Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 2)

In Part 1, Editor Krista Marino explained how YA Voice is related to diction, perspective, dialog, interior monologue, and character. In this second section she explains what makes a young adult voice unique and different from an adult writing voice.

Let’s Talk about the Teen/YA Voice in Particular:

  • YA is specific in terms of voice.
  • YA is teen experience, outlook, and their limited life experiences.
  • YA is about teen beliefs, likes and dislikes, etc.
  • Think about how small your life was when you were a teenager. Remember when you believed in Santa? What did you believe when you were in high school? Did you think you were going to marry your high school boyfriend?
  • An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.
  • “When you’re young everything feels like it’s the end of the world.” – movie quote. Teens have no reference to know that things will get better in their lives, where as adults bring life experiences with them.
  • Teens are not making stupid decisions. They are making their decisions because they have only been on the planet for 16 years and don’t have any life experience.
  • Teens have nothing else to compare their experiences to.
  • When you are writing you need to erase the worldliness you’ve experienced over the years.
  • Your protagonist can’t be simple.
  • Every teen is questioning how other teens view them.
  • Your character must evolve. Voice can change as a character grows and learns over the course of the book. Voice must change with the evolution and movement of the book.

Exercises to Get to Know Your Character:

  • Exercise: List three character traits about your protagonist (i.e. sassy, romantic, uptight) then push yourself to go deeper and find out who they really are under those traits.
  • Exercise: Write two pages that tell you something new about your character. These pages do not need to go into the manuscript. See what they will tell you.
  • Exercise: Go to a public place and eavesdrop on teens. Write down their conversations exactly as you hear them. Now try to use that conversation in a scene you are writing. Watch how your characters interact.

Telling about Character in the Writing:

  • Weave info about your character into the story, but make it invisible.
  • In the writing insinuate how a character looks without listing everything they are wearing. Pick a particular trait to embody a greater image of the character. Example: A character wearing skull rings.
  • You can’t assume the reader knows what is going on inside your character. You need to clue them in. Is the character tired? Excited?
  • Layer your characters actions. Stomping could mean a character is angry, but they could also be embarrassed. Sometimes more is more.
  • It’s better for someone to tell you to cut than add.
  • Beware of too much telling, it will sound like you (the author) are speaking to the reader rather than the character.

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 1)

Editor Krista Marino spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference and shared the following insight on how to perfect your YA voice:

There are Two Types of Voice:

  • Authorial Voice – this is when you know a book is by a certain author. For example you know when you’re reading a John Irving or Meg Cabot book.
  • Narrative Voice – This is the voice invented by the author and the voice of the protagonist.

What is Voice?

  • Voice is illusive and hard to define.
  • Marino’s says voice is made up of: diction, perspective, characterization, and dialog.

Diction as Voice:

  • Diction is vocabulary choices and a style of expression.
  • Think word choice!
  • Marino used an example from The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. She pointed out how the author does not use contractions in the novel to reflect the “old fashioned” sensibility of the town/people, but when a scene started to pick up in pace the author would begin to use contractions (Cannot vx. Can’t).
  • Focus on your character’s distinct vocabulary or expression. This doesn’t mean slang. This will reveal how the protagonist relates to the world.
  • Does your character use cultural references (X-men, animal planet) to define how they relate to the world? This is part of his or her diction.
  • Beware of leaning on cultural references too much for your voice. That will become a crutch. Take a look at Frank Portman’s King Dork as an example of teen voice that feels current without using specific cultural references.

Perspective as Voice:

  • This is the mental view of the character and how it affects the storytelling.
  • This is not point of view.
  • How does the limited teen experience influence how they view the world and the way they speak? For example look at the movies BIG and 17 Again. In Big you have a kid in an adult body. How does this “adult” act and speak to reveal they are really a kid? Or in 17 Again you have an adult in a kid’s body, how does action/speech reveal that they are really an adult with an adult way of thinking?
  • How does the setting (historical fiction or futuristic) change the experiences of your character?

