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On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels, by Pauline Francis

For me, an interesting character is somebody who has all the odds stacked against them and has to find a way out. They must have a strong, believable voice that sweeps the reader along.

Just as I was beginning to write historical fiction for teenagers, I went to a conference and wrote down a wonderful quotation from one of the speakers (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the speaker’s name). It was: “Characters in history are just like the stars. It takes a long time for their light to reach us.”

The two narrators of my first novel, Raven Queen, were real: Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. They are strong characters, fighting for their cause. In my second novel, A World Away, I made up my central character, Nadie, a Native American girl captured by English colonists. If I’m honest, she is the least interesting of all my characters because she didn’t really know her path in life (except to find the English boy she loved) and I think this weakened her voice. I’d love to go back and change her because it’s an interesting novel in all other ways. I have begun to move away from real characters to concentrate on fictional characters who find themselves in real-history situations. My new novel (Ice Girl, not published yet) is the story of a girl at the mercy of Spanish colonists who fights back with incredible courage and determination, as well as leading other conquered people to safety.

I’ve just read a novel with the most amazing character. It gripped from beginning to end because the narrative voice is so strong. It’s Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, which has just won the children’s category of the UK annual Costa prize. The agonising story is told in the first person by a fifteen year old boy called Standish (an unusual name). It’s tear-jerking and harsh (there’s very strong language because it’s mainly his thoughts, so the outside world wouldn’t usually hear it).

If you’re having problem choosing a character, try turning a situation on its head. Many Kings from history had mistresses. Sometimes they bore sons who claimed the throne (the term pretender to the throne is from the French pretendre – to claim). What was it like to be a pretender? I decided to make the fictional Francis (in Traitor’s Kiss) a good person. He doesn’t actually stake his claim as Henry the VIII’s son, but he could have. So he’s still a threat. Princess Elizabeth knows this. Francis becomes one of her victims. She leaves him in a madhouse called Bedlam, just in case he decides to make trouble for her. My novel-in-progress (Blood) is set against the French Revolution. It was a time of great innovation medically and my fictional narrator wants to be an anatomy artist.

You don’t have to make a huge leap of imagination to make your characters interesting. Often a small one will be enough to bring your character alive. In Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, the story of murder and revenge is made gripping because the action takes place in a small log cabin over a few days with the body of the narrator’s father on the kitchen table. It is that dead father who sends a chill down our spine. He is the interesting character. If the story had been narrated by his son in the future, away from that log cabin, it would have become another murder/revenge story.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Hold Me Closer, NecromancerShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)TracksTarzan: The Greystoke Legacy

Writing Teen Novels
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Getting Story Ideas And Writing Them Into Novels, by Pauline Francis

Where do I get my ideas? Lots of ideas pass through my mind. I usually wake up with them. But only some stick. That’s how I know which idea will probably become a new novel.  If I try to force it, the book doesn’t work. When I have that lovely excitement of something coming up to the boil, I don’t start to write until I have the beginning and the end. The end is really important. If you’re using historical characters or events, a twist in the story that doesn’t change known events can help get past readers knowing how things turn out.

What happens if an idea sticks but your publisher doesn’t like it? Well, there are only two choices: don’t write it – or write it and hope that another publisher will take it. I’ve just made that second choice. The novel that I’ve just finished (which my publisher didn’t want) and sent to my agent is based on a theme that has always gripped me: how people are treated in war. One day, I saw a photograph in the Guardian newspaper of a frozen Inca (16th century Peru) girl. She was sitting up, hair and skin intact because she’d frozen to death. She completely captivated me. I couldn’t get her out of my mind and she sat on my notice board for a long time as I tried to get my publisher interested. This is how Ice Girl began. Some pressure was put on me to make this a forensic novel with a contemporary setting, which would have been really interesting, except it wasn’t the forensics that interested me. What if that frozen girl had been captured by the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in Peru?

I’ve had many problems with this novel. Peru is inaccessible to most readers, although they might know that Paddington Bear came from darkest Peru. I decided to give the book two narrators: an Inca girl and a Spanish soldier. This gave it the right balance as UK readers are usually well-travelled in Spain.

