Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Take 5: Memoirs on writing to hand to aspiring teen authors

“How do you become an author?” We’ve heard teens ask that question every time they meet an author – published, famous, or neither. And we’ve all heard the answer too: read. Read everything. Read more. No, even more than that.

Reading is essential. But more than novels, teens who are firmly dedicated to the writing life will benefit from reading some writing on the craft. Here are five books to hand to teens for inspiration and instruction.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne LamottLamott’s brief classic on writing (and life) is a must-read for teens seeking with a desire to live a life full of creativity. Her approach is gentle and frank, and full of examples and ideas that will spark action.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Hole in my life by Jack GantosHow much do you want to be a writer? Why? It took a series of crappy decisions resulting in incarceration on a drug offense for children’s author Gantos to really answer those questions. Hand this Printz Honor book to teens who don’t see a path from their current life to the writer’s life.

A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson

A Sense of Wonder by Katherine PatersonAnother path to writing for youth by  Newberry Medal and National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson. This essay collection is culled from her many years of work. It gives insight into the books she has written, why she wrote them, and offers comfort and copious inspiration to those who aspire to write for youth.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King

Teens with aspirations of publishing would be well served to learn from one of the biggest publishing successes of our time. King begins his memoir with his path to authorship through poverty and addiction, and into his craft. The second half of the book offers specific instructions and examples of the rules King lives and writes by. Essential reading.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

Reading Like a WriterReading for the pure joy of reading transports us to different places and times. It helps us connect with each other and with ourselves. What teens will learn over time is that reading for the pleasure of reading is only one way to do it. When I started selecting books for the library, I looked at them differently, just like when I started reviewing books. When I began editing books, yet another way of reading emerged. Here, Prose walks readers through the experience of reading as a writer, looking at successful writers and sussing out what it is about their work that allows for us to connect with it as readers.

Why I Write for Teens, a guest post by Fisher Amelie

There is not a more emotion filled age than when we are teens. The highs and lows of our daily lives give you the most dramatic feeling. One minute you’re on top of the world and the next. Well…

I don’t think I ever grew out of that. Not really. I mean, they say authors are a feeling bunch and I know this to be true but it also “feels” like I live the pain, the sadness, the happiness, the joy, the love of those around me with such intensity. I’m just “certain” that no one else could feel the same way. *wink wink*

Now, I’m not silly, I know that these emotions aren’t much different than what the average adult experiences but it seems those around me can control themselves much better than I. In these things, I am still a teenager. In these things, I relate so implicitly to them.

I was made to write for young adults. Made for it.

The Sleepless Series, bk 1

It seems as though this market is saturated with the same stories of misunderstood girl meets understanding boy, or vice versa, girl falls in love with said boy and voila! Insta-book! Don’t get me wrong I love this Shakespearean formula. It works. It’s a lovely read but it’s not a lasting read, which is what I write. I write stories that stick with you because I write books no one else will write.

Impoverished Ugandans, orphans kicked out into the streets at eighteen, victims of child slavery…These are not topics easily broached. Nor are they subjects we necessarily want to read but, at the same time, they are problems with this world that we all turn a blind eye to, ignore, or are simply too busy with our own lives to wonder about. We figure, “the government couldn’t possibly allow these things to happen and I trust that they are doing everything in their power to prevent these atrocities”. But this just isn’t the case. In fact, the same approach our youth take to the problems of our world, our government has adopted as well and they need to know this.

I believe our youth are very capable of becoming world changers. I also write these stories, if nothing else, than to create that sense of awareness within them. 

The Seven Deadly Sins bk 1

But I don’t do it in an overbearing manner. My stories are first and foremost love stories but they move within a plot made of substance, which is exactly what our youth needs. There’s nothing more encouraging than a young individual discovering that their world is bigger than their friends, their school.

C.S. Lewis said, “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more. Christians writing good literature.”  I find this quote so incredible because I discovered it after I decided that the world needs more books that inspire rather than instruct. Discovering deeper thought, deeper reflection, the revelation of a profound idea…these are fundamental character building experiences that have become such a rarity in today’s youth fiction and I want to change that. 

I love writing for teens because they are the new pioneers. If you point them in the direction of right, you will be astonished at what they can accomplish. 

