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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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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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.

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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

What Is At Stake For The Characters In Your Teen Novel? by Diane Lee Wilson

Within your story, what’s at stake for your protagonist? Are the stakes set high enough and are the risks real enough that your readers will care about what happens? No matter what genre of teen novel you’re writing, the stakes for your protagonist have to amount to life itself. In other words, at some point in your story (preferably about half of the way through) your protagonist has to face a life and death situation in order to overcome it and evolve into a true hero.

For those of you who aren’t writing murder mysteries, this doesn’t have to be a physical death (although teenaged literary heroes such as Harry Potter have embraced death – and, of course, survived it). But the stakes still have to be high enough that, should the protagonist lose, the consequences would be the equivalent of death. Such consequences might be the loss of one’s true love, great public humiliation or a personal failure. In any of these situations the hero might admit, “I’d rather be dead,” and the reader will suffer along. In a wonderful analysis of the craft of story writing called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters author Christopher Vogler states, “Heroes must die so that they can be reborn. The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth.”

I was recently reminded of this need to challenge the protagonist again and again when I watched the Pixar film Finding Nemo. I’m a big fan of Pixar’s unique characters and rich storytelling, and their writers’ ability to pull at your heartstrings. But I’d forgotten what an emotional roller coaster this particular film was and is. In only 100 minutes the little clownfish Nemo and his dad narrowly escape death more than a dozen times: by shark, jellyfish, deep sea angler fish, aquarium water pump, plastic baggie, crab, seagull, underwater mine explosion, strong currents, being flushed down a sink, dropped on a dock, caught in a net and crushed by a net. In addition, there are many crises that feel like imminent death: the ocean’s too big, the destination is too far, I’ve lost my map, my friend has forsaken me. Even with all of these near-fatal scenes, at no point in the story did it feel like the creators were creating artificial dangers; they simply put two heroic characters in one very difficult situation after another and allowed them to use their personal strengths and intense familial love to attempt to reunite – and Finding Nemo is ostensibly a children’s story! Imagine what you can do with a teen’s story.

Nearly every day of a teen’s life is fraught with emotion and crisis. Happiness blooms from the fleeting smile of a member of the opposite sex and tears from an apparent snub. Life is over after a failed test, a broken heart or parental restrictions. The reactions to these events may seem overly dramatic to an adult (and especially to a parent) but to a teen these crises feel like death itself. Understanding what your protagonist most values will allow you to place that thing at risk – even time and time again – and that will make your story intensely interesting to your teen readers.

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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

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Raven SpeakTracksI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     Cleopatra ConfessesThe Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersFinding Nemo Big Golden Book (Disney/Pixar Finding Nemo)

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Vocabulary and Grammar in Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my writing career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.

I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it a hardcover one from a bookshelf, or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important. Because of the widespread use of electronic communication—texting, tweeting, tagging—where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.

A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except.”

At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”

The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. But today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant.” From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition.” And they can begin to master language, painlessly and even pleasurably, in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.

No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there’s always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read,” the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about.” But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.

Tweets and texts are fine, and fun, in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. But language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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On Getting Story Ideas (and Developing Them Into Finished Stories) by Diane Lee Wilson

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” That’s a question I frequently get from aspiring writers and one that, frankly, surprises me. Because gathering ideas is truly the easiest part of writing a teen novel. Developing them into a finished story is quite another matter.

Viable ideas for your novel are everywhere. Literally. If you maintain a keen interest and a sensitive ear you’ll find possibilities in a “human interest” story in the newspaper. In a conversation with a stranger. In an unusual photograph in a magazine. In a “throwaway” line from an old movie. If, as a writer, you’re truly alert to the bits of stories all around you then you will find more stories to tell than you have years to live.

Keep in mind that you’re going to craft your story for a teen audience so focus on those themes or settings that will most appeal to this age group.

Now, how do you keep track of all these gestating ideas and which ones do you nurture first? For me, I always have a completely unedited “idea file” in progress. This manila folder regularly accumulates intriguing clippings, photos, and random scribbles on notepaper (often jotted down in the middle of the night when “brilliance” seems to appear). Most of these thought fragments have never blossomed into full stories. But sometimes a theme begins developing (a place in history or a particular character type, for example) and I’ll extract all this pertinent inspiration and assemble it in its own “story file.”

When I’m between projects I’ll also take the time to edit my “idea file”. If I’m no longer struck by the wonderful possibilities of a certain piece then it has lost its magic for me, and I crumple and toss it without regret. You don’t have to hold onto every single story idea; there are many, many more in the world around you. Trust me.

So how do you identify the best ones? The very best idea, the one to which you should apply all your energy, is the one you’re constantly turning in your mind, the one that makes you jump out of bed in the morning and want to start writing. It’s the one that lights the creative fire inside you.

As all writers know, however, self-doubt can creep in and all too easily dampen that fire. Maybe there’s another story that’s better, you begin to think. Maybe I should be working on that one.

Well, here’s where you have to balance inspiration with determination. Re-evaluate what got you started on this teen novel of yours. Do you still believe in that idea? If so, then dig down and find the determination to carry your idea through to a complete novel.

If you truly find yourself staring into the dark, though, perhaps it’s only temporary. Perhaps you need to put your story on the back burner for a while and let it develop at its own pace. I think most writers have several story ideas incubating at the same time. I, for one, always have two or three projects in various stages of maturation lined up behind the one on which I’m working.

Although I consider myself a fairly disciplined writer, even my project line-up can change. As an example: I have compiled research for an intended novel that now fills an entire file box. Relevant books have been acquired, notes organized, character descriptions fleshed out, even a few early chapters have been written. I like this story. I want to write it. But twice now, some other project has pre-empted my creative fire and assumed priority. Most recently this happened when I was reading a newspaper article and turned the page to find a striking photograph that I immediately saw as the climax of a story. At the same instant that I was acknowledging that “THIS is my next story” I was bemoaning the fact that I would once again have to set aside the story with the huge file box. Oh well. Hopefully I have enough years left in me to return to it.

Determination to complete a story can always be mustered, but inspiration, especially when it presents itself in full flame, should never be ignored. Follow your instinct.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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