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Posts tagged ‘writing teen fiction’

Writing The Kind Of Novel You Want To Write, by Lish McBride

About a year ago, I was teaching a workshop and one writer complained that she didn’t like her novel because it was dystopian and she didn’t really want to write that. She wasn’t writing it to chase a trend, it’s just that every time she sat down to write that’s what kept coming out. I understand the frustration.

I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret (and by secret, I mean not a secret at all). I didn’t set out to write YA urban fantasy (Horror? Comedy? I still don’t know how to classify my books.) When I was a wee little Lish, I wanted to write epic fantasy. You know, those really long series with cool maps and things – and swords, lots and lots of swords. I loved – and still love – epic fantasy. Every time I sit down to write, though, that’s not what comes out.

This can be kind of frustrating, but don’t fight it. Go with the flow. There’s a reason your brain needs to tell that story. Nothing may come of it. It might be a pet project forever, but sometimes you need to get things out of your system before you go onto other things.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the genre in which I’m writing just as much as epic fantasy and, just because that’s where I’m at now, that doesn’t mean I might not venture into a different genre sometime soon. Personally, I don’t think I’m ready to write epic fantasy yet. I don’t think I’m good enough. That statement is not a judgment on either fantasy or urban fantasy – I think as highly of one as I do of the other, it’s simply referring to the idea that I’m not sure how to tackle it yet.

Part of it, I think, is a planning issue. When you write urban fantasy, you can rely on things from the real world. Things like grocery stores, currency and the education system – those things already exist and that you can use. When you write epic fantasy, though, you have to decide/make up all those things. It becomes an integral part of the world building, and I don’t think I’m ready to cut my teeth on that just yet.

So when you’re sitting there stewing in your frustration, maybe you could think about why the genre, story, or character your brain chose to explore isn’t the same as the one your writing heart has picked to explore. Is there a reason why it’s picking this one first? Is that character the loudest in your head? Is the story the clearest? Maybe it’s the tone that’s beckoning to you? It could be that there’s something in the story that you need to process. Or, if you’re like me, it’s because you’re on deadline for something else and the siren call of the forbidden is just too strong. Whatever the reason, I suggest that you go with it. I see no reason why you should fight with yourself.

Homework: This is actually more of a trick than homework, and this is especially for those of you who are on deadlines, or who have limited writing time. I suggest you keep another project on the side. Work on what you NEED to work on (whether it’s your brain or a deadline pushing you) but take breaks to get a little work done on what you WANT to be working on. Personally I’m more productive if I have more than one fish in the fryer, so to speak.

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

Lish McBride’s bio page

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Using Setting Descriptions To Convey Mood In A Novel, by Monika Schroder

Writers often use setting descriptions to convey particular moods in scenes. One such common but effective way to convey mood is to give details of the weather. I will explore this technique here with a few examples:

My novel, Saraswati’s Way, opens in rural Rajasthan, the arid north-eastern state of India. The annual monsoon has not come; instead the land is parched by relentless heat. At the beginning of the book we meet Akash, my 12-year old protagonist, in his classroom in a poor schoolhouse in his village. Soon after the opening paragraph we learn that he has a talent for maths and, under-challenged in his class, hopes to go to a better school that would allow him to nurture and develop his aptitude for numbers.

Here an early paragraph:

A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard. On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon. Over the course of the morning the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink and by recess time provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t like to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain. But the breeze only died, and Akash resigned himself to yet another day of relentless heat. 

I chose certain details to describe what Akash sees from his seat near the window to express a mood of boredom and anticipation of something that might not come. He looks out on the empty, flat desert, hoping for a rainstorm that would bring relief. Instead the wind dies down, leaving everything bare and exposed to the relentless heat for the rest of the day. The oppressive temperatures and desolate landscape reflect Akash’s sense of despair at the beginning of the book.

Andrew Smith, in his novel, Stick, also uses the weather, light and the color of the sky to express an atmosphere. Stick, the 14-year-old main character of the novel, lives in an abusive home with his gay brother, Bosten. After falling out with his father, Bosten leaves and Stick sets out to find him. He is confused, anxious and often overwhelmed by his sexual desires, and Smith keeps the reader close to Stick’s inner turmoil with an intense first-person narrative. On his quest, Stick meets many people, among them April and Willie who pick him up on his way to California. They offer him a place to stay on Willie’s houseboat and when they arrive Stick is not sure if he can trust them, but also finds himself sexually attracted to April. Andrew Smith sets the tense mood of the scene with this opening paragraph:

By the afternoon of my fourteenth birthday, the sky striped flat in ribbons of chalk and slate clouds that hung so low I could almost feel the pressure and weight of them, like a ceiling of sodden sponge that I could press my hands to if I had the courage to raise my arms high enough.

