Monday, November 19, 2012

John Barlow Guest Post

Guest post: John Barlow

Is writing YA different from writing adult fiction?

My first YA novel, ISLANDERS, is out today. My previous book was a crime mystery for adults, published last year, and more recently I’ve been finishing a thriller, also for adults. So, how does writing for a YA audience stack up?

Writing in a new genre is always a process of discovery. You’re trying to learn the ropes as you go, and also to work out where your own take on things fits into the genre as a whole. You don’t want to copy anyone’s style or themes, and you don’t want to stay so close to the norms of the genre as to be predictable and humdrum. What you really need is to find a space for yourself and your writing.

That space needs to be comfortable for you, because otherwise you’ll feel awkward when you write. Writing is difficult enough as it is, without the constant thought that you need to be conforming to rules and conventions that are not natural to you. This, I guess, is why writers cannot always choose exactly what they write; you naturally find yourself moving in certain directions, and you don’t have much alternative but to go in that direction.

I gradually came to feel more and more comfortable with ISLANDERS. One reason for this was that the more I wrote, revised and edited, the more I realized that the process of writing YA fiction is not really very different from that of adult fiction. If I had set out to write a dystopian adventure for adults, it would have turned out pretty much like ISLANDERS. The main differences, at least for me, have been the following:

1. You main characters are young. This has certain obvious consequences. A 13 year-old isn’t going be weighed down by a messy divorce, or have a family to support. She or he might have parents, though, and if you want your main characters to go on a dangerous adventure, as is the case with ISLANDERS, you need to ditch the parents pretty damn quick.

2. Adults, both in fiction and in life, are full of frustrations and self-doubt. They know their limitations, and they are often quite cynical about life and its challenges. A 13 year-old doesn’t necessarily know his or her own limits, especially in an unusual situation, and is probably less inclined to be cynical. They might get scared, but disillusionment is something they will probably avoid for longer than an adult in the same circumstances. This allows for a more positive momentum to build through the plot, even though the dangers might be very real and unnerving for the protagonists.

3. Cussing and ‘strong’ content. The issue here is not that YA books cannot have ‘bad’ language or any ‘challenging’ themes, but that you really need to have a consistent policy throughout the book. I found that this helped in some ways, especially with dialogue. You can’t day **** or ***? OK, say it another way. Once you have established your own rules, it’s easy to stick to them. Adult books don’t typically require consistency in this respect, so you never quite know whether you might be offending someone (if, indeed, you care about offending them). With YA books you need to take a position.

Other than those things, I found that writing ISLANDERS was not particularly different from writing adult fiction. It’s true that to begin with I tended to use a slightly less extensive vocabulary. However, over the years I have revised and rewritten the novel a lot, and in that time I have gradually dropped all linguistic distinctions; I find that the story tells itself best when you don’t second guess the capabilities of the reader. I also found, to my delight, that adults really enjoyed the book.

The moral here? Just write a good story. That’s what I tried to do. I hope you agree.

John Barlow

ISLANDERS is available at all major ebook retailers, and is on special introductory offer (99cts) through November 2012 at Amazon (US, UK) and Kobo.

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