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Posts tagged ‘writing fiction for teenagers’

Using Your Memory To Write Better Teen Novels, by Shawn Goodman

On creating teen voice: There’s the usual stuff about listening to what kids talk about, the rhythms of their speech etc. It sounds good, but as often as not the results are corny dialogue, idioms that don’t work or make sense, outdated clichés and other missteps. It’s better to just tell a good story with a strong, unique voice.

How? I think it has something to do with anamnesis, science fiction writer Phil Dick’s word for the loss of amnesia. Applied to YA fiction it means that we adults have forgotten what it’s like to be an adolescent. Sure, we remember the snapshot moments or the intensely emotional ones but the truth or magic is in the small things, like Holden Caulfield’s ducks, or the kid in Spinelli’s Milkweed who hunts through the dead city to find a pickled egg for his sad mute friend (he finds just a pickle and an egg – but it’s good enough), or Vern Tessio, from Stand By Me, who says that cherry Pez is the perfect food. The point is that we too have these images and stories but we no longer have access to them. In the process of growing up and assuming jobs, kids and SUVs with third row seats, we’ve forgotten about our pickled eggs and cherry Pez memories. We’ve forgotten about the anarchy-shaped cigarette burns in the bucket seats of Jeff Riscioli’s ’73 Camaro. As a dedicated member of the punk scene, Jeff dotted the glowing end of an unfiltered Camel into the vinyl to form a crude, charred letter A. He later crashed the car into a dumpster in the Twin Fair parking lot.

So the trick is to lose our amnesia. How? I don’t know. Listen to a track from when you were in high school, like ‘Just One Kiss’ by the Violent Femmes. Say out loud the name of your partner in Biology lab (Jennifer Renkens, a pretty blonde who fainted at the sight of her own blood during the blood-typing unit).

Recall your first car (’59 VW Microbus, bought at Angelo Bomasuto’s father’s hot dog stand for $700). Remember your first knock-down fist-fight in which you got pummelled by Rob Radloff on the Washington Avenue train tracks. Remember how he was later killed by a train on those very tracks in your senior year.

Picture your prom date (the same Jennifer who fainted in Biology lab). Remember whatever you want, or whatever you can. Just get better at remembering the small things; the details and half-feelings. Close your eyes and hear the music. Feel the rhythm of how you and your friends talked. That rhythm – the flow, the cadence, the back and forth of whispers in class, and insults in the cafeteria, the laughing and shouting – is what it’s all about. That’s how you lose your amnesia.

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Shawn Goodman’s author website: www.shawngoodmanbooks.com

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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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Janet Edwards’s author website: www.janetedwards.com

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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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Emma Pass’s author website: www.emmapass.blogspot.com

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On Categorising Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

When I went to university, I got a library card for the local library –  not the university library but the public library, because ever since I’d been able to read I got my books out of the public library.  The year was 1982, and the town was New Haven, Connecticut.  I walked into the children’s book section and couldn’t find half my favourite books.

It took me a while to discover that they were there but in a separate section of their own, labelled Teen Fiction, Books for Teens, Teen Reading, Teen Titles or something similar – something that separated these books from both adult books and children’s books.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The New Haven Public Library had fantastic children’s and teen sections in 1982.  In my memory these two sections took up the entire basement.  They had the entire collection of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (about twelve or thirteen volumes). I’d never realized there was more than one.  They had all Alan Garner’s books, which I used to use as a measure of quality in any library. He wasn’t very well known in the United States but he’d been my favourite author for many years because I’d started school in the part of England that is the setting for most of his books.

This was the first time I’d ever encountered the ‘teen’ books being separated from the ‘children’s’ books and I didn’t like it.  Alan Garner’s books were split up.  Half of them were in the children’s section and half were in the teen section.