The reader feels the atmospheric pressure caused by the low hanging sky and relates to Stick’s insecurity when he compares the sky to a ‘sodden sponge’ he lacks the courage to lift.

When Stick finally returns to California and is about to be reunited with his aunt, Smith adds this description:

The sun had dropped below the horizon out on the sea, and I realized that there was a certain unique color the light would cast at precisely this hour.

This is a beautiful observation. We can all see that particular hue the sky takes on when the sun is about to set at the ocean. With this description Smith captures the mood right before Stick will see his aunt by comparing it with the special glow that occurs before the sunset. Stick is worried if she will welcome him and asks the truck driver who drops him off not to leave before his aunt has seen him. Stick doesn’t know if she will be happy to see him or not. In his image Smith expresses the beauty of the moment combined with the possibility of darkness that follows.

Weather descriptions provide an effective tool to depict mood in a scene, but writers have to be careful not to overuse it. The sky should not darken every time the character becomes sad and the sun should not come out from behind the cloud when the protagonist’s mood brightens. It is important to employ this technique sparsely and avoid clichés or too many “emotion-enhancing coincidences” between weather and character’s emotional state and instead to find fresh and precise images.

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     Boys without NamesGlowThe RepossessionA World Away

Writing Teen Novels
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Choosing Character Names For Novels, by Paul Volponi

In my house, one of our great joys is the naming of a new pet. We have dogs, cats, and even a bearded dragon. My choices of names usually lose out to those of my wife and daughter (personally, I thought Barkley was a great name for a dog), but there is one place where I get to actually see my name choices come to fruition – in my Young Adult novels.

My inspirations for names come from a variety of places. Some come from students whom I have taught, some come from names I have seen across the back shoulders of sports jerseys, some come to me while listening to other people’s conversations in the street (it’s not that hard with everyone on cell phones these days), and some even arise from classic literature (I named a poker player Huck because the final card in Texas Hold’em is called ‘the River’). I keep a running list of names that I like and may one day want to use in a novel.

I also use a dictionary of names – and no, it’s not cheating. I enjoy hearing the meaning of names in dictionaries, sometimes matching them to a character’s qualities (in Hurricane Song, the preacher is named Culver, which means “dove”). Did you know that Shakespeare coined the name Jessica for a female? Previously, it had only been seen in the masculine form.

Are there any rules for naming characters? Well, obviously not. I do tend to stay away from very common names, such as Jim, John, Jane, and Mary. I also don’t want characters in the same book to have names that are too similar, such as Mr Johnson and Mrs Jones. Sometimes my characters, even really important ones, are simply referred to by their roles, instead of their names. For instance, in Black and White, a prominent character is referred to as Marcus’ mother, rather than by her actual name.

You should feel satisfied with the character names you choose. Don’t settle. I suppose some writers, without a concrete name in mind, can begin to write scenes, perhaps using a dummy name or ***** in its place. To me, that’s counter-productive. The names of your characters can stand for your ideas and represent them in a memorable way to the reading public. I want the main character’s name to have an intimate connection with the character’s development. For example, in Rooftop, the main protagonist is named Clay, because he will be moulded into a man in the pages to come. In Hurricane Song, the protagonist with a long journey ahead of him is named Miles. I can’t say for sure that readers in general pick up on those things. I’ve had a few teens bring those images/names up to me, wanting to discuss their origins. I do feel that they make an impact on a deeper, subconscious level.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s bio page

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Narrative Point Of View In My Teen Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Once I’ve had a great idea, fallen in love with my characters and have a sense of the direction the story will take, the question becomes: whose story is it and how will I tell it?

Will I stick with one character’s point of view or shift among characters? Will I use a first-person or a third-person narrator?

