Crafting a YA Novel
My supervision of the Masters Students at Lincoln University comes to an end and it’s been good to see new writers creating their YA fiction, discovering that writing a whole book is a great deal different to a short story or just reading a book you can knock off in a day.
It’s been good to see new writers creating their YA fiction, discovering that writing a whole book is a great deal different to a short story or just reading a book you can knock off in a day. I think they are surprised that it’s not all just about plot, although that’s important, but character and then logic. I’m always saying ‘Why did they do that? Show me why they made that decision and the consequences of their actions’.
It’s a sharp learning curve to not only structure a whole novel, but create all the events, twists and turns and dead-ends that propel a character to make the decisions they do. In multi-strand novels where you cut between one set of characters and another and hope they will intersect at the right moment timing is everything. All the time you have to craft the emotional needs of your characters so that your reader will care about the outcome, even worry about them, even sense they are making wrong choices. Sometimes a new writer will make us care about a main character then kill them off in Chapter Three. It's quite a risk as you then have to build a new protagonist that the reader will be comparing to the dead one. Then there are characters with unique special skills. It's best to show us how they got these skills rather than just say 'they just have them'. It helps the reader bond with a character if they can see how they acquired their ability, even if ,and especially if they find it hard to cope with it. Creating sympathy with your proganist is pretty essential. Seeing someone mentally struggle with a 'gift' is empowering and character deepening. Seeing someone breakdown under the stress of the burden of the situation, then recover, is key to making a lasting impression. Hero's that feel guilt, villains with issues or hang-ups - no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws. Exploit them and you will engage more deeply with the reader.
It’s the little details that make a difference. Habits, diet, clothing, eating, if you neglect these, you are just creating ciphers, like all the anonymous dead in action movies who get one second to fire a gun before they are gunned down by the hero. (I was reflecting on that as I watched ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ movie, you don’t even get to see the faces of most of the people mowed down, not really time to register they are people). In a novel, even incidental characters must be real for the few seconds they appear in the story. One way to do that is through dialogue. The postman with an attitude, the person who gives directions and offers unnecessary advice (You can’t get there from here, love, you’ll need to back up and follow the A16 or is it the A18? no it’s the B6703, I think …) Hero rolls eyes and wishes she had sat-nav.
Never make things straightforward. It’s the old log in the road trick. How many times did they use that trope in TV series ‘The 100’ I wonder? Characters get lost, or get found, meet strangers, have sex with the person whose been sent to kill them. (The Sting – Robert Redford movie).
The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlo Ruiz Zafon |
Steal You Away by Niccolo Ammaniti
I decided to read a couple of books I had long put off reading the other day. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Prisoner of Heaven’,
an extraordinary compelling read about Franco’s fascists in Barcelona 1939/40. The harrowing conditions of socialist/communist prisoners held by the regime, yet also an uplifting tale about love, books, writers and writing and twisting subplots. We tend to forget that Franco ruled for decades with an iron fist and seeing all those Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville made me want to pick up this book.
The second book was Niccolo Ammaniti’s ‘Steal You Away’. I had seen the amazing ‘I’m Not Scared’ movie a few times and his skill about writing about children in an adult world of sleaze and crime is stunning. Steal You Away almost defies a synopsis. Is it about the 11 year-old boy who is bullied by kids at his school and his devotion to the beautiful Gloria, the rich man’s daughter he has always been friends with, or is it about Graziano, a washed up lothario musician who is obsessed with young blonde show girl who can only bring him misery, or perhaps it is about the redhead Flora, the 30 year-old virgin schoolmistress whose body we seem to pay a great of attention to? Of course it’s a novel about the point of intersection as all the characters eventually collide in this small coastal Italian town. YA fiction tends to minimise the adults in the story to allow the young characters to flourish, but Ammaniti manages to integrate all with no trouble at all and treat every character with equal emphasis.
I wonder if that is a flaw with many YA novels that it doesn’t allow for the development of adult characters or their wisdom (or utter foolishness). I guess it's a matter of balance. What made President Snow the way he was in Hunger Games? Was there time to explore that? Probably not. One always has to be remember whose story you are telling and in that case it was Katniss Everdeen's story.
I was thinking about two books recently. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss - simply the best fantasy work ever - written with exquisite style and the character development is so well shaped you care about everyone you read about immediately. The simple storytelling in a bar format is brilliant and the whole thing is a monument to unrequited love. Extraordinary. The study of magic is tempered by responsibility in execution and even though you are never sure if anything is 'true' the suspension of disbelief is held throughout. Similarly Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is another brilliant character led novel about a motely crew of thieves and an impossible heist set in a faux 19th Century Russian setting with powerful magic and cunning. These are the books that stay with you forever and I wish more adults would read them too.
I was reflecting on character as I was writing Girl with Cat (Blue). Did I give enough time to the few adults in the story? The trouble is, just like in Ammaniti’s stories, there would be so many digressions to explore each adult's backstory I am not sure a young reader would tolerate the excess of detail. But nevertheless the adult must be there for a reason whether to obstruct or impart wisdom. Something to debate in the next creative writing class I think.
© Sam Hawksmoor September 2018
author of J&K 4Ever and other stories