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Vocabulary And Word Choice In Teen Novels, by Andy Briggs

How do you know exactly what kind of language to use in a novel for teenagers? You may know the slang and jargon, and have a good feel what most teenagers vocabularies are like. Don’t be fooled. It’s not that straightforward.

Despite your best efforts, your editor will come back to you with a note on the manuscript telling you that a teenager would never say that. Worse, they will tell you a teenager won’t understand a phrase you’ve used. Worse still, they will tell you that a word is too difficult for a teenager to understand. I have had all those comments from people. I could have easily edited them out, but I would recommend you don’t completely back down.

In one story, my lead character – who is British – said, “My bad.” Just to clarify, in case your street cred is not all it should be, it means my fault. It’s an American term. I never thought it would result in a salvo of emails, then actual conversations, with my editor because I didn’t want to change it. Their excuses ranged from, “I haven’t heard it” through to “a British child would never say such a thing”. I just felt it was the correct, light-hearted response my character would say, so it stayed. I got an email back from my editor a few months later telling me they had now heard the phrase everywhere.

Was it an important line? No. Did it matter? Probably not, but my protagonist would never have said “my fault”.

These minor things can get out of hand. I used the word hawse in a line of description. My editor wanted it cut – nobody knows what a hawse is, apparently. If you don’t, then see my next point below. But the hawse was the precise name of the thing I was describing. Instead of “the chain rattled through the hawse”, they would have preferred “the chain rattled through the hole in the side of the hull”.

Using such words is important when a character is supposed to be knowledgeable about something and where someone knowledgeable would use such a word. A pilot is less likely to say, “pull back on the control column”. They would most likely say, “pull back on the stick”. Using the right word adds an extra layer of believability to your story.

There is an execrable trend amongst some publishers to dumb-down the language in stories just so they can make sure it works in the 9-12 or YA sections of the bookshop. We don’t all have the same vocabulary. I know you use words or phrases that I have never heard before – in which case I would look them up. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to throw in one or two words that would perplex the average reader. Usually the meaning of the word can be guessed at in the context of the sentence. If you didn’t know what execrable meant when I used it above, you most likely still made a correct guess. If a word can’t be figured out, then that’s what dictionaries are for.

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

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On Character Development For Novelists, by Kate Forsyth

Why is it that some books you read linger in your heart and mind for the rest of your life, while you have trouble remembering much about another book only a few days later?

It is because some books have characters that seem to leap off the page, vivid and alive. These characters have a story to tell that moves and challenges you, making your pulse hurry and your throat thicken, making you turn the pages faster and faster because you so desperately want to know what happens next.

How do we, as writers, create characters who sing and dance and leap? How do we tell a story that makes someone we have never meet sigh, laugh out loud and weep?

To me, character and plot are the most important cogs in the well-oiled machine that is a working story. It is also where many writers fail.

Let’s start with character, the mainspring of any story’s mechanics.

Character building is, I think, one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel, and the one factor that can transform a mediocre book into a marvellous one. Usually our favourite books are the ones in which we wish the main character was our friend.

When writing about the books of Edith Nesbit, Noel Streatfield invented what she called the ‘bus test’: ‘One way of gauging the aliveness of a family in a children’s book is to ask yourself “Would I know them if they sat opposite me in a bus?”’

I think this is a test for all characters in all books - could you, for example, recognise Jo March and her sisters? Would you recognise Harry Potter or Miss Havisham? What about Sherlock Holmes? Scarlett O’Hara? Peter Pan?

Sometimes characters just appear in your imagination with a strong voice all of their own.

Sometimes you need to build them painstakingly from the ground up and wait for them to come to life.

I often find it takes about the first quarter of the first draft (around 20,000 words) for my characters to really begin to move and talk naturally. So don’t worry if you find it takes you a while to really connect - this is quite normal.

William Faulkner said: ‘It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands upon his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.’

Character 101

First, let’s consider what exactly a ‘character’ is.

Characters are the people who populate your story.

Characterisation: the process by which a writer makes those characters seem real to the reader.

Protagonist: the hero or heroine; the primary character or point of view with whom the reader connects and empathises

Antagonist: the character or force that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story.

Foil: character whose behaviour and values provides a contrast to the protagonist in order to highlight their personalities i.e. weak to strong, quiet to talkative

Antihero: protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He may weak and ineffectual; or greedy and cruel. It is much harder to build empathy for an anti-hero.

Static character: does not change throughout the work and the reader’s knowledge of that character does not grow.

Dynamic character: undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. Usually the protagonist of a story is a dynamic character and their growth towards self-realisation and wisdom is the true narrative arc.

Flat character: embodies one or two qualities or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary.  Can sometimes be:

Stock character: embodies stereotypes such as the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘the cruel stepmother’ and so forth.

Round characters: more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They can grow and change and ‘surprise convincingly’.

Showing and Telling: Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Usually authors use a combination of both.

Showing: allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is.

Telling: the author describes and evaluates the character for the reader.

Characters can be convincing, whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated.

