Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 3 – Or Joe Get’s Schooled in YA)

Joe’s Post #66

IMG_1555[1]So let me give you an insight into a workshop. A Joe’s-eye view.

Writing Captivating YA

By Janet Gurtler

Funny. Charming. YA Writer (That should be on her business card)

The words on the screen are “Write the SHIT out of everything.”

Immediately, I know I’m a gonna love this workshop.

First up, I’m the only guy here. This is one of my hurdles. A guy writing about 16 hear old girls. Wait, hold on, just as the workshop is about to start another guy walks in. He’s wearing a hat. And hipster glasses. Maybe I need a hat and hipster glasses.

I sit and listen to Janet, (yes, I feel I can call her Janet, we’d talked about mistaken identities and hookers for goodness sake) and she stressed – then demonstrated – how important voice was in YA. Well, voice in anything really but here, voice trumps clever writing, perfect grammar and a well chosen font.

And listening to her own words, how Hunger Games opened, how John Green writes, it suddenly occurs to me that I need to do better. Maybe a lot better. Not that I can’t do it, but I will clearly have to kick up my voice.

She talks about how YA deals with teen issues – coming of age, etc. YA lets readers know they are not alone, that their experiences aren’t abnormal, that there are others like them out there. YA deals with FIRSTS, first love, first heartbreaks, first dances, first loss, with bodies changing, with difficult decisions having to be made and with difficult personal issues, real or imagined that they have to encounter every day.

All good stuff.

As she talked, though, I thought more and more about my story, about my character and all sorts of depth came to mind, ways to make them more like teenagers, and less like, well, me. I wrote notes, quick scenes, snatches of dialogue, inspiring me more and more.

I could so make this a better novel.

She ended with 16 ways to build a YA character. Some of them you have probably seen before, but some are brilliant.

1) What does this character want? What do they need to accomplish? (I totally have this in spades, but wait, do I? Do I really? Have I shown this want? Or told the reader about it?)

2) What’s stopping him or her from getting it? (I got this.)

3) What is the character’s most notable physical trait? What do they notiice, what do others notice? (Oh, these are gems! Brilliant questions!)

4) What is this character’s greatest flaw(s)? (I don’t even write a word until I have this down.)

5) What do you know about this character that she will never admit? (oh, holy hell, another gem! This so got me thinking about that dark, shameful secret we all have buried deep within us.)

6) What is your character’s secret wish, but may never ever get? (Also good!)

embarassing7) What is your characters most embarrassing moment? (I never even thought about this one. What would it be and how would it define who they’d become?)

8) What does the character sing in the shower? (neat detail)

9) What is the characters deepest regret? (A subtle but powerful question!)

10)        What is this character deepest fear? (Got that but it’s something I often bug my other writers about until they want to hit me with their Macbooks.)

11)        What is their greatest hope? (see above)

12)        Whom does this character most want to please?!?!?!?! (fucking hell, that’s the best question EVER!)

13)        Why is this character angry (or why not?)

14)        What calms them down? (Wow, this is not something I would have thought about either. Or how do they react to stress?)

15)        List the choices – not circumstance – that led this character to his/her predicament. (Not a question but a GREAT exercise.)

16)        Who depends on this character? (OMG another wow question!)

And one last great piece of advice…


Anyway, after leaving, I knew I needed to do 3 things. So I came up with a plan.

1) I need to make sure I know how a 16 year old girl thinks and speaks. I will place an ad on Craigslist that says, “middle-aged writer wants 16year old girl.” I’m sure that’ll solve the problem.

2) I need to remember that clever writing is not always in the voice or the head of my YA character. I will do better to see the world through their eyes and experiences.

3) I’m going to have to do back and re-read a few books. I read Hunger Games like a reader. I need to look at it again like a writer. Ditto John Green. Or whoever did that Divergence novel.

But a fantastic workshop. I was so pumped to get home and write!

2 thoughts on “Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 3 – Or Joe Get’s Schooled in YA)

  1. Re-read City of Bones as well. And read The Bone Season to see what all the fuss is about.
    I like the questions. I’m not sure those particular questions are all important or resonant with all novels or all characters — but the idea that we must know our characters in depth and be able to portray that knowledge in the character’s own voice is point. In other words, I don’t think those particular questions are necessarily a magic formula. But the idea that you should have fifteen really clear markers or details about how your character will handle any given situation is the key. With teenagers — embarrassment is a big one. As is comparing yourself to others. And unchecked emotion. A little bit of selfishness, or sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) an overwhelming selfishness. And an idealism and a wish to change the world. Coupled with the belief that you can. No jaded teenagers. And express who you are. Those are the things that define YA’s to me.

  2. Actually, I think those are excellent questions, and I’m completely stealing them. Those things *will* get to the centre of your characters faster than anything else, because it’s almost all the things they want to keep hidden for a whole lot of reasons. Actually, that’s what most people want to keep hidden, regardless of age. Also remember – teens can be 8 one minute and then 35 the next, it’s one of the most frustrating and endearing things about them. There’s a couple of good scenes in Labryinth that catch that really well, if you’ve ever seen it, or watch it again.

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