The premise I have and where I see my story unfolding is not for the faint hearted. I’m not sure Middle Grade is the right label to give it because of the heartache I seem to be piling on the reader. In my story, people die. That’s what happens, that’s life. What age range should bereavement be safe to write about without scarring the reader for all eternity? Death deals its hand whenever it likes, it’s not our choice. Should this be the same for books?
My story has been through the procrastination mill so many times. I have changed POV twice, the main character was young and now she’s much older than I first imagined her. And then there is death and loss. Great big jars of sombre scenes mixed in with the more light-hearted journey she must take. You know, to lighten the mood. Is it MG or is it YA? Would I let my 11 AND my 8-year-old read it? Would they have nightmares or would they have ‘what happens next’ moments when they resist bedtime to read under the covers?
Going by varied feedback on my novel, I decided to find out once and for all where I need to lay my literary hat with this particular tale. So, I headed straight for uncharted (for me anyway) territory and talked to those in the know. I plucked up the courage to step into the unknown and went along to see if my story could perhaps find a new home, a home that would welcome it in with open arms and say something fantastic like “ah, there you are, we’ve been expecting you” or such wonderful, genre-affirming words.
I found myself in one of the oldest pubs in Edinburgh, surrounded by members of SCBWI, Scottish Book Trust and Scottish Writer’s Centre. I knew I had found the right place to start looking for answers. I was home and as luck would have it Keith Gray had come for tea.
I knew that I was in safe hands.
Between my undecipherable notes, my memory of the workshop and what he actually said, here are my thoughts on it all…
Pen and paper at the ready, I scribbled notes as fast as I could. There was so much information flying around I didn’t want to miss one word of it. Note to self – take laptop next time.
In 1996, Keith Gray published his first book, Creepers. Back in the day it was called Teen Fiction. And for various reasons the international version was slightly toned down for the markets abroad. As he so rightly said, it’s YOUNG ADULT not DIET ADULT. Warts and all, that’s what I say. Give them everything.
Sadly some gatekeepers don’t agree with that but who can honestly put their hand up and say they didn’t look for the good bits, the sweary words or the kissing scenes when they were 13?
Junk by Melvyn Burgess had just reached its political heights in the House of Commons and it seemed like the world was at war with itself trying to decide what was/was not appropriate for ‘children’ to read. With a strap line of ‘Trainspotting for kids’, I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that was on the political agenda. And back in ’83 here’s me thinking hiding ‘Forever’ by Judy Blume from the nuns was the most exciting thing ever!
Questions focus the mind, they make you stop and think about what you really want to say/write/achieve. It turned out I would ask myself a lot of questions during the course of the evening and sometimes the answers I had surprised me. There are so many clichés out there that could explain what I mean, like the plague, I’m avoiding them at all costs.
Why am I here? No, not a question about my cells joining together to make a human, but why was I here at the event? What did I expect from it with regards to my knowledge of the YA world? What reason did I give myself to justify the purchase of a ticket?
The answer that came to me was this… because the MG I am writing appears to be heading in a darker direction but I still think of it is a children’s book and not an adult novel. I wanted to come along and hear what is considered YA. Perhaps to find out the potential leap I have to make, forward or back, to fit in with the audience I would eventually like to read my tale.
Teenagers or Young Adults, whatever you feel fits your target audience best, are a hurricane of emotions. They are flesh and blood volcanoes about to explode. Signs that read ‘tread carefully’ are plastered all over them as they make their way through the most influential years of their lives. They are constantly running, desperate to get through the hormonal shifts. They are so busy wishing it all over that they completely forget to stop and enjoy the fun before adulthood arrives with a bang.
Would you go back to being 14, 15 or 16 again? I’m not sure I would want to. But in order for me to write for that age group, I need to remember what I was like at that age. How else can I get into the psyche of a teen unless I raid my memory banks? I have the proverbial t-shirt after all.
What happens to a young person as they enter into their teenage years? There’s the obvious external changes of lumps and bumps and the internal freedom they now feel along with this new body they have – wow, look what I can do, they shout! But what is going on inside their heads? How do I channel my inner teen? The knowledge I have now makes it impossible to remember what I would have thought back then, it’s difficult to erase the learning you have gained over the years. But where there is Keith, there is hope.
One way of travelling back in time without the use of a DeLorean, is this:
- think of an event you remember from back then, good or bad.
- close your eyes and relive it in your mind.
