Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity: Part 2

Making Peace with the Adolescent Pre-Frontal Cortex: Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity

Part 2: Teen Traits (5 through 8)

By Jessica Denhart

Risk and RewardIn the part one of this article I talked about the teenage brain and the common teen traits of spotty memory, poor impulse control, the desire to do new things, and spending less time with family and more time with friends. Today we’ll talk about the last four traits that will help you craft authentic young adult characters.

5. Heightened Emotions

The one thing that is working completely in the teen brain is the limbic system, which deals with emotion, and is the part of the brain responsible for “pleasure seeking”. This seems to explain a lot about all of the heightened emotions that we deal with in our teen years. I remember feeling as though the entire world was ending when I had a fight with friends, or didn’t get asked out by the boy I liked.

6. Weighting risk and reward differently than adults.

Journalist David Dobbs points out that “Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers, but because they weigh risk versus reward differently. In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do” (Dobbs 54).

Not all teenagers try drugs and alcohol. However, because many teenagers will have to handle situations involving drugs, alcohol and sex it is a realistic part of many teen’s lives.  When crafting a character, a writer should ask:

  • Why does my character choose to try this?
  • Why does she choose not to?

Not every teen character has to try these things, but the question should be asked of them.  Not only is the chemistry in their brains screaming for them to try new and possibly dangerous things, their environments are too. For many teenagers these questions will come up, and that is where the writer has to come in and answer the why’s and how’s, otherwise the writer is not being true to her teenage character, nor her teenage audience.

7. Teenager’s brains are wired to go to bed later and get up later.

It is scientifically documented that teenager’s melatonin levels do not start working until up to two hours later than everyone else.[1] Therefore asking a teen to go to bed early and rise early is messing with their brain chemistry. If you have teenagers in your stories consistently waking up early and loving the sound of birdsong, there had better be a really good reason to back it up.

Every human being is different; therefore every teenager is different and deserves to be treated as an individual. We should treat our teen characters as individuals as well. Though steeped in research, these traits are not hard and fast rules. I suggest them as guidelines, something to test your character against for authenticity.

Try examining your teen character through the lens of this knowledge. Ask yourself if you’ve been authentic not only to the character as an individual, but to your character as a teenager. Your teenager should exhibit at least a few of these traits, and if your character seems more adult than teen, ask why. Perhaps there is a good reason and you can back it up in the story. Perhaps your character has had to grow up incredibly fast due to circumstances at home, such as living with a single parent or in a foster home. Consider ways in which some teen traits can still seep through. Perhaps an otherwise very responsible teen decides impulsively to just once sneak out of the house to spend time with friends. There are many ways in which you can be certain to remain true to a teenage character. Maybe your teenager gets bored and decides to take a late night drive, or climb into a boy’s window at 3 a.m. For some teenagers this can be an every now and again thing, for other teenagers they are made of impulsivity. Choosing how much impulsivity to add to your character is part of what makes your character an individual. The same goes for emotional reactions or risk taking behaviors.

8. Rise in compassion and awareness of the feelings of others.

While the brain is re-wiring, it is also making some changes that allow for compassion, understanding and empathy. Teens truly begin to understand the pain of others. It’s important to recognize that while teenagers can be difficult, they can also be understanding and empathetic.

Remember no one person is exactly like another; therefore one cannot really distill the essence of what it means to be an adolescent into a bullet list.

I hope this gives a touch of insight into the teenage psyche and perhaps as a result you have a few more tools with which to imbue your characters with a more authenticity and believability.

Jessica Denhart PhotoJessica Denhart has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a proud Dystropian. She writes Young Adult fiction and middle-grade, which varies from contemporary, to magical realism and “near-future quasi-dystopian”. When she was little she sometimes wanted to be a nurse or a fireman, but always wanted to be a writer. She ran away once, packing a basket full of her favorite books. She throws pottery, loves to crochet, and enjoys cooking and baking. Jessica lives in Central Illinois.

Follow Jessica on Twitter: @jdenhart

[1] Carskadon, Mary A., Christine Acebo, Gary S. Richardson, Barbara A. Tate, and Ronald Seifer. “An Approach to Studying Circadian Rhythms of Adolescent Humans.” Journal of Biological Rhythms 12 (1997): 278-89. Sage. Web. 7 Feb. 2012.

