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Posts tagged ‘writing a YA novel’

Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.


Diane Lee Wilson’s author website:

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FirehorseRaven SpeakI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's Shadow

Writing Teen Novels

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.


Paul Volponi’s author website:

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Black and WhiteRikers HighThe Final FourRooftop     GenesisWinter TownShock Point

Writing Teen Novels

Cheer Up, Emo Kid: Humour in Young Adult Fiction, by Nansi Kunze

When I was sixteen, I grew my fringe to cover one eye, slouched around in a black jumper and eyeliner and listened to The Cure.

Now, before you begin to imagine that I was in any way cool, let me point out that I wasn’t a proper goth. The fringe idea was partly just to cover my terrible acne. The eyeliner was the only goth makeup I owned, since I lived hours away from any shop that would stock a lipstick darker than Saucy Plum. And if I’d thought I might be able to dress in an impressively subcultural way, I was soon disabused of that notion; the first time I went out in public in ripped jeans I got told off for ‘lowering the tone of the district’. In my own dorky way, however, I was an angst-ridden teenager, complete with existential thoughts, a penchant for depressing music and a tendency to have Anna Karenina recommended to me by librarians.

What the librarians didn’t realise, though, was that what I really liked to read wasn’t dark and gloomy at all. Oh, I read Anna Karenina – after all, who wouldn’t be impressed by half a kilo of confusing Russian names in small print and a cover plastered with dudes in fur hats? But I didn’t enjoy it. I much preferred books by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Books that were funny. Yes, you read that right. I liked humour … and what’s more, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one. In fact, moody, black-lipstick-wearing teenagers the world over love fiction that incorporates humorous elements.

‘Nonsense!’ I hear someone say (hopefully a reader who’s about 102 years old and has stumbled on this blog by mistake). ‘Everyone knows YA fiction is all about the angst. Look at Twilight! Look at all those dark, creepy book covers! Teenagers don’t want funny stuff – they want vampires and werewolves, gore and tragedy!’ Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, Pops, but you’re wrong on a couple of counts there.

Teenagers don’t just want paranormal fiction … but even if they did, that wouldn’t preclude the use of humour in YA writing. Ever hear of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Some of the very best and most beloved paranormal paradigms are peppered with humour. There are good reasons for this – the most obvious being that nothing throws a dark situation into sharp relief like a light-hearted moment. A self-deprecating quip or a little banter can add dimension to any character, alive or undead. And it’s worth remembering, too, that even those readers who seek out the bleakest dystopias to immerse themselves in need to come up for air every so often. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the presence of humour somehow belittles any serious themes you’re trying to address in your writing; anyone who tells you that wouldn’t know a good novel if it came up and bit them in the neck.

So how do you go about using this wonderful technique called comedy? Well, like any other writing skill, it’s partly practice and partly learning from the masters: write lots and read lots. Another method I find helpful, however, is to examine the way humour is used in other forms of storytelling. TV shows are especially good at illustrating how dialogue can be used to great effect; you can totally justify sitting in front of an entire season of Buffy or Angel for this purpose. Want to know how humour can enliven your mystery writing? Watch a little Sherlock. Feel your sci-fi needs more funny business? Get out your Dr Who collection! And remember that, hidden behind their fringes, even emo kids laugh sometimes.


Nansi Kunze bio page

MishapsDangerously PlacedThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Bromeliad: The Dead Days OmnibusBuffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 7 Angel: Season 5


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