Writing for Young Adults

Want to write stories for Young Adults?  Hard to blame you.  It’s a large market, and some authors have become successful in aiming for it.  If you, like J. K. Rowling, happen to write a YA story that also appeals to adults, then your story’s market is that much bigger.

Perhaps your purpose in writing YA stories is more complex than a direct desire for money or fame.  One web commenter has suggested writer Robert Heinlein wrote YA (then called ‘juvenile’) novels to shape a young audience, to prepare readers for later buying his brand of adult novels.  If true…wow!  That’s thinking ahead!

Whatever your reason for wanting to write for it, the YA market is an interesting one.  It took until about 1900, several hundred years after the first printed books, for the following confluence of events to make a YA market possible:  (1) the price of books dropped to be within a teen’s budget, (2) teen buying power rose so they could afford books, and (3) teens weren’t working so long and had available time to read.  Once the market emerged, authors began aiming for it.

What are YA stories like, and how do they differ from other genres?  Young adults, as an audience, are leaving the comfortable world of childhood and ready to experience adulthood.  They’re curious about it, anxious to try things.  Fiction gives them a safe opportunity to “try” things in a vicarious way.  They’ve grown beyond simple, moralistic tales.  They crave stories with identifiable, strong but vulnerable characters–complex characters who aren’t all good or all bad.  A good, solid plot-line is more important to them now than it was in the children’s books they no longer read.

In short, YA stories are very similar to those written for adults.  I thought I’d read once where Robert Heinlein had said writing for juveniles (the old term for YA) was just like writing for adults except you take out all the sex and swearing.  I can’t find that quote now, but it would need amending anyway.  Notice Heinlein had no problem with violence in YA stories, and that remains true.  As for sex, it’s probably best to leave out graphic descriptions, but don’t pretend the act doesn’t exist.  As for swearing, it’s my guess that mild swearing is acceptable in YA literature these days.

How do you write for the YA market?  I think it’s important to think back to your own teen years and pull what you recall from those experiences.  Remember when the world was new to you, when all your emotions were intense ones, when you longed to be accepted and wondered if there were others like you, wondered if you’d find even one special person for you?  Pick a protagonist who is aged a few years older than your target audience, either in the late teens or early twenties.  Don’t talk down to your readers; they’re old enough to look up words they don’t understand.  Don’t set out to write a moralistic story of instruction; teens are quick to spot a lecture and, frankly, they get enough of those from their parents.  They’re not about to shell out good money and spend their time reading a sermon from you.

My own reading as an early teenager focused on the Tom Swift, Jr. series published between 1954 and 1971.  After that I primarily read Jules Verne and other science fiction authors, mostly those writing hard science fiction.  Now as a writer, I think all my stories should be acceptable for the YA audience, though I haven’t consciously aimed for it.  My tales have very little swearing.  There is a sex scene (of sorts) in my horror story, “Blood in the River,” but nothing too graphic.  However, none of my published stories feature a teen protagonist.

Good luck with the YA story you’re writing.  If this blog post has helped in any way, or if you take issue with what I’ve stated, please leave a comment for–

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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Can’t You Stick With One Genre, Steve?

Today I’ll explore the reasons why some authors write in only one genre, and why others don’t.  If you’re a beginning writer, most likely you picture yourself staying in your favorite genre.  Don’t be too sure things will remain that way.  When I started, I never imagined I’d write a horror story, or a romance.

Here’s the list of the genres in which I’ve had stories published, along with the stories that apply to each (and yes, some stories reside in more than one genre):

Science Fiction “Bringing the Future to You,”  “Seasteadia,” “The Finality,” “Target Practice”
Alternate History “Leonardo’s Lion,” “Alexander’s Odyssey,” “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” “The Vessel,” “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai”
Steampunk “Within Victorian Mists,” “The Steam Elephant”
Clockpunk “Leonardo’s Lion”
Romance “Within Victorian Mists”
Horror “Blood in the River”
Fantasy “A Sea-Fairy Tale”

Consider things from a reader’s perspective.  With limited funds and little free time, they’re forced to be selective.  They tend to prefer reading in one or two genres, and if two, the pair of genres are often related.  Readers seek good, consistent, and dependable authors.  Once they discover an author they like, they stick with that one for a time.  Readers do not like surprises from authors, either in quality or in change of genre.

From the author’s perspective, there are two needs to satisfy–the reader and the muse.  Many authors seek to make money from their writing, and the only way to do that is to delight a lot of readers.  Other authors write for their muse, their creative mind.  That often causes these authors to dabble in several genres, since the muse is fickle and easily bored by sameness.  Since authors are aware of the preferences of readers mentioned earlier, they will sometimes use pen names when they write outside their main genre.

As you might have suspected, I’ve been writing for my muse so far.  How have readers been taking to my stories?  I get some data from Amazon, but even so it’s hard to tell.  Several of my stories are combined with other author’s tales in anthologies, so sales of these anthologies do not necessarily indicate readers like my stories.  Only a few of my stories are sold as ‘books’ in their own right.  Further, I’m unable to get sales data from Amazon on two of my stories–“Bringing the Future to You” and “Target Practice.”

