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Using Your Memory To Write Better Teen Novels, by Shawn Goodman

On creating teen voice: There’s the usual stuff about listening to what kids talk about, the rhythms of their speech etc. It sounds good, but as often as not the results are corny dialogue, idioms that don’t work or make sense, outdated clichés and other missteps. It’s better to just tell a good story with a strong, unique voice.

How? I think it has something to do with anamnesis, science fiction writer Phil Dick’s word for the loss of amnesia. Applied to YA fiction it means that we adults have forgotten what it’s like to be an adolescent. Sure, we remember the snapshot moments or the intensely emotional ones but the truth or magic is in the small things, like Holden Caulfield’s ducks, or the kid in Spinelli’s Milkweed who hunts through the dead city to find a pickled egg for his sad mute friend (he finds just a pickle and an egg – but it’s good enough), or Vern Tessio, from Stand By Me, who says that cherry Pez is the perfect food. The point is that we too have these images and stories but we no longer have access to them. In the process of growing up and assuming jobs, kids and SUVs with third row seats, we’ve forgotten about our pickled eggs and cherry Pez memories. We’ve forgotten about the anarchy-shaped cigarette burns in the bucket seats of Jeff Riscioli’s ’73 Camaro. As a dedicated member of the punk scene, Jeff dotted the glowing end of an unfiltered Camel into the vinyl to form a crude, charred letter A. He later crashed the car into a dumpster in the Twin Fair parking lot.

So the trick is to lose our amnesia. How? I don’t know. Listen to a track from when you were in high school, like ‘Just One Kiss’ by the Violent Femmes. Say out loud the name of your partner in Biology lab (Jennifer Renkens, a pretty blonde who fainted at the sight of her own blood during the blood-typing unit).

Recall your first car (’59 VW Microbus, bought at Angelo Bomasuto’s father’s hot dog stand for $700). Remember your first knock-down fist-fight in which you got pummelled by Rob Radloff on the Washington Avenue train tracks. Remember how he was later killed by a train on those very tracks in your senior year.

Picture your prom date (the same Jennifer who fainted in Biology lab). Remember whatever you want, or whatever you can. Just get better at remembering the small things; the details and half-feelings. Close your eyes and hear the music. Feel the rhythm of how you and your friends talked. That rhythm – the flow, the cadence, the back and forth of whispers in class, and insults in the cafeteria, the laughing and shouting – is what it’s all about. That’s how you lose your amnesia.

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Shawn Goodman’s author website: www.shawngoodmanbooks.com

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Beating Writer’s Block, by Skye Melki-Wegner

You sit down at your desk to write. You stare at the computer screen. You place your hands on the keyboard and…

Nothing.

Sound familiar? We all know that dreaded feeling of uncertainty – the fear of blanking out, or writer’s block, or whatever you prefer to call it. It might occur at the very start of a manuscript, or halfway through, or even when you’ve trapped your heroine halfway up an erupting volcano and can’t figure out how she’ll escape with all her limbs intact.

Of course, it can help to simply open your eyes and look around you. Story ideas are lurking everywhere! That couple arguing on the bus? Use them. Your aunt’s habit of storing her souvenir tea towels in chronological order? Use it. The old man shuffling past you on the street and singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ under his breath? Use him.

Of course, this can be a little tougher if you’re writing speculative fiction (especially Epic Fantasy or Sci-Fi). You’re unlikely to find many Beatles-singing octogenarians in your fantasy world’s mysterious forest, or find a tea towel collection on a spaceship hurtling towards a distant moon. However, I think that the advice still works; you just have to twist it a bit.

I write YA fantasy novels, set entirely in fictional worlds. Obviously, I can’t just look out the window, see an idea and dump it wholesale into my novel. If I did, there would be an awful lot of suburban streets and mailboxes in my fantasy worlds. Instead, when I’m stuck for ideas, I look around me and ask: “What if…?”

In my first trilogy, Chasing the Valley, I needed a way for a gang of teenage fugitives to escape from a city. My heroes were on the run, pursued by the tyrannical king’s hunters, ready to flee into the wilderness. They desperately needed a form of transportation. The obvious answer was horses, but horses are pretty common in fantasy novels and I wanted to invent something a bit different.

I remember sitting at my desk, staring vaguely at the floor, wondering what I could use as an alternative. At that very moment, my dog walked past. It struck me that my dog looked a little bit like an oversized fox. The idea came at once: What if they rode on giant, alchemically-warped foxes?

So I invented the foxaries: enormous, vicious foxes for my characters to ride like horses. These creatures ended up being a huge part of the trilogy, but they might never have existed if my dog hadn’t happened to wander past at that moment – and if I hadn’t asked myself: “What if…?”

Next time you’re out of ideas, why not take a moment to look around you? Instead of staring blankly at your computer screen, look out the door, through your window or into the next room. What can you see? What can you hear, smell, taste or touch?

At first glance, it might just be a mailbox, a dog or a tea towel. If you can somehow twist that object, or flip it upside down, you might just spark an awesome new idea for your manuscript.

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Skye Melki-Wegner’s author website: www.skyemelki-wegner.com

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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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Writing Science Fiction For Both Teens And Adults, by Janet Edwards

When I began writing my debut book, Earth Girl, my aim was to write something that would appeal to both teens and adults. Achieving that meant working out what I needed to do differently for a teen reader from an adult reader, and finding a way to successfully combine the two. This didn’t just involve general issues, such as character ages and dialogue, but some that were genre specific. I was writing science fiction. I started thinking through my story, considering what I’d have to change to make it appeal to teen readers.