About Fisher Amelie:
Fisher Amelie loves to be in love. That’s why her stories have the sappiest loves in them. “That’s how love should be. Sappy and dripping in happiness.”

Fisher Amelie is the author of The Leaving Series, Callum & Harper, Thomas & January and VAIN. She began her writing career as a copywriter for an internet marketing company wherein one of their client’s said, ‘Hey! You’re funny. You should write books’. Which in turn she said, ‘Hey, get out of here! This is the lady’s restroom.’ While washing her hands and the embarrassment from her face, she thought they may have had a valid point. So, she took the thousands of hours of writing stories growing up, tucked them into her pocket and began writing and writing and writing. Her books are recommended for mature readers due to language. From Inskslingerpr.

You can see Fisher Amelie at the Betty Warmack Branch Library in Grand Prairie, Texas on Sunday, November 17th at 3:30 PM.

twitter username:@fisheramelie


Writing for Reluctant Readers, a guest post by Alex Van Tol

Writers who are eager to break into publishing – or who are wanting to take a break from their usual genre – will be pleased to know there’s a huge and growing market for books that are accessible to youngsters who struggle with reading. Often referred to as hi-lo books, these are short, action-packed books written in easy-to-grasp language. The margins are a little wider, the font is a wee bit bigger, and the words are a smidgeon shorter. As for the rest? Exactly the same as mainstream fiction.

Reluctant readers are just as socially savvy and emotionally mature as kids who find reading easy. It’s essential not to dumb anything down for these youngsters. They crave stories that speak to the concerns in their own lives, yet which are written at a reading level that they can manage.

Until recently, reluctant and weak readers were given simple stories in simple language. But paging through Stuart Little at age 16 isn’t the way to turn a disenfranchised kid onto the magic and power of reading. Today’s youth want to read about the issues that touch their worlds: peer pressure; participation in sports; the seductions – and dangers – of gangs; terminal illness; coming of age; taking risks; fighting injustice…the list goes on. There’s also room for the odd horror story or good old-fashioned romance.

If you’re thinking of writing for reluctant readers, a few tried and true techniques will help you craft strong stories and believable characters. Read – and write – on.

1.      Cut to the action. Get straight into the problem within the first couple of pages. If you can’t get the story rolling with something that leads to the main issue, then at least drop your main character into a situation where there is conflict – either between her and another character, within her own mind, or between her and the outside world. In hi-lo fiction, conflict is key. It keeps the story moving.

2.     Short and sweet. Keep readability in mind. Books for reluctant readers typically are written to fall within a Grade 2 to Grade 4 reading level. Keep your chapters short and packed with forward momentum (see #4, below). Break compound sentences into simple, single-clause sentences. Don’t be afraid to use sentence fragments. We often speak in fragments; even though they’re not grammatically perfect, they make sense to our brains when we’re reading as well as when we’re speaking. Keep your language simple, and avoid multisyllabic words. Follow Stephen King’s advice for punchy writing: use the first (and often simplest) word that comes to mind to describe something. If Melina wants to run away from an armed thug, so be it. Don’t make her scurry, trot or scamper. Put the thesaurus away and let her run, dammit.

3.     Easy on the characters. Reluctant readers spend much of their energy just making sense of the words on the page. Their working memory is occupied with the task of decoding – so expecting them to remember a variety of characters (plus their backstories and idiosyncrasies) is asking too much. Stick to your main character, an antagonist, and one or maybe two sidekicks. Any characters beyond that should be familiar to young readers (a coach, a parent etc.) and simply sketched.

4.     Raise the stakes. Give your character(s) a problem. How do they react? Then make it worse. How do they react? Then…make it worse (hey, you’re the boss around here!). How do they cope now? Don’t go easy on your people. We want to see them sweat. The best stories are the ones where characters grapple with and eventually overcome challenges – and learn about themselves in the process.

One more thing about plot…don’t feel like just because you’re writing for teens, you need to jam your story full of capital-I Issues. Sure, some of our nation’s children are dealing with ghetto living, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and emotional abuse – but young readers are just as commonly interested in stories that feature day-to-day issues faced by teens in today’s world.

