Showing posts with label rules. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rules. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Rules rule

Many of you will have seen this picture going round on Facebook and Twitter. It's Henry Miller's "work schedule". Or not a schedule in our modern sense, but a list of rules to keep himself focused.

I love being reminded that it's not just today's writers who have distractions. It's always (presumably) been hard to focus on the difficult part of our work, hard to stay positive in the face of negative stresses, hard to concentrate and not to flit. I flit a lot.

However, it's also important to realise that every writer is different. What may be right for one need not be for another. It needn't be a rule for you unless you believe it should be and unless you find it works.

I also think Rule 4 contradicts Rule 8. And, to an extent, 9 conflicts with 11. And 1 with 9. On the other hand, I don't know what the Program is that he's talking about. Any Henry Miller experts out there? And I'm sure he never expected his commandments to be discussed amongst strangers around the world!

Rule 5 is interesting: it's very true. But I need to be careful not to let that rule rule me because frankly I'm spending far too much time working and too little creating.

I think I most want to listen to No 3. I think that's the one I most need to work towards.

And of course, I LOVE Rule 7!

But there is only one really important rule: if you want to get it done, get it done. The destination is all that counts, not how you got there.

What do you think? Do you like his rules? Have any better ones? Which one do you think you should follow most closely?

While I have your attention: next week is going to be Pitch Week on this blog, with a new pitch for you to discuss every single day. Roll up, roll up!

Monday, 24 August 2009

CONFUSED BY CONFLICTING ADVICE?

You will have noticed that there's often conflicting advice about how to get published. You will be frustrated by this. And confused. And sometimes despairing. Natural responses, but wrong.

Some of you have been talking about tearing your hair out or curling up in little balls of stress at the conflicting advice. Sometimes you'll read something on my blog and it conflicts with advice on a blog I recommend to you, or it's different from advice that someone else equally amazing gave you.

So what's going on, I hear you ask? Thing is (and here's some more advice), you need to hang on to some truths.
  • publishing is not an exact science - when an agent or publisher receives your MS, any attempt at science goes out of the window in the face of human emotions and personal response. When an agent or editor tries to decide about your work, he or she is trying to bring objective expertise to bear in order to try to make a commercial decision about something that is personal response and will continue to be personal response right down the line to the customer choosing your book in the bookshop
  • it's all only advice - even when it's couched in words like RULES, it's just designed to give you a better chance, not a perfect certainty. We offer guide-lines, our best recommendations, that's all.
  • in the end, it's the power of your book that counts more than anything, not your perfect covering letter or whether you included congealed toffee in the package. It's just that for 99% of agents and editors, having congealed toffee in the package kind of gets in the way of appreciation of the rest of the contents
  • most importantly, your submission to an unknown agent or editor is a human and personal attempt at communication between two strangers - there is no objective recipe for how this might work. Sometimes, your writing will connect; sometimes it won't. So, what bugs one agent will delight another. What leaves one cold will inspire another. All our advice just tries to steer you in the most-likely-to-be-right direction, but it cannot work every time. Humans aren't consistent like that.
  • so, writers need to focus much more on making their actual writing brilliant than following the devoted advice of people like me, who stupidly spent hours formulating a post about the perfect covering letter and perhaps ended up making some of you more stressed than you were before
Do remember this most important fact: the vast majority of what agents and editors receive is eye-bleedingly awful. And if yours is not, it already stands a huge chance. Hold that thought and believe it, spending most of your time and passion in getting the book right. The rest is easy. (It just makes sense to follow the guidelines, in order that the agent/editor can focus on your writing without unpeeling toffee from the pages.)

Don't get tangled up in negativity. Don't start saying it's a lottery or that agents don't read your work or that you have to be blonde, gorgeous and leggy. (Take a look at most published authors, including me, to know that that's not quite true.) If you write a great book and if an agent or editor loves it enough and believes that enough other people will love it, it will be published. There's not enough out there that deserves to be published and editors and agents are desperate to find the gems.

My over-riding advice for finding your way through the sometimes conflicting messages is this: work out for yourself which is right for you and your book and your dreams for it.