Recently I worked on a four-book series called Hotline with a contemporary setting and four main characters; each teen takes a turn as the central character of a book with the others in secondary roles. This was my first experience with handling multiple points of view, and it wasn’t difficult as long as I remembered to keep my mental camera focused on one character at a time. Mostly I prefer a single point of view with the main character as the focus – frankly, it’s easier.

Choosing first person (I) or third (he/she) is a separate issue. I sometimes struggle to find the emotional core of my story and to convey that to teen readers. When I wrote The True Adventures of Charley Darwin I was steeped in the novels of Jane Austen, popular in Darwin’s time. Like Austen, I tried writing the story in third person, but my editor thought my narrator was “too distant” and would not connect well with teen readers. So I started over and let Charley tell his own story, as I have in most of my historical novels.

The most straightforward approach to first-person narration is the style of a memoir or autobiography. In Cleopatra Confesses I elected to write in first person: “I, the king’s third daughter, called Cleopatra, sit alone in my quarters….” Present tense gives a sense of immediacy, but could just as well have been in past tense, by changing sit to sat. It could have been told in third person: “Cleopatra, the king’s third daughter, sat in alone in her quarters…”

The perspective of the first-person narrator has to be considered. In the prologue for Cleopatra Confesses Cleopatra looks back, telling her story while she waits for the arrival of the enemy who will take her prisoner. In The Wild Queen Mary, queen of Scots, is also looking back and narrates her tale on the night before her execution. In Victoria Rebels Victoria begins by grumbling about the evils of her mother’s friend, Sir John Conroy, as she prepares for her sister’s wedding; she’s not looking back, but peering ahead.

Another option is to construct the story as a diary. Writing Anastasia: the Last Grand Duchess, as part of the Royal Diaries series, was harder than I expected. There couldn’t be long descriptions or even much dialogue – just short, crisp scenes. The writer of a memoir knows how her story ends because she has already lived it. The fictional diarist does not know what lies ahead and how her story will end – she has no idea throughout the story that she will be murdered but it was up to me as the author to move the plot inexorably toward that end.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley DarwinVictoria Rebels     VibesAngel DustFirehorse

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My Fiction Writing Process, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me when it comes to the process of writing. Everyone’s different, and no doubt you will be too, but here’s a little insight on how I work and how I came to use this process, and with any luck it can help you find your way as well.

I taught myself to write in gradual steps, by need, generally. My first ‘writing’ was my short comic strips. It doesn’t sound like much but writing comic strips is a great boot camp – every strip has a beginning, middle and end, or set up, development and punch line. You’re essentially telling a small story every day. By the time I was working on my Emo Boy comic book, I figured I’d read enough comics and watched enough TV. I knew the basic gist of how a story should look and feel. Some issues had one issue-long story and some issues had story several smaller stories. I’d generally set up the storyline, come up with some events and jokes, then wrap it all up, and if Emo Boy could learn a lesson by the end, all the better.

In 2008, I was working on two projects at once. One was Happyface, a full novel I was writing for Little Brown Books For Young Readers and the other was a screenplay for an Emo Boy movie for Vanguard Films. In 2008, I learned I knew absolutely nothing about storytelling.

The main complaint I kept hearing was: “Where’s the structure?” This was coming from both companies. Having worked on short comic strips and comic books, my stories tended to feel too episodic. Emo Boy, the movie was having multiple adventures stemming from the comic book storylines. Happyface was jumping from month to month and place to place with little arc.

I’ve since become a strong outliner – I often spend as much time, if not more, outlining a book as I do actually writing it. I start in broad strokes and break it down piece by piece. It goes something like this:

  • Have an idea.
  • Give the idea a basic arc – a beginning, middle and end.
  • Flesh those pieces out into 3 acts – so the beginning, middle and end each have a beginning, middle and end.
  • Jot out ideas, scenes, character traits and lines of dialogue. Picture a video trailer for the book. Think up themes arising from big ideas. I ask myself: what is it about this story that excites me and makes me want to write about this in particular? How do I connect with the story? I take all those puzzle pieces and try to fit them together into some kind of loose outline.
  • From there, I start thinking in chapters.
  • For each chapter, I’ll write a beginning, middle and end. I’ll add more dialogue, locations and characters.

My editor says my first draft for a chapter is always very loose, like I’m racing to the end. It’s closer to a comic or a screenplay: this person says this, that person says that, they both do this, the end. I’ll go through it again to add more observation, detail and surroundings. I’ll go through it again and add more mannerisms and movement, what the characters are thinking, sensory details like how something looks, smells or sounds. In final drafts, I pay attention to word choices, how sentences flow and the general feel of the text.

