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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Writing for Young Adults

   
Author Topic: Writing for Young Adults
PaganQuaker
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Hi,

A couple of months back, I wrote a short story that I later realized might make a really nice YA novel. I hadn't really seriously thought about writing for that market before, but I read YA books fairly regularly, at least the really good ones (The Hobbit, the Harry Potter series, Philip Pullman (sp?), Madeline L'Engle, etc.), and would enjoy writing this book. I don't know much about the market professionally, though. Anyone have pointers to useful resources, suggestions on good YA publishers, etc.?

One thing I have been able to dig up so far is length. This story is probably for the 12-18 crowd (hopefully with some adults like myself being interested as well), and as such my sense from reading around about it is that I'm shooting for a length within roughly the range of 40,000-80,000 words.

If I follow through with this, I'm actually tempted to use a pseudonym for my YA work, because my SF/Fantasy work is not particularly geared toward YA (some mild sex, violence, depravity, etc. sneak in when they're appropriate to the story), and I don't think the audience for my YA stuff would be well-served to go for my stuff for adults.

Then again, I've been wrong before.

Anyone else writing YA, by the way?

Luc


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writerPTL
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Scholastic publishes some young adult stuff, and Harper Collins. Phillip Pullman's stuff is by Dell, and so is Madeline L's. Although I tend to disagree that things in themselves are "bad" for certain age groups once the child understands the difference between fantasy and reality, and the work is not profusely pornographic or filled with intense violence. The only things that really stick with me on books are the language, because I'm not a very visual person and don't picture the stories happening in my mind. If someones guts are spewed across a windshield, I say "oh that's nice" and keep going. But when people cuss, I find that creeping into my life. But that's just me.

AAAAAAnnnyyywwayyy... Good luck. Undoubtedly there are more publishes, but I'm just trying to help.


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Augustine
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quote:
Although I tend to disagree that things in themselves are "bad" for certain age groups once the child understands the difference between fantasy and reality, and the work is not profusely pornographic or filled with intense violence.

First, I have to say that I disagree with this statement. Violence and sex are not like elves and aliens -- they are part of the YA reality. And you have to remember that 12-18 is the age of formation -- what you deal with in these stories WILL have a profound effect on them. For example, I know a Ph.D. in Theology who says that out of everything he has ever read, reading Lewis's The Chronicals of Narnia when he was a kid shaped his moral sence more than anything else. Something to think about.

Thus, I would encourage you to use a pen name so that you don't have a 13-year-old reading a book written for a maturer audience. And besides, Isaac Asimov wrote young adult novels under a pen name (though, I can't remember it now).

As far as YA publishers...I don't know. I would suggest going to www.writersdigest.com . They would probably have some good information for you.

[This message has been edited by Augustine (edited October 20, 2001).]


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writerPTL
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" . . . , and the work is not profusely pornographic or filled with intense violence."

I think you ignored that statement. And then I went on to explain that that might be true only to me, because I don't get violent images or wahtever, the worst thing I've gotten from books is just a few cuss words, which rarely escape my mouth but I need to work on that anyway. How much is too much depends on the person. Some people will be strongly affected if they read of a person being slaughtered. It doesn't faze me, because though I know violence is a real concept and a real thing in our world, this violence in the book right then is not happening. And there are always worse things on the news than much of what you can read, no matter how we dress things up with nice politically correct terms.

And I didn't think we were talking about 13 year olds, I assumed young adult meant 15-16, and I don't think that unless your books are nothing but sex and violence then they wouldn't have much problem bridging the gap. But if we're talking about younger kids, sure, use a pen name.

(edited as I write)
I just looked back and he said 12-18 crowd, my mistake. So sure, use a pen name.