Thing is, you're all individuals. (Cries of, "Yes! We are all individuals ...") You and your book and your background and your future are not the same as anyone else's, and therefore how you pitch those things to an agent or publisher (who are also all different from each other) will have to be slightly different. And this is why every approach to an agent or publisher has to be tailored and personal - personal to them and personal to you.

The way to do this is, for a writer, simple: put yourself in the shoes of the recipient, enter the mind of the person who will read your words. I say "for a writer" because this is what good writers do: they enter the mind of their readers, they listen, they learn, and they tune in. Do that, and you cannot fail.

I now give you two of my favourite quotes, because they're both apt.

F Scott Fitzgerald said, "The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

And the buddha apparently said, (according to the card that sits above my desk all day, every day):
Believe nothing,
no matter where you read it,
or who has said it,
not even if I have said it,
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.
But I really do recommend that you don't put toffees in with your submission. When I find an agent who would look favourably on such stupidity, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

WHY WASN'T I PUBLISHED FOR SO LONG?

What, you mean apart from the fact I wasn't good enough?

Well, time I explained this, I suppose, after several weeks of appearing to know it all. Because the truth is that once I knew a lot less than I do now. Obvious, really.

First, for those of you who have missed the tragic enormity of this failure, it took me twenty-one years of failing to get a novel published. At the time, that was more than half my life, and certainly all of my adult life. Yes, ALL my adult life failing to achieve the one thing I really wanted: to be a novelist. That's some bruising failure. And bruised I was. Badly. It affected my health and happiness and my sense of self. Luckily (for them) few people knew about my constant attempts at fame and fortune. Unluckily (for him) my husband did. He's still here. Still waiting for me to earn a lot of money, I guess. I'm trying.

OK, I did get some "stuff" published during that time, but it wasn't enough. Home learning books (which have done very nicely financially and which allowed me to say I was a published writer) and stacks of magazine articles. Oh, and talking of doing nicely financially: I regularly get money from a magazine I wrote for ten years ago which keeps using my articles and pays me every time, with me sitting at home doing sod all - would you believe that today I actually sold "36th rights" for three articles?? This means they have used them 36, yes 36 times. God, who needs to be a novelist when you get paid 36 times for something you can't even remember writing?

And there was the odd moment of relative success (relative to abject failure), like appearing in Reader's Digest with my photo and actually being recognised on a bus, and a story winning an expensive pen in the Ian St James awards, and a couple of times almost making it through an aquisitions meeting. But almost is not really good enough, is it?

Anyway, reasons for my abject failure:
  1. I thought I was better than I was. I just didn't know what mistakes I was making. This was in pre-blog days, when people like me (as in me now, not me then - me then would have been pretty useless) weren't sharing and there were few relevant books and nice helpful things telling me what a load of shocking errors I was making.
  2. I wasn't thinking of my readers. Couldn't give a toss about them frankly - yep, it was all for me. Moi, moi, moi. Self-indulgent beauteous prose, right up my own backside, just gorgeous (but over-written) plotless stuff that gave me shivers of gratuitous pride, and gave any potential reader a severe case of "where the hell's the plot gone or going and I mean why should we CARE about your drivellingly unlikely character who murdered her husband just because of some arcane psychological problem to do with Samuel Johnson which we are supposed to guess through the boring fog of your however-erudite turgidity?
  3. I hadn't written the right book. As in a book with a concept which would grab the agent / publisher with its stupendous hook, draw them into a tightly-written and either original or genre-specific plot, written by an author exuding wisdom and knowledge of the market. (Actually, I thought woman who murders husband because he's fat was quite good hook-wise, but hey, that was then.) See here for my post on this topic. (Not murders of fat husbands: I mean writing the right book.)
  4. I wasn't even following the rules of submissions to publishers, despite the fact that I roll my eyes at you lot for sending toffees to agents and being similarly foolish. In fact, once I even .... but no, I can't tell you that. It's too embarrassing. (For rules for submission, see the Writers and Artists Yearbook, publishers' websites and relevant labels on this blog. There is no excuse for not following these rules - there wasn't then, and there isn't now. Well, unless you actually want to beat my 21-year record.)
And so followed the rejection letters. Because yes, I've had a few. There were the occasional ones that said lovely things but which gave suggestions contradicting previous ones (like "we feel it's too short" after "we feel it's too long" and "the plot is somewhat avant garde" after "the plot is somewhat traditional"); there were the "not right for our list" ones (unhelpful but true); there was my favourite (though not at the time) which consisted of my rubbish covering letter with the word NO! scrawled across it in pencil and returned to me in an envelope without a stamp even though I HAD included return postage; and there was the one which arrived back the day after I'd posted it, something which defies the laws of both postage and Newtonian motion and I can only assume that the postman was an Orion employee sent to destroy the slush pile before it occurred.

