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 The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools

Show/Hide, Etc.

If you’re not using this tool in your word processor when things go wonky with a Word document, you’re missing out.

I recently had a student send me her article. She was so frustrated with the text jumping from one page to the next. It left a huge white space at the end of one page. And no matter what she did, she couldn’t fix it. Turns out she had a Section Break (Next Page) creating havoc.

How did I know?

I turned on Show/Hide (¶). It’s on my Home toolbar menu represented by the paragraph mark ¶. If you can’t find it, use the Help on your word processor and search for it. In some word processors, Help is represented by a question mark. I’m using the most recent version of MS Word.

What does Show/Hide do?

It shows hidden characters created by the system. A single space, such as the spaces between my words, is a raised dot ·. End of paragraph is ¶. (Mine are blue to contrast with my text—yours may be a different color.) Show/hide displays the column breaks, section breaks, and page breaks, too. It lets you see what’s going on behind the text.

For this student, it also showed me that she was using five spaces instead of an indent at the start of paragraphs. If one uses the tab to indent a paragraph, most word processors “learn” that is what is wanted and all new paragraphs will be indented automatically saving the writer time and effort. Note: Indent on your menu moves the left margin of an entire paragraph to the right. Tab only goes to your first tab which is usually one-half inch.

I’ve used Show/Hide and found places where I had multiple spaces when only one was needed. A Find and Replace can take care of that issue. (Under the Edit menu. Find space space, Replace All space). No more duplicate spaces.

How to fix an unwanted break

Usually your cursor can be put after the full expression of the break (at the right) and then you backspace which will delete it.

Sometimes, it’s resistant. Then, I’ve copied the text around it, including the pesky break, and pasted it into a new document by using Paste Special. (Under the Edit menu.) When the window pops up with options, choose Unformatted Text. This will paste it in without any extra formatting. Copy that and repaste over the same section in your original document.

If all else fails, copy the entire document and Paste Special, Unformatted Text in a new document. You will lose headers, but you can go back and copy the original header and paste into the new document. You also may lose double-spacing, and blank lines at the beginning of your manuscript, but those are easily fixed.

How to add a break

Say you’ve reached the end of your article and you want to add the bibliography to your document. Instead of using return/enter until you reach a new page (which, if you make any changes earlier in the document, won’t leave the vertical spacing correct) use Insert Break. My version of Word shows Insert next to Home. I click on it and can choose Page Break. Or on the very top menu line, I can chose Insert and then Page Break. The same method works at the end of a chapter in a novel so the new one starts on a new page. Your word processor may have this option elsewhere, but most offer it. Again, use Help if you can’t find it.

One last important tool

The rulers. I always have this on. The top one—a horizontal ruler—lets me see what is happening with my margins and tabs. The one on the left, shows me where I am vertically on the page. It also shows the top and bottom margins. I find it under View, either as a checkbox or as the word Ruler which I check by clicking on it.

Yes, word processors can be frustrating. But if you learn to use the tools that are offered, they can be a big help.

Additional Notes:

  • You can always search youtube.com for a how to. For example, this is a recent video on Show/Hide: https://youtu.be/XK9lw-2Rrmg
  • Google docs does not have the same options that a Word document has. It’s compatible with Word. I do not recommend opening a document in Google docs if you are planning to make comments and send back to the original writer. Instead download it, and open in Word.
Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools

One Day Virtual Write-In

Our 8 member writing group has once or twice yearly writing retreats. We enjoy time together, eat together, and get lots of work done. We make it affordable by staying at someone’s house (or cabin) with everyone bringing food. We share in cooking and cleanup. This year our scheduled retreat was in May. Obviously Covid-19 canceled that.

We rescheduled for July. This time instead of totally cancelling, we agreed on a substitute–a virtual write-in. If it goes well, we will probably repeat.

I thought our schedule might be of interest to others.

ONE DAY VIRTUAL WRITE-IN SCHEDULE

8:30am              meet via Zoom
– PJs welcome.
– Bring a cup of coffee or tea, maybe a pastry or an egg, or some fruit.
– While we eat, we chat.
– Each one shares what project they will be working on this morning.

12noon            meet via Zoom
– Chat for a half hour.
– Then eat your own lunch and return to work.

4:00pm            meet via Zoom
– Talk about your day’s progress.
– Play game.

Children’s book question game:

  • All of us prepare a few children’s book related questions ahead of time.
  • Whoever raises their hand first and answers correctly gets a point. If no one guesses, the asker gets a point.
  • On to the next person until everyone has had a chance to ask three questions. (Prepare a few more in case someone uses yours!)
  • The winner gets a big hurrah from all of us.

In addition, the Zoom “room” will be open all day.

  • If someone wants to chat with someone for a bit, they could get on and see if anyone else is on.
  • Or text someone and ask them to meet.

We may decide to meet back after dinner and share some work for critique, or wait for our next Zoom critique meeting.

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.