Posted in Craft, Guest Post, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

5 Tips for Writing Great Young Adult Stories

Guest post by Desiree Villena

From publishing phenomena like Hunger Games to The Hate U Give, there’s no doubt that young adult is one of the most exciting genres to write in right now, as YA authors tackle serious issues such as diversity, sexuality, racism, and identity in new and fearlessly engaging ways. So, if you, too, want to write powerful stories for teens to connect to, you’re in the right place.

Here are 5 tips to help you write a great YA story.

1. Get the age of your character right

The first thing to know is that the children’s book industry takes their genres pretty seriously. Children’s book genres are meant to delineate age-appropriate fiction for people to read as they grow up, and the age of your protagonist is one of those defining characteristics.

In YA fiction, nearly all protagonists are teenagers, which makes sense — teens want to read about other teens doing things. This means your protagonist should ideally be between the ages of 14 and 18. Once your protagonist passes the age of 19, you’re flirting with New Adult territory, which is another genre altogether.

It’s important to first get the age of your character right because it will determine a load of things that will really make or break a YA novel, such as plot and theme. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Identify powerful themes to carry your book

Whether you’re writing a dystopian YA novel (a la Hunger Games), a fantasy YA novel (a la Percy Jackson), a romance YA novel (a la The Fault in Our Stars), or any other kind of YA novel, one thing will remain universal: your themes.

Themes are of the utmost importance in YA fiction. Generally, they’re specific to YA fiction’s age range and revolve around self-discovery. Here are a few of the common ones you’ll find in the genre:

  • Identity
  • Sexuality
  • Family conflicts
  • Self-discovery
  • Coming of age
  • First love

How you approach and explore each theme is where your plot will come into play. And don’t fret about whether or not your content is “too dark” for teens — you’d be surprised at how much they can handle. What they really want is to see characters and life experiences they can connect to. Speaking of which…

3. Focus on writing three-dimensional, memorable characters

You’ll hear the word “authenticity” tossed around a lot when it comes to writing YA fiction. Whether or not you actually achieve authenticity will come down to the strength of your characters.

Naturally, the first step towards authenticity (outside of getting your character’s name right) is to avoid stereotyping. That’s right. Give those dumb jocks and mean girls a break, and write them instead with depth. Just because you’re writing teen characters doesn’t mean your characters should be any less complex, three-dimensional, and multi-layered than adult characters. If you’ve ever met (or been) a teenager, you’ll know that their inner lives are just as profound and intense as any adult’s — if not more so.

Don’t worry if you don’t get the characters right in the first try. Sometimes it’ll take until your revision process for the characters to speak to you.

For inspiration, turn to the books you loved as a teenager. Which protagonists were you drawn to? Which spoke to you? Try to deconstruct them to understand how the author made them so memorable. Notice how they were developed, what their character arcs were — and how the author translated their voices onto paper.

But don’t just stop at your childhood. Take a look at current YA to see what kind of characters the teens love nowadays. Great characters are timeless — and chances are, you’ll find a lot of similarities when it comes to the way that great authors in any era develop them.

4. Find the perfect voice

Think about the most distinctive YA protagonists you’ve read. What made them stand out to you?

Most likely a big part of it was the protagonist’s voice. Executed effectively, voice can make characters come to life like nothing else. As you’re figuring out your own protagonist’s voice, pay attention to:

  • Sentence structure
  • Word choice
  • Vocabulary
  • Syntax

And don’t forget to pick the right point of view (POV)! Many YA novels these days are written from the first-person viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that you should discount the strengths of the third-person POV entirely. (Harry Potter, anyone?) Play around with it — when it sticks and the voice rings true to you, you’ll know.

5. Don’t write to trends

Don’t give into the temptation to write to trends. Many an author will spot a trend (say, wizarding boarding schools) and think that they surely, too, have a higher chance of getting published if they also write a book about wizarding boarding schools. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s pretty much impossible to guarantee your book is “on trend” while you’re writing it. As Electric Literature says, trends move fast — and publishing, unfortunately, doesn’t. The truth is it’s very likely the trend will probably be over by the time you finish your book and try to query it to disinterested literary agents. Which means you’re stuck with a book you wrote simply for the sake of the fad.

