Search This Blog

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing YA (SIWC 2013 Notes)

Green cherry tomatoes in my garden. Caption: Metaphor? Perhaps.

Yes, it's been awhile. Among the stuff I hinted at a few weeks ago, my laptop threw itself off a very high desk. No, really. And then, while waiting for hinge replacement surgery, the poor thing suffered critical hard drive failure. Gee, and after the last one melted down, here I thought I'd have more time with you, buddy.

At any rate, I have a shiny new laptop, a new energy for my writing projects, lots of hope for things ahead, and ... a metric tonne of notes. Including a few from last year's Surrey International Writer's Conference. Which, um, happens THIS WEEK.

I'm all excited and ready! But in the meantime, let's take a look at the great tips I got from one of my favourite panels from last year's conference: Writing Captivating YA.

* * *

Writing Captivating YA
Janet Gurtler

What YA Is (and maybe isn’t)
-    YALSA defines YA as 12-18 years old. “Young adult fiction books are published specifically for people within that age range. Crossover happens.”
-    YA fiction includes a teen protagonist and deals with issues of interest to teens. Coming of age, etc.
-    YA fiction is not a genre; it’s a market that contains numerous genres. How many of us can’t remember what it was like to be a teenager. How many of us still feel it in parts of our lives.
-    YA lets young readers know that they are not alone. Their experiences aren’t abnormal. Here are others out there like them and there are lots of options in front of them. (And you can still relate to those feelings as an adult.)
-    Be authentic – Teen readers can smell fake YA voices. Don’t preach. Try not to judge. Trust the intelligence of your readers. Dig into intense emotion. Use things from your life. Steal dialogue from the kids in the coffee shop. (e.g. the scene in the movie Young Adult) – don’t use small words, don’t dumb down, stay true to your characters. Dig into your emotions. Use your real life. When these emotions happen to you, remember them and note them. Listen to the teens around you and how they talk.
-    Teenagers deal with difficult personal issues every day – real or imagined.
-    There are so many things that happened in our personal lives that we kept secret as teens, but we talk about these things now.
-    Use real experiences that teens can relate to.
-    Keep an eye (or rather, ear) out for authentic language.

Why YA?
-    Teens have so many things going on in their lives, so many issues, so many firsts: first crushes, first loves, bodies changing, first time driving, intense friendships, breaking away from parents, making decisions on their own, belly laughs.
-    The teen years are an exciting time, but also stressful tense, and heartbreaking time. HOPE matters.
-    Anything is possible – the great thing about YA lit – there’s truly something for everyone. Every genre – romance, mystery, thriller, horror, realistic, science fiction, fantasy, and more – plus really terrific nonfiction for teens.
-    Books can be a tool for dealing. Or even for escaping.
-    Storytelling is fun.

Defining Voice (Author)
-    Voice is the way the story is told
-    Voice conjures up vivid, visual settings, and invites readers along for the ride. It engages readers. It sets mood for readers and helps to elicit emotions.
-    Book: Hunger games – great opening, great voice, shows different world, relationship with sister, mother, cat
-    Voice is very subjective – no one loves every book the same way.
-    Voice is about word choice and helps convey tone. Voice encompasses thinks like style of writing, sentence structure, i.e. short, choppy sentences – long lush prose (such as Maggie Stiefvater)
-    if it doesn’t feel right and you can sense it, it usually means you need to change it.
-    Voice is not only what you say, but how you say it.
-    Voice makes characters leap off pages and com alive in a reader’s mind.
-    Fantasy has a certain voice.

Audience Question: Word choice – how do you know if it’s authentic for your character?
-    You have to know this character.
-    Do exercises for this character. Know if it’s something they would say.
-    Trust your instincts. If you feel this is something the character will say, go with it. Explain your reasoning to an editor if need be. Trust your intuition.

Defining Voice (Character)
-    “Voice is the Way a character speaks. What will they say as well as how they say it.” – Ned Vizinni
-    How does your car see his world? A 15-year-old boy does not have the same reaction to events or the same conversations a 25-year-old would. The character won’t use the same words or have the same thoughts. Dialogue should be distinct to your character. You have to know them.
-    Who is your character going to become?
-    Weh we write characters it’s imp to try to be authentic to their voices. Characters likely do not share the same morals of the author or even the same likes and dislikes. Especially when we’re writing about teenagers. Sometimes your character can say or do things we may fully disapprove of. And that’s okay. (IF I TELL) An author’s experiences and beliefs might naturally flow into character and story, but learning to filter or rework them to suit a story or character, is part of the flow of conscious process of voice. As writers we need to understand our characters in order to convey their voice.
-    Character names – Character may take on their name traits. Billy vs. Tyler vs. Tiffany. Could bat off cliché by twisting this. Bad boy names? Editor may want to change it, too. How strongly do you feel about this name? Are you willing to change it? Connotations of the name? Chloe vs. Kara