Things change a lot as I write. The outline will bend and sway, characters will reveal themselves to be far more important than I’d anticipated. So, even though I have a blueprint, I’m still discovering along the way. Some people prefer to start blind – they have a germ of an idea in mind and they start writing. I’ve tried this but I just stare at a blank page trying to think of something clever to say. It doesn’t work for me – but we’re all different. This is just my process.

In a more general day-to-day look at my writing process, I like to write outside of my home. I find I’m easily distracted at home, I have all my books there, my TV, video games and, worst of all, house chores. I also find that other places have better lighting. It makes me feel more awake. It could be a library, a cafe, a Panera Bread or a Barnes & Noble. I listen to music while I write – nothing with lyrics or too distracting – or sometime movie scores, and there are some indie bands that do instrumental music. I like jazz, anime soundtracks and, lately, I’ve added hip hop instrumentals into the mix.

Writing is hard. This is an issue for me and I know it is for a lot of people. Sometimes you know you want to write but you think, “I don’t have any ideas. I don’t know what to write.” So you don’t. It takes me a few minutes to get started. My head is racing, full of to-do lists, distractions, it’s been a long day, my brain is fuzz and I just want to tune out, but once I sit and just stare at the blank screen or notebook paper my brain will, one by one, shut off all those distractions. I start to think, one thought leads to another and eventually I’ll be lost in my own little world. Time slips away and I can easily sit there for an hour or two and not even feel it. I imagine it’s what meditation is like.

Anyone can write: you need to find what works best for you. Find that process and put your trust in it, and you’ll be piling up pages before you know it.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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Using Character Handles In My Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack.  They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth).  When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Here’s what he advised me:  ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’

‘A handle?  You mean like a nickname?’

‘No.  I mean like a door handle.  Or a pot handle.  Something that the reader can grab.’

Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters.  I give them handles.  I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity!  After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle.  He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.

Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous.  Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain.  It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother.  Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.

The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader.  Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic.  The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.

Handles aren’t just relevant to characters.  Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too.  Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs.  Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate.  Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier.  Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative.  These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.

What are your characters eating around their campfire?  Have they got a coffee pot?  Is the coffee burning?  What does it smell like?  When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?

It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Editors: Working With You To Make The Best Book Possible, by April Henry

My first book was published in 1999, so I’ve had a lot of experience working with editors. In fact, I’ve had five of them, plus an unknown number of copy editors and proofreaders. The amazing thing is that, in my experience, each editor has a different approach. What one editor is passionate about may not even be on another editor’s radar screen.

My five editors

My first editor loved characters who were quirky, whacky or eccentric – and if she felt they weren’t quirky, whacky or eccentric enough, she often asked for them to be enhanced. Sometimes her comments were cryptic. I still remember staring at one notation scribbled in a margin. It said, “Pump up the mystery!” I had no idea how to do that and I was too scared to call her. I’ve since learned that just as an email sometimes lacks the emotional nuance that would allow you to completely understand a message, so too can editorial letters and hand-written notes. A simple phone call can go a long way toward making things clear for both writer and editor.

My second editor was a legend in the business. She was in her 80s and everyone loved the idea that she was still working full-time. Dozens of famous authors had been edited by her over the course of her long career. I think she worked right up until she died. Her editing was much more broad-based and she wasn’t nearly as much of a detail person as my first editor was.

My third editor was famous for being able to write an 11-page editorial letter for a 12-page picture book. He used brown stickies to mark changes he had pencilled in green on the manuscript. One draft I got back bristled with so many stickies it looked like a porcupine. For Christmas that year, I gave him a brand new green pencil, figuring he had used one up on my manuscript. One thing I learned from him was that sometimes when an editor asks for a specific change, he or she may be right that something is wrong. However, the writer can often make a different sort of fix than the editor requested and still come away with both parties happy.

My fourth editor writes thoughtful editorial letters that I dread. Why? Because she is skilled at finding flaws I haven’t noticed. Flaws that require lots and lots of thought before I can fix them.

