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Writing The First Chapter Of A Debut Teen Novel, by Janet Edwards

Every chapter of a novel is important but the first chapter has more work to do than any of the others. It has to do a host of things including introduce at least one character, hint at what sort of story you are telling and establish the setting. If your story isn’t taking place in the everyday world of today but in a different period of history, or a fantasy or future world, then just establishing the setting can be a major task.

The first chapter has to give the reader a lot of information, but in the right way. This is where the reader gets their first impressions of your story and your characters. Even more importantly if this is a debut novel, the reader is getting their first impressions of you as an author. Those first impressions really matter. This is when a reader decides whether or not you are a trustworthy guide to lead them on a journey through your story world.

Years ago I was at a writers group where someone read aloud the first chapter of the novel he was writing. During the discussion afterwards the author said something that I’ve always remembered. He said, “People have to keep reading until I choose to explain that in chapter five.” I was still very new to writing then but I instantly thought that those words were totally wrong.

People only have to keep reading a book in a few cases, such as where it’s required reading for school or college. The majority of readers are perfectly free to stop reading one book and choose another, or to do something else entirely. Teen readers in particular have lots of things competing for their attention. They are especially likely to abandon a book by a new author during the first chapter, because they’ve invested no time in the book, have no emotional link to the characters and have no previous experience to give them confidence in the author.

The first chapter has to introduce your story, it has to do it in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading and it has to build their trust in you as an author. Imagine the reader as a nervous passenger in your car. They’ve no experience of you as a driver, so they’re watching you suspiciously. If you start by driving through a red light they’re going to want you to stop the car and let them out. If you give them a smooth ride for a few minutes they’ll relax and start enjoying the journey.

This is why there is so much advice about how you shouldn’t start a book. There are certain things that are the writing equivalent of driving through a red light: instantly recognisable clichés that send alarm bells to the reader, starting with the weather, beginning with a scene that turns out to be a dream or having your character describe their appearance while looking in a mirror.

These appear at the top of every list of how not to start a book, and for good reasons. You can break any rule in writing if you do it well enough but you have to be an extremely good and original writer to carry off one of the major cliché beginnings without shaking the confidence of your reader.

The lists usually continue with other advice such as: don’t start with pure description, don’t start with a flashback and don’t start with your character alone in a room. Again there are good reasons behind all of these but they are about the potential difficulties of writing the scene. The reader, especially the teen reader, will get impatient with too much pure description. Flashbacks involve time jumps that can be confusing or irritating. A character alone in a room can be extremely boring.

If you believe one of these is the best way to start your story then you just have to dodge the potential problems that could annoy your reader and make it work. I started my debut novel, Earth Girl, with an angry girl alone in a room. It worked.


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     Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorCode Name VerityShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)Winter Town

Writing Teen Novels


Bad Habits To Avoid While Writing, by Andy Briggs

For this post I thought I’d give you a simple checklist of bad habits that writers can develop. Like most habits, it’s not always apparent that you’re doing it, so here are some warning signs to look out for.

1. Procrastination. This is the ultimate creative killer. The one that causes stress and makes you miss deadlines. Stare at a blank page and you are staring into a void. You have to type to get the words down, but to do that you need motivation. What tends to happen is emails are checked, then Facebook and Twitter, then perhaps the news and any other website I happen to follow – and before long I have wasted hours and it’s time for another coffee. The peril here is that the moment you make that coffee and sit back at the computer – you simply repeat the process.

2. Email. I could be midway through the most thrilling scene I have ever written and the moment my inbox goes BONG, I am yanked out of the story and straight into my email, burning with curiosity over who has validated my existence by emailing me. Usually it’s a piece of spam, which I’ll delete and return to the page. But that slight distraction suddenly propels me back to step 1, above.

3. Reading. When I open up the document I am working on, I may read the last couple of paragraphs to refresh my memory but I won’t read any more. If I read everything I wrote the day before then I will start finding faults, typos, or better ways to express myself and will immediately fall into re-writing syndrome. This is a writing tailspin that could end up costing you the entire day. Instead of looking at an increased word count, you have less than you started with because of your meddling.