For more information:
Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids. New York: Anchor, 2004. Print.
Dobbs, David. “Beautiful Teenage Brains.” National Geographic Oct. 2011: 36-59. Print.
Johnson, Sara B., Robert W. Blum, and Jay N. Giedd. “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.” Journal of Adolescent Health 45 (2009): 216-21. Elsevier. Web. 4 Feb. 2012.
Music, Graham. Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural, and Brain Development. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology, 2011. Print.
“NIMH · Brain Basics.” NIMH · Home., 10 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <>.
Steinberg, Laurence D. Adolescence. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.
Frontline Documentary “Inside the Teenage Brain”:

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series. 

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Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity: Part 1

(Ingrid’s Note: Yup, it’s April. But I’ve still got three fabulous Dystropian posts to bring you. So it’s now April Dystropian Madness! )

Making Peace with the Adolescent Pre-Frontal Cortex: Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity

Part 1: Teen Traits (1 through 4)

By Jessica Denhart

NatGeo_9.2011 coverAs writers of young adult literature, many of us are in an interesting position of no longer being a teenager. We don’t understand what it’s like to be a teenager in today’s world. We’re not cool anymore, we don’t get it…

How can we write about teenagers and get it right, especially now that most of us are no longer on the inside? We can rely on memories. Memories fade and change over time. So I chose to research the psychology of the teenage brain, because that’s where the way we think and feel starts, in our brains.

We were all teenagers at one time. If we try, we can remember what it felt like to have been there, in the thick of adolescence and all of its turmoil.

In my research I discovered that the teenaged brain is still changing, developing and hardwiring. There are so many changes going on in the adolescent brain that often, like an electrical connection that is breaking down, the brain cuts in and out on a teenager at critical times.

1. Spotty Memory

A teenager may have trouble with their memory when it comes to lists of things to do, or directions given to them by their parents or teachers. It can also relate to the ability to remember what to do for homework. What seems like lack of attention or inability to focus is something that can be specifically traced to the, as yet unfinished, wiring of the parietal lobes.

2. Poor impulse control

Teenagers may not be able to hold their emotions in check and scream at or hit someone in an overreaction to a minor incident. They may say whatever comes to their mind first, even if it’s cruel or blunt. They may do something risky due to a lack of impulse control.

3. The overwhelming desire to do new and exciting things.

Teenagers may do crazy things, like diving off of cliffs into water 75 feet below as one of my friends did (and still does). Some drive incredibly fast, which is something that I heard over and over again from friends. Some love the thrill of video games; others enjoy a good scare through ghost stories and scary movies. Some teenagers sneak out of the house to do forbidden activities, like tromping through a graveyard in the middle of the night. Some drink and experiment with smoking and drugs.

4. Teenagers want to spend less time with their family and more time with their friends.

You may recall this part of your own teen years. I remember this time in my life. I didn’t really fight with my parents much. My rebellion against them wasn’t so overt. It was more subtle. It was a slow moving away from caring about their input in my life and spending more time with friends, caring more what they thought. This is very common in the teen years and is a direct result of brain chemistry. The neural hormone, oxytocin is prevalent in the teenage brain making social interactions more desirable.[1] Basically, teenagers want to hang out with their friends and avoid their uncool parents.

Coming up next – Part 2: Teen Traits (5 through 8).

Jessica DenhartJessica Denhart has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a proud Dystropian. She writes Young Adult fiction and middle-grade, which varies from contemporary, to magical realism and “near-future quasi-dystopian”. When she was little she sometimes wanted to be a nurse or a fireman, but always wanted to be a writer. She ran away once, packing a basket full of her favorite books. She throws pottery, loves to crochet, and enjoys cooking and baking. Jessica lives in Central Illinois.

Follow Jessica on Twitter: @jdenhart 

[1] Dobbs, David. “Beautiful Teenage Brains.” National Geographic Oct. 2011:

36-59. Print. (55)

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Brooding Boys and Loyal Lovers: The Perfect Man Archetype

by Melanie Fishbane

Boys in Books ButtonOver the last decade, lists, blog posts, and articles have surfaced online that speak to the first book crush. I was so curious about this, that I’ve spent the last two and half years exploring this connection between YA authors and their literary ancestors and between authors and their fans.  This blog post is sort of a fast and dirty look at some of the material that I’ve looked at. There is feminist and literary theory hiding behind these conclusions, so here’s hoping you can follow my train of thought in 1000 words or less.