5.     Make your dialogue pop. Your characters should speak on the page like they do in the real world. Not sure how real conversation sounds? Head to your local coffee shop (or play a clip from your favourite movie), turn your back or close your eyes, and listen. We use contractions. We ask questions. We sigh. We interrupt each other. Our intonation changes depending on our level of excitement. Sometimes – you’ll have to open your eyes for this one – we use gestures. All of this should be present in your dialogue, to bring your characters to life. The only things that shouldn’t be there are what we call distractors: the ums, ahs and likes that we tend to pepper our real-world speech with. They’re not noticeable when we’re conversing with our best friend, but if the words keep showing up on the page, they become awkward and – oddly – inauthentic. Study well-written dialogue to see how it’s done.

One last note about dialogue. When it comes to writing for reluctant readers, “said” really isn’t dead. In fact, it’s the best attribution out there because it’s unobtrusive. It functions simply to direct our attention to the character who’s speaking – and it doesn’t take our attention away from what’s actually being said. Newspaper and magazine writers get this. They don’t sprinkle their stories with things like, “I had a great time”, she gushed or “It was a dramatic day in the House of Commons,” he warbled. Stick to said most of the time, and then when you do have occasion to use shouted or yelled or whispered or moaned, it will pack the punch you want it to.

6.     Keep it real. There’s a reason people keep lining up to shell out big bucks for Hollywood movies. We like to watch the story unfold in front of our eyes. Just like listening to authentic conversations helps you to write believable dialogue, you must observe people in the real world to write convincing narrative. When you write a scene, pay attention to what your characters actually look like as they’re talking/walking/arguing/chopping vegetables. Write their words exactly as you would hear real people saying them. Write their movements as though you’re watching them with a camera. (When I edit other authors’ manuscripts, Camera up! is my most commonly used phrase. I use it whenever I come across a scene that needs more depth, emotion or real-life feeling.)

7.     Hang it up. Remember, you’re writing for reluctant readers. Emphasis on the word reluctant. Once that kid puts the book down, you want him to pick it back up, right? (And I say him, because research shows the majority of reluctant readers are males.) To keep those pages turning, try to leave your chapters on a question, a decision point, or even a cliffhanger. Is he going to do it? What will it cost him if he does? Will she make it out alive? This sets up a desire within the reader to know more, and to keep reading to find out what happens.

There you have it. A lucky seven strategies to help you break into the world of hi-lo publishing. Camera up! And, uh, break a leg.

Following is a list of a few examples of good stories for reluctant readers:

Harvey, Sarah N. — Plastic
Langston, Laura – Exit Point
McClintock, Norah — Back
Mac, Carrie — Jacked
Rodman, Sean — Infiltration
Schwartz, Ellen — Cellular
Stevenson, Robin — In the Woods
Tate, Nikki — Fallout
Walters, Eric — Special Edward

Author Bio:

Alex Van Tol grew up reading a wide range of books, from Enid Blyton to Stephen King. She taught middle school for eight years, then made the switch to writing for a living. She has published numerous hi-lo titles with Orca, including books in the Orca Currents, Orca Soundings and Orca Sports series. Alex lives in Victoria, British Columbia, with her family. Visit www.alexvantol.com for more information. 

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5 Minute Booktalks: NaNoWriMo Edition by Kearsten

Did you, like me, start November with a bright and shiny resolution to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days for National Novel Writing Month? If so, I certainly hope you were more successful than my almost 7,000 words. November got too crazy a month for me, and I ended up abandoning my lonely little manuscript after only one week. In an attempt to inspire myself to do better next time, I put together a list of teen books in which writing plays a role – and maybe you’ll be inspired to begin a writing journey of your own!

Pemba’s Songby Marilyn Nelson and Tonya C. Hegamin.  When Pemba moves to a small town in Connecticut, she’s furious with her mother for forcing her to leave all her friends behind in Brooklyn, and can’t imagine anything will be as exciting as what her friends are doing without her. But then Pemba starts seeing a face other than her own looking back at her in her mirror. A sad-eyed woman calling Pemba, “friend”. Encouraged by an older neighbor, Pemba begins researching her home’s history, and then the life of a female slave who died there. As she learns more, she records her fears, frustrations and loneliness in song lyrics and verse:  “it’s the city symphony/ I’m wishin’for, rockin’me like a harmony.”


