Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Category: Writing: Young Adult

Writing Ambitious Stories and my YA Novel

An excellent blog article that resonated with me is Writers and Ambition, by David B. Coe over at the sadly now defunct Magical Worlds. David writes succinctly about writing ambitious stories, and recently I’ve had to consider this issue myself.

“Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing: deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming. In other words, it forces us to stretch as artists, to challenge ourselves, to risk failure by reaching for greatness.”

I’m reworking a near-future sci-fi YA novel that I originally drafted three years ago. I checked back through my folders and found that I wrote the short story the novel is based on in 2012. Six years ago! I had a small freakout, just for a moment. I’m back in the room now.

The reason I put the novel aside once the first draft was complete was because it didn’t feel quite there. The characters were (and still are) interesting and have motivation, but the plot had holes. Great gaping maws that I could not figure out how to fill. For a while I wondered if the story just wasn’t meant to be. Often, writing involves hard choices, and sometimes it involves walking away from a story permanently if it won’t come together. But that wasn’t it. I never wanted to fully give up on this novel. The idea is strong, and I’m confident that a lot of my themes (social media over-saturation, celebrity culture, technology) would interest a young adult and adult audience. Author Theodora Goss said something years ago that stuck with me:

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

Honestly? I don’t think the story was ready to be written. Or I wasn’t ready to write it three years ago. Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the novel with non-writer friends and colleagues, describing it as on hiatus, and in the process of thinking about it again I’ve changed some key elements of the main plot thread, which leads me to believing it’s time to give it another bash.

The changes I plan to make are more complex and ambitious than the original. All I had to do was give the book some breathing room and give myself enough distance so that I could look at it objectively. That, and discuss it with people I might not have normally discussed it with (non-writers), which helps to approach it from a new angle.

I have no idea if this will work smoothly the second time around. I do believe it will work better than the first time.

Writers don’t have to pull silly tricks to push their creative boats out. You must still write the story you want to write, something you can put your energy behind in good faith. But you can switch things up in small ways. You can weave in a sub-genre you haven’t tried before. You can change one of the bigger elements of the main plot. Or you can write a character who inhibits traits you have yet to explore. If you keep nudging into new territory with every story you write, you will find your plots more ambitious and interesting, and yourself a stronger writer.

Young Adult Markets and Blogs

Young Adult fiction has exploded in popularity in the last decade, spawning a number of huge movie franchises, TV shows, games and spin-offs. But fiction is where it all begins.

There are a number of online resources catering to young adults and adults who love to write and read YA fiction. The list below is not exhaustive, so it pays to check regularly to see the new publications that spring up. As the genre grows, so will the fan base and the need for more YA fiction venues.

If you’re a writer of YA and you’ve been looking for places to submit your stories, these magazines and blogs should give you a good starting point:

Cicada – A literary / comics magazine whose purpose is to speak to teens’ truths. They publish fiction, poetry, essays, and comics by adults and teens. They have a submission page for writers. You can find them on Tumblr and Twitter.

Cast of Wonders – Young adult fiction podcast featuring tales of the fantastic. They are open to submissions, up to 6000 words in length. They also have a forum where listeners can discuss books, TV, movies, as well as the podcast episodes.

Cricket – A magazine aimed at 9-14 year olds. It features fiction and non-fiction, and each magazine is illustrated.

Youth Imagination – YI encourages young adults to submit their creative writing, but it is also open to adult writers of YA. They feature a blog on their website where short fiction is available to read for free.

Seventeen – An entertainment magazine aimed at young people, from 13-21. Seventeen invites its teen readers to submit their real life stories to be featured in the magazine.

YARN – A magazine that aims to publish the highest quality creative writing for young adult readers, ages 14-18, and those in other age groups who enjoy young adult literature. They also have an active blog.

Twist – A magazine aimed at young adults, featuring pop culture news, as well as advice, fun stuff, and fiction.

There are also a few publishing houses on Tumblr who either cater specifically to or have YA imprints. They offer insights about the publishing industry, and update with new releases and news. To list a few: Random House, HarperCollins, Chronicle Books, Scribner Books.

Go Book Yourself has a YA section where readers recommend books based on other books of a similar type. A good place for readers to find new YA authors to try.

If you know of any other YA-centric markets or blogs, feel free to post about them in the comments.

What If Your First Drafts Fall Short of the Mark?

A topic that’s caught my eye recently is whether an author should over-write or under-write the first draft of their story. A number of people find it much easier hacking unnecessary words, paragraphs and scenes from their first drafts, rather than trying to pad out existing scenes or add new ones later. I think this is down to personal preference as well as practise. What works for one person won’t work for the next.

I have a first draft of a YA sci-fi novel which I estimated to turn out 70-80k words. I usually aim for around 80-100k for finished YA stories, so that additional 10-20k words is my leeway during edits. However, the first draft of this particular novel is currently 58k words. A number of my chapters are sparse and I hurried them just to get my ideas down. This has never happened before, and immediately upon completing the draft, I panicked. It just seemed way too short. I needed to remind myself that early drafts can work as skeletons, giving you networks and boundaries (the bones), but the story does not end there. It will continue to grow its internal organs and flesh as I rewrite. Panic over. I think, with this particular novel, I was crashing through the first draft so I didn’t become distracted by the important plot milestones. Hopefully that’s a good thing, and it means I was more focused on the bigger picture rather than too tangled in the finer details.

I have writer friends whose first drafts have come out hundreds of thousands of words too long. Key plot and character development has become lost beneath all the worldbuilding and scene-setting. This is fine. They work hard to chip away the bits that readers don’t need to have spelled out. Most smart readers can fill in the gaps themselves, if you leave enough hints.

What about you? Do you spill every idea or thought onto the page then cut away the excess afterwards? Or do you start with a skeletal foundation and build up from there? I’m also interested to hear who’s tried it both ways, and which way has worked best for you.

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