Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing Books for Children and Young Adults that Will Sell

I'm pleased that Jacqueline Seewald has come to share some of her expertise with us today. Jacqueline is a multi-award winning author who writes for adults as well as teens and children. She has taught creative, expository and technical writing at the university level as well as high school English. Ten of her books of fiction have been published. Her short stories as well as poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of diverse publications and numerous anthologies. Her adult mystery novel, THE INFERNO COLLECTION, was published by Five Star/Gale in hardcover in 2007 and Wheeler large print in 2008. Another novel, THE DROWNING POOL, was published in 2009. The third mystery in the Kim Reynolds series, THE TRUTH SLEUTH, will be published in May 2011. A young adult novel, STACY’S SONG, was published by L&L Dreamspell in November 2010.

Even before J. K. Rowling's tremendous success with her Harry Potter series, publishers were searching for fantasy and horror fiction for children and teenagers that they hoped would top the bestseller list. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it does not insure success as a writer. Not every juvenile book needs to feature werewolves, vampires, witches or goblins.

Books set in the "real" world still have appeal for teens and children. Young readers are not necessarily trying to read books that provide a total escape from reality. Even fantasy books need to be believable, provide an element of reality through character development to which readers can relate.

One of the most important things in writing a successful young adult novel or children’s book is to develop a unique voice. That does not mean that you must write from a first person point of view. However, teen readers often respond well to a first person narrative.

It is important to create a central character that young readers can both sympathize and identify with. Whether writing realistic or fantasy fiction, if the reader can't care about or relate to the main character, than he or she won't believe or accept what follows.

Teens as well as younger children enjoy an element of mystery. Every good work of fiction should have a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to discover what is going to happen next. It's important to set up some sort of a question that can't be easily or immediately answered, a secret of the human heart that must be delved into.

A word of warning: If you are going to write about teens, you must know about them. Do some research. Besides raising two teenagers, I taught English and later Library Science. I taught at all levels: the university, high school, middle school and elementary. But most of my years were in the high school. I am accustomed to the way teenagers think, talk and behave. If you are not a teen yourself, talk to teenagers, read their magazines, watch their favorite TV programs, observe how they behave at malls, amusement parks, movie theaters etc.

Dig deep into your own psyche. How did you feel as a teenager? My latest YA novel, STACY’S SONG, published by L&L Dreamspell in both trade paperback and e-book formats, is the story of a girl who has serious identity issues. Most of us have gone through similar problems as adolescents.

Get input from your own children. Have them read your writing and critique it. Consider collaborating with your children on the writing of your fiction. I wrote WHERE IS ROBERT?, a middle grades/YA novel with help from both of my sons who were teenagers at the time. Both boys contributed to the scenes of high school wrestling, since they both engaged in the sport. I couldn't have written the book without them.

Make it dramatic. Dramatize your story. Don't show, tell. I'm certain you've heard that advice before! How to do this? Create meaningful, realistic dialog for your characters. Each character should be an individual, talking a certain distinct way to reflect a personal point of view, a unique way of thinking. Good dialog leads to action and conflict between people with different viewpoints and goals.

Settings need to be vividly described so that they seem real. In fact, there's nothing wrong with using real places for background setting. My three published YA’s are all set in Central New Jersey, an area very much like the one in which I lived and have worked.

For my children’s picture book A Devil in the Pines, I created a faction story. I used the real setting of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the legend of the Jersey Devil combined with the fictional story of a little boy who learns how to deal with fear. Afton Publishing has kept this book in print from its publication in 1999 to the present because it is a timeless story and therefore continues to sell well.

My advice, don't write for the market; write the story you need to write. We are all writers. We all have within us a unique, important, wonderful story to share. Get in touch with your inner self. Start putting your ideas on paper. Begin with an outline, then a rough draft with key characters and scenes. When you develop your book, look for depth. Although books for teens and children are usually shorter than those for adults, it doesn't mean they require less creative thought. Respect your readers; give them quality.


Anonymous said...

Some great advice here for any kind of writing. But I'm confused. I've always heard "don't tell, show," and here you are saying the opposite - does telling work better for YA?

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Kay,

No, showing is always best. Dialogue is important in this regard. So are physical actions and some amount of description.
Avoid extensive adverbs (ly words) and adjectives. Better to use active verbs and try for a unique voice. Hope this helps you.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks for catching the error I made so I have a chance to correct a wrong impression.



Alice said...

I caught that don't show, tell too, But I think it is one of those brain reverses and she meant don't tell, show.

Although the last book I read was a lot of telling, however, the book moved forward even with the telling.

It's really nice to hear contemporary stories are also needed. Especially, since I am not writing fantasy and no Vampires or magic.

Alice said...

Wow, you're fast in your replies.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

What great advice. Thanks. I'm happy too to know that kids like contemporary writing. Congratulations on your books.

S. Willett said...

"Respect your readers" Wonderful advice. They know more than we give them credit for. A friend sent me a link to this blog post and I'm glad she did.

Cheryl said...

Excellent article. I especially like the tip of doing your research. I'm far away from my teen years, so I've planted my butt at the skating rink and listened to conversations more than once. Writers are allowed to eavesdrop, right?

Wishing you continued success.


Donna McDine said...

Sound advice. Thank you for your sharing your insights!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Alice, Beverly, Cheryl, and Donna,

Thank you all for your kind comments.

I think publishers have gone a little overboard with supernatural stories for children as well as teens. I believe young readers do like stories that are realistic with a bit of humor and common sense added. But that's just one person's opinion.

And although I will write adult romance for adults, I only approve of writing "sweet" romance for teens. Again, personal choice.

Pat McDermott said...

Wonderful advice for writing in general and for YA in particular. I started reading the various genres of YA to get a feel for them, and I enjoy most of them. I suppose it comes down to writing the sort of book you'd love to read yourself if you were a young adult. Thanks, Jacqueline, and best of luck with your books!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you, Pat, for the good words!