Character as Voice:

  • Voice can convey info about character, age, gender, hobbies, religion, motivation, ambitions, looks, etc.
  • You must know everything about your protagonist.
  • Everything in the book with be filtered through the protagonist.
  • Character driven books are amazing because the character feels real and you (the reader) will follow them anywhere. The secret is to have an amazing character and a plot to sell to a larger audience.
  • Think about the protagonist in your favorite book and write down reasons why you like them. Why did they come to life for you? Was it their speech? Actions?
  • A solid 3D character will come to life and have a believable voice.
  • You need to know your characters and you want to know them emotionally.

Dialog as Voice:

  • This is about the verbal exchange in the book (not interior monologue).
  • Dialog directly reflects a character’s voice and personality.
  • This is about more than just the words.
  • Dialog needs to feel real, not like on a sitcom.
  • Dialog doesn’t exist just hanging there in space. If they just say something but there is no context for it, the reader won’t understand who they are and what they are thinking.

Interior Monologue as Voice:

  • Interior monologue is what the character is thinking and gives context to the dialog.
  • The #1 thing that Krista Marino finds is missing in manuscripts is interior dialog or interior monologue.
  • Interior monologue is important, if not most important to conveying the feelings, reactions, and judgments of your character.
  • Interior monologue shows a character’s perception of a scene and their feelings.
  • Without interior monologue we lose the inner emotional stakes of the scene.
  • All dramatic irony is lost without interior monologue.
  • You need interior monologue to create empathy, rather than having the reader observe and make guesses about the character.
  • You loose back-story, sarcasm, and emotion without interior monologue.
  • We always want to know what a character (on the page) is thinking.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 – Coming Soon!

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Five Things to Make Your First Page Shine!

The first page is your chance to make a strong impression with your teen reader! Don’t blow it! New York Times bestselling young adult author Rachel Cohn spoke at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day event, and shared her list of the top five things you need on page one!

The Five Things To Look For In Your Opening Page:

1)     Voice

  • This is often said to be indescribable. “I’ll know it when I read it.” Is what we hear over and over.
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • Write as if you are talking to a friend.
  • Write honestly.
  • Don’t write logically. Follow the emotion.
  • Imagine a teen in your living room and you are telling them your story. How would you tell it to keep them engaged?
  • Read other books! Hear other author’s voices.
  • Some of Cohn’s favorite author voices are: Libba Bray, David Levithan, and Patricia McCormick.

2)     Tone

  • This is similar to tone of voice.
  • It is not what is being said but how it is being said.
  • This is related to the adjectives you use.

3)     World

  • You need to show the world your characters find themselves in.
  • This doesn’t have to be epic world building like Lord of the Rings or high fantasy or dystopian.
  • Worlds are smaller. Think about the world created by author Sarah Dessen as an example.
  • Communicate how your world works to your reader.
  • Think about how your mundane and ordinary world can be seen as extraordinary to a teen.
  • Your world needs to feel like paradise before you make it feel like a prison.

4)     The Plot

  • Outlining is good! It’s really helpful.
  • Plot is what happens in the story and the order in which it happens.

5)     Conflict

  • What is in your character’s way?
  • What does your character want?
  • Do the situations your character gets into get in the way of what they want?

Rachel shared the first page of three young adult novels which (in her opinion) contain all five elements — Voice, Tone, World, Plot, and Conflict. Pick up these books at your library and see if you agree!

Example 1: The Hunger Games by Susan Collins

  • Mention of the Reaping = Tone and Plot
  • Story with the Cat = Illustrates (show not tell) the bleakness of the world.
  • Establishes the protagonist is a hunter who provides for the family and is loyal.
  • The line about love immediately shows tone and conflict.

Example 2: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

  • We get the voice from the first line.
  • We get the tone from the use of slang and the sense of darkness and mystery. Yet at the same time it’s funny.
  • The prosthetic belly tells us information about the world.
  • Immediate Conflict = She must get pregnant.

Example 3: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

  • Creates a teen voice that is direct and immediate, yet artful and smart at the same time. “The sunset was like yellow cat vomit.”
  • We get the voice immediately in the first few lines.
  • World is futuristic.
  • Plot and conflict is established in the bit about her friend getting a surgery that the protagonist herself has not had.

Rachel Cohn is a New York Times bestselling Young Adult author. Her titles include: Gingerbread, Ver LeFreak, You Know Where to Find Me, Cupcake, Shrimp and Pop Princess. She has also co-authored with David Levithan the very popular books, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a successful movie released by Sony Pictures. Rachel’s books have been “Best of the Year” selections by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. The American Library Association has also named her books to the Best Books for Young Adults and Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list.

