Writing YA Fiction in 2018

The YA Journey

(Written for the 2018 MN Writing Workshop)

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The topic I’m mainly addressing today, writing young adult and middle grade fiction that compels the reader to not only start reading, but continue reading all the way through, is a daunting one. Writing a well-crafted, compelling story is difficult in any genre, in any era, but we all happen to be living and writing in the year 2018, a period in human history firmly in the grip of glowing screens that magically entertain and provide any type of distraction you can possibly imagine. Today’s writer is forced to compete with a media explosion unparalleled in human history and its biggest fans, hands down, is the same core audience whose attention we’re trying to grab. A potential reader of a young adult novel may also have the choice of playing an immersive virtual reality video game, or video chatting all night with literally every friend they have, or watching five straight hours of cat videos, all from the comfort of their pillow laden bedroom. How can a writer today compete with all this shiny, glowing noise?

Later on, I’ll go over a sheet full of various writing suggestions, much of it simply the soundest writing advice I can pass on to anyone, regardless of genre or target audience, but first I’d like to address the core strength of any young adult or middle grade novel.

That strength is you, the author.

The experience of reading a novel is, at its root, a conversation between author and reader. It’s an old form of conversation that goes back as far as people have been telling stories to each other to entertain, instruct, and to simply pass the time. Since a novel is a one-way conversation (until you read the comments on Amazon after your work is published, anyway) it is up to the author to be as engaging as possible and use every tool in their author toolbox to accomplish this. The plot needs to hook the reader early on, continue to flow in a way that not only maintains, but builds tension, while climbing the steep narrative hill toward a climactic moment that proves satisfying to the reader and their expectations.

Now, you can know all of this, rationally, but all the craft knowledge in the world will not help a story if the author behind it isn’t fully invested in the tale themselves. I believe the old cliché, “Why will your reader be invested in your story if you’re not?” is even more pertinent to young people’s literature than adult lit. Why? Because young people have a great bullshit detector. Young people can tell when an adult isn’t having fun telling them a story (or teaching a class, which, in a way, is another form of storytelling). Young people can tell when a storyteller is phoning it in, even if they forgive them for it because they want to be told a story so badly in the first place. One of the biggest selling authors of all-time, J.K. Rowling, wasn’t the first author to write about young wizards, or even a school of wizardry, but she was obviously as invested in the world she’d created as she could be, infusing it with her own sense of wonder, her own joy at creating something, and obviously people around the world, of all ages, responded to that wonder. Because Rowling captivated herself first, with her own unique take on an established genre, she was able to captivate others. Computer programmers will never come up with a novel writing program that can duplicate that. (Well, at least, it’s probably going to take a while. Who knows, right?)

Despite what you may read online, the greatest challenge for an author is not sitting down at a desk and pushing yourself to write. It’s not even mastering the craft of writing (which is challenging enough, even if you have fifty years of writing time at your disposal). The greatest challenge, if a writer hopes to write something that truly transcends the mundane, something people remember and love, is being able to look inside your own heart, your own mind and soul, and finding something you feel truly excited to share, something unique to you and you alone.

Of course, this can be a very scary thing to do, a process you may not be able to fully control, a process tied to emotions you’d rather not deal with. If my own personal psyche is any indication, there be monsters in those depths, and not all of them are friendly, either. For me, the act of writing is a lot like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I go through another day as working adult, with its ups and downs, and then I go into my bedroom office in the evening, usually around eight or nine PM, and sit down in front of my computer. I open up Word (just like I’ve been opening it up since Word 97 came out over twenty years ago), put on music, light a stick of incense, and suddenly my bedroom-office is transformed into a dimly-lit jungle filled all sort of beasts, roaring wild things I must assert myself over lest they sense my fear and tear me apart.

It is in this jungle, among all the rowdy wild things, among everything that brings me joy and everything that terrifies me, that I do my best and most interesting work. This is where I give myself permission to ask “what if”, no matter how ridiculous the question may sound when uttered aloud. This is where I take off my grownup armor (which is so heavy, so riven with old scars, and really, so boring) and truly focus only on what I find interesting. What’s interesting enough to maintain my interest over an entire 60,000 word novel, what’s interesting enough to make me spend time developing this or that character, what’s interesting about this scene, this line of dialogue, this sentence, even this particular adjective I’m using to describe something.

