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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Getting YA right

Writing young adult (YA) fiction is a complicated business. Not only do I need to worry about getting the tone and dialogue right, but the story needs to be topical and entertaining enough to hold a young reader’s interest.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. It’s the best job in the world. But there’s a lot of thought that goes into the process.

Young adult fiction can never be patronizing and it can’t focus too much on issues at the expense of the plot. If it’s too childish it becomes Middle Grade, not YA. If it’s too edgy it becomes New Adult, or Crossover. If it’s too short it becomes a novella.

To some critics, violence is good, as it speaks to the realities that many young people face every day. Some critics say violence is bad as it can affect sensitive readers negatively. Sex is good. Sex is bad. Adverbs are always bad.

The novel must be fast-paced. It can always use more tension. It must be thrilling enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, but a chapter must never, ever end with a prognostication. Is there enough action? Should I cut the scenes where nothing is happening? But then how will the reader know the character’s state of mind?

(Is your mind reeling yet?)

The protagonist must be likable. What roles do the secondary characters play? Are they developed enough? Have I alienated the parents too much? Should I kill them off or is that a cliché?

Sigh. As a writer I have to think about these factors all the time. But none of these questions count as the one, all-important question.

Will this book change someone’s life?

When I was kid I would spend hours in other worlds, devouring other people’s words to feed my imagination. I lived and breathed books. Sometimes a book would be so amazing that I would stay up all night reading it, and then refuse to sleep so that I could relive scenes over and over again in my head. (Do you remember queuing at midnight for the next Harry Potter?)

What do you call that feeling when a book becomes all-consuming?

That’s my main goal when I sit down to write a novel, but at the same time it’s the most difficult thing to achieve. There is no formula or checklist to make a reader fall in love with your book. Sometimes I wonder if the writer has any control over this at all.

Does the magic lie in the characters, the setting, or both? In Twilight, Stephanie Meyer makes Forks sound like a romantic winter wonderland. But then again, kids don’t love the books because it rains all the time in Forks.

Does the answer lie in fantasy? Is it that escapist quality that holds the key? Not necessarily. I toppled headfirst into The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson which doesn’t count as fantasy.

Perhaps the answer is in the writing itself, coupled with the reader’s personal preference. In that case, what can you as a writer do?

Whenever a beta reader tells me they love my book, or a good review comes in, I always wonder if the reader had that wonderful connection that I was hoping for. Would they tell me? Should I ask?

I never ask.

Sometimes I’ll receive an email from someone describing how much they related to the book. These moments are worth more than royalties and advances. They’re little gold nuggets of confidence, and the more I receive the more I think that I’m on the right track.

That’s all any of us want, isn’t it?

What are the factors that make you fall in love with a book?

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.cathellisen.com/" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    June 3rd, 2013 @11:34 #
     
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    There is no formula or checklist to make a reader fall in love with your book.

    this this this.

    We have control over one aspect - how well we write and revise that work. We can put everything into it, but once it's out in the world, we have no control over reader reaction.

    And what keeps one reader up all night, will make another throw the book at the wall.

    There are certain things that make *me* fall in love with a book - clever little twists, gorgeous writing, playing with voice, gender-queering, dark fairy-tale qualities - but sometimes a book can have all these things and just do nothing for me.

    Reading is as fickle a business as writing, I think. ;)

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    June 3rd, 2013 @11:49 #
     
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    For me it's gorgeous writing and a world I can see myself in, or rather, one I want to be in.

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  • <a href="http://violininavoid.wordpress.com/" rel="nofollow">Lauren</a>
    Lauren
    June 3rd, 2013 @12:01 #
     
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    There are lots of things that can make me fall in love with a book - story, writing, characters, ideas, subversion etc. Some tend to work better and more often than others, but I wouldn't pin any one factor down. And as Cat says, any one of those can fail unexpectedly.

    Young adult fiction can never be patronizing and it can’t focus too much on issues at the expense of the plot. If it’s too childish it becomes Middle Grade, not Yg, constant concerns about the target market and length? Why doeA. If it’s too edgy it becomes New Adult, or Crossover. If it’s too short it becomes a novella.

    Do you write with such strons it matter so much if it's Middle Grade or New Adult rather than YA? Why not just write what you want to write?

    I think I actually prefer Middle Grade to YA. I don't see it as "childish"; a lot of the time I enjoy how much more adventurous it is than YA.