The Voice of Point-of-View

“I’m looking for great voice!” That’s what every editor and agent in the business keeps saying over and over. Yet, at the same time they have trouble describing voice. “I can’t describe it,” they say. “But, I’ll know it when I read it.”

But what is it? And how do we writers find our voice?

This is a complex topic. But I’ve discovered that one great way to discover the power of voice (and what it is for that matter) is to experiment with point-of-view. Choosing a point of view for your story will greatly influence the narrative voice of your novel. It’s a lot more than pronouns. It’s about perspective, and “who” is telling the story. The story of one event will be told differently depending upon the POV. Choosing to tell a story from inside a protagonist’s head (first person) or from an omniscient narrator is going to create vastly different voices.

Don’t believe me? Try the following exercise and see what happens.

Point of View Exercise:

Step One: Find two paragraphs of your present work-in-progress that includes an event with multiple characters and no dialog. (Or write two new paragraphs).

Step Two: Identify the POV you wrote those paragraphs in (i.e. first person, third person limited, omniscient etc.) and skip the step below that is the POV you originally used.

Step Three: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of your protagonist using first person.

Step Four: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of another character interacting in the scene using third person limited.

Step Five: Rewrite your paragraphs using dramatic POV.

Step Six: Rewrite your paragraphs using omniscient POV.

Step Seven: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of a character outside the action, who watches but doesn’t interact. Use the third person limited.

Step Eight: Now compare your paragraphs. What changed in each POV? How did the voice change? How did the diction and word choices change? How did the distance from the scene change? How does the narrator or character’s attitude change the voice?

Now tell us how it went!!!

Also, check out these other great links on voice and point of view:

Your Voice is Your Voice: Keeping It Real

An amazing voice is the number one “must-have” on every agent and editors list. So what is this odd and illusive thing known as voice? How do you find it? What does it sound like? Why is it so gosh darn important? Scholastic editor Jennifer Rees (The Hunger Games, Purge) spoke on this exact subject at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. The following is her two cents on why you’ve got to have a knock-out voice and how to develop it.

The Importance of Voice…

  • Voice is the most powerful and prized possession in a writer’s tool box.
  • Voice is that amazing thing that taps you on the shoulder (the character) and asks you to come with them on a journey.
  • Great voice is not reserved for fiction alone. It can also be in non-fiction.

What is Voice?

  • When writing you are concerned about: What is the story? How do you tell it? What are you conveying? How do you maintain audience interest? Voice is what makes all of these things POWERFUL!
  • Voice is what the author has in common with all of their books. Rees sees a good voice as a sign that the author will be able to write other great books too.
  • Your voice is you. It is a reflection of you.  And you must write the story that only you can write.
  • You have a unique view of the world. Who is in your world and what do they have to say about it?
  • Voice is the writer’s presence on the page. (About writing with voice by Tom Ramano)
  • Voice is not concrete or tangible and yet it is the most important part of the book.
  • Voice is the hook that gets us interested from page one. It determines the audience and points back to the author.

Voice Example…

  • Complete this sentence:   When I was young in the…
  • The way in which you complete that sentence tells us about your voice. Everyone will complete it differently.

Voice and Character:

  • Voice is often talked about in the creation of your character. What is it the character notices? What is it that your character leaves out?
  • Characters need flaws. But what is their surprise? What will keep them on their toes?
  • In the book Purge it speaks to a specific topic (bulimia), it’s edgy, and the tension is high. There’s a lot going on in the book. But the surprise of the book is the humor. It’s a grim topic with a funny spin.
  • A voice will change depending upon the audience for a comment. For example if you quit your job. The way you tell this story will be different if you are talking to your best friend or talking to a future employer.
  • Character and voice are so interconnected! If the voice doesn’t work – is it fixable? It can point to a thin character. It might me a character that you (the writer) are not connecting with and thus the reader is not connecting with as well.
  • The voice of the narrator is not necessarily the voice of the book. There is more to it.

