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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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Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

I thought in this post I demonstrate how I harnessed all these secrets of narrative drive in Siege.

Here goes. Here’s the story concept (pitch style) that I sent to my editor (my comments in bold caps are for this post):




A story for our times…

Of disintegration and carnage…

This is the beginning of the end…


Teenagers long dissatisfied, out of control, seeing no future, respecting no one, feeling cheated, angry, mindless, feral…



Siege is a disturbing YA novel, capturing the Zeitgeist and drawing its inspiration from our inner city schools.

Siege imagines an autumn term, when a bunch of Year 9 teens, tired of rebelling against the authorities, feeling belittled in a system that has already discarded them – disillusioned, humiliated and vengeful, decide to take power into their own hands, power and guns. Over one long day, they hold up a school with nothing more on their minds than revenging themselves on their peers who have always done better than them in class.


Outside, anxious parents gather, news tycoons offer rewards, television cameras roll, sociologists try to rationalise, psychologists give opinions, the army stands by.


But can anyone really help Leah and Anton, hiding in the ceilings and air vents of YOU OP78 School, trying to feed themselves, trying to outwit their captors, trying to save some of the younger ones before the gang, the so called ‘Year 9 Eternal Knights’ finish their butchery?


… and Siege is only the beginning…

With unlimited access to the Internet, Damian the psycho leader of the Eternal Knights orders all the killings to be videoed on cell phone, or so it seems, and pasted in chat rooms and social websites. Soon the world is hooked as each killing is replayed a thousand times across the globe.

Like a real time Big Brother show, kids everywhere watch, horrified, mesmerised. Some try to hack into the system to close it down, others message in who they think should be killed next.

Soon there is a whole internet site dedicated to casting your vote on the next killing:  the Who, the How, the Why and the When.

Unable to intervene, a horrified nation watch as their future, their brightest and their best, are systematically butchered in front of their eyes by the rejects of our society: the hoodies, the dumbsters, the generation of wannabe gangsters and the bottom set kids.


In a nail-biting narrative of unmitigated tension, that will have you scarcely daring to draw breath, you follow Leah’s story as she struggles to survive; struggles to help Ruby, an injured Year 7 girl; struggles to check out rooms for survivors; tries to carry out surveillance for the SAS as well as attempting to keep the world informed. But most of all, as she tries to figure out who and why and what she could have done to prevent it all from happening.


There are no easy answers, for finally Leah must face her own role in the tragedy. She must struggle comes to terms with what might have happened to her brother, Connor: a brother she both hates and loves and is fiercely loyal to.  Is it partly her fault? Could she have changed anything?

Seige is tale of horror, bravery, sacrifice and savagery, and as it unfolds, it will change the way you see teenagers forever.

The above is part of the actual premise pitch I prepared to show my editor. Of course it changed somewhat between that and the book but the core elements of Narrative Drive remained the same.

So what next? Well to recap where I left off in post nine – the decisions of the protagonist are driving the action of the story and efforts to overcome obstacles to the story goal are initially unsuccessful. This failure to reach the story goal creates conflict and tension. So if conflict is the desire of the protagonist to pursue his motivation towards his goal despite obstacles, then the stakes are raised. The stakes are what happens to the protagonist if they succeed or fail.  They are the whips that drive him forward. In Siege the stakes are very serious. Life and death are at stake. Stakes show that things matter in the story.

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 10

drum roll…  tada!

The strength of a story and therefore its appeal to readers lies in how much it challenges the protagonist. 

Why? Because challenges supply the powerful obstacles needed to arouse a reader’s interest.

So how you can use this secret? 

  • Make sure your antagonist is much stronger than your protagonist
  • Make sure each obstacle and challenge is significant and looks like the end of the line for your protagonist.



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Writing Teen Novels

Why I Write Teen Fiction, by Sam Hawksmoor

Teen fiction connects.  Passionate intensity often leads kids to do foolish things, take incredible risks, to explode with hatred one minute and love the next; to be heroic as well as act without compassion.  Teenager are still raw, often angry at what life has dealt and the choices on offer.

Adults are constrained by convention, rules, experience, and explain away their failings with words such as fate or God’s will.  Teens still think that they can make a difference and that there are endless possibilities.

When I write for teens I am thinking of all these things, putting myself in their shoes.  It’s not always rational.  I couldn’t begin to explain all the stupid things I did as a teen or the risks I took.  How I’m even still alive given the situations I got myself into, I have no idea.  I still remember my heart being broken – not just once either. It scarred me.  So I write for the kids yet to be scarred by life or the ones who already know that it’s less than fair out there, but to also say that this too can be survived and that they are not helpless.

