Friday, 27 February 2009


Quality teenage fiction is my passion - it's what I largely choose to read and what I try to write. If you haven't read any of the best teenage fiction of the last ten years or so, you haven't experienced some of the most cutting edge, dynamic, and well-crafted stories around. Oh, and by the way, if you haven't read and admired any modern teenage fiction, please don't try writing any of it.

Because that's the first mistake: not reading it, a lot, and greedily. You should be able to reel off your ten favourite teenage authors. Which I will now do: David Almond, Laurie Anderson, Julie Bertagna, Ian Bone, Tim Bowler, Kevin Brooks, Robert Cormier, Sarah Dessen, Catherine Forde, Keith Gray, Julie Hearn, Ali Kennen, Rachel Klein ... Yes, sorry, that's twelve but you don't expect me to STOP, do you? And I'd not even got halfway through the alphabet. And the list might be different tomorrow, but the point is that I read teenage fiction, I respect it and I know how it works. All of which need to be the case if you're going to write it, as with any other genre.

Teenage fiction is as broad as adult fiction - there's every style and genre within it, and a book for every reader, whether that reader wants something light or deep. Oh yes, there's badly written teenage fiction too - adults don't get all the dross. But of course, if you want to write teenage fiction, you want to write the good stuff, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this blog, which is for serious writers wanting to get seriously published.

Anyway, you want to know the common mistakes. Or at least, I want to tell you, and it's my blog so I'll tell you if I want to.

Define teenager. Yes, certainly: a teenager in reading terms is not a 13-19 year-old. Your market starts at 11 and finishes not much past 15, though lots of older than 15 year-olds continue to read and love this stuff. I, after all, am a tad more than 15. But by 16, your teenager has either largely stopped reading (perhaps temporarily, until school and exams and peer pressure and all sorts of other pressures have died down a bit) or else has moved onto non-teenage books.

So, remember, your teenager may be 11 or 12, and this is perfectly valid, because in fact their brains have started to become teenage by then. I regret to say that at this point I need to draw your attention to my book on the teenage brain, as I do honestly believe that understanding teenagers is the second thing you need to do (after reading their novels). So, here it is, without even any shame:

So, having pried into their brains and raided their bookshelves, how do you avoid the mistakes which (trust me) most writers make when they think they can write a teenage novel?

  1. Dont think you can teach them anything. Teenagers have an inbuilt early message warning system. You even suggest that your book hopes to teach them not to drink, smoke, take drugs, have sex, be mean to their parents, be loud on buses or hang about on street corners, and you ain't got a reader. Just tell the story; forget the message. They're most definitely not stupid (though, like adults, they may do stupid things) and they will take their own message from it. If they want to.
  2. Don't get down with the kids. If you overdo the teenage language, a) you'll just look like a sad git and b) by the time your book comes out it will be out of date. I mean like totally out of date. On the other hand, of course you can't sound like a BBC TV presenter from the 1940s or someone who would rather be writing a grammar book. Just tell the story and create an authentic voice that is not you the middle-aged (sad git) author, but just a normal voice that they can be happy to listen to and that won't get in the way.
  3. Don't start with an "issue". OK, so maybe your book is going to be about death, or drugs, or bullying, but forget that it is: it's a story, with real characters and emotions. The story is king.
  4. Don't talk down to them or simplify the language. Although your prose should be pure and crystalline, it can be as deep and symbolic as you like, as long as the story is ... yep, you got it: king. Lots of teenage readers, like lots of adult readers, want beautiful and clever use of language. What most readers don't want is an author who is unpleasantly far up his/her own posterior, and teenage readers are less forgiving than adults - so don't over-write (except the gory bits, which you are welcome to over-write). They want you to get to the point, which brings me to the next one ...
  5. ... don't hang about. Most adult readers don't really want an author to waffle on interminably or become inebriated by the beauteousness of his/her prose style. Well, teenagers certainly don't. You go off on one for even two sentences too long and they're away, off to do something way more interesting, like watching Lord of the Rings for the 99th time (which my daughter has apparently actually done, but she is studying film. Nice excuse, Rebecca.) No seriously, my personal rule is that I treat each sentence as though my teenage reader really wants to go and do something else, and my task is to prevent him/her.
  6. Don't allow an adult to sort any problem out. Adults in teenage novels should be rarely seen, even more rarely heard, and never listened to. They need to be absent, feckless or otherwise useless. They can occasionally offer advice but this advice should be either ignored or wrong. Dead parents are very useful but if your character's parents are not dead, please remove them by some other means. Parents may return at the end to say well done and be proud but that's all they're good for, though parental stupidity can be a very useful plot device earlier on.
  7. Don't forget the gate-keepers. The gate-keepers are the adults who have a major part to play in whether your teenage book gets a) published and b) read. So, the fact that your friend's teenage son down the road wants you to write a book in which a mass murderer comes to town and chops random adults' heads off and cooks them on a barbeque before destroying all the nearby schools in a fire is not a reason for writing such a book. It won't get published. It's a fact that most books for teenagers are bought by adults who want their teenagers (pupils or offspring) to read them. So, you have to tread a razor-thin line between what the teenager wants to read and what the adult thinks the teenager should want to read. Shock value can also work well though, because if you get a "parental warning" sticker on your book, this has the rather wonderful effect of making parents say no and then teenagers actually going to find it.
Two other things to remember:

