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.

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

How Do I Scare My Readers?

scaredsilh.pngBruce Hale aka the Writer Guy was asked these questions:
“I would like to hear from you, what tips can you give me for horror stories, whether novel or short story? How do I bring that horror feel to life? How can I keep my readers from sleeping for a few nights? How do I achieve the fear factor?”
And is allowing me to share his answers here:
Having just finished a horror series for kids (The Monstertown Mysteries), this topic is fresh in my mind. Creating a sense of horror is all about the expectation of something awful happening. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
From early on in your story, you should plant the seed in the reader’s mind that all is not well in this world, and then with each turn of the page, you bring that horror closer and closer. How? Here are four techniques:
1. Hide the monster
Take a tip from scary movies, and have the *effects* of the creature/ghost/whatever turn up much earlier than the creature itself does. You’ll notice we don’t see the shark in JAWS until well into the film. There’s a reason for that. Spielberg knows that the longer we delay the actual monster sighting, the more punch it will pack.
2. Mislead the reader
Be sure to employ a few red herrings, spots where you make us think that the creature is about to appear but it turns out to be the cat, a neighbor, or whatever. This can also be used if your hero is trying to figure out what’s behind the spooky happenings. Have them initially suspect the wrong people.
3. Hook ’em over and over
Horror is all about hooks. Your concept should hook your reader from the get-go. But that’s not the only hook to employ. Rather than having chapter endings resolve an issue, have them hook as well. End each chapter on a cliffhanger note of suspense, the equivalent of “and then…” in a picture book. Try this technique and you’ll have your readers flipping pages like mad.
4. Play on your fears
Have the source of horror in your story be something that particularly frightens your hero. If they’re clown-phobic, have them face sadistic clowns. If they’re kitten-phobic, have them encounter Evil Fluffy. Bonus points if you can draw from your own fears when building your hero. Because the more you feel it when you’re writing, the more your readers will feel it when they read.


MantisCover4.jpghat-club-fedora.jpgBruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 45 seriously funny books for young readers, including the Clark the Shark tales (one of which ended up in a Happy Meal — not the way you think) and the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries. Find out about his newest series, the Monstertown Mysteries, online at: www.brucehale.com.

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

Raise the stakes, honey!

image by kfjmiller on morguefile.com
men hanging from ladder

Raise the stakes, honey!

Guest post by Kathi Appelt

I have been a writer my whole life long, beginning with writing on walls as a toddler to writing professionally as an adult. In that life-long career, I have written articles, picture books,
non-fiction, poetry, essays, short stories, a memoir, and even a song or two.
But for years and years the novel was a form that absolutely eluded me.
NOVEL PROBLEMS
For a long time, I told myself that I didn’t need to write a novel. After all, I had plenty of published work to stand on, and I had plenty of ideas for new works.
But I was kidding myself, because in my heart of hearts, it was a novel that I wanted to write. So, I took courses, I bought how-to books, I went to workshops. I did all of the required groundwork. Why couldn’t I crack this genre?
In the meantime, I had drawer after drawer, boxes stacked upon boxes, of half-finished novels that were just that: half-finished.
It seemed like I could create wonderful characters, interesting landscapes, and great, colorful details. My characters, despite their goals, just didn’t seem to make much progress. I’d get about half way through and then my story would lose steam and whimper into oblivion.
It wasn’t until I took an on-line course with master teacher Dennis Foley that I realized that the essential element missing from my work was tension.
GETTING TENSE
Now, plots are plots. I knew how to create plots. They involve a character who is moving toward a goal. And as Dennis so aptly puts it: “a goal is nothing more than whatever your character is trying to achieve, overcome or acquire.” Easy peasy.
Yeah, right!
How could it be that I could have a character, in search of a goal, with all of the other elements in place, but still come up short?
As it turns out, in order for a reader to care about your story, the stakes have to be raised. You can have a character overcome incredible odds and obstacles, but if there’s nothing at stake, then there’s no reason to pull for that same character.
Let’s consider an example. Say we have a great guy named Phillip who is a cross-country racer and whose goal is to win the regional track meet. We’ll put Phillip at the starting line and pull the trigger on the starting pistol. Kapow! Off he goes.
If we use a basic plot, with three obstacles of increasing difficulty, we can first have Phillip develop an annoying blister on his heel. But because Phillip is tough, he runs through the pain. Next, it starts to snow. Now Phillip is having trouble seeing the track because of the snow, and his blister is getting worse, so the odds against his winning are increasing. Finally, he stumbles and turns his ankle. The entire pack is well ahead of him and Phillip is trailing badly.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
We’ll leave it there. Whether Phillip wins or not doesn’t really matter. But what is missing from this story is the why of it. Why is it so important that Phillip win this race?
You see, there’s nothing wrong with this plot, nothing wrong with the obstacles, nothing wrong with the character. But we have no idea what the stakes are and why it matters so much to Phillip to win that race. Is a college scholarship at stake? Is he racing to prove something to his family, something about honor, about perseverance, about stamina? Is he racing to win enough money to buy medicine for his little daughter?
What will be irrevocably lost if he doesn’t win? Why is it so important to Phillip?
And that’s the key word – important. The stakes have to be so important to the main character that if they don’t achieve, acquire or overcome their goal, we the reader will care. If not, then it’s just a race.
Winning or losing doesn’t matter unless the stakes are high.
Raise ’em, honey. Otherwise, nobody will care.


