Today I will give you 5 secret ingredients that will inspire teens to shell out their allowance money to buy your super-cool teen novel. And not just teens…
If you are writing Young Adult fiction, nearly 50% of your audience may be adults.
Yep, and some of them might be as old as eighty or maybe even ninety. Age doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t, not when it comes to reading teen novels. Some people stay young at heart forever. So whether the average YA reader is 65 or 12, when they pick up your book, they’re looking for a novel with some very specific features.
Those features may not be the ones you think they are…
When I got into the fiction business, I assumed I was writing romantic comedies for adults. Ha! Apparently not. My brother-in-law, a professor of English at a prestigious university and at the time also president of the National English Teachers Association, said, “You do realize you are writing YA, don’t you?”
I insisted he was wrong, but a few months later, a prominent book reviewer contacted me requesting an interview. “Kathleen, you do know you are writing YA, don’t you? And you really ought to be more intentional about it.”
More intentional??? I intended to write comedic, satirical romances like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. I thought that was what I’d done. Following the book reviewer’s stern lecture, I decided to figure out why everyone thought I was writing YA.
I needed to know, so I read YA and middle-grade fiction. I studied manuals on writing for that market. Some advice seemed to fit, some did not. I read more books, talked with teens and librarians, and kept reading.
(Did you notice the abundant use of the word read?) Here’s a quote from New York Times bestselling author Tony Hillerman “When I was teaching writing — and I still say it — I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading.”
After reading and studying, I tackled a new series armed with an arsenal of YA-centric secret weapons. My alternate history for teens garnered multiple offers and finally sold to TorTeen—MacMillan’s teen publishing imprint at Tor Forge. The New York Times Sunday Book review called School for Unusual Girls, “…enticing from the first sentence.” Kansas NEA awarded it “Best of the Best” for high schools, it was a featured Junior Library Guild Selection, Texas ALA made it part of their SPOT middle grade reading program, and it was optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Saving Private Ryan, Spiderman, Transformers, and other blockbusters.
I mention these accolades so you’ll have confidence that I know a little something about writing a successful teen novel.
Dozens of websites out there can give you the basics, but I figure you here at WITS are above all that. You’re ready for the secret sauce recipe, right? You already know the main characters can’t be thirty-five, that mama can’t ride in on her white stallion and save the kid from all the trouble he’s gotten into, and generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to throw in any graphic language or erotica. Although…I’ve seen that done. I’m not advocating it, just saying the lines keep shifting, and I’ve seen it done.
The first secret ingredient is a relatable character. “Okay, okay,” I hear you saying, “That’s not a secret. There are hundreds of books on characterization.” And I suspect you’ve probably read dozens of them. I’m with you. My personal favorite is an older book by Robert Peck called Fiction is Folks.
Pssst, the actual secret is building a character that teenagers trust enough to allow into their inner sanctum, a character they can identify with. Trouble is, there isn’t just one character type everyone will find relatable. Not that you’re writing for everyone. You’re not! You are writing for YOUR unique reader. See my post on finding YOUR reader.
However, there seem to be several character traits that have a remarkably universal appeal. Harry Potter is one of the most widely-loved characters in Fictionville. Let’s examine his relatability factors:
While not all of us have been orphaned, many readers have felt left out, unloved, or unimportant at one time or another in their lives. the issue is not whether your character has both living parents, one, or none. The feeling of being abandoned and on their own is the critical component.
This is a hopeful characteristic. Even though now others minimize him and make him feel valueless, at one time Harry was so important his parents and others were willing to die to save him. This goes to the reader’s need to feel important despite external evidence.
This is a fairly universal experience, especially among young readers. Addressing and arcing this emotion is a critical factor in teen literature.
This is a handy factor. The fact that this terrifyingly powerful villain is after him validates Harry’s importance while also providing jeopardy and conflict for the story.
Readers relate to characters who are smart but not braggadocios. Clever but not all-knowing.
It’s okay to be afraid. Fear is normal. Most readers crave a fictional experience wherein a character overcomes their fears. However, a total cowering scaredy-cat might be a turn-off.
Characters with a gift or gifts are appealing—it needn’t be magic, but it does need to be something interesting. All of us are gifted in some way or another. It is exciting, rewarding, and satisfying to discover those gifts. Consider Anne of Green Gables. She wasn’t magic; she was irrepressible and incurably enthusiastic and able to lift the spirits of people around her.
Take a look at other successful characters who share many of Harry Potter’s appealing traits: Luke Skywalker, Cinderella, Snow White, Black Beauty, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Tris Prior in Divergent, Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief, and the list goes on for miles.
Take your interesting relatable characters and plunge them into an unpredictable adventure! WHOA! Wait, don’t grab your pencil just yet.
Busting free of predictability is trickier than you think. You have watched, read, or listened to thousands of stories. THOUSANDS! In his brilliant book on plot, Robert McKee warns us not to use the first five ideas that come to mind. The first five ideas will be mimics of ones we have seen, heard, or read. He encourages writers to brainstorm until they reach the tenth idea. Then they’ll begin getting fresher ideas. Go ahead, try it. Getting to ten is tough.
Years ago, I put my psychology background to use and built a brainstorming shortcut that I shared with many of my writing students. I love this tool. It is so handy that it has been plagiarized all over the internet. I want to give it to you today in its original form along with my commentary. It tricks your brain into bypassing the stuff you’ve seen a hundred times.
