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Plot, Character And Hooptedoodle In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

I think that one of the strong characteristics of teen fiction, as opposed to adult fiction, is that it is plot-driven.  Middle grade fiction is too, but teen fiction offers the author the opportunity to bring in all kinds of adventure and excitement and angst that isn’t appropriate for a younger readership.  I feel like Young Adult fiction offers me the best of both worlds as a writer – I can write about mature themes and at the same time I can tell a good story.

But I don’t come up with a plot idea out of the blue.  I find that my plot-driven fiction is really character-driven.  What starts me off is a good character.  Once I get the idea for the hero (or sometimes the anti-hero) of the book, that person usually sets the plot going.  In The Sunbird, Telemakos’s aptitude for sneakiness gets him recruited as a child spy.  In Code Name Verity, Maddie’s interest in mechanics leads her into aviation, and her level-headed reliability and discretion draws the interest of the Special Operations Executive.

Being plot-driven, there’s not a lot of room for what John Steinbeck calls ‘Hooptedoodle’ in YA fiction.  Hooptedoodle is a foray into purple prose.  It can be a linking passage between action scenes, or a description of landscape to set the scene, or maybe just the author waxing lyrical and enjoying the sound of his or her own voice.  I am a very literary writer and I like writing hooptedoodle.  I have to be tricky about working it in, because the general assumption is:  1) it does nothing for plot, and 2) teens get bored quickly if your writing is too flowery.

I think that both these assumptions are incorrect.  I think that YA readers, who are still forming their own literary tastes and styles, can be just as hungry for mature and beautiful writing as they are for action.  Certainly it was during my own teenage years that I read and wrote the most poetry.  If anything, my ‘juvenilia’ was more florid than anything I’ve written since.  Obviously I am a sample population of One, but that also means that in an ideal world I’m writing for myself – I’m writing what I would have liked to read as a teen – and indeed, what I still like to read.

As for furthering the plot, well, that’s just a matter of your skill as a writer.  The first half of Code Name Verity is really one lengthy coded message, all of which comes clear in the second half of the book, and a lot of the ‘hooptedoodle’ in Part 1 is there on purpose to disguise the message.  There are other important things Verity’s lyrical passages do: they are an outlet for her despair (she is a prisoner of the Gestapo as she tells her story), they describe her past, they help to show her commitment and loyalty, and they help her survive – so when Verity (or me, as the author) describes the landscape of her childhood, the passage is doing any number of things to help define the characters and to set up the plot.

So there’s my recipe for a great teen read – tight plot, engaging characters and a dash of hooptedoodle!

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

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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Some Themes For Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

I sat down to write these blog posts armed with some thoughts about writing, reviewing, themes I deal with, and literary tips that I think help make the story vivid.  And then I found myself stuck because I realized that none of these ideas were specifically connected to writing for teens.  So, I am going to start my entries with a disclaimer.  I don’t write teen novels.  Most of my novels are about teens, but I have never once in my life set out to write a ‘teen novel’.  As a teen – and into adulthood – I never set out to read a ‘teen novel’.  I just read!  So, as a novelist I can probably give some good advice about how to write a book, but I haven’t thought much about writing a ‘teen’ book.  These posts are going to make me think about it!

My first ‘teen’ novel, The Winter Prince, has a narrator who is pushing thirty.  In my third and fourth ‘teen’ novels, The Sunbird and The Lion Hunter, the hero is 11 and then 12.  In Code Name Verity the heroines start at 18.  I don’t consciously sit there thinking, ‘Ah, this time I’m writing for teens, so I’m going to have to do things differently.’  I just write the book that I am writing.

However, my books, despite my protests and the wide age range of their protagonists, are very solidly Young Adult.  So maybe I need to think about why.  I think it has to do with the themes I deal with in my novels.

