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Posts tagged ‘US YA novelist’

Why I Write Mysteries And Thrillers – And Read Them, Too, by April Henry

I love reading and writing mysteries and thrillers because they offer the built-in drama of life or death. The stakes can’t get any higher. There’s also crime fiction for every taste. It can be as cozy or as bloody as you like. The mystery can be solved by cats or shapeshifters, amateurs or professionals.

Mysteries and thrillers are also democratic – appealing to most people at some point, if only as a beach or airplane read. It’s one genre that attracts a wide following. Most men won’t read romance. A lot of people won’t read westerns or horror. But almost everyone will read a mystery or a thriller.

So why do writers and readers like them so much?

Making sense of the senseless

All too often, real life often doesn’t make sense. Events happen randomly. You get a great new job, your best friend gets cancer, someone breaks into your car and steals one boot, you go to to the grocery store, you find a five-dollar bill in the bushes. There is no story arc.

It’s not always darkest before the dawn. Sometimes there is no dawn.

Real crimes are usually senseless and stupid. A lot of murders involve, not a criminal mastermind, but rival gang members, people selling drugs, or someone who is far too drunk to be driving, let alone handling a gun. The murderer may not be a black-hearted villain and the victim is not always lily white.

The randomness of life is one reason why the more predictable patterns of fiction are so appealing. And in a book, you can usually count on there being a good guy. A good guy who wins at the end. He may be bloody and bruised, but he still wins.

There is something very satisfying about writing or reading those kind of stories.

Using brain, not brawn

In a mystery or a thriller the crimes are usually clever, involving layers of deception. Each one is slowly peeled back to reveal yet another layer.

In the real world, killers are not often geniuses. The predator who manages to keep several steps ahead of the cops, or who plays a mean game of cat-and-mouse, is not a staple of real life. How much more satisfying for a reader to mentally match wits with a mastermind, not some mope with a gun.

And as a writer, it’s even more fun to think up a complicated, convoluted crime.

A little learning on the side

Often, the reader of a mystery or a thriller gets to learn something – something the writer either knows or had the pleasure of researching. (Of course, sometimes what you learn, especially if it’s on TV or in the movies, is wrong. Like female CSIs don’t wear four-inch heels and low-cut tops. And a lot of the flashy technology you see exists only in some screenwriter’s imagination.)

To research Girl, Stolen, I interviewed people who had gone blind, read autobiographies, and visited The Guide Dog School for the Blind. When you read Girl, Stolen, you not only wonder if Cheyenne will be able to escape her kidnappers, but you learn how to use a cane or a guide dog, and even how to create makeshift versions of those tools. You learn how blind people handle everything from money to meals.


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Girl, StolenThe Night She DisappearedShock PointTorched    ResponseTracksWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels

On Writing Imperfect Characters, by Alane Ferguson

Writing for young people is an incredible fit for me, underscored by the fact that my husband just called me an ‘Adult Teenager’!  (Okay, so maybe I made up a twist where every time Ron loses at Rumikub, he (or I) has to eat a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Bean, and it’s possible that I laughed until tears streamed down my face when he bit into ‘skunk’!)  So there is some truth to the idea that I’ve never completely grown up.   Fortunately, my inner-teen gets channeled into Young Adult novels that I love to read as well as write, and that’s important if you want to write for an audience as specific as YA.  Additionally, as a YA author, I have the opportunity to teach up-and-coming authors through The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators by way of their workshop classes.  When I read through those manuscripts, I see the same problems time and time again.  I thought I’d take this month’s post to dish on common mistakes and how you, dear potential writers, can head off some pitfalls as you create your own dynamic worlds!

The first thing I like to remind YA students is that a writer’s job basically mimics creating a movie, only in our world we get to be the writer, director, actor, cinematographer, and, well, you get the idea.  A writer’s job is to make the setting tangible to the reader.  More importantly, your work must focus on a teen protagonist who reads as a believable, breathing, complex being.  That may sound like a straightforward point, but you’d be shocked at how many times I’ve seen an adult channel their thoughts/ideas/morals into their teen character’s point of view, with alarming results.  Their characters tend to be wise, pious, respectful young people who beg enlightened adults to rain pearls of wisdom upon their grateful, young heads.  Wrong!  It not only reads as inauthentic, but no teen will be able to relate to a person who turns to their mom or dad for ‘the answer’.  It’s what I call ‘adult-writing-for-teens-fantasy-syndrome’ and it is simply the kiss of death when it comes to storytelling.  The teen protagonist is on a journey.  He or she must make the climb.  Adult characters may help, of course, but a story for a young person must have a nuanced teen at its center, a person who will, at times, make a wrong decision.  But isn’t that what happened when we were young?  And, if we are honest, isn’t it still happening?  It is the realistic parts of ourselves that translates into an interesting character.

