So. You want to write a YA novel. You’re in luck, because this right here is the first entry in a comprehensive, no-nonsense, 100% satisfaction-guaranteed guide to Writing A YA Novel!
Only not really, because there is no such thing as a comprehensive guide to writing anything. (Claims to the contrary can be found in great abundance on Amazon, where authorial entrepreneurs promise to divulge the secrets to publishing success. I may as well reveal my biases here and tell you that writing according to a guide written by a self-described ‘authorial entrepreneur’ is a bit like going to college for an MBA, i.e. a depressing waste of time.)
I’ve thought for a while that writing about writing occupies a similar space to criticism. You can’t say definitively what a film or book or whatever is, but you can say what your experience of it was. Maybe you surround your experience with a conceptual framework built from the history of the medium and the work of generations of other critics, but ultimately the experience you write about is still the one you had. (Or are currently having.)
I guess, then, that this will be a series of blog posts about a specific person (me) writing a specific book (Castor, out soon from Harmony Ink!) over a specific time period. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve decided to write about it. Maybe it’s because I don’t have much time to work on a foll0w-up novel at the moment. Maybe it’s because I was bored and this seemed like a fun way to organise some thoughts I’ve had on writing. Possibly it’s because Castor comes out soon and I’m painfully aware of the fact that a first-time book in a niche genre with no promotion is all but guaranteed to vanish from the public consciousness like a rock dropped into quicksand.
I have no idea if this even counts as ‘promotion’, exactly, but I do know that when I first became serious about writing I would scour the internet for first-hand accounts by other people who had already made the journey. I was less interested in concrete advice than in acquiring some sense of what it felt like to have written. Yes, I knew you were supposed to compile lists of agents well before you finished your final draft (much more on that later, trust me), but how exactly should it feel to do that? Was it supposed to be exciting? Nerve-wracking? Kind of boring, actually, if we’re being honest with each other? Was it a sign of things going permanently off the rails if you secretly suspected that publishing might be a bit of a shell game, or did everyone feel that way?
I think this is what people want to read about, this experience of doing the things writers do or are supposed to do. And I guess I want to write about it. So that worked out well.
I don’t remember what year it was that I first started working on the book that would eventually become Castor. I could check, because I have e-mails from the writing group I was in at the time that contain the earliest fragments of the story, but the exact year doesn’t really interest me. The important part is that I was coming to the end of a three-year college degree and had very little idea of what I wanted to do once I was finished.
Don’t get me wrong; I had plans, it’s just that none of them were particularly realistic. My goal for a while had been to go into academia, mostly because I liked studying and liked the thought of getting paid to do it. But getting a PhD is difficult and time-consuming and requires a master’s degree, which I knew all along I probably wouldn’t be able to afford. So writing was a kind of backup plan.
(The fact that I considered ‘become a published author’ to be a viable backup plan tells you all you need to know about how much I’d thought this through.)
It helped that I had been writing compulsively for about ten years at this point. I say ‘compulsively’ because it never felt like something I chose to do. The ideas and characters and dialogue came in a more-or-less continuous rush, whether I wanted them to or not. Writing them down always felt like a natural progression – or, maybe, like a kind of release valve.
I gravitated towards YA because the stories I came up with usually seemed to involve characters in the YA age range. I’ll go into this in more detail later, the reasons why people write some things and not other things, but at the time I didn’t feel any pressing need to ask myself why I wanted to write YA. Actually, I don’t think I even thought about it in those terms. I wanted to write bildungsroman-ish books about teenagers. Publishing calls those books ‘YA’ , generally, unless the author is a famous white male with a few awards under his belt, in which case they’re called literary fiction and let’s not even go down that rabbit hole right now.
I wanted to write science fiction for the same reason, because the ideas that came to me fit roughly within the bounds of what the publishing world calls ‘science fiction’. I never had the kind of fervent love for the genre that a lot of other SF writers describe as being formative to their own development. Too much of it felt like spaceship-fuelled adventure fluff, the kind of disposable thrillers that gain an aura of profundity because the author scattered a few Big Ideas in between the scenes where the main character acts like a badass and blows up a thing. (Relevant, by the way).