You know what?  I STILL DON’T LIKE IT.  I think that organising books by their intended age is ghettoization.  It leads to further micro-classification that I just flat-out object to.  In the local library in the city where I live now, two of my favourite authors, K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, have their books split not just across two sections but across separate shelves labelled Horse Stories, Times Past, War, Supernatural, Family, and probably something else I’ve forgotten.  When I first read Peyton’s books, I read them all because I found them next to each other on the same shelf.  I’d never have gone looking for horse stories.  I read them and I loved them because I loved that particular author.  I think that breaking up books into this many categories creates narrow-minded readers.  There is no incentive for the lover of ‘humour’ ever to look anywhere else for reading material than the limited ‘humour’ shelf.  There is some very funny science fiction out there but they’ll never discover it.

My own fiction is split up in my local library because Young Adult is now its own section.  I have a series that is split in my local library: the first book is in Times Past and the next two are in Young Adult.  I get that we are trying to encourage readers to explore their tastes, I get that we are trying to encourage teens not to feel that they’re reading below their level.  I still think it is idiotic to split a series across two different library sections.

So. Teen fiction?  Young adult fiction?  Some books are more difficult than others. Some books are better than others.  Pioneering readers shouldn’t limit themselves to one narrow category.  The same goes for a writer.

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

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

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

It’s often mentioned that the biggest mistake we can make in our interactions with teenagers is to patronise them. This is true for teachers, for parents and for writers of teen novels. It’s a mistake in the simple sense that it defeats its own purpose. Presumably, if we are communicating with teenagers, then the aim is for them to attend to what we are saying, and almost nothing is more likely to turn someone off than the sense they are being talked down to. However, the instinct to treat teenagers as a sort of strange and deranged sub-species, or even worse, as incomplete adults-in-waiting is so ingrained in many people that it’s almost reflexive.

A good example of this adult-centricism can be seen in those enthusiasts who attempt to use neuroscience to bolster their prejudices. As a school teacher, I’ve sat through training sessions of exactly this type. I’ve listened to school principals smugly announce that the evidence is in and that teenagers are technically insane. I’ve watched policy makers on television use their partial knowledge to justify whatever new regulation of youth might win them votes. The issue has even made it to the cover of Time magazine.

The standard story goes something like this. Thanks to modern imaging techniques, we now have a far better understanding of the way the brain develops through time. We can track the almost unbelievable blossoming of neural connections (in the order of millions per second in early life) and the later periods of trimming and reorganising. We can see that teenagers typically make use of different parts of their brain than adults typically would for some tasks and that some parts of the brain which play a large part in decision making in adulthood appear less prominent in the teenage brain. I don’t wish to counter any of this, I take the experts at their word on it and it all seems plausible enough. What I do object to is the next step, where the adult commentator solemnly pronounces that this produces incontrovertible evidence that the teenage brain is not yet fully developed. The cliché has become that the brain does not fully mature until it’s well into its twenties.

There is a logical problem here, and one that betrays our inbuilt prejudice against teenagers. While it is true that the brain changes over the life cycle of the human being, our choice to see any one stage as preparation for the next is based upon nothing but narrative.  After all, the adult brain is typically different in its structure than that of an elderly person, but we don’t tend to say the adult brain is an underdeveloped version of the elderly one. To think of the teenage years as preparation for adulthood has the same logical structure as thinking of the adult years as preparation for being dead.

Because many adults are so programmed to think in teleological terms, where everything has a purpose, and because many adults are predisposed to thinking of adulthood as that purpose, the logical error occurs without many people even registering that a story has been superimposed over the facts. Neuroscientists announce, to the delight of such adults, that the teenage brain is overly influenced by hormonal balances, is prone to mood swings and bursts of irrational enthusiasm and defiance, is unable to fully think through the consequences of actions, struggles to interpret the emotional cues around it, etc, etc. The science, we are told, is in, and the teenager is defective. We are told that the very best thing we can do is keep them safe while they negotiate their way through these difficult years.

