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Writing Narrative Point Of View In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

When I was an aspiring novelist I went to listen to a talk by an author of eighteen (wow!) novels. He was giving advice on how to write a novel and one of the first things he said was, “Don’t write in first person. It’s too difficult.”

Gulp. I’d already begun a novel, had about four chapters finished, in fact, and the way I heard the story in my head was clearly in first person. I didn’t find it difficult. Hmmm.

Lesson learned: What doesn’t work for another author may work for you. Each writer has different strengths; some are great at characterization, some can keep their stories going at breakneck speed, some use the language beautifully. Do what’s right for you. For me, I like first person and I think it’s particularly good for teen novels.

A story told in first person is intimate; you’re inside this person’s head, observing the world through his or her eyes. Thus it’s natural for a reader to form an empathetic bond with the protagonist. Since teens, especially, want to know what other teens are thinking, putting your teen novel in first person is a natural draw for them. They’ll envision themselves in the main role, and enjoy the power or the adventure or the romance offered in the story. No doubt your protagonist will put a “teen spin” on things and that will further engage the reader.

Writing in first person also allows you, the author, to get to know your characters better. You’ll find that once they come alive and begin speaking, they’ll reveal more and more of themselves each time you sit down to write. I’ve been surprised by some of the deep-seated issues my characters have brought forth onto the page. They’ve come up with past hurts or long-repressed desires that have added an extra note of realism to the fictional story. This is part of the magic of writing, and I’ve never spoken to any author who hasn’t had at least one character take hold of a story and begin to direct its course. It’s often the main character’s personality traits, in fact, that help determine just how the story’s crisis will be resolved.

Tension is another benefit of writing in first person. Because the reader is seeing the world only through the protagonist’s eyes, he or she is discovering it right along with the hero. There is no omniscient narrator saying, “A thief lurked behind the door.” The protagonist can only note misgivings, or acknowledge an eerie feeling: “Had the door moved slightly with the wind or was that someone’s breathing? I knew I shouldn’t have come here alone.”

Wrapping yourself in the skin of one of your characters, listening to another’s thoughts and feeling their emotions, is for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s a free ticket to experiencing the world from a different vantage point. And when it’s over you get to introduce that character to readers and share with them an enriching story.

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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Vocabulary and Grammar in Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my writing 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 a hardcover one from a bookshelf, or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important. Because of 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. But 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.” And 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’s 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. But language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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On Getting Story Ideas (and Developing Them Into Finished Stories) by Diane Lee Wilson

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” That’s a question I frequently get from aspiring writers and one that, frankly, surprises me. Because gathering ideas is truly the easiest part of writing a teen novel. Developing them into a finished story is quite another matter.

Viable ideas for your novel are everywhere. Literally. If you maintain a keen interest and a sensitive ear you’ll find possibilities in a “human interest” story in the newspaper. In a conversation with a stranger. In an unusual photograph in a magazine. In a “throwaway” line from an old movie. If, as a writer, you’re truly alert to the bits of stories all around you then you will find more stories to tell than you have years to live.

Keep in mind that you’re going to craft your story for a teen audience so focus on those themes or settings that will most appeal to this age group.

Now, how do you keep track of all these gestating ideas and which ones do you nurture first? For me, I always have a completely unedited “idea file” in progress. This manila folder regularly accumulates intriguing clippings, photos, and random scribbles on notepaper (often jotted down in the middle of the night when “brilliance” seems to appear). Most of these thought fragments have never blossomed into full stories. But sometimes a theme begins developing (a place in history or a particular character type, for example) and I’ll extract all this pertinent inspiration and assemble it in its own “story file.”

When I’m between projects I’ll also take the time to edit my “idea file”. If I’m no longer struck by the wonderful possibilities of a certain piece then it has lost its magic for me, and I crumple and toss it without regret. You don’t have to hold onto every single story idea; there are many, many more in the world around you. Trust me.