(And yes, I know you’re rolling your eyes at me here, but let’s be honest — every author thinks they’re unique. Every author thinks they’re the one who gets it, and that by getting it we’re a step ahead of everyone else vying for a publishing contract. I’m not sure it’s possible to make it through the slog of writing an entire novel without that particular delusion driving you forward.)
(Also I’d like to think that I have a bit more perspective now. This was five years ago, remember.)
Anyway, I ended up stumbling into a writing group with some other very talented people thanks to an invitation from Phoebe North, who you might have heard of. I learned a lot very quickly, particularly about the intricacies of the publishing industry.
And oh god, the industry. I’m convinced that Hollywood has got nothing on publishing when it comes to the potential for inciting a kind of obsessive envy in its followers. Maybe it’s the relatively low cost of entry; not everyone can be a great actor, and everyone accepts that, but anyone with a functioning keyboard and some spare time can try to write a novel. We hold up as aspirations and validation the people who made it big, and never mind that the factors making them a success are largely out of their hands.
Do you want to know who got a six-figure advance? Who’s represented by the latest superstar agent? Who secretly hates their editor? It’s easy to become obsessed with this stuff. I’m sure every creative field is the same, but a part of me likes to think that the YA scene was undergoing a particularly dramatic shift in those days. Keep in mind, I was getting into this stuff just as Twilight was about to explode. A writing friend recommended it to me, and I was able to look at it in a Borders (RIP) and think to myself, ‘Huh, a vampire going to high school. Never seen that before.’
Looking at the shelves of paranormal romance and, later, the great mass of ‘dystopias’, it was easy to feel that you could do something just a little bit different, that your personal stream-of-consciousness idea factory happened to have gifted you with a creative sense just the right side of ‘unusual’ for a market that seemed to be reaching saturation point. That you could do better, in other words.
And to be fair to five-years-ago me, there was a certain amount of truth to that. Now I’ve mellowed out enough to say that popular things are generally popular for a reason, but there were some real trainwrecks becoming decently successful at the time. It was a bubble, in other words, and we were all pretty eager to see what would happen when it finally burst.
It would be easier, in a way, to just ignore the market and the industry and all the endless anxiety over genre categorisation entirely, wouldn’t it? Just throw caution to the wind and self-publish your peculiar stories for whatever tiny audience might find them. It would be so much simpler to not care if you were writing YA or SF or if your chosen label is currently being hash-tagged by big name literary agents on twitter.
But there was always that possibility, however tiny, that you could make it big. You could be the one with the six-figure advance and the starred reviews and all the other accoutrements of publishing success. That’s a sharp little hook to have in your brain, especially when your bank account has been in negative figures for a month and every other job you’re qualified for feels like a compromise.
I seem to be going on a lot of tangents with this, so let’s speed things up a bit. I started writing Castor because I needed something for the next Google hangouts meeting with that writing group I mentioned. That first 1500-ish words contained elements that recognisably belonged to the same universe as the book that I eventually sold to Harmony Ink, although one of the main characters was a teenage girl because I didn’t think a book with a gay protagonist had a huge chance at being published. Afterwards I thought ‘actually no’ and changed it.
I remember reading through the comments left by my writing group friends with a sinking feeling. They were politely positive, the sort of feedback that comes more from obligation than any firing of the passions…until they hit the beginning of the second chapter, at which point everyone became a whole lot more interested. I deleted the first chapter, changed to first person and ran with it. It stopped being a story I wanted to write and became something I had to write, an idea that refused to go away. It did not turn me into a millionaire, but now I’m glad that I wasn’t too worried about what the market was doing.
A summary of advice from this instalment of Let’s Write a YA Novel:
- Obsessing over the industry will drive you crazy, but it can also be a lot of fun.
- Writing groups are helpful, particularly when they’re full of cool smart people.
- Just write the ideas you have. You can worry about the genre labels later…
- …unless you’re actually some sort of authorial chameleon who can turn out a book in whatever genre is popular, in which case you should probably do that if you want to make a lot of money.
- The book you write now is a product of who and where you are at this moment. That’s not really ‘advice’, but I think it’s probably true and might be useful to keep in mind.