To see the flaw in this thinking more clearly, consider how a teenage neuroscientist might interpret the same data. Would they not be tempted to argue that as the teenage brain enters adulthood it begins to close down? The adult brain, they might suggest, with all their pretty brain scan images to support them, loses its capacity for spontaneity. That part of the brain responsible for shutting down excitement becomes overdeveloped and the adult becomes dull-witted and unimaginative. The adult brain loses its ability to synthesise new ideas, becoming set in its ways. The natural capacity for joy and excitement is lost as the brain loses its ability to respond adequately to hormonal signals. Fewer and fewer experiences register as fresh and the excitement of discovery steadily decreases… You get the idea.

The teenager is no more a defective adult than the adult is a defective teenager. Each stage has its advantages and each of those advantages comes with its costs. There is nothing good to come from treating the teenage years merely as preparation for adulthood. They are to be lived on their own terms, not endured but rather celebrated. The very best teen fiction, I think, understands this. Its stories focus on teenagers not because the writer wishes to help the teenager through those years but because this offers story possibilities that exist nowhere else on the human timeline.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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Why Write Novels? by Bernard Beckett

My first five novel manuscripts were unpublished. Written over three years, they represented an apprenticeship of sorts, as I ploughed naively through the field of beginners’ errors. Sometime during that process of write, submit, hope, be rejected, repeat, I asked myself, why I am doing this? Initially the motivation had been simple enough. I thought it might be quite fun to write a novel. And then, as I committed to the task, I entertained the usual fantasies of success, acclaim and fortune. Of course, I understood just how fanciful these notions were, and the metranomic regularity of rejection rather reinforced that point. At this moment, when you realise that in all likelihood your stories are not bound for the world stage, the question of why write takes on a slightly different hue. It becomes – even if I believe I will never be published, will I keep writing? In other words, is writing one of those things worth doing for its own sake?

My answer was yes, and I remember explicitly stating this to a friend at the time. Writing, it turned out, was just something I enjoyed doing. I loved the process of creating characters and situation, of playing with sentences, of pushing on through the difficult bits and yahooing through the pages that flowed, the genuine joy of living for a moment in a world of your own creation, the satisfaction of pushing print, and then sitting back and rediscovering your story as the reader. Telling stories even when there’s no one listening.

As a high school drama teacher, this is something I often discuss with students. Very few of those I teach will go on to study full-time as actors, and even fewer of those will join that tiny elite able to make a living from it. Yet, most of the students I teach love acting. They love being on stage, that moment of beautiful tension when the lights go down and the audience turns silent makes for an addictive rush. Yet, all too easily, we buy into a societal structure that tells us unless we are the very best, we have no business to be playing at all. So, while some of my students who get the acting bug will find ways of keeping it as part of their life, through amateur dramatic societies and the like. Mostly they’ll look back on it as something they loved but weren’t really good enough to do. That’s a tremendous shame.

So it is in sport, where the drop off rate out of high school is tragic. It’s not that they don’t still love the activity, it’s just they don’t believe they’re good enough, and that consequently their urge to play is a childish thing to be ignored. In some ways the rise of lifestyle sports like mountain biking, rock climbing or skateboarding can be seen as a healthy response to this teleological tyranny. I love to run, but will never be fast enough to win a race. In fact I don’t even enjoy races much. So I hit the trails for the pure pleasure of it, but still there’s that tendency for people to ask what you’re training for, and to look slightly surprised when the answer is nothing, I’m just having fun.

Initially, writing was the same. It was a hobby, a thing I did in my spare time, a great way to fill in an hour in the sunshine. In lots of ways that was the most enjoyable writing I ever did and, by extension, the most worthwhile. But a strange thing happens when you get published. Some part of your hobby becomes public property. You can’t possibly object; you submitted the manuscript and it’s what you hoped would happen, but it’s worth being aware of the way this intrusion can end up messing with your fun. Fun is clearly not the only valid motivation for the writer. One might seek fame, fortune, critical acclaim, artistic expression, human insight or political change. None of these are unworthy, but they each come with their own costs.

