Saying the Andrea Brown Literary Agency plays an important role in young adult literature is like saying chocolate plays an important role in chocolate chip cookies (and, like most writers, you probably know the significance of a daily dose of chocolate). Twice a year, the agency helps host the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop. For one blissful, glorious, worth-eating-three-months-of-Mr. Noodles-to-get-there weekend, children’s writers attend lectures, work on their novels in critique groups, and yes, have cocktails with other writers, editors, and agents.
This year was my first year to go, and I have to say: it was well worth its weight in noodles. With clients like Ellen Hopkins (Crank), Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver), Super Agent Laura Rennert has represented some of the most talked about titles in YA. During our workshop, we had the chance to listen to Laura to speak to us about Five Writing Do’s. And without further, ahem, ado, I’ve summed up what she had to say (with my own twist).
Laura says to make sure you have a fresh and compelling voice, and that the voice is authentic to your specific character. Use the POV that works best for your story. To work on your voice, interact with the age group you’re writing about. Or, barring that, eavesdrop on them at the local mall (just try not to look like a stalker).
Also, read your writing out loud to really hone in on what’s working and what’s not in your sentences. After attending the workshop and having to read my writing out loud to strangers—MEEP!—I can tell you this really does make a world of difference in how you hear your own words.
2. Create Memorable and Dynamic Characters
Know your characters. Laura believes in the iceberg analogy: 9/10 of what makes a character tick remains under the surface. And guess what? If you, the writer, only know the top 1/10—like, say, your MC Suzie loves ponies and ice cream sundaes—your can bet your novel will be lacking in depth (yeah, I went for the pun there. Deal with it.)
Also: the more stress you put your characters under, the better. Basically, Laura was too kind to say it, but I’m not—torture your little sweeties until they cry and need a heavy dose of therapy. No, seriously.
3. Coherent and Satisfying Narrative Structure
Capture your reader’s interest from page one, and never let the forward momentum slack. Laura’s example: if your very first scene involves a party, don’t begin your novel when the party starts. Jump to the middle. My elaboration on how not to start:
“Yo, Joe, what’s shaking?”
“Nothing much. You?”
“Aw, nothing much. Hey, did ya catch that Lakers game last night?”
“No, man? You?”
“Uh uh. So, how come you missed it?”
“Oh, well—I was taking a nap.”
Um, guess what? At this point, your reader is probably nodding off, too. Instead of beginning at the, well, beginning, start in the middle of the scene, when the action is already getting underway. Leave your hello’s’ and nap talk for offscreen. And then, since you’re off to such a great start, don’t back off. Keep the tension mounting from there. You know that old David Bowie and Freddy Mercury song “Under Pressure?” Make it your writing motto. By putting your characters under pressure, you’ll keep the reader reading—always a good thing.
And, according to Laura, another cool thing about upping the stakes? You—and your reader—will get to know your characters better. Laura’s example: If your character tells the truth when nothing is at stake, so what? But if your character’s life or reputation is at stake and they still tell the truth, well—that is truly noteworthy information to have.
A final tip: the main character should change over the course of the novel. Metaphorically speaking. I mean, she or he doesn’t have to morph from human to vamp—although, we’ve heard rumors that maybe that method does work on occasion <grin>.
4. Explore the Universal and the Idiosyncratic
According to Laura, this means that within universal themes—such as conflict with friends—give us particular and concrete examples that are specific to your world. Feel free to give us the same old, same old—but with your own unique take or spin.
5. Literary Voice and Commercial Conception
Have a great, strong storyline along with a strong voice. And in case you were wondering if Laura was serious about stakes? She mentions them here again. She says use ordinary experiences but elevate the stakes.
Her example? Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher—a book that looks at teen suicide in an unusual and compelling way.
So, those are the five writing do’s that agent Laura talked about. But, wait– don’t run off to write just yet! Why not enter a contest that showcases the very authors exemplifying those do’s? Comment below to win your choice of Thirteen Reasons Why, Shiver, or Tricks, PLUS a $25 gift card to either Barnes and Nobles or Amazon.
In your comments, tell us either what you consider your writing strength or your weakness, or both. We’ll do a random drawing on Wednesday night, December 16th, at ten p.m. Pacific Time, and announce the winner the following day. Anyone who re-tweets our contest on Twitter? Feel free to DM us and let us know, and we’ll enter your name twice. (Sorry, but the contest is restricted to those with a Canadian or United States address).
Good luck, Happy Holidays, and of course—Happy Writing.
By Debra Driza