Today, I’m pleased to welcome my talented and award winning author friend, Kaz Delaney. Kaz has some fabulous writing tips on how she created her latest YA novel, Almost Dead (sequel to the hugely popular Dead Actually).
Hard for me to pick a favourite tip here – they’re all so great, but I have to say that I think number 9 is my favourite – ‘Love your audience’. I really believe this too – that you have to be comfortable in the world of your reader – you have to write with authenticity.
Anyway, enough from me – over to Kaz.
Nine Topical Tips based (Almost!) on the creation of ‘Almost Dead’.
Thank you for hosting me here Dee! I sincerely appreciate your hospitality. ‘Almost Dead’(Allen & Unwin, January 2014) is a connected book to its predecessor, Dead, Actually. I (naughtily) refer to these books as my Dead Series, though in truth, they’re not really in series. They share characters, and while it might help in a very small way to have read Dead Actually first, they are very much stand alone titles. Ergo, random reading is quite acceptable! J
The examples of the tips I’m sharing below are certainly specific to Almost Dead, but I think the tips themselves are actually specific to any YA. With each subsequent book though, and to date they number 69, I learn something and some of those lessons I learned with this book are listed below. These tips are in no particular order of importance – I’m writing them as they occur to me. But then again, that in itself is very telling, is it not?
1. See the World Through the Eyes of your Character
You’d think that after all those books I’d accept this as a given, but in this book, Macey is such a mature character, so self assured and in control, that I had to keep reminding myself that no matter how worldly she appeared, she was still only 17. The thing is, it would be so easy to fall into the trap of our characters sounding way too adult. The answer is to always ensure we’re showing their world through teenage eyes – not adult eyes. Once we do that their world, and the characters we populate it with, are more authentic. It sounds like a tall order but it’s not so hard – I believe every adult has a little bit of teenager still lurking. And not only does it authenticate that world, it allows your reader to relate instantly. Even if the physical world is different to their own, they will relate to how the character sees it, relates to it and exists within that world. It’s a twofer.
2. Don’t Get Distracted by Sparkly Things
My life is big. It overwhelms me. Drama seems to teeter on every corner. So, I guess it’s no surprise that my stories are filled with drama; with ‘story’. Typically, then, there’s a lot going on in Macey Pentecost’s life. She’s become the go-to girl for every stray ghost who’s craving air time, and even if the latest one is v.e.r.y cute and convinced he’s not dead, just astral travelling, he’s still a nuisance she can do without. Added to that she’s just discovered she’s got a stalker – which is something she can definitely do without. And just when she thinks life can’t get any more complicated, her mother walks out and the father she’s held on a pedestal all her life, turns out to have feet of clay. She’s alone, confused and mad, so, could meeting Finn who has Forever Guy plaster all over him be a blessing or just bad timing? Or are there just too many coincidences? Are some of these incidents connected? Yep – there’s a lot going on.
And caught up in all that drama, as I was writing a big emotional, reveal scene – I had a bright idea that would certainly knock the reader completely sideways. I was sooo excited! Until my editors read that scene. Their words were gentle, their tone firm. It had to go. Why? Because two thirds of the way through the story I changed the stakes. This was such a BIG reveal that it couldn’t just be accepted and they all move on. It was a showstopper. I’d been distracted by a bright sparkly story line that didn’t belong in this story; it had enough. This was a storyline that deserved another 10,000 words and probably should have been the ultimate climax of the book. But it couldn’t be. The identity of Macey’s parentage wasn’t the story. I had a mystery to solve! A romance to develop and a family to heal. I’m lucky in that I have good editors who are detached and yet involved all at the same time. It was my big lesson for this book: Control the direction of your story and don’t let shiny things dazzle you no matter how pretty they are.
Even and especially if they’re bad decisions. I said in Point One, that we must see the world through the eyes of our characters, and this is a follow-on, one that deserves its own headline. As adults we are much more likely to rationalise something before jumping to a decision. Not always, I admit, but more likely. By the same scale, teenagers are less likely to use rational thought when making decisions. Or if they do, they will rationalise by their own scale, twisting logic to fit their need rather than acting objectively. The thing is, when writing for teenagers and young adults, you are writing a novel for them and about them – so it’s okay to allow them to act the way they would in the real world. Many decisions they make won’t be the best ones. Teenagers make mistakes; it’s the greatest and most fertile learning period in our entire lives. Just ensure, for your story’s sake, that those decisions at least make emotional sense. An example from Almost Dead is when Macey is lured to her school on Sunday. As adult readers, and possibly teenage readers, we’re screaming at her not to go. But put yourself in Macey’s shoes: She’s alone, the only person she could call upon would have to sacrifice something very important in order to help her and she won’t ask that of him. She’s fed up, frustrated – the stalking has gone on long enough and she makes the judgement call based on recent experiences that she can trust the person who wants to meet her. She’s Macey – and that means by her nature she’s an action girl. She’s relied on herself for most of her life – she’s strong and sure that she can handle this just as she’s handled everything else. Was it foolhardy? Yes. Did it gel with her character and personality? Yes. It made emotional – if not logical sense.
