Writers in the Storm

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5 Secret Ingredients for Writing a Killer Teen Novel

by Kathleen Baldwin

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…

Potions and a steaming cauldron on a table with the words 5 secret ingredients for writing a killer teen novel floating eerily out of the steam
Scary Halloween laboratory

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.

What is the difference?

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.

My Top 5 Secret Ingredients…

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.

Only Splendid Characters Are Allowed into
the Inner Sanctum

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:Orphaned.

• Orphaned.

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.

• Parents died trying to save him.

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.

• Feels left out and alone.

This is a fairly universal experience, especially among young readers. Addressing and arcing this emotion is a critical factor in teen literature.

• The worst villain in the world wants to kill or convert him.

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.

• He’s smart but unassuming.

Readers relate to characters who are smart but not braggadocios. Clever but not all-knowing.

• Brave but not fearless.

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.

• He discovers he is gifted with special powers

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 Longstockings, Tris Prior in Divergent, Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief, and the list goes on for miles.

• Unpredictable Adventure

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.

Image of a magic top hat suspended in air at an angle with a magic wand sprinkling sparkling Secret Ingredients
for Writing a Killer Teen Novel into the hat.

Kathleen Baldwin’s Magical Marvelous Idea Jump-Starter Tool

Let’s employ Joss Whedon’s superbly relatable character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let us suppose Buffy is walking through a graveyard at midnight...

1. What’s Obvious?

What does your reader expect will happen? What idea pops into your head first? The obvious idea is:

  • vampire jumps out and attacks Buffy; they fight, and she wins.

Yawn.

2. What’s blatantly opposite?

Consider all the elements of the first concept and write down a directly opposite idea, no matter how inane or outlandish:

  • What if a happy clown pops out of a headstone and serenades Buffy.

Um, okay… that’s weird, but yes, it is the opposite and now I’m curious.

3. Expand

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.

  • An old lady sits in a rocker, knitting in the graveyard.

This is not quite as kooky as the clown, but let’s try to relate it to Buffy.

  • Buffy’s dead mother floats up singing a ghostly warning—eerily off-key.

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.

  • What if Buffy discovers a baby sleeping behind a tombstone?

Hhmm. I like it. How can we make this even more interesting?

  • What if the baby is a toddler? And maybe the little guy looks a lot like her missing boyfriend, Spike.

Nice! Now we’re getting somewhere!

  • Spike has been trapped in a time warp. Little toddler vampire Spike is crying, lost, alone, hungry… what’s a vampire killer to do?

Excellent! Now we have some intriguing useful unexpected conflict!

The goal is to make your reader wonder things such as:

  • What’s going on here?
  • Uh-oh, that baby looks like trouble…
  • Wait! Does this mean what I think it means?
  • Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen now?

Rules Make the world go around wrong!

Photograph of a kitten on a chess board staring down a row of white pawns, possibly considering the rules of writing a killer teen novel

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.

Get Real! Real Emotional — Real Logical

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.

Check your emotional logic with a teeny tiny eyelash comb.

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.”

Talk To Me — Voice

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.

Style.

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.

Content.

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.

Enrichment details.

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.

Commentary.

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.

There you have it! The 5 Secret Ingredients

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?

About Kathleen Baldwin

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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Book Cover 101: Mystery/Thriller

by Melinda VanLone

Last time here at Book Cover 101 we talked about how romance cover trends are changing in a huge way toward more illustrations instead of photography, but they aren’t the only covers that are shifting with the times.

Today let’s take a look at another huge genre category: Mystery/Thriller. While that’s really two genres I’m lumping them together because their covers play in the same sandbox, with slight variations. This includes psychological thrillers, spy thrillers, legal thrillers, police procedurals, private detective, and noir. Cozy mysteries have been and still are a little different from the rest, but I’ll cover them as well.

Trends in Mystery/Thriller Book Covers

Generally, the majority of mystery/thriller covers have always included darker tones, often with silhouetted figures rather than the faces you used to see on romances, except for cozy which almost always featured fun illustrations.

But these days, the tonal shift leans more toward an action movie poster vibe, rather than an ominous one.

For example, check out these bestsellers from a mere decade or two ago:

Image of four Mystery/thriller book covers: Deception Point by Dan Brown, the Firm by John Grisham, Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.
Four Mystery thriller covers: One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, The Cuckoo's calling by Robert Galbraith, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, and The Borne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
Four older Mystery/Thriller titles including And Then There were None by Agatha Christie, A Time to Kill by John Grisham, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.

Notice the tones…black, or off-black, or angry red but not bright red. In particular, notice the fonts. The biggest change I see lately is in the typography.

