The biggest three Young Adult literature franchises in the past decade have been Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight. All of them were written by women.

And yet we still get articles like this:

And it annoys the hell out of me. 

Because John Green has said and done some great, wonderful things. He’s also done and said some super shitty things. He’s written some decent books, and done some good charity work.

But he did not save Young Adult Literature. He did not usher in a grand new era of Young Adult Literature. If anything, he is riding on the coattails of women more successful than him in the literary world. 

Happiness, as it exists in the wild—as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles—is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.
—  Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony
Ask an Editor: Nailing the Story

Tu Books Publisher and Editorial Director Stacy Whitman shares some advice for aspiring authors, especially those looking to submit to our New Visions Award, on how to write a compelling story.

Last week on the blog, I talked about hooking the reader early and ways to write so you have that “zing” that captivates from the very beginning. This week, I wanted to go into more detail about the story and plot itself. When teaching at writing conferences, my first question to the audience is this:

 What is the most important thing about a multicultural book?

I let the audience respond for a little while, and many people have really good answers: getting the culture right, authenticity, understanding the character… these are all important things in diverse books.

But I think that the most important part of a diverse novel is the same thing that’s the most important thing about any novel: a good story. All of the other components of getting diversity right won’t matter if you don’t have a good story! And getting those details wrong affects how good the story is for me and for many readers.

So as we continue our series discussing things to keep in mind as you polish your New Visions Award manuscripts, let’s move the discussion on to how to write a good story, beyond just following the directions and getting a good hook in your first few pages. This week, we’ll focus on refining plot.

Here are a few of the kinds of comments readers might make if your plot isn’t quite there yet:

  • Part of story came out of nowhere (couldn’t see connection)
  • Too confusing
  • Confusing backstory
  • Plot not set up well enough in first 3 chapters
  • Bizarre plot
  • Confusing plot—jumped around too much
  • underdeveloped plot
  • Too complicated
  • Excessive detail/hard to keep track
  • Too hard to follow, not sure what world characters are in

We’ll look at pacing issues too, as they’re often related:

  • Chapters way too long
  • Pacing too slow (so slow hard to see where story is going)
  • Nothing gripped me
  • Too predictable

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Getting your plot and pacing right is a complicated matter. Just being able to see whether something is dragging too long or getting too convoluted can be hard when you’re talking about anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand words, all in one long file. Entire books have been written on how to plot a good science fiction and fantasy book. More books have been written on how to plot a good mystery. If you need more in-depth work on this topic, refer to them (see the list at the end of this post).

So we won’t get too in depth here, but let’s cover a few points.

Know your target audience

When you’re writing for children, especially young children (middle grade, chapter books, and below), your plot should be much more linear than a plot for older readers who can hold several threads in their heads at once.

Teens are developmentally ready for more complications—many of them move up to adult novels during this age, after all—but YA as a category is generally simpler on plot structure than adult novels in the same genre. This is not to say the books are simple-minded. Just not as convoluted… usually. (This varies with the book—and how well the author can pull it off. Can you?)

But the difference between middle grade and YA is there for a reason—kids who are 7 or 8 or 9 years old and newly independent readers need plots that challenge them but don’t confuse them. And even adults get confused if so much is going on at once that we can’t keep things straight. Remember what we talked about last time regarding backstory—sometimes we don’t need to know everything all at once. What is the core of your story?

Linear plot

Note that “too complicated” is one of the main complaints of plot-related comments readers had while reading submissions to the last New Visions Award.

Don’t say, “But Writer Smith wrote The Curly-Eared Bunny’s Revenge for middle graders and it had TEN plot threads going at once!” Writer Smith may have done it successfully, but in general, there shouldn’t be more than one main plot and a small handful of subplots happening in a stand-alone novel for middle-grade readers.

If you intend your book to be the first in a series of seven or ten or a hundred books, you might have seeds in mind you’d like to plant for book seventy-two. Unless you’re contracted to write a hundred books, though, the phrase here to remember is stand-alone with series potential. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was pretty straightforward in its plotting—hinting at backstory, but not dumping backstory on readers in book one; setting the stage for potential conflicts down the road but not introducing them beforetime. Book 1 of Harry Potter really could have just stood on its own and never gone on to book 2. It wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying as having the full 7-book arc, but note how seamlessly details were woven in, not calling attention to themselves even though they’re setting the stage for something later. Everything serves the linear plot of the main arc of book 1’s story. We only realize later that those details were doing double duty.

