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Posts tagged ‘teenage readers’

On Age Ranges For Novels, by Andy Briggs

In the UK, publishers had a terrible idea: why don’t we age-range the books? What this meant was a book for a 14-year-old would have a large 14 on the back so everybody would know, and the poor uninformed reader would know that they’re not reading a book for a 15-year-old lest their head explodes.

It also meant that a 15-year-old would pick up the book, get interested in the blurb and then put it back on the self because it’s aimed at younger kids. Telling a child a book if specifically for them is not necessarily the correct thing to do because you are now ruining a world of literature they may no longer bother accessing.

Harry Potter was so successful because it was suddenly okay for adults to read children’s books. When was it never okay to do so? If a child has a strong reading ability, they should read any age group they can. There is more gore in a Darren Shan book than Stephen King – both are great authors, and both can and should be read by all ages.

So, that was my rant about the readers but how does this translate into writing?

I write for just one target audience. Me. Sometimes stories simply work better because the protagonist is a child, other times an adult is an equally appropriate lead character. I don’t write with my readers in mind, because I want readers of all ages to enjoy my work. Of course, some adults won’t want to pick up my superhero books. They are probably the same people who won’t read a Spider Man comic either, but, oddly, still go the cinema to watch the film.

I believe writers should concentrate on getting the story onto the page to the very best of their ability. Not once should they worry about who is going to read it. I don’t use swearing very much – none in my books, and only a trickle in my screenplays (some of which are quite gory horror). I do this, not because I am a sensitive soul, but because my characters never feel the need to curse. Does that make my books children’s books? I have just read BZRK by Michael Grant which has more swearing than a recent Clive Cussler novel I finished. Grant’s novel was a teen book, Cussler’s an adult one. In fact, there was more sex in BZRK too.

Teenage readers are much more sophisticated than many people (read that as parents and teachers) often give them credit for. As long as the story is strong and the characters fascinating, they will read. Of course, it’s nice to read about people just like you, but that doesn’t mean you have to exclusively do it every time. Teenagers don’t have to read about teenage protagonists – younger or older characters are all equally enjoyed.

Write stories that you enjoy. Don’t force them to be teenage books or adult books. They will find their own path and their own audience.


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Writing Teen Novels

Plotting My Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

One of the things I like about writing fiction based on historical people and events is that real history provides so many fictional possibilities. Deciding where to start is the first challenge in plotting a novel for teen readers.

The age of the main character is an important decision. Common wisdom has it that young teens want to read about older teens – but not too much older; older teens don’t want to read about younger ones, and they also don’t want to read about characters who are a lot older. The sweet spot seems to be about sixteen. But history doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes the actual story starts much earlier in the life of the historical person you want to write about.

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scots as an infant, upon the death of her father. I decided to begin The Wild Queen when Mary’s mother sends her off to France at age six to grow up in the King’s court. Would a thirteen-year-old reader decide in the early chapters that Mary is too young to be interesting? It was a risk, but I took it.

Marie-Antoinette is twelve when her story begins in The Bad Queen. Mary Tudor is ten in Mary, Bloody Mary. Her sister, Elizabeth, is thirteen in Beware, Princess Elizabeth, and Anne Boleyn is thirteen in Doomed Queen Anne. Less important than the age is the situation in which the main character finds herself in those opening pages. Sometimes it’s better not to state the age at first; just begin with a situation that grabs your teen reader’s interest.

Conflict drives the plot. The next big challenge is choosing which events provide the most compelling way to tell the story to a teen reader and which events to leave out if they don’t move the story forward.

Teenaged Princess Elizabeth is despised by her older half-sister, Mary. Marie-Antoinette must deal with the ladies of the French court who resent her and want her to fail. Victoria must contend with her demanding mother and her mother’s advisor, Sir John. Young Charles Darwin, in The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, has to confront a demanding father and his own lack of focus. Cleopatra’s jealous sisters, in Cleopatra Confesses, want her dead. Far from home, Mary, Queen of Scots, must adjust to a new environment and make decisions that change the course of her life. As the characters mature, the conflicts they face become even more complicated. The writer’s task is to keep teen readers turning pages.

I don’t try to figure out everything in advance. I simply start writing, trying different approaches until I find one that I think is most engaging. In my first draft of Victoria Rebels, the opening chapter recounted the circumstances leading to the marriage of Victoria’s parents. In a later revision, that material – historically interesting but not the way to launch a plot – was moved to Author’s Notes. The final draft of the story opens with preparations for the wedding of Victoria’s sister and her realization that with her sister gone Victoria will be alone.

Just as I experiment with different starting points, I try out various points at which to end. A satisfactory ending may depend on the age of my readers. The ending of Cleopatra Confesses tends to satisfy younger teens, while older readers want the story to go on.

Sequel, anyone?


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Writing Teen Novels

Why I Made The Switch To Writing Young Adult Novels, by Catherine Ryan Hyde (guest article)

I made the switch to Young Adult fiction before it was popular to do so. Before YA was seen as the last great frontier for fiction authors. The gold rush had not yet begun.

The most common question I was asked: “Why?” In a rather incredulous tone, as if I had just given myself a demotion. Just a couple of years later a tactless acquaintance asked if I was writing YA because my agent had told me to. It had already become that popular for authors to switch. But that’s not why I did.

I was looking for something that a woman in a bookstore once labeled, “The freedom to be sincere.” It was part of a search for where my writing truly belongs…which leads me to look more deeply into how much I know about where my writing belongs. That’s not a negative statement. It’s an acknowledgment of the simple fact that readers will determine who my readers will be. It’s not really my call.