So, if you are now in the position I was in then - one of soul-searing awfulness, when you feel that life will be utterly meaningless if you don't get that contract, when your whole belief in yourself is shaken daily - I feel your pain, I really do.

That not being good enough thing? In a way it's true, I wasn't good enough. And maybe ... sorry ... you aren't either. But maybe, by listening and learning and improving, you can become good enough. But remember too that it's not just about being good enough - it's about writing the right book at the right time and sending it to the right publisher at the right time. I know, I've said it before. I could even become boring. (If you're new to this blog or need a reminder, use the label "right book" on the list of labels to the right.)

The trick, and the one which this blog tries to help with, is to work out whether:
  1. you are good enough but haven't written the right book yet
  2. you are good enough and have written possibly the right book really beautifully but haven't sent it to the right person in the right way
  3. you aren't good enough but could become so, with time, practice and/or help
  4. you aren't good enough and won't ever be published satisfactorily
Thought for the day: actually, a lot of published writers aren't good enough either. Some of you may well be better than some of them. It all boils down to what a publisher thinks will sell. And I've already done a post on Why is crap published? But you're not writing crap, are you? Please say you're not. Though I have to be brutally honest and say that if you ask any agent or editor they will tell you that the vast bulk of the slush pile is absolute utter crap, of a meaningfully finger-in-the-throat boggingness.

After that bit of brutality and after all these weeks of listening to me seem to know it all, you deserve to know that embarrassing thing I did. I think I can trust you now. Please don't laugh.

Here goes. Deep breath. Will you still respect me? I was young then. Young and really stupid.

The thing is ...

I
once
wrote
a
covering
letter
in
rhyme
...

People! Don't do it!

Friday, 6 March 2009

DEFINE A TEENAGE NOVEL

OK, so two posts in a row about teenage fiction is hardly balanced, but then I never made any claim to be balanced and any time I'm asked to walk along a white line I find myself becoming suspiciously unbalanced. Besides, your comments and interest in the subject were really all the excuse I needed, if I needed any excuse to talk about one of my pet subjects, which I don't.

Do we need to define a teenage novel in order to write one?
Some teenage authors whom I respect claim not to be able or wish to define or even particularly think about what a teenage novel is when they write one. Others are with me, enjoying trying to pin it down without restricting it, and trying to reach a level of understanding that helps us identify with our readers as perfectly as possible. The former authors prove that you don't have to. But I think those authors are very few and far between and happen to write books which happen to be teenage in tone simply because those happen to be the books they want to write.

For the rest of us who dare to tread the tight-rope between writing a great story from the heart and writing a great story that will hit specific readers in the heart, and for those of us who want to understand our market, we need some analysis and some knowledge.

PLEASE NOTE: a teenager, like any other reader, is perfectly entitled to read and enjoy ANY book. When I talk about "teenage novels" I don't mean "novels that teenagers often enjoy". I mean "novels aimed specifically at teenagers" (but which other readers may indeed enjoy).

It would help if you first read my last post - COMMON MISTAKES WHEN WRITING FOR TEENAGERS. In fact, without it you won't understand what I'm about to say, especially about safety-nets. Yes, safety-nets - essential tools for writing for young people.