What I Learned As a Bookseller about Voice…

  • Rees spent years watching how customers would buy a book. Everyone will open the first page and decided if they will buy the book or not. That is the big ticket! This is stronger than the photos or back flap. It’s about the voice they see on the first page.

Common Pit-Falls in Voice:

  • Teen Speak – don’t go overboard with your jargon. Jargon often has little or nothing to do with voice. Voice is only believable if the character would actually say it.
  • Uneven Voice – When you are not sure how to say something. The voice seems to wobble. Strong voice plunges forward despite knowing where one is going, or how to say it.
  • Describing everything – use of excessive language and detail bout almost everything is a problem. Choose what is interesting about the specific place.
  • Lack of Voice in your Query – you want to infuse your query and synopsis with personality! Otherwise it is boring.

On Developing Your Voice:

  • Be fearless with language. Write about what you are emotionally moved by!
  • Say the rude-truth. Don’t be afraid.
  • The choice between first and third person are a personal preference, and reflects the type of story you are telling. First person tends to be easier to start with when you begin writing.
  • When you find your voice! Send it to me! (Rees)

Specific Books Discussed in Rees’ Presentation:

  • Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
  • Wish I Might and Sunny Holiday by Coleen Murtagh Paratore
  • When I was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
  • The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
  • Purge by Sarah Darer Littman
  • Finally by  Wendy Mass
  • Owen and Mzee by Craig Hatkoff

About Jennifer Rees and What She Looks for in a Submission:

  • Voice is the #1 thing that Rees responds to in book submissions.
  • Hook me on the first page with an unstoppable voice!
  • The voice of Katniss (The Hunger Games) was so powerful that Rees missed 3 subways and a bus while reading the submission.
  • Rees will read a submission until she gets bored and then stop.
  • She loves the work of Anne Lamott
  • Beware of “voice copies.” She gets a lot of these in her submissions. These are books that are copying the voice of another book on her list. This happened with the book Clementine. (Clementine is also one of her favorite books – ever!)
  • Rees has readers who go through her submissions.
  • She is looking for literary books! If you have one, send it to her!
  • The new book Purge by Sarah Derra Litman is one she is really excited about.
  • Rees does not work on series books.
  • If you want to query her you can send your submission to 557 Broadway, NY NY 10012. Write SCBWILA10 on it and mention that you were at her session. Just sent a query letter! If she requests the book then send a cover letter with the manuscript and include a SASE.
  • If you are an author/illustrator she likes to see a book dummy.
  • Feel free to send a SASE Postcard if you would like to know she got your submission.
  • Great non-fiction book that she likes is Chasing Lincolns Killer
  • Looking for: out of the box fantasy, and middle grade boy books.

The Difference Between Scholastic and Scholastic Press:

  • Scholastic publishes books like Harry Potter, Clifford, 39 Clues, The Magic School Bus. I didn’t work on any of those!
  • Scholastic press is the literary side of Scholastic. We publish things like: The Invention of Hugo Caberet, Rules, Drum Girls Dang Pies, and Mt. Anderson.
  • Out of the Dust was a book that really influenced Rees and Scholastic Press published it (before she was there.)

Editor Jennifer Rees

Books Jennifer Rees has Edited:

  • Picture Books: Chicken and Cat by Sara Varon, Swim! Swim! By Lerch, Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again by Craig Hatkoff, and Jibberwillies at Night by Rachel Vail.
  • Middle Grade: Sunny Holiday and Sweet and Sunny by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, Forget Me Not and Wish I Might by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, 11 Birthdays and Finally by Wendy Mass, Elvis and Olive by Stephanie Watson, and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.
  • Young Adult: Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins, Purge and Life After by Sarah Darer Littman, After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick, Everlasting by Angie Frazier, Forever Crumb by Philip Reeve, and The Hunger Games trilogy by Susanne Collins.

Learn More about Rees at:

Jennifer Rees got her start in children’s books as a children’s bookseller in Ohio. Since then, she’s found great joy in working as an editor at Scholastic Press, where she acquires and edits fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. A sampling of projects she’s edited include The Hunger Games Series, Winter’s Tail, 11 Birthdays, Purge, and Girls and Dangerous Pie.