1) The age of the protagonists.  Okay, so the narrator in The Winter Prince is 27 or whatever.  In fact, it’s the teenagers in the book that the reader really cares about—the narrator’s 14-16 year old siblings and his relationship with them.  In The Sunbird, where the hero is a little younger than a teen, and in Code Name Verity, where the heroines are a little older than teens, their age doesn’t get mentioned.  The implication is that they are teens, or close to it—and also, that teens reading the books will relate to these characters in spite of the slight difference in age.  This is not only an authorial decision but an editorial one.  In crafting the book, we are consciously aiming it at teen readers—giving them characters they can relate to because of their age.

2) The emotional maturity of the protagonists.  There are a couple of themes that resonate throughout my books and, I think, throughout all YA fiction, and one of these is that the heroes or heroines have to mature in some way.  The events of the book help them or force them into growing up.  In a true YA novel, the main characters will be changed forever by the end of the book.  This isn’t necessarily true of ‘adult’ fiction.  To my mind, the change ought to be for the better in teen fiction—even in fiction where the ending is bleak, the protagonist should have had the opportunity to grow somewhere along the way.

3) The acquisition of skill.  This is also key, I think, to teen fiction: the characters are thinking about What They’re Going To Be When They Grow Up.  In an adult novel, that’s no longer necessary, and in a book for younger readers, they’re not yet worrying about this.  So figuring out who you are and what you’re best at, and how you’re going to use that in later life, is critical to teen fiction.

4) Figuring out your body.  I don’t really want to say ‘sex’ is a driving force in teen novels, because it isn’t always, but certainly there has got to be some aspect of the protagonist facing and dealing with his or her changing body.  In The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom I took this on both metaphorically and brutally by making the hero have to deal with losing an arm.  In Code Name Verity the two heroines are physically mature, but they are pretty sexually innocent, and though that’s not the focus of the book, their growing awareness of their own attractiveness and desires does affect the plot.

5) Building relationships.  Moving from the limited relationship of family life into the broad and complex relationships of society, including friendship, conflict, and romance, is another key theme that characterizes teen fiction.

These five points probably aren’t the only defining themes in teen fiction, but they are the ones that leap out at me.

For further reading on this topic, Jo Wyton has an interesting discussion on her blog about what makes teen fiction, using my book Code Name Verity as an example.

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

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

United States (and beyond)

   

United Kingdom (and beyond)

   

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom    My Brother's ShadowGenesisA World Away

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

The Importance of Literacy and Teen Reading, by Jim Eldridge

Writing Teen Novels has been very kind in letting me talk about my work writing for teens over the last three months, and I thought I would take advantage of their good nature and this month do some “politics of literacy” (with a small “p”) as far as young readers, and – in this blog – non-readers and reluctant readers are concerned.

Last year in England there were riots in the cities in which people died and millions of pounds of property was destroyed. Much of the blame was laid on disaffected young people, many known as NEETs (not in employment, education, or training).

A survey shortly after the riots revealed that 60% of young males in the UK had an average reading age 12.

Another survey into the prison population of the UK found that 60% of male prisoners had a reading age of 12.

Other studies had found that a large percentage of children moving from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11 had a reading age of 7.

I’m sure you can see the connection, and where I’m going with this.

Studies have shown that many teens – particularly boys – do not read for pleasure. Many do not read at all. Many – as the studies I refer to above show – cannot read much above a basic level.

For me, encouraging literacy as been a life-long passion. If people cannot read and write they cannot fill out a job application. They cannot read instruction manuals. They cannot read election manifestos. Previously, they went into factories, but  traditional manufacturing in western countries (shipbuilding, factories, etc) have virtually disappeared; so the physical skills of the cannon-fodder of semi-literate workers (i.e. the social group from which I come – both my grandmothers were illiterate) are no longer required in most western countries. The new skills for the better-paid jobs require literacy and numeracy.

What do the semi-literate do? They vent their anger. They become a criminal sub-class.

Way back in the 1960s, when I was training to be a teacher, the Plowden Report was published, which warned that high levels of illiteracy could lead to major social problems in the future. The Plowden Report urged that more money be spent on literacy in primary schools, as it was easier for young children to learn to read than older children. The politicians at that time nodded politely and gave lip-service to the recommendations, but no cash.