At the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to: you should write your YA novel because you want to write it, not because you think something “trendy” will be easier to publish. And if you do write what you love, who knows? You might be the one to start a new trend yourself.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

The Breaks of Paragraphing

When my daughter was in seventh grade, the English paper she’d written was a wall of black text. Not a single paragraph break. I made a point of explaining “one topic per paragraph,” etc. I’ve had adult students who didn’t understand the idea any better than she did, with some going the complete opposite direction and having

a

paragraph

break

for

every

single

sentence.

So, what are the rules? Well, they’re “…more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” (Pirates of the Caribbean – see the movie clip here: https://youtu.be/k9ojK9Q_ARE) Especially for fiction.

Author Fred D. White says, “Remember that paragraphing is more an element of individual style than of grammar. You are in charge of what a paragraph should do or what shape it should take.”

However, paragraphing breaks with dialogue (or action) makes it easier for readers to tell who is speaking/acting.

Start a new paragraph with each speaker (or person acting). Fiction Editor Beth Hill says, “Consider a paragraph as a frame for a specific amount or section of information. In fiction this may be description, dialogue, action, exposition or any combination of these elements. The paragraph acts as a boundary or fence for related items.” (Emphasis mine.)

That frame/fence image is so helpful. When one character speaks, acts with and within his setting, etc., we usually keep it inside one box or paragraph. We get a new paragraph, when a second characters adds to the conversation with her thoughts or asks questions. And again, a new one when the first character answers. This helps create white space which makes for easier reading.

Example:
Joe stepped up to the counter and asked the woman serving coffee, “How’s it going today, Sarai?”
            “Busy.” She brushed her thick black hair back from her face. “The usual?”
            “Please.” Joe scanned the room. “You seen Monty?”
            Sarai paused before reaching for a disposable cup. She opened her mouth, but Joe stopped her.
          “Hold on. When you can’t answer right away, it’s a dead giveaway you’re phrasing how to lie to me.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t like being lied to.”

We also start new paragraphs…

  • when a character’s speech is lengthy – Say Joe in my example above is sometimes longwinded. Special punctuation would let us know he is continuing to speak in the next paragraph. (No closing quote at the end of the first paragraph of dialogue.)
  • to show a physical change in location or time or both. When paragraphs of description are needed, think one paragraph per topic. For example, if a character is walking in the dark woods, in this fence of paragraphing is the description of the woods. But when she comes across the house, that would be another box opened before the reader’s eyes.
  • when the subject under discussion changes – Remember the movie UP? Dug, the dog is talking along, when something catches his eye. He says, “Squirrel!” which interrupts what he was saying.
  • for emphasis – Dug’s “Squirrel!” is again an example. “Sometimes starting a new paragraph or allowing a single sentence to stand on its own is a great way to emphasize a key point, get a laugh, or otherwise control the pace of the story to your advantage.” – David Cathcart
  • when a new character enters the scene.
  • when something unexpected happens – E.g. a horn honk, the clash of the garbage truck, the lights go out, etc.

That’s a lot for a simple indented new line to do. To sum up, these guidelines aren’t hard rules, but mostly a pattern that when followed provides clarity. If paragraphing breaks are hard for you, take a story you like and type out a few pages for practice.

Here’s an exception to the break guidelines. We don’t start a new paragraph for each person when we are summarizing the action. E.g. The final bell rang. Rachel and Milo stuffed their math books into their backpacks and dashed out the classroom door. They caught up with their friends at the bus. Rachel gave Anaya a high five.

Paragraphs also serve other purposes.

Paragraphs affect pacing. Paragraph and sentence lengths can either slow or speed the action. Long paragraphs slow—short ones speed. So, you use the former for when things are calm, but the latter in the midst of action. Here’s an interesting thought from Leah McClellan: “In a novel, as the action winds down and the scene ends, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, and more description let readers catch their breath.”

Paragraphs can show moods, too. “Shorter staccato paragraphs can convey that a character is tense, worried, short-tempered or taciturn. Longer paragraphs can indicate a character is in a good mood, long-winded, relaxed or prone to deep and rambling thought,” author Jennifer Ellis says.