So how do you identify the best ones? The very best idea, the one to which you should apply all your energy, is the one you’re constantly turning in your mind, the one that makes you jump out of bed in the morning and want to start writing. It’s the one that lights the creative fire inside you.

As all writers know, however, self-doubt can creep in and all too easily dampen that fire. Maybe there’s another story that’s better, you begin to think. Maybe I should be working on that one.

Well, here’s where you have to balance inspiration with determination. Re-evaluate what got you started on this teen novel of yours. Do you still believe in that idea? If so, then dig down and find the determination to carry your idea through to a complete novel.

If you truly find yourself staring into the dark, though, perhaps it’s only temporary. Perhaps you need to put your story on the back burner for a while and let it develop at its own pace. I think most writers have several story ideas incubating at the same time. I, for one, always have two or three projects in various stages of maturation lined up behind the one on which I’m working.

Although I consider myself a fairly disciplined writer, even my project line-up can change. As an example: I have compiled research for an intended novel that now fills an entire file box. Relevant books have been acquired, notes organized, character descriptions fleshed out, even a few early chapters have been written. I like this story. I want to write it. But twice now, some other project has pre-empted my creative fire and assumed priority. Most recently this happened when I was reading a newspaper article and turned the page to find a striking photograph that I immediately saw as the climax of a story. At the same instant that I was acknowledging that “THIS is my next story” I was bemoaning the fact that I would once again have to set aside the story with the huge file box. Oh well. Hopefully I have enough years left in me to return to it.

Determination to complete a story can always be mustered, but inspiration, especially when it presents itself in full flame, should never be ignored. Follow your instinct.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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Mentor Characters in Teen Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson

Heroes of all ages rely on mentors but teen protagonists, especially, can often benefit from an “older and wiser” point of view. Such elders are iconic in literature and film: Professor Dumbledore for Harry Potter, Gandalf for Frodo (okay, not truly a teen but young in character) or Mr. Miyagi for Daniel in The Karate Kid.

Utilizing an aged mentor in your cast of characters presents benefits but also some dangers, the riskiest being the creation of a cliché: the saccharine octogenarian who too readily dispenses wisdom in platitudes.

How can you avoid this pitfall?

The key, I think, lies in creating a mentor who is genuinely interested in helping the teen protagonist but does so mostly by encouraging the teen’s best. Rather than solving problems themselves or providing answers directly, they help the teen arrive at success through guidance, modeling, or when necessary, challenge.

I’ve used “old wise ones” in several of my books and they’ve become some of my favorite characters. To keep them interesting I make these elderly mentors a little “prickly” in character or a little “off” mentally. Their words and actions can then be unexpected, leading the teen to speculate on the reliability of the advice (and thus begin to trust his or her own instincts even more). Such unpredictability creates story tension as well because the reader must decide right along with the protagonist if the mentor can be trusted.

In my novel I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade, for example, the teen Oyuna is warned by her father to stay away from her shamaness grandmother, who has suddenly appeared in their nomad’s camp:

“Her mind is twisted,” he said, spitting into the cooking fire. “Too many years traveling alone.”

Of course Oyuna secretly visits her eccentric grandmother anyway and receives clues to her destiny; but they’re just that—clues, wrapped in convoluted language that’s close to gibberish. She’s not sure, in fact, if what she’s received is any sort of wisdom at all.

A similar relationship exists in Firehorse where Rachel and her maternal grandmother live cramped, unsatisfying lives beneath the overbearing rule of Rachel’s father. Rachel suspects her grandmother of approaching senility and is surprised one evening when the woman delivers a defiant speech directed at Rachel’s father. Via this bold action the grandmother symbolically separates herself from Rachel’s parents, creating a natural alliance with her rebellious granddaughter, and paving the way for Rachel to also stand up to her father.

Interestingly, in both of these novels the grandmother dies three quarters of the way through—quite to the author’s surprise, I might add. Upon reflection, though, I realize that Dumbledore and Gandalf also died before their stories ended. I think the death or disappearance of a mentor signals the teen’s arrival at maturity; the necessary wisdom has been imparted, the torch has been passed.