Quote of the Week: Tom Romano

“[Voice is] the writer’s presence on the page. It is the sense we have while reading that someone occupies the middle of our mind, the sense we have while writing that something or someone is whispering in our ear.” – Tom Romano (Writing with Voice, Article)

Tom Romano is the author of several bestselling books with Heinemann, including Clearing the Way (1987); Writing with Passion (1995); Blending Genre, Altering Style (2000); and Crafting Authentic Voice (2004). His latest is Zigzag (2008), a memoir of his teaching and learning lives. Tom has taught high school and college students for more than thirty years, and he currently teaches writing and language arts methods in the department of teacher education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio . In summer he often teaches in the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes at the University of New Hampshire .

How to Wow an Editor With Your Book

“This book needs to be read!” Assistant editor, Rachel Abrams, of Harper Collins shared her insight as to how to get an editor to say these very words, at the 2010 SCBWI So Cal Writers Day. The following is her recipe on how to hone your craft and make your writing the very best it can be.

Your opening paragraph needs to…

  • Grab the attention of the reader and hook them.
  • Be powerful and punchy.
  • Set up goals for the rest of the book.
  • Establish perspective and voice.
  • Introduce your protagonist.

Abrams shared the following three examples of strong opening paragraphs:

1) An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: This has a strong opening because it has a punchy first sentence which also tell us a lot about the main character. We immediately get a sense of the quirky voice of the book. We become aware of the conflict – that the main character has been dumped. Every detail is actually pertinent to the plot, including the bathtub, Archemedies, and the eureka moment (all of which come back later in the story). Everything is carefully planned and well thought out.

2) Gorgeous by Rachel Veil: We get a sense of an authentic teen voice right from the beginning. The setting is established, and the plot is introduced. Abrams was really pulled in by the snappy first sentence “I sold my cell phone to the Devil.”

3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: This book opens with suspense, and immediately the plot is set into motion. Even though it has a somewhat ambiguous feeling you are still sucked into the mystery and the story. It also uses punchy, descriptive, plot driven words.

Finding your voice…

Voice is something that is very difficult to teach. As an editor, Abrams feels like she can’t teach you voice, but she can help you to hone it. Things that will help you to hone your voice include:

  • Know your market. Watch what teens watch. Read what they read. Get into your market’s head.
  • Find a unique perspective.
  • Get to know your characters.
  • In regards to historical fiction, know that the issues the characters encounter are similar – parents, friends, relationships. It is the setting that is different.
  • For the broadest audience, don’t use swear words.

Effective dialog will…

  • Reveal character.
  • Increase the pace of the scene/novel.
  • Add conflict.
  • Establish voice.
  • Reveal only limited back story.
  • What is not said is often more powerful than what is said.

Dialog pitfalls (to be avoided) are…

  • Revealing too much back story (aka: the information dump).
  • Characters who blurt out everything.
  • Chatty on the nose gabbing.
  • Adverbial speech tags – the emotion should be expressed in the dialog itself, which will make the speech tag unnecessary. (This is a personal pet peeve of Abrams’).

In regards to character development…

  • Character development is what Abrams really likes to focus on. In her opinion, plot is secondary to the characters.
  • Nothing should feel random or tacked on.
  • Detail does not equal development.  The details must matter.
  • Map out your character arc. Know how your characters will evolve.
  • Equip your characters with the tools to help them to get from point A to B and then to point C.
  • Know how the traits of your character affect the plot as it evolves.
  • Equip your character with motivation and a full set of personality traits.
  • Try and keep the number or characters in your book to a minimum.
  • Understand why your characters do things. This is about motivation, why do your characters act the way they do?

Lets talk about plot and pacing…

  • It is always good to fall back on a three act structure. Act One: Introduce characters, reveal characters, set plot in motion, establish setting. Act Two: This is longer and where the plot develops, the story becomes more complex, and you explore subplots. The act ends with a major event that helps to build to the climax. Act Three: climax and resolution.
  • Avoid episodic structure.
  • It’s a great idea to at least outline the major set pieces of your book. These are the big scenes that really affect the direction of the plot. Major set pieces are packed with a lot of emotion and are the scenes that your smaller scenes are leading up to.
  • Think of your scenes as mini stories with a beginning, middle, and end. There should always be a goal, conflict, and outcome.
  • Always push to raise the stakes of the plot!
  • If you are stuck in a scene try to throw in something that will raise the stakes. This is a great way to get out of writers block. Remember, you don’t have to keep it. Find out where the boundaries are by going past them.
  • There is nothing better than a good wrench in the plan! “A good story is only a good story because bad things happen” – ? What your characters do to get out of the situation is what makes reading the story rewarding.
  • Don’t bog down the plot with too much back story.