Back to my seventh-grade daughter. She learned paragraphing techniques and ended up in advanced placement English in high school. Writing in paragraphs is natural for her now. With some practice, it can be so for you too.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers can be simple words or phrases or clauses. I think phrases and clauses trip up more writers except perhaps for nonnative English speakers.

A misplaced modifier isn’t close enough to what it is modifying. It’s too far away from the subject.

Example 1: She opened the door, frowning at him.
The door isn’t frowning—she is.
– It would be clearer like this: Frowning at him, she opened the door.
– If you want to indicate she frowned after she opened the door, there are several options: Opening the door, she frowned at him. OR She opened the door and frowned at him.

Sometimes a simple one-word misplaced modifier can make the meaning incorrect or confusing.

Example 2: In the drawer, I found a gold woman’s wedding ring.
The woman isn’t gold. In fact there is no woman.
– Correct: In the drawer, I found a woman’s gold wedding ring.

An ambiguous modifier can make the meaning unclear. Careful placement is required.

Example 3: Only Mark wanted to go to the store in town.
So, everyone else wanted to stay home. Right?
– But maybe it should be: Mark only wanted to go to the store in town.
He didn’t want to stop and get gas, too.
– But perhaps that wasn’t the writer’s intention: Mark wanted to go to the only store in town.

Each placement gives a different picture, doesn’t it? Commonly ambiguous modifiers include: almost, even, hardly, just, merely, nearly.

A dangling modifier has nothing in the sentence to modify. The intended subject is missing.

Example 4: Opening the cupboard door, it was full of mismatched teacups and saucers.
Who is opening the door? We don’t know.
– One possibility for correction would be to make it two separate sentences: He opened the cupboard door. Inside were mismatched teacups and saucers.
– Another possibility is adding who is doing the action: Opening the cupboard door, he poked around the mismatched teacups and saucers.
Notice I didn’t say: He opened the cupboard door and saw mismatched teacups and saucers. Describing what someone sees is not nearly so interesting as what they are doing with the objects.

A dangler often makes it appear that the wrong object is doing the impossible.

Example 5: Running upstairs, the carpet was dirty.
I’ve heard of carpet runners, but never actually saw a carpet run.
– Correct: The upstairs carpet was dirty.
– Also correct: I ran upstairs and picked my way across the dirty carpet.

I like this comment from examples.yourdictionary.com: “Modifiers are one of the most beautiful elements of the English language. They paint our prose and add starlight to our stanzas. Just make sure your modifiers are standing as close as possible to the word or words they’re describing. Otherwise, they may appear to be dressing up another portion of the sentence.”

If you want to test your recognition of dangling and misplaced modifiers, take this quiz. http://www.grammargrounds.com/misplaced-and-dangling-modifiers-quiz.html I like how the answers show which ones are misplaced and which ones are dangling.

And if you want to laugh at illustrations of misplaced modifiers, check out this slideshow: https://www.slideshare.net/Scribendi_Editing/12-hilarious-misplaced-modifier-examples.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Picture Book Fails

Authors and publicists send me picture books for review. I always warn them that I’m a recommender. That means if I don’t like the book, it won’t be on my site.

Right now I have a stack of five that make me wonder, what were you thinking?

One talks about and shows characters painting the other characters. Just what a preschool/kindergarten teacher wants in a classroom—a paint free-for-all. And don’t parents have enough trouble with siblings painting/drawing on/coloring each other as it is?

The four others use song lyrics from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I thought it sounded like a cute idea. Until I got the ARCs.

  • One book screamed cultural appropriation. Those words may have been acceptable in 1977, but not now.
  • Another was an antiestablishment song. Let’s teach our toddlers to resist their parents. I don’t think so. Especially when the illustrations put the babies in a dangerous situation.
  • A third was about tomorrow being better, which gave me a lot of hope. Yet some of the lyrics just don’t work for children, so it ended up with a thumbs down.
  • The best of the bunch is a great song, but I’ve always felt the lyrics have strong sexual connotations. The illustrations have toned that down by making the singer a girl’s dog. That works if the adult readers don’t know or never hear the song. But otherwise?

