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Write The Best Novel You Can, by Donna Jo Napoli (guest post)

I was asked to write around 500 words of advice about writing teen novels.  Here goes.

First, don’t write a teen novel.  Write the best novel you can.  I often do writing exercises with people from primary school up through old age.  One of the exercises I do with third graders begins with these instructions: “Think about a book that you have read this year or that has been read to you that you really really want your best friend to read.  Now tell me why.”  The children will offer answers like:

Because it will make her cry.

Because it will make her laugh.

Because it will scare him.

Because he won’t be able to figure it out.

They pick the books based on the emotional reactions elicited.  That’s not because they are third graders; that’s because they are readers. We go to fiction for an emotional ride.  We want to climb inside the main character(s) and experience vicariously their thrills and woes.  How do you, the writer, make your reader experience that?  That’s the great task of all writers, figuring out our own way of doing it.  There are many routes to that end, but I am convinced that all of them require that we, the writers, be involved.  We must care desperately about our stories in order to have a chance at making our readers care. So dig down into yourself and examine why you are writing a story.  Ask yourself if you need to tell it.  You better.  You better feel that if you can’t tell this story, you don’t know how you’re going to go on in life.  I don’t mean that literally, really, since I hope that all writers have a life beyond writing and that that life gives them a perspective to allow them to partake of all the myriad joys and miseries of human existence.  At the same time I do mean that in some visceral way that I hope you understand.  I hope you are driven to write, even though your good senses might tell you fiction writing is a career with little prospect of financial satisfaction.  I hope writing is your disease.  Because if it isn’t, stop now.  Persistence is more than half the game.  Many people can write beautifully – but it takes persistence to get your work onto the desk of the right person to publish it.  And it’s usually a profound need to tell the story that gives us that persistence. So write from your deep well of passion, tell the stories you need to tell, and practice humility so that you can rewrite and rewrite until you have something of decent quality.  That’s what I mean by “Write the best novel you can write.”

Second, now that you have that novel, ask yourself who would care about it.  If it’s about finding a career path, probably it’s not for teens.  If it’s about finding love, establishing identity, coping with injustice, and, really, so many other things, maybe it is for teens.  Go out and find some teens to test it on. Listen to them.  And rewrite.


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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Such an honest, refreshing post. I write for a reaction. I also write the novel someone else, like me, would want to read.

    But listen up–I’m not one of those writers who thinks thrillers are soo straight, hard-and-fast, overdone, therefore I must write a YA, psychological, fantasy thriller. No.

    What I mean is I write because [INSERT REASON HERE] … i.e. I need to tell Katie’s story of almost losing it all but who managed to save her relationships with her family and friends.

    May 9, 2012

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