Ways to develop your own personal style…

  • The art is in the details. Editors want writing that sparkles. They want writing that will give them chills.
  • Dip into you. Look inside at yourself, and how you feel.
  • Editors will help you to make lovely sentences.
  • Weigh your words. Find the right word.
  • Details are a red flag to the reader which tells them to slow down and savor the moment. It tells the reader to pay attention. Therefore, details must be intentional.
  • Revealing sentences will tell the reader what they need to know.
  • “Fondle the details.” – Nabokov
  • Slow down and explore. Use as few words as you can to express as much as you can. A good example of this is the introduction of The Grey (a large horse) in The Graveyard Book. The author describes the horse has being 19 hands long versus using the word enormous. This has more impact.

Why it’s a good idea to get an agent…

  • An agent will help you to get a more experience editor for your book.
  • They will help your book get seen by more people.
  • They are the first filter for you, and will help you revise your book before you send it out.

Rachel Abrams is acquiring and she is looking for…

  • Mostly middle grade and young adult books. Also, a few picture books.
  • Paranormal and teen romance.
  • Middle grade series’.
  • Her favorite middle grade gooks are Walk Two Moons, The Wimpy Kid Books.
  • Her favorite young adult authors are Libba Bray and E. Lockhart.
  • Her favorite picture books include Spoon, Hip Hop Dog, and books that are quirky.
  • Editorial pet peeves include clunky dialog, adverbial tags, and underdeveloped characters.

Rachel Abrams is an assistant editor at Harper-Collins Children’s Books. Since joining the company in 2007, she has worked closely with authors Avi, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Chris Lynch, and Rachel Vail, as well as illustrators Brett Helquist, Dave McKean, and Vladimir Radunsky.

Libba Bray’s Ten Insights for Writing

“What I want to talk about is the ways in which we open ourselves up to the process. Writing is a discovery to develop and reach new places with our work.” Young adult author, Libba Bray, began her presentation at the 2010 SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day with the above call to arms. She followed with these ten insights to push your work to new heights.

1. Some Days Your Writing Will Suck! This is normal. Do you have a perfect hair day, every day? No! The work will get better! Trust it. The work will surprise you with the answer. No one ever died from a day of bad writing!

2. Name Your Inner Critic. We all have an inner critic who sits over our shoulder and makes comments like “Wow, that is suck-tastic.” “Derivitive.” “You’re a fraud!” Name your inner critic. This way you can tell them to leave the room! You don’t need them in the room. You need that freedom, particularly when you are working on your first draft. They will trip you up keep you from getting the work out. So let the mad man go (inner critic), and then later invite them back in when you are ready to edit.

3. Writing Should Scare You. If what you are writing doesn’t scare you, even a little bit, then there are no stakes. This means you haven’t pushed far enough. This means you are too comfortable and you aren’t pushing your own limits.

4. Read! Yes, you must read! Make the time! It is a pleasureable part of your job. Read everything. Make your synapses go nuts! Let your brain get excited and start making connections. It will influence your work. Author Linda Sue Park once said that “you must read one thousand books before you can write your first word.” So get reading! (Libba Bray admit’s that she is still catching up.) Read! Know what is possible.

5. Don’t Write Cheerios. Don’t be lazy. When ever Bray is too tired (or lazy) to make dinner she will eat a bowl of Cheerios. Yet a half hour after she’s eaten it she feels unsatisfied. “Did I eat?” She asks herself. Don’t write fiction that is soggy and forgettable!

Stories are about people, and real human experiences. Characters and their relationships are what matters. Develop and understand your characters and create and an emotional connection. “Plot is the footprints left in the snow after your characters have run through.” – Ray Bradbury. There is no fake altruism. There is nothing that is un-earned.

