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On Categorising Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

When I went to university, I got a library card for the local library -  not the university library but the public library, because ever since I’d been able to read I got my books out of the public library.  The year was 1982, and the town was New Haven, Connecticut.  I walked into the children’s book section and couldn’t find half my favourite books.

It took me a while to discover that they were there but in a separate section of their own, labelled Teen Fiction, Books for Teens, Teen Reading, Teen Titles or something similar – something that separated these books from both adult books and children’s books.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The New Haven Public Library had fantastic children’s and teen sections in 1982.  In my memory these two sections took up the entire basement.  They had the entire collection of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (about twelve or thirteen volumes). I’d never realized there was more than one.  They had all Alan Garner’s books, which I used to use as a measure of quality in any library. He wasn’t very well known in the United States but he’d been my favourite author for many years because I’d started school in the part of England that is the setting for most of his books.

This was the first time I’d ever encountered the ‘teen’ books being separated from the ‘children’s’ books and I didn’t like it.  Alan Garner’s books were split up.  Half of them were in the children’s section and half were in the teen section.

You know what?  I STILL DON’T LIKE IT.  I think that organising books by their intended age is ghettoization.  It leads to further micro-classification that I just flat-out object to.  In the local library in the city where I live now, two of my favourite authors, K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, have their books split not just across two sections but across separate shelves labelled Horse Stories, Times Past, War, Supernatural, Family, and probably something else I’ve forgotten.  When I first read Peyton’s books, I read them all because I found them next to each other on the same shelf.  I’d never have gone looking for horse stories.  I read them and I loved them because I loved that particular author.  I think that breaking up books into this many categories creates narrow-minded readers.  There is no incentive for the lover of ‘humour’ ever to look anywhere else for reading material than the limited ‘humour’ shelf.  There is some very funny science fiction out there but they’ll never discover it.

My own fiction is split up in my local library because Young Adult is now its own section.  I have a series that is split in my local library: the first book is in Times Past and the next two are in Young Adult.  I get that we are trying to encourage readers to explore their tastes, I get that we are trying to encourage teens not to feel that they’re reading below their level.  I still think it is idiotic to split a series across two different library sections.

So. Teen fiction?  Young adult fiction?  Some books are more difficult than others. Some books are better than others.  Pioneering readers shouldn’t limit themselves to one narrow category.  The same goes for a writer.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeMy Brother's ShadowWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker

Writing Teen Novels
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Writing A Good First Sentence For A Teen Novel, by Diane Lee Wilson

Composing the first sentence of your novel can elicit screams of agony. It can be a difficult task because so much depends upon those few words. Will a prospective teen reader, already distracted by a myriad of electronic devices and entertainments, glance at this sentence, yawn and set your book down? How do you manage to entice such a fickle reader along to a second sentence and then a third?

As a practical matter, I have always liked starting my novels in the middle of a highly charged scene, ideally with one short sentence that hints at intrigue: “On the morning of September 16, 1860, my pa shot me.” “The little thumbnail moon gave no light at all; a friend to the thief.” “Better that you’d never been born.” Homicide, thievery, banishment – all themes that hint at an exciting tale.

In venturing to the local library, I found strong openings of varying lengths in many critically acclaimed teen novels. Robert Cormier’s classic, The Chocolate War begins simply, “They murdered him.” Laura McNeal introduces a mysterious character in the very first words of her lyrical Dark Water: “You wouldn’t have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of socks chosen in the dark, don’t match.” Then there’s Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which starkly states, “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” (Okay, those aren’t the exact first words but they’re in bold type and centered on the page so that’s where your eyes go.)

With a first sentence as strong as any one of these, a prospective reader (and innately curious human) simply cannot resist continuing to the second sentence and then a third. Now he or she is like a fish following the bait. So you keep writing, keep tossing out interesting tidbits, not yet revealing the whole story. Remember that most teens have short attention spans – at least until they’re hooked! – so you’ve got to move things along briskly. Think of this challenge as crafting one sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next paragraph.

