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.