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Writing A Novel That’s More Interesting Than Facebook, by Jack Heath

The greatest strength of the novel is also its greatest weakness: it’s very, very old.

The novel was there to watch – and often comment on – the infancy of almost every other medium, from photography to cinema to television to video games. The few art forms which preceded it, such as painting, sculpture and theatre, are now mostly appreciated by a wealthy and educated few. The novel, meanwhile remains enjoyable to anyone who can read.

It could be that the novel is so ancient that we’ve forgotten its admittedly forgettable origin; a time-killing device, used by those on long voyages or trapped inside on rainy days. The only burden placed upon the first novelists was that their words had to be more interesting than whatever was taking place outside the reader’s window. It was under these circumstances that 900,000-word epics such as Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, were published.

Modern authors fight a different battle. As boredom is gradually eradicated from our society (fewer and fewer people are walking around without the internet in their pockets, and many of us now use earphones not to enjoy our own music but to block out someone else’s) the market for the time-killer novel has dwindled. If you find yourself waiting ten minutes for a train, will you open a copy of War and Peace, or will you pull out your iPhone and update your Facebook status?

The most fiercely-contested territory in this war is the teenage brain. Pre-teens are forced by their parents to read, and most people aged 25 and up have already developed healthy reading habits. But teenagers are old enough to make their own choices, and young enough to prefer new media to old.

An elderly person, raised on radio, may well choose to read Tolstoy. A middle-aged person might not, but if the book were Raymond Chandler’sThe Little Sister, which was written to compete with cinema, they might. Teenagers, meanwhile, need a book to be more interesting than video games or social media before they will open it. They need novels which are entertaining, rather than merely diverting.

It is telling that the most successful young-adult series of the last few years – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Alex Rider and others – are lacking some elements commonly found in classic novels. They have no lengthy passages about the weather, the shape of the land or the genealogy of the characters. They focus instead on the plots that the TV can’t articulate, sensations that video games can’t convey, and spectacle that Hollywood has no budget for (unless, of course, the film is based on a novel which was already a best-seller).

When I was writing Hit List, I paused after every paragraph to ask myself if a teenage reader would prefer to find out what happens next, or log in to Facebook. I would advise all my fellow young-adult authors to do the same.

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Jack Heath bio page

Hit ListMoney RunThe LabThe Hunger Games (Hunger Games Trilogy)Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneStormbreakerThe Invisible Assassin

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. That just helped me in my process as the young adult audience is who I’m targeting. I never thought about it like that. I’m actually reading The Hunger Games for the first time I will be sure to take notice.

    April 1, 2012
  2. You bring up a very valid point here and I thank you for that. I’m one of those old fashioned kind of writers who still sits in literary heaven with my cup of joe, but then again I haven’t really been focused on having an adolescent audience. BUT, as you point out, it won’t be long before today’s adolescent audience becomes my audience, and by then they will be so wrapped up in their robot gear that my books won’t stand a chance. Yet despite this current trend, there are also the gadgets that promote reading such as the Kindle. I feel that its rise in popularity can only be good news for us writers. So the book is on a screen, but the book is read (in between facebook updates) and that’s all that matters right? Plus, there is an upside to the rise in communication and technology–the sharing of our work from one country to the next 😉

    April 1, 2012
  3. I write for adults, but one of the things I adore about the best YA literature is its spare and elegant plotting. The best of these novels share territory with poetry: truth communicated without condescension, and in the fewest words possible. So you’ve given a really good question here: how to compete with distraction.

    Though I would argue that more traditional novels (Tolstoy’s War and Peace being a favorite of mine) are a form of virtual reality: you don’t so much read them as camp out in them, particularly if you’re reading them in the original language. The novel is a shape-shifting genre that offers a variety of delights, from swift and simple plotting to layered complexity of language and subject. A great YA novel… is a gateway drug. 🙂

    April 18, 2012

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