Character Tags:  everyone has certain individual mannerisms such as chewing their nails, sitting with one foot on top of the other, playing with their hair, etc. Try to find one or two that will help define each character i.e. a nervous girl who chews her bottom lip, a confident man who stands too close. A character tag can evoke the personality of a character far more powerfully than whole paragraphs of explanation. However, be careful not to overuse them.

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

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Voice In My Teen Novels, by Kashmira Sheth

When I first started writing I had a hard time understanding what voice was and how I could give distinct voices to my characters. Should I have them talk with an Indian accent? Would that be enough? I didn’t think so.

I read more books, looking for voice, and as I wrote my first novel the concept became clearer. Voice is how people express themselves. It has to do not only with accent, but also with word choice, with sentence structure, with figure of speech, and most importantly with how a character views the world and themself. Beyond all that there is time, place and culture to consider.

There are regional differences in how any language is spoken. Characters speaking in English from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or India sound different from one another. They pronounce things differently, greet each other differently and put emphasis on different syllables. In some parts of the world, people may spit sentences out so fast you wonder how they were able to keep them from getting tangled up.  In others, people may draw out their words slowly and carefully like each sound is a nugget of gold that they have to weigh precisely.

Depending on their age or background some characters use short, simple sentences. Some use long and convoluted ones that go on and on, with the help of punctuation, and if you are not paying attention, their meanings could be lost.

Then there are figures of speech. Our inner world is colored with our outer world. The physical surroundings, including weather, seasons, terrain, plants, animals, and people have a profound impact on how they express themselves. For example, a character living in a desert might use a spiky cactus to describe a prickly personality, while a character living near a rocky beach may compare it to sharp rocks. A character’s profession will also shape the way they talk and think.  A poet may describe a sunset differently than a scientist, even though they are both watching the same sunset at the same time and same place. The metaphors and similes our characters use or don’t use reflect their environment and their backgrounds. This makes up part of their voice.

Our character’s position in life will influence how our character views the world, which in turn will impact their voice. If she is a princess she is going to view world differently than if she is a chambermaid. They both may be living in the same palace but they view it differently, they express their thoughts differently and they expect others to communicate with them differently. Again, who they are will give each of them a unique voice.

Time, place and culture will also impact our character’s voice. A modern day princess will express herself very differently than, say, a princess in the 14th century.  Also, a 14th century Indian princess might talk differently to her father than a Russian princess during the same time.

What has worked for me is to know my characters well. Then I concentrate on the scene. Once I have a scene in my mind, and see my characters moving and interacting with other people in their physical space, the voice comes out naturally.

Voice was not as elusive as I had thought.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

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Overcoming Writer’s Block, by Andy Briggs

You’re hammering away at your story. The words tumble from your brain, excite your fingers, and the resulting text on screen is pure gold. You’re unstoppable.

Until writer’s block looms ahead or, more likely, suddenly appears as you slam into it and stop dead. Now, no matter what you do, you can’t progress with your story. The ideas simply won’t flow, so you decide to write another scene – but, strangely, that won’t work either because your thoughts stray back to your original problem. Worse, you put in a lot of time writing future chapters – then, when you finally crack the block, you discover that your future work doesn’t fit your story and you’ve wasted a lot of time.

So writer’s block is an unavoidable peril. After all, it happens to us all. But there are ways to manage it without wasting your time. In fact, writer’s block could make you even more productive.

So, in our scenario you are writing a chapter and your brain suddenly gets stuck in molasses and the story won’t come. First of all, check what kind of block you are facing. If it is a simple matter of not finding the right phrase, or making dialogue sound just right, then add some placeholder text. I tend to write the blandest text and mark it in a bright red font so I can come back to it and massage it later. Writer’s block has now been successfully skipped over. I have witnessed many great writers agonize over a couple of sentences, then lose the thread of their story, and take months or years to get back on track. All because of an irritating sentence.

However, some blocks are more immovable. Your plot comes to a tangled stop or you have painted both yourself and your characters into a corner that you can’t get out of. These are the worst situations, and sometimes it’s like being trapped in a labyrinth as you follow the same old routes in a circle. Best case, you are wasting time – worse case you have blown your deadline. If this happens to you – stop. Turn off the computer and go do something else. This simple act of not thinking about the story allows your subconscious to solve the problem for you.

This sometimes works, but if not – never fear. I have found the best way to beat the block is to start writing something else. As I write these words, I am having problems writing a chase sequence in a screenplay. It’s a key plot point to the story so I can’t just get away with glossing over the scene. I could spend hours, or days, staring at the screen – or I can write this article. If the solution is still not forthcoming when I next open the file, then I will go to work on something else. I have three books, a couple of screenplays to adapt from graphic novels and several other screenplays I could be getting on with. And I do. I make writer’s block work for me. By the time I hit a block on the new prose I am writing, then I’ll switch back to the original problem and marvel how suddenly easy it is to continue on as if the block had never intruded.

One final thought:  I believe writers sometimes bring writer’s block on themselves by sitting at their computer, opening the previous day’s work and reading it. That is the kiss of death. You will find faults. You will find better ways of constructing the scene – so you do. You go back and change the previous days work. Believe it or not, you are not improving your story, you are trapped in a form of writer’s block – unable to move forward.

I never re-read my work while drafting. That’s what rewrites are for. Never go back!

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

Andy Briggs’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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