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Why I Write Novels For Teens, by Emma Pass

When I was a teenager, ‘teen’ as a distinct literary genre didn’t exist on the scale it does now. At my local library, you could find series like Sweet Valley High and the Point Horror books, along with the occasional ‘issue’ novel, but when you got tired of the children’s section (where these books were also shelved) you moved on to adult books without a backward glance. By the time I realized I wanted to be an author, aged 13, I was existing on a steady diet of Stephen King, Michael Crichton and various other thriller and SF writers, and the stories I wrote were full of grown up characters doing grown up things.

As I got older, I started experimenting with different types of writing. Maybe I should be a crime writer. What about poetry? How about writing literary fiction? I even, very briefly, toyed with an idea for a picture book. Nothing worked. I was trapped on one side of a thick glass wall, with the writer I wanted to be on the other side. I could see her, but I had no idea how to get there.

Then I went on a weekend course run by a well-known children’s and teen author. I’d never come across her before, so, not wanting to appear ignorant, I read some of her books before the course started. It wasn’t so long since I’d been a teenager myself, and as soon as I started to read, I was hooked. Here was a writer expressing the rollercoaster emotions of those years exactly. After the course – which was fun and inspiring – I visited the teenage section in my local library and bookshop and discovered that, in the years I’d been struggling to become a writer for adults, teen literature had quietly grown into a genre in its own right.

It was around that time that it occurred to me that perhaps I should try rewriting the literary novel I’d been struggling with – which, coincidentally, featured a teenager as the main character – as a teen novel.

The novel wasn’t any good. In fact, it was terrible. But it was the first project I’d had fun with in as long as I could remember. The first characters I really connected with. The first ‘proper’ novel I ever finished, redrafted (seven times!) and queried. By the time it was done, I knew I had found ‘my’ genre, and I knew I had, at last, broken through the glass wall.

So what do I enjoy most about writing teen novels? Firstly, it’s the characters. I remember being a teenager so clearly – what a strange time it is, when the adults around you often treat you like a child, yet you’re expected to assume adult responsibilities and deal with problems that often feel far too big for you to cope with. It’s a unique space to be in, where everything is new and challenging and intense, and for me that makes writing for and about teens utterly fascinating.

Then there’s the sheer scope. A quick glance at the teen fiction section in any bookshop or library will show you that you can write about anything. You can write about teenagers in space or teenagers on the run from sinister police forces or teenagers fighting zombies or teenagers just going about their ordinary lives, and all the challenges that brings. There are no limits. Someone once asked me, “When are you going to start writing for grownups?” My answer? Not yet. Possibly never. I’m having far too much fun!

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Emma Pass’s author website: www.emmapass.blogspot.com

Emma Pass bio page

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Handling Feedback About My Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Over the past months I’ve written sequentially about character, plot, narrator, voice and dialogue – all the particular challenges of writing a historical novel for teens. In practice all of these happen more or less simultaneously. Eventually the day comes when you’re ready to send your novel out into the world. You ask for an opinion, but what you want is praise. Anything less is a disappointment – or even infuriating. They just didn’t get it!

Maybe your first reader is your spouse or child. They’ve watched your struggle, and they love you. So you probably won’t get an honest opinion. If it isn’t honest, it isn’t useful.

Friends are also unlikely to give you the feedback you need. Some writers rely heavily on writing groups. I tried one early in my career and found that none of us was skilled at giving constructive criticism. I didn’t know if I could trust what I heard, and eventually I quit.

Now with an established career I have a signed contract before I write the book, and I send what I believe is a finished manuscript directly to my editor. I’m relieved – but I’m also anxious. I want her to pronounce it perfect. But what if she hates it?

So far that hasn’t happened. I’ve never had a contracted novel rejected, but I’ve also never had one accepted without a lot of revising.

Months pass before I hear back. The response is usually a detailed letter that begins, “Dear Carolyn, I have finished reading (fill in the title), and I love most of what you have written.”

The key word here is “most”. What exactly does the editor not love? Sometimes there are structural problems, so chapters should be cut or moved. Sometimes characters need more development. Sometimes the beginning doesn’t pull the reader in quickly enough. The one I get the most often is: “But how does the character feel?”