What do we have now? 60% semi-literacy in our inner cities, riots, and a feral criminal sub-culture; all of which has proved enormously expensive, both financially and in human costs.

I’m not saying that teaching kids and teenagers to read will solve all social ills, but in my view it would certainly reduce the problems substantially.

A couple of years ago my agent asked me if I was interested in writing for a publisher called Barrington Stoke, who published books aimed at dyslexic children and teenagers, and reluctant readers of the same age. I leapt at the opportunity. It may seem a niche type of writing, a very small and low-profile market; but I will repeat those figures again:

A survey shortly after the riots revealed that 60% of young males in the UK had an average reading age 12.

Another survey into the prison population of the UK found that 60% of male prisoners had a reading age of 12.

Other studies had found that a large percentage of children moving from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11 had a reading age of 7.

So, for every child who reads for pleasure, a massive majority don’t. There are millions and millions of teenagers out there who have never read a book for pleasure.

I have now written three books for Barrington Stoke: DUNKIRK ESCAPE, SINK THE TIRPITZ and BOMB! (This last book, BOMB!, has just been short-listed for the 2012 Sheffield Children’s Book Awards). The response I have had from parents and teachers has been truly gratifying, many telling me that their teenage son had never read a book before, but had enjoyed my book.

My hope is that someone with reading problems will manage to read one of these short books, and next try something a little harder. And the next time, something a little harder still. These books are aimed at encouraging confidence in reading, through reading for pleasure – because reading should be ENJOYABLE. For 40% of us, it is enjoyable. For those other 60% the studies mention, it is often an excruciating and painful chore to be avoided; and then reading becomes a lost skill.

So, writers, teachers, all those involved in literature, let’s think of literacy. My publishers tell me that the basic rule is that girls read, boys don’t. So let’s get teenage boys reading for fun. It could save a life.

For details of my books and writing go to:

www.jimeldridge.com

For details of books from Barrington Stoke go to:

www.barringtonstoke.co.uk

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Jim Eldridge bio page

The Dunkirk EscapeSink the Tirpitz (Solo)Bomb! (Solo)The Invisible AssassinAvery McShaneEarthfallPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing ‘The Malichea Quest’ Series: History, Science, Adventure and the Paranormal, by Jim Eldridge

After my first two blog posts about writing for teens, which were mainly “writing background” and “philosophy”, we come at last, fellow writers and readers, to a practical one: writing my latest book for teens (or YA book, as the trade calls them), “THE INVISIBLE ASSASSIN”, the first in my new series of action-adventure thrillers (with a “paranormal” undertone) called “THE MALICHEA QUEST”, published by Bloomsbury last month (April).

As I said in my first blog post, I don’t just write for teens, I write for all ages, from 3 to 113 (and for anyone who lives longer than that). So, when I first get an idea, I toy with it for a while, and then think “Who should this one be aimed at? Children? Teens? Adults?” And then, once I’ve decided that, I start to work out how to put that idea into concrete form.

In the case of “The Malichea Quest”, I was reading a book about censorship, and how the Church in about the 8th century destroyed all books that were deemed to be heretical, if they were written by non-Christian writers, or questioned the Church’s view of the world. Galileo was later to fall foul of this same orthodoxy when he proposed that the Earth went round the Sun, and not the other way around, as the Church insisted. This same orthodoxy continued well into the 20th century, with the Roman Catholic Church banning certain books, and the Nazis burning those books that offended them. This same attitude to “unorthodox thought” still continues in the 21st Century: ban the books and stop people reading them.

At the same time I read that in AD793 the Vikings descended on Holy Island in Lindisfarne off the east coast of Britain, and destroyed the monastery, and all the books in the library. As the library at Lindisfarne at that time contained most of the learning which scholars from across the known world had brought to the monastery in the form of texts and scrolls, all that knowledge and learning literally went up in smoke. These two acts in the 8th Century destroyed much of the scientific knowledge of the time. It has been said that if these two destructive acts hadn’t happened and the scientific knowledge had been allowed to spread instead of being destroyed, humankind would have been on the moon 500 years before we actually were.