A perfect illustration
If you are prepared to borrow or buy three books, I can show you with absolute clarity what makes a teenage book a teenage book. A quick read of the first few chapters of these three books will illustrate all I am about to say. Without reading the books, however, you'll still get a pretty good gist of what I mean from what follows. All three start with a young person being bullied or set upon at or near school, which is one reason they make a great comparison:

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson
Malarkey by Keith Gray
The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw

Bad Girls is not a teenage book - for a start, the protagonist is too young. The language is simplifed, with short sentences and gentle vocabulary, and there is a great deal of protection by adults. You can see the mesh of the safety-net. It's not particularly relevant to our topic except that it's when you then read Malarkey that you see the great leap that the reader must take, both in terms of topic and safety-net distance, to go from one book to the next. Bearing in mind that the reader of Bad Girls may well be 10 or 11 but that an 11/12 year old could easily be reading and enjoying Malarkey, and you see the leap the reader has made in a very short theoretical time. The main character in Malarkey is 16ish, which, according to the "rules" of writing for young people means that our intended readership is up to 14/15.

But then consider The Illumination of Merton Browne. There is a level of violence (extreme domestic abuse) which goes beyond what we'd be able or probably want to offer teenagers. There's a total absence of safety net. There is a great deal of swearing. The age of the character is interesting too - at the time of writing he has left school and is thinking back to his childhood, relating events which happened mostly around his eleventh birthday, and much of the initial action takes place as he arrives at secondary school, aged eleven. A teenage book would not normally be this retrospective: it would normally take place during the relevant teenage years of the reader (although earlier episodes might well be related) and in fact cover a very small part of those years. So, by having the main character an adult looking back to being mostly eleven, we already skew it for the teenage reader and make it not a teenage book.

However, it's a book which many older teenagers might like - if they could get their hands on it, which they won't in a school library in the UK or US or Australia or anywhere else I can think of. unless the librarian really wants to lose his/her job.

Why have teenage books anyway?
Ooh, I could write a whole post on this, and have already written about it in the Scotsman, but I see they have put it very annoyingly onto their "premium pages" and I'm sure you don't want to pay for it. Anyway, maybe another day. Consider simply that some people still argue that teenage books are unnecessary because readers should do what "we always did", ie go straight from kids' books to adult books. Thing is, (amongst other things), adult books have changed in the last 20-30 years and you simply cannot go from Bad Girls to Merton Browne. Or at least not without experiencing severe trauma on the way.

What you said
Some of you posted comments about eg whether Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books were teenage or not. DanielB and anonymous / tbrosz were talking about whether something was "quite right" / felt properly teenage in those and other stories which we might have thought were teenage. I haven't read those Pratchett books but I have always thought of him as one of those writers who isn't a teenage writer but who writes books that many teenagers love. I'm guessing that it's the "adult perspective" of the story that you are referring to and have noticed. Yes, in my view this would be something which would make them "not deliberately teenage books". And it's once you've identifued the "teenageness" or otherwise that (I think) you can fully understand what teenage really is. And you clearly have!

Another one to think about is perhaps Doctor Who - much loved by teenagers for generations but (you'd agree??) not exactly "teenage"? Like Pratchett? And Children of the Stones?

Which I guess brings me to my attempt at a definition, granted that all definitions break down when you start to pick at their edges, and that there will be exceptions, and that books are just books forchristsake and why should they have to be pigeon-holed ...

The "definition"
I see a teenage novel as a story with a teenage character(s) at the centre, written from a teenage viewpoint, which explores a situation which teenage readers often fear, aspire to, dream about or experience, and which provides an emotional connection to themselves as teenagers now. It has no visible boundaries or safety-nets and may be frightening, cutting-edge, brutally honest, shocking or sad, (but doesn't have to be) but in fact there are boundaries of acceptability and hope:

"it takes them to the edge but will not throw them over."
That's my definition anyway.