Thus, when you’re writing for children and young adults, remember that a linear main plot is your priority, and that anything in the story that is not serving the main plot is up on the chopping block, only to be saved if it proves its service to the main plot is true.

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Plotting affects pace

In genre fiction for young readers, pacing is always an issue. Pacing can get bogged down by too many subplots—the reader gets annoyed or bored when it takes forever to get back to the main thrust of the story when you’re wandering in the byways of the world you created.

Fantasy readers love worldbuilding (to be covered in another post), but when writing for young readers, make sure that worldbuilding serves as much to move the plot forward as to simply show off some cool worldbuilding. Keep it moving along.

Character affects plot

This was not a complaint from the last New Visions Award, but another thing to keep in mind when plotting is that as your rising action brings your character into new complications, the character’s personality will affect his or her choices—which will affect which direction the plot moves. We’ll discuss characterization more another day, but just keep in mind that the plot is dependent upon the choices of your characters and the people around them (whether antagonists or otherwise). Even in a plot that revolves around a force of nature (tornado stories, for example), who the character is (or is becoming) will determine whether the plot goes in one direction or another.

Find an organizational method that works for you

This is not a craft recommendation so much as a tool. Plotting a novel can get overwhelming. You need a method of keeping track of who is going where when, and why. There are multiple methods for doing this.

Scrivener doesn’t work for all writers, so it might not be your thing, but I recommend trying out its corkboard feature, which allows you to connect summaries of plot points on a virtual corkboard to chapters in your book. If you need to move a plot point, the chapter travels along for the ride.

An old-fashioned corkboard where you can note plot points and move them around might be just as easy as entering them in Scrivener, if you like the more tactile approach.

Another handy tool is Cheryl Klein’s Plot Checklist, which has a similar purpose: it makes the writer think about the reason each plot point is in the story, and whether those points serve the greater story.

Whether you use a physical corkboard, a white board, Scrivener, or a form of outlining, getting the plot points into a form where you can see everything happening at once can help you to see where things are getting gummed up.

Further resources

This post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plotting a book. Here are some books and essays that will be of use to the writer seeking to fix his or her plot problems. (Note that some of these resources will be more useful to some writers than others, and vice versa. Find what works for you.)

  • “Muddles, Morals, and Making It Through: Or Plots and Popularity,” by Cheryl Klein in her book of essays on writing and revising, Second Sight.
  • In the same book by Cheryl Klein, “Quartet: Plot” and her plot checklist.
  • The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson
  • I haven’t had experience with this resource, but writer friends suggest the 7-point plot ideas of Larry Brooks, which is covered both in a blog series and in his books

And remember!

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Further Reading:

New Visions Award: What NOT to Do

Ask an Editor: Hooking the Reader Early

The New Visions Guidelines

Here’s a blog post from my Wordpress: Stories For Coffee that I decided to share on here! 

There has been recent discussions from authors and bloggers about Young Adult novels unrealistically lacking explicit sexual scenes between characters. It’s no surprise that real life teens know and may even be partaking in those acts, so why isn’t it being shown in the literature centered around young adults? On the other hand, there are “YA” novels showing very explicit sex scenes in their novels (which I don’t have a problem with because I’m eighteen, and I’ve read far more explicit books). But most of those novels, that have explicit sex scenes, are being categorized in the wrong way.

For example, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas has very steamy scenes that makes readers fan themselves. Now, I don’t mind Sarah J. Maas including these scenes because I personally think it ties the story together and makes the characters have deeper connections. But what bothers me about this “YA” novel is that it isn’t being marketed as the right age range for her characters. The A Court of Thorns and Roses series has characters ranging from 18 to their early twenties, and I don’t know about you, but that seems like a book that belongs in the New Adult category, not YA.

“New Adult fiction bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult genres. It typically features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 30.” (Goodreads)

With all the explicit scenes in that series, I wouldn’t want it to be falsely called a YA novel when in reality it has some adult themes that I wouldn’t want a young reader (a 13 year old) to read, thinking it was simply a fantasy novel when it is much more. Young Adult novels follow 13-18 year old characters, so categorizing A Court of Thorns and Roses, and other “YA” novels following older characters, in that same section, is false. This book deals with much mature topics that belong in the New Adult category rather than YA. (Here’s an article explaining the differences between YA and NA, if you are still a bit muddled).