Terrier (Beka Cooper, Bk 1) by Tamora Pierce. If you’ve heard or asked for writing advice, number two (after read, read, READ), is usually something along the lines of  “write every day”. The easiest way to do this is to keep a journal, just like Beka Cooper, in  Pierce’s beyond-awesome fantasy series. Beka’s a rookie Provost’s Guard, and requests the toughest part of the capital city of Tortall as her “keeping the peace” training assignment – after all, it’s where she grew up. Beka’s world is one of nobles and street toughs, magic users and thieves, and she must use all her abilities to survive her first year as a Guard in the training yard and the streets, even if it means telling others what pigeons tell her about the dead…
Breathing Underwaterby Alex Flinn. Nick’s dealt well with his father’s rages….or so he thought,  until the day his relationship with Caitlin, his dream girl, gets violent. Court-ordered to keep a journal and attend counseling and anger management classes, or else go to jail, Nick begins writing down his “truth”.  Don’t you want to know how a guy goes from loving his girlfriend’s smile so much that he “wanted to put it in his pocket to look at over and over”, all the way to a restraining order? This one is dark and distressing, yet a story that needs to be told and read.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger. When T.C., Augie, and Alé began their freshman year, not one of them figured it would be life-changing, but as they each describe that year as part of their junior English essay project, their stories of love, discovery, baseball, sign language, and Mary Poppins unfold in delightful, witty detail.  Kluger’s writing style is unusual and fun, and he lets Alé, T.C. and Augie tell their stories through essays, Instant Messenger, email, musical theater cast lists – even on Secret Service letterhead. The likelihood of your getting through this book without falling in love with at least one of these characters is highly unlikely.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. Okay, so you want to try this writing experiment again and you refuse to be deterred, eh? Why not try this funny, non-fiction guide to writing a novel in one month, written by the creator of NaNoWriMo himself? Baty includes writing tips on location, setting, character development, plot ideas, and, most importantly, the best ways to teach your friends and family how to guilt and harass you into finishing that novel – with love, of course. The book guides you through weeks one through four (making this helpful in November, but in all the other months as well!), and, should you discover that you’re one who can persevere, No Plot? No Problem! also has suggestions for editing and getting published.

Now, get reading and writing!  You don’t have to wait until next November 🙂

5 Books written by Teens:
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Halo by Alexandra Adornetto
In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater Rhodes
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Antidisestablishmentarianism and the magic of words, a guest post by Anne Greenwood Brown

The birth of a guest blog post:  The other day author Anne Greenwood Brown tweeted that she had nothing to write that day and I, seeing an open door, tweeted back: “Why don’t you write a guest blog post ::cough:: Wait, did I say that out loud?”  And she said, “What about?”  To which I replied, “Mermaids? A teen book you love? Antidestablishmentarianism?” 

Why antidisestablishmentarianism?  Well, in part because I was being a smart mouth.  But also in part because I have always loved that word – it is fun to say.  I am also a huge fan of onomatopoeia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, guffaw, and more.  Some words just have an amazing sound to them.  So today, Anne Greenwood Brown, author of Lies Beneath, writes about antidisestablishmentarianism – and the magic of words.  It turns out, I am not the only one who loves that word.

After Karen suggested I write a post about “antidisestablishmentarianism,”  she said she was kidding, but I sort of took her up on it. I LOVE that word! I have since I was nine and  regaled my third grade classmates with my knowledge of the so-called longest word in the English language. Well… regaled might be a little strong. While my friends ran off to play kick ball, I contemplated my fascination of words, and it’s a fascination I have never lost.
For me as a writer, word choice is a labor of love. I try to pick words, particularly verbs, that create an emotional response, inform the character, and give a deeper level of understanding. For example, in Chapter 10 of Lies Beneath (my YA novel about murderous mermaids on Lake Superior), I used the setting to reflect the main character Calder White’s state of mind:
 “The aspens grew haphazardly, clinging to the bank, often shooting out in precarious angles over the water.”

I could have said that the aspens simply grew out of the bank, but using the words haphazardly, clinging, and precarious, the setting better informs Calder’s character. Just as the trees cling to the earth, Calder clings to his humanity. The tree fights gravity just as Calder fights his nature, and there’s always the threat that the tree (or Calder) will lose its grip and fall into the lake.