    The protagonist must be likable.

    I don't know... I would say they can be unlikeable as long as the narrative gives you the means to understand them. The same goes for any genre, but this ties into the debate over sex, violence and other debated content in YA. Why only write about the good/courageous/nice/popular teens? Does YA always have to be about role models?

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  • <a href="http://violininavoid.wordpress.com/" rel="nofollow">Lauren</a>
    Lauren
    June 3rd, 2013 @12:05 #
     
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    Gah, sorry, above comment was full of weird errors and formatting. Reposting without attempts at markups.

    There are lots of things that can make me fall in love with a book - story, writing, characters, ideas, subversion etc. Some tend to work better and more often than others, but I wouldn't pin any one factor down. And as Cat says, any one of those can fail unexpectedly.

    "Young adult fiction can never be patronizing and it can’t focus too much on issues at the expense of the plot. If it’s too childish it becomes Middle Grade, not YA, constant concerns about the target market and length? Why doeA. If it’s too edgy it becomes New Adult, or Crossover. If it’s too short it becomes a novella."
    Do you write with such strong concerns about target market/genre/length? Why does it matter so much if it's Middle Grade or New Adult rather than YA? Why not just write what you want to write?

    I think I actually prefer Middle Grade to YA. I don't see it as "childish"; a lot of the time I enjoy how much more adventurous it is than YA.

    "The protagonist must be likable."
    I don't know... I would say they can be unlikeable as long as the narrative gives you the means to understand them. The same goes for any genre, but this ties into the debate over sex, violence and other debated content in YA. Why only write about the good/courageous/nice/popular teens? Does YA always have to be about role models?

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    June 3rd, 2013 @12:06 #
     
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    Not necessarily, Lauren. I would argue that a lot of my characters are very unlikable. The above mentions a lot of the generally accepted rules for writing YA. I break most of them, but it helps to keep them in mind.

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  • <a href="http://www.cathellisen.com/" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    June 3rd, 2013 @12:11 #
     
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    I think the thing with "likeable" YA characters is an agent/publisher-led idea. Many push for changing characters to be more likeable so writers feel they need to write those characters in order to sell.

    Likeable characters tend to bore me, but give me a glimpse inside the killer's head and let me see something I identify with, and we're good to go. (Or, I'm really weird...)

    To be fair to the agents and editors, one of the biggest complaints about my own book is that all the characters are horrible people and they don't know who to "root for". (Well, another word is used, it rhymes with pole.) *shrug* It's just the way I write, and the audience for those horrible characters is out there, it's just a smaller group of people than the ones who like mary sues.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 3rd, 2013 @14:50 #
     
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    Really interesting. We also battle with the hangover from the decades of publishers pushing out local YA books only if they thought they would fit the education market and might be prescribed. That led to an absolute ban on sex or politics (and usually violence too), much preachy moralising, goody-goody role models or Dreadful Examples (often the most interesting characters), and the kind of "support material" (summaries, classroom questions, etc) guaranteed to kill reading for pleasure stone-dead. These pressures still filter into local YA writing, alas.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 3rd, 2013 @19:59 #
     
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    I don't recall reading any young adult fiction at that age. I leapt from the Hardy Boys to Alistair McLean, Agatha Christie, Neville Schute and other adult literature. Why are they so prescriptive nowadays, even though kids have access to the most mind-bogglingly violent movies and games? You'd expect education departments to favour books that give a better understanding of the adult world - sex, violence and all - rather than shy away from it.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 4th, 2013 @06:41 #
     
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    To be fair, my book was put on the Grade 11 reading list and there are scenes re: sex education in the book. Granted, the book was written for adults, not YA - but a mature teen could read it. However, it was an optional text, so schools that pearl clutch over these things can avoid it.

    I read both adult and YA as a tween and teen: Maya Angelou, David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Margret Atwood, Stephen King & Amy Tan were right there with Judy Blume (Forever), Cynthia Voight (Tell me if the Lovers are the Losers), Katherine Paterson (Jacob Have I Loved) and *hangs head in shame* Sweet Valley High.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    June 4th, 2013 @08:15 #
     
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    The librarian at Rhodean said that Things I Thought I Knew is very popular. That's v encouraging - it's not YA but has 20-something year-olds in it. And some love sex, casual drug taking, casual sex taking, swear words - all the bad stuff.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 4th, 2013 @08:16 #
     
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    My top three YA books were The Outsiders (SE Hinton), Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls) and Watership Down (Richard Adams). Terrifically complex books replete with the dangers of life - physical, emotional, spiritual - and with a distinct lack of pandering to adult sensibilities, which may be the key to good YA writing.