4. Pop Culture References Will Both Ground and Date your Story
Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t. It’s not quite that black and white, but take care. Some pop culture references will immediately put you into the reader’s world, but be aware that they will also date your work. My way around that is to put them into a past tense reference. E.g, a quick example is that when I was writing this work the Jason Maranz song, ‘I think I Want to Marry You’ was everywhere but it would be old news by the time the book even came out. I used it because the boppy rhythm suited the tone I wanted to enhance the scene – and because I knew my current audience would still relate because it wasn’t ancient -but to cover myself, I had it playing from a second hand CD stall at the markets. Ergo, I dated it myself so it wasn’t a current pop reference. Then again, when I used a Brady Bunch reference in an early draft, I discovered that many teens couldn’t relate even though it’s still all over Cable TV. Pop Culture references shouldn’t be avoided at all costs – just take care how you use them – ensure they are relatable and couched in a way that won’t necessarily scream ‘this is sooo last year’.
I have a lot of fashion references though but these tend to last a lot longer so I feel I can get away with that.
5. Language: To Slang or Not to Slang? To Swear or Not to Swear?
Ditto for above. Take care not to fall too deeply into what’s hot right now. Some terms like ‘cool’ seem to have crossed time and generation lines. Some others are hot today and cold as death tomorrow. I’m certainly guilty of using some at times – but I try to keep it to a minimum and use snappy, witty dialogue and lines instead.
Swearing? This is a blurry one and one that you have to think about carefully. Bad language in a book aimed at 11-14 audience, I personally feel, is a no-no. Consider your character’s age and personality and social status.
Or take a current phrase or word that’s got a use-by stamped all over it and turn it into a classic. Like Michael Gerard Bauer does in Eric Vale, Epic Fail. Perfect.
6. Pace can be the death of your novel – or the energy that drives it.
Two of the most common responses to Almost Dead from readers is ‘it’s un-put-downable’ or ‘I wish I could read faster’. This has certainly warmed my heart, but in honesty, I think it is part and parcel of writing a YA novel. I believe that writers of Young Adult fiction have a freedom that is not necessarily accepted by writers of adult fiction. That immediacy and simplicity so intrinsic to YA fiction helps authors develop the voices of their characters – and helps the reader to relate and enmesh themselves in the story very quickly. That is not – ever– to say that any fiction for teenagers or children is simple or ‘dumbed down’. Just the opposite. There is an art to creating that simplicity and starkness of style that keeps YA fiction so fresh and edgy. My tip? Keep your story moving.
7. There’s always hope…
Not every story has to end with a HEA – Happy Ever After. It’s not realistic to think that all problems can be solved – and generally speaking, it’s contrary to the teenage experience. However, I do think that the YA should end, at least, on a hopeful note. Remember above all, that you’re creating a story; a story whose primary goal is to entertain. When the reader takes up the invitation issues by the author, he or she does so with a strong sense of entitlement; entitlement to full disclosure and satisfaction. If you can’t make the world right because it would undermine your whole story, at least leave them with hope. Tie up all the loose ends, answer all the questions – and leave the reader with the hope that even if everything isn’t perfect, that there’s a chance that things will get better. Because you know what? They’re teenagers, their lives are still all laid out ahead of them – so there is… Hope that ‘things will get better’, I mean.
8. Know Your Genre…
This should probably have been the first tip. It’s not one I can draw an example from Almost Dead – and yet probably everything I write or have written has been improved by reading other books in my genre. It’s the best research, and the easiest way to study. Read widely and read often.
9. Love Your Audience…
We choose to write in various genres for a variety of reasons. In the past few years I’ve seen a rush of people jumping on what they think is the YA Gravy Train, and sadly many of them for the wrong reasons. Choosing to write in a genre because it’s popular is a fast trip into Miseryville; it just won’t work. To write authentic young adult fiction that will resonate with readers, I believe, you have to first be comfortable in their world and like and respect teens. But if you do love teenagers and angst with them, cheer for them, rejoice in their victories and empathise with their pain – then it can be the most rewarding genre of all. Good luck with your own writing!
Thank you Dee! I’ve had so much fun! xxx
Thanks for dropping in Kaz – and thanks for sharing your fabulous tips with readers.
If you’d like to win a copy of Kaz’s new book, Almost Dead, tell us which of Kaz’s tips you like best and why? Leave your feedback in the comments section of this post and Kaz will select one lucky winner.
Good luck and Happy writing:)