This part of the writing process takes the most time for me. While I can get a first draft done quickly, the polishing takes much longer. To illustrate, here’s an excerpt from the first draft of Chapter 1:

“The transformation began immediately. I thrashed noisily on the rock, muffling my screams of pain. When it was over–the culmination of my metamorphosis punctuated by a giant snap–I pushed myself to standing and turned my back on the ocean.”

The “sh” sound in thrash, theff” in muffling, and the “ph” in metamorphosis were too soft, and it resulted in a passage that didn’t pack the right punch. In the finished version, that same paragraph reads like this:

 “The transformation began before I could catch my breath. First the tightening–and then the ripping as my body strained and pulled against itself. Bones split and stretched, popping into joints that seconds ago didn’t exist. I thrashed silently on the dead coral, cutting my shoulder and gritting my teeth against the pain, until I eventually flopped onto my back, gasping and bleeding on the rock.”

It’s not just that the second version has more detail, but there’s a nice strain of alliteration in the first sentence. Moreover, the words tight, rip, strain, split, stretched, pop, and thrash create a more visceral reaction of pain. Also using alliteration of the hard “t” in quick succession: split, stretched, joints, exist, cutting, gritting, teeth put more “bite” into the pain. Finally, at the end, the soft “p” of flop and gasp give the exhausted feeling of culmination that the first paragraph didn’t master.

Maggie Stiefvater uses a similar technique in Shiver when she writes:

  “Their tongues melted my skin; their careless teeth ripped at my sleeves and snagged through my hair, pushed against my collarbone, the pulse at my neck.”

The double “pp” of rippedand the double “gg” of snagged are harsh and violent words, while the softer tones of push and pulse, hint at something gentler yet to come.

Laini Taylor plays soft and hard sounds against each other in Daughter of Smoke & Bone to describe the dichotomy of her character Kaz when she says:

“That was Kaz: carnal and elegant. And deceitful. And narcissistic.”
Compare the soft “l”s of carnal and elegant against the hard “t”s of deceit and the final “tic.” Later, Taylor’s use of the repeating “s” sound evokes the release of air as something or someone deflates:

“His eyes were sunk in bruises, and his teeth, which were not his own, were over large in his shrunken face.”

Sometimes the scene can be conjured not just with the words themselves, but in their arrangement. For example, Stiefvater’s Shiver begins,

“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”

In this introduction, Grace is the small red spot, and that description of her comes in the middle of the sentence, surrounded on both sides by the snow and the wolves.

So what do you do with all this? For those of you who are writing, think about the kinds of sounds that evoke the emotion you’re trying to create, then look for similarly constructed words to help sustain the emotional thread. I think you’ll find the text becomes richer, the characters more full bodied, and the reader more satisfied. Same thing when you’re reading–if you come across a passage that makes you feel strongly about the characters or the plot, take a second to pause and really look at the choices the author has made. See if you can discover the magic behind the words.

About Lies Beneath

“I hadn’t killed anyone all winter, and I have to say I felt pretty good about that.”

Calder White lives in the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, the only brother in a family of murderous mermaids. To survive, Calder and his sisters prey on humans, killing them to absorb their energy. But this summer the underwater clan targets Jason Hancock out of pure revenge. They blame Hancock for their mother’s death and have been waiting a long time for him to return to his family’s homestead on the lake. Hancock has a fear of water, so to lure him in, Calder sets out to seduce Hancock’s daughter, Lily. Easy enough—especially as Calder has lots of practice using his irresistible good looks and charm on unsuspecting girls. Only this time Calder screws everything up: he falls for Lily—just as Lily starts to suspect that there’s more to the monsters-in-the-lake legends than she ever imagined. And just as his sisters are losing patience with him. (From Goodreads)
“Forget everything you think you know about merpeople. Forget that freaking Ariel, think Silence of the Lambs, think Friday the Thirteenth.

Anne Greenwood Brown lives and writes in Minnesota. LIES BENEATH, her debut Young Adult novel about murderous mermaids on Lake Superior, will be released by Random House/Delacorte next Tuesday June 12th.

Lies Beneath (Random House/ Delacorte, June 12, 2012)

Deep Betrayal (Random House/Delacorte, March 2013)

Check out the Lies Beneath Book Trailer HERE

And the Audio Book Teaser HERE

I want to give a huge thanks to Anne Greenwood Brown for responding to my impromptu Tweet and writing such an excellent guest blog post.  Tell us your favorite words in the comments.