With the data I was able to gather, I decided to rate my stories by number of sales per year rather than total sales, to account for the different publication dates.  Here’s the list, starting with the best-selling:

Story Genre
“The Finality” * science fiction
“Blood in the River” * horror
“The Steam Elephant” * steampunk
“Within Victorian Mists” steampunk, romance
“A Sea-Fairy Tale” * fantasy
“The Vessel” * alternate history
“Alexander’s Odyssey” alternate history
“Leonardo’s Lion” clockpunk
“The Wind-Sphere Ship” alternate history
“The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” alternate history
“Seasteadia” * science fiction

* published in an anthology or magazine

This suggests I should be writing more science fiction, horror, and steampunk if I want to maximize sales.  However, sales do not always equal income.  The anthologies all paid a single advance, so my earnings from them do not reflect sales.

Still, I’ve decided to continue to follow my muse, and to keep writing under my own name rather than under a pen name.  I’ll keep track of story sales as I go.  If stories in one genre really take off, then it makes sense to keep riding a winning horse.  What do you think of my strategy?  What will yours be?  It might be very different from that of–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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How Do Writers Exercise?

Writers exercise like everyone else, I suppose–when it comes to their physical body.  Today, though, I want to consider how writers exercise their writing skills.  Early in life we learn the secret to getting better at any skill–long hours of practice and exercise.  Sadly, writing is no exception to this.

1.  The first step in a writing exercise program is to identify your weak area, or areas.  You can get a feel for these from your critique group, from any comments received from editors as they reject your manuscripts, or from honest self-assessment.  By area I mean some aspect of writing such as characters, plot, setting, the hook, thinking of story ideas, tension, pacing, active vs. passive verbs, conciseness, etc.  Chances are, there’s at least one aspect of your writing you wish to improve.

2.  Next is to assign yourself an exercise, and do it.  The point is to focus on your weak area and just try different things, explore different solutions.  You’ll be writing just for yourself here, so there’s no pressure; give your inner editor the day off.  If your problem is weak setting descriptions, for example, you could write a description of your neighborhood or describe a setting from a picture, or re-describe a setting from literature.  Then write several other descriptions of the same setting, but using different tones.

You get the idea.  This is your creative mind at play.  The time spent counts toward the 10,000 hours you’ve got to put in.  Permit me a strange metaphor here.  Imagine you’re shoveling manure from a truck and spreading it on a field.  The field is vast and the trucks keep coming with full loads.  You do this all day, then many days, then years.  At one point you pause, leaning on your shovel’s handle, and gaze out at the field and see a single plant, a flower, growing in the field of manure.  The rough ground beneath could never have supported that flower–it could only grow after all the shoveling you did.  That’s writing.  The manure represents your exercises and early stories.  The flower is your first successful publication.

As you do your exercises, don’t critique yourself at first.  Give your writing free rein.  Use the brainstorm technique.  Consider using mind-maps.  If the weak area lends itself to this, practice many (say ten or twenty) solutions to each problem.   If you like some of your solutions, feel free to alter, refine, or hone them.

3.  After you’ve done some exercising, review, reflect, and analyze what you did.  Which techniques worked?  Which didn’t?  This assessment should reveal whether you’re on the path to improvement or not.

4.  Last, what do you do with all the residue from your exercising?  Keep the flower; discard the manure.  Chances are, you’ve got something beautiful there you can use in a story.

I can hear some of you objecting to this technique already, before you’ve even tried it. Steve, you’re saying, we beginning writers are always being told to write, write, write.  Now you’re saying to take a break from that and do these silly, and time-consuming, exercises?  Don’t the exercises take valuable time away from writing stories?

Yes, they do, in a sense.  They take time away from story-writing in the same way sharpening a saw takes away time from ‘sawing’ with a dull blade in the Stephen R. Covey example.  Think about that. You’re saying you don’t have time to learn to write well because you’re too busy writing garbage that won’t sell.

So conjure an image of the roughest, most dedicated coach, gym instructor, or drill sergeant.  Hear that image yelling at you to exercise, to give him more push-ups, to run another lap?  What are you waiting for? You do want to improve your writing, don’t you?  Try exercising, then whether you believe it worked or not, leave a comment for–

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe  

 

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Book Review – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Writers should be versed in the classics of literature to some extent, and I had never read The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, published in 1831.  So I read it.  I just completed listening to all 19 CDs of the Recorded Books version narrated by the incomparable George Guidall.

It would be easy to do a straight review and give this monumental novel a rating of 5 seahorses.  Hunchback well deserves my highest rating for its universal themes and timeless characters.

