Fresh from a meeting with editor Imogen Cooper from The Golden Egg Academy, and hot on the heels of the tip Tony Bradman gave on Twitter # GEAQA, I thought writing a blog about plot might help get my own thoughts into order and be helpful to other writers struggling with plot. So here it is...
To be honest, I didn't know I had a problem with plot. I've rewritten and edited my story so may times, I thought the plot was as tight as could be expected in a story that is about emotion and strongly character driven. Plot needs careful attention in adventure stories, stories about good versus evil, surely not so essential and 'in-your-face' in more literary fiction. But a clear plot is essential in all stories. A goal your protagonist is striving toward needs to be explicit not implicit. And this was my oversight. I've written my story like a watercolour painting, thin, subtle layers of plot, the goal not really obvious until several layers (chapters) have established. Possibly this may work for adult fiction, where an adult reader may not mind the not-knowing where the story is heading because they'll stick with it. For Young Adults and teens, though, it's important they get a handle on where the story is going, or they can speculate on where the story may be going. Early in the story (by the end of the first chapter) the goal of the main character needs to be clearly established for the reader to understand what the protagonist is up against - even if that goal isn't precisely the end-goal of the whole story.
The first chapter, unlike my current one with its two or three thin layers of plot foreshadowing, needs to be a block of grounding, like an oil painting. The grounding of an oil painting is the colour that influences and comes through the whole of the painting. The grounding of plot in writing needs to be obvious, direct - dramatic.
Drama is a key ingredient. Without regular conflict, the story can stagnate. Each scene doesn't need drama (regular lulls of reflection time are as important) but every scene must move the plot on in same way. It may be a conversation that pushes it on, or a dramatic confrontation between two characters.
Thinking of plot in terms of tension and drama, especially in a character-led story, is really helpful to me. Where I've washed an emotion I need to more clearly define it. Each incident, like each patch of colour, needs to let the reader anticipate the next before leading them on to the next incident, the next patch of colour.
So, yes, more rewriting...
Fiction for Young Adults is as sophisticated and varied as fiction for adults. Generally, YA fiction targets 13 - 18 year olds, but of course many adults enjoy it too. The only notable difference is that language, sexual and violent content tends to be kept mild and to a minimum - more on that later. As YA fiction becomes more dominant in the market, it seems to be sub-dividing, much like film ratings have - think Middle Grade like 12A, Upper Middle Grade 12, Teen 15, Young Adult 18 - but as yet the umbrella genre is still YA (and Children for 12 and under). There is also an exciting new genre called New Adult which is aimed at 18 - 30 year olds.
YA fiction is in many ways more challenging to write than adult fiction. Unless you are an author under 20 years of age (which most aren't - me included!) the most important element to get right is the 'voice' of the age group you're writing for. Having been writing my debut novel (and redrafting and redrafting and redrafting) for over five years, I've discovered a number of ways to try to do this:
Firstly, read successful or highly praised YA fiction. Then read the less successful ones. If you're writing fantasy, immerse yourself in The Hunger Games, Twilight, His Dark Materials. If you're not, still read them. It's a good idea to dip into different YA genres to find patterns in the young adult 'voice'. The broader your understanding of YA fiction, I think the better your own writing will be. I don't enjoy reading horror (because I'm a scaredy-puss) but I made myself read 'The Enemy' series by Charlie Higson and was blown-away by the humour. For my YA recommendations, click on the tab or link below.
TALK TO A TEENAGER (OR TWO OR THREE)
Secondly, delve into your own memories of being a teenager. The emotions and fears don't change, even if the language does. I've found reading the book reviews on Amazon and Good Reads written by teenagers about YA fiction really enlightening. What do they rate? What drives them crazy? Quite often it's toe-curling dialogue or a main character who lacks believability. Worse still, is a main character who is not aged 14, 15 or 16 (for Teen readers) or 17, 18 (for Young Adult readers). It's not always true ('My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece' is a fine example of great YA fiction centred around a character who is 10) but generally, the main character of YA fiction should be a young adult themselves. If you know teenagers (which you really should do!) then ask them their book likes and dislikes.
DITCH THE PARENTS
The best advice I've had was from a teenager who told me to 'cut out the parents'. Well, I didn't dump them entirely but it definitely spun the novel I'd been writing on its head. Later I stumbled across this quote attributed to Philip Pullman:
“As Jane Austen might have put it: It is a truth universally acknowledged that young protagonists in search of adventure must ditch their parents.”
