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YA Authors’ Responsibility To Readers, by Sarah Alderson

The worst thing a writer can do is not say anything.

I have that quotation on a post it note stuck above my desk. Yet I wonder whether it’s actually accurate. It seems to me that one of the worst things a writer can do is to say something that acts in disservice of their gender.

Recently I’ve become more and more aware of the number of books being published, particularly in the YA realm, and by women too, which to my mind are damaging to girls. Books which do more to push back gender equality than any offensive statements by Kanye West ever could.

I’m talking about books that portray controlling, obsessive, even psychotic boys as hot and desirable because they have a six-pack, cheekbones you could slice salami on, and they kiss really well. Books that portray a healthy relationship as one in which the boy beats the crap out of any guy who so much as looks sideways at ‘their’ girl. Books in which men stalk girls, act out violently, manipulate and otherwise emotionally abuse the girl because ‘they love her’. Yeah, I’m not sure in what world that qualifies as love. And always the girl forgives said boy because she needs him, he’s her soul mate, she can’t live without him…and don’t forget…he’s hot!

Please. Is this what we want to teach teenage girls? Is this what we want for the next generation of women? For them to grow up looking for this in their ideal partner?

The thing that gets me most though is that these books are written by women.

(Referring back to the Kanye West comment he made on Twitter, what riled me most was not the comment itself, but the fact that his girlfriend Kim Kardashian backed him up, telling her millions of Twitter followers that it was OK to call a woman a bitch. Again…in what world is that OK?).

Let’s stop betraying our gender. We can’t ever expect men to grant us respect and equal rights if we can’t even respect ourselves.

As an author and as a woman I believe that I have a responsibility and a duty to my readers to portray both healthy male and female role models and healthy relationships. Girls who are in control of their stories, who are smart, resilient and know when a guy is being a total jerk. Girls who’d never let a guy control them or tell them what to do. Girls who kick ass and can look after themselves (admittedly, having that hot, intelligent and loving boy as a sidekick). My girls are heroines in the true sense of the word.

I don’t want to paint completely idealised romances either. My characters have flaws – they’re people after all. But mainly I want girls to read my books and feel stronger, feel prouder to be a girl, to come away feeling that it’s OK to not have a boyfriend, it’s OK to feel desire and want sex, but it’s also OK to wait – in fact it’s often a good idea to wait. I want girls to know that the right guy (and there will be one) is not the guy who likes to beat the crap out of people or tell you what to wear, what to eat and how to dress. But the guy who supports you, is kind, is loving and puts you not on a pedestal, but an equal footing.

Teenage readers are influenced by our words, by our stories. Make them count.

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Sarah Alderson bio page

FatedHunting LilaLosing LilaThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))A Golden WebThe Hunger Games (Hunger Games Trilogy)Delirium

Using Screenplay Techniques For Novel Writing, by Sarah Alderson

When I write a novel I always picture it like a movie playing in my head. I probably watched far too much TV as a kid, but I’m glad I did because I learned a lot about writing conventions –about character, dialogue, suspense, story arcs and pacing – from watching films and TV shows.

More recently I’ve been writing screenplays (after writing eight novel manuscripts) and have been amazed by how some of the hard and fast rules for screenwriting work the same for novel writing. The best book I’ve read on screenwriting is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and I encourage everyone to grab a copy and read it because a lot of what he says is valuable to anyone trying to write a novel.

There are hundreds of ideas in the book but the key ones for me, and which I’ve also come across in books on creative writing, are as follows:

Save the Cat!

Snyder talks about the importance of having a Save the cat moment in a film. What he means is that your hero HAS to do something that immediately makes you like them and he or she has to do it in the first chapter. Otherwise you end up with a book/film that fails to engage the reader / viewer and leaves them indifferent to the fate of your characters…disaster!

I’ve read plenty of books which fail, precisely because I don’t care about the central character – because they never saved the cat. Think about all the books you’ve hated and now think about whether you liked the main character. There’s usually a link.

State the Theme

Like every film, every book needs to have a theme, and that theme doesn’t need to be obviously stated but it should be there nonetheless. The theme of Fated is whether or not we have choice in life. You don’t need to provide an obvious answer but you should be clear what your theme is and invite your reader to contemplate it.

