Don't stomp on your character's voice!

Unlike this picture of a clothing store display I took in Bologna, Italy, Ellen Hopkins' books aren’t about conformity or teens who fit in, they are about the teens who don’t fit in.

Ellen Hopkins is the author of seven books for young adults (many of which are New York Times Bestsellers) and she was a presenter at the SCBWI Bologna Symposium. She talked about the Young Adult Renaissance. With titles like Crank, Burned, Impulse, Glass, Identical, Tricks and Fallout, her books deal with edgy, yet realistic, y/a issues. Ellen talked about the experience of having her books banned. She read some of the touching and heartfelt letters from youth who could relate to the subject matter she wrote about, and youth who couldn’t relate directly but appreciated the honesty with which she wrote.

According to Ellen, young adult books deal with the edgier material that is harder to deal with in a tween market. The young adult market has been pushed to age 14 plus. In middle grade or tween books there is more positive interaction between the protag and the family. In y/a the parents are often in the role of the antag.

She believes y/a to be a hungry market. Unlike tween readers who rely on their parents to buy their books, young adult readers buy their own reading material. She believes the middle grade market is more of a library market. A writer for young adults has a responsibility to shed light on old problems and to make a positive difference in a young person’s life. Ellen implored us to not underestimate our readers – keep the characters real.

Y/A novels have a contemporary situation, a protag, an antag, friends, foils and adults.

In terms of the voice of y/a she had some advice:

- this generation is visual, use unusual formatting, verse, journals, letters, text messaging;

- y/a novels are often told from 1st person to put the readers in the character's head and y/a authors often use present tense;

- don’t stomp on your characters’ voices with your voice as storyteller;

- don’t avoid the tough stuff, but be sure of your facts – a nonfiction background comes in handy;

- tell a story that’s close to you, that hurts or makes you squirm;

- beware of authorial intrusion; and

- beware of didacticism and slang which can date your story.

If you are guilty of authorial intrusion and didacticism yee shall be banished to the authorial attic:

Ok, that’s really the view from the bathroom of my nephew’s flat in Bologna. Maybe this would be a better authorial attic…

or this one:

Okay, I like taking pictures of windows, does that make me a bad author?! Off to the authorial attic for me ...

Back at the symposium, I had an opportunity to read, to the group, the first page of my yet, untitled, y/a manuscript. Ellen had some helpful comments that I will keep in mind as I finish writing it. One of which was to write it in first person (but do I want to be that author who writes everything in first person? – do I care?).

Once again I have written a too-long blog post! (but there was so much great stuff!) and won’t be able to get to the agent panel (telling it like it is) in this blog post.

I shouldn’t make promises I can’t keep, but I will promise, next blog post: Rookie mistakes: how to avoid them and stay out of the authorial attic.


Dawn said…
My best friend's daughter loves Ellen's books. I have them all in my TBR pile.
Jade said…
I still haven't recovered from my jealousy that you were over there.
Anonymous said…
Wow, thanks for this, Jan! Love her books and am amazed at what she can do with voice. Favorite is IMPULSE.
annerallen said…
What a great set of guidelines for writing YA! I've published some YA stories, but I'm about to make the plunge into a novel, so this is really helpful. Thanks.
Ellen Hopkins said…
Thanks, Jan! It was a wonderful trip, a beautiful city... great people, awesome writers. Definitely a favorite memory.

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