My fifth editor is both a big picture editor and someone who notices the smallest details. She’s pointed out words I tend to overuse - words I wasn’t aware of until she had checkmarked three or four uses of the same word in a single page. Once or twice, she has questioned the veracity of things I write, asking if it’s really true or possible. I welcome that. So much fiction, especially mysteries and thrillers, is riddled with errors about police procedure, weapons or investigative techniques.

The process of editing

Editing used to take place on paper, and you, the editor and your agent would send bulky manuscripts back and forth. I still have some unused manuscript boxes in my basement. They fold up neatly and have a little tab you insert into a slot. It’s probably the equivalent to holding onto a buggy whip. Now manuscripts get emailed as attachments, to be read by agents and editors on e-readers, and to be edited by line and copy editors on computers and then emailed to you with tracked changes. Many editors will still print out a paper copy and mark that up, at least to a degree, although I wonder if that will change as a generation who started on paper retires.

Line editors may make suggestions as to how to burnish the story and are big picture people. Copyeditors are more focused on the details. For example, they make sure that a character who has blue eyes on page 19 does not have gray eyes on page 319. They know the difference between flout and flaunt. They do a certain amount of fact-checking, making sure that, for example, you don’t spell Cheez-Its incorrectly. Oddly, I have had the same freelance copyeditor work on several of my YA books even though they were put out by different publishers. In a further twist of fate, she grew up in Portland, where I base most of my stories.

Both main editors and copy editors have saved my bacon many times. It’s hard to see your story clearly: you always need at least one more set of eyes.

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

April Henry’s bio page

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Hooking Readers With The First Chapter Of A Teen Novel, by Beth Revis

One of the things I’m really happy about with my own writing is the first chapter of Across the Universe (which you can find online at www.acrosstheuniversebook.com). Before and since, I’ve made it something of a habit to look at first chapters, paying special attention to what makes them tick.

1) Empathetic characters

Empathy doesn’t mean that you feel bad or good for a character; it means that you understand what the character is feeling and why. In my own novel, my main character, Amy, watches her parents undergo a painful medical procedure. This is something that anyone can empathize with – we know how we would feel if our own parents or loved ones underwent a painful procedure. This immediately puts us in the picture with the main character. Possibly the most important thing you can do as a writer is create empathetic characters. Think of Katniss and her love for Prim in The Hunger Games - that was chapter 1. Think of Bella meeting Edward in Twilight or Harry Potter becoming an orphan. These are things with which we can empathize.

2) Sympathetic situation

While your characters need to be empathetic, it’s good to start the story with a sympathetic situation. You have character who you can almost visualize as yourself – you understand where they’re coming from and who and why they are. Now put them in a situation we wouldn’t want to be in. Make us feel bad that these characters we identify with are in a bad situation. This is the Hunger Games and Harry’s cupboard under the stairs.

3) It is what it says it is on the cover

You should also definitely give some hint of what the book is. You’re giving readers a taste of the whole book in the first chapter. If it’s a sci fi novel, as mine is, you need a spaceship or cryogenic freezing. If it’s a survival story like The Hunger Games, have Katniss shoot her bow. Harry mentions magic. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in Pride and Prejudice mentions marriage. Whatever your story is overall must have a hint of it here, in the first pages. I should know what genre you’re writing not from your cover or your back jacket description, but from your first chapter.

4) Immediate conflict as a foreshadow to future conflict

Writers are often told to start their novels with a bang – but that can often lead to overly dramatic (and melodramatic) first chapters. Instead, try to mirror a larger conflict within the first chapter with something smaller. In my novel, Amy watching her parents being cryogenically frozen mirrors how later, when she wakes up, she has to make tough decisions without them. For The Hunger Games, Katniss’s hunt in the first chapter mirrors the battle for survival that the whole book revolves around. For Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia it’s the way her brother Edmond treats her.

It’s hard to identify exactly what it is that makes a first chapter work. However, analyze some of your favorites and I think you’ll see the things I’ve listed above.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

Beth Revis’s bio page

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Across the UniverseA Million Suns (Across the Universe)Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)    GlowThe Night She DisappearedMy Brother's ShadowThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))

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How To Tell Good Literary Agents From Bad Literary Agents, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my previous post, I discussed why a novelist should have an agent. What follows is a step by step process for how to tell the good agents from the bad.