Catalyst

It’s really important that an event occurs in your book early on that turns everything on its head – that forces your hero to reassess everything and take action. That might sound really obvious, but lots of writers spend an age on fluffy description and developing characters and forget the plot part entirely. Bring in that catalyst and let it be the perfect catalyst for your particular character; it must challenge them and help them grow.

All is lost moment

Like every film, I think every book needs a moment where it looks like everything is lost, and so does Snyder. All great movies include this moment, where the hero is about to give up, is at their lowest ebb. I write thrillers so it’s a no brainer that my books also include this all is lost moment. It’s the point in Hunting Lila where (SPOILER) they get captured by Demos and his crew. It’s the point in Fated where Evie discovers who Lucas really is. The all is lost moment allows for a big finale come back scene and gives your readers an emotional roller coaster ride.

Even if you don’t write thrillers, it might not be a bad idea to study screenwriting techniques. It’s sure to help you think more creatively about how to develop and structure your plot.

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Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedSave the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever NeedSave the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into ... & Out OfSave the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever ToldScreenwriting: The Sequence Approach

How To Get An Agent, by Sarah Alderson

I got an agent when I was just like you (and by that I mean Googling ‘how to get an agent’ when I should have been finishing my manuscript and/or working).

I remember on my first visit to my agent’s office seeing the pile of manuscripts on the desk that they’d received that week – a mountain of paper reaching almost to the ceiling. It took my breath away. And knowing that my own submission had made it all the way off that pile to an editor at Simon & Schuster and then to a book contract almost made me cry.

A lot of people ask me how they can get an agent. So here’s my advice on the topic. I also asked my own agent for her top tips.

1. Research

Buy The Artist and Writers’ Handbook if you live in the UK or visit this website if you live in Australia. You’ll find information on how to submit your manuscript to agents as well as lists of literary agents and their details.

2. Finish your manuscript

No agent is going to take on a debut author without a complete manuscript.

3. Make every word count

Make your first sentence really count. Actually, make every word count, but you need your manuscript to make it off the slush pile so you really need to make a good first impression.

4. Tailor your submission

Tailor your submission letter to each agency. Read their website, find out who you’re submitting it to. Do they represent any authors that you admire? Do you think you would be a great fit for them? If so, why? Also – get their name right. Don’t mess up your mail merge.

5. It all counts!

Remember that everything you submit – the cover letter, synopsis and sample is there to make an impression. So, the cover letter and synopsis needs to be short and simple with the cover letter saying a little about the author and the synopsis short and attention grabbing (like a book blurb) and make sure that the sample material grabs the reader’s attention from the first page – you can’t have it getting going in the third chapter, as the likelihood is that the agent will have stopped reading before then if nothing happens in the first two chapters.

6. Always SPELLCHECK.

I asked my agent what makes her fire something straight in the bin? Her answer? ‘Although we’d never fire anything straight into the bin (!), it is off-putting when there are a lot of spelling and grammatical mistakes in the cover letter and the wording doesn’t make sense!’

7. Keep it short and snappy

‘An incredibly long synopsis/covering letter is a negative – it shows that the writer is unable to self-edit. Not laying the sample material out in a manner that is easy to read – ie small, difficult to read font & not double spacing is not a good idea. And when we ask for the first three chapters, we mean the first three chapters – not the 8th, 21st and 38th [how are we supposed to see the progression if we are given three ‘random’ chapters?].’

8. Know your audience

Show that you have a clear understanding of your target readership. Your genre and your competitors. If the author states that they have never read a YA novel, but their submission is a YA novel, that will set alarm bells off.  So obvious research and knowledge in the area that the author is writing is crucial.

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Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedThe Night She DisappearedLocal GirlsWriting the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling ClientThe Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life

8 Things You Need To Know When Writing Thrillers, by Sarah Alderson

1. Avoid cliché

You know what I’m talking about. You know the bad guys in any Hollywood movie ever made? They always have an English or a Russian accent, a jagged facial scar running down one cheek, a scary-ass stare and wear a suit. Baddies are so much better when they’re the ones in our midst, the nondescript ones, the people we think are our friends…

2. Don’t make the girl a hopeless damsel in distress (please)

This goes especially for you female writers out there…there’s a serious dirth of strong, female protagonists who can kick butt in a fight. It’s our responsibility to create great role models for teenagers, so let’s do that!