“Good” is a reletive term. Characters, like real people have flaws and problems. Beware of trying to create “good” people/characters. Beware of protecting yourself, by protecting your characters. Take off the armor! You do your characters a disservice if you try to make them “good”. They will become flat. Root around in the murky places to find your characters.

The personal is universal. The more specific you are, the more you let the audience in. Don’t always go for the joke – show the vulnerability, and give it room to breathe.

6. Remember. You are not writing for today’s teens.You are writing for your inner teen. Remember the emotional language of being ten, thirteen, and sixteen. Remember who you were then? Remember what it feels like to be foreign in your own body, longing for a meaningful kiss, that electric moment that could change your life forever. It might happen now, or in five minutes, or in five days. Things are immediate. Remember how you created nicknames for your friends. Remember the fashion statements you made, or using your fake ID, or driving away from home just to see how far away you could get before you felt the need to turn around and come back. Remember the strangeness, and the emptiness. This is a language that never leaves you.

7. Find Your Own Voice and Honor It. When Bray was younger she tried to be Raymond Carver – a sparse, deoressed, male, alchoholic. Then she tried on a bunch of other writer’s styles as well. She was afraid of the inner critic that thought her own work, her own voice, would be boring. Bray had a breakthrough in a writing workshop when after an in-class exercise the teacher came up to her and said “I love what you wrote today. I love that your writing had so much anger in it.” This was a revelation for Bray, and awakening. It freed her to open up and find her own voice. There is no one else who has your voice!

8. Change Up Your Game. Just like working out, there is a point when your writing will plateau. You can get too comfortable writing the same book. So change up the game! Play with form, but do it in service of your story. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do – no punctuation, death as narrator, use screenplay format, etc. The fantasy element in Bray’s Gemma Doyle series came from playing with her manuscript.

9. Just Say No to the Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend. Pterodactyl = Vampire. Be careful of trends. There is no sure thing, except for writing the magic of what matters to you. Find that and dig deeper! (Read more about the hot pterodactyl boyfriend in a previous post with Libba Bray: Write with Wreckless Abandon).

10. Earn Your Moments. Go deeper until you hit a vein. Truth should make you uncomfortable. Earn it! Don’t give characters characteristics that they have not earned. We have this moment and then we move one – work with the ambiguity, don’t bail out your characters.

Libba Bray is the author books for Young Adults, including Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Series: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. In 2010 she was awarded the Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Revision: What’s Wrong With Your Manuscript and How to Fix It!

So you’ve finished the first draft of your young adult novel. Where do you go from here? Well take a few cues from editor Anica Rissi, (from Simon Pulse) who shared her insights on how to identify what’s wrong with your manuscript and then fix it. She spoke at the 2009 SCBWI Los Angeles Conference. The following tips on rewriting are all based on Anica’s personal opinion and preferences and she assures you that there will always be others to negate what she has to say.

After You’ve Finished Your First Draft…

  • When writing a first draft always let it flow and let it all come out. Don’t worry about any of the following advice until you are ready to revise.
  • That said, Anica never wants to read your first draft!
  • After you’ve finished your first draft put it away for a minimum of three weeks. Preferably three months. You need to get some distance from the work. Then you will be ready to revise as you are able to see the work with new eyes.

Writing is About Discipline…

  • “If you think writing is easy, you may not be writing well.” – Rissi
  • Writing is about practice. Exercises will help you. Try and find a routine and use exercises to get your creative juices flowing.
  • When you are writing don’t stop when you are stuck or frustrated as you may not come back again the next day. Always stop when you are excited, so you want to write the next day.

Revise the Beginning…

  • As you revise your beinning you will want to start your book with conflict and tension. Start your book with something the audience can think about or ponder – mystery, a question, an explosion, action! You want to capture your audience so they will follow you to the next place you want to take them.
  • Start your book with a strong voice. Start with a question. Your goal is to raise questions in the audience to entice them to keep reading, to hook them in the first page, in the first sentence! Give the audience something to hold on to and want to explore.
  • Personal Pete Peeve: Do not start a story with a character that wakes up from a dream.
  • Write in the NOW! Start now. Don’t start in the past or in the future, be present!
  • Start you book with your character in a real situation. Introduce that character to us by showing us how they react to the situation. Don’t tell us who the character is. We want to meet the character in real life! Put your character in a situation that has forward momentum, so we want to see where the character is going. We want to see the character interact in everyday life and not see his/her resume. Show not tell.
  • Give some sense of where the story is going and what is at stake within the first few paragraphs or pages. What does this book/character care about and why? Show it!
  • Mistake Rissi often sees is too much back story and too little plot moving forward.

