Thursday 20 August 2009


I did a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival today about writing for teenagers and I promised** the participants that I'd put a fuller version of my notes here on my blog. Of course, devoted as I am to you all, I have not actually rushed back from Charlotte Square to do this - by the wonders of modern technology and forward-planning, I scheduled this post back when I wrote my notes. God, I'm clever. (PS - and, unlike other times, blogger graciously allowed me to do this.)

(** Actually, I forgot to promise this. But the intention was there.)

Anyway. Here's what I planned to say. Of course, it may have come out quite differently, since I tend to ignore my notes. Also, because my actual notes are just bullet-points, I have fleshed them out and turned them into sense. In fact, frankly, these are not really my notes at all. These are simply the words I imagine I might say if things go according to plan.

(Vivian French will have spoken before me, about writing for older children, ie 9-11s. I have no doubt she was brilliant - she's written enough books for kids of all ages and no one knows more than her.)

The best way to understand how to write for them is to understand who they are. And who they are as readers. (Yes, they do read! In fact, those who read do so avidly and deeply, and want as wide a range of books as adults do.) Some successful authors say they don't particularly need to think about their readers when they write - Tim Bowler is a great example. He seems to have the perfect voice and interest-level for teenagers, without thinking about it. I suspect with him that it's all subconscious, and actually he's a big kid himself (he's a friend, so I can say that) so it comes naturally.

But the reason I think it's important is that, as the writer, you must know exactly what your teenage character would do /think / feel, otherwise you risk your story not ringing true. And teenagers can spot things that don't ring true a mile off - and will tell you about them. Ruthlessly.

Not children, not adults - so books are different from children's and adults'
  • How are they different from children (and therefore books are different from children’s books)
  1. Teenagers are (and should be) less protected - so we can’t pretend the world is rosy
  2. They are interested in different things - different things affect, worry, intrigue them, especially the things they may have to deal with now or soon
  3. They have a need for risk-taking / need to break rules - including reading books their parents don't like!
  4. They hate moral messages, hate to be preached at
  5. They can spot middle-aged voice - esp a m-aged voice pretending to be teenage
  • How different from adults (and therefore adult books)
  1. Teenagers are less patient, less forgiving of waffle; story must get straight to the point
  2. They have some different interests (eg don't care about menopause/surviving on pension). remember that we have been teeangers and so are more naturally interested in them than they are in us
  3. Teenage viewpoint essential to main character - and this MUST be an actual teenage viewpoint, not that of an adult looking back and remembering being a teenager
MUST CONSIDER THE GATE-KEEPERS - adults who buy the books and who choose what gets published and what goes in the shops / schools / libraries.

I believe anyone should read any book, whatever their age, but this is a genre, and you have to know the rules for that genre. There are boundaries you can’t cross, but it's hard to pin them down - you just know when you crossed them. If you're unpublished, it's your crossing of the boundaries which may raise alarm bells with an agent/editor that you don't know the market.
  • Eg Deathwatch - this was always going to be about a stalker but I needed to nail right from the start that this was not paedophilia and had no sexual connotations at all.
  • Eg my current planned WIP - about a celebrity-obsessed girl: I'm having trouble with the potential outcome because if she comes a cropper then the story is too trite and moral, but if (as I want) she gives two fingers to everyone's boring opinions, where’s my moral stance? I'm trying to find a way to be radical yet get past the gate-keepers. PS - I've now moved on a long way from this potential WIP and it's all completely different from how I started out.
  • So, nothing can be gratuitous. Violence needs a context, a moral position; certain topics would be very hard to handle** - eg incest, paedophilia.
  • Where you show any characters using eg violence or drug-taking, the outcome for those characters would need to be carefully handled.
  • Certain elements may make your book regarded as a no-go by schools: Eg guns, swearing, sex, drugs - yet these are all topics are of interest to teenagers and therefore legitimately covered - but beware.
Extra point about these boundaries - the fact that a topic is hard to handle (eg incest /paedophilia) does not mean you can't handle it. It means you have to know exactly what you're doing. Read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan if you want to see what I mean! It is (in my view) utterly brilliant. It's the work of a phenomenal imagination and brilliantly handled.

The real point to hang onto is that everything has to be about the story. So, you don't write "about" eg violence - you tell a story, and if violence has to be in it, then it has to be in it. But the reader should never think you simply set out to ram violence at them to shock them.