In another of my novels, Raven Speak, a Viking teen named Asa struggles throughout the story with the issue of trusting her decidedly unusual mentor, the mercurial Wenda. Near the end of a pivotal chapter the two have this exchange:

Asa shook her head. This was absurd. “No,” she replied. “I’m not traveling with you any further. I can’t trust you.”

“Of course you can’t.” Wenda made the statement seem obvious. “You can only trust yourself.”

This is the vote of confidence that every good mentor is trying to impart to a novel’s hero. And the mentor’s role really boils down to that: instilling confidence. It can be accomplished in many ways by inventive authors but remains a message that teens, real and fictional, long to hear.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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Animals Speak Volumes: Animal-Human Friendships in Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson

As the daughter of a veterinarian, I was knee-deep in animals from infancy. A pet skunk shared my parents’ apartment situated above a clinic where yips and meows lulled me to sleep. My first words, I believe, were addressed to the Dalmatian in the neighboring yard. We were each behind bars — I in my playpen and he inside his fence. Eye level. It was natural to introduce myself. Before long my world was populated by innumerable cats, a schnauzer and guinea pigs. A brother came along and he introduced ducks and rabbits. Another brother, turtles. My father began breeding Labradors. And I fell in love with horses.

Which is to say that I’ve always felt myself on equal footing with animals. In my experience they’re more than secondary companions, they’re friends, with visible emotions, varying degrees of intelligence, and a willingness to communicate. They readily take up residence in my novels, playing a variety of roles.

Because my protagonists are typically loners (as a great many teens envision themselves), cats, dogs and horses often serve as best friends—non-judgmental and loyal. Time spent in the company of these animals is a welcome respite from the greater world. As Walter Hogan writes in his scholarly work Animals in Young Adult Fiction, “Animals are important to the adolescent because it is during the teen years that the child’s healthy, natural sense of being connected with an entire living planet—instead of just to his own species—is routinely shattered.” Romping with a dog or stroking a cat or even just sitting quietly in a stall with a favorite horse can provide a teen with a satisfying sense of affection and connection. As Rachel says in my novel Firehorse, “When I’m standing beside a horse, I feel that I’m neither girl nor boy, child nor adult, strong nor weak. I’m accepted just as I am. And there, and only there, I can breathe.”

Because most novels take place in the civilized world though, one ruled by humans, the friendships are not equal; the teen has the opportunity to take the more powerful role. Wielding that power provides opportunities for maturation. Maybe a dog shouldn’t be left to sleep in the snow, even though the boss’s rules say otherwise. Perhaps a horse, callously misused, requires bold rescue. Caring about—and acting to better—the treatment of animals helps a teen become a more thoughtful, compassionate adult. As Hogan further states in his book, “…animals provide a vital perspective on our understanding of what it is to be human.”

During the writing process I’ve sometimes found animal characters nudging the human characters to “do better” or “make the right choice” via a soul-piercing stare. At least, the teen reads such intent into the animal’s gaze as he/she contemplates a current situation’s moral complexities. In my most recent novel Tracks, for instance, Malachy, an Irish boy, often snubs a Chinese co-worker whom he considers inferior. His dog, Brina, who shares her affection with both boys, serves up occasional judgment. After one caustic exchange Malachy admits, “But here was Brina, her golden eyes brimming with disdain, which bothered me…” In these situations, the animal, I think, evolves from friend to gentle counselor.

A word of caution to writers who plan on incorporating animals in their stories: keep them on stage! I once introduced a cat solely as a plot device though the creature unexpectedly pounced into a few more scenes before disappearing from the story. My editor asked what happened to him. I assured her he was fine and living off-stage, but she said, “I like that cat; I want to hear more about him. Your readers are going to want to hear more about him.” So I gave this feline ham a few more scenes and included him in the final chapter. Which is to say, it’s a whole lot easier to introduce animal characters than it is to dispose of them! But incorporating animals in novels offers rich opportunities for character-developing interaction. And surprises for authors and readers alike.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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