Earth Girl is set on Earth over seven hundred years in the future. After the invention of interstellar portals, people live on hundreds of colony worlds scattered across space. Obviously, I had to mention interstellar portals, and refer to other future technology as well. Did I need to simplify that technology for teen readers? Of course I didn’t. Teens today have social lives that revolve around constantly changing technology.

The future Earth I was describing was very different to our world now. Did I need to simplify my world building for teen readers? Again my answer was no. Teens are as good as, or better than, adults at picturing and identifying with imaginary worlds.

My story was about a girl who was among the one in a thousand people whose immune systems couldn’t survive anywhere other than the semi-abandoned Earth. For the norms who could portal freely between other worlds, Jarra was a second class citizen, a ‘throwback’. Teens might have less experience of some things than adults, but they’d understand perfectly about someone being the one left out, rejected and called names.

I considered a whole list of things, but eventually I came down to just one key difference between my adult and teen readers. Almost every adult reading my book would have read dozens, if not hundreds, of other science fiction books. A significant number of teens reading my book would be reading science fiction for the very first time.

That was the one key point I kept in my head when writing Earth Girl. There were no limits on what I could write about, but I had to make everything clearly understandable to someone reading science fiction for the first time, while not boring others who’d been reading it for years with explanations they didn’t need. That was a challenge. I had to watch every word I used, but authors should be watching every word anyway.

I actually hit my biggest problem in my second book, Earth Star, because of one particular word: arcology. Using it would mean a great deal to some of my readers familiar with science fiction, but nothing at all to others. My main character, Jarra, was talking about a place called Ark. I needed her to use the word arcology, to show where Ark got its name, but I had to have her use it in a way that was self-explanatory. I added a few extra words in her dialogue that some readers won’t need, but which tell others that an arcology is a closed, self-sufficient habitat. In the case of Ark, it’s underground with its own recycled air and water.

I have a theory that my one key fact for writing science fiction for teens may be true for some other genres as well. All I really know is that remembering it seems to have worked for me. I’ve heard from adults who’d been reading science fiction for fifty years and enjoyed Earth Girl. I’ve also heard from teens who’d never read science fiction before and loved it.

The first science fiction and fantasy books I read will always be very special to me. One of the great things about writing for teens is that your book may become one of those very special books your readers will always remember.

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Janet Edwards’s author website: www.janetedwards.com

Janet Edwards’s bio page

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Month In Review (December 2013)

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

What I Read When I Was A Teenager by Elizabeth Wein

Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels by Bernard Beckett

Bad Habits To Avoid While Writing by Andy Briggs

Handling Feedback About My Novels by Carolyn Meyer

Writing Honest Depictions In Your Novels by Paul Volponi

Writing Good Dialogue For Your Novel by Lish McBride

Creating Characters With Flaws by Kashmira Sheth

Writing What You Know by Beth Revis

The Young Adult Fiction Industry by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Writing The Opening Lines Of A Novel by Kate Forsyth

How I Became A Writer by Monika Schroder

On Being Nice As A Writer by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Marketing Your Teen Novel On A Medium Sized Budget by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Working With An Editor On A Teen Novel by Diane Lee Wilson

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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 Honest Depictions In Your Novels, by Paul Volponi

Writing with complete honesty is one of the hardest things for fledgling authors of teen novels to achieve. They worry about their name being attached to the story – even though it is fiction and it will be the characters doing the action and speaking the dialogue, not them. I’ve heard statements from beginning writers such as – readers will think I support what the characters do and say.

In my opinion, a writer needs to cut loose from anything resembling these feelings. They will only weigh you down and stop your work from evolving. I had to deal with this issue when I wrote several books which touched upon racism and hatred in our society. Black and White, Response, Rooftop, Rikers High, and Crossing Lines are all novels that I’ve written which have characters that espouse ugly ideas and brutal language. But if you try to couch your story and not show the way teens really act, or how they can act, during their worst moments, then your story will probably ring hollow.

When I decided to write Rikers High, a novel about a place in which I worked for six years, honesty came into play in a different way. Just some background: Rikers Island is the biggest jail in the world. There are high schools there for teens who can’t make bail and are awaiting trial in the court system. The novel shows an inmate demographic that is heavily black and Hispanic, because that matches the real demographic of Rikers Island. Incidents in the novel involving students/inmates with their teachers and correction officers are all a reflection of what I had really witnessed while working there. After the novel was published, some teachers and officers I worked with felt they recognized themselves and things that they had done, both good and bad. Needless to say, many were unhappy with my honesty. I lived with the ramifications and never regretted it. That novel accurately reflects six years of what I saw happening on Rikers Island.

I found it really interesting when a writer whom I had never met dedicated a YouTube video to the honesty in Rikers High. That video can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVmalLRRlKE

So every time you reread your story, there are several basic questions you need to continually ask:

1. Have I passed up on writing any scene that, in my heart, I know should be included in my story?

2. Do my most dramatic scenes fall short of an honest portrayal because I’m worried about what people will think about my views or sensibilities?

3. Does the dialogue I’m using truly represent what real people would say (including curse words) in tense situations?

4. Was I honest with myself and my fiction?

You should always be honest and brave in your writing. That way your fiction will represent real life. There is no higher standard that that.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s 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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