Admittedly, there are times when I can’t think of a good opening for a novel I’m starting, so for inspiration I’ll revisit favorite books that have hooked me early on. I’ll scan the first few paragraphs and try to decipher just how the author pulled me in. Was the protagonist in immediate danger? Was there an unusual setting? Was there an urgent problem to be solved? On occasion, the unique tone of a book or the author’s voice will pull me in. I highly recommend studying those authors that have mastered the art of the “tease”.

If I continue to be stuck on my opening, however, rather than yank out my hair and switch careers, I attack the book from a different direction. I just start elsewhere in the chapter. I pick a scene that I am passionate about and that I can easily visualize, and I write it. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the first chapter without having created a strong beginning. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the novel. What I’ve learned though, is that a strong beginning often reveals itself only upon the book’s completion. Once you’ve spent time with your story, once you’ve come to understand and love your characters, you’ll know how to begin their story in the strongest way possible.

So, in composing the first sentence of your teen novel, keep your teen reader firmly in mind. You’ve only a brief period to hook him, so rely on novelty and human curiosity. You’ll soon find yourself writing with confidence, with readers fully engaged.

***

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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Finding The Right “Voice” For Your Novel, by Carolyn Meyer

Finding a “voice” that enables a novel to connect with teen readers requires skill. Even the most fascinating characters and the most intriguing plot will fall flat without that voice.

Finding it begins with the narrator. An older adult, looking back over his life? A young person, telling her story in a voice that changes as she ages? Or a third-person narrator, recounting the story from a distance? Tense also affects voice; present feels different from past.

Victoria’s diaries and Darwin’s correspondence were invaluable in finding the voice in Victoria Rebels and The True Adventures of Charley Darwin.

Cleopatra Confesses was harder. She spoke ancient Greek and a number of other ancient languages, including Egyptian. None of this helped. I decided to use first person present tense, but I knew that if she sounded too “modern”, the effect would be jarring, and a formal voice felt too mannered and off-putting. Contractions have been common in English for centuries; not using them makes for a formal voice. Assuming there must have been similar grammatical constructs in ancient Greek, I used contractions when Cleopatra speaks to her sisters, brothers and servants, and more formal language when she speaks to her father.

Voice also involves the length and complexity of sentences. Generally a mix of short, simple sentences with some compound and complex sentences feels right. Choice of vocabulary is critical, especially in writing for teens. I avoid passive voice and replace weak-verb-plus-adverb with a strong verb: “gobbled” or “gulped”, rather than “ate hungrily.”

When a certain word or phrase may be unfamiliar to a teen reader, I explain it, directly or by context. When Darwin meets the captain of the ship on which he will sail around the world, the captain says, “I’m an ardent believer in phrenology, and I hold that a man’s character is revealed nowhere so strongly as in his face. I doubt whether anyone with a broad, indelicate nose such as yours could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.”  Concerned that young readers would not know anything about phrenology, I included the phrase about “a man’s character is revealed…” to explain it.

White Lilacs is narrated by a 12-year-old African-American girl in the 1920s. I didn’t use dialect; Rose Lee’s voice is simple and direct. I must have gotten it right, for many teen readers were surprised when this white author showed up for school visits.

Beware the dreaded anachronism. When I wrote Loving Will Shakespeare I used a dictionary to determine when certain words came into common usage. But I missed one, and was nailed by a reviewer who noted that I had referred to Anne Hathaway as a “spinster”; in Shakespeare’s time a spinster was a woman who spun wool or flax and did not yet mean “an older unmarried woman” for another half century or so.

At some point I read aloud what I’ve written and listen to the voice, trusting my own ear to detect anything that sounds a bit “off”. It’s not a perfect detector but it’s usually good enough to send me back for a rewrite – especially when I’m writing about spinsters.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein

My husband the businessman often talks about a thing called ‘duty of care’.  Here’s the Wikipedia link to its usage in English law, which is generally what he’s referring to.

Loosely speaking, as the article says, ‘a duty of care arises where one individual or group undertakes an activity which could reasonably harm another, either physically, mentally, or economically.’  On the simplest level, when you drive a car you have a ‘duty of care’ not to endanger anyone with your driving.