- for the following, write down exactly what you remember, with your eyes closed (no more than 6 words for each answer) When was it? Where was it? Who were you with? What could you see? What could you hear? What were you doing at the exact time of the memory? What did you feel? All of these answers are from a teenagers POV.
- What was the outcome? If this event was a movie, what would be the title? The answers to these questions are from an adults POV, you are now experienced in the game of life so you know what is right and wrong and the consequences involved.
I decided the scar on my chin needed explaining so I delved into the memory I have of the roller skates I received for my 12th birthday. They were awesome. ‘Apollo’ in gold along the sides. Red, white and blue. I didn’t listen to my mum when she said not to go down the middle of the hill but to stick to the paths, especially when it’s raining. Need I say any more? One skint knee, one flappy bit of skin flying around that used to be on my chin and a wee trip to Leith Hospital (now changed into houses) for a butterfly stitch or two. Mum wasn’t home that day so I had to be brave.
What do you read when you’re writing? There is only one answer to this. Read whatever you like but read everything you can. From The Gruffalo to The Fault In Our Stars, literature expands your mind.
The book you are writing is not for you, it’s for the anxious, hormonal teenager out there that needs to hear what you have to say. It might even prompt them to start writing too, jotting down their own life stories in padlocked diaries away from prying sibling eyes. Let’s face it, if we don’t nurture our young readers then who is going to write in the future?
FACT: For every SEVEN YA books sold there is only ONE adult book purchased. Who says YA doesn’t sell?
You are not the readers parent, your job as a writer is to tell the best story you possibly can. Remember yourself as a teenager. Learn by your mistakes.
My favourite quote of the night: “You are much uncooler than you think you are”. I know. Sob.
Trends move too quickly, what might be the ‘in thing’ right now will pass by the time you finish your draft, submit it, edit it and publish it. Think out the box. What do teenagers want to read about?
If you write a controversial book, put on your best Girl Guide hat and BE PREPARED. You will need to defend yourself at every opportunity. On school visits, on blogs, on radio interviews. There will be people who don’t think kids show know about sex, drugs and rock n roll until they are married. Each to their own but there can’t be a sweeping generalisation of what should be spoon fed to our youth. As a teenager, I wanted to know everything. One third curiosity and two-thirds because I didn’t believe what my sisters told me would happen when I grew up.
Gatekeepers, a name given to those who will decide whether or not your book is ready for their charges to read. In one corner of the ring you have the teachers, then in another, the librarians and opposite them are the grandparents/parents/carers and then in the last corner are the publishers. Ding ding, can you survive the first round? If you can get past all of these groups unscathed then you have reached your goal. Your book will reach its intended audience at last. Celebrate. You did it.
Bad words, a collection of popular but unfit words that can cause eye brows to rise and tongues to start wagging. However, treading carefully around this subject will not work if that’s how your MC speaks. The hells, shits and piss you offs of this world may be here to stay, in other words, they can be a realistic attempt at conveying a character’s anger or frustration – so let it flow. If you take out the swear words, who are you doing it for? Are you going to portray your characters as they are or be moralistic and preach?
Rules for Writing YA
- You cannot write for YA as an adult, you need to step into their shoes and relive your youth.
- Kids like to read up – if your MC is 16, your reader will probably be 12,13+
- Relatable – could you visualise yourself in your MC’s shoes? Would the reader be interested in them enough to read on and turn the page?
- Urgency – do something to their world, it must change otherwise the reader will get bored.
- POV – mainly 1st person
- Know your competition – you are fighting the internet, books provided for homework, sports clubs, xboxs etc to grab their attention.
- Find your ideal reader – maybe someone you met at school, a best friend from your teenage years. Picture them as your MC from how you remember them not what they are like now.
FACT: YA books are mainly bought by 20+ year-old women.
Social Media is not your friend (yet) – regardless of how nice it is to you, it is not your friend. It makes hours, days and months disappear from your writing time without you even realising it. Having accounts on every single source out there may save you set-up time after you get published but they are not what will GET you published.
YOUR BOOK WILL GET YOU PUBLISHED. Be strong. Limit your time on them, log off and get writing.
The Writer’s Pyramid, start from the bottom and work your way up:
writing it down
full of ideas full of ideas
wannabe wannabe wannabe
Write every day. Easy. Anyone can write every day: shopping lists, diary entry… seriously though, if you have any hope of finishing your masterpiece then write at least 2,000 words every day. No short cuts. Just write it.
Now, where was I? Oh yes.