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Posts tagged ‘writing for teen readers’

Plotting My Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

One of the things I like about writing fiction based on historical people and events is that real history provides so many fictional possibilities. Deciding where to start is the first challenge in plotting a novel for teen readers.

The age of the main character is an important decision. Common wisdom has it that young teens want to read about older teens – but not too much older; older teens don’t want to read about younger ones, and they also don’t want to read about characters who are a lot older. The sweet spot seems to be about sixteen. But history doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes the actual story starts much earlier in the life of the historical person you want to write about.

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scots as an infant, upon the death of her father. I decided to begin The Wild Queen when Mary’s mother sends her off to France at age six to grow up in the King’s court. Would a thirteen-year-old reader decide in the early chapters that Mary is too young to be interesting? It was a risk, but I took it.

Marie-Antoinette is twelve when her story begins in The Bad Queen. Mary Tudor is ten in Mary, Bloody Mary. Her sister, Elizabeth, is thirteen in Beware, Princess Elizabeth, and Anne Boleyn is thirteen in Doomed Queen Anne. Less important than the age is the situation in which the main character finds herself in those opening pages. Sometimes it’s better not to state the age at first; just begin with a situation that grabs your teen reader’s interest.

Conflict drives the plot. The next big challenge is choosing which events provide the most compelling way to tell the story to a teen reader and which events to leave out if they don’t move the story forward.

Teenaged Princess Elizabeth is despised by her older half-sister, Mary. Marie-Antoinette must deal with the ladies of the French court who resent her and want her to fail. Victoria must contend with her demanding mother and her mother’s advisor, Sir John. Young Charles Darwin, in The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, has to confront a demanding father and his own lack of focus. Cleopatra’s jealous sisters, in Cleopatra Confesses, want her dead. Far from home, Mary, Queen of Scots, must adjust to a new environment and make decisions that change the course of her life. As the characters mature, the conflicts they face become even more complicated. The writer’s task is to keep teen readers turning pages.

I don’t try to figure out everything in advance. I simply start writing, trying different approaches until I find one that I think is most engaging. In my first draft of Victoria Rebels, the opening chapter recounted the circumstances leading to the marriage of Victoria’s parents. In a later revision, that material – historically interesting but not the way to launch a plot – was moved to Author’s Notes. The final draft of the story opens with preparations for the wedding of Victoria’s sister and her realization that with her sister gone Victoria will be alone.

Just as I experiment with different starting points, I try out various points at which to end. A satisfactory ending may depend on the age of my readers. The ending of Cleopatra Confesses tends to satisfy younger teens, while older readers want the story to go on.

Sequel, anyone?


Carolyn Meyer’s author website:

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page


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Beware, Princess ElizabethThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley Darwin     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)Code Name VerityTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels

Writing Novels For Teens Versus For Adults, by April Henry

I had published five books for adults before my first teen book came out. In fact, when I wrote it I thought it was a novel for adults that just happened to have a 16-year-old main character. But my agent, who represents a lot of Young Adult writers, broke the news to me: I had written a Young Adult book.

Since then, I’ve had a foot in both worlds. Every year, I usually write one book for adults and one book for teens. So what’s differente and what’s the same?



• All POV (point of view) characters must be kids (unless a very short walk on, like

the cop in Hoot).

• Parents or teachers cannot save the day; teens must. This is why you will so often find kids who are orphans, or who have a dead mom or non-functioning parents.

• YA lit has great built-in obstacles: cliques, coming of age, finding out who you are, peer pressure, family dynamics, dealing with parents divorce, prom, homecoming, falling in love for the first time, etc.

• Many YA books are in the first person, to help the reader more readily identify with the character.

• The books usually take place over a shorter period of time, usually no longer than a year.

• Books are typically much shorter- 50,000 words is common, versus say, 80,000 to 90,000 for adults (although fantasy is often longer).

• It’s okay to have swearing or fairly graphic sex, but it might limit how many teachers will assign your book to readers in your intended age group, or the age group you can appeal to, in hardcover (when kids don’t usually buy their own books). Graphic violence may even be a harder sell.

• An “issue-oriented” book, like a book about being a teen-aged father, or a book about having a sibling with leukemia, may garner a lot of librarian support. And librarian support is key to success in the YA world.


Pretty much anything goes.

Getting published


• You don’t necessarily need an agent, especially with books for younger readers.

This is more common for older writers who have developed relationships with editors.

• Editors still accept things from people they meet at conferences

• It’s tougher to get into children’s magazines, and there are fewer of them than magazines for adults.

• And in order to get a short story in a children’s anthology, you pretty much have to have published elsewhere.


• You have to have an agent for fiction.

• It’s possible to not be agented for non-fiction.

• There’s a great deal more opportunity for poems and short stories to be published in literary journals for adults.



• Your readership changes every few years as the readers grow up. They read your books only for a brief time period, say middle school, then move on to adult books. When these teens reache adulthood, they might not care about your next YA novel. That makes it very hard to develop a following. That’s one more reason why librarians are so important, because if they like your books, they will recommend them to each new wave of kids.