These older covers have plain fonts, for the most part. A lot of them use Futura or Helvetica (Arial). They’re mostly just stuck on there, with the author name being huge and the rest…meh, an afterthought. The background image was very much an integral part of the message, especially on a cover like Silence of the Lambs (before they put the movie version on).

New Trends for Mystery/Thriller Covers

The trend now is a lot more in your face with the fonts. The background is basically there to serve up the title in a nice contrasty way. Silhouetted people are almost non-existent. For example, these “most read” covers of 2021-2022 according to Goodreads:

A four by three grid of newer thriller/mystery book covers titled: Verity, The Locked Door, The Paris Apartment, The Last Thing He Told me, The Investigator, Run Rose Run, The Silent Patient, 22 Seconds, The Housemaid, The Night She Disappeared, The Golden Couple, Dream Town, At the Quiet Edge, A Good Girl's Guide to Murder, and What Happened to the Bennetts.

These covers would all make awesome action movie posters, which I think is the point of the current trend. One thing mystery/thriller covers have in common with romance these days is an aversion to real people/faces. At most, you get a view of someone’s back or a close-up of a body part.

I’m a huge fan of this trend because I think these covers are incredibly eye-catching. They make me want to click every time.

As with the current romance trend, though, I’m not sure they shout “mystery” or “thriller” anymore. I mean…unless murder is in the title, can you tell?

Trends in Cozy Mystery Book Covers

Cozy mysteries are shifting too, but it’s a lot more subtle. They still feature illustrations with a fun things-will-all-work-out-in-the-end vibe, but lately the artwork is less complex, and a bit brighter. For example, here are some bestsellers from a few years ago:

A four by two grid of older cozy Mystery book covers titled Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Murder is Binding, On What Grounds, Books can be Deceiving, The Quiche of Death, Arsenic and Adobo, The Royal Spyness, Strawberry Shortcake Murder, and The Secret Book & Scone Society.

See the fun scenes and catchy titles? Today, it’s inching ever so slowly toward less complex artwork, with a little more emphasis on brighter colors. It’s a subtle change, though, and not one that makes a huge difference. All of these still shout about fun times with murder.

Newer Cozy Mystery book covers titled: Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Follow Me for Murder, Death in Disguise, A view to a Kiln, Witchy Wednesday, A Dash of Death, Live Local and Dead, Murder at North Pond, No Stone Unturned, A deadly Bone to Pick, Birthdays are Murder, Pumpkin Spice & Deadly Heist.

Overall, as with romance, mysteries and thrillers are shying away from showing faces in favor of graphics and typography. Again I think the reason behind this is that stock photography hasn’t kept up with the growing demand for quality photos of new and diverse models.

It’s a lot easier and cheaper to pay an artist to draw something, and a lot easier for said artists to put their creations up on stock sites, than it is to buy an expensive camera, pay a model, get releases, etc.

If you write mysteries or thrillers, and your sales have slowed, you might think about upping your cover game, especially with regard to the typography. Treat your title as the main artwork, and make it bigger and more eye-catching. Let the background image support the words, rather than the other way around.

Have you noticed any mystery/thriller cover trends changing that I’ve missed? Be sure to mention them in the comments! (I'm open for all cover questions.)

Next time, we’ll dive into Fantasy and Sci-Fi. Until then, thanks for reading!­­­

About Melinda

Melinda VanLone is a coffee addict, a cat lover, and avid writer of stories about rascally heroes and sassy heroines who live happily ever after in spite of themselves. She shares her house with her fur babies and the love of her life, Mr. Melinda, who spends most of his time at home huddled under blankets because the thermostat remains under her iron control. 

When she's not playing with her imaginary friends you can find her designing covers that sell, taking brisk walks around the neighborhood and failing to resist the pistachio muffins at the nearest local coffee shop. Head on over to melindavan.com to check out her latest writerly doings, or hop over to bookcovercorner.com to peak at her cover designs.

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How to Create a Powerful Synopsis to Sell Your Novel

By Kris Maze

When sending out work to an editor or publisher, you will most often need a specific set of documents they will request. Query letter, check! First fifty pages, check! Synopsis, wait what? I don’t know why, but many of us balk at the thought of creating this tidy little summary of our book baby. We know our story, line by line, and know our characters intimately, so why is this difficult for many writers?

Fear not, dear writer. I’m going to list ten tips for a synopsis that can aid your journey to publication. Read on to craft an effective synopsis that can catch the attention of an agent and increase your chances of getting selected.

Ten Tips to Create a Powerful Synopsis

1. Know your Agent.

You have researched agents and what they represent. You have found out which books are the closest comparison titles and have identified the unique aspects of your book. Be sure to also know the specific way they prefer your synopsis.