Safety nets - in modern books for small children, the child usually knows (or learns to know) that nothing too bad will happen: they don't need a safety net because there's no real danger. In books for older children, the safety net becomes progressively further away: the child worries that something bad might happen but trusts that it will be all right in the end, even if something bad does happen first. In a teenage novel the trick is for the author to make it seem as though there is NO safety net: the worst possible thing could happen. However, secretly, there is a saety net: you will not allow the very worst thing (loss of hope) to happen because you care for your reader. It is my personal belief that you must care about your reader if you write for young people.

Strawberries and spinach - stay with me. Strawberries and spinach are both very good for you. In fact, pretty much the main reason most people eat spinach is because they know it's good for them. Actually, I love spinach but don't mind me - and besides, even when I'm eating spinach a part of me is thinking how incredibly good it is for me. Strawberries are, arguably, equally good for us. I read recently that scientists discovered a chemical in the seeds of strawberries which makes them spectacularly beneficial. But when we eat strawberries we do so for one reason: pleasure. We don't sit there thinking, "Omigod, I haven't had my strawberry quota for the week, now my hair's going to fall out and I'm going to get some disease and it will be all my fault."

My point is that books are like strawberries: we consume them for pleasure, even though they also happen to be good for us. When adults choose to read one book as opposed to another we usually do so because we think we'll enjoy it more, not because we think it will be better for us. (OK, there are times when we have to read a book for another reason, but I'm talking about when we choose a book.) And when I talk to parents or teachers about getting kids reading, I always make this point really strongly: that we must not use the "books are good for you" line, but the "books are for pleasure" line.

It's essential for the writer of teenage books to remember this. So, quit with the teaching and the messages and the wishing that teenagers wouldn't drink and smoke and be scary on buses. Just tell them a wonderful gripping story, of whatever sort you want, in the most beautiful and apt language you can find, with the most interesting and real characters you can dream up.

That's pretty much it. Doesn't sound much different from adult writing, does it? Nope, and it's not. It's usually faster, and often tighter, and frequently incredibly interesting. But most of all it's just great stories, well told, to an audience who give the most fabulously perceptive feedback.

Sometimes, of course, their feedback is less than perceptive ... I recently had a comment from a boy who said that my novel Fleshmarket "started off a bit boring". This is a book which opens with a woman having a breast tumour removed without anaesthetic, in front of an audience and by the end of the chapter she's dead of blood poisoning. Honestly, there's no pleasing some people.


Solvang Sherrie said...

I can remember when Tipper Gore got some law passed that required certain music to have "Parental Warning" stickers, usually for language. (Did they ever do that in the UK?) As a teenager I went out of my way to get that music. Because really, they weren't saying anything we hadn't heard before. It was just the shock value. Of course, I write mostly middle grade so language and Parental Warning stickers would be really bad...guess I'll have to actually write a good story :^)

Ebony McKenna. said...

Yay! Excellent and OMG spot on

Ebony McKenna. said...

