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Friday, 6 March 2009


OK, so two posts in a row about teenage fiction is hardly balanced, but then I never made any claim to be balanced and any time I'm asked to walk along a white line I find myself becoming suspiciously unbalanced. Besides, your comments and interest in the subject were really all the excuse I needed, if I needed any excuse to talk about one of my pet subjects, which I don't.

Do we need to define a teenage novel in order to write one?
Some teenage authors whom I respect claim not to be able or wish to define or even particularly think about what a teenage novel is when they write one. Others are with me, enjoying trying to pin it down without restricting it, and trying to reach a level of understanding that helps us identify with our readers as perfectly as possible. The former authors prove that you don't have to. But I think those authors are very few and far between and happen to write books which happen to be teenage in tone simply because those happen to be the books they want to write.

For the rest of us who dare to tread the tight-rope between writing a great story from the heart and writing a great story that will hit specific readers in the heart, and for those of us who want to understand our market, we need some analysis and some knowledge.

PLEASE NOTE: a teenager, like any other reader, is perfectly entitled to read and enjoy ANY book. When I talk about "teenage novels" I don't mean "novels that teenagers often enjoy". I mean "novels aimed specifically at teenagers" (but which other readers may indeed enjoy).

It would help if you first read my last post - COMMON MISTAKES WHEN WRITING FOR TEENAGERS. In fact, without it you won't understand what I'm about to say, especially about safety-nets. Yes, safety-nets - essential tools for writing for young people.

A perfect illustration
If you are prepared to borrow or buy three books, I can show you with absolute clarity what makes a teenage book a teenage book. A quick read of the first few chapters of these three books will illustrate all I am about to say. Without reading the books, however, you'll still get a pretty good gist of what I mean from what follows. All three start with a young person being bullied or set upon at or near school, which is one reason they make a great comparison:

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson
Malarkey by Keith Gray
The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw

Bad Girls is not a teenage book - for a start, the protagonist is too young. The language is simplifed, with short sentences and gentle vocabulary, and there is a great deal of protection by adults. You can see the mesh of the safety-net. It's not particularly relevant to our topic except that it's when you then read Malarkey that you see the great leap that the reader must take, both in terms of topic and safety-net distance, to go from one book to the next. Bearing in mind that the reader of Bad Girls may well be 10 or 11 but that an 11/12 year old could easily be reading and enjoying Malarkey, and you see the leap the reader has made in a very short theoretical time. The main character in Malarkey is 16ish, which, according to the "rules" of writing for young people means that our intended readership is up to 14/15.

But then consider The Illumination of Merton Browne. There is a level of violence (extreme domestic abuse) which goes beyond what we'd be able or probably want to offer teenagers. There's a total absence of safety net. There is a great deal of swearing. The age of the character is interesting too - at the time of writing he has left school and is thinking back to his childhood, relating events which happened mostly around his eleventh birthday, and much of the initial action takes place as he arrives at secondary school, aged eleven. A teenage book would not normally be this retrospective: it would normally take place during the relevant teenage years of the reader (although earlier episodes might well be related) and in fact cover a very small part of those years. So, by having the main character an adult looking back to being mostly eleven, we already skew it for the teenage reader and make it not a teenage book.

However, it's a book which many older teenagers might like - if they could get their hands on it, which they won't in a school library in the UK or US or Australia or anywhere else I can think of. unless the librarian really wants to lose his/her job.

Why have teenage books anyway?
Ooh, I could write a whole post on this, and have already written about it in the Scotsman, but I see they have put it very annoyingly onto their "premium pages" and I'm sure you don't want to pay for it. Anyway, maybe another day. Consider simply that some people still argue that teenage books are unnecessary because readers should do what "we always did", ie go straight from kids' books to adult books. Thing is, (amongst other things), adult books have changed in the last 20-30 years and you simply cannot go from Bad Girls to Merton Browne. Or at least not without experiencing severe trauma on the way.

What you said
Some of you posted comments about eg whether Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books were teenage or not. DanielB and anonymous / tbrosz were talking about whether something was "quite right" / felt properly teenage in those and other stories which we might have thought were teenage. I haven't read those Pratchett books but I have always thought of him as one of those writers who isn't a teenage writer but who writes books that many teenagers love. I'm guessing that it's the "adult perspective" of the story that you are referring to and have noticed. Yes, in my view this would be something which would make them "not deliberately teenage books". And it's once you've identifued the "teenageness" or otherwise that (I think) you can fully understand what teenage really is. And you clearly have!

Another one to think about is perhaps Doctor Who - much loved by teenagers for generations but (you'd agree??) not exactly "teenage"? Like Pratchett? And Children of the Stones?

Which I guess brings me to my attempt at a definition, granted that all definitions break down when you start to pick at their edges, and that there will be exceptions, and that books are just books forchristsake and why should they have to be pigeon-holed ...