On a more subtle and complex level, a writer also has a ‘duty of care’.  Maybe the risk of physical harm isn’t there, but throwing radical ideas at people can be dangerous in a different way.  Author contracts often contain a clause where the author must assure the publisher that his or her work ‘contains no recipe, formula or instruction injurious to the user.’

In writing historical fiction, I feel that I have a duty of care to present my readers with an accurate picture of the past.  Any misrepresentation on my part won’t be physically harmful, it’s true, but I feel that it could be developmentally harmful.  I don’t like the idea of people going around repeating inaccuracies based on something I’ve written.  I want to generate my readers’ interest in the subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be considered the ultimate source or authority on those subjects.

I check almost everything, including my word usage.  I flag things I’m not sure of.  I work with a slang dictionary to date things; I spend hours checking up on single items.  What did the Special Operations Executive use for their sabotage operations in Occupied Europe?  It turns out they were pioneers in the use of plastic explosive.  But did they refer to it as plastic explosive?  How did they transport and detonate it?  What color was it then – the same as now?  Was it made out of the same stuff? Was it effective?  Once I’ve found the answers to these questions, how much can I actually talk about without giving information that might count as a ‘formula or instruction injurious to the user’?

I sometimes envy fantasy writers who build their own worlds with their own internal integrity without these hurdles to narrative flow.  It’s possible JK Rowling stopped writing and spent two solid days figuring out the mechanics of floo powder, but I don’t think it’s likely.  Even if she did, there’s no ‘duty of care’ in getting floo powder right or wrong.  Successful worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is in the author’s hands, not laid down in the annals of history and the laws of physics.

I have to confess that part of the reason I get so bogged down in fact-checking is because I really enjoy it.  It probably takes me longer than it should because I get distracted finding out other things that are loosely connected to the subject I’m looking up.  Reading about early aerial photography makes me want to go and research 19th century ballooning.

Probably the best thing about doing research for historical novels is that it often generates plot.  Once you start digging, you run into all kinds of interesting and often exciting facts you didn’t know existed.  ‘Thinking’s like archeology,’ Jamie Delano writes in the comic book series Hellblazer (volume IX). ‘You scrape; beneath your trowel, shape starts to form.  Forgotten secrets come to light.  ’Til finally you reveal the face of perfect beauty—the plan.’

For good tips on detail and fact checking in writing historical fiction, check out Alison Rattle’s article here: http://hotkeyblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/dont-get-lost-in-the-archives-a-bit-of-advice-for-historical-fiction-writers

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of Lions     My Brother's ShadowMary, Bloody MaryAcross the Universe

Writing Teen Novels
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Dealing With Anxieties During The Novel Writing Process, by Monika Schroder

I just finished my last manuscript and sent it out to my editor. Now, during the long time of waiting for her response I try to relax and refresh my creative energy. But in the back of my head lurks fear, the fear that the editor might reject it, that the book is not good enough. While I wait for her phone call I keep myself busy with garden chores, long neglected errands and, after some procrastination, by writing these articles.

As I choose topics, I reflect on the process of writing and realize that this fear of being rejected is just one of the many anxieties a writer encounters along her journey. There appears to be another kind of anxiety every step of the way.

When I write the first draft I always worry if I will be able to finish it. While re-reading what I have written I often find it flat and bland and, by way of self-sabotaging, tell myself that it is no good and not even worth finishing. Then I have to remind myself that the first draft is supposed to be just that and a first draft will get better over the process of revision. Yet, I keep wondering, “Will this be good enough? Will publishers want to buy it? Will readers care?”

The only way to escape these worries without giving the project up is to push forward and to finish the draft.

