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5 Things Writers Of Teen Novels Should Know, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Here are five things you should know when writing a teen novel:

1. Yourself.  First and foremost, ask yourself why it is you want to write for young adults.  Is it because you have dreams of becoming the next Stephenie Meyer?  Because you see a hole in the market – perhaps it’s a topic that’s near and dear to you – that you’re itching to fill?  Maybe you and/or someone you know experienced something traumatic or triumphant during teenhood – something that serves as the inspiration for your story idea.  Or maybe it’s purely because you love those years of young adulthood and all the drama that ensues.  Whatever the reason or reasons, like any strong, three-dimensional character, it’s helpful to be conscious of your motivation as you’re drafting that book.

2. Your audience.  Read what they read, watch what they watch, eavesdrop on their conversations, and know what’s important to them.  Some have the misconception that writing for young people is easier than writing for adults, but quite the contrary can be true.  Teens are smarter and savvier than ever.  If the work isn’t authentic of those young adult years; if the teens in your book don’t sound like teens or don’t make choices that are authentic of their characters, then your young adult audience will be the first to call you on it.

3. Who’s buying.  Read Publisher’s Lunch, The New York Times, The Writer’s Digest, the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Ilustrators’ The Bulletin, and other trade publications to find out which editors are buying which types of books, and from what authors.  Take note of the genre, the word-count, and the types of characters that are selling to these editors. Also, take note of first-time authors (and which editors are buying from them). See if you can pinpoint any patterns, i.e. an editor who buys a lot of science fiction-type books, or an agent who works with a lot of mystery writers. Keep a log of these findings, particularly with respect to your own work.  Start to generate a list of potential people who might be interested in seeing your book.

4. What’s selling.  Get to know the market. Spend some serious time at bookstores, particularly in the new release section.  What books are coming out?  Which ones are getting a lot of attention?  Can you see the market changing at all? Is it trending toward a particular genre?  Or getting saturated in any one area?  Do you see or can you predict a hole in the market?

5. What’s out there. Read books in the young adult market.  Get to know your librarian; particularly one who’s really knowledgeable about the young adult market.  Librarians can provide a huge resource for aspiring writers.  They can discuss what’s popular in your local area, your region, and nationwide. They can also talk about the holes in the market; after all, they get asked by patrons on a regular basis for recommendations for certain types of books.  Librarians can also recommend really great books for you to read – those that are like the one you’re writing or that are demonstrative of what’s out there in the market. It you want to write for teens, it’s important to be reading what they’re reading and at the same time, learning from other authors, and continuing to keep abreast of the market.


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Writing Teen Novels


Writing Narrative Point Of View In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

When I was an aspiring novelist I went to listen to a talk by an author of eighteen (wow!) novels. He was giving advice on how to write a novel and one of the first things he said was, “Don’t write in first person. It’s too difficult.”

Gulp. I’d already begun a novel, had about four chapters finished, in fact, and the way I heard the story in my head was clearly in first person. I didn’t find it difficult. Hmmm.

Lesson learned: What doesn’t work for another author may work for you. Each writer has different strengths; some are great at characterization, some can keep their stories going at breakneck speed, some use the language beautifully. Do what’s right for you. For me, I like first person and I think it’s particularly good for teen novels.

A story told in first person is intimate; you’re inside this person’s head, observing the world through his or her eyes. Thus it’s natural for a reader to form an empathetic bond with the protagonist. Since teens, especially, want to know what other teens are thinking, putting your teen novel in first person is a natural draw for them. They’ll envision themselves in the main role, and enjoy the power or the adventure or the romance offered in the story. No doubt your protagonist will put a “teen spin” on things and that will further engage the reader.

Writing in first person also allows you, the author, to get to know your characters better. You’ll find that once they come alive and begin speaking, they’ll reveal more and more of themselves each time you sit down to write. I’ve been surprised by some of the deep-seated issues my characters have brought forth onto the page. They’ve come up with past hurts or long-repressed desires that have added an extra note of realism to the fictional story. This is part of the magic of writing, and I’ve never spoken to any author who hasn’t had at least one character take hold of a story and begin to direct its course. It’s often the main character’s personality traits, in fact, that help determine just how the story’s crisis will be resolved.

Tension is another benefit of writing in first person. Because the reader is seeing the world only through the protagonist’s eyes, he or she is discovering it right along with the hero. There is no omniscient narrator saying, “A thief lurked behind the door.” The protagonist can only note misgivings, or acknowledge an eerie feeling: “Had the door moved slightly with the wind or was that someone’s breathing? I knew I shouldn’t have come here alone.”

Wrapping yourself in the skin of one of your characters, listening to another’s thoughts and feeling their emotions, is for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s a free ticket to experiencing the world from a different vantage point. And when it’s over you get to introduce that character to readers and share with them an enriching story.


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Writing Teen Novels

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:

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Writing Teen Novels

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