Sometimes my fiction will be historical.  Kids want to know about the past and it is essential to connect it to the present so they can relate.  When you read Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go you are immediately plunged into a seventeenth century world, filled with strange Amish-like men and one boy and his dog living primitive lives. They are farming everything by hand.  You quickly become aware that there is madness in the air and all the characters can hear each other’s thoughts.  This alone is enough to make you intrigued. To then discover that this is the future and a story set in some far off planet is a huge surprise.  The second major feat that Ness accomplishes is to establish a great love between Todd and Viola in book one, then in book two tear them apart and pit them against each other, each manipulated by the evil Mayor Prentiss.  Extraordinary.

In The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester, a girl is born who floats. The parents are ashamed of their freak daughter and home-school her, but you can’t keep a good girl down for long. One day she jumps off the roof and flies the whole way around the town attracting unwanted attention.  Written with a dry southern wit this is a story that makes you laugh at first, then takes a rather nasty turn as the government begins to round up all the freaks and bury them in some underground lab.  I love the concept. I would have preferred it to stay funny rather than sinister but the adventures of Piper McCloud live within my affections. As her Papa said, “Seems like our child ain’t normal is all I’m saying.”

I suppose why I write teen fiction in the end is because I want to write stories that strike you in the heart, that stay with you forever, that affect you in the way that books and films shaped my life growing up.  Dune by Frank Herbert perhaps is one such book – the retelling of the coming of the Messiah scope of this novel is incredible.  The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick is another – about America losing WW2 and divided between Japan and Germany.  Neither of these were teen fiction but both had a huge impact on the teen me because they dealt with what ifs… and what ifs are what keep us awake at night…


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On Research For Writing Teen Science Fiction, by Sam Hawksmoor

The best thing about writing is often the research and it can be heartbreaking how little of it makes its way into the book you are writing.  Of course, you can get side-tracked by research. There’s always so much more you could read about a subject but there’s that voice at the back of the class saying ‘BORING!’ So you have to remember that the action must move on. Teens are impatient for the next hill to climb, the next piece of action with a short pause for a kiss before that bullet ricochets off the bed and they jump out of the window…

I’ve been doing research for a virus novel I’ve been writing on and off for a while: how the virus spreads, how quickly it can kill, who is the most vulnerable and how you can prevent getting it.  There’s a lot of stuff I could get in but it remains on the cutting room floor.  Of course, I left all the icky bits in.  That’s important.  There’s nothing like a virus that boils your lungs to gross someone out.

I researched teleportation for The Repossession.  I felt I really had to have Marshall (the ex-scientist) explain stuff. I just didn’t want my characters to accept it as fact and move on.  Too often you see this in teen fiction or movies. Here was an opportunity to work with one of the characters who had been developing trans-matter and been burned badly by it. I had these kids who were going to be volunteers, whether they liked it or not, and I wanted to play with the consequences and morals of science as much as the technology.

You don’t have to knock a reader over the head with facts but a small pause to reflect on how things work will appeal to some readers and show them a little respect.  Others will skip over this to the next bit.  (In the same way I skipped over all those awful poems and songs in The Hobbit.)

I’ve been working on a time travel novel too. The great thing is what you learn in the research process.  Perhaps you can’t use it in the novel you are writing but it can spark more ideas for later.  No research is ever wasted, no matter how trivial and there is nothing worse than getting it wrong.

Although many readers might not know (or care) about particular details, your duty as a writer is to get them right.


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Life As A Published Novelist, by Andy Briggs

There are many misconceptions regarding what its like to be a published novelist. I know many author friends who have told a budding teenage writer about some of the pros and cons, only to see the hope extinguish in their eyes. The ups and downs should never be told as words of warning, but simply told as facts.

“How much will I earn?” is the question everybody wants to know, and the one that most authors reply with glassy eyes and jaded comments that you can’t make a living out of it. Well, that depends on how much you need to make a living out of it. There is always a positive angle.

When you sell your opus, you get an advance which could range from a single dollar to, in some rare cases, hundreds of thousands. This is paid in three stages – when you sign the contract, when you deliver the final manuscript (after all the edits) and when it is published. For the sake of example, let’s say you sell your brilliant book for $60,000. You get your cheque for $20,000 (minus agent fees and don’t forget you will have to pay tax). Then you complete the book – which could take a month, several months or even a year. Then you get your next $20,000 (minus agent fees and tax). Then you sit and wait for the publication date. That could be from 6 months to over a year away. Only then do you get your final $20,000 (minus agent fees and tax).