Of course, adults in YA fiction can provide great characters (think Dumbledor) but they are best shown through the eyes of a teenager. Your YA readers may well perceive a character very differently to you. Where you might have intended a restrained father they might only see an unlikeable, unloving man. In the same breath, don't underestimate how much children and young adults do perceive and understand. I don't think it's necessary to always spell out a character's intent or actions.
SWEARING AND SEX
Thirdly, language and sex. A hurdle to conveying a 'true' young adult voice is the limitation on bad language. Most teenagers I know swear. The problem with including too many 'f' words (or any at all) is adult censorship - from the purchasing parent to recommendations from librarians. Adult censorship may prevent a young adult getting hold of a great story so if you want your book to be read by as many young adults as possible, it may be wise to tone down the language.
Sex in YA can be difficult to get right too. It should always be done in keeping with the story. Rachel Ward's sex scene in Numbers is a good example, both necessary to the plot and well-handled. Remember, many readers will have little or no experience so it can't be unrealistic or romanticised or gratuitous. Recall your own 'first time' and focus on how you felt, rather than the mechanics too much.
To sum up, I suggest if you're thinking of writing YA fiction, be sure of your audience, their loves and loathes, and use a voice that is your own. Rediscover the teenager you were - which may be easier for some! And most of all, love reading YA fiction.
Totally stunned, tears brim, head shakes in a slightly absent way - what, really?! Wow! The Ghost Boy, my short story about Jake Bennett, has actually gone and won the Bath Short Story Award! It did, it really did! I keep checking the page to make sure but it's definitely my title on there.
The link to the story is here: http://bathshortstoryaward.co.uk/
Most of the settings are vivid in my head but to help really clarify them, I googled images and collated them to make it easier to write - because although it's good leaving some things to the readers' imagination, not everything should be. Having studied graphic design as part of my degree, I found I couldn't just leave the images in separate files on my laptop and so I began creating a mood board. A mood board is something designers use when creating a product, advertising campaign or an interior and can include anything you feel is relevant: a key characteristic, a colour, a location, a fabric. I found when making mine, it allowed me to concisely summarise characters and places, like visual bullet points. As a whole, it basically conveys my novel as a picture.
It has been so much fun and I really recommend it. I shall print mine off and hang it somewhere in the house. And, with my second novel tentatively taking shape, I shall do the same thing again - only much sooner in the writing process!
So last night I went to bed with my head buzzing like a beehive - or maybe that should be honking like a geese coop Why? I attended my first workshop with the Golden Egg Academy - www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk - a team of experienced children’s publishing and creative writing professionals who provide (in their words): 'traditional structural editing, industry-led direction and networking opportunities to talented writers for children.'
After meeting Imogen Cooper (previously Head of Fiction for Chicken House Publishing) at a Bath Writing Event, I sent my novel to Golden Egg hoping they would take me on - which amazingly they did! Apparently only 1 in 4 writers are accepted so that's a big confidence boost.
I went to the 'Book Mapping Introduction' workshop without much idea on what to expect. I hoped I'd gain some idea on how to better see the flaws in my novel and to get feedback from industry professionals. What I got was vastly more. Imogen's idea for the book map seems on the surface quite simple: a kind of spreadsheet that allows you the writer and she the editor to track not only the continuity and plot of the novel but also dramatic incidents, the reveals, the character's motivations. It will take me a while to complete, I think, but well worth the time. I hope to choose Imogen as the editor I'll work with at Golden Egg as she is clearly very good at her job but, more importantly for me, she is a really lovely, caring person.
Also, Imogen and Dr Vanessa Harbour (Doctor of creative writing at the University of Winchester, editor of the ejournal Write4Children, and YA author - also an outstanding tea-lady!!) explained the process of being part of the nest of the Golden Egg Academy - and it is fantastic! Supportive and instructive, the editors of Golden Egg are already within a network of agents and publishing houses and want to get good stories out there. I'm so excited and grateful to be part of the academy and among other good writers in a similar position.
Now to get to grips with the book map...
Dyer: I made the best sellers list!
Dyer's wife: You didn't, your book did.
This is such a great reminder that (good and bad), it's your work that's being judged in competitions and not you. With this in mind, I not only entered the Bath Novel Award - www.bathnovelaward.co.uk - I also entered a short story into the Bath Short Story Award - www.bathshortstoryward.co.uk
And when neither get short-listed or when both of them win (!), I will remember Wayne Dyer's wife's words of wisdom.