At the point where the value of your hobby is measured in an external currency, you have lost a degree of control. Human psychology being what it is, it’s not something you necessarily have much choice about. The bigger your profile, the more you will be subjected to the responses of others, and it’s almost impossible not to be affected by those responses. You hand over to the reader the right to define you as a writer, and then your writing becomes the business of responding to those definitions, possibly seeking to overthrow them, maybe chasing further endorsement. This isn’t entirely negative, the outside eye brings a perspective you can’t gain yourself, and you can use it to improve your writing. But the danger is the obvious one, at some point you end up taking yourself too seriously.

I write this in part because I recently took a novel I’d been working on for two years, of which I had finished a second draft, and threw it away. It wasn’t a terrible novel, it was publishable, and with a little bit of work and some outside guidance, might have even been quite good. But as soon as I threw it out, I understood why getting rid of it was such a smart move. Somewhere in amongst the writing, I’d lost the joy for it. It wasn’t fun any more. It was a struggle. Specifically, I was struggling to be something I wasn’t, the type of writer that I’d managed to get into my head I was meant to be. As soon as I did it I launched into the project I was meant to be writing. The joy returned, and I realised how long it had been missing. Maybe three books, or five years ago, was the last time writing felt like this: felt like it felt when I was unpublished and perhaps unpublishable, writing for the sheer joy of it. It’s awfully good to be back.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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Narrative Point Of View In My Teen Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Once I’ve had a great idea, fallen in love with my characters and have a sense of the direction the story will take, the question becomes: whose story is it and how will I tell it?

Will I stick with one character’s point of view or shift among characters? Will I use a first-person or a third-person narrator?

Recently I worked on a four-book series called Hotline with a contemporary setting and four main characters; each teen takes a turn as the central character of a book with the others in secondary roles. This was my first experience with handling multiple points of view, and it wasn’t difficult as long as I remembered to keep my mental camera focused on one character at a time. Mostly I prefer a single point of view with the main character as the focus – frankly, it’s easier.

Choosing first person (I) or third (he/she) is a separate issue. I sometimes struggle to find the emotional core of my story and to convey that to teen readers. When I wrote The True Adventures of Charley Darwin I was steeped in the novels of Jane Austen, popular in Darwin’s time. Like Austen, I tried writing the story in third person, but my editor thought my narrator was “too distant” and would not connect well with teen readers. So I started over and let Charley tell his own story, as I have in most of my historical novels.

The most straightforward approach to first-person narration is the style of a memoir or autobiography. In Cleopatra Confesses I elected to write in first person: “I, the king’s third daughter, called Cleopatra, sit alone in my quarters….” Present tense gives a sense of immediacy, but could just as well have been in past tense, by changing sit to sat. It could have been told in third person: “Cleopatra, the king’s third daughter, sat in alone in her quarters…”

The perspective of the first-person narrator has to be considered. In the prologue for Cleopatra Confesses Cleopatra looks back, telling her story while she waits for the arrival of the enemy who will take her prisoner. In The Wild Queen Mary, queen of Scots, is also looking back and narrates her tale on the night before her execution. In Victoria Rebels Victoria begins by grumbling about the evils of her mother’s friend, Sir John Conroy, as she prepares for her sister’s wedding; she’s not looking back, but peering ahead.

Another option is to construct the story as a diary. Writing Anastasia: the Last Grand Duchess, as part of the Royal Diaries series, was harder than I expected. There couldn’t be long descriptions or even much dialogue – just short, crisp scenes. The writer of a memoir knows how her story ends because she has already lived it. The fictional diarist does not know what lies ahead and how her story will end – she has no idea throughout the story that she will be murdered but it was up to me as the author to move the plot inexorably toward that end.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

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