How to Write a Blockbuster YA Novel

I am woefully behind the times in my reading. Ask me about the classics, and I’m all over it:

  • Sophocles (check)
  • Thucydides (indeed)
  • Aeschylus (yup)
  • Vergil (certainly)
  • Homer (you bet, and I even know this is out of chronological order)
  • Plato (uh-huh)
  • Xenophon (in Greek, love him–have you read his bit on horse training?)
  • Shakespeare (duh)
  • Milton (of course)
  • Chaucer (in the original Middle English, yes)
  • Too many to list (you betcha)

What about novels, you ask?

  • Mark Twain 
  • Hemingway
  • Jane Austin
  • Charles Dickens
  • Eudora Welty
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Heinlein
  • Lovecraft
  • Philip K. Dick
  • Harper Lee
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

Now ask me about anything written in the past ten years, and, well, look:

  • Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter
  • Um.
  • Twilight (hangs her head in shame…)
  • Uh.
  • That’s it.
  • I think.
  • WAIT! The Magicians. Of course.
  • Yup.
  • That’s it.

twilight poster_9

I can’t un-read Twilight alas, but I can do penance by reading a whole bunch of other recent YA titles. My Amazon bill has grown ridiculous. But that’s okay, because I’m about to get rich. Because it turns out you don’t need to be original to write a blockbuster. All you need is a recipe. And I have the recipe.

Recipe for a Blockbuster YA Novel

  • Take one gorgeous but troubled female teenager who has no idea she’s beautiful, and put her in the center of the plot
  • Mix in insecurity, self-deprecation, and a selfless desire to please everyone at her own expense.
  • Add one gorgeous but troubled male teenager who is inaccessible due to a bad-boy reputation, his community/school role, or his own dark secrets.
  • Mix in a large pinch of “why do I like him?” angst.
  • Add a crisis that throws them inadvertently together, often in close physical proximity, and mix well with breathlessness each time their skin touches.
  • In another container, mix together a large quantity of possessiveness, controlling, and jealousy, add carefully to the male teenager, and disguise it with the sweetness of I Love You.
  • Gradually fold in a good reason why they can’t be together, that inevitably boils down to “I’m afraid I’ll hurt him” (because of her special talent, because the bad guys are after everyone she loves, because she also loves someone else, because she always hurts everyone she loves, or similar–you get to be a little original here if you want, but don’t go too crazy.)
  • Add heat.
  • When plot reaches a full boil, place a decision in the hands of female character–on the one hand, she can be with the boy forever; on the other hand, she can do something selfless that will serve to separate them forever. It’s okay if this one is a stretch, as long as she definitely has to choose and there is no middle option.
  • When she chooses the selfless act, remove story from heat.
  • When male & female settle out separately, leave them in proximity, but not mixed.
  • Cover with a cloth and leave to ferment. Will they end up together or not? That is the delicious finish everyone craves. Don’t answer.
  • Wait for film deals to roll in, along with riches.

Try it and let me know how it goes.

By the way, my WIP doesn’t follow this formula. There’s very little romance, way too many main characters, and not nearly enough teenage angst. They’re too busy trying to not be eaten or tortured to be overly concerned about pimples. Is my book YA? I’m no longer convinced.

Also, I’ll probably die poor.

A Book Review And One Easy Tip That Will Save You $1,138.

Twenty-three percent of the way through the first round of revisions. Not that I’m counting. I’m always counting.

Time for a book review!

(Also, I’m not really even close to 23%. I mean, I’ve revised that many pages out of the total. But the bits I’ve already done were the easy bits. There are entire new chapters that have to be written, and entire chapters to be demolished–or moved forward into the next book–and the holes between them patched up. I have to stop thinking about it now. It’s overwhelming.)

Time for a book review!

Farnam Street Blog is brain food for business leaders–it’s quite good, one of my regular reads. Recently, they talked about the value to one’s business career of writing a novel. Huzzah, I’m on a good track. They recommended several books on novel-writing, so of course I bought them all.


I’m currently reading The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

Spoiler alert: It sucks.

Maybe not exactly “sucks,” but I almost didn’t get past the seven-page introduction, in which the author discusses the importance of keeping one’s prose tight, by repeating over the course of seven pages how important it is to keep one’s prose tight by removing extraneous words because nobody is going to read seven pages of rambling so keep your prose tight.

I am not kidding.

I kept going though. The promise was strong: Agents speak out on the deadly errors that will cause an instant rejection in the first five pages. Must. avoid. deadly. errors.

Unfortunately, that compelling concept is a salesy mask for offering up a thin volume of tried (and tired) writing advice:

  • Limit your adjectives
  • Limit your adverbs
  • Make it sound nice (really? Oh, hm, that’s helpful)
  • Get your grammar right (so glad they warned me)
  • Show don’t tell (yawn)
  • Eschew obfuscation via erudite verbosity (I made that one up. It’s better than the other items in this list, see, and that’s how you can tell I made it up)

True, the advice is good, and it is shared in a (mostly) useful and (somewhat) engaging manner. For a beginning writer, it’s probably a great handbook to keep by your side. The exercises at the end of each chapter are good ones.

I would hope, however, that by the time an author is ready to submit her work, she would have already studied these things into the ground, so perhaps it would be better billed as a book for new writers.

The book does have one saving grace, however, which is Chapter One. This chapter contains a handy list of the do’s and don’t's for manuscript presentation: How wide to make your margins, how large the font, how broad the line spacing. Much of it can be found elsewhere, and considering the poor quality of the rest of the book, I will certainly be checking my facts before following his instructions, but (assuming it’s correct), it is handy to have it all in one place.

On page 27, almost as an aside, the author mentions that a manuscript showing very slight signs of wear, may be a subtle turn-off to a potential agent. This one little nugget, it seems to me, bears expanding. A slightly worn manuscript, even if not obvious consciously, indicates a previous rejection, and may prejudice the agent against it. This seems to me to bear the stamp of truth. We humans are so readily influenced by details slightly below our awareness, and we are inclined to be influenced by the behaviors of others. This is something I might not have thought of, nor found via a Google search on my own. I will certainly be submitting only fresh manuscripts when it is time.

More of Page 27′s insights would make this book a worthy buy. There are no more of Page 27-style insights anywhere else in this book.

Conclusion: Save your money and maybe go to a convention. Not that you can go to a convention for $11.38. But you could for a hundred times that. So, just avoid buying it 100 times, and you’re in. Easy.

So. What are you reading to improve your craft? How is it?

P.S. Chapter seven. I’ve done initial revisions through chapter seven. The snow has already piled up behind me so deep I can’t see chapter one any more for the snow. Heaven help me.

Huh. My first seven chapters are almost as thick as this crappy book I bought. Now, that's encouraging.