I’m satisfied with my decision to write without a contract. It was the right thing for me to do.

I can only begin to write if I have the main character, and a beginning and an end to my story. Then I do some research. My novels are rich in symbolism and I look for research that supports it. The novel I’m now writing is set against the French Revolution and the symbols are heart/blood/corpses, linked to the novel Frankenstein. When you have your symbols it’s amazing how much they come up in research.

I don’t write out a plan of the chapters, but see the events unfolding visually as if I’m at the cinema. I always use a short timeframe – usually one or two years – and I almost always use two narrators. I like this technique, especially if present tense is used, because it moves the story along very quickly and makes the character very now, rather than distant. It also gives my characters the contemporary feel that I like so much. I love short narratives, especially where characters are quarrelling and they keep breaking into each other’s narrative. It brings the story alive. I’ve never written a novel in third-person yet. I’d like to, because it can give breadth to the novel and lots of different points of view.

Language and character interest me more than plot. I detest too many adjectives and adverbs. I rarely use exclamations marks.

I’m a full-time writer now and I write every day, even if I don’t feel like it. I write new work in the morning. In the afternoon, I check what I’ve written the day before. Every week or two, I read my work out aloud to feel the tension and rhythm. I do a lot of cutting and pasting after that.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. There’s always something that can be written. If the book isn’t flowing well, I might spend a week writing individual scenes that are bothering me. I’ll do this by hand, on A4 paper headed with the name of the scene. Listening to music just before writing is good, as it stimulates creativity.

Writing is using your writing muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it – and very quickly. Our muscles slacken within 36 hours. So does writing. After a holiday, it does take longer to get back into it, just like any job. Then I just read a teen novel by one of my favourite writers and I’m so full of awe and envy that I can’t wait to get back to mine. Or I might watch a TV series aimed at young people and this works. We’ve just had a series on TV called Merlin and I love the repartee between the young Merlin and young King Arthur.

I start work at about 8 o’clock and always finish at 5.30 to watch Neighbours. I used to watch it with my children, but they gave it up a long time ago. It relaxes me and I find the way that issues are dealt with interesting.

I love writing on trains, especially when I’m travelling to schools or festivals. We have many literary festivals in the UK and it’s a great honour to be invited. Sometimes it’s just me on the stage and sometimes it’s a discussion. I don’t mind what it is. Meeting my readers is the most exciting part of being an author. If I’ve managed to change their life in any way, I’m humbled and moved by that.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Black and WhiteDeadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)Shock PointSaraswati's Way

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Creating A Realistic Story World, by Andy Briggs

I think we’ve all read a book or watched a film and been immersed in a story that had fascinating characters and a plot that takes you on a rollercoaster ride, but you still felt strangely empty once you reached the end. Perhaps that was because the world inhabited by the characters felt flat and slightly unreal. The details were missing.

Personally, I’m a huge believer in research. I read, watch and absorb as much as I can when writing a story. I talk to people who may have had similar experiences to those my characters are about to endure and I travel the world to experience the locations.

The internet is a vast research tool and I use it extensively – but there are many other avenues you should take, because the Internet is just the tip of the research iceberg. Whatever you read on several pages of Wikipedia may give you a basic understanding of the subject but there are probably many books on the same topic, each hundreds of pages long, that give you a deeper insight. They present you the details that could bring your story to life.

I have stood on the edge of an active volcano in the name of research. You can pretty much imagine what it was like – and I could use those obvious details in my story but it wouldn’t challenge your imagination. Things like the smell, the effect it had on me physically, the taste the gases left in my mouth and the soundscape around me all add up to a more detailed picture. These details often stick in a reader’s mind.

Naturally, if your story is about the 15-year-old king of a fantasy epic, then it is difficult to research that and you could write pretty much anything you like. But, again, it’s the details that matter. If you invent things, make them stick in the reader’s imagination. Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books – a flat word on the back of four giant elephants, carried through space on the back of a giant turtle is very memorable. Oddly, what makes those stories work is not only the wild concepts that imprint on your imagination but the familiarity of it all. The Discworld has its quirks but we can all relate to it. The characters in the books may be wizards or trolls but they all have relatable details that draw us closer to a character or story.