This article appeared in Bruce Hale‘s January 2014 THE INSIDE STORY
– used by permission. Go here for more from Bruce.

kathi-225x300.jpegKathi Appelt is a National Book Award finalist (for THE UNDERNEATH), and the author of over 20 books for kids and teens. Her tales have won numerous national and state awards, and she serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Children’s Writing program. Catch up with her online at: http://www.kathiappelt.com

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

The Hero’s Journey for Magazine Writers

Jan Fields.jpgGuest Post by Jan Fields
Increasingly editors are interested in two things in fiction (1) adventure and (2) something a boy might read. But many writers are stuck when it comes to thinking about adventure. What makes up an adventure and can you do it well in 2000 words or less (sometimes a lot less). Sure you can. After all, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a perfect adventure story in 336 words.
The adventure story is the basis for so many classic myths and legends – so much so that “The Hero’s Journey” has become almost a guidebook for adventure. So how could the circular structure of the basic “Hero’s Journey” help us craft a magazine adventure story? Let’s begin by looking at a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey structure, keeping in mind that for magazine fiction, the story must will focus on the main character (MC):
Ordinary World – Stories begin just before the thing that ultimately changes the MC.
Call to Adventure – A need arises, the MC has a challenge.
Refusal/Commitment – the MC resists the challenge, doesn’t want to undertake the task but ultimately accepts that the challenge cannot be avoided.
Approaching the First Ordeal – The MC begins to understand the size of the challenge and the stakes are raised.
Ordeal – MC faces a serious challenge and overcomes.
Reward – a time of rest for the MC, sometimes a false sense of completion.
The Road/Resurrection – more complications, when things look much worse than expected and the biggest challenge met.
Mastery – The adventure resolves, often a sense of coming full circle. The MC has changed.
Okay, how might that play out in a magazine story? Let’s look at how it could play out in a short story synopsis:
genstore.jpgOrdinary World – A boy heads home from a day at the pool and stops in a store for a cold drink.
Call to Adventure – Unexpectedly, the beloved store owner isn’t there and in his place is a hostile woman whose attention constantly shifts to the backroom door.
Refusal/Commitment – The boy hurries through his purchase to get away from the unpleasant woman. Once outside, he sits down to sip his drink and notices a lot people coming and going through the back door of the building – something he’s never seen before. He begins to wonder what’s going on.
Approaching the First Ordeal – The boy watches the store, even creeping close enough to the back door to hear what sounds like a scuffle. Could the woman be doing something illegal and holding the real store owner prisoner. The boy runs to alert a trusted adult.
Reward – The boy returns to the story with the trusted adult, expecting to save the story owner. But the woman tells the trusted adult a believable story and even opens the door to the backroom, where everything is quiet. The boy has now lost the support of his trusted adult.
The Road/Resurrection – The MC sits outside, determined to find out what is really happening. At first everything is quiet, then someone comes out of the backroom door, sees the boy and chases him away. The boy sneaks back, finding a better vantage point to watch the shop. He’s caught and this time the bad guy decides to hold onto the boy until their goal is met. The boy is locked into the shop bathroom with the beloved store owner (now slightly injured).
Mastery – Because of his small size, the boy can escape through the cramped bathroom window, though not without some minor injury. He runs to his trusted adult, this time with “proof” – the real store owners ubiquitous cap – now with bloodstains. The trusted adult calls the police and the store owner is saved!
In real life, the trusted adult might have stormed over to the store and given the woman some real conflict, not giving up easily. But then the story would have shifted from being the main character’s adventure/challenge to being the story of the actions of a side adult character. To work as a story, the main character has to commit to the challenge and overcome the obstacle on his own.
Author’s Brief Bio
Since my first magazine publication in the 1980s, I have been steadily writing for money in some form. Today I have over twenty books in print and still more in the pipeline – books for children and adults. I’ve also written for magazines, educational publishers and even a toy company! Writing is the only thing I’ve ever done really well that didn’t eventually become more like work than fun.
Read more about Jan at www.janfields.com.
Photo courtesy of wallyir on morguefile.com.

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Posted in Business Side of Writing, Guest Post, Market Prep, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

How to Start Querying an Agent

letterbox.jpgguest post by author Jan Fields
First, of course, you need to find an agent you feel good about and learn what the agent wants. My favorite place for this is www.literaryrambles.com by Casey McCormick. If you look on the left-side column on Casey’s site, you’ll see agents grouped by what they represent. She’s spotlighted many agents and looked at what each agent represents and how the agent wants to be contacted. It’s really a treasure trove of help.
Now, after you’ve picked an agent. Try a Google search with just that agent’s name. Sometimes you can pull up even more information to help you really know what the agent wants to see from you (and sometimes the agent even has a blog where she/he puts queries that really snagged his/her attention. These are really priceless examples because they show how to effectively pitch to that agent. If the specific agent you’ve chosen doesn’t have that…poke around in Casey’s list to find some who do. It’s invaluable to check out examples.
Now, in the query/pitch itself, you can find wonderful, wonderful help on Nathan Bransford‘s site. Nathan isn’t agenting anymore but he has spent a massive amount of time helping writers to do this stuff right.
Here’s his query formula.
His good examples.
Even help with formating an email query.
Really, you’ll find a ton of help on Nathan’s site.
Former agent who has given tons and tons of help is Mary Kole who has a site called Kidlit.com. There she has: help with queries and more.
Agent Jennifer Laughran has a great bit about your author bio that goes in your query.
So, that’s a good bit of reading but it should really get you going on your agent hunt. Good luck!


Jan’s Brief Bio

“Since my first magazine publication in the 1980s, I have been steadily writing for money in some form. Today I have over twenty books in print and still more in the pipeline – books for children and adults. I’ve also written for magazines, educational publishers and even a toy company! Writing is the only thing I’ve ever done really well that didn’t eventually become more like work than fun.”
To read more go to Jan’s site.
Jan is also the editor of the Children’s Writers eNews. If you aren’t getting it, you’re missing out!

Thanks to Clarita on morguefile.com for the above image.

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