• At the same time, if you have a lot of books out there, kids will devour them and not care if they were published this year or five years ago.

• Kids have big emotions about everything, and their feelings about writers are no exception. They will pour out their stories to you, friend you on Facebook (and think you are really friends), hand you poems they wrote and ask what you think, and even ask you to sign their hands.

• Teens ask what adults secretly want to know “How much do you make?”


• When you write for adults, each book that is released supposedly increases your readership. If readers like your work, they will buy all your future books and your career builds on itself. A fan may stick with you for thirty years.

• Some adults will come to signings just to get your signature, because they see your book as collectible.

• Adults are cool and dispassionate.

Success of a book


• For children’s literature, there are more “professional” review options, like Hornbook or VOYA, than there are for adult books.

• Reviews trickle in for months after the book is published.

• Librarians are vital to success.

• There are many more opportunities for promotion in YA – libraries, schools, conferences, online, etc – opportunities that aren’t necessarily available to writers of adult books.

• Your publisher gives you a longer time to prove yourself via sales.

• It’s not unheard of for a picture book to be in print for 15 or more years.

• Your book might be named to one of the important library lists a year after publication (such as YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers)

• Your book might be named to a state list years later (states like Texas can result in tons of sales)

• Either of the above can mean the sale of many copies over time.

• There’s a better chance you can actually make a living.


• Reviews come in much sooner for adult books.

• You have about 6-8 weeks to show success in hardcover.

• After that, most of your books are returned for credit and the new hard covers take their place.

• Librarians aren’t as important to the cycle.


April Henry’s author website:

April Henry’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Girl, StolenThe Night She DisappearedShock PointTorched    Rikers HighBecoming ChloeThe Raven Queen

Writing Teen Novels

To Meme Or Not To Meme? by Nansi Kunze

Ah, memes. Those delightful little concepts that spread through a culture like a fashionable form of the plague: lolcats and First World problems, epic fails and Rickrolling. For many people, internet memes and pop culture references are the markers of cool; at the very least, knowing them is a sign of being connected, of being technologically capable. Of being young.

So it’s no surprise that YA authors who write contemporary fiction are expected to know them too. Readers over 30 often ask how we ‘keep up’ with teenagers and their newfangled ways, while younger readers have even been known to criticise the lack of memes in some YA novels. Memes and their slightly duller cousin, branding, are seen as a key element in writing for young adults. Which means that aspiring YA writers need to either be teenagers themselves or able to fake teenagehood so well that no one would know the difference, right?

Uh, no, actually. For one thing, that kind of thinking doesn’t take into account the fact that teenagers aren’t all the same. Shocking as this may sound to some, teenagers aren’t one big homogenous mass of compulsive-texting, iPod-wearing adolescence. Feverishly studying magazines and websites to find out what memes and brands encapsulate the youth of today isn’t going to make your writing speak to a wide range of young adult readers. Assuming that because you’re a teenager your audience will understand all the subcultural references you make isn’t necessarily true either; walk into any classroom and you’ll probably see kids whose interests and experiences differ wildly from your own. Memes can even be regionally distinct – no big problem for a book that’s only going to be read locally, but a potential barrier to overseas publishing opportunities.

What’s even more important to remember, however, is that memes are transient. A handful of them, like lolcats, have already been around for quite some time and don’t look like disappearing in the near future (because, frankly, it’s hard to imagine a world so grim that feline facial expressions and wacky spelling wouldn’t cheer up its inhabitants). On the other hand, the time is not far off when no one will know why you’d own a t-shirt that says ‘Bazinga!’ The world of publishing moves slowly; if you’re lucky, your newly-accepted novel might get published in a year’s time. Not everyone will buy it on its release day, either. Another year or two down the track when a reader picks it up, the choices you’ve made for your characters – what to dress them in, which songs to have them listen to, what movies to make them watch – can make their lives believable and relevant, or jarringly dated. It’s up to you.

So how can you avoid this Trap of Transient Trending, you ask? Well, you’ve got three choices, as I see it. The first option, which I use myself, is to make your own trends. Think up your own brands of clothing, your own movie titles, your own celebrity gossip or your own advertising catchphrases. Not only will they be perfectly tailored to your characters, but, when combined with deliberately vague descriptions of things that are likely to change even more rapidly (such as mobile phones and gaming systems) they can help your writing stay current for much longer. The second option is to pick a year to set your story in, point it out early in the piece and then stick with the memes that belonged to that time, understanding that this will make your writing a kind of historical piece. And the third option? Write fantasy instead. Trust me: if there’s one meme that’s not going out of style, it’s the one about how an orphan apprentice will always have incredible hidden powers and a really huge sword.


Nansi Kunze bio page

MishapsDangerously PlacedBlood Song (Lharmell)Quillblade: Bk. 1 (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)The Meme MachineGuerrilla Creativity: Make Your Message Irresistible with the Power of MemesConsciousness Explained


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