And, as I read this, I thought: what if these scientific texts hadn’t been destroyed, but had been hidden for protection – and had remained hidden? (If you want to know more about all of this, then there is a page devoted to “The Legend of Malichea” on my website.)

Once I’d got the basic idea, I mulled over who might be the most receptive to this, and I felt that the older teen/YA readership would be. So, next: who was going to be my hero or heroine to tell the story of the search for the hidden books? If you remember, in my previous blog about teenagers, I said that teens, to a great extent, invent themselves, once they leave childhood. They create their own persona, their own identity. So what about taking this to its logical conclusion: a hero who has created himself because he has no family. He was abandoned at birth; then taken into care. He doesn’t know his genetic background, he has no family role models. He has invented himself. As a result, he has no apparent advantages – he comes from a very poor background, and he is dispossessed of family identity. But could that not be an advantage in itself? A young man who battles against his mysterious background, and the social norms, to creates his own life. It could make him emotionally tougher, a surviver.

And so Jake Wells, the 19-year old hero of “The Malichea Quest” series was born.

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Jim Eldridge bio page

The Invisible AssassinPyramid of Secrets (My Story S.)Standing Alone (My True Stories)Death in the Desert (Black Ops)The LabQuillblade: Bk. 1 (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)The Spark Gap

Writing Teen Fiction or Writing For Teens? by Marcus Sedgwick (guest post)

Now I know the name of this blog is Writing Teen Novels, but there’s a big difference between writing Teen fiction, and writing for teens.

I’m only saying this as a preamble to what comes next, which is not meant to be provocative; simply that in the simple distinction above lies, for me, the absolute crux of good writing and bad writing.

Yes, I write teen fiction. But I do not write for teens. I write books that get published and are marketed at teens, but I do not write the books for them, or aimed at them, or with them in mind.

In every ‘dinner party’ situation I find myself in, when people find out what I do and want to know a bit more, I’m asked questions that go something like this; “But how do you get into the head of a modern teenager?” or “Who are your books aimed at?” And these are fair questions, but having been asked them enough times, and stumbling out some answers I didn’t really believe myself, I came to the realisation that I do not attempt to get inside the head of a modern teenager, nor do I aim my books at anyone. Anyone at all.

What I’m going to say next might sound arrogant, but I promise it isn’t: I don’t write for anyone else, I write for me. Why isn’t that arrogant? Because I believe that precisely the reverse is true – the arrogant thing would be for me, a 44 year old to assume that I know what a modern British 14 year old boy wants to read, or how an Australian 12 year girl thinks, or a German teen or a Brazilian or… You get the point. How could I possibly know those things? And this is really part of a much broader point – whenever anyone writes anything at all, teen, adult, horror, romance, sci-fi, they should be writing it for themselves, because to assume that any of us know what is desired in another’s head is an act of extreme arrogance.

So I write for me, and if there’s something youthful about my writing, it’s because, I believe, that those of use who write for children or teens are still deeply in touch with that part of their lives, in some part of their brain at least, and are seeking to understand it. At the most, then, I concede I might be writing for a part of me, one that is still thinking as I thought aged 16 or so.

Now, as it happens, it seems that my books work well for teens, or so I’ve been told, and I’m also often told that I don’t seem to patronise, or talk down to teens, and if that’s true, then you can guess why I believe that is – because to try and guess the mind of anyone else, adult or teen, is to patronise them.

That being said, I am realistic enough to know that what I’ve put in a first draft might need to be edited a bit, adjusted, changed – but I promise you that in all the edits I’ve ever made to a book, none of them, not one, was because I was thinking of my readers as young people, not adults – every change I’ve ever made in a redraft is towards one goal only – to make it a better book, no matter who reads it.

You should write the book you want to write, and do it as well as you can, with as much truth and passion and energy as you can. And when you’ve done that, you can then hope that something in it will be something that someone else might want to read, but at least you’ve been true to one person – yourself. And with that start, you might just have something.

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Marcus Sedgwick author website: www.marcussedgwick.com

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