A Recipe for Page-Turners

As a writer, something I’ve found very useful is to go to Amazon.com and browse the reviews on popular YA books. It might sound like an odd habit, but I’ve gleaned a lot of do’s and don’ts from it that have been enormously helpful. And so, since it seems a shame to leave you out of it (and I promised Jon I would get another post up – um, more action-y stuff to come as soon as I can think of it,  I promise! – if he would get back to studying) I thought I would give you some very helpful tips for writing a YA fiction book.

1. Start off with action. You know those books that you pick up and it takes you 150 pages/5 chapters before anything actually starts to happen? Yeah – you don’t want that to happen in your book. My brother used to give me historical novels and say “Don’t worry, it gets interesting after the first few chapters” and I would think “Oh boy, I’m not going to like it.” Guess what? I usually didn’t like it.

‘The Shadows Fall’ starts off with Sienna on her cell phone on a busy street in New York. ‘ArchAngel’ begins with an irritated Luther Conway walking into a creepy old building to see an insane man. ‘Target Acquired’ begins with people practicing their mercenary skills, followed by their obituaries in the newspaper (hint: they’re not really dead, everybody just thinks so). Don’t drag on… and on… and on… even if you think the worldbuilding or description or character background is necessary. These things ARE vital to the story – but don’t infodump at the beginning.

2. Have strong main characters. I can’t tell you how many YA-book reviews I’ve read where the major complaint was that the heroine was too flighty or the hero was too wimpy. Give your characters backbones – at least your MAIN characters. Minor characters you can do whatever you like with – but the main character has to be somebody the reader can look up to, grow with, and root for. I learned this with Sienna – don’t worry, she’s growing. A lot of girls related to her, but also found her annoying – gads, even I think she’s annoying much of the time, but she’s growing. I promise. =)

3. Write witty dialogue. Readers aren’t stupid, neither do they like a dull story. Even though Sienna has many glaring flaws, she definitely knows how to be witty, and she holds many conversational sparring-matches with those around her – particuarly Eristor, whose tongue is sharper than a brand-new razor, and twice as snarky. My character Simon in ArchAngel has a very dry, British sense of humor, and he and Reese also hold witty, funny conversations that readers have thus far enjoyed. I’ve been blessed with a huge sense of humor and a good dose of wit and sarcasm, which makes it easier to write these sorts of conversations, but my blessing also has a curse – it’s hard for me to write conversations without them. Not EVERY conversation must be a battle of wits – but sprinkle them liberally throughout your  book and I garuntee you readers will enjoy it that much more. (I’ve actually heard readers say that the only thing that saved a book for them was the witty dialogue. Ahem.)

4. Carefully craft your world. Especially with fantasy and dystopian novels, you have GOT to know the boundaries of your crafted world, and how far you can push them. They can be as bizarre and fantastical as you like, but you have to pull the reader into the world in order for them to fully enjoy the book. I’ve been told that Elmeria was crafted well, but I personally think it’s a bit too standard-fantasy. I’ve learned a lot since I first wrote it and hope to induce more surprises in the sequel – I’m able to do this because I didn’t really give the reader full knowledge of how everything in Elmeria works in the first novel. In ‘The Shadows Lengthen,’ I’m going to give them much more of a visual to my world than they got (and probably wanted) in the first book.

Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Cornelia Funke, Anne MacAffrey, Lewis Carroll, Brian Jacques and Catherine Fisher were/are all excellent worldcrafters, leaving no lingering doubts in the reader’s mind.

5. Do your research. Know the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. You won’t be able to fool your readers with completely unrealistic ‘facts.’

6. Twist your plots like licorice!!! Think of M. Knight Shyamalan and his movies. At least once in pretty much all his movies, there’s an “Oh! OH!” moment where something you never saw coming blindsides you and leaves you wondering what hit you. You want your reader to stay surprised – if you set two people up so others automatically think they’ll ‘get together,’ – don’t put them together. Is there someone angelically good? Maybe they’re actually bad, or vice versa. Surprise your reader or they’ll get bored.

7. Would you want to read it? This is, of course, the most important question. If you were walking through a bookstore and saw your book on a shelf, would you pull it off? Read the back and get hooked? Buy it and take it home and tell all your  friends about it? If not, you need to re-think it, change some things, and perhaps start over.