Authors have books that inspire them.  L.M. Montgomery loved Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters and Stephenie Meyer loves Austen, the Brontës and the Anne of Green Gables books – there is even an AGG reference in Eclipse. The Female Literary Tradition is one of the ways in which women can imagine, debate and fantasize about the issues that concern them.  And by crafting a Perfect Man Archetype, we can craft boyfriends worthy of our protagonists.

I’ve defined the Perfect Man Archetype as: a combination of attributes that has been historically designed by the author to make the reader fall in love with him. He is handsome, witty, intelligent, and emotionally open. Always having an appreciation for his love interest’s intellectual or artistic pursuits, he believes she is his equal in every way. Often troubled with a bit of a bad boy/dark side, he usually has a dark secret that forces him to make great sacrifices for her.

Three Qualities of the Perfect Man:

1) He has an appreciation for his love interest’s intellectual or artistic pursuits and see her as his equal with her own goals and ambitions that are separate from his own.

default[4]Follow the line here: Darcy’s admiration of Elizabeth’s love of reading (Pride and Prejudice) – Professor Bhaer’s supporting in Jo’s writing (Little Women) – Gilbert’s encouragement of Anne’s educational (Anne of Avonlea) – Stan being okay with Jane working (Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen) to Noel supporting Ruby’s crazy bake sale and artistic notions. (E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series.)

2) He must also be willing to meet her half way, sacrificing something of himself.

Here is where the Byronic brooding boys, like Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) and Rochester (Jane Eyre) live. They usually have a secret that isn’t directly their fault and sacrifices something of themselves for their lady loves.  The literary path looks something like this: Heathcliff and Rochester to Frank (Madeline L’Engle’s Camilla) to Michael (Forever) to Edward (Twilight Saga) or Will Herondale (The Infernal Devices trilogy.)  Edward pushes Bella away because he believes that being with him might hurt her and Will does the same thing to Tessa because he thinks that his curse will harm anyone he loves.

Thankfully, the gesture isn’t just in the hands of the brooding boys. Consider how Darcy helps Lizzie with the Lydia and Wickham fiasco without wanting her to know. Or, how Gilbert gives up the Avonlea school for Anne so that she can stay closer to Marilla after Matthew dies. Or, Almanzo picking Laura up every week from the Brewster’s place. Or, Noel leaving Ruby that note and baked goods even when he isn’t sure that they should be talking.

There are many roads to the ultimate sacrifice; it all depends upon what kind of man you want your male love interest to be.

3) He must show emotional vulnerability.

Declarations of love are key here. Like when Darcy tells Elizabeth how much he loves her, or when Almanzo builds Laura all of those drawers, or when Gilbert proposes to Anne is (like it or not) how emotive both Jacob and Edward are with Bella.

The Anti-Perfect Man

The most common affirmation of the Perfect Man archetype is the “anti-Perfect Man,” the guy who does not respect the protagonist’s artistic or educational goals.  While it certainly appears in Beverly Cleary Jean and Johnny to be a love story, it is clear that Johnny does not respect Jean’s time by making her wait for him and standing her up, or just talks about his radio show all of the time instead of asking about her. So, rightly so, Jean breaks up with him and goes out with nicer guy, Homer.

Consider all of the anti-Perfect men that Ruby dates until she realizes that Noel is the one. In particular the one who started it all, Jackson, who cheats on her with her best friend and then plays with her emotions. Cad.

So, as I see it, the Perfect Man continues to charm readers and be a strong literary model because within him is the potential of a person who will appreciate his partner’s goals and ambitions and her individuality.

Here are 5 Questions I suggest you ask yourself when writing your protagonist:

1) Who was your first literary crush?

2) What was it about him or her that made you fall in love with him or her?

3) What was the moment where they proved themselves worthy of the protagonist?

4) Was there a male or female literary romantic figure that you detested? What was it about him/her that made you dislike him/her?

5) What are the traits that your character would look for in a perfect partner and can you construct a person worthy of them?

Me and AnneRemember, it is up to you as the author to craft that perfect person for your protagonist. That person, by the way, should be flawed, but it will be in their flaws that your reader will find their most endearing qualities. Go forth and craft.

Melanie Fishbane is a writer, lecturer, and has spent many years in the book industry thinking and writing about kids’ books. She has a Masters of Fine Arts from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first literary crushes were Gilbert Blythe and Almanzo Wilder.