Years ago my reaction was to feel wounded and my instinct was to argue. Eventually I learned how to work with the advice. Luckily I’ve always had editors I trust. I can accept most of the suggestions, if not all, and make the revisions. The process goes back and forth over a period of weeks. In Mozart’s Shadow required four revisions before the editor and I declared ourselves happy with it.

Once the book is published everyone waits expectantly, and a little worriedly, for word from the reviewers. The reviews aren’t always stellar. Reviews of Cleopatra Confesses were mixed. Some reviewers wrote admiringly, while others picked it apart. After the professional reviewers, many of them teachers and librarians, come the readers themselves. They’re not just teens: More than half the buyers of YA books are said to be over 18. People aged 30 to 44 account for 28% of the sales – and they post their comments online. Adults want more adult material and may be dismissive of YA books for younger readers. Young kids don’t always know how to write useful reviews, with their comments ranging from “best book ever” to “borrrring”.

You can learn a great deal from an editor’s criticisms, but once a book is published there is nothing you can do to change it. Reading reviews, especially when they’re snarky, can give you heartburn. It’s best to ignore the bad ones, enjoy the good ones and keep on writing.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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Month In Review (November 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its eleventh month of articles for 2013 from this year’s multi-national line-up of novelists.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

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+.

Articles for November 2013

How Martial Arts Benefit Me And My Writing by April Henry

Using Varied Narrative Styles And Formats In A Novel by Paul Volponi

On Categorising Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Why I Write Young Adult Novels by Beth Revis

You Need To Love Your Characters by Lish McBride

How Do You Know If An Idea Will Develop Into A Good Story? by Bernard Beckett

Planning And Writing A Novel by Monika Schroder

To Outline Or Not To Outline? by Kashmira Sheth

Nurturing (And Protecting) Your Story Idea by Diane Lee Wilson

Novel Titles And Covers by Carolyn Meyer

Time And The Publishing Process by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Keep Writing: The Importance Of Finishing Stories by Andy Briggs

Handling Disappointment To Be A Resilient Writer by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Different Types Of Plot In Fiction by Kate Forsyth

My Tips For Writing Novels by Pauline Francis

Guiding A Reader’s Experience Throughout Your Novel (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

Marketing Your Teen Novel On A Small Budget by Laurie Faria Stolarz

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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.

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Month In Review (October 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its tenth 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.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

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+.

Articles for October 2013

On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment by Bernard Beckett

Research For Writing Novels by April Henry

On ‘Killing Your Darlings’ When Revising A Novel Manuscript by Monika Schroder

Where My Ideas For Novels Come From by Beth Revis

Dealing With The Idea Of Writer’s Block by Paul Volponi

Maximizing The Potential Of Your Writing Group by Amy Kathleen Ryan

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

Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Worldbuilding When Writing A Novel by Lish McBride

Plot Structure In Novels (Part 2) by Kate Forsyth

Talking About My Writing At Conferences by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Writing Description In Novels by Carolyn Meyer

On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels by Pauline Francis

Why I Write Teen Fiction by Sam Hawksmoor

Developing Good Writing Habits by Kashmira Sheth

Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

On Writing Self-Contained Novels In A Series by Andy Briggs

Inexpensive Ways To Market Your Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

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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.

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

First Person Versus Third Person Narration, by Bernard Beckett

A common feature of teen novels is heavy reliance upon first person narration. Ever since Holden Caulfield shuffled center-stage and offered his reluctant, enigmatic introduction, we’ve been seduced by the direct address. In my own teen novels I’ve bounced between this and using the limited third person voice more common in adult literature. I’m interested in why I do this and what different purposes the two approaches serve.

One thing that I can certainly say about the first person voice is that I find it much easier, to the point where it almost feels like I’m cheating. When we describe a scene in the first person, we use the conceit of pretending that this is the way the character themselves would describe it. So what if we don’t capture the texture of the curtains, the dust motes playing in the ray of light above the coffee table, or the disturbing ring of grime two thirds way up the empty glass? That’s deliberate. It’s because the character wouldn’t notice these things either. Our failure to describe the room in any detail is in fact a cunning ploy, designed to reveal the character as the plot advances. In first person, I find I am much less likely to slow down and interrogate a scene, wondering how I should craft the balance between observation, action and speech. Rather, the voice takes over and the whole thing just spills out.