My protagonist Cameryn Mahoney is currently pulling up Colorado stakes and moving to Hollywood in order to participate in a reality show.  In terms of her future, it’s not the best idea, but it’s an adventure!  The wise Dr. Moore warns Cameryn of the danger, but no one can tell my protagonist what to do – she tosses his advice to the wind and goes for it.  Remember, a perfect character is perfectly awful.  You can’t have light without the dark, and so it is when you create a protagonist.  They must have shades of gray in order to keep the character you create relatable.

This gradation of color is of vital importance.  (As a rule of thumb, the peripheral characters can and will be less fleshed out, which is fine.  Right now I’m honing in on main characters.)  When I write from Cameryn’s point of view, I know her foibles as well as her strengths, and I dutifully record her stumbles as well as her triumphs.  Here’s one of the ways I illustrate this in my classes: I’ll ask my students to point out the flaws of various, well-known personalities.  What, I will ask, is Harry Potter’s character flaw?  Invariably, someone will say, ‘His scar.’  No, his scar is his physical imperfection, but his personality flaw is that he refuses to accept help, which is essential to becoming a fully rounded human being.  (This from the amazing JK Rowling herself!)  Do you see the difference?  For those of you who dream of passing from ‘reader’ to ‘creator’, don’t be afraid of writing an imperfect character.


Alane Ferguson bio page

The Hunted: A Mystery in Glacier National ParkValley of DeathThe Christopher KillerThe Dying BreathVivaldi's Virgins: A NovelGenesisDead Time

Rewriting and its Strange Parallel to Project Runway, by Alane Ferguson

Okay, I admit it. I LOVE Project Runway, especially when they require their poor contestants to make an outfit out of some ungodly product, like lettuce or garbage or maybe chicken soup.  For the uninitiated, Project Runway showcases up-and-coming designers who have yet to break into the fashion world.  The show begins with a dozen or so designers/contestants, and week by week the judges whittle that number down to a lucky three.  The final trio goes on to compete in the very prestigious New York Fashion Week, after which the judges crown an ecstatic winner.  So how does this relate to me as a writer and the act of revision?  Believe it or not, the parallel is a strong one.  I’m thinking in particular of the infamous ‘the-clothes-off-your-back’ challenge, which consists of the contestants removing their jeans, skirts, shirts, jackets – whatever they happened to have on when the challenge was announced – and then remake those materials into something new and amazing.  It’s hard, painful work, and yet, when they are finished and their models walk down the runway, the transformations are incredible!  The new creations are almost always better than the original.  And that reminds me an awful lot of something that is the backbone of what we writers do: revision.

Right now, I am deep into a revision for The Dead Giveaway, the fifth book in my forensic series.  With my editor’s notes at my side, I’ve spent day after day with the equivalent of a seam ripper, that small, pointed tool that cuts through a garment’s threads.  Like the Project Runway contestants, I take my metaphorical ‘ripper’ and unstitch scenes I’ve previously sewn together, line by line, word by word.  My chapters are like pieces of fabric scattered across the floor, just waiting to be re-stitched into something better.  Sometimes, scenes end up getting tossed completely.  As an example, I just (sob) cut an entire chapter out of my novel because I found it to be redundant. So far, in this revision, a new character has been introduced, forty-plus scenes have been rearranged, and a new ending has been sewn (I mean, written) in.  Do I like this part of the writing process?  Honestly, in a word, no.  But it is essential, because it is my job as an author to listen to my editor, who has a fresh eye, and then make my work the best that it can be.

It’s a given that my writing makes sense to me, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into clarity for my reader.  All professional writers know and accept this.  So I weigh my editor’s words very carefully.  Most suggestions are incorporated, some are not, but a revision always takes place.  Like the Project Runway designers, I take the individual pieces of my novel and re-form them into something tighter, and, hopefully, something better.  It’s exactly like the ‘clothes-off-your-back’ challenge, except that mine consists of scenes instead of cloth, words instead of thread.  When I send my novel down the proverbial runway, I always hold my breath with the hope that the judges (in this case, my readers) will like the finished product.  The published novel represents a lot of work, lost sleep, and creative blood.  To all of you who would like to write your own novel someday, remember that this, too, will be part of your job.  When you face the daunting task of reworking your words, don’t despair.  Take a look at ‘the-clothes-off-your-back’ challenge and see the possibilities.  Then roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath, and get to work!