A good agent doesn’t ask for money up front. Every book and magazine on being a writer will tell you this. Everything agents earn from you comes out of sales of your work. Most agents make about 15% on domestic sales and 20% on international sales. I’ve heard some agents are asking for a bit more but this is the basic guideline. Many good agents will also deduct some expenses from your take home pay, for example any travel, postage and long distance costs that were incurred during the sale of your manuscript. My agent does this and I’m okay with it. If someone asks for a “reading fee” or charges you for their editing services up front, I’d be very wary.

A good agent has a list of recent sales to reputable publishers and is capable of landing a decent advance. Most agents will list their clients on their website and you can check there for recent sales but the best way to determine an agent’s negotiating prowess is to buy an inexpensive subscription to The Literary Marketplace, where almost every sale to a publisher is trumpeted with a little code key for how much money the author landed for his/her manuscript. If an agent has gotten a “Significant Deal” or a “Major Deal” for a client within the last few years, you know this agent is capable of successfully running a bidding war. This doesn’t guarantee a bidding war for your work but at least you’ll know it’s a possibility.

A good agent gets good reviews from their clients. Before signing an agency contract, you can ask for references for your agent. I believe most agents are very willing to have current clients speak with prospective clients. You might want to ask things like how long it takes for the agent returns the author’s phone calls and emails, how long the author had to wait for the agent to submit their first book, and how the author would describe the agent’s communication style. I would caution you not to be too stringent with the way you evaluate these answers. A good agent will have a lot of clients and can get very busy, and might not always return calls/emails as promptly as you might wish. Also, I had to wait about six months for my agent to submit the first book I sold with her but I’ve never had to wait that long since. In other words, sometimes a good agent is worth waiting for. Only you can decide how long you’re willing to spend waiting for your agent to get around to you.

But how do you get an agent in the first place? My next post will answer that question. Stay tuned!

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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Writing The Engelsfors Trilogy Together, by Sara B Elfgren and Mats Strandberg (guest article)

We hardly knew each other - but the ideas we had were too good to resist. So we took a leap of faith, in the same way you do when you fall in love with someone and move in together, even though statistics tell you that a lot of relationships end up in break-ups and heartbreak.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how incredibly naïve we were, sitting in a café in Stockholm, deciding that we were going to write together – not just one book but three books that we decided were going to be 500+ pages each, with multiple points of view and long story arcs. Or maybe we weren’t naïve; maybe we were megalomaniacs. Either way, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

When we are writing this blog post, the first two parts of The Engelsfors Trilogy (The Circle and Fire) have been published here in Sweden. We are working on the third and final book, The Key. The response to the trilogy has been overwhelming. The books will be translated into 20+ languages, including English.

Working together is wonderful. Writing can be one of the loneliest jobs on Earth, but we have each other. Our ideas get so much better when they bounce them back and forth between us. If one of us is tired or despairs, the other one can help with pep talks and take-away dinners. We get to share the joy of success, or having written a really good sentence, with someone who is equally involved. Plus, we always have company when no one turns up at a book signing.

We are lucky and we know it. It has made us realize even more how badly things could have gone. Because writing together is also really hard. You have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. Sometimes you are going to disagree on major issues in the book. You are going to be locked up in a room together editing for days and nights, sleep-depraved and sick of the whole thing.

We often get questions about writing together. How does it work? And how do you make it work? There probably aren’t any universal answers to these questions. But here are some of the things that we have learned.

1. You don’t have to be friends

We weren’t friends before we started writing together. This may have made things run smoother, since we didn’t share a common history. These days however, we know a lot more about each other than some of our ‘real’ friends do. Writing YA fiction has forced us to talk about our own teen years, our innermost fears and our views on life and death. But we rarely socialize.  Talking about work on the phone ten times a day is enough. We are looking forward to hanging out once the trilogy is finished, though. So if you have a gut feeling that you could work well together - be brave and go ahead and try. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t – but if it does, you’ll have an amazing time.

2. Make sure you share the same vision

Firstly, discuss the practical stuff. What does it actually mean to work together? Do you share the same views? We are, for example,  both extremely detail-oriented. For us, it would be a nightmare to work with someone who is not. Not to mention what a nightmare we would be to the wrong partner. These things are important to talk about before you start working together. Think about what potentially annoying traits you have, and tell your partner about them. Try to ask the right questions about him or her, get answers on issues that are important to you.