I think this is approach is justified if indeed the voice, and its choice of tempo and observation, is controlled and deliberate. Sometimes though, and here is where I worry about using the first person, all that’s happening is the voice is betraying not the character, but rather the writer. What is emerging is a generic, and slightly lazy voice, masquerading as an individual lens. Actually, I just couldn’t be bothered thinking about the room that carefully.

Another thing that’s often mentioned in relation to the first person is the conspiratorial nature of the communication, which is thought to suit the teenage audience. The teenage reader is inclined to take possession of the book, believe the story is theirs and theirs alone, and the illusion of the character speaking directly to them adds to this intensity. Again, this is true when it’s done well. Done badly though, what you get is an inauthentic voice, and it becomes like watching a movie where the sound and picture are ever so slightly out of sync. Not enough to be obvious, or at first even named, but enough that it irks, and stops you from relaxing and engaging fully with the story. Although the first person appears to get the author out of the story, in fact it does the opposite. The author is never more present than when they are addressing you directly and so, if the voice is not convincing enough to hide that address, the presence can become oppressive.

One thing I know I enjoy about the first person is that it solves a lot of structural problems. The first person voice, it always seems to me, has absolute licence to jump to wherever it wants in the story. The old ‘they way she looked at me reminded me of the time when I was seven, and my brother dared me to steal and ice cream…’ trick. The jumping and jumbling that is a natural feature of the narrating mind, is somehow expected to be cleaned up in the more formal third person presentation. After all, the third person has clearly been written by an author, sitting at their desk, thinking about how to convey their tale. But the first person narrator, we pretend, has grabbed you excitedly by the sleeve and is telling you their story as it comes to them. From the writer’s point of view, the joy of feeling exactly that rush as you follow the developmental impulses of your tale is lost. Again though, the danger is of becoming lazy, and not thinking hard enough about structure, and indulging asides and stalls that are just plain irritating.

Finally, I think the greatest distinction between the two forms is that first person narrative is an exercise in charming the audience. You are the actor walking on stage to deliver your solo performance. You, and you alone, will convey to the reader the worth of this story. They will invest in the story because first, they have invested in you. To the extent this is true, then the advice when choosing voice is probably this: if you have come across a first person voice capable of charming the audience without hijacking the story, then that’s an excellent time to be using it. If not, be aware of the richness of language and control you are sacrificing by going for the easy option. Always ask yourself, am I just being lazy?

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Using Movies And TV As Inspiration For Novels, by Beth Revis

I love movies. Unreservedly. I think movies are a great place to look for inspiration, particularly when you’re writing for teens. Teen literature needs dynamic characters (i.e. characters who change) and a fast-paced plot – two of the main ingredients that work for movies.

When I find myself knocking on the door of inspiration, there are a few movies and TV shows that I tend to go straight to.

Firefly/Serenity

I owe this television series-turned-movie by Joss Whedon so much. It has everything: changing characters, snappy dialogue and a tight plot that is perfectly structured. Honestly? We probably can’t be friends if you don’t like Firefly.

Doctor Who

This is a great show to go to for ideas. Seriously. It has so. freaking. much. in it that you’ll definitely be able to come up with some of your own ideas just by watching it. In the average Doctor Who episode, there are about ten more plot twists than are needed – take one of those and develop a whole story from it.

Veronica Mars

Dialogue. Dialogue. When you need to make your characters sound right, watch an episode of Veronica Mars. Runners-up: Gossip Girl and Tangled.

How To Train Your Dragon

This animated movie might be easily overlooked, but don’t. It’s brilliant. I love how smart the whole story is, from showing the growing relationships (as opposed to telling), developing character growth and just telling a great story. You need to see this one.

Becoming Jane

I feel obliged to include a James McAvoy title. This is a great one to remind you that you shouldn’t make everything perfect in your story. Don’t be afraid to show that happily ever after don’t always happen. Runner-up: Roman Holiday.