Read more from Melanie on her blog: Wild About Words!

Follow Melanie on twitter: @MelanieFishbane

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

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Young Adult Literature: Still Thriving

At the end of June I attended the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) panel event Young Adult Literature: Still Thriving. The event was moderated by IWOSC member Gary Young, and featured panelists: Jen Jones Donatelli (Team Cheer Series), Ann Stampler (Where It Began), Amy Goldman Koss (The Girls, Poison Ivy, Side Effects), Lauren Strasnick (Nothing Like You, Her and Me and You), and Jen Rofe (Agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, who represents children’s literature and is also Lauren Strasnick’s agent.)

The following are my notes from the event:

Moderator Question: According to the LA Times, the average teen watches two hours of TV per night and reads only seven minutes per day. Why then is teen literature so popular?

  • The adults are reading it!
  • “The average person has only one testicle…so it’s probably the same average.”

Moderator Question: Why do you think adults are reading YA?

  • The quality has gone up and lots of adults are reading YA. It’s just good literature.
  • Coming of age stories now bridge both late teen to early twenties, which it didn’t before.
  • YA is more story focused. Adult books tend to meander.
  • There’s a lot of great experimentation happening in YA and that’s exciting for both reader and writer.

Moderator Question: Who Do You Write For? Yourself? Your Reader?

  • Lauren writes for herself. She doesn’t have a teen in mind.
  • Others write with the audience in mind.
  • You have to be honest to a kid and his/her world. You can’t write what you want a kid to be.

Moderator Question: What do you think about Harry Potter and its influence on the Market?

  • One author said it was irrelevant.
  • Jen Rofe jumped in to say that it is essential! That the market is what it is today because of Harry Potter and Twilight, etc. These books created a new readership and pays for other children’s books to be published. You don’t have to like these books. But you should respect their influence.

Some comments about the publishing industry:

  • Target used to pick books for their shelves based on the covers. They wanted books that matched the color schemes of the displays they were creating.
  • Scholastic has a branch that reviews books for their book clubs. This is how you get into a book club. You want to get into the club! Your sales will increase.

Moderator Question: How much swearing and edgy content can be in YA books?

  • If you want to be in a book club then you should curb your swearing. Librarians also don’t like swearing.
  • Cursing can be unnecessary. Check and see if you really need it.
  • Kids are grappling with big issues today: sex, drug, etc.  If it is part of your character’s world then keep it.
  • Drug use (in most YA books) comes with consequences. It isn’t there unless it’s a big part of the story.
  • Powerlessness is a gigantic part of kids lives.

Moderator Question: What actually constitutes a YA book (for those unfamiliar with the market)?

  • YA books have protagonists that are 15 to 17 years old.
  • They are written from the point of view of the teen.
  • There are Adult books out there with teen protagonists, like The Lovely Bones, but they aren’t YA because the story isn’t just about teens or it is written from the POV of an adult looking at a teen, or back on his/her life.
  • YA books tend to be around 75,000 words.  But stay under 100,000 words. (Lauren’s books, however, are short. They tend to be around 30-40 thousand words.

Moderator Question: How do you see e-publishing and self-publishing affecting the YA market?

  • Self publishing and e-books haven’t taken off in the kids market like it has in the adult market.
  • If you want to self publish then you need to sell LOTS of books for a major publisher to take notice. Lots of books is 10,000 copies or more!
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid was a self-published book that sold around 20-50 thousand copies, and that’s why it was picked up.
  • There is a community of people who exist to help you publish the best book you can (editors, marketers, etc.). You miss out on this community by self-publishing your book.
  • However, publishers don’t do as much marketing for you anymore. So if you are willing to market, market, market your own book. Then maybe self-publishing is a good route.
  • Any book needs good editing! If you are self publishing don’t forget how important editing is.
  • Self-publishing means less time writing.

Moderator Question: If you have a book-series idea, should you write multiple books?

  • No. Put everything into that first book! You want that one to sell. Then you will see about the possibility of more.
  • Leave holes in the first book that could grow into other books.

Moderator Question: Jen Rofe, what are you looking for in terms of clients?

  • She primarily represents middle grade and picture books.
  • She only has 4 or 5 YA clients, and really does a limited amount of YA.
  • She has a low threshold for teen angst.