But then there is the chaos of holding it all together. At times it feels as if I’ve lost control over the story. The manuscript becomes a ‘wild thing’ but the only way forward is to face the fear and to work on making the manuscript better. Annie Dillard describes this stage like this:

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight… it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’”

When, finally, the miracle happens and the manuscript is finished and an editor buys it, I feel elated and happy. For a while at least. Together with the editor and copy editors we perfect the manuscript and more than a year later they send me the ‘advance readers copies’. These handsome paperbacks look almost like the real book. I am glad to see them but another terror takes hold of me as I realize that the publisher is about to print the actual book and this is my last chance to make changes. Soon the text will be FINAL.

I call it ‘Galley Fright’ and, as with all the other fears, I am not alone but can find solace in the fact that other writers experience this as well. Eudora Welty, in a 1972 interview with Paris Review, said this about her feelings toward galley proofs:

“Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.”

Yes, I also feel exposed when looking at the galleys, but I know I have to let it go and trust that, together with the wonderful people at the publishing house, I produced a good book.

Next, Launch Day comes - my book’s official birthday. This occasion is also filled with that bittersweet mixture of happiness and fear. Now my baby goes out into the world. How will the world welcome it? Will reviewers slight it? Will readers be disappointed? Will the world see right through me to the fraud I fear I am?

It helps me to tell myself that the reception of my book is out of my control. Whatever happens to it will happen. Instead of worrying about it, I try to turn my attention to writing my next book.

I soon worry if I will ever be able to pull it off, finish the story and make a good book out of it… and see above: the vicious cycle of fear begins anew.

Perhaps there is no remedy and these fears will always be part of the process. The only way to overcome these anxieties is to accept them, or even embrace them. I will carry on in despite them and I am able to convert the fear into excitement on most days, and find pleasure in the magical process of putting words on paper.

***

Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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Writing Novels Teens Want To Read, by Diane Lee Wilson

Today’s teens have a lot of options for entertainment: YouTube videos, social media, surfing the internet, computer games and even old-fashioned movies (whether watched on DVDs or downloaded). Where does reading fit in? How do you keep a teen turning the pages of a novel when the entire world is vying – via beeps and chimes and ring tones – for his attention? That’s a tough challenge for today’s authors of teen novels.

Content is what comes to mind first: content that piques teens’ interest and then, once they’ve opened the book, pulls them along through every page with a vivid, fast-paced story. The key is figuring out what will pique this teen’s interest. It can be the genre of the moment – such as the ubiquitous (but perhaps now fading) vampires and werewolves – or one that’s on the horizon: dystopian novels have been earmarked by some literary experts as the next predominant theme. Or it can be – if well-written and well-presented to a publisher – a genre that hasn’t been visited for a while. When JK Rowling wrote the first book of her Harry Potter series, wizards and sorcery weren’t a popular theme. Many publishers turned her down but she had the foresight and the writing skills to craft a story that captured the imagination of teens (and adults) around the world.

Despite the success of the Harry Potter series, I think that most teens are averse to tackling thick books. I think most teens want a book they don’t have to make a huge commitment to read. Shorter chapters are one way to entice teen readers to give a long novel a try. If you break it up into smaller servings, teen readers can get through a chapter or two with ease and perhaps, feeling that they’ve made progress, might hang around for a few more chapters. (This isn’t limited to teen reading habits. I have a good friend in her sixties who reads daily and says she loves books with chapters that may be only two or three pages long. That way she can sneak in reading whenever she gets the chance and feel as though she’s making progress.)

I think authors of teen literature have be on their game if they’re going to attract and keep the attention of teen readers. The opening lines have to be barbed hooks. The writing has to be vivid, crisp and smartly paced. The main character must meet and overcome one hurdle after another and not indulge in too much introspection. Conversation is always good – it’s easy to read and keeps the pages turning.

No matter what competition arises to tempt teens from reading books, stories will always be told. Good writing will always have an outlet. When I hear people talk about blending video and audio into books – creating video-books – I get excited. I think it would be very cool to read a story on a tablet that incorporated judicious use of sounds and artwork to enhance the story. (I say judicious because I don’t want it turned into a movie, just an extra sensory element.) It’s one more way to grab teen readers and get them to spend time reading.

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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.

***

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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

***

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FirehorseRaven SpeakI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's Shadow

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