Penelope

Here’s another James McAvoy title, just for you! I love this one for sheer delight but, as a writer, I also appreciate the world building here. You have a character, Penelope, whose life and world are directly connected in a very real way. When you need to make something odd fit into your story, look at how Penelope did it. Runner-up: Shrek.

What are some of your favorites? What do you learn and discover from movies?

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

Beth Revis’s bio page

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Comparing Teen Fiction And Adult Fiction, by Sam Hawksmoor

I don’t think there is any conscious process for differentiating between a teen novel and adult.  Clearly in one the young adult must be forefront and in the other, adults.  Obviously adults can figure in both, but as my editor and the writer Beverley Birch says, one must give prominence to the young adult – never lose sight that it is about them.

I know from my own teaching I had one particular student who insisted upon populating her children’s novels with many, many adults.  I used to say constantly who is the story focused on?  Whose story is this?  The kid or the adults?  Never allow that confusion to arise.

I learned this the hard way.  I have a novel out there called Mean Tide, written under a pseudonym, which concerns a child who has had chemo and is sent to live with his psychic grandma by the river in Greenwich.  He meets another kid there, who is silent because of various traumas. The book is populated with adults, all with incredibly rich lives and opinions. To be honest this book straddles adult/children’s fiction and falls between two stools.  I couldn’t see it when I was writing it, as logic would dictate that when a kid goes to live with adults you have to show the adults and bring them to life.  Perhaps I added too much colour.  If your main protagonist is only twelve – there is only so much you can do with a young kid before it becomes unbelievable. Nevertheless as a writer you learn. (One hopes)

Writing for teens you can concentrate on their lives and reduce the impact adults have on their day-to-day existence.  Adults usually act as a restraint on the excesses of teens so the less they are around, the more that can happen.  S F Hinton’s The Outsiders featured this.  This was about teens getting into mischief without constraint and led by a semi-adult teen who did not have anyone’s best interests at heart.  Stephen King’s Stand By Me totally had this focus.  Not just about the kids but also about their perspective on life, the world around them and the risks they take.  It’s important to remember that these novels are written for teens and not adults (even though adults will and can enjoy them).  Kids know by the time they’re 12 that there is no justice in this world. Bullies get away with murder,, people lie, you lie, you haven’t yet formed your own opinions about things and you have doubts about everything.  Somehow you get up and carry on.  The whole world is a critic. You most likely suck at sport or math, and no one but Alice likes you and you don’t like Alice.  This is the teen world.

My approach to adult fiction is to have the plot or situation down first.  If based on a true-life story then it’s about fleshing out the characters, thinking not just about who they are but about their weaknesses and strengths. I like it when a readers connects enough with the character that they start to consider what they wear, eat or say on their own (until that starts to happen organically for me as a reader, I’m not truly in the zone).

With teen fiction, it’s the same process but with the added spice of knowing that kids won’t always take the logical step that may seem more obvious to an adult.  A boy or girl won’t instinctively know that the one they love is bad for them – even if others are saying so.  They have no experience to go on.  This is fresh to them.  All their mistakes are first time mistakes.  As a teacher I used to see girls suffering heartbreak, yet it was clear to me their affections were misplaced.  Now I see break-ups dealt with by text or on Facebook and how cold and heartless all that seems.  You are left to cry on your own I guess without the confrontation.  It can go the other way – irrational hysterical behaviour in the classroom when one girl discovers another is seeing her bloke and all three are in the class before you seething…

Adults generally don’t seethe. They might want to get revenge but the older you are the more numb you usually feel about things.  Kids are NEVER numb.  They can be unfeeling however.

Take Natalie Portman’s character in the movie  Leon.  She is entranced by the slightly simple hitman who protects her from Gary Oldman’s evil cop.  She is excited by the idea of becoming a hitwoman.  She isn’t thinking about moral considerations here.  She’s thinking about revenge, and Leon is simply showing her his one and only skill.  It’s not a kid’s movie but has a kid very much at the forefront.  She is what I remember.  Her pain and heartache and her loyalty.  This would be teen fiction now I think. Capture that intensity and bottle it.

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Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com

Sam Hawksmoor’s bio page

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