Moderator Question: How successful do you think book trailers are?

  • They can help. It depends on the quality, etc.
  • Lauren said she made one, but she’s not sure it actually helped in book sales. (Ingrid’s Side note: I may only be one person, but I personally bought Lauren’s book because I saw the book trailer). Check it out for yourself: Nothing Like You Book Trailer
  • Check out the book trailer for The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer it’s fantastic.

Moderator Question: What is your opinion on self-promotion and contacting your audience through the internet?

  • Jen Rofe is big on her authors self-promoting their work.
  • Try and connect with bloggers. This is a great way to get press. In fact, think about having teens create a blog–tour for you. (There are groups of teen bloggers who do this).
  • Some of the authors on the panel really like blogging and using the internet. It’s a great way to connect with their audience and fans. But you have to make a personal connection with them.
  • One author made a twitter account for their protagonist.
  • Check out the author Melissa Walker – she has amazing self-promotion.
  • Beware of being inauthentic. No one like someone who is always always always promoting. Be a real human being online!
  • Reach out to High School newspapers and see about doing an interview. This is a great way to promote directly to the source!
  • There is a difference between promotion and commotion.
  • You only get a certain number of ARC’s (advance reader copies) to promote with. So think about who you send them to.

Panelist Bios:

JENNIFER ROFÉ, ANDREA BROWN LITERARY AGENCY. As a literary agent, Jennifer handles children’s fiction projects, from picture books to young adult. Middle grade is her soft spot; she’s open to all genres in this category, especially the tender or hilarious. For YA, Jennifer is drawn to contemporary works, dramatic or funny romance, and urban fantasy/light sci-fi. For picture books, early readers, and chapter books, she’s interested in character-driven projects and smart, exceptional writing. Jennifer’s clients include Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Barry Wolverton, Nick James, Samantha Vamos, Meg Medina, and Crystal Allen. Jennifer is co-author of the picture book Piggies in the Pumpkin Patch.

LAUREN STRASNICK is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts MFA Writing Program. Her debut novel, Nothing Like You (Simon Pulse/S&S, 2009), was an RWA RITA award finalist in two categories, Best First Book and YA Romance. Her second novel, Her and Me and You (Simon Pulse/S&S, 2010), was an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Then You Were Gone (Simon Pulse/S&S), Lauren’s third book, will be out in January 2013.

AMY GOLDMAN KOSS Amy teaches writing and has written 14 teen novels including The Girls, Poison Ivy, Side Effects, and The Not-So-Great Depression, as well as a few picture books and many LA Times Op-Ed pieces. She lives in Glendale, California, with her pets, family, and phobias, where she can usually be found hunched over, scowling at the computer.

ANN STAMPLER This March saw the release of Ann Redisch Stampler’s fifth picture book, The Wooden Sword (Albert Whitman, 2012), and her debut young adult novel, Where It Began (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, 2012), a story set in contemporary Los Angeles. Her picture books, primarily Eastern European folk tales, have been Sydney Taylor honor and notable books, a National Jewish Book Award finalist and winner, an Aesop Accolade winner, Bank Street Best books, and PJ Library selections.  Ann’s next YA novel will be published by Simon Pulse in the summer of 2013, and her new PB by Kar-Ben in the spring. Ann has two adult children, and writes in the Hollywood Hills, where she lives with her husband and their dog.

JEN JONES DONATELLI is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles. To date, she has authored more than 50 middle-grade non-fiction books for tweens and teens for publishers including Enslow Publishing and Capstone Press. In addition, her fiction series Team Cheer is being released in trade paperback this July, with four more books to follow later this year. Along with writing books, Jen is also a seasoned freelance writer and regularly contributes to print and online publications including LA Confidential, Natural Health, San Francisco, Variety, MSN, E!Online, Thrillist and many more.

The Quick Take Away: 2011 SoCal SCBWI Writer’s Day

It’s been awhile since I reported on a conference event, but never fear I’ve got lots of good information coming your way. I attended the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day this past Saturday with a variety of speakers from Susan Patron to Bruce Coville. Here’s a few quick take-away’s from the event:

Susan Patron Newbery Award Winning Author said:

  • Writing a novel is a thrill, it’s like riding off on a runaway horse, it’s thrilling and terrifying.
  • For children growing up is something that happens in the tiny details of everyday.
  • More on to come on winning the Newbery, new projects, and finding the heart of your story.

