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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 Rackham’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.  A pioneering reader shouldn’t limit themself 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
www.writingteennovels.com

Writing Teen Novels About Pilots And Flying, by Elizabeth Wein

In 2003 I got my private pilot’s license, and ever since then I have found myself more and more embroiled in writing about flying.  It crept up on me gradually.  I started out with a short story called ‘Chasing the Wind’ (in Sharyn November’s first anthology  Firebirds), which was about a girl who is a passenger in a small plane in Kenya in the early 1950s… I moved from there to ‘Chain of Events’ (in the Reckless issue of Michael Cart’s Rush Hour) in which a girl passenger takes over the command, though not the controls, of a feckless teenage pilot.  It wasn’t until my third short story about flying that I felt confident enough to write about a girl who actually becomes a pilot, and ‘Something Worth Doing’ (in Sharyn November’s Firebirds Soaring) eventually provided the seed for my novel Code Name Verity.

What do these stories have in common?  Well, they’re all about women in flight, and it’s the feminine aspect of piloting that inspires me.  It’s such an unusual activity for a woman, or a girl; I want to spread the word.  I want to inspire others.  I hope that one or two girls who read my stories will think, ‘Hmmm.  Maybe I could do that.’

I couldn’t have written about flying until I knew how to fly.  I wouldn’t have dared.  I still never quite feel sure I’m being as accurate as I need to be, especially since my fictional pilots tend to be more adventurous than I am myself.  But the seed for verisimilitude is there.

You know the old adage, ‘Write about what you know’?  I think it could be more accurately stated, ‘Write about what you love.’  That’s what makes good writing – the personal touch doesn’t necessarily come from first hand experience, but rather from first hand passion.  A writer’s knowledge born of a deep, inquiring interest can be every bit as thorough as knowledge gained through experience.  Do the research; do the fieldwork; learn the language.

Your passion is a gift which you can share – a gift you should want to share.  Your flair for a subject should shine through your writing and inspire your readers.  But be cautious about your expertise.  Not all your readers share your expertise and not all of them will care about it.  The trick is to draw their interest with your story without getting into the nitty gritty of what you know.  You don’t need to describe how a piston engine works in order to describe the thrill of take-off at full power.  Your know-how should be sketched in lightly – let the full extent of your knowledge be readable between the lines only.

There will always be a few people who don’t want to know – who simply aren’t interested in the detailed story you want to share, no matter how passionate that story is.  But I like to hope for the best.  I’ll continue to imagine an ideal reader with an inquiring mind open to new ideas.  Maybe a love of flying will creep up on readers gradually, just as it did on me.

***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

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Raven SpeakSektion 20Spark

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Using Character Handles In My Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack.  They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth).  When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Here’s what he advised me:  ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’

‘A handle?  You mean like a nickname?’

‘No.  I mean like a door handle.  Or a pot handle.  Something that the reader can grab.’

Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters.  I give them handles.  I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity!  After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle.  He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.

Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous.  Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain.  It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother.  Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.

The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader.  Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic.  The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.

Handles aren’t just relevant to characters.  Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too.  Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs.  Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate.  Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier.  Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative.  These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.

What are your characters eating around their campfire?  Have they got a coffee pot?  Is the coffee burning?  What does it smell like?  When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?

It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.

***

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Dog in the WoodRaven SpeakDeadly Little Games

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Teenage Characters And Responsibility In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

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.

Teenagers don’t appear to have much power in Western society.  They can’t legally drink, drive, vote, fight in a war, marry, hold a job or live on their own until they reach a certain age that adults consider appropriate.  Basically, they are dependent on the adults around them to make sensible decisions for them. These can include life changing or even life saving decisions and, to the maturing mind, not being able to make one’s own decisions is often a source of deep conflict.

The kind of relationship that I explore in all my novels is that of the teen breaking free from the control of the adult world and learning to make decisions and accept responsibility for those decisions.  I don’t really have a moral message to deliver in my writing, but if I did it would simply be that I want people to accept responsibility for their own actions.  That’s what being a teen is all about.

In Code Name Verity, my most recent novel, the young heroines find themselves involved in assisting the British war effort during World War II.  Not only is the dire global situation created for them by adults, but the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Maddie and Special Operations Executive agent ‘Verity’ find their lives almost entirely guided by the orders and restrictions of superior officers.  When Verity is captured by the Gestapo and Maddie is forced into hiding, the girls’ literal movements and freedom become restricted by the older people in charge of imprisoning or hiding them.  How the girls cope with these situations and win back their individual freedom, figuratively and literally, is the core of the book.

Even a reader with the most ordinary daily existence should be able to relate to this theme, because rebelling against authority or learning to work with it is what people do in their teenage years.

Fiction is good practise for real life.  Perhaps the teen/adult divide is one of the hallmarks of what makes a book a ‘teen novel’ rather than an ‘adult novel’.

***

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)Project 17Victoria Rebels

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Are Teen Novels ‘Genre’ Fiction? by Elizabeth Wein

Are teen novels ‘genre’ fiction?  I’d really like to argue ‘NO.’  The beauty of Young Adult fiction (YA) is its chameleon-like nature.  Science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, contemporary, mystery, thriller, historical, sports, romance, graphic novel – these are all ‘genre’ fiction and yet YA includes them all.

