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Posts tagged ‘writing young adult fiction’

Why I Write Novels For Teens, by Emma Pass

When I was a teenager, ‘teen’ as a distinct literary genre didn’t exist on the scale it does now. At my local library, you could find series like Sweet Valley High and the Point Horror books, along with the occasional ‘issue’ novel, but when you got tired of the children’s section (where these books were also shelved) you moved on to adult books without a backward glance. By the time I realized I wanted to be an author, aged 13, I was existing on a steady diet of Stephen King, Michael Crichton and various other thriller and SF writers, and the stories I wrote were full of grown up characters doing grown up things.

As I got older, I started experimenting with different types of writing. Maybe I should be a crime writer. What about poetry? How about writing literary fiction? I even, very briefly, toyed with an idea for a picture book. Nothing worked. I was trapped on one side of a thick glass wall, with the writer I wanted to be on the other side. I could see her, but I had no idea how to get there.

Then I went on a weekend course run by a well-known children’s and teen author. I’d never come across her before, so, not wanting to appear ignorant, I read some of her books before the course started. It wasn’t so long since I’d been a teenager myself, and as soon as I started to read, I was hooked. Here was a writer expressing the rollercoaster emotions of those years exactly. After the course – which was fun and inspiring – I visited the teenage section in my local library and bookshop and discovered that, in the years I’d been struggling to become a writer for adults, teen literature had quietly grown into a genre in its own right.

It was around that time that it occurred to me that perhaps I should try rewriting the literary novel I’d been struggling with – which, coincidentally, featured a teenager as the main character – as a teen novel.

The novel wasn’t any good. In fact, it was terrible. But it was the first project I’d had fun with in as long as I could remember. The first characters I really connected with. The first ‘proper’ novel I ever finished, redrafted (seven times!) and queried. By the time it was done, I knew I had found ‘my’ genre, and I knew I had, at last, broken through the glass wall.

So what do I enjoy most about writing teen novels? Firstly, it’s the characters. I remember being a teenager so clearly – what a strange time it is, when the adults around you often treat you like a child, yet you’re expected to assume adult responsibilities and deal with problems that often feel far too big for you to cope with. It’s a unique space to be in, where everything is new and challenging and intense, and for me that makes writing for and about teens utterly fascinating.

Then there’s the sheer scope. A quick glance at the teen fiction section in any bookshop or library will show you that you can write about anything. You can write about teenagers in space or teenagers on the run from sinister police forces or teenagers fighting zombies or teenagers just going about their ordinary lives, and all the challenges that brings. There are no limits. Someone once asked me, “When are you going to start writing for grownups?” My answer? Not yet. Possibly never. I’m having far too much fun!

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Emma Pass’s author website: www.emmapass.blogspot.com

Emma Pass bio page

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Writing What You Know, by Beth Revis

Probably the most clichéd and oft-used phrase for any writer is the old adage, “write what you know”.

So how did I end up writing a novel that takes place hundreds of years in the future, on a spaceship populated by genetically modified people heading to a planet that might not really exist? It’s definitely not something I “know”.

Typically, we don’t really “know” our stories. Or, at least, I don’t. I’ve never been the youngest person on a spaceship, but I do know what it’s like to not fit in. I’ve never had my parents cryogenically frozen, but I still remember that moment when I realized that I’d grown up and was no longer under their safe protection.

Many times, it seems that people who aspire to write teen fiction are more focused on writing teenagers than on writing characters who behave realistically. They will often do research on the outward appearances: clothing, slang, mannerisms. Very often, this is where they trip up, because that’s not the important stuff. Focus on the stuff you know – the stuff everyone knows. We have all experienced the same things every teen has experienced: first love, first heartbreak, betrayal and fear, joy, sorrow. This is what the writer must know – and if the writer knows this, then everything else: the characters, the plot, the world – will fall in place.

Find the beating heart of the story. Invention is a wonderful thing – a necessary thing when it comes to writing. You need to have invention but, somewhere beneath everything that you create, you also have to write what you know.

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

Beth Revis’s bio page

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Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels, by Bernard Beckett

I’m currently working on the third book of what I like to think of as a metaphysical trilogy. The first, Genesis, focussed on the mystery of consciousness, the second, August, on free will, and the last, my current novel Lullaby, is exploring death. All three are an attempt to both examine the metaphors we use to describe the self, particularly in a world where religious metaphors are not the common currency they once were. They’re also explicit attempts, through story, to introduce philosophy to the teenage reader.