And on a sidenote, I've seen mild sex and violence in young adult novels. You'd be surprised to see what gets past these days--I read a sample chapter in a Fingerprints book (a YA sci-fi series by Melinda Metz) that was for a new series . . . In it a girl comes into a boys room late at night, sits on his bed getting it wet (she was just out swimming) and even takes off her top. There are various crude references to *other* things and . . . Well, you'd be surprised what they put on the teenage shelf.


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Hermionerhija
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"...you'd be surprised what they put on the teenage shelf."

Well, that's certainly true. But you'd also be surprised if you could hear what teenagers say when there aren't any adults writing. I hear things that most people prefer not to think teenagers know about every day - I'm 16.

A word about writing for young adults: 12-18 is a VERY broad age range. Just look at assigned reading for english classes: in 7th grade (12) our reading was books like _The Phantom Tollbooth_ and _The Hobbit_. This year in eleventh grade (16) our summer reading was a choice of three books; I chose _The Poisonwood Bible_. It's very difficult to write a book that 12-year-olds would be able to understand but that 18-year-olds (and some adults, if you're looking to reach them as well) would not find juvenille.

Of course, I'm speaking of the normal populace of those age groups. There are, of course, many kids out there who can understand at 12 things most can't understand until they're 18 or even older. If that's the market you're aiming for, then I would not worry about using a pen name; otherwise, I would go ahead and use one.


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PaganQuaker
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Hermione,

Thanks, good point. I guess my plan is to write the story I'm going to write in a way that I'd be comfortable having teens read it, and then let the publishers, librarians, teachers, and especially readers sort out what age range it should be for. I think of the YA books I really like as all things that a lot of kids in the 12-18 range might like, but if I'm wrong it'll just mean that my audience is a little different than I think it is, a little younger or older.

Unless, and here's a question, there's a need to try to identify the exact age group you're writing for before you start. Does anyone see that need?

Oh, by the way, I had a small epiphany about YA writing today. I realized that I was compulsively giving my teenage characters in this story a bunch of personal/self-confidence issues just because they were teenagers. Who wants to read about someone who's having a day-to-day pity party? Better for me to make my characters pretty competent, people who have a little power over their own lives, even if they have serious flaws or blind spots. I realized belatedly that almost all of the characters I like to read about -- in YA as well as other fiction -- are ones who don't go around doubting themselves all the time. I think our culture has a bias that assumes that all teenagers are plagued by self-doubt all the time.

There are exceptions, like Meg in _A Wrinkle in Time_, but to tell the truth I think I might have enjoyed that story a lot less exactly because she lacked self-confidence, even though the story was in part about her getting more of it.

Luc

[This message has been edited by PaganQuaker (edited October 20, 2001).]


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Augustine
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WriterPTL

quote:
. . . , and the work is not profusely pornographic or filled with intense violence.

I did not ignore this statement. It is extremely ambiguous and highly subjective, and the criteria for what is appropriate for YA books ought to be something more than what effects you or doesn't effect you. The question should be -- what is appropriate for them? And a teenage girl taking off her bathing suit top in a boy's bedroom is NOT appropriate for YA.

Further, who cares what is published today as YA fiction. That's the decision of businessmen who are more interested in a buck than the moral and intellectual development of the youth. As a writer -- indeed, as an artist -- you have a responsibility to your reader. And if what you write doesn't get published because some suit-and-tie guy doesn't think it will sell, then so be it. At least you know that you haven't sold yourself for the sake of a buck.

[This message has been edited by Augustine (edited October 20, 2001).]