I think that while a person is developing as a reader, that person will read everything.  The developing reader is still trying to figure out what he or she most enjoys.  Let me throw a couple of names at you:  Robert Westall and K.M. Peyton.  As a young reader, I adored these writers not because they wrote in a genre I liked, but because they wrote books that I liked.  And those books were all over the map.  Westall wrote war stories, motorbike stories, mysteries, ghost stories, horror stories, and contemporary problem novels.  Peyton wrote horse stories, historical fiction, ghost stories, contemporary mysteries, thrillers, and just for the heck of it, a couple of books about a thug who was also a hugely talented pianist.  Where’s the genre?

I’ve heard it said that ‘genre’ fiction is plot driven – one of its defining characteristics, as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction.  I think that one of the reasons YA fiction suggests itself as a ‘genre’ is because it, too, is often plot driven.  The one thing that seems to connect most teen fiction is that it is dedicated to a good story, and that applies across the board, whether you’re writing a vampire romance or a spy thriller.

The YA category is also sometimes self-defeating.  My novel Code Name Verity was ineligible for one award because it was published by a children’s publisher; it was ineligible for a different award because the subject matter (or the narrator, I’m not sure which) was considered too mature for a children’s book.  So books for and about people in their late teens or early twenties exist in a kind of genre purgatory.  The term ‘crossover,’ applied to books which can be enjoyed by teens or children and adults, seems forced and false to me (and very modern).  Surely a good book is a good book?  I’m thinking of some of the books we consider ‘classic’ children’s or teen fiction, which were published simply as books.  Huckleberry Finn.  National Velvet.  The Sword in the Stone.  The Hobbit.  Charlotte’s Web.

No, I don’t like labeling - especially for books intended for young people.  It seems to me that adult readers are more likely to stick to mysteries or romances or action thrillers, and limit themselves to one particular type of book.  Teen readers are more eclectic, possibly just because they haven’t yet settled on what they enjoy the most, but I think that it does everyone a disservice to apply strict limits on who should read what and how old they have to be in order to enjoy it.  The same goes for so-called girls’ and boys’ books.

I like to think that Young Adult fiction, in its inability to be classified in any way, can offer both the writer and the reader an entire world of possibilities.

***

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     AuslanderRikers HighThe Night She Disappeared

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Plot, Character And Hooptedoodle In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

I think that one of the strong characteristics of teen fiction, as opposed to adult fiction, is that it is plot-driven.  Middle grade fiction is too, but teen fiction offers the author the opportunity to bring in all kinds of adventure and excitement and angst that isn’t appropriate for a younger readership.  I feel like Young Adult fiction offers me the best of both worlds as a writer – I can write about mature themes and at the same time I can tell a good story.

But I don’t come up with a plot idea out of the blue.  I find that my plot-driven fiction is really character-driven.  What starts me off is a good character.  Once I get the idea for the hero (or sometimes the anti-hero) of the book, that person usually sets the plot going.  In The Sunbird, Telemakos’s aptitude for sneakiness gets him recruited as a child spy.  In Code Name Verity, Maddie’s interest in mechanics leads her into aviation, and her level-headed reliability and discretion draws the interest of the Special Operations Executive.

Being plot-driven, there’s not a lot of room for what John Steinbeck calls ‘Hooptedoodle’ in YA fiction.  Hooptedoodle is a foray into purple prose.  It can be a linking passage between action scenes, or a description of landscape to set the scene, or maybe just the author waxing lyrical and enjoying the sound of his or her own voice.  I am a very literary writer and I like writing hooptedoodle.  I have to be tricky about working it in, because the general assumption is:  1) it does nothing for plot, and 2) teens get bored quickly if your writing is too flowery.

I think that both these assumptions are incorrect.  I think that YA readers, who are still forming their own literary tastes and styles, can be just as hungry for mature and beautiful writing as they are for action.  Certainly it was during my own teenage years that I read and wrote the most poetry.  If anything, my ‘juvenilia’ was more florid than anything I’ve written since.  Obviously I am a sample population of One, but that also means that in an ideal world I’m writing for myself – I’m writing what I would have liked to read as a teen – and indeed, what I still like to read.

As for furthering the plot, well, that’s just a matter of your skill as a writer.  The first half of Code Name Verity is really one lengthy coded message, all of which comes clear in the second half of the book, and a lot of the ‘hooptedoodle’ in Part 1 is there on purpose to disguise the message.  There are other important things Verity’s lyrical passages do: they are an outlet for her despair (she is a prisoner of the Gestapo as she tells her story), they describe her past, they help to show her commitment and loyalty, and they help her survive – so when Verity (or me, as the author) describes the landscape of her childhood, the passage is doing any number of things to help define the characters and to set up the plot.

So there’s my recipe for a great teen read – tight plot, engaging characters and a dash of hooptedoodle!

***

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Sektion 20Tarzan: The Savage LandsGirl, Stolen

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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