Were the song lyric books meant to be for the grandparents and great-grandparents who lived during the ‘60s and ‘70s? Although there is no back matter. I’d think a collection of the songs with information about the singers would be more appropriate. At least I’d find that interesting.

Perhaps, these publishers needed to ask themselves, “What will a child get out of this story?” Or “What will this encourage children to do?” Or “Is this age appropriate?”

What does this mean for us as picture book creators?

  • Remember who your audience is. Make sure your words and pictures fit the age range.
  • Think about the takeaway. Is it one you’d want your little one to get?
  • Consider how a child might act the story out.
  • Get feedback from other writers.
  • Make sure you read great picture books being published now.
Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Stuck on Repeat

As writer’s it’s easy for us to get stuck in a groove or a track. Round and round we go. But unlike the view from a merry-go-round, we don’t want our readers seeing the same scenes or words over and over. If we repeat, it should be intentional.

So, what constitutes unnecessary repetition?

Repetitive Words

Reading the same word too close together or too often is boring. This doesn’t include really common words. “The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it,” Brian Klems says. But for other words, it’s a danger. For example, there are many words to indicate eating. I might munch, crunch, gulp, slurp, etc. We bite, chew, swallow as part of the process. If every time my character eats, the word used is always the same, a reader may get annoyed. The more unusual the word, the more obvious overuse is. The shorter the piece, the more an overused word will stand out.

Overuse of Names

Be aware of how often you use a character’s name in dialogue.

“Bob, when you’re at the store…”
“Yes, Marge?”
“Will you pick up lettuce, Bob?”
“Yes, Marge.”
“And, Bob, don’t forget tomatoes.”
“Okay, Marge.”

Sounds unnatural, doesn’t it? And there’s no action.

Repetitive Information

“This is redundant” is a note I put on a student lesson when the information has already been given. I often find it with the same wording. It’s like the writer forgot she wrote it. This means she is probably not spending enough time revising.

“Trust the reader to get it” is often in response to the writer showing the reader, then telling the same thing. For example:

            Jordan pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and tapped the screen. “Come on, come on. What time is it?” The phone lit up. “Four o’clock! Leo’s gonna kill me.” He shoved his feet into untied shoes, and laces flapping, raced out the door.

Jordan was late to work.

The first paragraph shows Jordan’s late for something. We don’t know what, but when he shows up at work, we’ll get it. “Jordan was late to work” is telling. Not as interesting, besides being unnecessary.

How do you find overused words or repetitive information in your own writing?

  • Check common overused words and see if they are culprits in your writing. Here’s a short list: about, actually, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, kind of, nearly, next, practically, really, seems, simply, so, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, that, then, utterly, very, well.
  • Read your writing aloud. Or you can have your computer read it to you. You’ll probably hear a word or two that occurs too often, and hopefully information that you’ve already told the reader.
  • If your manuscript isn’t too long, use an online tool to catch words. You’ll copy the text and paste it in. I’ve found several options:
    • A word counter, such as https://wordcounter.com/ literally counts words and shows the results. You can ask it to exclude small words.
    • A word cloud maker. The larger the word shows in the resulting image, the more often it has been used. Here’s a generator I’ve tried: https://www.wordclouds.com/ Of course, you’ll probably see your main character’s name a lot as well as common words. But what else are you seeing?
  • Get feedback from others. Use a critique group or beta readers.

Fixing Overused Words

Some can simply be eliminated. A writer I knew called them “weasel words”—they slip their way into your writing. Removing them doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Consider taking an adverb and weak verb and replacing both with one stronger verb. Did she slowly climb the tree or did she inch up the tree? Same idea for adjectives and nouns. Is that big dog a Labrador or a Great Dane? See how these latter examples give you a better picture?

Think about other words you could use—we all know a lot! Ask yourself if you are using the best word. “It’s cloudy” could refer to an overcast day, a storm about to cut lose with rain, or a hurricane, but each would be very different to experience. A thesaurus is a useful tool if you get stuck, but choose words you know. Or consider how to say the sentence differently.

It can be difficult to find out where you’re stuck on repeat—that’s why using different methods is helpful. But once you become aware of your common patterns, you can use find or search in your word processor to track down the sneaky words.