So, why should we expect the teenage audience, or indeed anybody, to be interested in philosophy? Considering the teenager first, I would argue that the late teens is precisely the time in life where you are most likely to be excited by the essential contestability of knowledge. Part of the teenage experience is the realisation that the simple world of reliable authority figures and protectors is behind you, and ahead lies a mess that you alone will have to navigate. That’s both tremendously exciting, there’s a sense of freedom and possibility, and terrifying – two of the more easily accessed emotions during adolescence. One of the most tantalising thoughts you can be exposed to during this phase is the possibility that absolutely everything you have ever been taught or told about the world is quite wrong. What if nobody else is really conscious in the way you are? What if other people experience colours differently than you do? What if the rules of the universe were always going to change tomorrow morning? What if somebody was able to predict your every move in advance? What if you’re really just a brain in a vat? What if there’s no you at all, and the continuous self is an illusion?

The first thing philosophy does is allow you to question the foundations of your most certain knowledge, and the enduring appeal of The Matrix amongst teens is evidence enough that there is something highly attractive about this process for the younger mind. I think this is because it mirrors the personal reshaping that is going on, and also because it allows a tremendously important chain of thinking to emerge. If nobody knows anything for sure, then the people who tell me how the world is might be wrong, which means I have permission to consider the world anew, and reach my own conclusions, permission, in short, to enter adulthood.

Of course, the dalliance with the more extreme versions of scepticism is short lived. Very quickly we realise we must put down our foundations in the swampy ground of knowledge and get on with the business of living. Yes, technically is might be true that as of tomorrow morning being hit by a bus will no longer hurt, but to base one’s beliefs about the world upon this possibility appears to be insane. So perhaps all philosophy is, in the end, of no real practical use, beyond its fleeting appeal to the adolescent mind.

That’s a popular view, and one that I would argue is clearly wrong. Part of the reason I’ve included philosophical abstractions in my novels is that I love the idea of the adolescent reader forming a longer lasting attachment to the subject. Here is not the place to defend the worth of philosophy to the adult mind in full. Suffice, I hope, to point out that philosophy is something we all do, all the time. We use observation and reason to build models about our world. To ignore the theoretical framework of these assumptions is not to avoid philosophy, it’s just to do philosophy very badly. This failure matters most, I think, when we find ourselves in contact with those who starting assumptions are very different from our own, perhaps because of a different upbringing, or a different set of religious beliefs. If we don’t understand the premises upon which our own beliefs are based, then there is the very real danger of believing it’s fact all the way down. Now, two groups of people, holding opposing views and being unable to properly interrogate the root of that difference, strikes me as a very dangerous situation, and one that’s worth avoiding.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Month In Review (November 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its eleventh month of articles for 2013 from this year’s multi-national line-up of novelists.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for November 2013

How Martial Arts Benefit Me And My Writing by April Henry

Using Varied Narrative Styles And Formats In A Novel by Paul Volponi

On Categorising Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Why I Write Young Adult Novels by Beth Revis

You Need To Love Your Characters by Lish McBride

How Do You Know If An Idea Will Develop Into A Good Story? by Bernard Beckett

Planning And Writing A Novel by Monika Schroder

To Outline Or Not To Outline? by Kashmira Sheth

Nurturing (And Protecting) Your Story Idea by Diane Lee Wilson

Novel Titles And Covers by Carolyn Meyer

Time And The Publishing Process by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Keep Writing: The Importance Of Finishing Stories by Andy Briggs

Handling Disappointment To Be A Resilient Writer by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Different Types Of Plot In Fiction by Kate Forsyth

My Tips For Writing Novels by Pauline Francis

Guiding A Reader’s Experience Throughout Your Novel (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

Marketing Your Teen Novel On A Small Budget by Laurie Faria Stolarz

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Why I Write Young Adult Novels, by Beth Revis

Eventually, someone always asks me, “Why do you write YA? When are you going to write an adult novel?”

I try not to snort too loudly in their direction.

The thing is, it’s not like it’s an accident that I write Young Adult novels and it’s not like I’m just going to quit. YA is not the training wheels of adult literature.

In fact, if I may get on my soapbox for a moment, it’s my opinion that what makes YA a genre actually has little to do with the main character’s age. It is, in fact, the least important aspect of the genre. What makes a YA novel YA is: a fast-paced plot, dynamic characters and a character who is discovering his or her place in the world (this is where the age of the character tends to come into play).

These are the things I love in the books I read. I want a page-turner. I want excitement. The key here is a character who changes and, for the first time, sees his or her place in society.

An author friend of mine, Alan Gratz, defined the difference between YA and middle grade novels as this: in a middle grade novel, the main character still sees the world as it directly relates to him or her. The novel will focus on the main character’s family, for example, or perhaps the community – but the focus is pretty tight within those constrains. A YA novel, on the other hand, may start in a close location, but the main character must realize who he or she is in the world. This can be as simple as first love, or as complex as saving society (alternatively, it can also be as simple as saving society and as complex as first love).

In all honesty, I constantly question myself in my world. Is what I am doing important? Can I make a difference? Should I just give up? In all honesty, I hope I never quit questioning myself. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still trying to find my place in the world.