Later, after I have a rough draft down, I begin to refine the wild things I’ve returned from my mental jungle with. I smooth down their edges and trim as much excess as possible. In the new state, this editing state, I become keenly aware of my audience and the fact that I’m asking them to spend their precious time with my creations. I’m trying to get them to listen to me, somebody they don’t even know, for several hours while the clamor of the modern world blares all around them, tugging at their attention.

A good, if admittedly extreme, example of how arduous the editing process can be is my most recent novel, The Town Built on Sorrow. A YA horror novel, a paperback copy of SORROW weighs in at around 270 pages. To get to this point, I was forced to rewrite SORROW from scratch three times, amassing around a thousand pages of new content. The first draft, which I originally pegged as an adult literary novel, weighed in at over 400 pages. I read this draft, thought about it for a while, and decided it wasn’t up to snuff. I wasn’t full compelled by it. It didn’t ring true.

But I did like the rough draft’s setting, the flashback sequences, and one of the main characters, a fourteen-year-old girl named Harper Spurling. So I rewrote a second draft focusing on Harper and her family, now rotating between each family member’s point of view, chapter by chapter. I liked this all-new second draft, which weighed in at another 350 pages or so, enough to send to my agent, who acts as my first (and sometimes only) reader. I still considered SORROW a literary novel at this point but it was my agent that pointed out two important things: A) SORROW obviously wanted to be a horror novel and B) Harper Spurling was easily the most interesting character in the novel. Armed with these two revelations, which would have made my life a lot easier if I’d have known them going in, I wrote a third draft primarily from Harper’s point of view, which now necessarily made it a young adult novel, since she was a teenager, and let the darkness and supernatural elements of the story really flow, which made it a full-on horror novel. On the positive side, all that time and effort I’d put in on the novel’s earlier drafts had allowed me to really get to know the novel’s setting, the haunted town of Hawthorn, and I’ve never had an easier experience writing a novel than I did working on this 3rd from-scratch draft.

Today, anybody reading The Town Built on Sorrow hopefully enjoys the experience of a smooth, page-turning read that engrosses them. They don’t see all time and effort the author put in to get to this point—if they stop to ponder the process of the book’s composition at all—and they can finish the entire book in a few short hours and move on with their lives. For all they know, I wrote the whole thing down in a few weeks, not over two laborious years.

And that’s a good thing.

That means I did my job.

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 Another idea I find helpful when I write young adult fiction is remembering that every young person (like all of us) is on a journey of their own, and that their journey is still just beginning. Because of this quality of freshness, every event in their young life feels like the opening of an epic quest novel, the seemingly static part where the hero or heroine is still waiting for an inciting event to occur, like Bilbo Baggins before Gandalf knocks on his front door. Teens and tweens are still in the early stages of mapping out not only the exterior world around them, but their own inner world as well.

You can see this journey playing out in the books they read. Middle grade fiction, usually aimed at readers between eight and twelve years old, tends to focus on fun plots, with lots of action and zippy dialogue to keep the reader turning pages, while young adult fiction, roughly aimed at readers from twelve to seventeen, often dives more deeply into the interior life of its characters, who often are tasked with facing hard decisions while gradually realizing that the choices they make can have a profound effect on their entire life. By reading about the lives of fictional characters, young people are allowed to dip into a variety of life experiences and see how a variety of decisions and behavioral patterns play out without experiencing any personal risk themselves. A good book is not only an escape for a young reader, it is a safe space to encounter a variety of terrifying things, from the death of a parent to a first sexual experience to a zombie apocalypse.

I recently watched the 1974 film Alice in the Cities. Directed by Wim Wenders, who is best known for Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, the beginning of Alice in the Cities delivers a classic misdirect. The first twenty minutes of the film focuses on a melancholic German travel writer named Phil Winter who is returning to New York City after a tour of America, feeling even more lost and confused than before he began the tour. Then, well after the film is under way, Phil encounters a girl named Alice and her mother. Both Germans themselves, Alice and her mother are also on their way back to Germany.