While I do want Young Adult novels to talk about sex more in a way that isn’t seen as taboo, some books that are considered Young Adult are being categorized incorrectly. Some of these stories contain very mature topics that some young readers might not want to read about at the age their in. We have to keep in mind that very young readers pick up YA novels because it follows characters their age, and, by incorrectly categorizing novels that follow 18-30 year old characters dealing with different issues in their lives, it can be graphic to younger readers.

So why are some Young Adult novels, that clearly follow older characters, still being called YA? Why aren’t they simply being called New Adult novels in order to add a silent warning that what the story contains may be too mature for the younger spectrum of YA readers? And, most importantly, why is majority of the New Adult books only centered around romance?

Well, I believe that New Adult has gotten this rep over the time it’s been introduced. People seem to think that it’s an age range for twenty something year old women who only want to read about a college romance which. is. so. false. Take a look at the New Adult category on Goodreads. Majority of the novels in the New Adult age bracket are stories mainly focused on romance. I was discussing this fact with my best friend and she said it was wrong for people to assume that New Adult novels are marketed only for women and that those books are only about romance. Twenty somethings don’t only want to read about people their age falling desperately in love. They want Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror, Historical Fiction, etc. novels following 18-30 year olds. They want to relate to characters going through the same stage of life as them in different settings and circumstances.  

New Adult is an age range for literature that just recently became recognized, but I wish it would be taken more seriously. When people hear New Adult, they instantly assume it’s a steamy romance novel. I want the New Adult age category to have different genres like YA novels do, instead of it mainly being romance driven. I want to read a story about people trapped in space and they are twenty three years old. I want to read a story about a twenty five year old person living during the 1920’s in New York City. I want to read about the zombie apocalypse happening when a person is away at college. I want people to take the New Adult category more seriously and have more genres under its umbrella like adult fiction and Young Adult novels do.

There are many YA novels that show explicit scenes and follow more mature characters who belong in the New Adult category. But because people don’t credit New Adult as much as YA, people are afraid to label their fantasy novel as New Adult and instead call it Young Adult. I feel like the publishing industry should look at New Adult stories in a new light and categorize the older characters in YA novels as New Adult. We should have more diverse genres in the New Adult category because twenty something year olds don’t want to just read about college romances, they want diversely written stories following all different adventures.

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Weekly YA Spotlight: A selection of the most anticipated new YA novels released this week (24/08 - 30/08)

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein ✤ August 28th

Deliverance (Defiance #3) by C.J. Redwine ✤ August 26th

The Rule of Thoughts (The Mortality Doctrine #2) by James Dashner ✤ August 26th

Can’t Look Away by Donna Cooner ✤ August 26th

A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall ✤ August 26th

Sanctum (Asylum #2) by Madeleine Roux ✤ August 26th

The Revenge of Seven (Lorien Legacies #5) by Pittacus Lore ✤ August 26th

Ghost House (Ghost House #1) by Alexandra Adornetto ✤ August 26th

One Death, Nine Stories by Marc Aronson & Charles R. Smith Jr. (ed.) ✤ August 26th

Check out the rest of this month’s new YA releases here!

New in Paperback

No description necessary for this one. The third installment of Maggie Stiefvater’s delectable Raven Cycle series is out in Paperback today! Easier to carry and loan out to all your friends.

Raven Cycle #3 Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater, Paperback, $9.99

He slid his arms up around me, and as he kissed me back, I felt something inside me open, like a new life beginning. I didn’t know yet what girl she’d be, or where this life would take her. But I’d keep my eyes open, and when the time came, I would know.
—  Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

A masterpost of YA books (and a few crossover MG titles) to be released in May 2015. Check out this month’s new releases below. Feel free to use this as a guide to this month’s releases, but please do not repost it in its entirety elsewhere. If you found this masterpost helpful, a like, reblog, or link back to Paperback’d would be much appreciated! If you know of a YA book to be released this month that isn’t on the list, drop me a message and I’ll update it!

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You could win these two ARCs (or two other ones from the prize pile) just by participating in the Instagram birthday challenge #BookBaristasBirthdayChallenge! You can also join in for more chances on Twitter (pinned tweet) and Facebook (pinned post) 🎉 Follow on Twitter: @bookbaristas and like our Facebook page!