Can I also say that for some reason your comments only work in Firefox and not Safari, and that I had this magnificent rant (way back on the Pay Writers ranty McRantathon) and it disappeared!

I could make a new rant, but my choleric rage has since evaporated. Shame really.

Nicola Morgan said...

PS I am now going to set comments to be unmoderated.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Ebony - ah, I think it could be that I have set it so that the comments go to me to be moderated before I put them up, because in fact your rant is beautifully there!! I thought I should "moderate" comments because I thought I might get abuse, but in fact a) everyone's been perfectly lovely and b) I should be able to take abuse ...

But thanks for your comments. Including the duplicate one that I actually DID reject because I guessed you didn't really want to say it twice ...

Rebecca said...

I feel the urge to list ten of my favorite "teen fiction" authors:
Neal Shusterman, Shannon Hale, Kate DiCamillo, Cornelia Funke, Karen Hesse, Jeanne DuPrau, Sharon Creech, Nancy Farmer, T.A. Barron, William Nicholson

Sarah said...

"No seriously, my personal rule is that I treat each sentence as though my teenage reader really wants to go and do something else, and my task is to prevent him/her."

My favorite line- so helpful! Thanks, Nicola.

Rebecca- I like several of your favorites, too! Also like Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series. But then, I love almost all his Diskworld novels.

Anonymous said...

You are so right about teens. I haven't been one for a couple of years but from what I remember, as a species they do have very short attention spans and can't stand books that mollycoddle. Didactic books are just plain annoying.

It's entirely possible to write about consequences by making it part of the plot, and that way writers don't come over all preachy. The key is not to be an annoyingly intrusive narrator.

Like you said the story IS king.Terry Pratchett writes fabulous books without ever really writing about anything that could be construed as a bad example. He doesn't even use strong language.


Tam said...

I've written my teen book; it got me an agent. I wish I'd seen this blog first, although I seem to have covered most of the salient bits completely by accident (well, that and by having a teenager in the house to observe). I'm now thinking that maybe you can see the strings of the safety net. I think I'll keep that in mind when I start my next round of editing...

BBB said...

I'm so glad you meantioned Julie Hearn. I just reviewed Rowan the Strange which is dues to come out in a few weeks. I'd never read her before but I absolutely loved it.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

The tricky part for me is deciding whether I'm writing for teens or adults.

For now, while I call it YA (since the MCs are ~that age) I'm just doing the story.

Do you have a definition? Is this something I should already know?

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi all - am away at the moment and on useless laptop so not able to reply properly. Will get back to you on the definition of teenage / YA novel - yes, I personally do think one needs to define it, but not all YA authors would agree. But it's something I think and talk about a lot and I do think it's more or less definable (and although having a teenage protagonist is almost compulsory, it's definitely not enough to ensure it's teenage. It's about voice, viewpoint, pace, and interest. And the safety net thing. It's also about not being an adult looking back but being a teenager looking forward). Will answer more clearly later.

Anonymous said...

Don't Pratchett's Tiffany books violate Rule 6? I found the adults to be almost as interesting as the main character.

- tbrosz

tbrosz said...

Of course, if Rule 6 is mostly about "the kids must be the ones who save the day," I quite agree.

DanielB said...

I've been watching a DVD of the old 70s serial "Children of the Stones" and, although it is suitably spooky and atmospheric and well-made for the time, I couldn't quite put my finger on what felt "wrong" with it until I read this. It's that a lot of screen-time is given over to Gareth Thomas, playing the professor/dad figure, and his museum-curating lady-friend, who do a lot of the investigating and discovering themselves. There are big chunks of the episodes where the kids are sidelined.

Contrast with the two excellent 90s serials by Russell T Davies, "Dark Season" and "Century Falls" - the latter very much influenced by "Stones" - where the focus on the young protagonists is much more evident.

Jane Smith said...

Oh, my, I'd forgotten Children of the Stones! Brilliant stuff but yes, not QUITE right, now I come to think of it.

Nicola, you're spot-on again. Thank you for this. Now just stop it because you're writing better blog posts than mine, and I won't allow that!

Nicola Morgan said...

Jane has rather obviously been at the pinot noir again so please ignore her.