Writing Captivating YA (Janet Gurtler)
HOW TO MEAN THE SHIT OUT OF WHAT YOU SAY
John Green, “Looking for Alaska”- uses intelligent words, doesn’t dumb it down
Ned Fazzini (sp?) “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” - amazing boy voice, so authentic
What YA is (and maybe isn’t)
YALSA defined “young adults” 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 is can’t remember what it was like to be a teenager. How many of us still feel it in parts of your life
YA lets YA know they are not alone. Their experiences aren’t abnormal. There are others out there like them and there are lots of options in front of them.
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 kids in the coffee shop. (the scene in the movie Young Adult).
Teenagers deal with difficult personal issues every day - real or imagined.
Keep an eye out for authentic language. Poor teen dialogue can kill.
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.
The teen years are an exciting time, but also stressful, tense and heartbreaking time. HOPE.
Anything is possible in YA literature, there is truly something for everyone.
Books can be a tool for dealing, or even 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.
Voice is personality on paper. Charisma. When you read a good voice, you know it.
Voice is subjective, no one loves the same voices in the same way.
Voice is about word choice and helps convey tone. Voice encompasses things like style of writing, sentence structure, i.e. - short choppy sentences (Janet Gurtler), or long lush prose (Maggie Steifvater)
Voice is not only WHAT you say but HOW you say it, (a hockey player versus a boy who wants to be a doctor)
Voice makes characters leap off pages and come alive in a reader’s mind.
“Voice is the way a character speaks. What they say as well as how they say it” - Ned Vinzinni
How does your character see his world? A 15 year old boy doesn’t have the same reaction to events or the same conversations a 25 year old would. The Characters 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 yout character going to become?
When we write characters it’s important to try to be authentic to their voices. Characters likely do not share the same morals o the author, or even the same likes/dislikes. Especially when we’re writing about teenagers. Sometimes our characters have to say things or do things we may fully disapprove of. And that’s okay (IF I TELL) An author’s experiences/beliefs might naturally flow into the character and story, but learning to filter or rework them to suit a story or character is part of the conscious process of voice. As writers we need to understand our characters in order to convey their voice.
Character may take on their name traits. Billy vs Tyler (‘Tiffany’ as a bubbly girl name?)
Bad boy names? (sometimes an agent/editor will ask to change if they hate the name)
Names that are overused, or so well known, you shouldn’t use (like Harry - Harry Potter)
Chloe vs Kara (Kya)
Cultivating Character & Author Voice
Listen to your characters. Turn off your moralistic compass. Don’t listen to your mother-in-law, husband, or priest. Not when you’re making stuff up.
Relax. Think of someone you’re completely comfortable with and write to that person.
Read your work out loud, or download a free talking reader. Free Natural Reader - can copy/paste text in and it’ll read it back to you
Try to notice things the same way that your character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process.
In I’M NOT HER, Tess is very introverted. To convey this, I tried to view the world the way she would as an artist. When she’s looking at her sister in the hospital bed: “Her cheekbones 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 has changes.”
Know what your character is proud of. Know their secret shame.
Eavesdrop. Spy. Stalk. Facebook. Instagram.
Write your story in a way that is comfortable for you. Write from your heart. Yours. Every person in this room has a writing voice.
If it reads like writing, get rid of it. They say, voice can’t be taught, but it can be found. Practice.
Quick exercise to try: pick a main character. What are they carrying with them on the first day of middle school. Both physically (clothes/accessories/etc), or emotionally/psychologically?
What about high-school?
Quick exercise for author voice: think of a color and try to describe that color without using the word. What does it smell and taste like? What does it remind you of?
Ways to Captivate
“Don’t open with unnecessary backstory. Readers don’t need to now everything about a character right away. Readers don’t need all the facts up front. Make them wait. Unravel a secret slowly.” Sara Zarr
Sara Zarr is a master of this ‘slow reveal’.
Give characters strong goals. Give the reader something to root for. Give your characters flaws.
Avoid plot that’s too contrived or coincidental. Put in a strong foundation at the beginning of your book so that whatever turns it credible and rings true. It’s okay to use coincidence to get your character into trouble, but not to get them out of trouble/resolve it.
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 the 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, top to bottom (Negative Traits Thesaurus - Angela Ackerman):
The lie the character believes about themselves: Sam believes she doesn’t deserve to live her life or have hopes/dreams because she caused someone’s death
Core flaws resulting from that lie: antisocial, insecure, repressed, withdrawn
Lesser flaws: dishonest, indecisive, irrational, evasive
Typical behaviors, thoughts, actions & quirks: Sam avoids things that once brought her joy. She’s given up on her dreams, avoids people & friendship. Her thoughts are preoccupied with death and she refuses to eat peanut butter. Sam doesn’t defend herself against mean girls, avoids meaningful relationships with boys and feels undeserving of love or happiness.
List of some things to know about your characters
What does your characters need/want/must have?
What’s stopping him/her from getting it?
What’s the character’s most nautical physical attribute?
What’s this character’s greatest flaw?
What do you know about this character he would never admit?
What music does this character sing when no one else is around?
What is this character’s secret wish?
Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment?
What is the character’s deepest regret?
What is the character’s greatest fear?
What is the character’s greatest hope?
Whom does this character most wish to please and 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 and why?
Quick exercise: Take one of your secondary characters and imagine what they’re going to be like in the future? Sometimes that helps round them out, in your own mind.
Early in the story, give a moment that makes us sympathize with the protagonist and reveals their good character. This 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, so we know redemption is possible. (“Save the Cat”, doesn’t literally have to save a cat, but Hunger Games starts with Katniss talking about the ugly cat she wanted to kill, but ‘saved’ because her sister wanted it.)
Start your story in the right place. Hint: probably not a dream sequence. If you’re stuck on where to begin, think about the event 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.
Skip the boring stuff.No one wants to read it.
Don’t list off characteristics or tell the reader everything that’s in the room. Show the reader whenever possible. Don’t tell us how she felt, show. Know more about your characters than you are telling the reader.
Don’t give it away. Give the reader tidbits of information. Make them keep reading to figure out what’s happening. Don’t over explain.
Don’t use lazy techniques like looking in a mirror and having the character describe themselves.
Use subtext. According to author Alicia Rasley, “Subtext is like a gift to the astute reader - an additional layer of meaning implied by the text but not accessible without a bit of thinking. ...Experiences readers aren’t confined to the text - what’s printed on the page - they interact with the text, fully participating with the writer in the making of meaning in the story.” Such reader participation heightens the emotional impact of a story.
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