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Why I Write Young Adult Novels, by Lish McBride

I get asked a lot why I write Young Adult fiction. My first reaction is always a split one – somewhere between humor and anger. I feel like I have to justify my genre because people don’t think it’s “real writing” or they think it’s “easy.” (Or quite often, they don’t even know what it is.) Sorry, friend, writing is writing. All of it is difficult. If it’s done right, it involves flaying open your soul and letting it pour out. Or, if you’re not into that kind of thing, at the very least it involves a lot of hours staring at a blank screen. The idea that writing for kids is easy is like the misguided notion that poetry is easier because it has fewer words. Really the opposite is true. You have to get every word exactly right in poetry. I’ve seen poets spend two hours talking about a single comma or the use of one white space. I don’t have that kind of patience or talent. Besides, my poetry is awful.

Mostly, though, I get angry on behalf of the reader. I’m sorry, but teens aren’t people? They don’t deserve good books and good writing? They don’t deserve to be taken seriously as an audience? That’s silly. Books when you’re a teen or younger have, in my humble opinion, more importance. At that age, stories form you. They make you. They change the way you think, the way you want to be. On some level, people know this. That’s why they try so hard to ban books for kids that harbor ideas they don’t condone. Kids internalize what they read on a level that most adults don’t. I want to ask the people that dismiss young adult and middle grade writing—didn’t you want to be taken seriously as a reader at that age? Didn’t it just chap your hide that all the “good books” were in the adult section and you had to wait years to read them?

It makes me so indignant, that it actually spills over the other side and I just start laughing. With every passing day I’m glad that my parents let me read whatever I wanted. That way when I ran out of the (then) small kid’s section, I didn’t have to wait to start reading the books for grown ups. You know, the books that aren’t dismissed.

I am jealous of teens now. They have some of the best stuff coming their way right now. The writing coming out of Young Adult and Middle Grade sections makes my imagination burn and my heart glow with pure, unabashed joy. There have always been writers and editors that take writing for kids seriously, but now they’re being let onto the playing field. It makes me happier than you can ever know to be part of that team. Someday, I would like to write some books for the adult section, but I will never, ever stop writing for teens. I love it too much.

Now, not everyone means to be dismissive of what I do. Some are honestly trying to be supportive…but they know so little about the genre that they don’t really understand what I’m talking about. So when I say what I do, they say things like, “Oh, like Twilight!” or “Maybe you’ll be the next Harry Potter!”

And yes, I would love to be a fictional teenage wizard. That would be amazing. Of course they mean J.K. Rowling, but I’m not going to correct them. I do correct them on the Twilight thing because, well, my book isn’t like Twilight. This is not a slight to those books—loads of people love them. Some loathe them. No matter how you feel, though, they got people to read young adult and fantasy and that’s a wonderful thing. I correct them, though, because my books aren’t even close in flavor to Twilight, just like they are leagues in a different direction than the Harry Potter books.

It’s not professional for me respond angrily when people get dismissive about young adult literature, and honestly, it’s just not in my nature. Being combative doesn’t make people change their minds. So I nod, smile, crack a joke, and then politely point out all the reasons why young adult literature knocks my metaphorical socks off.

I didn’t necessarily plan to start in young adult. I wanted to write for teens (and eventually, younger) but I thought you had to start out in adult and work your way into the kid’s section. I don’t know why I thought this, I just did. I was quite obviously wrong.

I’m glad the stories in my head are young adult. I’m even more thrilled that I get the opportunity to tell them. The teen audience has been great to me, as have the teen librarians and booksellers. Ladies and gentlemen, I tip my imaginary hat to you. You have let me do what I love, and I hope to keep doing it for a long time.

Homework: Think about a book that formed you as a young reader (if you are no longer a young reader). If you are a young reader, think about a book that has really influenced you lately. What made it so amazing? What can you do that is like that? What amazing story do you wish was out there for you to read? How can you write that book? Share that favorite read with someone. If you are an adult reader, has anything you’ve read as an adult had the same sort of emotional resonance?


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Hold Me Closer, NecromancerNecromancing the Stone     Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)SparkTarzan: The Greystoke LegacyAngel DustBlue is for Nightmares

Writing Teen Novels


Teen Fiction: A Definition? by Bernard Beckett

Mostly, I write teen fiction. It’s often referred to as YA (for Young Adult), which isn’t a label I love. Calling a teenager a young adult strikes me as patronising, in the way that calling a forty year old an ‘old teenager’ would be. Nomenclature aside, I’m often asked what makes a book YA, and beneath this question there sits a curious and unnecessary concern. The assumption seems to be that this is a difficult thing to define (it is) and that this difficulty poses some sort of a problem (it doesn’t).

Essentially, defining is the art of lumping. Some vehicles we add to the pile of things we call cars, others trucks and so forth. My two and half year old boys have, over the last twelve months, got the hang of this. The first part of language to develop is naming, which goes hand in hand with the foundational intellectual skill of comparing and categorising.

Almost always, we can find examples which are very easy to put in a pile, and examples which are vexing. Even something as simple as colour throws up this problem. It is mostly very easy to distinguish a red object from an orange one, but at the boundary we find examples of reddish orangey things that don’t fall comfortably into either pile. (If you’ve ever looked at a rainbow and tried to identify the indigo/violet boundary, you’ll have seen a particularly striking example of fuzzy boundaries. In fact, any sane person would have stuck with six colours, red, orange, yellow, green blue, purple, but Isaac Newton, believing seven to be a more auspicious number, insisted on an extra boundary).