Then you see your book on the shelf. What a thrill!  But remember, you need to sell $60,000 worth of books before you see any more cash. By the way, I don’t mean, if your book costs $10, you’ll see money after 6,000 copies are sold. You would only get (maybe) 6% per book, so, if it sells for $10, you would get 60 cents that goes towards your $60,000 advance.

It will sell, right? The publisher will do everything they can for you, right?

Only if you’re lucky. Don’t forget your publisher has dozens of other books to promote too. They do the best they can, but it’s up to you – particularly with books for teenagers. You have to get out to the schools to promote your work, do signings at stores, attend festivals, blog, tweet, write articles for other people and do everything else you can to get your name out there. It is a long and time-consuming job (he says, writing this at 1:14am, after a full day of writing a story with a looming deadline). You will travel around the country (or internationally) and be in a permanent state of exhaustion as you try to sleep in uncomfortable hotels – and if you are in a beautiful location, your hotel is all you will have chance to see. I have been up and down the UK but I don’t really have any idea what it looks like.

If you are lucky, your publisher will tell you to do all of this and help you out. More often than not they will leave it all up to you, assuming you know what to do. The best advice you can get is from other authors (and it changes depending on who you are speaking to). I have a network of author buddies who I can seek advise from, bounce ideas off or, more often than not, moan to.

Writing is a wonderful job. It can pay enough to allow you to keep doing it full time – but never forget: it is a job, just like any other. It’s hard work.


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Writing ‘Evil’ Characters In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

My novel Code Name Verity is set in Europe during World War Two. In talking about writing the book I had a conversation recently about how the concept of the Third Reich’s National Socialist Party should be presented to the rising generation of readers.  I ended up doing a lot of thinking about it afterward because, after the conversation ended, I felt that somehow I’d lost an argument I should have won.  Essentially here’s what the opposing views were, simplified:

Theirs:  Nazis are the ultimate personification of evil and should be represented as such.

Mine:  Nazis are complex human beings and should be represented as such.

In some sense, both views are correct.  Nazism was and is evil.  But I think there’s a lot of evil out there now, and that it is both blind and dangerous to fool ourselves into thinking that the evils of the Third Reich are confined to the past, as a lesson to learn from that couldn’t possibly happen again.

I think the reason I felt I’d ‘lost an argument’ is because there was some moral high ground taken in the opposing viewpoint.  It felt like I was being told, ‘It is your duty as a writer to show what monsters these people were, so as not to downplay the evil of this regime.’

Without going into a list of recent genocides or atrocities, what I want to point out here is that social concepts aren’t evil; social concepts don’t kill and maim and make war; people do those things.  Nazism wouldn’t have taken hold without people buying into it.  I feel that my duty as a writer is not to describe in detail the evil of any specific regime but to warn the reader that the potential to embrace such a regime lies dormant in all of us.

Rather than list the countless genocides, torture, injustices and local outbreaks of civilian killings connected with continuing political fighting all over the world in the 70 years since the defeat of German National Socialism, I will give you one name:  Malala Yousafzai.  The Pakistani schoolgirl suffered gunshot wounds to the head and neck, inflicted by a Taliban militant sniper on her way to school.  It wasn’t random.  At fourteen, Malala is a known and targeted revolutionary.  Since she was eleven, she was keeping an online journal chronicling life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban. She has a lot in common with Anne Frank – except that Malala’s diary is available to anyone with access to the internet, worldwide, as she’s writing it.  She is in fact working with the BBC and knows the danger it puts her in.

What makes her a revolutionary is that she’s telling the truth and that she’s going to school.  That’s reason enough to shoot a 14 year old girl?  Sounds familiar.

Take note teenage readers and writers: bravery and political awareness start early, and suppression is always lurking just around the corner.  Our duty is not just to describe the horrors of the past – it’s to make the evil and errors of the past relevant to modern readers so that we can guard against it in the present.  It is our duty to let young people know that evil is possible in everyone – in yourself as well as in your neighbour – but also that our world is in our own control.  Evil is not a cause for paranoia.  It is the reason we speak out. It is a reason to write.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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Working On My Novel With My Editor, by Sam Hawksmoor

I’m very lucky that my editor is Beverley Birch, who is also a writer of some reputation. She brings with her a wide knowledge of what works and what doesn’t and she knows her readers well.

I pitched The Repossession orally at the Winchester Writers Conference. Beverley showed interest and then I wrote it.  Sounds easy.  The key was delivering exactly what I said I would, and on time.