Alane Ferguson bio page

The Christopher KillerThe Circle of BloodThe Angel of DeathWolf Stalker: A Mystery in Yellowstone National ParkFear: 13 Stories of Suspense and HorrorThe Broken BladePandemonium (Delirium (Hardcover))

Write The Best Novel You Can, by Donna Jo Napoli (guest post)

I was asked to write around 500 words of advice about writing teen novels.  Here goes.

First, don’t write a teen novel.  Write the best novel you can.  I often do writing exercises with people from primary school up through old age.  One of the exercises I do with third graders begins with these instructions: “Think about a book that you have read this year or that has been read to you that you really really want your best friend to read.  Now tell me why.”  The children will offer answers like:

Because it will make her cry.

Because it will make her laugh.

Because it will scare him.

Because he won’t be able to figure it out.

They pick the books based on the emotional reactions elicited.  That’s not because they are third graders; that’s because they are readers. We go to fiction for an emotional ride.  We want to climb inside the main character(s) and experience vicariously their thrills and woes.  How do you, the writer, make your reader experience that?  That’s the great task of all writers, figuring out our own way of doing it.  There are many routes to that end, but I am convinced that all of them require that we, the writers, be involved.  We must care desperately about our stories in order to have a chance at making our readers care. So dig down into yourself and examine why you are writing a story.  Ask yourself if you need to tell it.  You better.  You better feel that if you can’t tell this story, you don’t know how you’re going to go on in life.  I don’t mean that literally, really, since I hope that all writers have a life beyond writing and that that life gives them a perspective to allow them to partake of all the myriad joys and miseries of human existence.  At the same time I do mean that in some visceral way that I hope you understand.  I hope you are driven to write, even though your good senses might tell you fiction writing is a career with little prospect of financial satisfaction.  I hope writing is your disease.  Because if it isn’t, stop now.  Persistence is more than half the game.  Many people can write beautifully – but it takes persistence to get your work onto the desk of the right person to publish it.  And it’s usually a profound need to tell the story that gives us that persistence. So write from your deep well of passion, tell the stories you need to tell, and practice humility so that you can rewrite and rewrite until you have something of decent quality.  That’s what I mean by “Write the best novel you can write.”

Second, now that you have that novel, ask yourself who would care about it.  If it’s about finding a career path, probably it’s not for teens.  If it’s about finding love, establishing identity, coping with injustice, and, really, so many other things, maybe it is for teens.  Go out and find some teens to test it on. Listen to them.  And rewrite.


Donna Jo Napoli author website:

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Stones in WaterDaughter of VencieAlligator BayouZelThree DaysTreasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & MonstersEscape from Fear: A Mystery in Virgin Islands National Park

Why I LOVE To Write For Teens, by Alane Ferguson

With my daughter, I just finished watching back-to-back episodes of The Vampire Diaries.  I found myself squealing with delight when Elena FINALLY kissed uber-hot Damon, followed by me bawling my eyes out in …the next episode when a character named Alaric stoically accepted his fate, while The Fray’s “Be Still’ played mournfully in the background.

Before you judge me a weepy author, I dare you to listen to that beautiful song without at least a single tear welling up in your eye. (Okay, okay, so maybe I’m just a wimp…) My point is, as my daughter and I passed the tissue box between us, I wondered at how my inner teen has remained in many ways unchanged by the passage of time. It’s as if I’m still the same girl running late to class, jamming my books into my too-full locker while trying to remember which pocket of my backpack contains my missing homework. (To this day I have that awful test dream, the one where there’s a quiz that I haven’t studied for and I’m at my desk, trying frantically to write down the answers on a blank sheet of paper.) My conclusion is that, although I’m now much older and wiser, I’ve been lucky enough to retain that passion, which in turn transmutes into the characters I create. My Cameryn is full of emotion, as are the other characters I’ve breathed to life on the page. They embody my readers. As my readers embody me.

So many times I’ve opened my door to a young woman in crisis.  Many are friends of my children who just need an ear. We talk, we eat, we laugh, and yes, sometimes we cry. Everything for them is so raw, so intense, and very, very important. When it is time for me to create, I find that I write their stories – never an exact rendering, but a flavor of what they share. That is mixed within the texture of my own memories, and I find myself echoing the words of Cameryn Mahoney, who is intent on giving ‘the voiceless a voice.’

As a young adult author I find that is my mission. I listen, and I remember. In the end I write for people I love, readers who are themselves filled to the brim with what I call ‘life force.’ These are the ones who will change the world. I can’t wait to see what they will do, because I and others will be the beneficiaries of their boundless energy and ideas.  Carpe diem!


Alane Ferguson bio page

The Christopher KillerThe Angel of DeathWolf Stalker: A Mystery in Yellowstone National ParkMoonsong (Vampire Diaries)Vampire Diaries: Season 2Hunting LilaBlack Storm Comin'


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