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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

Emma Pass bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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The Young Adult Fiction Industry, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Working in Young Adult fiction sometimes feels like I’ve been let into a secret awesome club. It really is a community, a warm and welcoming little village of YA, comprised of authors, editors, agents, teachers, librarians, bloggers and readers. It’s a small world and everyone knows and loves everyone else. It’s such a great place and I don’t think any industry has quite what we have here in the YA world.

Positivity is the word that really springs to mind when I think of YA. Since I started writing it, I’ve become friends with other authors, and with editors, people from other publishing houses and divisions, bloggers who talk about my books and fans who send me emails. There’s no real divide, no “I’m an author, and you’re a (fill in the blank),” everyone is equal and friendly and we all have something in common – books.

The people who read Young Adult fiction are some of the most passionate people you will ever meet. Teens that read YA have SO much competition for their attention – television, video games, school (why did I make school third?), friends, family, jobs, chores. They make time to read. It’s something they seek out and pursue. Librarians and teachers love our industry because we get kids reading. There’s so much talk and debate, so much passion and deep enjoyment.

The one complaint I see pop up is about the opposite of positivity – the idea that somehow YA authors aren’t writing simple positive values-ridden books, that we write swears, and sex, and violence, and corrupt children and teens. I’d argue even the worst of these books are doing a positive thing by getting teens to read, by showing them they aren’t alone in their feelings, opening communication, promoting or even prompting discussion, and being a realistic window into the world.

Being a teen is difficult, it’s a lengthy process of challenging and changing everything you know about the world, closing a very long chapter of your life and opening a new one. These are weighty subjects. These aren’t just books to read and forget on an airplane ride, these books and characters bond with readers in ways few other books do. I see it in the emails I get, sometimes they’re a nice simple “thank you,” or “I really connected with that story”. Other times I get very heartfelt confessionals. These books matter.

That’s why I love writing YA, and why working in this industry is constantly surprising, moving, and magical. Because it’s not just an industry, it’s a living, breathing community. We all connect.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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Handling Feedback About My Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Over the past months I’ve written sequentially about character, plot, narrator, voice and dialogue – all the particular challenges of writing a historical novel for teens. In practice all of these happen more or less simultaneously. Eventually the day comes when you’re ready to send your novel out into the world. You ask for an opinion, but what you want is praise. Anything less is a disappointment – or even infuriating. They just didn’t get it!

Maybe your first reader is your spouse or child. They’ve watched your struggle, and they love you. So you probably won’t get an honest opinion. If it isn’t honest, it isn’t useful.

Friends are also unlikely to give you the feedback you need. Some writers rely heavily on writing groups. I tried one early in my career and found that none of us was skilled at giving constructive criticism. I didn’t know if I could trust what I heard, and eventually I quit.

Now with an established career I have a signed contract before I write the book, and I send what I believe is a finished manuscript directly to my editor. I’m relieved – but I’m also anxious. I want her to pronounce it perfect. But what if she hates it?

So far that hasn’t happened. I’ve never had a contracted novel rejected, but I’ve also never had one accepted without a lot of revising.

Months pass before I hear back. The response is usually a detailed letter that begins, “Dear Carolyn, I have finished reading (fill in the title), and I love most of what you have written.”

The key word here is “most”. What exactly does the editor not love? Sometimes there are structural problems, so chapters should be cut or moved. Sometimes characters need more development. Sometimes the beginning doesn’t pull the reader in quickly enough. The one I get the most often is: “But how does the character feel?”

Years ago my reaction was to feel wounded and my instinct was to argue. Eventually I learned how to work with the advice. Luckily I’ve always had editors I trust. I can accept most of the suggestions, if not all, and make the revisions. The process goes back and forth over a period of weeks. In Mozart’s Shadow required four revisions before the editor and I declared ourselves happy with it.

Once the book is published everyone waits expectantly, and a little worriedly, for word from the reviewers. The reviews aren’t always stellar. Reviews of Cleopatra Confesses were mixed. Some reviewers wrote admiringly, while others picked it apart. After the professional reviewers, many of them teachers and librarians, come the readers themselves. They’re not just teens: More than half the buyers of YA books are said to be over 18. People aged 30 to 44 account for 28% of the sales – and they post their comments online. Adults want more adult material and may be dismissive of YA books for younger readers. Young kids don’t always know how to write useful reviews, with their comments ranging from “best book ever” to “borrrring”.

You can learn a great deal from an editor’s criticisms, but once a book is published there is nothing you can do to change it. Reading reviews, especially when they’re snarky, can give you heartburn. It’s best to ignore the bad ones, enjoy the good ones and keep on writing.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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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

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Writing A Good First Sentence For A Teen Novel, by Diane Lee Wilson

Composing the first sentence of your novel can elicit screams of agony. It can be a difficult task because so much depends upon those few words. Will a prospective teen reader, already distracted by a myriad of electronic devices and entertainments, glance at this sentence, yawn and set your book down? How do you manage to entice such a fickle reader along to a second sentence and then a third?

As a practical matter, I have always liked starting my novels in the middle of a highly charged scene, ideally with one short sentence that hints at intrigue: “On the morning of September 16, 1860, my pa shot me.” “The little thumbnail moon gave no light at all; a friend to the thief.” “Better that you’d never been born.” Homicide, thievery, banishment – all themes that hint at an exciting tale.