So, we know what cars are and we know what red is, even though it is impossible to precisely define either. Yet, we don’t get too worked up by this difficulty. Interviews with people who design, fix or race cars don’t return with boring monotony to the question ‘yes, but what makes a car a car?’ Mostly cars have four wheels, but not always. Mostly they have combustion engines, but not always. Mostly they have two rows of seats, but not always. Mostly they have an engine at the front, but not always. Mostly they have a roof, but not always. You get the idea.

Any attempt to define YA literature will surely encounter the same flavour of mostliness. Mostly YA fiction centers around characters who are themselves teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will be read primarily by teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will deal with those concerns that typify the teenage psychology (but not always). Mostly the author will have written it with a teenage audience in mind (but not always). And of course, mostly we’ll know it when we see it (but not always).

For me, writing for teenagers and writing for adults are very different processes. First, there’s the issue of assumed knowledge. If I’m writing for an adult, I can assume a store of experience that I can’t when writing for a teenager. An adult is much more likely to have experienced being a parent for example, being married, or having worked in a full time job. A different range of images and associations are therefore available. It’s not that we can’t write about these things for teens, but we should anticipate a different response, purely because of the reader’s frame of reference.

Second is assumed interest. Consider a story centered about a man in his seventies, with failing health, looking back over his life and wondering why he was never able to stay close to the people he loved. I find that a pretty interesting concept, but automatically assume a teenage audience won’t. Different stages of life tend to support different fascinations. Having sex for the first time is a more likely focus for a teen novel than an adult one (but not always, On Chesil Beach is an excellent counter-example). Every story I’ve ever written for teens has at heart involved the teenager confronting for the first time a complexity in the world that they’d previously had no sense of: a complexity demanding a response that is neither easy nor obvious. It’s not true that all teen novels must confront this question, but it’s what I’m personally drawn to writing about.

Third, there’s the end user to consider. Just as all car owners have different needs, and this defines the limits of what we might mean by the word car, so too the readers of teen fiction are anything but homogenous. The ten year old reading teen fiction for the first time is a very different beast from the seventeen year old just looking for something that is neither juvenile nor centred about an aspiring author’s mid-life crisis. The introverted, living-my-life-through-books teen, is after something quite different from the sometimes-read-when-there’s-nothing-else-to-do-or-people-make-me’s target. Some teens are tremendously smart, with searing curiosity and vocabularies that exceed their horizons, others not so much. Hence we don’t write for teens, so much as for a subset of teens. Most often, this subset closely reflects the teens we ourselves once were (and, as with those who choose to teach, the backgrounds of those who choose to write tend to cluster about a false norm).

Finally, and most positively, there’s a sense of possibility, of freshness and urgency, that defines the teenage audience, and in a perfect world this will infect the writing. The very best writing for children manages to capture that magical aspect of childhood that the adult reader instinctively understands is lost to them, and makes the reading of such books a bittersweet experience. So too, the finest teen writing should fill the adult reader with a sense of loss and longing (and the teen reader with a sense of celebration). YA fiction should exist not because there’s a market for it, but because it can tell stories that no other genre can. If we can’t make that true, then we have no business writing it.


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Writing Teen Novels

Why I Write Mysteries And Thrillers – And Read Them, Too, by April Henry

I love reading and writing mysteries and thrillers because they offer the built-in drama of life or death. The stakes can’t get any higher. There’s also crime fiction for every taste. It can be as cozy or as bloody as you like. The mystery can be solved by cats or shapeshifters, amateurs or professionals.

Mysteries and thrillers are also democratic – appealing to most people at some point, if only as a beach or airplane read. It’s one genre that attracts a wide following. Most men won’t read romance. A lot of people won’t read westerns or horror. But almost everyone will read a mystery or a thriller.

So why do writers and readers like them so much?

Making sense of the senseless

All too often, real life often doesn’t make sense. Events happen randomly. You get a great new job, your best friend gets cancer, someone breaks into your car and steals one boot, you go to to the grocery store, you find a five-dollar bill in the bushes. There is no story arc.

It’s not always darkest before the dawn. Sometimes there is no dawn.

Real crimes are usually senseless and stupid. A lot of murders involve, not a criminal mastermind, but rival gang members, people selling drugs, or someone who is far too drunk to be driving, let alone handling a gun. The murderer may not be a black-hearted villain and the victim is not always lily white.

The randomness of life is one reason why the more predictable patterns of fiction are so appealing. And in a book, you can usually count on there being a good guy. A good guy who wins at the end. He may be bloody and bruised, but he still wins.

There is something very satisfying about writing or reading those kind of stories.

Using brain, not brawn

In a mystery or a thriller the crimes are usually clever, involving layers of deception. Each one is slowly peeled back to reveal yet another layer.

In the real world, killers are not often geniuses. The predator who manages to keep several steps ahead of the cops, or who plays a mean game of cat-and-mouse, is not a staple of real life. How much more satisfying for a reader to mentally match wits with a mastermind, not some mope with a gun.

And as a writer, it’s even more fun to think up a complicated, convoluted crime.

A little learning on the side

Often, the reader of a mystery or a thriller gets to learn something – something the writer either knows or had the pleasure of researching. (Of course, sometimes what you learn, especially if it’s on TV or in the movies, is wrong. Like female CSIs don’t wear four-inch heels and low-cut tops. And a lot of the flashy technology you see exists only in some screenwriter’s imagination.)

To research Girl, Stolen, I interviewed people who had gone blind, read autobiographies, and visited The Guide Dog School for the Blind. When you read Girl, Stolen, you not only wonder if Cheyenne will be able to escape her kidnappers, but you learn how to use a cane or a guide dog, and even how to create makeshift versions of those tools. You learn how blind people handle everything from money to meals.


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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

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Writing Teen Novels

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