Let’s employ Joss Whedon’s superbly relatable character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let us suppose Buffy is walking through a graveyard at midnight...
What does your reader expect will happen? What idea pops into your head first? The obvious idea is:
Consider all the elements of the first concept and write down a directly opposite idea, no matter how inane or outlandish:
Um, okay… that’s weird, but yes, it is the opposite and now I’m curious.
At this point, your brain will be forced out of the expected scenarios and into the unexpected range. Now think of 5 or more opposite but slightly less outlandish ideas. Allow yourself to expand upon each idea.
This is not quite as kooky as the clown, but let’s try to relate it to Buffy.
Better. Her mom’s ghost is more interesting than the old lady. Push it further, and because it’s for teens, the mom may not be the best choice.
Hhmm. I like it. How can we make this even more interesting?
Nice! Now we’re getting somewhere!
Excellent! Now we have some intriguing useful unexpected conflict!
Rules. Rules. Rules. Every game has rules.
This third ingredient seems ironic. The idea of rules sounds counter to anything a young adult might like, right? Except it turns out they’re essential to a successful YA story. Like all the rest of us, teens are confronted with rules all the time. Learning how to handle, circumvent, live happily with, or overcome wicked rules is a crucial part of our human experience.
Plunge your relatable characters into an unpredictable adventure and pit them against a system of, what I call, adversarial rules.
Fortunately, there are hundreds of rules and regulations beyond governmental systems available for you to use: societal norms, scientific laws, magic canons, unwritten expectations, parental strictures, school rules, physical and natural laws, etc..
For instance, in John Green’s bestselling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel and Augustus are up against the natural laws and medical rules pertaining to cancer.
Hunger Games is a straightforward example of the main character being pitted against an unjust governmental regime.
On the other hand, in Harry Potter, the magic world rules are not unjust, but Voldemort has abused them, and Harry must learn them and break them to save the day.
Anne of Green Gables is a lovely example of the rules consisting of local conventions and status quo, both of which she must confront to achieve happiness.
In the masterpiece, Lord of the Flies, Simon must struggle to survive the life-threatening tyranny of lawless rule from his peers.
Readers read for vicarious emotional experiences. Whether you are writing high fantasy or a contemporary issue novel, your emotions must splash across the page in a big way. They must strike your reader with a dramatic slug to the gut and yet be grounded in rock-solid logic.
These two ingredients, angst and logic, may seem like fire and water, except they aren’t. Strong emotions and logic are more akin to the relationship between yeast and flour in breadmaking. They work together to create powerful results even though they seem like opposites. Handle them together because if they don’t work together properly, neither one rises.
A story may be spiced with relatable characters and stirred with imaginative action, but without powerful emotions and ironclad logic, it will land flatter than a saltless soda cracker.
Run it through beta readers, friends, and critique partners. Ask them to note any missing emotional reactions, and point out any passages where the emotions don’t make sense, are unclear, lack depth of feeling, or don’t feel realistic.
Employ body language and visceral reactions in your writing. Make your readers’ pulses race and their palms sweat right along with your characters. Margie Lawson’s WITS posts are extremely helpful for learning how to get believable emotion on the page.
Additionally, your overall story arc needs to bear a dramatic and satisfying change. That emotional dynamic will be why your reader tells her best friend, her mom, and the neighbor girl that they must read your book. It will be the reason a dental assistant will say dreamily as she’s cleaning your teeth, “I read the best book yesterday.”
Voice, our fifth ingredient, is a somewhat ethereal concept to discuss and deserves an entire treatise of its own. There are several good discussions here on WITS. Type voice into the search bar, and you’ll find several helpful posts. I am particularly fond of this one by Julie Glover,
Your voice is all about who you are and allowing that to come out on the page. So, my suggestion is to relax and be open and truthful. Teens can spot phoniness from ten miles away. And whatever you do, don’t talk down to them.
What is voice, exactly? More importantly, what is your voice? I’ll briefly mention the how, what, where, and why of voice.
Most writers have a unique way of putting words together, and that’s part of voice. Your personality influences HOW you tell a story—your construction and delivery.
What stories do you have hidden inside you? What do you think about the world? What experiences from your life will you bring into your work? Content is all about WHAT you want to say.
This is the WHERE of your voice. Where have you lived? Where have you traveled? Everything you write is enriched by your experiences and your distinctive way of looking at the world.
This is the WHY of your writing. Why are you telling this story? What hidden truths are you sneaking into our subconscious? Whether you know it or not, when you tell a story, you communicate your perceptions of the world.
I hope these five powerful elements, characterization, unpredictability, rules, emotional logic, and voice, will resonate with you and enhance your writing. Now it’s your turn!
Do you have any secrets for writing for teens you can share with us?
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Kathleen Baldwin is an award-winning author with more than 620,000 copies of her books in the hands of readers around the globe. Her books have been translated into several languages, and a Japanese publisher even made Lady Fiasco into a manga. Stranje House, her alternate history series for teens was licensed by Scholastic for school book fairs and optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Spiderman, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan, and other blockbuster films.
Kathleen loves teaching writing. She’s excited her high-demand class on Scene & Sequel—A Super-Powered Writing Tool is now available as a lecture/workbook packet through Margie Lawson’s Writing Academy.
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