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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.

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

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Not Treating Teenage Years Merely As Preparation For Adulthood In Your Novels, by Bernard Beckett

It’s often mentioned that the biggest mistake we can make in our interactions with teenagers is to patronise them. This is true for teachers, for parents and for writers of teen novels. It’s a mistake in the simple sense that it defeats its own purpose. Presumably, if we are communicating with teenagers, then the aim is for them to attend to what we are saying, and almost nothing is more likely to turn someone off than the sense they are being talked down to. However, the instinct to treat teenagers as a sort of strange and deranged sub-species, or even worse, as incomplete adults-in-waiting is so ingrained in many people that it’s almost reflexive.

A good example of this adult-centricism can be seen in those enthusiasts who attempt to use neuroscience to bolster their prejudices. As a school teacher, I’ve sat through training sessions of exactly this type. I’ve listened to school principals smugly announce that the evidence is in and that teenagers are technically insane. I’ve watched policy makers on television use their partial knowledge to justify whatever new regulation of youth might win them votes. The issue has even made it to the cover of Time magazine.

The standard story goes something like this. Thanks to modern imaging techniques, we now have a far better understanding of the way the brain develops through time. We can track the almost unbelievable blossoming of neural connections (in the order of millions per second in early life) and the later periods of trimming and reorganising. We can see that teenagers typically make use of different parts of their brain than adults typically would for some tasks and that some parts of the brain which play a large part in decision making in adulthood appear less prominent in the teenage brain. I don’t wish to counter any of this, I take the experts at their word on it and it all seems plausible enough. What I do object to is the next step, where the adult commentator solemnly pronounces that this produces incontrovertible evidence that the teenage brain is not yet fully developed. The cliché has become that the brain does not fully mature until it’s well into its twenties.

There is a logical problem here, and one that betrays our inbuilt prejudice against teenagers. While it is true that the brain changes over the life cycle of the human being, our choice to see any one stage as preparation for the next is based upon nothing but narrative.  After all, the adult brain is typically different in its structure than that of an elderly person, but we don’t tend to say the adult brain is an underdeveloped version of the elderly one. To think of the teenage years as preparation for adulthood has the same logical structure as thinking of the adult years as preparation for being dead.

Because many adults are so programmed to think in teleological terms, where everything has a purpose, and because many adults are predisposed to thinking of adulthood as that purpose, the logical error occurs without many people even registering that a story has been superimposed over the facts. Neuroscientists announce, to the delight of such adults, that the teenage brain is overly influenced by hormonal balances, is prone to mood swings and bursts of irrational enthusiasm and defiance, is unable to fully think through the consequences of actions, struggles to interpret the emotional cues around it, etc, etc. The science, we are told, is in, and the teenager is defective. We are told that the very best thing we can do is keep them safe while they negotiate their way through these difficult years.

To see the flaw in this thinking more clearly, consider how a teenage neuroscientist might interpret the same data. Would they not be tempted to argue that as the teenage brain enters adulthood it begins to close down? The adult brain, they might suggest, with all their pretty brain scan images to support them, loses its capacity for spontaneity. That part of the brain responsible for shutting down excitement becomes overdeveloped and the adult becomes dull-witted and unimaginative. The adult brain loses its ability to synthesise new ideas, becoming set in its ways. The natural capacity for joy and excitement is lost as the brain loses its ability to respond adequately to hormonal signals. Fewer and fewer experiences register as fresh and the excitement of discovery steadily decreases… You get the idea.

The teenager is no more a defective adult than the adult is a defective teenager. Each stage has its advantages and each of those advantages comes with its costs. There is nothing good to come from treating the teenage years merely as preparation for adulthood. They are to be lived on their own terms, not endured but rather celebrated. The very best teen fiction, I think, understands this. Its stories focus on teenagers not because the writer wishes to help the teenager through those years but because this offers story possibilities that exist nowhere else on the human timeline.

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

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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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Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its second 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.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:

- provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to

- relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.