In venturing to the local library, I found strong openings of varying lengths in many critically acclaimed teen novels. Robert Cormier’s classic, The Chocolate War begins simply, “They murdered him.” Laura McNeal introduces a mysterious character in the very first words of her lyrical Dark Water: “You wouldn’t have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of socks chosen in the dark, don’t match.” Then there’s Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which starkly states, “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” (Okay, those aren’t the exact first words but they’re in bold type and centered on the page so that’s where your eyes go.)

With a first sentence as strong as any one of these, a prospective reader (and innately curious human) simply cannot resist continuing to the second sentence and then a third. Now he or she is like a fish following the bait. So you keep writing, keep tossing out interesting tidbits, not yet revealing the whole story. Remember that most teens have short attention spans – at least until they’re hooked! – so you’ve got to move things along briskly. Think of this challenge as crafting one sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next paragraph.

Admittedly, there are times when I can’t think of a good opening for a novel I’m starting, so for inspiration I’ll revisit favorite books that have hooked me early on. I’ll scan the first few paragraphs and try to decipher just how the author pulled me in. Was the protagonist in immediate danger? Was there an unusual setting? Was there an urgent problem to be solved? On occasion, the unique tone of a book or the author’s voice will pull me in. I highly recommend studying those authors that have mastered the art of the “tease”.

If I continue to be stuck on my opening, however, rather than yank out my hair and switch careers, I attack the book from a different direction. I just start elsewhere in the chapter. I pick a scene that I am passionate about and that I can easily visualize, and I write it. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the first chapter without having created a strong beginning. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the novel. What I’ve learned though, is that a strong beginning often reveals itself only upon the book’s completion. Once you’ve spent time with your story, once you’ve come to understand and love your characters, you’ll know how to begin their story in the strongest way possible.

So, in composing the first sentence of your teen novel, keep your teen reader firmly in mind. You’ve only a brief period to hook him, so rely on novelty and human curiosity. You’ll soon find yourself writing with confidence, with readers fully engaged.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Language In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.

I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it one from a bookshelf or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important now that we have the widespread use of electronic communication – texting, tweeting, tagging – where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.

A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except”.

At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”

The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. Today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant”. From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition”. They can begin to master language painlessly and even pleasurably in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.

No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there is always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read”, the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about”. But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.

Tweets and texts are fine – and fun – in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. However, language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels With Timeless Appeal, by Diane Lee Wilson

Lists of “favorite teen novels” usually include several “hot” titles that will only be lukewarm in another few years and may eventually drop off new favourite lists completely. Yet decades can go by and one finds that certain teen titles continue to claim a spot on these lists of favorites. What makes a teen novel timeless rather than trendy?

I’m fortunate to be good friends with Patty Campbell, a career librarian, author, and critic, and well-known champion of young adult literature. She is the 2001 recipient of the ALAN award given by the National Council of Teachers of English for “outstanding contributions to the field of adolescent literature” and the 1989 recipient of the Grolier award given by the American Library Association for “distinguished service to young adults and reading.” I decided to seek her opinion on what makes certain teen novels transcend time.

Her initial answer to my question was, “A timeless young adult novel is one that is in touch with the times; it’s the right book for the time.” She mentioned Forever by Judy Blume as a novel that meets those criteria. Published in 1975, Blume’s novel deals quite openly with teen sexuality, and some 35 years later is still a target of censorship. “With the sexual awakening that was taking place in America in the 70s,” says Patty, “the book was perfect for opening that taboo topic to teens. It got them talking. I think that’s another characteristic of a timeless novel: it marks a significant change in history.”

Campbell went on to ponder the possibility that a teen novel of sufficient literary quality and critical praise will enshrine it for posterity, and concludes otherwise. While she agreed that skillful writing is preferable to the opposite, she believes that, “Literary quality alone is not necessarily enough, nor is winning awards.” She laughed then, adding, “And teacher acceptance is certainly not an indicator of a classic,” mentioning a few “teacher’s favorite” titles and shaking her head. “Awful.”

Ultimately, she said, a timeless teen novel “has to have that quality that kids take to their hearts.” She brought up S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published back in 1967. Upon its 40th anniversary, a review in the New York Times by author Dale Peck acknowledged the book’s “sometimes workmanlike prose” but went on to say that not only did The Outsiders change the way young adult fiction was written, it “changed the way teenagers read as well, empowering a generation to demand stories that reflected their realities.” Patty concurred. “Although it was published so many years ago, this book resonates with kids even today. My own grandson fell in love with it and couldn’t wait to talk about it with me. A timeless book seems to be a rite of passage for its readers; it marks a certain level of maturity, a broader understanding of how the world works.”

I know my own daughter encountered that novel only a few years ago and was moved by it. Having missed it during my own adolescence, I sat down to read it, too, and enjoyed it, finding it fast-paced and believable. The story definitely had an authenticity to it, which is understandable since the author was still in her teens when she wrote it.

“A timeless novel,” said Patty at the end of our conversation,“is all about making that connection with the reader. It’s about fine writing and touching something in kids, reaching the young adult heart.”

Here’s to writing that novel that resonates with the teens of today… and tomorrow!

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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