Cultivating Character and Author Voice
-    Listen to your character. Turn off your moralistic compass. Don’t listen to your MIL or husband or priest or rabbi. Not when you’re making stuff up.
-    Relax. Think of someone you’re completely comfortable with and write to that person. (i.e. sex scenes!)
-    Read your work out loud, or download a free talking reader. She uses Free Natural Reader.
-    Try to notice things the same way that your character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process. Great for noticing errors in voice, etc.
-    Try to notice things the same way that your character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process.
-    The things that boys notice is completely different from what girls notice.
-    In I’M NOT HER, the main character Tess is an introverted artist. To convey this she tried to show Tess viewing the world the way she would as an artist. Tess staring at her sister in her hospital bed: Her cheek bones look more angular and her collarbones jut out from her blue hospital gown. I’d have to use different techniques to sketch her now. Her essence is changed. She’s less charcoal and more shading.” Another character might describe her completely dif. If Tess were a boy, might say “skinny and gross”.
-    Know what your character is proud of. Know their secret shame.
-    The secret shame makes them who they are. It’s still a part of who they are.
-    Eavesdrop. Spy. Stalk. Facebook. Instagram.
-    Write your story in a way that is comfortable for you. Write form your heart. Yours. Every person in this room has a writing voice.
-    Janet's book: Sixteen Things I Thought Were True – about a video that goes viral, part of the character's secret shame
-    If you don’t want swearing, don’t swear; but if you think it’s part of your book or character, keep it. You can have a conversation with the editor. Make it authentic to character.
-    If it reads like writing, get rid of it. They say voice can’t be taught. But it can be found. Practice
-    Trust your writing and trust how you want to write.
-    Don’t add things just because you think you can.
-    Get to know your secondary characters, too, so you can write them just as easily.
-    Exercise: Pick a character. Think about them. No matter how old they are now. Think back to when they were going to their first day of middle school (grade 7). What would they be carrying to school? Why would they be carrying it? It’s good to know who your character was at that age.
-    Now, what about high school, grade 10? What are they carrying with them now?
-    This tells you about who your character is and how they react to things.
-    Exercise: Think of a colour. Try to describe that colour without saying what the colour is. Hat does it remind you of? What does it smell like, taste like? This will show how you write naturally, what your voice is.

Ways to Captivate:
-    Don’t pander to your audience.
-    When writing voice, peel back the layers , get to the stuff that is nitty-gritty and embarrassing (Book recommendation: Ned Vizzini's It’s Kind of a Funny Story – great for boy’s voice)
-    Don’t open with unnecessary backstory. Readers don’t need to know everything about a character right away. Readers don’t need all the facts up front. Make them wait. Unravel a secret slowly.
i.e. Reaping mentioned on first page of Hunger games, but we have to keep reading to know what it is.
-    Sara Zarr: a master at this – enough to keep reading, but you learn slowly.
Secrets are okay.
-    Book: Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisey (sp)
-    Negative trait / Positive trait thesauruses, too
-    Give characters really strong goals. Give the reader something to root for.
-    Even it it’s not part of the main plot. Character has to want something.
-    Give your character flaws. Real flaws.
-    Avoid plot too contrived or coincidental. Put in a strong foundation at the beginning of your book so that whatever turns on it is credible and rings true.
-    SHOW US. As an author, allow yourself to physically and emotionally feel the fear that courses through your body when the bully is coming for you. Put your character there. Where are they? What do they hear? See? Smell? What’s their reaction to stress? Hiccups? Laughter? Tears? Turning around and running?

Character pyramid: The lie the character believes about themselves. Core flaws resulting from that lie. Lesser flaws stemming from core flaws. Typical behaviours, thoughts, actions, and quirks stemming from that.

Audience question: Some names are overused, like Jack or Will or Luke. Should we not use them?
-    Do what works for you.

A list of some things to know about your characters
-    What’s stopping him/her from getting it
-    What is this character’s greatest flaw?
-    What do you know about this character that s/he would never admit
-    What music does this character sing to when you one else is around?
-    What is this character’s secret wish? Something they’ll never get but what they want?
-    Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment.
-    What is this character’s deepest regret?
-    What is this character’s greatest fear?
-    What is this character’s greatest hope?
-    Whom does this character most wish to please? Why?
-    Why is this character angry?
-    What calms this character down?
-    List the choices (not circumstances) that led this character to his/her current predicament.
-    Who depends on this character? Why?
-    Donald Maass recommends: Take your character, and imagine how they think another character will be in the future.

More Ways to Captivate
-    "Save the cat!" This refers to the moment early in the story that calls for us to sympathize with the protagonist. Does he or she really have to save a cat? Or something or someone? Nope. This is where the main character does or thinks something that reveals his true (good) character. It is important for us to invest in the character’s story and also if we’re going to be introduced to a character’s flaws. It‘s important to give a glimpse of the protagonist’s good side, so the reader can believe redemption is possible.
-    Start your story in the right place. (Hint: Probably not a dream sequence.) If you’re struck on where to begin think about the even that changes the world of the main character. An inciting event. You can either start with this change or start with what the character’s world was like BEFORE THE EVENT. You can show the old world first, but it should lead up to the change that propels the story into action.
-    Start either right when something is about to change, with a brief look at where this person is now, and then have the change happen
-    Once the reader cares about your character, and is invested in them, the we can find out more about the bad stuff they went through.


  1. Hahaha you totally copied/pasted this from my website ;)

    You're going?!?! Yeah! I started a thread on the NaNo forums, but you didn't post, so I wasn't sure...

    Hope to see you there! I have promised to wear an optically-offensive fluorescent yellow baseball hat on Friday so any other local/NaNoers can find me :)

    1. Haven't had a chance to post on the NaNo forums yet. It's been enough that I was finally able to share the notes I took. :P

      Looking forward to another year! This will be my tenth.

    2. Sorry, I was just joking around with this... I did post these notes on my blog for everyone, and was just so happy to see you post about SiWC (that you were coming) that perhaps my wording wasn't... clear.

      Really, seeing these up here just made me happy that you found them useful.