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Posts tagged ‘writing a novel as a teen’

Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers, by Bernard Beckett

When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences. That’s not without its difficulties. They are, after all, the world experts on being teenagers in the twenty first century. They know the quality of their experiences better than adults do and for as long as there have been teenagers there have been words to describe the way they feel about the adults who don’t understand them: phoney, bogus, try-hard, fake, lame… Clearly my own list stalls somewhere in the nineties, but you get the idea.

So how are writers to bridge this imaginative gap and capture something of the rawness and immediacy of the teenage years? One obvious way is to do your writing while you’re a teenager. The Outsiders stands as one of the enduring titles at the junior end of this genre. As a school teacher I’m amazed to see how well fourteen year olds still respond to it. To an adult reader the cliché and sentimentality can get in the way but to the teen they translate readily into truth and drama. Nick O’Donnell’s Twelve is another book written by a young author that catches some essential quality of being young that perhaps is out of reach to the older writer, ditto Less Than Zero. For all their flaws, they do smell like teen spirit (and again, see how quickly our references age us).

There are other ways around the problem. One doesn’t turn twenty and magically lose all recollection of the previous decade. Adolescence passes more quickly for some than others, and I don’t mind admitting that I actively resisted adulthood well into my twenties. Many fine writers - I think, for instance, of John Green - have managed to stay in touch with the energy and quirks of the teenage mind, at least at first. Aging slowly does appear to be a feasible strategy, and one I’ve certainly leaned fairly heavily upon, but time is insistent and sooner or later both these strategies are doomed to fail. No matter how you dress or how carefully you keep up with the language and musical trends, one day you’re going to be an old person writing about young people. Then what? A popular option is to rely upon memory, or up close observation of teenagers. How many writers of YA come to the genre from a background in school teaching, or are prompted to write in the genre as their own children hit the teenage years? The trouble is, and I speak as a writer who has worked in high schools for the last twenty years, I don’t think this approach actually works.

Memory is not a static thing. We don’t recall events, we interpret them, and next time we try to access the recollection it will have been tainted by the previous interpretation. As we grow old, we lose touch with our youth. That’s just the way it is. In its place, we construct a story, and for all the many things such stories have going for them, authenticity isn’t one of them. So too with observing teenagers. You’re watching from the outside, focusing them through the adult lens, and no matter how bang on your external representation might be, that’s not the yardstick against which the novel will be judged. My interactions with students now are different than they were twenty years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

This is not to argue that older writers shouldn’t write for teens, but to do it well I think an important truth needs to be faced. The further we move from our own teen years, the less capable we will be of capturing their essence. To ignore this is to pour forth into that already overflowing pool of inauthentic, patronising and disconnected YA fiction. If I look back over my own novels, the ones I wrote in my mid twenties when I was just starting out as a school teacher have a particular energy I’ve never been able to recapture. When I wrote about the hopeless infatuations, the social fears and longings, I was writing about something that still lurked within. This is not to say they are my best novels; all the flaws of early apprenticeship are there to see. However, they had something that is lost to me now and understanding that is, I think, crucial to continuing to work in the genre.

Luckily, teenagers don’t wish to read exclusively about the teenage experience any more than teachers are going to limit themselves to reading books set in schools. A great deal of writing for teens sits within other established genres, be it supernatural romance, fantasy, sci-fi or crime. While they will still mostly feature teenage characters, the issue of authenticity is less pressing, the success of the story doesn’t hinge upon it in the same way. The very best of it produces work of depth and beauty without pretending to reflect the teenage world back at its readers (think Mark Lanagan’s books or MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books). Part of the reason I’ve moved into sci-fi/metaphysical novels for a bit is to do with these different demands. Similarly, at the higher end of the teen range, those novels that explicitly retell the teenage experience through the adult voice have an absolute place and, for my money, represent the finest pieces of YA writing. So there’s hope.


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AugustGenesisNo AlarmsRed Cliff     SparkGirl, StolenKeeping Corner

Writing Teen Novels

Age Is No Barrier To Getting a Novel Published, by SM Johnston

I’ve got a lot of teenage friends who are aspiring authors that I’ve met through online writing communities and they are such great writers. For the past couple of years I’ve watched them grow as writers and so have their aspirations to be published.

In my circle of friends we talk a lot about querying and whether age is a barrier, and it’s not.

Firstly, let’s look at some facts. Agents and publishes are looking for amazing stories that sell. They find them written by people of multiple age groups. They also look for marketability. If they’ve found a teenage protégé, then it adds a new dimension to how they can promote the book.

Here’s a few Australians who have been published as teenagers:

  • Alexandra Adornetto published The Shadow Thief at age 15 and Halo at 18 and her sixth book is due for release this year and she’s only just turned 20.
  • Steph Bowe published Girl Saves Boy at age 16.
  • Jack Heath published The Lab at age 18 (which he started writing at age 13).

If you look at the journey of these three writers there’s one thing in common – dedication. Age isn’t the barrier to being published. Your writing may need to be stronger and your industry knowledge may need to improve, but they are things that can be worked on:

  • Research – there are lots of blogs dedicated to the craft of writing that cover things like “show, not tell”, characterisation, cutting superfluous words, world building, voice, word lengths and other aspects of crafting a novel. You can also find information on how to write a query letter and information on agents who represent YA and the genres they’re looking for, such as YAtopia and Literary Rambles.
  • Go to conferences – there are many great conferences around for writers. I highly recommend the CYA Conference in Brisbane, but if you contact the writers centre in your state they will have a comprehensive list of what’s about. If money or location is an issues then try WriteOnCon, a free online writer’s conference.
  • Take a course – writers centres hold lots of courses throughout the year, both in the capital city, regionally and online.
  • Get a mentor – this is a tough one to describe just how this can happen. Networking is the main key, but it still needs to flow naturally. My mentor was someone who I met at my state’s writers centre and we clicked. It went from discussing publishing in general and evolved in specific advice to me on writing and querying.
  • Join online writing groups like Figment, Wattpad and Teen Ink – The first online community I joined was Inkpop, which has now merged with Figment. I loved it as I made great friends, learnt a lot about writing and was able to post my work and get feedback. It helped me as an editor, as you read other people’s work as well as them reading yours, and I formed strong bonds with some members that then progressed into being critique partners (also known as beta editors) and blog partners. This is where I became friends with now published authors Jeyn Roberts, Leigh Fallon and Wendy Higgins. I also have a group of friends affectionately known as The Insomniacs that I met on Inkpop. We’ve remained close friends and help each other refine our query letters, naming characters and project titles, get over writer’s block and war words (which is where you undertake writing sprints with friends, sharing and critiquing the work when the times up).
  • Entering competitions – this is another great way to focus your writing, and it builds up a resume for querying. I’ve entered competitions with The Australian Literature Review and was runner up in the YA themed competition and was shortlisted in the Troubled Family themed competition. Agents see placing in competitions like this as writing credentials.

There has never been a better time than now to aspire to be published as a teenager. There are different schools of thought on whether you should include your age in a query. My advice is work hard on your writing and let it speak for itself. An agent and publisher will probably see it as a positive marketing tool, but don’t let it define you. Let your work define you.


The Shadow Thief: The Strangest Adventures (Strangest Adventures)HaloGirl Saves BoyThe LabHit ListWhen Courage Came to CallDark Inside


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