Agents and publishers have guidelines for submitting work. It is very important to follow their instructions exactly. What they ask for may be as varied as the agents themselves. Here are some requirements I have encountered.

  • They may have their own portal, where the writers must paste their cover letter, first pages, and synopsis in digital form onto their website.
  • Some want a specific word count pasted right into the body of an email.
  • Others want an attachment placed on a website like Submittable or Moshka
  • Pay attention to the type of files they want. The most common I’ve seen is .docx, but we can turn many other files into these standard formats with a simple save.

Don’t let a formatting mistake lead to a rejection before an agent reads your work. Find out what they want and take the time to make it easy for them to read. This also gives a perspective editor a feel for how it would be to work with you. Let them understand you are willing to follow their rules.

Jane Friedman has a thorough post on how to write a synopsis and which pitfalls to avoid. It begins with why a synopsis is so important to agents.

2. Have a few formats ready.

When you are submitting your work to various agents, have a couple of variations ready in advance. Create a synopsis that can be altered easily to your needs and save yourself some time and stress.

  • a short length one (500 words)
  • a medium one (750–1000 words)
  • and some agents may request a more detailed, longer one (1500-2000).

This still is a tight amount of words, so the key is to edit and trim away all the excess. Be sure your synopsis is between 2 to 5 standard formatted pages when you prepare to submit your work.

3. Point of View.

Several editors have said to use a third person point of view in your synopsis. Even if you write in first person. The synopsis is a taste of your story, but the focus is on the story itself. Stick to the standard so your potential agent can focus on your character, key events, and fabulous story.

4. Edit. Edit. Edit.

Be brutal. Editors are getting a very trim version of your entire book, save the elegant elocution and clever turns of the dialogue for your first pages. Avoid filling your precious few synopsis words with too much world building or background. Your ability to state clearly what happens in your book will attract a publisher if it fits their needs. 

5. Less is more, but don’t leave anything out.

Impossible, right? Agent Carly Watters offers this advice for crafting a synopsis in this post as a “play-by-play” of your story. She continues to describe a simple synopsis as including:

  • Premise
  • rising action of conflict
  • climax
  • character growth
  • resolution

Watters shares the importance of not leaving out major turns in the plot and to reveal the ending.

“Yes, please tell us the ending! This is a common misconception. A synopsis isn't a query letter, and it isn't your back cover copy. Tell us how things resolve. Being able to resolve your manuscript is a big writerly skill and we want to see you can do it well.”

6. Tone It Down.

The tone of your synopsis should be plain and business-like. Save the fun and snarky for your manuscript. Reedsy offers a blog post filled with synopsis examples and tips that helps a writer whittle down their work to an easy-to-read summary of your book.

7. Vocabulary For World Building.

There is very little room for description, so build your world around the events with specific vocabulary. Find the words that best demonstrate your world and characterizations in your story and make them count. For example, when describing how a critical injury occurs to a main character, saying the weapon was a revolver, shotgun, light saber, or AK47 makes setting the time and place of your story easier.

8. Hook Your Reader.

Your synopsis must be to the point, but it shouldn’t be boring. Crafting a compelling synopsis that hints at your writing style will help agents know how you handle words. They want to know that you can write a focused piece describing your work and maintain your voice, too. Keep it quick and interesting and your synopsis may be the key to selling your book.

9. Fix Your Novel.

Do any parts of your synopsis seem flat? Repetitive? Now is the time to fix those plot holes and make alterations. It is amazing how rendering down a story can reveal tiny flaws (or big ones!) You want to send in only your best, so make the changes before you hit send.

10. Smile! You wrote a book!

And celebrate your hard work. It all comes down to chance and cosmic timing sometimes, but writing a solid synopsis can help keep the odds in your favor. When in doubt, go back to number one in this list and follow the agent’s instructions. Happy submitting and enjoy the process of submitting your work. You are building a reputation and taking steps to put your work into the world. It’s a big deal, and it is worth celebrating.

Tell us a story about your worst synopsis nightmare. Or share a tip about how to create a perfect synopsis. We'd love to hear it.

About Kris

Kris Maze author picture

Kris Maze works in education, teaching Spanish through stories. She writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. Maze published a YA dystopian novel by a small press in the summer of 2020. Lately, she has been entering and placing in writing competitions, such as NYC Midnight’s Short Story and Micro fiction contests. You can find her Sci-fi, dystopian, YA series, this summer and keep up with her author events at her website.

Here is a sneak peek of a scary short story collection coming out on her sister site KrissyKnoxx.com. Also available this summer in various formats.

book cover with girl looking at fireflies wearing dark clothes
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