The "definition"
I see a teenage novel as a story with a teenage character(s) at the centre, written from a teenage viewpoint, which explores a situation which teenage readers often fear, aspire to, dream about or experience, and which provides an emotional connection to themselves as teenagers now. It has no visible boundaries or safety-nets and may be frightening, cutting-edge, brutally honest, shocking or sad, (but doesn't have to be) but in fact there are boundaries of acceptability and hope:

"it takes them to the edge but will not throw them over."
That's my definition anyway.

Of course, I can't shut up when I should so I feel obliged to give a few extra "rules", some of which I touched on in the previous article but which bear repeating:
  • the teenage characters find their own solutions because the story is about them and not the adult secondary characters. Get the adults out of the way. Kill them if necessary (preferably before the book starts, or at least before we get to care)
  • though some teenage novels are deep and some are shallow (as with adult books), the language does not patronise by trying to be simple
  • although the voice is teenage, this does not mean you have to sound like a teenager - see my post on voice. The voice has to be appropriate, a voice they'd like to listen to. ie not a teacher, parent, middle-aged person, sad git, kid
  • the protagonist is usually a bit older than the intended readership (this applies to writing for younger children too)
  • no message, remember - or at least not an in your face one. You're a writer not a teacher.
  • the pace is likely to be faster and tighter than in adult writing
  • a teenager (see my book Blame My Brain for a defence and explanation of the details of this, and for an entertaining read, and to save your sanity if you happen to share your living quarters with a teenage specimen) may be 11 years old, but by the age of 15/16 is off your readership radar
  • the writer must be aware that the level of literary criticism of plot, structure, language, themes to which the book will be subjected by the young reader will be intense - if you think you're writing for kids and that kids don't know how to tell you what's wrong with your book, you're in for a big shock!
So, Amy-Jane, I don't know if this answers your questions, and the others who contacted me off-blog! In my opinion, yes, you do need to know whether your book is for teenagers or not, but you could be lucky and have pitched it perfectly anyway ...

Daniel and Jane - re the 70s series the Children of the Stones, it's worth remembering too that teenage fiction really had only just got going at this time, all in the US - with SE Hinton's The Outsiders and Paul Zindell's The Pigman (God, that's brilliant and devastating in a simple way that only teenage writing can be) both in the late 60s, and then the fabulously dark Robert Cormier - OMG I am The Cheese* - from the 70s. He, incidentally, was edited by my main editor. (Main? See, I'm so rubbish I need more than one ...). Anyway, I guess the rules and possibilities of teenage / YA fiction were so new by that time that adults still very much ruled the roost. Whereas now, we know who's in charge, don't we?

*title of book, not an existential statement

One other point - teenage or YA? YA is more a US term, though we often use it in the UK too. To be honest, no difference is usually implied between the two terms, though sometimes YA refers to a slightly older teenager, but I think this distinction makes it too complicated and unnecessarily pigeon-holey. Outside the book world, young adult refers to 18-25s (eg in medical terminology) so it can be confusing for people outside when we talk about YA.

In the last post I said you had to be able to reel off at least ten favourite teenage authors or books and some of you enthusiastically came up with your own lists (full marks to you). Well, of course, I have a few more because you can't keep a keen reader down:
  • John Marsden's Letters from the Inside
  • Alice Kuipers' Life on the Refrigerator Door (though you'll need a lot of chocolate to get your life back on track after either of those)
  • Adele Geras' Ithaka - nothing to do with the fact that she reads this blog; I'd just forgotten how much I'd liked it and it's very different from the dark cold ones on my previous list. Adele writes books for many different ages but Troy and Ithaka, which fit my criteria for teenage novels, are my favourite.
And now I'd probably better stop talking about teenage books before the rest of you disappear. Next, we'll have How To Be a Lovely Publishable Author. Or something. And relatively soon I'll be able to tell you what topics and dates I'm doing talks on in the Edinburgh Book Festival. You never know, I might just be doing one on teenage writing, so then I'll be able to rabbit on for a whole hour. And there'll certainly be one on How To Make a Publisher Say Yes ... Just think, you could actually come and see my boots in real life.

Have a lovely weekend. I had a near death (not exaggerating) incident on the motorway yesterday and made my first ever 999 call, from a stationary and exceptionally vulnerable position in the middle of an intersection between the UK's two biggest motorways (yes, I know, nothing compared with US motorways but they are Big To Us), having been hit by a lorry which didn't stop to see that it had knocked us off the road. So I am planning to count my blessings for being alive. I think wine and chocolate may well be necessary in extra quantities to get me back to a normal mental place.

By the way, if you ever see a car stopped in an incredibly stupid place, risking being smashed to pieces by speeding cars from six lanes of two motorways, I would ask you to consider that it might not be there on purpose. Some of the drivers that passed us clearly had not worked this out, judging from the way they hooted their horns at us and shook their fists.

Pah! Give me teenagers any day.