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writerPTL
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I never said it was appropriate. I'm shocked that was in there. My mind's been foggy today, and I"m not alert enough to be in a big discussion like this.
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starrman
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Being in the age range that you are discussing here, I've just gotta add my two cents. My theory is this: Add it if it fits. I was reading a YA novel the other week, and right out of nowhere, this porn scene knocks on the door and barges in. It has absolutly no place being in this book at all! However, other times, scenes like that have been perfectly added to the story. It fit right in! So, add it if it works out, but don't put it in just for the sake of having some sexual content.

salaam

JB


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Cosmi
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i think the issue of whether or not to use a pen name is a judgement call. sure, a lot of stuff i don't think should be in YA is there (although, it's not as if teen readers aren't already exposed to sex and violence via other media--and real life!), but there is nothing you can do about it. the question is do YOU want teens reading your other work, or even assuming it's similar to your YA. it's a personal morality thing. if it isn't that big of a deal to YOU, then don't use a pen name. if it is, do. remember, you know your work best, and you were a teen once. still unsure? if so, consult any family in that age group--even let them read your adult fiction. (if you think it's too graphic for THEM, that's a good indicator that you should use a pen name!)

JMHO, hope it helps!

TTFN & lol

Cosmi

PS: if you want my opinion as a 15 year old YA reader (occasionally--i like Garth Nix's work [except the wrapped-up-with-a-bow endings ]), i don't like a lot of sex (i'm almost completely desensitized to violence) unless it's integral to a deeper plot.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Has anyone read ARTEMIS FOWL, by Eoin Colfer?


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Waxwing
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I'm responding to what Hermione said about how writing for 12-year-olds can come across as juvenile. IMO, an ideal story is one that is equally readable at 12 as at 25. I don't know the key secret for doing this, but I imagine it would have something to do with not writing "down". Kids have an amazing capacity for understanding.

I personally don't approve of kids reading coarse language, gratuitous gory violence and sexually explicit scenes. Otherwise, as long as the action is clearly thought out and concisely described, and characters' motivations are clear (all of which we should be doing already), kids should be able to understand it just as well as adults.


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PaganQuaker
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I was thinking about this today, and it occurs to me that most of the YA novels that I like the most (and have liked the most for some time) involved journeying around in a very strange land. This includes things like The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter Books, A Wrinkle In Time, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Golden Compass (or for that matter the whole His Dark Materials trilogy), and so on. You have a sympathetic character with some conspicuous limitations (Bilbo Baggins: Lazy and self-indulgent, although pleasant; the Pevense (sp?) children: sometimes disagreeable with one another, especially boys whose names begin with the letter E; Meg: self-confidence crisis poster child; Harry Potter: Fairly clueless about his own heritage; Ged: A bit of a pissing contestant; Lyra: Not conspicuously honest, etc.)

Most or all of these also seem to include the protagonist having some kind of enviable special ability. Bilbo's ring, the Penvense (how DO you spell that?) kids being able to get to Narnia, Harry Potter being a wizard, Ged being a wizard, Lyra having the alethiometer and being able to read it (with the daemon being thrown in as an also-ran on this subject), Meg and Charles Wallace being able to travel by tesseract with the Three Strange Women, etc.

In another thread the subject of formulas has come up, and I've realized based on that discussion that they can be very useful if you use them rather than the other way around. A good euphemism might be "popular story structure." Anyway, this suggests to me that an excellent "popular story structure" for YA is "basically competent, but slightly flawed kid or kid-like creature (e.g. Hobbit) with an enviable special ability journeys in a strange land and eventually comes home."

(Note: The following deals with the MICE quotient; please see other postings on this if you're not already familiar and are interested in puzzling out the following.)

It seems to me, too, that these stories are generally events stories (the dragon has the dwarves' gold: that's not right!; I should be a wizard and I'm stuck here in this lousy backwater; oh no! My best friend Roger has been kidnapped; what are these pikers doing running Narnia?; rats, an evil wizard is trying to make a comeback; my father went through a tesseract and can't come home; etc.) but with heavy reliance on an interesting milieu told from a more or less familiar perspective.

Ideas also seem to play a part in all of these stories, mostly as the larger arcs from one part of the book to the next, as opposed to the theme of the whole book. (What is a tesseract? What have I got in my pocket? Who is this nice lady who's sending us to be eaten by the giants? Why are owls flying all over England? What is Dust?)