The film’s big twist comes when Alice’s mother abandons Alice in Phil’s care, instructing him to return to Germany with Alice in tow—she will meet them both a few days later, after she resolves some romantic business in New York. Not only does Phil (implausibly) agree to travel with Alice back to Europe, from this point on Alice, a charismatic force of nature despite being only nine years old, basically hijacks Phil’s life for several days. Alice and Phil proceed to travel around Germany for the rest of the film, looking for both Alice’s relatives and a sort of understanding of the world itself that seems to be eluding each of them. The film we thought, at its beginning, would be about a morose German travel writer becomes the story of a young girl trying to find her place in the world while enlisting a driftless adult to help her do so.

In a DVD liner notes essay about the film, Allison Anders writes:

American cinema has presented a view of children as innocent and incomplete versions of adults since the very beginning of the medium. From before Shirley Temple to the present day made-for-kids fare, we simple can’t seem to escape defining children on-screen as, at best mini-adults and, at worst, idiot savants or creatures possessed of magical innocence. We rarely see them present as complex, flawed beings full of desires that elude control of their parents and other elders….It’s as if the entire fabric of American life would come apart if a child were presented as whole and autonomous on screen.

While I mostly agree with Anders that children are frequently idealized in American film and television (think of any kid on any network sitcom), I think young people are as fully fleshed out and realized, warts and all, as they’ve ever been in fiction. This is partly due to the explosion in young people’s literature in general, and the writer talent rush that’s followed it, but I think it’s also due to the inherent advantage in the medium of literature compared to film. Literature allows for a depth of character study film can’t compete with, no matter how hard it tries or how often it falls back on clever first person POV shots or first person narrations.

A good YA novel gives its audience hundreds of pages to peel back the layers of a character as they proceed upon their journey. An author is free to reveal the interior of a character, either in first or third person point of view, as deeply as they want, allowing the characters personality to not only influence the novel’s plot, but to pervade the entire work from the first word until the last. Readers in general, and I think young people in particular, enjoy this aspect of literature; they love to lose themselves in a fictional character and the character’s particular POV while also seeing aspects of themselves, of their own struggles, hopes, dreams, and sorrows, in that character as well. A film, due to its very nature, forces its audience to remain at least one step removed from the characters we watch on screen. We can watch them, and empathize with them, but we can’t exactly become them. A good novel, propelled by the powerful machinery of the imagination, enables its audience to slip into its characters as smoothly as if they’re putting on a new shirt, taking them along on an empathetic journey that the reader, distracted by the story’s plot, dialogue, and particular world, hardly realize they’re taking at all.

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 I’m always a little hesitant to speak at a workshop like this. I’m worried about the “How to Get Published” mentality in general, as if getting published were the greatest end you could possibly achieve in life, or is even necessarily desirable in terms of a person’s growth as an artist and a human being. Getting advice and knowledge from publishing industry experts is all well and good, a fun way to spend a Saturday, but if you don’t put in the time and effort necessary to write a really good book, a compelling book with a voice all its own, knowing how to write a snappy query letter isn’t going to get you very far. I know, I know. This isn’t probably the sexiest thing a publishing workshop speaker could say. We now live in a lifehack obsessed society pervaded with all forms of instant gratification-if you want to publish your book yourself, you could go home and do it right now.

But the longer I write, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the grind of writing and rewriting, the polishing effect such a long and often exhausting process has, both on my writing and myself as a person. As clunky, slow, and often infuriating as the publishing industry can be, it can offer its own particular lessons about the usefulness of patience, whether you want to learn them or not. I’ve written seventeen novels. As of today, I’ve only published five, and several of my unpublished novels came after I’d gotten an agent and published my first novel.

It’s amusing to me that writing for a YA and middle grade readership, a core audience that is well known for impulse decisions, impatience, and fluctuations in temperament, requires such an extreme amount of patience, planning, and steadiness, character traits that usually take time and experience to acquire. You need to be able to not only know yourself, you need to possess the ability to dip back into the self you once knew, way back during the hormonal hot zone of adolescence. You need to take your time to craft something truly excellent while recalling, somewhere in the back of your mind, that your own time on this planet is limited, so it’s probably a good idea to get the important stuff as quickly as possible, the stuff that moves and interests you as a human being. Writing is a journey you embark on alone while hoping, against all odds, that you return with something that resonates with others. A good writer not only entertains, they connect with their audience on multiple levels.

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