THE SAFETY NET FACTOR - this is my little analogy to define a difference between writing for young children, older children, teenagers and adults;
  • young children - barely any need for a safety-net , as you know nothing bad will happen. Safety-net more like soft-play ball-park
  • older children - safety-net there: reader knows that even though it feels scary, nothing terrible will happen even if it seems as though it might as you slip off the rope
  • teenagers - no visible safety-net: the reader feels that something terrible could happen. But, in fact, the safety-net is there because, even if the reader doesn't know it, the author cares. hope will not be destroyed.
  • adults - no safety-net necessary, especially in some genres. The reader knows that anything could happen.
The skill of writing for teenagers is keeping the safety-net invisible.

SUGGESTED ROLE MODELS - because you MUST read the best in current successful fiction
  • for the dark, deep and dangerous side: Kevin Brooks, Keith Gray, Catherine Forde
  • two books that handle dangerous topics but get away with it because of the writers' skill: Looking for JJ (Anne Cassidy), Killing God (Kevin Brooks)
  • gripping and fast: Ally Kennen, Catherine MacPhail
  • fab for girls: Cathy Cassidy
  • the epitome of boundary-breaking - Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
  • Every sentence has one aim: to stop them going off to listen to their ipods
  • Never sound like an adult telling them a story
  • Never sound like an adult pretending to be a teenager telling them a story
  • Avoid teenspeak - a) it'll be out of fashion next year and b) teenagers will laugh you out of town
  • Get the practical details of teen life spot-on - account for mobile phones / internet etc
  • Never preach or patronise
  • Keep that safety-net invisible
  • Get rid of the parents
That's it! No idea how I'm going to round it off but I've got some time yet ...

And do check out how I Define A Teenage Novel here and finally some Common Mistakes When Writing For Teenagers.


Anonymous said...

Have your read Tender Morsels?

Incest, pedophilia (I'd have written that 'paedophilia', but I'm using the 'a' for your name, instead of calling you Nicole again), gang rape, and receiver of many starred reviews!

Stroppy Author said...

'The skill of writing for teenagers is keeping the safety-net invisible.'

Perfect - that sums it up :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

I'm reading Tender Morsels at the moment and it's fantastic, awesome. But this is a book written by a fantastically clever writer who knows exactly what she's doing - and, as I said in the talk, it's all about the writing and the story. You need to be an expert and / or very very careful when pushing these boundaries.

I talked about this in much more detail and more clearly than this post suggests

catdownunder said...

One of my then teenage nephews once said, "Aunty Cat why don't you write a book about...?" He then list three things I did not feel in the least bit competent to write about. I suggested he write the book instead. I was met with a look of blank amazement. "But we don't write books. You have to do that. We just get to read them."

Ebony McKenna. said...

Great post Nicola.
Re the point about getting rid of parents. That must be why there are so many orphans in literature!

When Ondine began percolating in my noggin, she was an orphan too. Then in the next breath, she had two much older sisters and living parents who smothered her with love.

To me, that made it feel more real - and the conflicts of a teenage girl - wanting privacy and independence versus needing the comforts of home - came naturally.

Clever writers (like you) have the parents in the background, (like in Deathwatch) but they don't swoop in and fix everything - it's up to the teen protagonists to sort themselves out and make the decisions.

This should be true of all good fiction - the protagonist is the one actively making choices (whether they're right or wrong, it should be consistent with their character). Nobody should swoop in and fix things. ('scuse my Latin. Should we call it Parentis ex machina?)

Hope the sun is still shining :-)

Sherry Dale Rogers said...

"Like, I really like this post. It is so there."
He He!

writtenwyrdd said...

Thanks for this wonderful article. I've often considered the question of what specifically makes YA and this helps to clarify.

I'll be linking to this one.

Nicola Morgan said...

Ebony - yes, you don't always have to physically get rid of the parents, but you have to create a situation where they can be passive (such as the situation you suggest - because even though Ondine's parents are over-protective, in a way that gives Ondine a reason for breaking away from them and acting without their knowledge.) In Deathwatch, when i was considering a girl being stalked, I HAD to make it that she didn't know she was being stalked, because if she'd known, she would have HAD to tell parents and then police would be involved, which would make it far less interesting by removing the danger from her. So, you create a situation where the adults are useless or powerless or ignorant.

Sherry - like, I totally know what you mean!

Writtenwyrrd - Thanks. I would love to have done a longer talk (and have in the past) but Viv and I were sharing the platform and so we only had under 15 mins each. I have several other ways of explaining it. Have you read my earlier post on what makes a YA novel?

Sophie Playle said...

Woah, that time-travelling mish-mash at the beginning of this post had my head in a spin!

Anyway, nice post. Good information, well presented. Thank you.