Of course, I can't shut up when I should so I feel obliged to give a few extra "rules", some of which I touched on in the previous article but which bear repeating:
  • the teenage characters find their own solutions because the story is about them and not the adult secondary characters. Get the adults out of the way. Kill them if necessary (preferably before the book starts, or at least before we get to care)
  • though some teenage novels are deep and some are shallow (as with adult books), the language does not patronise by trying to be simple
  • although the voice is teenage, this does not mean you have to sound like a teenager - see my post on voice. The voice has to be appropriate, a voice they'd like to listen to. ie not a teacher, parent, middle-aged person, sad git, kid
  • the protagonist is usually a bit older than the intended readership (this applies to writing for younger children too)
  • no message, remember - or at least not an in your face one. You're a writer not a teacher.
  • the pace is likely to be faster and tighter than in adult writing
  • a teenager (see my book Blame My Brain for a defence and explanation of the details of this, and for an entertaining read, and to save your sanity if you happen to share your living quarters with a teenage specimen) may be 11 years old, but by the age of 15/16 is off your readership radar
  • the writer must be aware that the level of literary criticism of plot, structure, language, themes to which the book will be subjected by the young reader will be intense - if you think you're writing for kids and that kids don't know how to tell you what's wrong with your book, you're in for a big shock!
So, Amy-Jane, I don't know if this answers your questions, and the others who contacted me off-blog! In my opinion, yes, you do need to know whether your book is for teenagers or not, but you could be lucky and have pitched it perfectly anyway ...

Daniel and Jane - re the 70s series the Children of the Stones, it's worth remembering too that teenage fiction really had only just got going at this time, all in the US - with SE Hinton's The Outsiders and Paul Zindell's The Pigman (God, that's brilliant and devastating in a simple way that only teenage writing can be) both in the late 60s, and then the fabulously dark Robert Cormier - OMG I am The Cheese* - from the 70s. He, incidentally, was edited by my main editor. (Main? See, I'm so rubbish I need more than one ...). Anyway, I guess the rules and possibilities of teenage / YA fiction were so new by that time that adults still very much ruled the roost. Whereas now, we know who's in charge, don't we?

*title of book, not an existential statement

One other point - teenage or YA? YA is more a US term, though we often use it in the UK too. To be honest, no difference is usually implied between the two terms, though sometimes YA refers to a slightly older teenager, but I think this distinction makes it too complicated and unnecessarily pigeon-holey. Outside the book world, young adult refers to 18-25s (eg in medical terminology) so it can be confusing for people outside when we talk about YA.

In the last post I said you had to be able to reel off at least ten favourite teenage authors or books and some of you enthusiastically came up with your own lists (full marks to you). Well, of course, I have a few more because you can't keep a keen reader down:
  • John Marsden's Letters from the Inside
  • Alice Kuipers' Life on the Refrigerator Door (though you'll need a lot of chocolate to get your life back on track after either of those)
  • Adele Geras' Ithaka - nothing to do with the fact that she reads this blog; I'd just forgotten how much I'd liked it and it's very different from the dark cold ones on my previous list. Adele writes books for many different ages but Troy and Ithaka, which fit my criteria for teenage novels, are my favourite.
And now I'd probably better stop talking about teenage books before the rest of you disappear. Next, we'll have How To Be a Lovely Publishable Author. Or something. And relatively soon I'll be able to tell you what topics and dates I'm doing talks on in the Edinburgh Book Festival. You never know, I might just be doing one on teenage writing, so then I'll be able to rabbit on for a whole hour. And there'll certainly be one on How To Make a Publisher Say Yes ... Just think, you could actually come and see my boots in real life.

Have a lovely weekend. I had a near death (not exaggerating) incident on the motorway yesterday and made my first ever 999 call, from a stationary and exceptionally vulnerable position in the middle of an intersection between the UK's two biggest motorways (yes, I know, nothing compared with US motorways but they are Big To Us), having been hit by a lorry which didn't stop to see that it had knocked us off the road. So I am planning to count my blessings for being alive. I think wine and chocolate may well be necessary in extra quantities to get me back to a normal mental place.

By the way, if you ever see a car stopped in an incredibly stupid place, risking being smashed to pieces by speeding cars from six lanes of two motorways, I would ask you to consider that it might not be there on purpose. Some of the drivers that passed us clearly had not worked this out, judging from the way they hooted their horns at us and shook their fists.

Pah! Give me teenagers any day.

Friday, 27 February 2009

COMMON MISTAKES WHEN WRITING FOR TEENAGERS

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?

DON'TS:
  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.