If your story is set in the real world, try to visit the locations. I recently enjoyed reading an adventure thriller. The story took me in unexpected places that I desperately wanted to experience for myself and I turned the pages eager to know how things would resolve. Then the story led the characters to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a place I had recently been to – but apparently the author had not. I spent the rest of the chapter thinking – no, that’s wrong. That’s not at all what it’s like. How did that happen there?

I was yanked out of the story with such force that the rest of the book felt very lackluster and it made me suddenly question what other falsehoods the author had thrown at me. The author had broken a bond of trust. This detail would have passed over most readers, but for me it ruined a perfectly good book. Perhaps a chapter I enjoyed would have had another reader thrown off track – all because of a tiny bit of poor research.

For me, poor research is akin to insulting your readers. Never treat your audience as fools, especially because most of the time there are readers already a step ahead of you…

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

Andy Briggs’s bio page

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Tarzan: The Greystoke LegacyTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2Tarzan: The Savage LandsDark Hunter (Villain.Net)     SparkShock PointSaraswati's Way

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Beginning Your Novel With A Great First Chapter, by Pauline Francis

I want to tell you about the night before I sent off my first teen novel, Raven Queen, to a new agent. I had already been published for younger readers and writing a full length novel was a challenging new skill.

My novel was ready to be posted (I mean at the post office, because my agent wanted a double-line-spaced hard copy. Now I email). Raven Queen has two narrators, Ned and Jane. The manuscript I was about to post began with Jane, as she was my main protagonist. Ned’s story intertwines with Jane’s.

I went to bed and couldn’t sleep. Deep down, I knew that the first chapter wasn’t strong enough to open the novel – and I knew that it was the first chapter that had to seduce my agent. It was a good chapter – and is now the second chapter.

I tried to ignore that little voice that stopped me going to sleep. I knew what was wrong. Jane is watching a boy hang. Watching is important sometimes in a novel (there’s a brilliant novel called The Watcher by James Howe) but it is also passive. By midnight I knew that I had to write a new opening chapter because I had no intention of submitting this to my agent, who was expecting my manuscript the next day.

I got up, made a strong pot of coffee and wrote the chapter that now opens the novel. It’s narrated by Ned who is on the point of being hung for stealing bread, at a country crossroad gallows, noosed and standing on the back of a horse. Written in the first person, it’s a powerful account of his last seconds alive and ends with the horse being kicked away to leave him hanging as he calls out ‘Mother!’

It took three hours to write.

That chapter changed my life. I had a telephone call from the agent the next day, offering to take on the novel because of its powerful beginning. It’s still the chapter that I read when I talk about this novel and it always moves the listeners.

What would have happened if I’d stayed in bed or listened to that voice that told me to go to sleep? I’ll never know.

So if you know that something isn’t quite good enough, take the trouble to put it right. Be brave enough to ask for extra time if you can have it. Be brave enough to ask a friend to comment if you can’t work out the problem.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     VibesShock PointThe HuntingDeadly Little Lies

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Are Teen Novels ‘Genre’ Fiction? by Elizabeth Wein

Are teen novels ‘genre’ fiction?  I’d really like to argue ‘NO.’  The beauty of Young Adult fiction (YA) is its chameleon-like nature.  Science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, contemporary, mystery, thriller, historical, sports, romance, graphic novel – these are all ‘genre’ fiction and yet YA includes them all.

I think that while a person is developing as a reader, that person will read everything.  The developing reader is still trying to figure out what he or she most enjoys.  Let me throw a couple of names at you:  Robert Westall and K.M. Peyton.  As a young reader, I adored these writers not because they wrote in a genre I liked, but because they wrote books that I liked.  And those books were all over the map.  Westall wrote war stories, motorbike stories, mysteries, ghost stories, horror stories, and contemporary problem novels.  Peyton wrote horse stories, historical fiction, ghost stories, contemporary mysteries, thrillers, and just for the heck of it, a couple of books about a thug who was also a hugely talented pianist.  Where’s the genre?