Events elements seem to be the other important ones for spanning large sections of the story's "middle."

And character seems to play a part in these stories in a small way, insofar as whatever conspicuous flaw or flaws the character has brought into the story seem to be satisfyingly dealt with by the end of the story. Bilbo is no longer timid; the Pevense kids are much more supportive of one another; Meg has more confidence; Lyra has acquired some integrity . . . although we can't really say for Harry Potter, as his story is still ongoing. Too, it seems as though his "character flaw" is the least flawed of any of these examples. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

The character element of the story generally seems the least important and least requiring of overt resolution.

Even though _Ender's Game_ wasn't written as YA, it certainly works as YA fiction, and most of the things above seem to apply to it. The main character is sympathetic and a bit flawed (he lets Peter get the best of him); the main story is an events story (the buggers) with a strong milieu element (Battle School). Ender's special abilities are his intelligence and adaptiveness -- which doesn't quite fit the pattern as stated but seems to have the same underlying effect. There is a character change by the end of the story based on the initial flaw (Ender has come into his own as a leader and ain't gonna be pushed around by nobody no more), and idea elements (Jane, the real nature of the tactical training) play an important role spanning part, but not all, of the story.

From all this, it seems to me that one very effective way of structuring a YA novel in the F/SF modes is to:
1. Provide a sympathetic, interesting main character with one noticeable character flaw
2. Give the character an enviable special ability, unusual nature, or magical possession
3. Structure the story as an events story, where the main character must go on a kind of journey to fix what is wrong
4. Virtually the entire story (usually excluding the beginning) is set in an interesting and novel milieu, with strange denizens and attributes.
5. Large sections of the story are kept more lively using idea and events structuring
6. The main character has largely addressed the aforementioned character flaw by the end of the story.

I will be the first to rush to say that I don't believe a YA novel needs to adhere to the above "formula." I was just surprised to find so many structural elements in common among my personal favorite YA novels in Fantasy and SF genres, and believe this is probably one very useful way to structure a YA novel.

Luc

[This message has been edited by PaganQuaker (edited November 06, 2001).]


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PaganQuaker
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Hi,

By the way, it came out in later conversation with a friend that in many of these stories, the protagonist is out of place or something of a misfit: Lyra at Oxford, the Pevensie(!) kids staying with the old man, Harry with muggles, Meg and Charles Wallace being socially marginal, Bilbo being half Took, etc.

Luc


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IonFish
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quote:

A Wizard of Earthsea


PaganQuaker:

Please tell me how on earth you can possibly describe "A Wizard of Earthsea" as a "young adults" novel. Admittedly I first read it aged nine or ten, but I'd already read "The Lord of the Rings" about five times by then, so perhaps I'm a little unusual in that regard. However, if we take the age range for "young adult" novels as 12-18, I can quite safely say that I'm out of that age range, and yet I find I enjoy the Earthsea Cycle more as the years pass. At the very least, it is a story in the vein that Waxwing described, to whit: "one that is equally readable at 12 as at 25". Yes, I was entranced by it when I first read it, but like any truly great story it has layers to it, and only now do I find myself truly able to appreciate some of the subtleties.

The parallels you find in the characters of the protagonists in the various stories you describe are also somewhat spurious; sympathetic characters with conspicuous limitations can be found throughout literature, as can strange lands and protagonists with mysterious powers... Why, all you need do is go back to some of the very roots of literature: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cuchulain -- the list goes on.

The narrative of (to be, for a moment, more specific) "A Wizard of Earthsea" comes not from some "young-adult fantasy story-writing guide", but from the world of Earthsea itself. The Taoist philosophy that underlies the structure of the story, and the world -- that you never act unless you have to, and the consequences for the Equilibrium brought by acting improperly -- are hardly ones you find in most guides to writing (at least the ones I've read... and if you know of some, I'd love a few copies ). The simple concept that magic has consequences is, I admit, hardly a new or original one, but the way LeGuin deals with it is unique and wonderful.