    The last is Penguin's bestselling book of all time, allegedly.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 4th, 2013 @08:49 #
     
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    Follow-up! I'm reviewing some content for submission to the Apple & Google app stores. They both ask, of the content, whether it contains:

    - Cartoon or Fantasy Violence
    - Realistic Violence
    - Sexual Content or Nudity
    - Profanity or Crude Humour
    - Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
    - Mature/Suggestive Themes
    - Simulated Gambling
    - Horror/Fear Themes
    - Prolonged Graphic or Sadistic Realistic Violence
    - Graphic Sexual Content or Nudity

    I reckon these filters represent one formula for good YA :)

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    June 4th, 2013 @08:57 #
     
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    Golly, you're not going to have much content then :/

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 4th, 2013 @08:59 #
     
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    They don't ban it, fortunately - they just rate it, based on the filters you select. It's still censorship, though.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 4th, 2013 @09:15 #
     
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    I loved Watership Down and The Outsiders too. I think that what is interesting for me is how when you are a teen or YA reader, you often mix reading adult stuff with YA stuff. (Depends on access I guess). I loved Paul Zindel as a teen, but also read a lot of Alistair McLean, and other thrillers and I remember reading the Drifters by James Michener at 12! School classmates read huge quantities of Mills & Boon and Barbara Cartland and Jilly Cooper. I also loved Leon Uris, Herman Wouk and also historical novels set in the Tudor period. Was fascinated by Henry VIII.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 4th, 2013 @09:27 #
     
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    I forgot to mention all the bestial books I was reading at the time: Percy Fitzpatrick, Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Mary Elwyn Patchett, who fed a yearlong horse fetish that I have not dared share with anyone until today.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 4th, 2013 @10:30 #
     
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    Great, after Richard's comment I've got Jessica's Theme (Breaking in the Colt) from the movie The Man From Snowy River. Loved that movies so much I once had Jessica's theme memorized on the piano. Fun fact - I've never ridden English saddle.

    Right, Apple & Google... do they rate it like the movies, or simply list it if it contains such things? Because the US rating system is weird. You can blow anything up you like and it is all good. Woman naked? Well, maybe that's a bit R-ish. A MAN naked - run to the hills. And worse? Show a woman enjoying sex (My Blue Valentine) and pearls are clutched till the knuckles go white.

    Books - I could see both of Kathryn White's books being popular with teens. Coconut and The Man who is Not a Man hit good notes with the teen & almost-man whose orbits occasionally take them to my bookshelves.

    The 12 & 13yr olds in my workshops really loved The Hunger Games (although one poor soul thought there were only two books. I assured her that there really were three.) Where the 14 year old from the township didn't really care about it, declined reading the other two but has kidnapped my copy of When the Sea is Rising Red. She also became truly fascinated by Margaret Forster's non-fiction along with Peggy Orenstein's School Girls. I had nothing to do with it.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 4th, 2013 @10:30 #
     
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    Ah typos...well, at least you really know it is me sitting behind the screen.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    June 4th, 2013 @10:39 #
     
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    Total absorbtion in a book isn't necessarily contrained to YA. I was lost for days inside the pages of Lord of the Rings. Must have been about 13 at the time.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 4th, 2013 @13:04 #
     
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    Sally, I count myself among the heretics who classify LOTR as full-on YA.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 4th, 2013 @15:23 #
     
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    So Sally, while driving by twitter Margret Atwood tweeted a link and I thought of you.
    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/06/04/25-things-you-should-know-about-young-adult-fiction/

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 4th, 2013 @23:29 #
     
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    K.M. Peyton, Jane Gardam, Hester Burton. As a teenager, the only times I felt understood was when I was reading these authors. To this day, I'm sad I only discovered Cynthia Voigt and Gary Paulsen long after I was no longer a YA. That said, at 14 I was busy gobbling Gone With the Wind, South Pacific, all those gung-ho early books about conquering Everest, and much epic stuff. Funnily enough, what I wanted in a book at that age was FATNESS. And yet I somehow missed out on LOTR.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 5th, 2013 @09:08 #
     
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    Yes, I also loved FAT books. The thicker the better, loved epics and family sagas. Hated books ending.

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