Wednesday 2 November 2011

How YA Saved My (Writing) Life

When I was a kid, I read every book in the children’s section of my local library I could get my hands on – Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys… I loved authors like Anne Pilling and Robert Swindells, too, I was a Point Horror junkie, and I devoured the Sweet Valley High books (well, they had a certain glamour!). I also read each and every one of the Chalet School books, lent to me by a relative. Basically, there wasn’t much I didn’t read. I loved it.

Then I hit my teens. Back then (and it wasn’t that long ago) YA didn’t really exist as a genre – at least, not in the sense it does now. And I don’t remember there being a designated section in our library for books for teens like we have in the library I work in today.

So I skipped straight from kid’s books to adult books – Stephen King, Ben Bova, Michael Crichton. About the same time, I started writing, and as a result, my early ‘novels’ (which I still have, stacked in the top of a wardrobe), have a distinctly hard-boiled flavour as I tried to imitate these authors, both in content and in style. I was thrilled, at fourteen, when my grandmother inadvertently paid me one of the biggest compliments anyone’s ever made about my writing – that I wrote like a forty-year-old man.

Then came the GCSE years, and reading for study, rather than pleasure. And as we analysed the meaning of Scout and Jem’s every word in To Kill a Mockingbird*, and dutifully wrote essays about Macbeth, I began to wonder whether, because, secretly, I still preferred Sci-fi to Shakespeare – despite being told that THIS was great literature! – I was lacking in some way.

So I turned my back on the books I liked to read in favour of the ones I thought I should be reading. Stopped writing the stories I wanted to write in favour of the sort I thought I was supposed to. And pretty quickly, I stopped having fun with them. Just stopped.

Often, I had to force myself to read. The few times I cracked and bought, say, the latest Stephen King, it was a guilty pleasure, one I’d only allow myself every now and then. One strange pattern did emerge, though – the ‘literary’ books I was making myself read nearly always had a young or teenage protagonist. But the significance of this didn’t occur to me then; I knew I felt more of a sense of kinship with these sorts of characters than any other, but I didn’t stop to think about why, or what that might mean for my own writing. In a desperate attempt to revive my fading enthusiasm, I had a go at a story for children, but because I didn’t read children’s books – I didn’t think I was allowed to, somehow (a crazy notion; I realise that now) – it failed, and ended up in the bin.

At the same time, I started to realise that I had no idea how to write a plot that actually worked. I’m not one of those lucky people born with an innate sense for storytelling – I simply couldn’t figure out why the plots in everything I wrote flatlined, or went in circles, or simply went nowhere at-all. Maybe it’s time to give up, a little voice in my head started telling me. Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe it’s time to try something else.

Then two things happened. I saw a review of a book, STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING by Robert McKee, in a magazine. It sounded interesting – the article talked about it as if it could be applied to novel-writing, too – and the library had a copy in, so I borrowed it and found out it does exactly what it says on the tin. I’ll warn you, though, it’s not a book for the fainthearted. I had to read it through twice, taking detailed notes, before I even started to understand what it was trying to tell me. But then it started to click. I started to get it. And started to realise where I’d been going wrong.

At almost exactly the same time, I got the opportunity to go on a weekend course run by the award-winning YA & children’s author Linda Newbery. Better read one of her books, I thought (as shockingly, I never had). So I got myself a copy of THE SHELL HOUSE, which at the time was her latest novel, about two teenage boys separated by almost eight decades but linked by a crumbling mansion, and who are both struggling with issues of identity, faith and sexuality.

It was a revelation. I enjoyed it so much I read it in less than two days. And after the course, which was interesting and fun, I went back to the bookshop and the library for more YA books by other authors. I couldn’t get enough of them.

But still, my brain was slow to catch up. It wasn’t until several months later that something suddenly occurred to me: why not try writing the literary coming-of-age novel I’d been struggling with, on and off, for two years, as a young adult novel?

I remember that moment so clearly. It was an autumn evening, and I was sitting on the sofa in the little rented flat my then-boyfriend (now my husband) and I were living in at the time. I’d been working on another story all day which I was bored to death with. I hated the storyline. I hated the characters. I was constructing it according to McKee’s principles in STORY and it still didn’t work. But I was ploughing on relentlessly with it because I felt I ought to.

The moment the thought of writing YA exploded into my brain (it really was that dramatic) I put the boring story to one side, grabbed a notebook and started scribbling as ideas for this new novel literally tumbled into my head. Everything I’d learnt from STORY (which I’m still learning from – I don’t think I’ll ever stop) collided with the characters and story I’d been trying to piece together, and by that night I had an outline and a first chapter written out.