Think About the Overall Arc of Your Story…

  • Your story must always have two ideas to pull it forward. “One idea is not enough for a story, you need two ideas. You need two sticks to rub against one another to start a fire.” These two ideas or “sticks” should be the plot storyline and the emotional storyline. Together they intertwine and create the friction and tension and story.
  • Your characters MUST change!
  • Be sure to cross (interweave) your internal and external conflict.
  • You know when your manuscript is “ready” or “done” when you can explain what it is about in one sentence. You can tell the plot and emotional arc in one sentence.

Focus on Your Teen Voice…

  • Stay in the head of your protagonist! Don’t jump into the head of another character. It pulls one out of the experience/story. Don’t “look back.” Don’t be the adult looking back and reflecting on what has happened before. That robs the story of its immediacy and tells us that the character grows up to be said age of adult narrator. Teen lives don’t see that far into the future there is only the here and now and the immediate moment.
  • Emotions are universal. We all feel sadness, fear, happiness, etc.  How one experiences or feels those emotions are specific to the individual. This is part of voice and what shows the uniqueness of your character and makes an emotion feel authentic.
  • You are never allowed to tell the audience your character’s “good” or “bad” qualities. No explaining of emotions either. Show!!! Telling is boring. Being obvious is the quickest way to be dull. (Check out blog:

Revise Your Dialog…

  • Read your dialog out loud! Keep your dialog moving. Don’t put in meaningless banter. Show your character through gesture and word choice and avoid using adverbs.
  • He said – using the tag “said” is okay!! This is a word that starts to disappear. Other replacement words “explained”, “blurted”, “screamed”,  become more obvious and disrupt the flow. Ask yourself if you really need the other word.
  • Look out for curse words as they really stick out on the page. More may seem normal in regular dialog, but they pop out on the page.
  • Look out for “you know” or “like.” You also will probably have a word that you personally use all the time. Have a friend find it for you so you can get rid of it and use it less.
  • Your characters don’t need to smile, grin, or nod all the time. These also become repetitive. Trust that the reader can “hear” the smile in your dialog.

Respect Your Reader…

  • TRUST – trust yourself and your readers. They will get it.  Take out the specifics of how you want the reader to read a passage. Let the audience have and interpret their own experience as they read your book.
  • Beware of using a journal or blog as it is often a transparent device that does not work.
  • Don’t keep secrets from the reader if the character knew the secret all along. It create an unreliable narrator and a sense of betrayal at the end of the book.

Tighten Everything Up…

  • Everyone tends to either write too much or too little. Find out which one you are.
  • Tighten up every line. Ask yourself what does this sentence do that I don’t already know?
  • It is your details that will separate your story from any old story. Ask yourself what is different about your story. Identify what is different or individual in your scenes. Find out what makes your world/story specific and not universal. What is specific about the way you are writing it? This should be a story that no one else could ever write.
  • Symbols – be aware of your symbolic choices and your choices that could be unintentionally misconstrued as symbolic. Be aware of common experience and your character’s experience in regards to symbolism.

Working With Edgy Content…

  • Rissi likes to publish “edgy” books and she doesn’t shy away from topics like sex and drugs or heavy material. However, the “edgy” parts of the books must come naturally from the story and not be there simply because “edgy is in.” The story must be real.
  • Anica publishes books that have sex and drugs in them, but she also likes books that are sweet and clean. In regards to edgy content, don’t put it in to be trendy. If you use edgy content it must come from the story and be natural and truthful to your characters and world.

Anica Rissi is a senior editor at Simon Pulse and publishes young adult fiction. She used to be an editor at Scholastic before joining Simon Pulse. She likes quirky humor, smart writing, compelling stories, and characters she can’t get out of her head. Recent acquisitions include: Hallow by Jessica Verday, Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, Pure by Terra Evan McVoy, and Nothing Like You by Laurent Strasnick. Rissi does not accept unsoliceted submisions. You must have an agent to send her your work.