Another question I’m often asked is, “How do you know what’s YA and what isn’t?” My answer? “In most instances, I don’t.”

Case in point, my novel Becoming Chloe was written for adults. And it had plenty of adult material in it, too. Only later, when I had written other YA novels, did I consider it might work for a younger audience. So I shortened it. I took out a couple of subplots that made it move at more of an adult pace. I did not make other changes. I didn’t remove the adult content, because it was not removable. It was essential to the story. (And I got very few complaints about it from the grownups who oversee YA fiction. Probably because it was essential to the story.) I didn’t change the tone or reading level, because, in my opinion, there’s no discernable difference between an adult and a teen reader in terms of reading level or sophistication. The difference seems to rest in issues of what themes are relevant to teen lives.

It helps to remind myself that when I was 14, my favorite book and movie was Midnight Cowboy, though my parents didn’t know it. That’s how I assess the reading level of a teen.

Perhaps an even better example of how little I/we know about the subject is my novel Chasing Windmills. I wrote it as YA, and presented it to my editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers. She liked it a lot. But she didn’t think it was YA. So I lengthened it by creating a second character viewpoint, that of Maria. Maria is 23, has two children, and lives (lived) with an abusive boyfriend. I figured going into her point of view would make the novel cleanly, undeniably adult. I presented it to my adult editor at Doubleday. Doubleday purchased and published the novel…which immediately crossed over to YA with a glowing review in School Library Journal. They labeled it High School through Adult.

So much for knowing the difference. But again, I don’t say that in a negative way. It’s taught me something. In general, we will always be a bunch of adults sitting around deciding what teens want to read. As such, we will often miss the mark. Even if the person reading this is a teen, you’re only one teen. Not every teen. And we all know that no two readers are alike.

The novel I just finished is probably coming-of-age literature for adults (though of course I could be wrong) despite the fact that my protagonist is 14 when the story begins, 17 when it ends. Her older friend is teaching her to fish, and he tells her that sometimes the fish are biting, other times they’re not. She wants to know how you judge the difference. He says, “By casting a baited hook into the water and seeing if they bite it. If there was a way of knowing before you left the house, and I knew it, I wouldn’t have had to work in a bank all my life. I’d have bottled the secret and sold it to fishermen all over the world. I’d be a rich man indeed.”

My suggestion is that, rather than sitting in the (figurative) house and deciding what teens want to – and should – read, we might give them access to tons of great literature. When we see what they pick up in large numbers, we’ll have our answer. And when we see what any teens pick up, no matter how small the numbers, we’ll have a broader answer that encompasses more than just your average teen.


Catherine Ryan Hyde’s author website:

Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of many novels, including the internationally bestselling Pay It Forward which became a film starring Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt.

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Writing Teen Novels

Cheer Up, Emo Kid: Humour in Young Adult Fiction, by Nansi Kunze

When I was sixteen, I grew my fringe to cover one eye, slouched around in a black jumper and eyeliner and listened to The Cure.

Now, before you begin to imagine that I was in any way cool, let me point out that I wasn’t a proper goth. The fringe idea was partly just to cover my terrible acne. The eyeliner was the only goth makeup I owned, since I lived hours away from any shop that would stock a lipstick darker than Saucy Plum. And if I’d thought I might be able to dress in an impressively subcultural way, I was soon disabused of that notion; the first time I went out in public in ripped jeans I got told off for ‘lowering the tone of the district’. In my own dorky way, however, I was an angst-ridden teenager, complete with existential thoughts, a penchant for depressing music and a tendency to have Anna Karenina recommended to me by librarians.

What the librarians didn’t realise, though, was that what I really liked to read wasn’t dark and gloomy at all. Oh, I read Anna Karenina – after all, who wouldn’t be impressed by half a kilo of confusing Russian names in small print and a cover plastered with dudes in fur hats? But I didn’t enjoy it. I much preferred books by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Books that were funny. Yes, you read that right. I liked humour … and what’s more, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one. In fact, moody, black-lipstick-wearing teenagers the world over love fiction that incorporates humorous elements.

‘Nonsense!’ I hear someone say (hopefully a reader who’s about 102 years old and has stumbled on this blog by mistake). ‘Everyone knows YA fiction is all about the angst. Look at Twilight! Look at all those dark, creepy book covers! Teenagers don’t want funny stuff – they want vampires and werewolves, gore and tragedy!’ Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, Pops, but you’re wrong on a couple of counts there.

Teenagers don’t just want paranormal fiction … but even if they did, that wouldn’t preclude the use of humour in YA writing. Ever hear of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Some of the very best and most beloved paranormal paradigms are peppered with humour. There are good reasons for this – the most obvious being that nothing throws a dark situation into sharp relief like a light-hearted moment. A self-deprecating quip or a little banter can add dimension to any character, alive or undead. And it’s worth remembering, too, that even those readers who seek out the bleakest dystopias to immerse themselves in need to come up for air every so often. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the presence of humour somehow belittles any serious themes you’re trying to address in your writing; anyone who tells you that wouldn’t know a good novel if it came up and bit them in the neck.

So how do you go about using this wonderful technique called comedy? Well, like any other writing skill, it’s partly practice and partly learning from the masters: write lots and read lots. Another method I find helpful, however, is to examine the way humour is used in other forms of storytelling. TV shows are especially good at illustrating how dialogue can be used to great effect; you can totally justify sitting in front of an entire season of Buffy or Angel for this purpose. Want to know how humour can enliven your mystery writing? Watch a little Sherlock. Feel your sci-fi needs more funny business? Get out your Dr Who collection! And remember that, hidden behind their fringes, even emo kids laugh sometimes.


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