Articles for February 2013

5 Things Writers Of Teen Novels Should Know by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Plot, Character And Hooptedoodle In Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Setting In Teen Novels by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ And What Makes A Good Teen Novel by Beth Revis

Writing Personal Stories For Teens by Stephen Emond

Writing Novels For Teens Versus For Adults by April Henry

Writing Series Fiction, by Anne Cassidy (guest article)

Writing My Novel ‘The Gypsy Crown’ by Kate Forsyth

Are Teen Novels Literature?  by Bernard Beckett

The Novel Writing Process by Lish McBride

What Makes Great Young Adult Fiction?  by Sam Hawksmoor

Writing Characters In Historical Novels For Teens by Carolyn Meyer

In Praise Of Copy Editors: Masters Of Accuracy by Monika Schroder

Using Imagery In Your Novel Writing by Kashmira Sheth

Coarse Language in Teen Novels by Paul Volponi

Underdog Characters In Teen Novels by Diane Lee Wilson

Choosing And Voicing Characters For My Teen Historical Novels by Pauline Francis

Overcoming Writer’s Block by Andy Briggs

Narrative Drive Is Not Related To Literary Merit (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

This months articles and writing my teen novel

Bernard Beckett wrote: To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store. From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? […]But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Amy Kathleen Ryan wrote: Setting isn’t just a place and time. Let’s imagine that Jane Austen and Stephen King have both visited the same Georgian era house, and both felt inspired to set a scene in the attic. In addition to the quaint sewing table and a smoky fireplace, Austen’s setting would include a rigid set of expected manners, an even more rigid English class system, and probably a whole regiment of charming rogues out to ruin the honor of vulnerable yet spunky young women. King’s setting might include a chainsaw with a bit of human hair caught in the gears, a menacing creeping mist, and a universe of bizarre magical beings just waiting for our blue collar hero to prick the membrane between our world and theirs.

Diane Lee Wilson wrote: To be an appealing character, an underdog simply cannot be miserable all of the time. Readers want to hear a story of a person overcoming a difficult situation. She doesn’t have to gleefully sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” on every other page, but she must vibrate with an inner strength.

Monika Schroder wrote: Copy editors must surely be patient and just a bit wise. I am sure that they often shake their heads at mistakes we writers make. These people who work through a manuscript with such thorough attention to detail have my full admiration. It is thanks to them that a clean and accurate manuscript finds its way to the printer.

Writing my teen historical novel, set in 1939 Poland (and discussed in my January Month In Review post), is a matter of creating a compelling story which is also the product of in-depth research. A teen novel in which storytelling takes a backseat to the historical setting is not going to cut it with a lot of teen readers and a historical novel in which in-depth knowledge takes a backseat to plot is not going to cut it with a lot of historical novel readers. The secret to managing this balance well cannot be fully explained in the space of this article. It requires a range of storytelling components to work together to create an overall story experience, which has to work in different ways for different readers.

The answer to Bernard’s question about whether teen fiction is literature depends on the definition of literature being used. If you take literature to encompass all written fiction then teen fiction (that is,  fiction intended primarily for teenage readers or with one or more prominent teenage characters, that is age-appropriate for people aged 13-19 years) then of course teen fiction is literature. Various people will differ in exactly what they mean when they say teen fiction or Young Adult fiction, and many people may not have thought much about some of the finer details of what does or does not fall under the term in the sense that they use it. If literature is taken to mean quality fiction, then I think most people would agree that some teen fiction will match that description and some teen fiction will not. However, the problem would then become deciding what is quality fiction and what is not.

Writing a novel suited to teenage readers does not automatically make it any more or any less worthy than one suited to adult readers – and there is plenty of crossover readership between each kind of novel. As Amy and Diane demonstrate, the nuances of setting, character, and so on, and how they are conveyed to readers is something that authors of teen novels and authors of adult novels consider and work into their writing. As Monika discussed, teen novels also benefit from the input of copy editors – as well as general editors and other publishing professionals – to arrive at the book readers will experience . As with adult novels, different novels will receive different levels of attention from skilled publishing professionals.

The 1939 Poland setting is an important aspect of my novel-in-progress but, as Amy touched on, more important is how I handle the setting in telling the story of my characters. My main character could be considered an underdog, as a teenage boy in the city of Bydgoszcz in western Poland at the time of the German invasion and occupation, but more important than the obstacles standing in his way is what he does in the face of such obstacles. All the storytelling components must come together and work in unison to create a good novel; from the big picture concept to copyediting to the subtleties of characters’ personalities and relationships.