Anyway... I've gotta go cook supper now, but if you feel like disagreeing I'll be glad to come back and argue a bit more.

(sorry I wasn't able to argue in a bit more depth, or more widely across your post, but I'm out of time... maybe later)

gg

- ion -

[This message has been edited by IonFish (edited November 13, 2001).]


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PaganQuaker
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> Please tell me how on earth you can
> possibly describe "A Wizard of Earthsea"
> as a "young adults" novel.

Many young adults (not just precocious ones) read and enjoy that book, and it can be (and has been) marketed under the "Young Adult" category. Of course this doesn't mean by any stretch that it might not be enjoyable by adults as well, or even (as OSC has stated is the case with _Ender's Game_) written for adults and just happening to meet the needs of a young adult readers in addition.

Also, of course, there's the (initially) young protagonist. I would by no means imply that a young protagonist means that a story needs to be for young adults specifically, but it often helps make it more interesting to them.

So, my apologies for not explaining this outright, but by "Young Adult novel" I mean a novel that is well-suited to be marketed to and read by young adults, even if lots of adults like to read it too.

As to the parallels I draw being spurious: Well, in what ways? I'm open to the possibility that it's the case, but I'd be interested to hear more of your reasoning (probably, although not certainly, in order to argue with it <grin> ). To take up the point you've already introduced on that subject:

> sympathetic characters with conspicuous
> limitations can be found throughout
> literature

Certainly. I don't mean to imply that they are confined to YA literature. However, the setup of a character who has one specific, clear-cut limitation seems to be a configuration that works particularly well in many of the YA novels I like the best.

And it seems to me that these have much to do with sagas and adventure stories throughout history. To take a slightly silly but pertinent example, there's Superman: He has one conspicuous vulnerability (unless you count his secret identity and the torch he's carrying for Lois Lane -- but I'd suggest that those are priorities of his and not outright vulnerabilities). He's not too far off from Beowulf or Cu Chulainn in other respects, except of course for the setting.

The reason I think this works so well for YA literature is that it's fairly easy to forgive one straightforward, non-embarassing fault or failing, so such a failing helps flesh out a YA protagonist without compromising empathy for him/her. Some (certainly not all) adults seem to be somewhat more advanced in what they can forgive and empathize with in a protagonist, in that they can enjoy characters with multiple and sometimes embarassing limitations in the stories they read. By contrast, my sense is that a character that has too many complex limitations is not very interesting to young adult readers.

Regarding the Taoist underpinnings of _A Wizard of Earthsea_, I'd certainly agree, but my feeling is that the reason it's an engaging story has most to do with the elements I've identified, and not with the philosophy behind the milieu. The fact that it has as much depth as it has probably owes a lot to that philosophy, but like LeGuin, my philosophical ideas will undoubtedly weave themselves into my stories as well, and they'll either add depth or not based on who I am.

Looking forward to more,
Luc


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Cosmi
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Ender being pushed around by his brother is his CHARACTER FLAW?! i'm not sure who said it or if i've butchered his wording (i just read through the whole topic and it's all sort of run together ), but i think it runs a little deeper than that. i'd venture to say his character flaw (if you could call it that) is his conflicting emotions and impulses that stem from "growing up." he overcomes this with the destruction of the Bugger's home world and the resolve to save the surviving hive queen.

in fact, i'd say that "coming of age" is the binder in most YA. the age group feels bound by family, custom, and social structure they have little control over. it is therefore appealing to read about a peer who has these same obstacles, but the ability ("powers" if you will) to break the cycle and go on an adventure far from home and its limitations. sure, character flaws beyond that of being in a transitional age add interest, especially if they are ones teens can identify with (for example, _A Wrinkle in Time_'s Meg), but they are really secondary. just look at Harry Potter!

TTFN & lol

Cosmi


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