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Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (April 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its fourth month of articles for 2013, from this year’s line-up of novelists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

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+.

The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:

- provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to

- relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.

Articles for April 2013

First Person Present Tense Narration In Teen Novels by Beth Revis

Teenage Characters And Responsibility In Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Does A Novelist Need An Agent? by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Tools To Develop Productive Novel Writing Habits by April Henry

On Story Ideas And Developing A Novel by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

On The Inspiration For My Teen Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

On Joining A Writing Group Or Writing Alone by Paul Volponi

Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It by Diane Lee Wilson

The Process Of Writing My Novel ‘My Brother’s Shadow’ by Monika Schroder

Plotting My Teen Historical Novels by Carolyn Meyer

Making Time To Write Your Novel by Lish McBride

Crafting Your Novel’s Plot And Characters To Sustain Story Momentum Throughout The Middle by Sam Hawksmoor

Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers by Bernard Beckett

Using 5 Senses In Your Novel Writing by Pauline Francis

Using Characters And Setting To Situate Your Story In Another Culture by Kashmira Sheth

Creating Empathy For Your Characters (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

Characters And Story by Andy Briggs

Developing Characters For My Teen Novels by Kate Forsyth

This month’s articles and writing my teen novel

April Henry wrote: Do you ever find yourself polishing the same paragraph over and over, moving a clause here, changing a verb there and not ever actually adding any new words?
Sometimes even experienced writers have trouble making progress. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Paul Volponi wrote: What gave me the glimmer of hope that I could actually write a novel? Well, while I was working on Rikers Island, I was surrounded by other teachers who were aspiring novelists. They would sit in the computer room before and between classes working on their stories. I turned to one of them one day and said something like, “That’s amazing how you guys can write such big stories with all those characters and plot twists.” The guy replied, “If I can write a few good paragraphs a day, it really adds up.”

Elizabeth Wein wrote: One feature that I feel is characteristic of teen fiction is the divide between young people and adults.  It can show up as a contrast – between the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles.  Or it can show up as a simple lack of understanding between the adults and the teens in the novel.  Where I find this divide most interesting, and probably most disturbing, is when it’s part of a power play.  This is the kind of conflict that I find myself most often describing in my own novels.

Bernard Beckett wrote: When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences.

Different novelists approach their writing in different ways but it is typically a good idea not to stop and start, breaking off to research or edit, once you start drafting. Most novel writers find it much more productive to familiarise themself with their subject matter, and maybe the general design of their character development and plot, then to write a draft from beginning to end before going back over what they’ve written and revisiting their research to get the finer details right. It’s often not until a writer has finished a full draft that they really understand in detail how they want their story to work, so the best time to spend hours painstakingly polishing the fine details is typically after you have a full draft. Otherwise changes which are necessary to make your story work better could result in having to change or cut large sections that you have rewritten and edited for many hours needlessly. As April wrote, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” when drafting.

As Paul pointed out, writing a little bit regularly adds up. If you ‘wait until you are inspired’ and write 3000 words in a day once per month it will take you two years to write a full draft of a 72,000 word novel. Keep in mind that this is just the first draft, which might be half, a third, a quarter, or less of the work you do before submitting a novel to an agent or publisher (or self-publishing). Then an agent or publisher might only be interested if you do a major rewrite. If you write 500 words a day every day while drafting you will complete the first draft of a 72,000 word novel in 144 days, which is a little under four months. Writing 750 words a day, five days a week, will get a 72,000 done in 96 writing days over 134 days, which is three and a half months. Writing regularly will also help you keep the story together in your head to maintain continuity in your story and consistency in how you’re writing the story.

Many have speculated about what makes teen novels so popular with both teens and adults. One major factor is “the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles” that Elizabeth wrote about in her article. Adults don’t have to get stuck in prescribed roles but many do. Many adults have lost touch with a sense of having an unfinished, dynamic personality – which is the nature of people throughout their whole life, whether they take full advantage of it or not – to a large degree and reading stories about teenagers can help adults rethink their own attitude to life and rediscover the possibilities still available to them.

Writing my own teen novel, set in 1939 Poland, it has been crucial to do in-depth research before drafting to avoid stopping and starting to do extra research while drafting or writing an under-informed draft which would require major cuts and rewriting later. I find that having an in-depth knowledge of my subject matter and resources at hand to double-check any details I might need to confirm along the way allows me to write with confidence, enjoy the writing process and be inspired by the real-life context of what I’m writing about. Even if you write fantasy novels, and can therefore make up a lot that other writers might need to make sure they get right, some initial research relevant to your story can go a long way to creating a rich, coherent foundation for your novel and tangible real-world details to draw readers into your story-world.

My novel-in-progress is set in a time and place where characters’ plans are disrupted by the outbreak of war and they have to re-invent how they live their lives. As discussed, teenagers tend to do this naturally and many adults would benefit from being more open to re-invention. The ‘unfinished, dynamic character of the maturing teens’ in the novel should carry with it appeal for teenagers who identify with the characters’ personalities, by ‘telling them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences’, and for adults who remember their own teenage years and the sense of possibility and opportunity that they either still have or have let go of to some degree. The characters face extraordinary circumstances which will hopefully inspire readers to realise that, if the characters are capable of doing what they do in their difficult circumstances, then the reader is also capable of great things without the obstacles faced by the characters.