8. NO INSTA-LOVE. Insta-love is BAD. No insta-love. Please. If two characters are going to fall in love, it has to be believeable. No “Oh my giddy aunt he’s hawwwwt” or “Wow, I’ve only known you for three hours but I feel I can’t live without you” situations that are just eye-rollingly ridiculous. For two people to have a relationship, there has to be depth. There has to be work. There is no “love mix” that you pour into a pot, stir around, and serve five minutes later.

9. Don’t use stereotypes unless ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Handsome jock, techy sidekick, Barbie-cheerleader – no, no, no, and NO! Unless you desperately *need* a sterotype, try and avoid it at all costs. Unless you’re going to give them ‘more than meets the eye’ or surprise the reader by turning what they THOUGHT was a stereotype into something awesome, then don’t.

10. If you have a love triangle, do it well. This is super-hard to do, I know, and Twilight kind of began a love-triangle-trend that irritates me to no end. But sometimes, it’s actually done well – and when that happens, it messes with you in the best way. You want your reader to be absolutely torn in two between the characters rivalling for X’s affection. Don’t make them cookie-cutter people – your characters need development, they need backstory, they need reasons for why they act and talk and look the way they do. No Bellas or Edwards here (or even Jacobs). One-dimensional characters just don’t cut it – they’re the heart of the book. You can’t skimp on that.

And last, but not least, find your writing muse. Like this one.

 

Happy writing!

Mirriam

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34 thoughts on “A Recipe for Page-Turners

    • Ha – go write songs INSPIRED by novels! You’re awesome at it! (And you know, I bet you COULD write a novel…) Study! Study! Study! ^.^ You can do it!

  1. I truly need the Muse.

    I say “I decided to kill suchnsuch” ALL THE TIME. I probably sound really horrid. No, cut the probably. I know I do.

    No problems with Wit here..or Sarcasm..or Cynics…

  2. Read number 5 in Sherlock’s voice… 😉

    I agree with all of these, especially number 8. Insta-love… sounds like a soup mix or something. “Just add water.”

  3. Sigh. What makes me sad is that you are right, right, right–and yet Twilight broke every-freakin’-rule on this list. It will never make sense to me.

    Anyway, great post, Mirriam!

  4. I love ALL of these, Mirriam! Especially the insta-love one. It’s so infuriating when the main character meets someone, and just immediately falls head-over-heels for them. In my NaNo10, when my main character first met her love interest (who wasn’t originally meant to be a love interest, just a friend), she hated him, because she knew that her advisers were trying to set them up. She wouldn’t accept that she “had” to marry him, and even after they did eventually start to fall in love, they didn’t get married until they were at least twenty, because she wanted to find her own stride as queen.

    And love triangles can be just so infuriating, at times! Especially when you just hate both the guys she can’t decide between, and think she would just be better off on her own.

  5. Haha, #5 made me think of Sherlock. 😀
    These tips were really helpful and informative! Some of them are things I’ve done before- and regret. But sometims there’s no way to avoid them XP

  6. NO! And then YES! I loved this post, but I disagree with you on your first point, which is an issue! 🙂

    Here are my thoughts: Starting with action is a great way to start a story. HOWEVER, it is not THE way to start a story. Look at Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” The first line: “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” He’s goes on for several pages defining “Hobbit” and retelling Bilbo’s familial history.

    I think you are right in thinking of starting with something that is unusual/grabs the reader’s attention, but action isn’t a necessity. (Esp. if the book you’re writing is titled, hypothetically, “Knitting for Girls.”)

    Otherwise, I found your post highly informative, and even better, interesting. 🙂 Keep up the good work!

    • Knitting for Girls – needs Stetsons somewhere… =D True, it is not the ONLY way to start a story. I was thinking more along the lines of an action-type book… I probably ought to have said *laugh* Thanks so much, Seth!

  7. These sound good. 🙂 Hopefully if I ever cease to become an absolute failure as a writer I’ll be able to use some of your tips if I get around to attempting to write a novel again…if I can come up with a complete plot and not just pieces of a story, that is. (my previous attempts at writong a book were awfully embarrassing)

  8. These are soooo true! I agree with them all. I have to remind myself of these things while I’m brainstorming.

    I’m getting the feeling your book is going to be brilliant!!! 🙂

  9. OOOOH! Good points; very good. How do you think Cafe matches up to those, in your opinion? (you’ll have to tell me over the phone… don’t forget! XD)
    Happy Birthday, by the way!!!!!!

  10. MUAHAHAHAHAHA. I stole your list, and am in the middle of making my own? Why? Because while YOU can think of 6 impossible things to do before breakfast (and get them into your story) those of us in the short-bus-to-creative worlds need smaller steps. That’s why 😉

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