Tony Johnston author of almost 125 Picture Books shared:

  • If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.
  • Keep it simple. But writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • More to come on being inspired by your own emotions, the essence of childhood, and where to begin when writing a picture book.

Rachel Cohn New York Times Bestselling Young Adult Author said:

  • First impressions are really important with teen readers. You must get it right from page one.
  • Everything feels so big to a teen. It’s epic! It’s biblical!
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • More to come on what makes a good first page, working with a writing partner, and how to keep your teen voice authentic.

Bruce Coville Fantasy author of almost 100 books shared:

  • “Fairytale is the best way to tell the truth.” – C.S. Lewis
  • The world has become too small for the heart of a ten year-old. Fantasy liberates kids, it sweeps them off to a new place.
  • Ask the tough questions. Why are we here? What do we need? These are the riddles of our lives.
  • More to come on the difference between Sci-fi and Fantasy, tips for writing fantasy, and how to find the courage to dream.

For Richer or Poorer: Writing Through the Good and Bad Times

Young adult author Carolyn Mackler spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. In her keynote presentation, she addressed the struggles of living a literary life, and that even when you’ve made it (been published, won awards), you still face new challenges in your career. Despite the breakdowns, one must press on and persevere! The following notes were taken turning her speech:

A Few Thoughts About the Writing Life …

  • Mackler doesn’t feel much connection between her writing success and her home life. There is a disconnect between the two.
  • Mackler always felt like she was not supposed to stand out. If one stands out then they can get shot down.
  • Mackler cannot purge the adolescent voice in her head.
  • Be proud of what you wish for.
  • Be proud of making a commitment to your writing life. Pledge to stick with it when broke, stuck, or insecure.

A Little About Carolyn Mackler’s Journey to Publication…

  • She worked for MS. Magazine and had the honor to work with Gloria Steinem.
  • She did screenplay research for Mike Nichols.
  • Her book Love and Other Four Letter Words sold when she was 25 years old.
  • Her agent Jodi Reamer was an assistant agent when she contacted Carolyn Mackler.

Staying Published has Been a Rocky Road…

  • The path to stay here (to stay published) can be rocky.
  • After Mackler wrote her Printz honor book The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things, the words dried up. It was a “mind-screw.” She started to second guess herself.  She would ask herself: “Is this what a printz honor book writer would write?”
  • After the birth of her first child she felt as if she couldn’t do this (writing). She felt like she was done. However, a good friend said to her  “Maybe you can’t have a baby and write a book, but maybe you can have a 2 or 3 year-old and write a book.” This helped her to get through.

On Having a Banned Book…

  • Mackler’s book The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was banned after it came out and 350 students signed a petition to support her. This story got the attention of the Baltimore Sun. The school got letters from the public and the superintendent of the school that wanted her book banned, got fired.
  • The reason books get banned, but movies can do almost anything is because the novel (in Mackler’s opinion) is more powerful than a movie. The reader is part of the creation of the story because they must imagine and envision it. There is creation in the act of reading.
  • “Your book is intellectual anthrax” – quote from a play by Adam Rote Rapp about a YA book author who’s books are banned.
  • “It’s the books that will never be written, books that will never be read that concerns me.” – Judy Blume on censorship and book banning.

Look to The Future and Be Flexible…

  • It’s important to be flexible, Mackler advises.  You may need to shift gears, scrap manuscripts and go in a new direction.
  • Mackler has felt a lot of pressure due to the trends in YA literature these days. She’s tried a new creative twist in her next book, which is grounded in reality but is not fully contemporary realistic fiction like her previous books.
  • She’s in it for the long haul, and this is some of the tricky stuff you have to deal with. Even as a published author there are difficult decisions to be made.
  • The writing life is always an ebb and flow.

Carolyn Mackler is the author of the popular teen novels, The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things (A Printz Honor book), Tangled, Guyaholic, Vegan Virgin Valentine, and Love and Other Four-Letter Words. Carolyn has contributed to magazines including Seventeen, Glamour, CosmoGIRL!, Girls’ Life, Storyworks, and American Girl. In 2008, Carolyn was a judge for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons. Visit her online at

Writing for Teens: Advice From Razorbill Publisher Ben Schrank

Ben Schrank, publisher at Razorbill, gave his insight about publishing for the teen market at the 2010 SCBWI New York conference. The following is his take on the market and advice to aspiring writers:

What Books Does Razorbill Publish and Why?

