Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Writing Fiction for YA and Children that Sells

Even before J. K. Rowling's tremendous success with her Harry Potter series, publishers were frantically searching for fantasy and horror fiction for children and teenagers that they hoped would top the bestseller list. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it does not insure success as a writer. Not every juvenile book needs to feature werewolves, vampires, witches or goblins. Books set in the "real" world still have appeal for teens and children. Young readers are not necessarily trying to read books that provide a total escape from reality. Even fantasy books need to be believable, provide an element of reality through character development to which readers can relate.
            One of the most important things in writing a successful young adult novel or children’s book is to develop a unique voice. That does not mean that you must write from a first person point of view. However, teenage readers often respond well to a first person narrative.
            It is important to create a central character that young readers can both sympathize and identify with. Whether writing realistic or fantasy fiction, if the reader can't care about or relate to the main character, than he or she won't believe or accept what follows.
            Teens as well as younger children enjoy an element of mystery. Every good work of fiction should have a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to discover what is going to happen next. It's important to set up some sort of a question that can't be easily or immediately answered, a secret of the human heart that must be delved into.
            A word of warning: If you are going to write about teens, you must know about them. Do some research. Besides raising two teenagers, I taught English and later Library Science. I taught at all levels: the university, high school, middle school and elementary. But most of my years were in the high school. I am accustomed to the way teenagers think, talk and behave. If you are not a teen yourself, talk to teenagers, read their magazines, watch their favorite TV programs, observe how they behave at malls, amusement parks, movie theaters etc.
            Dig deep into your own psyche. How did you feel as a teenager? My latest YA novel, THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, published by Astraea Press in all e-book formats, is the story of a girl who has identity issues. Most of us have gone through similar problems as adolescents.

            Get input from your own children. Have them read your writing and critique it. Consider collaborating with your children on the writing of your fiction. I wrote WHERE IS ROBERT?, a middle grades/YA mystery novel with help from both of my sons who were teenagers at the time. Both boys contributed to the scenes of high school wrestling, since they both engaged in the sport. I couldn't have written the book without them. My son, Andrew, co-authored THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY published by Five Star/Gale/Cengage. He gave the teenage boy narrator an authentic “voice”.

Make it dramatic. Dramatize your story. Don't show, tell. I'm certain you've heard that advice before! How to do this? Create meaningful, realistic dialog for your characters. Each character should be an individual, talking  a certain distinct way to reflect a personal point of view, a unique way of thinking. Good dialog leads to action and conflict between people with different viewpoints and goals.
Settings need to be vividly described so that they seem real. In fact, there's nothing wrong with using real places for background setting. My five published YA’s are all set in Central New Jersey, an area very much like the one in which I lived and worked.
For my children’s picture book A Devil in the Pines, I created a faction story. I used the real setting of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the legend of the Jersey Devil combined with the fictional story of a little boy who learns how to deal with fear. Afton Publishing has kept this book in print from its publication in 1999 to the present because it is a timeless story and therefore continues to sell well.
As for short story fiction versus books, short fiction necessarily needs to be more focused: fewer characters, a single incident and/or theme. This is true for both children’s stories and young adult.
            My advice, don't write for the market; write the story you need to write. We are all writers. We all have within us a unique, important, wonderful story to share. Get in touch with your inner self. Start putting your ideas on paper. Begin with an outline, then a rough draft with key characters and scenes. When you develop your book, look for depth. Although books for teens and children are usually shorter than those for adults, it doesn't mean they require less creative thought. Respect your readers; give them quality.
The success of J.P. Rowling’s books has given new hope and inspiration to those of us who write juvenile fiction. No longer can we gripe that children and young adults do not read. If nothing else, the reception the Potter books received has proven that there is still an audience for fiction among young people. Also, such books if well-written have a strong appeal for adult readers as well—think of THE HUNGER GAMES or TWILIGHT series.
 Market Listings:
http://evelynchristensen.com/mags.html (magazine listings for children’s writing)
http://www.cbcbooks.org/membership/member-list/ (children’s book publishers)

Your comments, suggestions and input welcome here!


14 comments:

  1. Very good advice, Jacquie. I'm always impressed with the number of young people reading in corners of our local library. They love good stories, and your advice for writing them is spot on.

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    1. Thanks, Susan, summers in particular draw teens and children to their local libraries. When they're not engaged in school work, our youth do read.

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  2. Jacquie, a very informative blog. I've given serious thought to writing for younger readers, but have been reluctant since my contact with teenagers is limited. Thanks for the advice.

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    1. Hi, Betty,

      I've dug into my own childhood and teen memories for some of my writing. It's interesting how vivid they can be. Things that we dealt with often are themes that repeat.

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  3. Great advice! Thanks so much!

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    1. D'Ann,

      Thanks for dropping by. I appreciate your support.

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  4. Good advice, Jacquie! As someone who has written plays for middle grade kids, I know how hard it can be to get the voice right. Congrats on all your successes, and I hope The Devil and Danna Webster goes on to sell for a long time. :-)

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    1. Hi, Bobbi,

      I agree with you about how hard it is to get the right voice for juvenile fiction. Adults have to work extra hard to get in touch with their younger selves. But I do enjoy writing with and for children, left over from my days as a parent, teacher, and now grandparent.

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  5. Great post and very true! Kudos on your success.

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    1. Thanks, Ann Marie. In truth, I don't feel successful. I'm still for the most part an unknown author, but hope springs eternal as Alexander Pope said.

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  6. A well-written post, Jacqueline! Thank you for including a link to my resource. Congratulations and best wishes to you on all your publications!

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  7. There is a lot to mine from this fine post, but I am sure you meant to say, "Show, don't tell" rather than "Don't show, tell." Thanks for lots of good reminders and advice.

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