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

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Are Teen Novels Literature? by Bernard Beckett

To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store.  From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? We ask this self-consciously, perhaps defensively, worried that somewhere out there real writers are looking down their noses at us, or worse still, not looking at us at all. Such paranoia is not without fuel. Consider the way our work is treated in schools. It is not uncommon for a senior student to be told that a certain book isn’t ‘challenging enough’ to warrant their attention. The subtext is clear. Some books are light relief, a form of entertainment and nothing more, while others have a more worthy purpose. Real books dig beneath the surface, expose us to thoughts and feelings that would have otherwise eluded us, they expand our horizons, add colour to our palette. And, as a helpful short cut, genre fiction, be it romance, crime, fantasy or YA, is lumped together in the diverting-but-shallow category. But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Actually, in terms of YA, I think the filter works pretty well. I certainly wouldn’t argue that teen fiction can’t be great literature (I have my favourite counter-examples), but I would argue that mostly it isn’t. What’s more, I think this is perfectly predictable, and shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of failing on behalf of the YA writer. Indeed, a case might be made that the opposite is true – teen fiction authors self-consciously attempting to create great literature would be doing their readers a grave disservice.

To make this case, first it’s necessary to establish that the notion of literature is itself meaningful. Some argue that the very term is nothing but a code word for elitism: a small, culturally self-referencing clique, define literature against their own tastes, needs and prejudices, and then impose this definition upon a bewildered public, primarily as a means of exclusion. The bored schoolboy struggling through Passage to India on a hot afternoon might have some sympathy for this view. However, I think it’s too easy a dismissal. When I consider the books I have read, some simply passed the time in a pleasant manner: entertaining, intriguing, manipulating me, spinning stories. Others did something else. They deepened my understanding of the human experience. There were moments of clarity, of insight, indeed wisdom. Now of course this is an individual response, what counts as insightful will depend upon the state of the reader’s current model of the world (whereas an adult reader might treat The Da Vinci Code as a bit of escapist fun, a twelve year old reader might be ‘blown away by the ideas’). Furthermore, many books that aspire to insight, expose us only to the limitations of the author’s world, and are almost unreadable. The definition of literature is always going to be slippery with subjectivism, but I’m not sure we should do away with it altogether.  Some reading experiences are intellectually richer than others, just as some writing is poetic, while in other cases it’s purely functional. To deny that some books are primarily in the business of entertaining, while others strive to create art, seems to miss something important.

But to say it makes sense to speak of literature, is only to build half a case. Why should we expect literature to respect genre boundaries? Why shouldn’t we expect to find beautiful, wise writing in teen fiction or romcoms? The answer, I think, is that it is tremendously difficult to serve two masters. If you want to construct a thriller, then the primary goal must be to, well, thrill. And, at the point where we accept the thriller challenge, we are faced with psychological constraints, and these  constraints in turn determine the way our story will be built. We are thrilled when the character we care for is in jeopardy, when all appears lost, when every move only makes things worse, and all the while the deadly clock ticks on. The more our righteous indignation is fired, the more intense the thrill. It’s not just that our guy is running away, it’s that our guy is essentially good, and the folk he’s running away from aren’t.  We yearn for his survival both on an empathetic, and a theological level. So immediately, we can see that moral ambiguity has a tendency to work against the thriller element. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that challenges our sense of the world, asks us to view our circumstances from a new perspective. Here then, we see the demands of literature and entertainment pulling in opposite directions. There are ways around this, of course, and the freakishly gifted writer will find them, producing both compelling narratives and deeply challenging works. For most of us though, what we’ll produce is a thriller that doesn’t thrill.

Like the thriller, the teen novel has its own imperatives (although as the readers reach the older end of the spectrum, this is less the case, and it’s here the chances of finding genuine literature improve). One of the great joys of being a teenager is the intensity with which one lives, an intensity that is never matched. To love a new song at fifteen is to love it in a way no functional adult can reach for.  So too it goes for fearing rejection, anticipating glory, or surfing the crest of a hormonal wave. Life is full of fresh first times, the existing template is tantalisingly inadequate, and the ride is at once terrifying, thrilling, elevating, and crushing; a mess of confusion and contradictions. Teenagers are in the business of trying out their new toys: their new bodies, their new intellectual capacities, their new level of access to adult society. They are fearsome advocates, gobsmacking risk takers, both loyal and fickle, tribal and fiercely independent. They don’t seek ambiguity, but rather clash. Their instinct isn’t for contemplation, it’s for engagement. These are the fast food years. One doesn’t linger and savour; one consumes, in great, joyous mouthfuls. And this wonderful creation, the modern teen, is the master the YA writer must serve.