4. TV. I know some people who work best by listening to songs. I can’t do that as the lyrics always distract me. Likewise, I can’t have the TV on in the background because my attention will always stray to it – no matter how bad the show is. I often find myself camped in front of the TV, pretending to write – but if I pay attention to what I have been doing for the last three hours I will find I have accidentally entered step 1 without realizing it. I prefer to write with movie scores on in the background. If I’m writing something fast and upbeat, I will but on an action-packed score. If the scene I am writing is sad and slow, I will find something melancholy to listen to. I find the music seeps into my writing and helps set the correct mood on the page.

5. Fact checking. I’m a big believer in research, but I will attempt to do it before I start writing the scene – otherwise I will be surfing the web for hours, or worse, heading out to the local library just to find a trivial piece of information just so I can complete the sentence.

Watch out for these insipid habits and you will automatically improve your writing and, perhaps, enjoy the writing process a whole lot more.


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Tarzan: The Greystoke LegacyTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2Tarzan: The Savage Lands     The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieThe Traitor's KissA Coalition of Lions

Writing Teen Novels

On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels, by Pauline Francis

For me, an interesting character is somebody who has all the odds stacked against them and has to find a way out. They must have a strong, believable voice that sweeps the reader along.

Just as I was beginning to write historical fiction for teenagers, I went to a conference and wrote down a wonderful quotation from one of the speakers (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the speaker’s name). It was: “Characters in history are just like the stars. It takes a long time for their light to reach us.”

The two narrators of my first novel, Raven Queen, were real: Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. They are strong characters, fighting for their cause. In my second novel, A World Away, I made up my central character, Nadie, a Native American girl captured by English colonists. If I’m honest, she is the least interesting of all my characters because she didn’t really know her path in life (except to find the English boy she loved) and I think this weakened her voice. I’d love to go back and change her because it’s an interesting novel in all other ways. I have begun to move away from real characters to concentrate on fictional characters who find themselves in real-history situations. My new novel (Ice Girl, not published yet) is the story of a girl at the mercy of Spanish colonists who fights back with incredible courage and determination, as well as leading other conquered people to safety.

I’ve just read a novel with the most amazing character. It gripped from beginning to end because the narrative voice is so strong. It’s Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, which has just won the children’s category of the UK annual Costa prize. The agonising story is told in the first person by a fifteen year old boy called Standish (an unusual name). It’s tear-jerking and harsh (there’s very strong language because it’s mainly his thoughts, so the outside world wouldn’t usually hear it).

If you’re having problem choosing a character, try turning a situation on its head. Many Kings from history had mistresses. Sometimes they bore sons who claimed the throne (the term pretender to the throne is from the French pretendre – to claim). What was it like to be a pretender? I decided to make the fictional Francis (in Traitor’s Kiss) a good person. He doesn’t actually stake his claim as Henry the VIII’s son, but he could have. So he’s still a threat. Princess Elizabeth knows this. Francis becomes one of her victims. She leaves him in a madhouse called Bedlam, just in case he decides to make trouble for her. My novel-in-progress (Blood) is set against the French Revolution. It was a time of great innovation medically and my fictional narrator wants to be an anatomy artist.

You don’t have to make a huge leap of imagination to make your characters interesting. Often a small one will be enough to bring your character alive. In Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, the story of murder and revenge is made gripping because the action takes place in a small log cabin over a few days with the body of the narrator’s father on the kitchen table. It is that dead father who sends a chill down our spine. He is the interesting character. If the story had been narrated by his son in the future, away from that log cabin, it would have become another murder/revenge story.


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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Hold Me Closer, NecromancerShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)TracksTarzan: The Greystoke Legacy

Writing Teen Novels

Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

The headline of an article published on September 13, 2012 in the Los Angeles Times announces, Most Young Adult Book Buyers Are Not Young Adults.

My kneejerk reaction to this was, ‘WELL, DUH.’

When I was a teen I never had any money.  I got all my books out of the public library and the school library.  Every now and then I would love a book so much that after I’d read it about, oh, five times, I’d beg my grownup caretakers (my grandparents) to buy it for me.  Occasionally a new book would be released in a series or by a favourite author which I desperately wanted as soon as it came out, and then I’d have to ask for it for Christmas or my birthday or something.  Or, if I really couldn’t wait, I’d buy it and not go out for lunch for three weeks.

My teenage daughter is caught in the same bind, except that I have more money to spend on books than my grandparents did, and my daughter doesn’t have to wait for her birthday or go without lunch.