However, you can find those sorts of reviews anywhere in print and online.  I propose to do something different here.  Since the purpose of my blog entries is to tell you things I wish someone had told me when I was beginning to write fiction, I’ll do a different sort of review.  I’ll analyze the book as if it had been written today for English-speaking readers.  If an author tried to market this book today, what would editors say?  I know this is very unfair to Victor Hugo, and I apologize, but I believe this sort of review might be more useful to you, a prospective writer.

So here goes, and I’ll start with a few positives.  Hugo has crafted a work with well-drawn, tragic characters, and then proceeded to put each of them through hell.  Quasimodo is a deaf and grotesque cripple who (1) feels an understandable but undeserved loyalty to the Archdeacon who saved him, (2) loves a woman who could never love him back, and (3) is forced to defend a church alone against an irate mob.  Esmeralda is a beautiful young girl raised by gypsies who searches for her parents and loves a soldier who does not return her love; moreover, she is accused of witchcraft and is both tortured and condemned to die.  Archdeacon Claude Frollo is tormented by his love for Esmeralda to the point of insanity.  In addition to these vivid characters, Hugo’s language–his style and use of metaphors and similes–survives even the translation from French to English.

On the other hand (and again I’m reviewing the book as if it were a submitted work in English today), the novel has an unsatisfying hook.  It gets off to a slow start and it’s not clear near the beginning what the central conflict of the story is.  Moreover, the pace is slow throughout; much of the text could be tightened up.  The long section on architecture, where Hugo compares books to buildings, could be either eliminated or cut way back.  In general his descriptions of things are two long.  There is no need for the narrator to periodically address the reader (“With the reader’s consent,…” “Let the reader picture to himself…”  “Our readers have been able to observe…”).

If Mr. Hugo would hope to get this manuscript published today, he would have considerable editing left to do.  As it stands, I would have to give it a rating of three seahorses.

All right, quiet down out there, Victor Hugo fans.  You’re asking (in loud tones) how I dare to give this colossal work of literature a mediocre rating. I believe I explained that.  My aim, as always, is to help beginning writers–those who hope to get published early in the 21st Century.  I reluctantly had to downgrade Hunchback, but I only did so to aid budding authors.  Even so, I’ll take legitimate comments from anyone about this review.  So go ahead and (figuratively) heave down your timbers and your stones, pour down your molten lead upon–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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All Depends on Your POV

Every story has a point of view, and because POV is a basic element of story-telling, it’s important for beginning writers to understand the term.  There are some choices to make, and you’ll want to select the one that maximizes the reader’s enjoyment of your story.

Think of POV as knowing who’s holding the camera that “sees” the story.  There are three basic types.  First person POV is told from a single character’s perspective as if the narrator is the character–“I walked into the room.”  Second person POV is told from the reader’s perspective–“You walked into the room.”  Third person POV is told from a perspective outside both reader and the character–“She (or Susan) walked into the room.”  There are two kinds of 3rd person POV:  omniscient and limited.  In 3rd person omniscient, the narrator can relate the thoughts and emotions of any character.  In 3rd person limited, the narrator can only get in one character’s head, and can only describe other characters as sensed from that one character’s viewpoint.

In the early years of novels and short stories, 3rd person omniscient was, by far, the most common POV used.  I guess that’s because it’s easier.  Since authors feel a strong need to make the reader understand what each major character is thinking, 3rd person omniscient is a logical, safe choice.  Today, the most common is 3rd person limited, with 1st person coming in second.

Of the types, 1st person is the most personal.  The POV character may or may not be the focal character for the story, but the POV character should have an interesting, engaging personality, and not be just the boring person who happens to be standing there whenever something interesting happens.  The POV character can be an “unreliable narrator,” a person who sees things that aren’t there or thinks things that aren’t true.  The challenges with writing 1st person are to avoid repeating the word “I” an annoying number of times, and ensuring your POV character has a reason to be in all the key, dramatic scenes.  The major uses of 1st person are in horror and Young Adult (YA) fiction.

2nd person is rare in fiction, but more common in songs.  It can really make the reader feel a part of the story.

As I’ve said, 3rd person limited is the most common.  It allows a more objective view of the story.  Some markets accept only stories with this POV.  The challenges with 3rd person limited are (1) choosing a POV character who is intriguing to the reader and has a reason to be right there in every dramatic scene, and (2) avoiding what’s known as “POV wobble.”  POV wobble is where the writer shifts to a different character’s POV without a break in the narration.  This can be disconcerting to readers who suddenly find themselves “in another character’s head.”  This mistake sounds easier to avoid than it is.

For beginning writers, I recommend using 3rd person limited as the default POV for your early stories.  If you find a story not working, you could try rewriting it in a different POV.  It’s amazing how you can gain new insights in trying this.  Leonardo da Vinci invented the idea of various perspectives in art and engineering.  It’s a technique used in engineering drawings ever since.  Artists find that by looking at an object from the front, above, and one side, they understand more about its three dimensions.  There’s an analog there for POV in fiction, I think.

So whether it’s “I’ll conclude by saying I’m–” or “You’ve been reading a blog entry by–” or “He signed off by stating his name as–” the ending is the same…

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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