3. Black & White is oh so boring!

There are two sides to every story so don’t ever make your baddie a 2D cut out of a bad guy. And don’t make your good guys 100% good either. Let’s have some ambiguity. That’s what I tried to do in Fated by showing both Lucas’s and Evie’s points of view.  They’re sworn enemies and yet, by getting to know them both, it becomes a lot harder for the reader to identify who is bad. I did the same in Hunting Lila. It’s more interesting for the reader if they don’t know which characters to trust.

4. Points of View

In thrillers, writing from a first person perspective is usually a better way of evoking fear and emotions. The reader gets to feel everything the protagonist is going through. However, it also makes it harder when writing thriller plots if you can only see one point of view. In Hunting Lila the story is told from Lila’s perspective, which meant that lots of the action can’t be seen, only relayed. In Fated, I decided to write from two different view points. It enabled me to bring a lot more action into the book and from different perspectives. (Imagine it like having one camera to shoot a film, through one character’s eyes as opposed to multiple cameras focused on lots of different characters simultaneously). There’s no right way, just think first about what you’re trying to achieve.

5. Don’t just have one surprise up your sleeve, have a few

If you have only one twist in your book you’re taking a risk that your reader will guess it early on and that the book won’t hold any further surprises for them.  They’ll put it down at the end with a sigh and a ‘that was boring.’. As Baldrick from Blackadder once said, ‘Twist and turn like a twisty turny thing,’ – have lots of twists, and then when you think those twists are fully twisted, twist them back again. Keep your reader on his or her toes.

6. Pace Pace Pace

It’s not a thriller if you’re spending pages and pages discussing philosophical or political conundrums (unless say, you’re Stieg Larsson… but I’m talking YA here). Build characters, evoke atmosphere yes, but in a thriller you need to thrill from the very first page.

7. Kissing

Having said that, you also do need to know when to break the pace and give your reader the chance to catch their breath. This is when I go for the big romantic moments (Cos I’m a girl and I like the steam). Between heart-stopping action and heart-stopping steam you can’t go wrong.

8. Story Arc

All successful books and movies follow a fairly standard story arc. Thrillers should start with a bang; an inciting incident that kicks off the action. In Hunting Lila, Lila is mugged on the first page and almost kills her mugger by accident using her mind-power. In Fated, a bunch of demons called the Brotherhood are sent off to kill a teenage girl (what? Why? Huh?). Only then can you take some time out to build the characters and story. About halfway through you need to have a big showdown moment that incites more action and heads towards the climactic show down.

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Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedThe Invisible AssassinMaskmakerMaximum Ride: Fang (Maximum Ride)Forget Me Not: The Story of One Family's Voyage on the Titanic

Writing Sex in Young Adult Fiction: How Much Is Too Much? by Sarah Alderson

What’s too much when it comes to sex in young adult fiction?

My editor would say anything beyond kissing.

I’m known for writing steamy, smokin’ hot romances, and yet none of my characters has done anything beyond kiss. (They can’t, because every time they try to, it gets left on the cutting room floor). What I’ve discovered though, writing thriller romance novels for teens, is that it is possible to create jaw-dropping romance and steaminess that leave your readers gagging for more, through nothing more than the locking of lips.

You don’t need to get graphic in order to satisfy…just look at Twilight…there’s not a whiff of sex, not much even in the way of sexual tension. It’s not until book four, when safely within the boundaries of marriage no less, that the reader is rewarded with a euphemistic consummation of the vampire mortal sex conundrum (I’m not sure that’s scientifically possible but hey, it’s fiction…)

A lot of books these days for teens though include sex scenes (or maybe I’m just reading a lot of books for teens with sex scenes in them) and it seems to me that the approaches taken by authors are incredibly varied. One of my favourite authors – Simone Elkeles – is much more graphic than Meyer. I love the Perfect Chemistry series (for Alex Fuentes alone). Simone writes sex well, sensitively – a little graphically – but not too graphic to offend the teen market (except perhaps those of an evangelical Jonas Brothers persuasion). Back in my day we had to rely on Judy Blume for our sex ed…that or sneak Jackie Collins books from our parents’ top shelves (for me it was The Joy of Sex which I found in a box in the attic). I wish I’d had Simone Elkeles’s books instead. They’re strong on the swoon but also on the love angle. Sure, the scenes are heavily romanticised but the message is clear: make sure it’s with someone you love.

And Use A Condom.

Can’t argue with that.