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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.

You can connect with Steve Rossiter on Facebook or on Google+.

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Are Teen Novels Literature? by Bernard Beckett

To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store.  From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? We ask this self-consciously, perhaps defensively, worried that somewhere out there real writers are looking down their noses at us, or worse still, not looking at us at all. Such paranoia is not without fuel. Consider the way our work is treated in schools. It is not uncommon for a senior student to be told that a certain book isn’t ‘challenging enough’ to warrant their attention. The subtext is clear. Some books are light relief, a form of entertainment and nothing more, while others have a more worthy purpose. Real books dig beneath the surface, expose us to thoughts and feelings that would have otherwise eluded us, they expand our horizons, add colour to our palette. And, as a helpful short cut, genre fiction, be it romance, crime, fantasy or YA, is lumped together in the diverting-but-shallow category. But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Actually, in terms of YA, I think the filter works pretty well. I certainly wouldn’t argue that teen fiction can’t be great literature (I have my favourite counter-examples), but I would argue that mostly it isn’t. What’s more, I think this is perfectly predictable, and shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of failing on behalf of the YA writer. Indeed, a case might be made that the opposite is true – teen fiction authors self-consciously attempting to create great literature would be doing their readers a grave disservice.

To make this case, first it’s necessary to establish that the notion of literature is itself meaningful. Some argue that the very term is nothing but a code word for elitism: a small, culturally self-referencing clique, define literature against their own tastes, needs and prejudices, and then impose this definition upon a bewildered public, primarily as a means of exclusion. The bored schoolboy struggling through Passage to India on a hot afternoon might have some sympathy for this view. However, I think it’s too easy a dismissal. When I consider the books I have read, some simply passed the time in a pleasant manner: entertaining, intriguing, manipulating me, spinning stories. Others did something else. They deepened my understanding of the human experience. There were moments of clarity, of insight, indeed wisdom. Now of course this is an individual response, what counts as insightful will depend upon the state of the reader’s current model of the world (whereas an adult reader might treat The Da Vinci Code as a bit of escapist fun, a twelve year old reader might be ‘blown away by the ideas’). Furthermore, many books that aspire to insight, expose us only to the limitations of the author’s world, and are almost unreadable. The definition of literature is always going to be slippery with subjectivism, but I’m not sure we should do away with it altogether.  Some reading experiences are intellectually richer than others, just as some writing is poetic, while in other cases it’s purely functional. To deny that some books are primarily in the business of entertaining, while others strive to create art, seems to miss something important.

But to say it makes sense to speak of literature, is only to build half a case. Why should we expect literature to respect genre boundaries? Why shouldn’t we expect to find beautiful, wise writing in teen fiction or romcoms? The answer, I think, is that it is tremendously difficult to serve two masters. If you want to construct a thriller, then the primary goal must be to, well, thrill. And, at the point where we accept the thriller challenge, we are faced with psychological constraints, and these  constraints in turn determine the way our story will be built. We are thrilled when the character we care for is in jeopardy, when all appears lost, when every move only makes things worse, and all the while the deadly clock ticks on. The more our righteous indignation is fired, the more intense the thrill. It’s not just that our guy is running away, it’s that our guy is essentially good, and the folk he’s running away from aren’t.  We yearn for his survival both on an empathetic, and a theological level. So immediately, we can see that moral ambiguity has a tendency to work against the thriller element. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that challenges our sense of the world, asks us to view our circumstances from a new perspective. Here then, we see the demands of literature and entertainment pulling in opposite directions. There are ways around this, of course, and the freakishly gifted writer will find them, producing both compelling narratives and deeply challenging works. For most of us though, what we’ll produce is a thriller that doesn’t thrill.

Like the thriller, the teen novel has its own imperatives (although as the readers reach the older end of the spectrum, this is less the case, and it’s here the chances of finding genuine literature improve). One of the great joys of being a teenager is the intensity with which one lives, an intensity that is never matched. To love a new song at fifteen is to love it in a way no functional adult can reach for.  So too it goes for fearing rejection, anticipating glory, or surfing the crest of a hormonal wave. Life is full of fresh first times, the existing template is tantalisingly inadequate, and the ride is at once terrifying, thrilling, elevating, and crushing; a mess of confusion and contradictions. Teenagers are in the business of trying out their new toys: their new bodies, their new intellectual capacities, their new level of access to adult society. They are fearsome advocates, gobsmacking risk takers, both loyal and fickle, tribal and fiercely independent. They don’t seek ambiguity, but rather clash. Their instinct isn’t for contemplation, it’s for engagement. These are the fast food years. One doesn’t linger and savour; one consumes, in great, joyous mouthfuls. And this wonderful creation, the modern teen, is the master the YA writer must serve.

This unique audience provides us with special opportunities, along with a peculiar set of constraints. It is the nature of these constraints, I would argue, that mean that the work we produce often isn’t literature. There are exceptions of course; glorious, inspiring exceptions, that simultaneously provoke jealousy and ambition. For the rest of us, with our stories to tell, engaging the audience is a lofty enough goal.

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

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Australia (and beyond)

GenesisAugustNo AlarmsLester     Prison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann ParkerJohnny Tremain

Writing Teen Novels
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