That is why I write YA – and why I will probably only ever write YA.

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

Beth Revis’s bio page

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On Categorising Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

When I went to university, I got a library card for the local library -  not the university library but the public library, because ever since I’d been able to read I got my books out of the public library.  The year was 1982, and the town was New Haven, Connecticut.  I walked into the children’s book section and couldn’t find half my favourite books.

It took me a while to discover that they were there but in a separate section of their own, labelled Teen Fiction, Books for Teens, Teen Reading, Teen Titles or something similar – something that separated these books from both adult books and children’s books.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The New Haven Public Library had fantastic children’s and teen sections in 1982.  In my memory these two sections took up the entire basement.  They had the entire collection of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (about twelve or thirteen volumes). I’d never realized there was more than one.  They had all Alan Garner’s books, which I used to use as a measure of quality in any library. He wasn’t very well known in the United States but he’d been my favourite author for many years because I’d started school in the part of England that is the setting for most of his books.

This was the first time I’d ever encountered the ‘teen’ books being separated from the ‘children’s’ books and I didn’t like it.  Alan Garner’s books were split up.  Half of them were in the children’s section and half were in the teen section.

You know what?  I STILL DON’T LIKE IT.  I think that organising books by their intended age is ghettoization.  It leads to further micro-classification that I just flat-out object to.  In the local library in the city where I live now, two of my favourite authors, K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, have their books split not just across two sections but across separate shelves labelled Horse Stories, Times Past, War, Supernatural, Family, and probably something else I’ve forgotten.  When I first read Peyton’s books, I read them all because I found them next to each other on the same shelf.  I’d never have gone looking for horse stories.  I read them and I loved them because I loved that particular author.  I think that breaking up books into this many categories creates narrow-minded readers.  There is no incentive for the lover of ‘humour’ ever to look anywhere else for reading material than the limited ‘humour’ shelf.  There is some very funny science fiction out there but they’ll never discover it.

My own fiction is split up in my local library because Young Adult is now its own section.  I have a series that is split in my local library: the first book is in Times Past and the next two are in Young Adult.  I get that we are trying to encourage readers to explore their tastes, I get that we are trying to encourage teens not to feel that they’re reading below their level.  I still think it is idiotic to split a series across two different library sections.

So. Teen fiction?  Young adult fiction?  Some books are more difficult than others. Some books are better than others.  Pioneering readers shouldn’t limit themselves to one narrow category.  The same goes for a writer.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

The headline of an article published on September 13, 2012 in the Los Angeles Times announces, Most Young Adult Book Buyers Are Not Young Adults.

My kneejerk reaction to this was, ‘WELL, DUH.’

When I was a teen I never had any money.  I got all my books out of the public library and the school library.  Every now and then I would love a book so much that after I’d read it about, oh, five times, I’d beg my grownup caretakers (my grandparents) to buy it for me.  Occasionally a new book would be released in a series or by a favourite author which I desperately wanted as soon as it came out, and then I’d have to ask for it for Christmas or my birthday or something.  Or, if I really couldn’t wait, I’d buy it and not go out for lunch for three weeks.

My teenage daughter is caught in the same bind, except that I have more money to spend on books than my grandparents did, and my daughter doesn’t have to wait for her birthday or go without lunch.

If you read beyond the headline of the LA Times article, you’ll see that the statistics say 55% of buyers of books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 18 years or older.  Of these, 78% claim to be buying the books for themselves.  Let’s twist these statistics another way.  Out of 100 sample shoppers buying YA books, 45 are between 12 and 17.  Another 12 are buying books for their children or grandchildren.  45 plus 12 makes 57… So in fact most young adult books bought in retail ARE actually bought for young adults.  Maybe ‘most young adult book buyers are not young adults,’ but it looks like most young adult book readers are.

The thing that astonishes me is that 45% of people buying books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 12 to 17 year olds.  Nearly half of all printed YA books purchased in retail stores are bought by this disenfranchised segment of the market?  That seems like good news to me.

The other good news here is that adults are reading teen books, too.

Patricia McCormick, in a New York Times blog post defending the power of young adult literature, points out why adults might be interested in reading books aimed at teens.

McCormick comments that YA fiction is innovative and risky, and points to some of the more exciting literature to come out in the past ten years – in addition to the obvious (such as the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series).

As a reader who never stopped reading books aimed at teens, even after I stopped being a teen, I kind of wonder what all the fuss is about.  As a writer who is constantly badgered with the question, ‘But why are your books young adult?’, I am proud and honoured to be part of this risky business, where the pay is lower, the stakes are higher, the audience is fickle and the bar for excellence is constantly being raised.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Plot Structure In Novels, by Kate Forsyth

Whenever I teach writing, I always spend quite a lot of time talking about plot structure.