This unique audience provides us with special opportunities, along with a peculiar set of constraints. It is the nature of these constraints, I would argue, that mean that the work we produce often isn’t literature. There are exceptions of course; glorious, inspiring exceptions, that simultaneously provoke jealousy and ambition. For the rest of us, with our stories to tell, engaging the audience is a lofty enough goal.

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

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Writing Personal Stories For Teens, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I would never say that I write autobiography but I like to say that I write personal stories, because I do cull a lot from my life and from people around me and things that I see, as I imagine most authors do. It gets more difficult with each project because writers look for new aspects of their personality to mine, and usually it’s that first book that is the culmination of a life’s worth of experiences.

I was no different, as my book Happyface definitely felt like a look back on everything I’d lived before. It really wasn’t intentional. It would have been bold of me to say, “I plan to write a book about me, and the people shall love it.” Although, I may have pitched that at some point. It was an organic process, and when you’re sitting there asking, “What would this character say? Where can they go?” it’s definitely easy to answer with what you would say and where you’ve been.

In case you haven’t read it, Happyface is about a boy who suffers an unnamed family tragedy, moves to a new town and decides to start life over for himself. It becomes a social experiment and he uses it to bury pain and escape his reality. It’s a “downward spiral” story.

The genesis of the book came from a title I’d just written it down in a sketchbook. Later I wondered who Happyface was, and the idea of a kid smiling through a lot of inner pain seemed like a great character to dive into. I had his parents divorced, because my own parents were divorced. I made him kind of shy, a little geeky, because I could definitely sell that. He was an artist. That pretty much clenched it -this was going to be a personal story.

I spent a lot of time thinking about my high school years when working on Happyface. I often wished I’d kept a journal of some kind, something I’ve always felt through life but never actually did. It would have been a goldmine for material! I had moved to a new town my sophomore year of high school when my parents divorced, and I viewed it as a chance to be a new person, but this was honestly lost on me as I wrote and only after did it dawn on me that I had actually lived through that experience. I thought I’d just been coming up with interesting story points. Other things I did intentionally use. I pulled a lot of details and banter and relationship tics from my first girlfriend. I thought about the kids that reached out to me when I first moved. These girls Leslie and Emily would always talk to me in French class. They didn’t seem to realize I was an unpopular hermit, so they inspired the Moon sisters. A kid I sat with at lunch with a strong affinity for Married With Children inspired the character Mike. Much later in life, after a breakup, I met new people and had a new group of friends, and that inspired a chunk of the story as well.

This all sounds like autobiographical fiction but it really isn’t. A book starts off as an idea and usually for me it has little to do with anything going on in my life. The arc of the story, even when it involves real events, usually needs to be fictionalized. It needs closure, it needs structure, a lesson to learn, a theme, things a little more tidy than life ever offers. As I flesh it out, personal details tend to fill in the spaces, and round out the characters, and provide the little bits of wisdom and insight. Eventually, though, it also goes through my editor, and a much wider audience than myself or my friends is considered. It goes back to telling a story the right way, giving it a real structure, adding drama and taking away fluff. This is when we get rid of the 90s nostalgia, the Super Mario references, the old sitcom references. I keep adding those in, I can’t help it. This is when we search the story for those universal truths, where we find the pieces teenagers will really relate too, and we strengthen those and bring them to the front. That’s the stage where I stop writing for me, and start writing for an audience.

In my next article, I’ll talk a bit about how I use art in books – thanks for reading!

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

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Teen Fiction: A Definition? by Bernard Beckett

Mostly, I write teen fiction. It’s often referred to as YA (for Young Adult), which isn’t a label I love. Calling a teenager a young adult strikes me as patronising, in the way that calling a forty year old an ‘old teenager’ would be. Nomenclature aside, I’m often asked what makes a book YA, and beneath this question there sits a curious and unnecessary concern. The assumption seems to be that this is a difficult thing to define (it is) and that this difficulty poses some sort of a problem (it doesn’t).