Also, talk a lot about books, film and tv shows that you like and dislike. We bonded over things like our love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Carnivàle, Curtis Sittenfeld’s book Prep, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let Me In and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But we also bonded over things we didn’t like, for instance certain character clichés in the YA genre. Make sure you have a common ground.

We also share some important views on life. Our goal is to write books that entertain, but your personal opinions on for example ethics are always going to shine through. Make sure you can agree on them.

It’s important that you share the same vision for the book, and that you agree on that what’s best for the book always comes first.

3. Get to know your story and your characters

When the book is still just an idea, the air is full of possibilities. Make the most of this period, before the hard work begins.

From the beginning we decided what would be the main conflict in every book. That gave us a sense of security, and inspiration.

We discussed our characters thoroughly, making lists of their different traits and their home situations. We even made playlists for them with what we guessed were their favourite songs. We had fun. We fantasized. You can’t, and probably shouldn’t, decide on everything about the characters before you start writing but it’s great for the process to know basic things about them and have general ideas about how they relate to the other characters.

4. Agree to agree

When you begin writing, have lots of meetings to talk to each other often and in detail. Make sure your mental hard drives are in sync. We decided early on that we were both going to agree on every line in the books. Nothing, not even the smallest detail, is ever going to be ‘Mats’ thing’ or ‘Sara’s thing’; everything should be ‘our thing’. This means that we can’t start blaming each other afterwards if we make mistakes or have regrets. It also means we have to ignore our pride. It’s hard to kill your darlings but even harder when your partner kills them. We never try to win an argument just for the sake of winning when we disagree on something.

5. Don’t be afraid to compromise

Compromising has gotten a bad rep. It makes you think of a situation where no one is really happy. What we have found is the complete opposite; when we have two completely different ideas, one of us either convinces the other or thinks of a new option. These ‘compromises’ have, in retrospect, become some of our favourite parts of the books.

6. Find your method

When we wrote the first book, The Circle, it completely took over our lives. We called each other in the middle of the night, we sent text back and forth, editing and re-editing ad nauseum. Perhaps this was a necessary part of our process, for us to find our common language. Before we started working on the seconde book, we realized that we had to set some rules. For instance, no work-related calls after 6 pm, only emails.

Our process has evolved into this: we have meetings where we break down four chapters and discuss in detail what happens in them. Then we write two of these chapters each, switch texts with each other and edit without mercy. When we get our chapters back, we read them and then discuss them, until we find a version that we both like. Sometimes we take breaks and get a rest from the text. Then we read from the beginning and edit. Once we have a first draft, we go back and edit the whole thing from then beginning, over and over.

7. Be generous but not self-effacing

Don’t try to count how many words you each have written. Statistics aren’t going to show if you share the same work load. There are weeks when one of us have too much stuff on their plate, personal problems, or other work. It all levels out in the end. If you do feel like you are taking more responsibility or have to save the other one’s sloppy writing one time too many, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Don’t let it simmer until it becomes really infected. Be prepared to take criticism - in fact, be happy for it because it means that your partner cares enough to want to solve the problem. Always question yourself: do you pull as much weight as the other one? Honestly?

8. Don’t let the sun go down on an argument

We all have bad days. You are going to have arguments, mostly about stupid things that only seem important when you are over-worked and sleep-deprived and the concept of a social life seems a distant memory. A bad mood is okay – for a couple of minutes. Let it out. Then make up and say you’re sorry. Don’t let your partner be sad or upset for a second longer than necessary.

9. Don’t forget your pom-poms!

Work, especially the editing process, consists of a lot of problem solving. Finding flaws and fixing them. Make sure you give each other credit. Show appreciation. A partner with boosted self-confidence and energy is also much more fun to write with.

10. Take care of the boring/scary stuff

If you get published, hire a lawyer to draw up a contract regarding copyrights to all things related to your book/books. It’s not at all fun to think of all things that can go wrong in your working relationship but it’s a huge relief when it’s done. As improbable as it may seem when all is fine and dandy, bad stuff happens. The world is full of examples of bitter feuds that could have been avoided. Save yourself from worrying by taking care of these things once and for all.

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The Engelsfors Trilogy website: www.worldofengelsfors.com

Sara B Elfgren on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SaraBElfgren
Mats Strandberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MatsStrandberg_

The Engelsfors Trilogy is a #1 bestseller in Sweden and is being published around the world.

Guest Articles

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