In the middle ground, I love this from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (currently my fave read of 2012): ‘The whole affair was the precise opposite of what I figured it would be: slow and patient and quiet and neither particularly painful nor particularly ecstatic….No headboards were broken. No screaming.’

It’s realistic. It’s not graphic. It fits perfectly within the story…(I also like to think the headboard part was a jibe at Twilight).

Yet, as they say in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Authors need to be responsible in how they depict sex, especially in this era, where the pressure on young people to have sex and to get it over with, is so enormous. There’s no need to shoehorn it into a book for kicks, or to be on trend, or because everybody else is doing it. Personally I think my editor is right. Hunting Lila and Fated work much better for not going there. They keep my readers hanging, daydreaming, longing. Just like the characters in the book. And the lack of physical intimacy does nothing to undermine the tension, rather it charges the atmosphere. The one kissing scene in Fated, towards the end of the book has received more comments than any other scene I’ve ever written…all along the lines of ‘I had to take a cold shower after.’ (If you’re interested it’s P.245 in the paper copy.)

So advice for those of you wondering how or if to write a sex scene into your book:

  • Don’t feel pressured!
  • Ask yourself: Is it absolutely necessary to make the story work?
  • If the answer to the above is a definite yes, make sure you emphasise how important it is to be honest, to be sober and to be in a committed respectful and loving relationship before you take the leap. Why? Because that’s the way it should be. Am I a hopeless romantic? Yes. Of course. But I want girls to read my books and decide that they are in control of their bodies and of their decision-making.
  • If you can’t write a sex scene without giggling, cringing or resorting to copying large tracts from your parents’ copy of the Joy of Sex, then quit while you’re ahead.
  • Always use condoms.
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FatedHunting LilaPerfect ChemistryTwilightThe Fault in Our StarsOn Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That SellsWriting the Romantic Comedy

Writing Teenage Characters, by Sarah Alderson

When my first book, Hunting Lila, was submitted to publishers most of the feedback that came back was along the lines of ‘Wow, she has a really authentic teenage girl voice.’

What I kept quiet was that my teenage girl voice was no different from my thirty year old girl voice. I just never grew up. In my head I’m still seventeen and I think that makes it easier for me to write protagonists of this age.

However, recently my five-year old daughter started school and I realised, once I was surrounded by high school age children, that actually I was deluded and I wasn’t in fact a teenager anymore (you’d think I would have gathered that from looking in the mirror but no). After that I started sending lists of questions to friends’ teenage children, quizzing them on everything from slang and fashion and music to the unspoken rules around pulling (hooking up). This has been invaluable and so many of the stories they’ve told me have ended up in my books, as well as making my jaw hit the floor. Is there anything more cringe-worthy than a middle-aged author pretending to be down with the kids? The most important lesson for me has been inviting teenagers to read my books while they’re still in progress to let me know whether I’ve got the language right. Teens are also brutally honest. And they’re your audience so testing on them isn’t such a bad idea!

It doesn’t matter what age your characters are, your job as an author is to make them believable, and to do that you need to know them. You need to know what drives them, inspires them and annoys them – even the really evil ones or the ones you’d never be friends with in real life – you need to know what makes them that way. Writers need huge amounts of empathy – every line of dialogue or action needs to run true to the character performing it – if it’s just included as a plot device to move the story on then you lose your readers because they stop believing.

So take time out not just to picture each of your characters (I often pick an actor on whom I want to base the way they look) but to establish their character. Maybe they’re based on a friend or someone you know? When I wrote Hunting Lila I actually researched star signs to give me some ideas of what kind of personality traits Lila, Jack and Alex might have.

Then give your characters a background. Spend some time writing down information about where they were born, what their parents did for a living, what their favourite subject at school is, what their favourite food is, what books lines their bookshelves, what music they listen to, what clothes they wear, for example. Some of this information might find its way into the book, giving clues to your reader as to who the characters are.

Details are what let characters jump off the page, turning them from 2D constructs into 3D people. But remember to show, don’t tell.

My final word of advice would be to let your characters have free rein. If you’ve constructed them well and they’re fully fleshed in your head then let them run free! This might mean that once you start writing they start behaving in ways that you hadn’t imagined. This is a good sign. It means that character is real.

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Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaFatedThe Christopher KillerThylaDangerously PlacedThe Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing)Just Write: Here's How!

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