Beverley read the first draft and came back with comments.  These weren’t drastic but they were clever and pitched to keep me keen and also willing to make the subtle changes she wanted.  More emphasis in one place, less physicality (remember that libraries won’t buy it if there’s sex).  It was so hard to tone down the touchy feely parts and perhaps half the reason they get sick all the time is so they don’t even think of having sex.  I liked her gentle touch.  Her approach was never ‘cut this or cut that, or else’.  It was like a gentle push against the tiller to make me go in the right direction.  Everyone said she’d get rid of Moucher the dog or eliminate the pig, but she didn’t. She understood exactly why they were there and how it softened the harshness of the tale.  I had tiny notes on language (swearing) and, yes, every teen you know swears like a trooper, but we can’t do that – those librarians again.  But to be honest, you can write an exciting book without having much swearing in it.  I thought she’d cut the exposition, when I have Marshall explain exactly what he was working on in the lab and how he lost his leg.  But she liked the fact that there is some science in there, and she knew that there would be some readers who like to follow the logic and understand the details of what is going on.  She could see and feel the location (British Columbia), although not familiar with it. She could tell that my affection for Canada was genuine.

One clever thing was to change where the story starts.  Particularly in book two, switching the order of the first two chapters.  How you set off as a reader and how you are drawn in is important.

For Beverley, rhythm and keeping momentum going are important.  Pages would be trimmed of unnecessary adverbs or adjectives.  Go straight in, don’t waste time.  Kids have no patience and easily put a book down. So the lesson was trim the fat to make sure it remains compelling.  As a writer I trained on radio drama – commercial radio drama at that –  learning to keep the drama rising and falling so people wouldn’t switch away during the ads.  I learned so much about dialogue and how to say more with little, and hopefully this translates well to teen fiction. I snatch just moments of intimacy before the next problem, as in this extract from The Hunting:

He pulled her towards him and they kissed.  Genie pulled away.  “Uh-uh, I don’t think my breath is so good.”

“Genie,” Rian complained.  “We’re on the run.  None of us are minty fresh.  Eat more berries.”

Genie allowed him to hold her tight and they just gently rocked together, kneeling by the water.  Moucher tried to snap a fish as another went by.

“Genie?  Ri?”  Renée called out, breaking the spell, fear in her voice. 

They looked at the raft.  She’d slept in there with an old mosquito net she’d found spread over her.

“My legs.  They’re gone,” she whispered in horror.  “I can’t see or feel my legs.”

I’ve recently been working on a virus thriller. The notes on this were less to do with what I had written but what I hadn’t. The story swapped between two girls who went in opposite direction to flee the oncoming sickness.  Beverley and my agent, Ben Illis, felt that I hadn’t given enough attention to story B and wanted it to be more equally balanced.  The snag was that it increased the word count, as I was effectively writing two novels within one.  As each character had pretty harrowing experiences I didn’t want them both to be experiencing the exact same problems, even though technically they would.  I decided to look again at the arc for story B and see if I could just increase the number of scenes on her progression or lack thereof towards her goal – so in a few short pages at each visit we can catch up and not feel cheated – then towards the latter part of the novel insert a particularly frightening moment that shakes her up. With luck I have hit the mark.  I didn’t want to take scenes away from the other girl, yet there is now much more balance.  Beverley was right again. Sometimes it’s hard as a writer to see where to improve your own work – you need a professional opinion.

In this kind of survival story there are long moments were little happens except hoping there might be a next meal.  Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, the characters make the best of the situation.  No one is coming for them.  Sometimes I think the worst thing you could do in real life is survive Armageddon.  Here’s a sample from Endtime:

Kira frowned.  The supermarket was out of stuff already?  Impossible.  She’d got there super early.  It never ran out of stuff before noon.

‘I’ve got a ticket,’ someone else was shouting.  ‘You have to let us in.’

‘We’re closing.  Staff shortages.  Come back tomorrow.’

‘We got tickets,’ more people shouted. A rising sense of panic grew around Kira and she felt scared now.  People were really angry around her and some had clearly been standing for hours already.  The pushing and shoving was getting ugly.

‘WE GOT TICKETS,’ a man shouted, prodding a security guard, who didn’t like that one bit and drew a taser.  He looked like he’d use it too.

Kira stepped out of line, letting her ticket flutter to the floor.  Two people further back made a dive for it.  Kira was moving backwards rapidly now; it was going to get nasty.  She could feel the tension growing.

Someone nearby screamed ‘gun’ and people began to scatter every which way.

Security guys with tasers appeared from nowhere and fired at the guy with the gun.  Must have had ten shots fired at him.  He most likely fried to death before he hit the ground.

Working with a generous editor is a pleasure.  You know they already like the book, so you are working together to make it better.  The real battle is the marketing department… and that’s a different story.


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The RepossessionThe Hunting     Hold Me Closer, NecromancerAugustI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeAuslanderDeadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)

Writing Teen Novels

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