  • The Naughty List by Suzanne Young – Schrank found this book to be hilarious, yet simple. Its a good example of what he deems as “Frothy Lit.”
  • The Good Girls Guide to Getting Kidnapped by Yxta Maya Murray – This was a good gritty book.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher- This was a book with all the major pieces. It has a strong concept, strong voice, and a provocative title. Schrank also felt they had a good package to publish it with, and it’s paid off because the book has been in hardcover for two and a half years.
  • Razorbill publishes both hardcover and paperback books.
  • Schrank seems to like concept driven books rather than voice or character driven books.

What Helps to Sell a Book and Make it Successful?

  •  Schrank thinks part of a book’s success is that you put the appropriate amount of books in the marketplace and then promote the book.
  • Word of mouth also helps to sell books.
  • He thinks that one in one-hundred-thousand books will be able to place and perform the way Thirteen Reasons Why did.
  • Voice + Concept = A Successful Book.
  • A lot of what they do at Razorbill has to do with the package (to promote and sell the book).

Common Mistakes Aspiring Writers Make:

  • Writing for the market. The market is too fickle.
  • Voice-y teen writing. Don’t try to sound like a teenager it will seem fake. There’s no real way to capture that teen voice, what seems fresh and real now may change by the time the book is published.
  • “On the nose” introductions can kill an opening.
  • Starting your story too early. Often you will actually want to start your story in the middle, so there is an immediacy and urgency.

Speak to the Fantasy Life of Your Reader:

  • You need to find a way to tell old stories in a new way. (He really stressed this point).
  • Ask yourself if the conflict and underlying themes of your story can fit into a school cafeteria? As in a metaphor for the relationships found there.
  • Your book must speak to the fantasy life or the real life of the reader.

What Will Make You Successful?

  • It pay’s to be nice. That can go a long long long way! Don’t yell at your editor or be a stink!
  • Be confident and secure in yourself and your work.

Ben Schrank is President and Publisher of Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. He has written two novels for adults, Miracle Man and Consent, as well as the Insiders series for young adults. He has written for the Financial Times, The New York Observer, Vogue, O, and Seventeen, where he was the voice behind the fictional column “Ben’s Life.”

Boys Will Be Boys: Guys Talk YA

What makes a book for boys? How do we get boys to read more? These questions and more were discussed at the LA Times Festival of Books YA panel this past weekend. Authors Ben Esch (Sophomore Undercover), Blake Nelson (Paranoid Park, Gender Bender, Girl), Andrew  Smith (Ghost Medicine), and Allen Zadoff  (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have) share their insight as to what makes boy books kick so much butt!

What determines a book as a boy book?

  • Attitude!
  • Boys are looking to get out into the world. They want to be aggressive.
  • Boys want to read book with realistic male protagonists. They want someone they can associate with on the day-to-day experience.
  • Usually boys like funny books.
  • Boys and girls want to read the same things. They want good stories.

Why don’t boys read more books?

  • Once a boy turns ten or eleven he begins to associate with things that are masculine. And in his world he sees people who read (teacher, librarians, etc.) as women. They begin to associate books with a feminine pursuit. This is why these four male authors did this panel to show young men that reading and writing can be masculine.

What issues do boys deal with and want to read about?

  • Boys are dealing with hormones, they want things like beer and porn. We need more books that address the real male experience.
  • For boys there is a lot of pressure to be macho, to be a dude who has adventures and isn’t sensitive. But in reality guys are sensitive, shy, and often make a fool out of themselves. They are often uncomfortable. We need more books that relate to these experiences.
  • Body issues are also as important to guys as they can be for girls. Guys are also very self-conscious.

Humor and the gross-out factor is often associated with boy books. How do you bring humor into your books?

  • Lots of penis jokes!
  • Find your voice. The voice and tone will be different for each writer. You don’t want the humor to be forced, you want it to come from the character. You want to write it authentically from your voice.
  • Humor has heart to it, and often boys are sensitive. Humor is often a socially acceptable way for boys to express themselves.

Do you think there is a lack of contemporary guy literature? There’s a lot of fantasy and comics for boys, but what about contemporary lit?