If you read beyond the headline of the LA Times article, you’ll see that the statistics say 55% of buyers of books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 18 years or older.  Of these, 78% claim to be buying the books for themselves.  Let’s twist these statistics another way.  Out of 100 sample shoppers buying YA books, 45 are between 12 and 17.  Another 12 are buying books for their children or grandchildren.  45 plus 12 makes 57… So in fact most young adult books bought in retail ARE actually bought for young adults.  Maybe ‘most young adult book buyers are not young adults,’ but it looks like most young adult book readers are.

The thing that astonishes me is that 45% of people buying books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 12 to 17 year olds.  Nearly half of all printed YA books purchased in retail stores are bought by this disenfranchised segment of the market?  That seems like good news to me.

The other good news here is that adults are reading teen books, too.

Patricia McCormick, in a New York Times blog post defending the power of young adult literature, points out why adults might be interested in reading books aimed at teens.

McCormick comments that YA fiction is innovative and risky, and points to some of the more exciting literature to come out in the past ten years – in addition to the obvious (such as the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series).

As a reader who never stopped reading books aimed at teens, even after I stopped being a teen, I kind of wonder what all the fuss is about.  As a writer who is constantly badgered with the question, ‘But why are your books young adult?’, I am proud and honoured to be part of this risky business, where the pay is lower, the stakes are higher, the audience is fickle and the bar for excellence is constantly being raised.

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

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     GlowThe Girl Who Was Supposed to DieWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels

A Page-Turning Plot = A Character-In-Action (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

A plot driven by a character-in-action is the most compelling kind of story and the one that will most effectively create narrative drive. So I’m going to list a few things to consider around this point.

I’m suggesting that a page-turning plot = a character-in-action

If character is conveyed by the decisions a person makes under pressure, when faced with situations that force that person to the extreme, then pressure on someone is a precursor to motivation.

This leads me to :

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 9

drum roll…  tada!

Dramatic action is equal to decision 

Since dramatic action, arising from character, is shown through the decisions someone makes, let’s look a little further at what kinds of decisions someone can make. Decisions in a novel can be:

  • internal (resolutions), or
  • external (actions).

External decisions are made by the character. They are proactive. They do not happen to the character, with the character’s actions treated as a function of things happening to them. The character’s decisions become the reader’s means of working out the character’s motivations. In other words:

  • The goal of the character is shown in actions.
  • Motivation is what makes the story dramatic.
  • Obstacles are what creates conflict.
  • A character-in-action with obstacles shows external or dramatic motivation.
  • Why a character seeks out conflict shows internal motivation through goal orientation.
  • This adds up to ‘something meaningful is going to happen’.

So how you can use this secret?

  • Make sure your protagonist makes decisions that result in action.
  • Make sure each decision to act takes your protagonist further toward their goal.



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The Door of No ReturnThe Last of the Warrior KingsAngel Dust     Boys without NamesThe HuntingVibes

Writing Teen Novels

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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Tarzan: The Greystoke LegacyTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2Tarzan: The Savage LandsDark Hunter (Villain.Net)     SparkBlack and White

Writing Teen Novels

Month In Review (August 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its eighth 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.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November, 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

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 August 2013

Tips For Writing Page-Turning Novels by April Henry

Creating Teenage Characters For Novels by Diane Lee Wilson

My Journey Of Writing And Publishing My First Novel by Mandi Lynn (guest article)

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

The Importance Of An Authentic And Unique Voice In Teen Novels by Monika Schroder

Bringing English 101 To Your Novel by Beth Revis

Should You Self-Publish Your Book? by Paul Volponi

Three Act Structure For Novel Writing by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Characters And Story Development For Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

My Writing Process For ‘The Wildkin’s Curse’ by Kate Forsyth

Writing ‘Evil’ Characters In Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Overcoming Writer’s Block by Lish McBride

Writing Dialogue In Novels by Carolyn Meyer

Sustaining A Plot With Obstacles And Sub-Goals (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

Getting Story Ideas And Writing Them Into Novels by Pauline Francis

Writing Stories In Different Formats by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Comparing Teen Fiction And Adult Fiction by Sam Hawksmoor

The Benefits Of Taking A Break When Writing by Kashmira Sheth

On Age Ranges For Novels by Andy Briggs


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Teen Novels

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