I’ve heard it said that ‘genre’ fiction is plot driven – one of its defining characteristics, as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction.  I think that one of the reasons YA fiction suggests itself as a ‘genre’ is because it, too, is often plot driven.  The one thing that seems to connect most teen fiction is that it is dedicated to a good story, and that applies across the board, whether you’re writing a vampire romance or a spy thriller.

The YA category is also sometimes self-defeating.  My novel Code Name Verity was ineligible for one award because it was published by a children’s publisher; it was ineligible for a different award because the subject matter (or the narrator, I’m not sure which) was considered too mature for a children’s book.  So books for and about people in their late teens or early twenties exist in a kind of genre purgatory.  The term ‘crossover,’ applied to books which can be enjoyed by teens or children and adults, seems forced and false to me (and very modern).  Surely a good book is a good book?  I’m thinking of some of the books we consider ‘classic’ children’s or teen fiction, which were published simply as books.  Huckleberry Finn.  National Velvet.  The Sword in the Stone.  The Hobbit.  Charlotte’s Web.

No, I don’t like labeling - especially for books intended for young people.  It seems to me that adult readers are more likely to stick to mysteries or romances or action thrillers, and limit themselves to one particular type of book.  Teen readers are more eclectic, possibly just because they haven’t yet settled on what they enjoy the most, but I think that it does everyone a disservice to apply strict limits on who should read what and how old they have to be in order to enjoy it.  The same goes for so-called girls’ and boys’ books.

I like to think that Young Adult fiction, in its inability to be classified in any way, can offer both the writer and the reader an entire world of possibilities.

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

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     AuslanderRikers HighThe Night She Disappeared

Writing Teen Novels
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What Makes Great Young Adult Fiction? by Sam Hawksmoor

The world isn’t perfect.  You learn this the first time you hear the word ‘no’ and more bad luck for you if all you ever hear is ‘yes’, because you’ll never develop self-discipline and if you never develop self-discipline you never develop self-worth. This is an unfashionable view but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong). Great Young Adult (YA) fiction is quite often about young kids who for one reason or another rate their ability to make a difference,  if only they are given a chance.  I’m not really talking about heroes – more often than not it’s about kids who know their weaknesses and have to raise their game or take decisions on their own for the first time. Take the fantastic and much neglected The Droughtlanders by Carrie Mac. (Aside from the fact that it is criminal you can’t easily buy this outside of Canada, this is one of the most inspiring openings to a trilogy you’ll ever read).

The Droughtlanders gets to grips with climate change, revolutionary politics, regime change, circuses, cowardice and the terrible price of jealousy and revenge.  Carrie Mac must have once had an awful time with a brother or sister to understand just how competitive and harsh brothers and sisters, especially twins can be to each other.  Here we have twin brothers (in a Romulus and Remus situation)  Seth and Eli, one all gung-ho for violence, guided by an evil father who rules the Keylanders (outside the city walls) with an iron fist, the other brother is painted as a coward who deplores violence, worships his scientist mother, who works on crops and making things grow.  Little do either brother realise that their mother is in fact working for a Droughtlander terror organisation that wants to bring down this cruel regime.

Outside the city walls a disfiguring disease runs rampant and anyone who has it is shunned.  Their state controls the weather and has stolen the rain from the rest and impoverished millions. The mother is blown up by the father, the Eli runs to the outside, the Seth pursues, vowing to crush any rebellion and kill his brother if he has to. But they have another relative – a sister they weren’t aware of… and she is working the other side. Within the text you discover the outside world riddled with poverty and disease and bravely, for YA fiction, sex and the consequences of sex; babies. Babies brought into a warzone. Carrie Mac does not shirk from dirt, sickness sheer folly and manages a giant cast with consumate skill.  She also displays a fantastic knowledge of circus life and Cirque du Soleil in particular, which again marks out her fiction as totally unique. Do all you can to find these books.

The Triskelia trilogy works because it mines age-old themes but addresses contemporary issues in an engaging, electrifying way.  It’s simply a damned exciting read that doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence or sex.

This is why I read YA fiction.

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Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com

Sam Hawksmoor’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

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The RepossessionThe Hunting     The DroughtlandersAcross the UniverseSparkTracksKeeping Corner

Writing Teen Novels
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