Writing the Breakout YA Novel

When I first started to write my manuscript, I didn’t think about what genre it would fall into. I didn’t really care, I just wanted to tell my story and knew I could figure out the rest later. I don’t think it does anyone any good to write a story with a specific genre in mind, or a lesson they want to teach someone, or to follow a current trend.

Trends change, it’s pretty much impossible to guess what the next trend will be and the current one will probably be dead before you can publish the novel you are working on right now. No one likes to be taught a lesson by a novel, particularly teens, but we all learn something anyway. If it’s a good story then we enjoy it and when we think about it later we realize we learned something. But have you ever read a story that was blatantly trying to teach you a lesson? Like “Don’t do drugs, kiddos!” those aren’t fun. I think a perfect example of this is the movie Charlie Bartlett. It was funny, entertaining, and interesting… until the end became a blatant moral lesson about how kids shouldn’t do drugs.

Yeah, I agree, doing prescription drugs when you don’t have a prescription is a bad idea. Duh. I figured that out from the rest of the movie, being blatantly reminded that at the end just made a five star movie fade to a three star one. I’d rather read/watch a great story that has a moral lesson to be learned subtly on the side.

Plus, if you write your story without any of those things in mind, you open up the possibility to surprise yourself with what your finish product turns out to be.

I’ll admit, I got into researching the market place and the publishing business later than I would have liked. I wish I had started it years before I did. When I first started to test the water and see what was going on I invested a lot of time in Writer’s Digest. Reading their blog, their magazine, their writing books, and all that fun stuff. I’ve bought a tutorial or two (which used to be WD webinars) but they always came with a package deal, so I didn’t intentionally buy just one of them.

But last week I signed up for a live webinar event and it finally happened today. It was an hour and a half webinar called Writing the Breakout YA Novel and it was hosted by literary agent Holly Root. By the way, that’s a name you should know. She’s an extremely active, high up, literary agent. You’ll probably want to query her if you write adult or young adult fiction. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of the webinar (other than a query critique by Holly Root — which I’m so excited about!) since I had done a lot of research in this area already.

I’m glad I attended it, though. It was nice to hear how the YA market is growing and there are still a lot of opportunities in it now. Even though the traditional publishing business is in the midst of change because of technology advances and such (and no one is for sure what will happen to it). Most of the fellow writers I talk to on a regular basis are indie self-published authors and they aren’t that reassuring when it comes to the traditional publishing place. I love all you indie writers, of course, but usually you went indie because you have little or no faith in the traditional publishing market (or you are disenchanted by it). To each their own, as I always say, but going indie isn’t what I want. I’m not ruling it out, but I’ve always wanted to go the traditional route.

A third of the webinar was new and interesting to hear about, another third I already knew but it was still nice to hear Mrs. Root’s take on it, and then the last third of it… I may or may not have gotten distracted by interior design ideas. Of course when I got distracted I was still listening and taking in what was said (I’m brilliant at multitasking at least that’s what I tell myself). I don’t know what it is, but if I’m not multitasking I feel like I’m wasting time. Except, of course, when I’m writing. Though, I’m always listening to music/watching a movie/tv show at the same time… In less I’m revising, then I’m usually just listening to music (if anything).

I digress, my point is this: the YA market is a live, thriving, and to hear that makes me happy.

Writing Dialogue

I’d say my biggest pet-peeve, and what will turn me off to a book the quickest, is if the dialogue isn’t right. I never really gave dialogue much thought until my freshmen year in college. I was taking Fiction Writing, and it opened my eyes up to what was good writing and what was just… writing. I never understood the difference between show v. tell until then (well, at least I had a grasp of it).

And I never actually understood what made good dialogue until then, either. I still vividly remember my professor, a man passionate about creative writing, go off on a tangent about how dialogue in novels had to be like a conversation you’d have with your friend and yet not at the same time.

How he hated “uh”s. And now, I hate them, too. If I see multiple “uh/um” in the book (outside the bedroom or getting violently harmed) then I’ll close it and walk away. I know that seems extreme, but they drive me crazy. And if there’s “uh”s then that means there’s a lot of other things wrong with the dialogue, too.

I tell this to anyone I’m doing critiques for but I don’t think I’ve ever said it as clearly as what I found looking through the tumblr accounts I follow.

Fictionfiction.tumblr.com wrote this:

A lot of people assume dialogue is easy to write because ‘It’s just a conversation! I have those all the time.’

But real conversations are, for the most part, really boring:

  • Lots of verbal tics (uh, um, like, well, I mean)
  • Lack of conflict (How was your day? Great, yours? Pretty good!)
  • Cliches and repetitive phrasing

Writing dialogue that too closely mirrors real conversation will give you lots of repetition on the page. You don’t want that. Repetition is bad. It’s boring. It sucks. It’s totally lame.

All that said, here are a few essential reads re: writing dialogue that is great and awesome.

See what I mean? Clear, concise, and helpful all at once. If you click on the link above, fictionfiction gives some links of her own on help for writing dialogue.

I hate uh, um, like, well, and I mean. Some of them can be used appropriately (well, I mean, and like) but they must be used sparingly. The other two hold no purpose whatsoever in dialogue. I also hate repetition–inside of dialogue or outside of it. If that repetition of words and/or phrases is for an obvious literary purpose then I’m fine with them. I like it when it services a purpose.

But when it doesn’t other than the fact that if a real person, really talking, would keep repeating “um” or “well” or “I mean/I know/I don’t know” then I’ll be hitting my head against the table.

I don’t care if that sounds ridiculous to some. We’re all allowed our pet-peeves and bad dialogue is mine.

Query Shark

220+ queries later and I’m finally finished reading all of QueryShark’s archives (queryshark.blogspot.com). I was taking notes the entire time, weirdly enough I was hand writing them which I haven’t done since sophomore year in college. After I go a netbook, I started to type everything up.

The last time I checked, I had horribly handwriting but surprisingly enough I can read everything I wrote. I guess I probably write clearer when I don’t feel the pressure of time like I did in college.

Anyway, QueryShark was an amazing asset that I’m very glad I came across. Janet Reid is the agent that takes the time to update the blog to show writer’s what an agent thinks when she’s reading through a query. It’s amazing to me that she has the time to do that on top of being a popular and successful agent.

A third of the things that she pointed out was what I already considered common sense. How she had the patience to tell people time and time again not to add the agency’s address or your own to the top of an e-mail clear is beyond me. Or not to add the “TITLE is X words and a thriller/romance/whatever novel” part at the start of the query. But everything else was very enlightening and gave me a good checklist of what to do and what not to do in a query.