Sarah Anne Sumpolec voluntarily hangs out with dozens of kids and teens on a regular basis, so it’s no surprise that she loves writing for these age groups. She is a multipublished author, snagging three nominations for Book of the Year as well as a second and third place finish for her five book Becoming Beka YA series, published by Moody Publishers. She has served as a judge for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book awards and for the ACFW Genesis contest, mentored teen writers through the Christian Writers Guild, and she loves to teach about writing at workshops across the country. Her background includes more than fifteen years training in the theater and several years as an elementary teacher. By day she is a screenwriter and works for In Jesus’ Name Productions—a Christian movie studio—where she concentrates on script development and producing. She also helps out at My Book Therapy as their YA and Children’s Specialist, so you can find more tips and special interviews when Sarah blogs there. Visit her own Web site at http://www.sarahannesumpolec.com/
Writing for Teens
Writing for teens should only be attempted by those who genuinely enjoy teenagers. It’s true. A lot of authors approach YA with honest, but misguided, motives to try to fix teens or teach them what they should know; but often those stories end up as thinly veiled sermons. So this month, let’s take a look at some of the common mistakes YA writers make.
1. Too much parental involvement
If you survey YA literature, you’ll find that a large proportion of it includes dead or absentee parents. This is because for teen protagonists to go through their character journeys, they must make their own discoveries and choices. They cannot have Mom or Dad swoop in and offer the answers to the big story questions. Now, it is fine for your character to get advice from various sources, but it should be conflicting advice that forces the character to make the decision. Intact families and caring parents are great things to show in a story, just be sure that those caring parents don’t solve all the problems.
2. Voice Issues
The “voice” of a story is a slippery issue to understand. Most teen fiction is written in first person (a smaller percentage is written in third), so it’s important that the story itself feels like it’s an authentic teen character. It’s easy to make the tone too adult or too young. Both can come off as patronizing. Best way to avoid this: Read a lot of YA literature. All kinds. You’ll start to get a feel for the voice that’s used and will be better equipped to write your teen character from an authentic place. My latest favorite? Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
3. Not Enough Tension
Any story can suffer from a lack of tension, not just YA. We often care about our characters so much that we aren’t willing to put them in the really difficult situations that are required to create tension. Find creative ways to force your characters to make hard choices. Analyze your story and see where you can increase tension at key points. But never confuse “action” with “tension.” Just because lots of things “happen” in a story doesn’t mean that you’ve created tension. Your readers must have such a strong empathy for your character so that as they move through the story, they intuitively know what that character is feeling without your having to say it.
4. Weak Characters
Again, this is a problem that can afflict any story, but a couple of exercises will help you take a look at your characters:
Pick the key moments in your story and write your character’s “diary entry” about each story event. Dig deep. What are they scared of? What are they feeling? What is hurting them? Be honest and raw with their emotions. Now, go back to the story, armed with those emotions and that understanding, and look at those events. How is your character reacting? Rewrite the scenes in a way that “shows” how the character is feeling rather
than “telling” us. What could happen that would make that event even more difficult?
Look at each of the choices your character makes in the story. The choices truly reveal who he or she is, so ask yourself: Are these choices the obvious ones? Do they fit with the character? What would happen if the character made the opposite choice? Rewrite a scene in which he or she chooses the opposite and see where it takes your character. Really consider each choice. When you give your characters a good choice and a bad choice, we all know what they should choose. Even if they choose wrong, it still doesn’t help us know the character. Instead, see where you can force them to choose between two courses that are shades of gray rather than a clear black or white.
Analyze your main character’s story arc, and the arcs of other key characters. How do they change from beginning to end, and even more important, how does one arc affect/impact another character’s arc? Spend some time finding where they are and it will become clear where key elements have been left dangling or need to be strengthened.
Make a list. On one side, write down all the things that you really like about your main character. Then on the other side, put what you don’t like about him or her. It’s important that no character in your story is all good or all bad. Real people are conflicted and so our characters also must have a balance. By digging deeper into their strengths and weaknesses, you may find key places in your plot to use that knowledge to increase the tension.
5. Trying Too Hard to Be Trendy
We are talking about two different kinds of trends here. First, story trends. Trends are fleeting. Right now, agents and editors are saturated with YA fantasy, so pitching a vampire book probably isn’t a great idea. But give it time and that will likely change. Second, teen trends. What is hot today will likely be pretty cold by the time your book comes out. You’ll want to tread carefully through the world of technology, fashion, pop culture, and language. It’s why many writers choose to make up the names of hot bands or stars rather than use the current “it” crowd. It’s why many also choose to make up special words and phrasing used by their characters rather than going with words that are hot right now. Your best bet is to make it work for your story rather than trying to fit your story into a cultural mold that changes day-to-day. Spend time creating a story world that is real and consistent and you’ll have a novel that doesn’t date itself as quickly.
I hope I’ve given you some points to think about and a few tools to walk away with. I’m thrilled that you are interested enough in writing for teens that you’ve read this article, because we truly do need YA writers who enjoy writing for this age group. Don’t forget to check out the My Book Therapy Blog (http://www.mybooktherapy.com/blog/) for upcoming interviews with editors, booksellers, and publicists who focus on teen and children’s books. Have fun!