My 14-Step Process to Writing a Great YA Novel (Or Writing While Parenting Part Four)

YALLFest, Charleston’s young adult book festival, is November 9, and it’s loaded with a long list of top YA authors (including Lev Grossman). And if that’s not enough incentive to get you down there, guess who else will be there? Me.

Even better, unlike those other famous people who are making you wait and show up, I’m going to go ahead and give you my proprietary multi-step process for writing a YA book right now and you don’t even have to leave your desk. I win.

  1. Have a kid. Kids give you an excuse to read young adult fiction aloud every night and to speak proudly about it in mixed company. “I’m reading ‘Harry Potter’ to my kids at bedtime” is SO much more socially acceptable than “I LOVE ‘Twilight!’ I read it over and over again because I love it so much. Don’t you?”
  2. On second thought, don’t have kids just for that. Kids are work. Much easier to just grow a thick skin and love what you love. You can call it “research” if it makes you happier.
  3. If you do have a kid, raise him free range*, and un-school, so you don’t squash any of his native genius.
  4. Or whatever. It’s up to you. But if you do free range and un-school I guarantee your kids will blow you away every day. They might anyway. I wouldn’t know.
  5. Wait till they’re older. If you start thinking about writing while your kids are still little, don’t worry–they’ll squash that right out of you.
  6. When your child reaches the rough age of the character(s) in your planned book, begin writing. Assuming your characters are at least 9 years of age, this corresponds neatly to the approximate time when you start to feel human again after having a baby.
  7. When you get to a tough spot, interview your kid. Spend lots of time on this and record the sessions. Take notes, too. Pay close attention. Ask lots of questions and answer all of theirs.
  8. Be wowed when the boring chapter about waiting for something to happen becomes the interesting chapter about building a viable home out of scraps of tanned skin, a water bucket, and an over-sized plastic bench.
  9. Interview other kids too when you get a chance. By this time, if you’ve done it right, most of the kids in your town will be hanging out at your house anyway, because you’re the free range house and maybe you have Minecraft and enough computers to go around too.
  10. Read some YA.
  11. Write every day.
  12. Listen to your characters.
  13. Listen to your kids.
  14. Repeat. Start with step 7 though, because raising a new kid for each set of revisions on your novel is probably a bit overboard.
Writing with Eli

Writing with Eli

P.S. I don’t love Twilight. I feel like I should actually say that because I said “love what you love” and Twilight is not one of those things. I do think it’s well-written for what it is, though, and I have in fact read the entire series. And she made a lot of money on it, so there’s that.

P.P.S. There are a few other entries about writing while parenting. I called them “part one” “part two” etc. even though they’re only loosely connected. You can read them if you want: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

Back to the Main

I have, like, 15 minutes, so I’m sorry if this sucks.

First, thank you THANK YOU to the wonderful people who provided feedback in the Game of Intros. It was awesome. Some of you gave me feedback offline too, and I appreciate all of it. I will probably go with Slave Chip because that is hands-down EVERYONE’s favorite that has said anything, AND I like the concept too–I mean, SLAVERY. What’s not to love?

And now, back to Jed and my current 85k WIP. Jed has decided that he must be allowed to speak in first person present. Good grief. Here’s how that happened.

So, yesterday, I sat down with my character model, 9-year-old Eli, whose personality I tried to capture in the guise of Jed (my MC, for those just joining us). So far, Jed’s story doesn’t exactly suck, according to my alpha reader (Carey), but he’s been “less interesting by far” than the other characters. In other words, he sucks. And that just will not DO. Will not.

So Eli & I sat down and we went scene-by-scene and I picked through the contents of his brain and it was awesome. I think he had fun too, because it was like a choose-your-own-adventure for him. I told him what was happening and he told me what he would think and do in each circumstance.

I wrote it down word for word and about halfway through, after writing so many “I think such-and-such” and “I wonder about who-and-who”s, I began to feel like Jed was telling me, maybe… maybe he wanted to be written that way, the way that Eli was talking. In first person present.

FIRST PERSON PRESENT, y’all. I hate first person present.

Except in The Hunger Games. I love it there.

So I went back and re-wrote the first scene in first person present. Let’s call that Version Two. And the original, the first/second draft version in third person past, is Version One. Then I created a Version Three, which is the exact same wording as Version Two except the pronouns & verbs all changed to third past. I thought maybe I could capture the immediacy of first present without all the awkwardness and difficulty and WEIRDNESS of one character in first present with all the others in third past.

Then I handed it all off to Carey and said, “Tell me what to think.”

He read Version Two (first present) and said, “That’s definitely more interesting.” Okay. Cool.

Then I handed him Version Three (EXACTLY the same as Version Two except with third past) and he said, “I don’t understand. Isn’t this your original version?” Remember, the version he thought was “definitely less interesting” than the other characters? He thought the EXACT SAME WORDS as Version Two were actually Version One after I changed it back to third past.

Then he re-read Version One, side-by-side with Version Three, and said Version Three sucks. Actually, he said he liked the original better than Version Three, which is the same thing, seeing as how the original didn’t exactly have him excited.

Then he said, “First person present is going to be really hard to do. But if you can pull it off, it’ll be frickin awesome.

Crap.

So first person present it is.

I’m afraid none of that exactly made sense, but the point is, Jed demands first person present and I always try to give my characters what they want, which is the least I can do for them given how many terrible things I put them through. So the new first chapter is mostly first person present now. It’s taking a while to re-write, but it’s fun. The most fun I’ve had since I started on this novel, I think.

I’m trying to work up the courage to share a snippet with you here. Okay. I have to. Okay, here goes. Gritting my teeth. Why is this so hard? Here’s the original third past:

Jed always thanked the bushes when he plucked their berries. When he found leafy greens, he never took the whole plant. And he never, ever dug up roots to eat. He couldn’t stand the sound of their screaming.

In the mornings, he and the other boys would leave the village together, laughing and shouting. Several of them had been born in the same summer nine years ago—it had been a good year for babies. So they knew each other well, and he liked them well enough. But by the time the sun was over the trees, he always found a reason to move off by himself into the woods. Nowadays, he tried to do it before they found anything to eat, because he didn’t want to hear them kill the plants, nor endure their ridicule when he tried to stop them.

Once alone, he would wander until he found a particularly beautiful meadow or clearing in the woods, where he could throw himself down in the grass, with his bare brown belly pressed against the earth, and lie still until his breath came slow and quiet. Then he could hear the plants whispering, and sometimes he imagined that if he thought hard enough, maybe they would hear him too.

And in first present:

I always thank the bushes, you know, when I take berries from them. I put leaves in my sack, too, if you can eat them—but never the whole plant. No, never the whole plant—the screaming is too awful.

The sun is coming up as I leave the village, and the other boys are laughing and shouting already. They’ll leave me alone if I’m quiet and if I remember not to say anything about the plants. When we get where the dirt path ends, I tell them bye and go up toward the meadow. I don’t want to hear when they find, well, edible roots and stuff.

There won’t be many berries yet, but at least there will be a few. Through these woods there’s a meadow and when I get there, I throw myself down in the grass, feel the cool dewy ground against my warm belly. When my breathing comes slow and quiet, I can hear the plants whispering. They’re so glad it’s morning and they’re alive—it makes me glad to be alive too. I wonder if they can hear me saying that to them?

I know that’s short. It’s all I have courage for.

And that’s all I got time for. See ya and THANK YOU.