For the first time ever, I fell in love with my characters, becoming so obsessed with them I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them get on the bus when I was on my way to work. I found myself listening to music that sounded like the story. I was totally and utterly immersed in the world of the story – the first time it had ever happened. It was incredible.

That book was also the first one I ever sent out to agents and publishers, although – quite rightly, because it was terrible – it quickly collected a stack of rejections, and it would take several more novels before ACID was born. But from that moment on, I knew: I was going to write YA. I was going to read YA. And I was going to love it – every single minute of it.

What about you? How did you find your genre? Or are you still searching for it? Whatever stage you’re at, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

*Ironically, I recently picked up my battered, much doodled-in copy of TKAM and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Go figure!


  1. I recognise this journey! I fell in love with books when I read fantasy as a child (CS Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones) and yet when I started trying to be A Writer in my 20s, I wrote literary short stories, because I thought that was the training ground for writing proper big person novels. I learnt a lot, I got a few published, I even won an award, but I never felt entirely comfortable with them. I wasn't writing in my own voice, or from my heart, just exercising my brain. Then I had kids, I started reading kids' books again, and the lightbulb flashed on. I still loved the stories which I had loved as a child. Now I write children's books (and get them published, and win awards!) and I feel completely comfortable. I'm telling the stories in my heart, in my own voice. It's like coming home!

  2. That's exactly it, Lari - it felt like coming home for me too. I don't look at the time I spent writing other stuff as wasted, as it taught me a lot about writing (and disciplining myself to write), but it only felt 'right' once I started writing YA.

  3. What a fascinating post Emma - loved it. I really must get hold of the Robert McKee book - it sounds great! It's amazing how that moment suddenly hit you when you just knew that YA was the right genre for you. That must have felt wonderful and it just confirms your instinct that you were born to write (which you were!) My experiences are quite different - I love writing for all ages and in fact one of the things I enjoy so much about writing is the challenge of writing for a different market. However, my first love is poetry, and I can't not write it. I can't imagine myself writing horror or thrillers though - I'm too big a scaredy-cat - I'd frighten myself to death!

  4. You should definitely try STORY, Abi - it's an incredible book. As for your multi-genre talents, I am in awe! I'd love to be able to write for different ages, but YA seems to be what I'm drawn to so I'm not going to argue. :)

  5. Yes, Abi, I agree with Emma about STORY! I use it all the time - and I went on one of McKee's weekend courses too... intense, brilliant & bit scary (him!), but worth every penny... Emma, thanks for this post. It's fascinating to hear how you came to find your writing 'home', and the next time someone asks me why I'm writing YA books, I will think of this post!

  6. Still straddling the line between juvenile and adult fiction... a foot in each world. I sometimes wonder if I too would love YA. I am definitely going to have to get a look at the Robert McKee book -- I keep hearing good things about it!

  7. Harriet - thank you, and it's great to find another STORY junkie! I would absolutely love to go on one of McKee's courses one day; it would certainly be an unforgettable experience.

    Julia - you should definitely try STORY! I honestly believe that without it, I would not now be getting a book published. It turned my writing around.

  8. Me, I just like stories. I love 'em. All kinds. That's why I don't believe you should just read the books you feel you ought to read - you should read the ones you love to read. No guilty pleasure, just pleasure. I've taught myself to put a book down if I'm not enjoying it and I don't care how it ends.

    As for genre? I'm not sure my novels really fall perfectly into any particular genre. They're books for adults who like reading good books, I suppose! Which makes me think . . . the great thing about YA, is that it's all YA. It isn't YA Horror, YA literary, YA blah blah blah. YA almost isn't a genre, it's just books for young people, no matter what the books are about. How refreshing.

    So when people ask me what kind of books I like to read, well, there's only really one answer isn't there? Good ones.

  9. Dan, you're so right. Now, I can see how daft it was to think I should only be reading certain sorts of books, but back then… blame it on teenage insecurity, I guess! These days, I'm the same as you - if I'm not enjoying a book, I can walk away from it without feeling guilty. Life's too short - and there's a lot of books out there to read.

    And you're right about YA, too - it seems to be a very inclusive genre, which is what makes it so exciting. You can write about anything.

  10. Hello, Emma - a friend directed me to this. Nice to catch up after a good many years! Thanks for the mention. And I'm definitely going to look up STORY.

  11. Hello, Linda - it's nice to catch up with you too. Hope you are well, and thank you for commenting! :)

  12. That's a great story, Emma! I love hearing how authors find their genre. It took a while for me to come round to mine - I was writing literary fiction for a bit! Eep!