  • There is a lot of great contemporary guy literature out there. It will find its way into the hands of the guys who want to read it, from friends, sharing, etc. But it’s a hard market. You have a lot to compete with when trying to get a young man’s attention. He has computers, video games, sports, etc.
  • You’ve got to grab the guy’s attention right away, right out of the gate. They have a short attention span.
  • Guys are funny and if you can capture the coolness and the hilarity of being a teen boy and relate it back to them – then they will respond.
  • Cool is a mystique. It is not the clothes, it’s the dismissive attitude. There is a fundamental hierarchy that is always the same.

What advice do you have for women who are trying to write in a male point of view?

  • Write about yourself. Those feelings are authentic.
  • What does your hero want? This is what matters whether or not the protagonist is male or female.
  • Go for it, even if it feels weird you’ll learn how to wear it, and you will find it very rewarding.

How do you deal with romance in a novel for guys?

  • Put in as little as possible (joke).
  • Men are introspective, and they express themselves differently than girls.
  • Never kill a dog in a book!

Again, the authors of this panel were Ben Esch (Sophomore Undercover), Blake Nelson (Paranoid Park, Gender Bender, Girl), Andrew  Smith (Ghost Medicine), and Allen Zadoff (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have).

She’s All That: Writing for Contemporary Girls

Three YA authors came out the LA Times Festival of Books this past weekend to share their point of view on writing for teenage girls. Authors Robin Benway (Audrey Wait Series), Cherry Cheva (Duplikate, and She’s So Money), and Joanna Philbin (The Daughters) had the following to say:

How are teens different today than in the books you read as a teen?

Robin: The girls in the Sweet Valley High Books (that Robin read as a teen) were nothing like the teenager she was, and she couldn’t believe it. She’s realized that you have to write for the girl who isn’t from Sweet Valley High. You have to address what is inside the character, and articulate what teens feel they can’t say. This will cause them to identify with your voice/book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a book that really changed the game for Robin. It was a book that really talked about what is going on on the inside.

What type of issues do you think teens are dealing with?

All three authors address body issues and self image in their books. They all feel this is something that teens struggle with on a day to day basis. The Daughters really explores this with the relationship of one of the characters who is the daughter of a super model, so she has even higher expectations of being beautiful.  All three authors felt that finding self confidence, or testing your confidence is part of the game when it comes to beauty. The struggle to be beautiful is a test to find out who you are and the confidence to think you are worth while.

How do teens talk today? What issues have you had with using swear-words in your books?

Cherry: When she does public readings (like at the festival) she actually puts the swear words back into the text. You won’t actually read them in the text, but she feels it is part of the characters and part of how teens speak. She initially had around twenty instances of the F-word in her book She’s So Money, and if you read it now, there are none. The editors took them all out.

Joanna: She draws on how she speaks with her girlfriends. She doesn’t think that her voice and a teen voice are all that different.

Robin: She had to tone down her book in terms of swears as well. She actually had to change the term “cocaine skinny” because it implied drug use.

Cherry: You also want to consider what a 14 or 15 year old has at their access, as this can limit in some ways what you write about in regards to content.

How do you think writing for teens is different than writing for adults?

Robin: Teens are more fun to write! They have so much joy and enthusiasm for life. It can be really exciting.

Joanna: When writing for a YA audience you are dealing with issues of insecurity, body issues, etc. I don’t think those things go away as an adult. Those issues are still present. But as an adult you are not really allowed to talk about those issues, you are supposed to be past them. There is shame in talking about them as an adult. So I find writing for young adults very liberating. You have more freedom with these characters.

What ideals do you like to emphasize and share with young girls in your books?

All three authors agreed that they are trying to empower young girls to be strong and confident. Be yourself! It is important to find a support system, and surround yourself with good friends who will protect you and allow you to feel safe.

How do you deal with writers block?

Get out of your head for a while! Go watch television or movies. Give your work some space.

Also, carry around a notebook, just in case that great moment of inspiration comes when you are away from your work. Or, if you don’t have a notebook, call yourself on your cell phone and leave a voice message.

How do you avoid stereotypes in your books?

Read your work out loud. You will always hear when something feels fake or untrue.

Robin, Cherry, and Joanna

Again, the authors of this panel were Robin Benway who wrote the Audrey Wait series, Cherry Cheva author of Duplikate, and She’s So Money and a writer for the television show Family Guy, and Joanna Philbin author of the series The Daughters. This panel was moderated by Aaron Hartzler.