance. I still think that it was a wise thing to say.

Don’t fight yourself. Know what will help or hinder you. I often get distracted at home, so I go out. I have regular writing dates with friends. We hold each other accountable. If you can’t afford to do the coffee shop thing, find a free space like a library or a friend’s kitchen table. Sometimes my friend Brenda will organize a writing day where we’ll all bring food and hang out all day and work. It’s great.

I have wonderful family and friends who support and understand what I need to do. Whether that means my partner might take on extra house/kid duties or a friend might babysit so I can get an hour or two of editing done, every little bit helps. It’s hard to make time happen. I know it is. Even if you can only get thirty minutes a week, that time does add up. When you get it, attack it. Fill those few, precious minutes with as many words as you possibly can. In the end, it all comes down to you.

Homework: Think about the times you were successful in getting some writing done. What made those times a success? How can you replicate it? What gets in the way of your success? How can you weed out these things?

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

Lish McBride’s bio page

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Choosing The Right Story For Your Teen Novel, 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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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s bio page

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Teen Fiction: A Definition? by Bernard Beckett

Mostly, I write teen fiction. It’s often referred to as YA (for Young Adult), which isn’t a label I love. Calling a teenager a young adult strikes me as patronising, in the way that calling a forty year old an ‘old teenager’ would be. Nomenclature aside, I’m often asked what makes a book YA, and beneath this question there sits a curious and unnecessary concern. The assumption seems to be that this is a difficult thing to define (it is) and that this difficulty poses some sort of a problem (it doesn’t).

Essentially, defining is the art of lumping. Some vehicles we add to the pile of things we call cars, others trucks and so forth. My two and half year old boys have, over the last twelve months, got the hang of this. The first part of language to develop is naming, which goes hand in hand with the foundational intellectual skill of comparing and categorising.

Almost always, we can find examples which are very easy to put in a pile, and examples which are vexing. Even something as simple as colour throws up this problem. It is mostly very easy to distinguish a red object from an orange one, but at the boundary we find examples of reddish orangey things that don’t fall comfortably into either pile. (If you’ve ever looked at a rainbow and tried to identify the indigo/violet boundary, you’ll have seen a particularly striking example of fuzzy boundaries. In fact, any sane person would have stuck with six colours, red, orange, yellow, green blue, purple, but Isaac Newton, believing seven to be a more auspicious number, insisted on an extra boundary).

So, we know what cars are and we know what red is, even though it is impossible to precisely define either. Yet, we don’t get too worked up by this difficulty. Interviews with people who design, fix or race cars don’t return with boring monotony to the question ‘yes, but what makes a car a car?’ Mostly cars have four wheels, but not always. Mostly they have combustion engines, but not always. Mostly they have two rows of seats, but not always. Mostly they have an engine at the front, but not always. Mostly they have a roof, but not always. You get the idea.

Any attempt to define YA literature will surely encounter the same flavour of mostliness. Mostly YA fiction centers around characters who are themselves teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will be read primarily by teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will deal with those concerns that typify the teenage psychology (but not always). Mostly the author will have written it with a teenage audience in mind (but not always). And of course, mostly we’ll know it when we see it (but not always).

For me, writing for teenagers and writing for adults are very different processes. First, there’s the issue of assumed knowledge. If I’m writing for an adult, I can assume a store of experience that I can’t when writing for a teenager. An adult is much more likely to have experienced being a parent for example, being married, or having worked in a full time job. A different range of images and associations are therefore available. It’s not that we can’t write about these things for teens, but we should anticipate a different response, purely because of the reader’s frame of reference.

Second is assumed interest. Consider a story centered about a man in his seventies, with failing health, looking back over his life and wondering why he was never able to stay close to the people he loved. I find that a pretty interesting concept, but automatically assume a teenage audience won’t. Different stages of life tend to support different fascinations. Having sex for the first time is a more likely focus for a teen novel than an adult one (but not always, On Chesil Beach is an excellent counter-example). Every story I’ve ever written for teens has at heart involved the teenager confronting for the first time a complexity in the world that they’d previously had no sense of: a complexity demanding a response that is neither easy nor obvious. It’s not true that all teen novels must confront this question, but it’s what I’m personally drawn to writing about.

Third, there’s the end user to consider. Just as all car owners have different needs, and this defines the limits of what we might mean by the word car, so too the readers of teen fiction are anything but homogenous. The ten year old reading teen fiction for the first time is a very different beast from the seventeen year old just looking for something that is neither juvenile nor centred about an aspiring author’s mid-life crisis. The introverted, living-my-life-through-books teen, is after something quite different from the sometimes-read-when-there’s-nothing-else-to-do-or-people-make-me’s target. Some teens are tremendously smart, with searing curiosity and vocabularies that exceed their horizons, others not so much. Hence we don’t write for teens, so much as for a subset of teens. Most often, this subset closely reflects the teens we ourselves once were (and, as with those who choose to teach, the backgrounds of those who choose to write tend to cluster about a false norm).

Finally, and most positively, there’s a sense of possibility, of freshness and urgency, that defines the teenage audience, and in a perfect world this will infect the writing. The very best writing for children manages to capture that magical aspect of childhood that the adult reader instinctively understands is lost to them, and makes the reading of such books a bittersweet experience. So too, the finest teen writing should fill the adult reader with a sense of loss and longing (and the teen reader with a sense of celebration). YA fiction should exist not because there’s a market for it, but because it can tell stories that no other genre can. If we can’t make that true, then we have no business writing it.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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