Essentially, defining is the art of lumping. Some vehicles we add to the pile of things we call cars, others trucks and so forth. My two and half year old boys have, over the last twelve months, got the hang of this. The first part of language to develop is naming, which goes hand in hand with the foundational intellectual skill of comparing and categorising.

Almost always, we can find examples which are very easy to put in a pile, and examples which are vexing. Even something as simple as colour throws up this problem. It is mostly very easy to distinguish a red object from an orange one, but at the boundary we find examples of reddish orangey things that don’t fall comfortably into either pile. (If you’ve ever looked at a rainbow and tried to identify the indigo/violet boundary, you’ll have seen a particularly striking example of fuzzy boundaries. In fact, any sane person would have stuck with six colours, red, orange, yellow, green blue, purple, but Isaac Newton, believing seven to be a more auspicious number, insisted on an extra boundary).

So, we know what cars are and we know what red is, even though it is impossible to precisely define either. Yet, we don’t get too worked up by this difficulty. Interviews with people who design, fix or race cars don’t return with boring monotony to the question ‘yes, but what makes a car a car?’ Mostly cars have four wheels, but not always. Mostly they have combustion engines, but not always. Mostly they have two rows of seats, but not always. Mostly they have an engine at the front, but not always. Mostly they have a roof, but not always. You get the idea.

Any attempt to define YA literature will surely encounter the same flavour of mostliness. Mostly YA fiction centers around characters who are themselves teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will be read primarily by teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will deal with those concerns that typify the teenage psychology (but not always). Mostly the author will have written it with a teenage audience in mind (but not always). And of course, mostly we’ll know it when we see it (but not always).

For me, writing for teenagers and writing for adults are very different processes. First, there’s the issue of assumed knowledge. If I’m writing for an adult, I can assume a store of experience that I can’t when writing for a teenager. An adult is much more likely to have experienced being a parent for example, being married, or having worked in a full time job. A different range of images and associations are therefore available. It’s not that we can’t write about these things for teens, but we should anticipate a different response, purely because of the reader’s frame of reference.

Second is assumed interest. Consider a story centered about a man in his seventies, with failing health, looking back over his life and wondering why he was never able to stay close to the people he loved. I find that a pretty interesting concept, but automatically assume a teenage audience won’t. Different stages of life tend to support different fascinations. Having sex for the first time is a more likely focus for a teen novel than an adult one (but not always, On Chesil Beach is an excellent counter-example). Every story I’ve ever written for teens has at heart involved the teenager confronting for the first time a complexity in the world that they’d previously had no sense of: a complexity demanding a response that is neither easy nor obvious. It’s not true that all teen novels must confront this question, but it’s what I’m personally drawn to writing about.

Third, there’s the end user to consider. Just as all car owners have different needs, and this defines the limits of what we might mean by the word car, so too the readers of teen fiction are anything but homogenous. The ten year old reading teen fiction for the first time is a very different beast from the seventeen year old just looking for something that is neither juvenile nor centred about an aspiring author’s mid-life crisis. The introverted, living-my-life-through-books teen, is after something quite different from the sometimes-read-when-there’s-nothing-else-to-do-or-people-make-me’s target. Some teens are tremendously smart, with searing curiosity and vocabularies that exceed their horizons, others not so much. Hence we don’t write for teens, so much as for a subset of teens. Most often, this subset closely reflects the teens we ourselves once were (and, as with those who choose to teach, the backgrounds of those who choose to write tend to cluster about a false norm).

Finally, and most positively, there’s a sense of possibility, of freshness and urgency, that defines the teenage audience, and in a perfect world this will infect the writing. The very best writing for children manages to capture that magical aspect of childhood that the adult reader instinctively understands is lost to them, and makes the reading of such books a bittersweet experience. So too, the finest teen writing should fill the adult reader with a sense of loss and longing (and the teen reader with a sense of celebration). YA fiction should exist not because there’s a market for it, but because it can tell stories that no other genre can. If we can’t make that true, then we have no business writing it.

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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