This is because I think that it is nearly always the reason why a novel fails. A book can have engaging characters; a fast-paced, action-packed plot; and a fascinating setting, but still not quite work. This is nearly always because it has a weak structure.

Think of the structure as the framework of your novel, the internal architecture. It is like a human skeleton – invisible to the eye, yet the thing that stops it collapsing into jelly. Like the skeleton, it is made up of small parts, each linked one to the other, each doing their job to keep your novel working at full strength. The structure of a novel should fall into logical divisions, usually called scenes, chapters and sections.

A scene is an incident or event in a novel in which the action takes place continuously in a single place or time. Each scene should follow on logically from each other in a cause-and-effect chain.

A chapter is a division of the novel into regular parts, usually comprising one major scene, but sometimes combining several scenes.

A section is a collection of chapters, bound together by the point of view of the primary protagonist, by the place or time in which the action is set, or thematically.

In children’s and young adult fiction, the structure is usually more simple and linear than in an adult book, but this is a rule that can be broken. For example, The Puzzle Ring begins long after the adventure has ended, foreshadowing what will come.

Chapters aren’t just arbitrary rest breaks in a book. They should be carefully planned to control pace, to advance the plot and to work with the reader’s natural reading rhythms.

I usually aim for a chapter length between 1,500-2,000 for a children’s book (aged 8+), 2,500-3,000 words for young adults (aged 12+), and 3,500-4,000 words for an adult’s book (aged 16+). However, there is no rule – a chapter can be can a single word as in Frank McCourt’s final chapter of Angela’s Ashes: ‘’Tis”

I usually maintain a single point of view in a chapter. Sometimes I will move from head to head, particularly in the final climactic scenes when numerous characters may all be working toward the final denouement.

I will usually finish a chapter either at a point of high tension, i.e. some kind of cliffhanger, or at a moment of resolution. I call the first a ‘peak’ scene and the second a ‘trough’ scene. Having peaks and troughs varies the pace and rhythm of the book, and allows moments of rest before cranking up the intensity again.

I try to make sure each point of resolution occurs after half an hour’s reading for a child, and an hour’s reading for a young adult or adult.  This is so the reader can get off their bus and go to school or work, or turn off their light and go to bed. Most people read in this way. I know I do.

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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Writing Dialogue In Novels, by Monika Schroder

Beginning writers are tempted to copy how real people talk. Dialogue in fiction is more than just a conversation between the people in the book. It serves many purposes. It moves the plot along, reveals character and improves pacing.

Good dialogue is reminiscent of the way people actually talk, but it shouldn’t exactly sound like it. Yes, you should listen to people’s conversation and notice phrases, diction and expressions used. Carry your notebook and write down slang or funny sayings. You might be able to pepper your character’s speech with these things. Pay attention to the way people interrupt each other or hide their true feelings with what they say. Be careful not to just imitate real conversations. In reality people meander and go off on tangents. They add one association to another and wander all over the place. The dialogue in your story has to have a focus and function in your story.

Dialogue is also a perfect place to employ the old rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. If a character is a bully it will show in his manner of speech. If he is boisterous or shy, it will be depicted in his way of speaking. What a person says and how he or she says it expresses personality.

Start a new chapter or scene with a conversation between two people. The conversation can indicate what happened between the end of the last chapter or scene and the beginning of the new, and thereby letting time pass and move the plot forward. Dialogue can also fill the reader in on what occurred in another setting or in a subplot of the story.

However, it is tempting to use direct speech to explain too much. Doing this leads to clumsy dialogue that stands out as unnatural and awkward:
“Some authors overdo it,” he called out, taking her hand and focusing on her hazel-colored eyes. “They add action description in the middle of their direct speech.” He shook his head and sighed. “It breaks up the pacing,” he said. “It’s just not a good idea.”

Using action in the midst of a line of dialogue has its place sometimes but it’s usually best done precisely and sparingly. Otherwise you slow down the movement of the scene.

When I visit schools I still see posters with “Verbs to replace ‘say’” on classroom walls. I wish teachers would stop with that practice. Attributions after dialogue should not draw attention to themselves. “Said” or “asked” suffice in most instances. If possible, let the reader infer who is speaking from context.

Great dialogue works on many levels. It needs to be concise and cut down to the best lines only. How do you know you have it right? You do it the same way you test all other parts of your text: leave your work-in-progress alone for a while and come back to it after a few days. Re-read. If it sounds good, it probably is. If it sounds trite or artificial, revise.

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

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Language In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.

I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it one from a bookshelf or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important now that we have the widespread use of electronic communication – texting, tweeting, tagging – where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.

A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except”.

At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”

The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. Today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant”. From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition”. They can begin to master language painlessly and even pleasurably in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.

No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there is always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read”, the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about”. But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.

Tweets and texts are fine – and fun – in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. However, language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

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