How to write a YA novel in 3 minutes

13 September 2013

Cat Hellisen, Sarah Lotz and I hosted our first Young Adult masterclass at the Open Book festival on Wednesday 11 September 2013.

We’re all published writers, and have learned so much over the years, so it felt right to share our combined knowledge with aspiring novelists. It turned out to be a great conversation.

Discussion points dealt specifically with young adult fiction, so while we spoke at length about technical aspects of writing, we kept it within the scope of youth fiction.

We covered A LOT in the two-hour session, so instead of writing pages of notes I’m simply going to summarise key points.

We tackled two subjects each, playing to our individual strengths:
* Characters
* Dialogue
* Plot and pace
* Setting
* Point of view

So to summarise:


There are three sides to a character
1. The outside
2. The inside
3. Back story
• These three elements create the foundation of a character which can be built on.
• Characters should be real, with human characteristics and range of emotions.
• When describing your character, less is more. Reveal your character’s appearance subtly, through actions rather than descriptions (Show, don’t tell)
• The protagonist should have the strongest back story as they are the one the reader will be most invested in, followed by the antagonist which is the force of change in the story.
• Sometimes characters can be heroes which the readers will want to root for (Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen), but ultimately the reader should be able to relate to the characters and be able to see themselves in that character’s shoes.
• Absent parents/adults allow teenage characters the freedom to do the things they wouldn’t be allowed to do.

An example of backstory:

I was only six months old and I was supposed to croak during the surgery. And even if I somehow survived the mini-Hoover, I was supposed to suffer serious brain damage during the procedure and live the rest of my life as a vegetable.
Well, I obviously survived the surgery. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t, but I have all sorts of physical problems that are directly the result of my brain damage.
First of all, I ended up having forty-two teeth. The typical human has thirty-two, right? But I had fortytwo.
Ten more than usual.
Ten more than normal.
Ten teeth past human.
My teeth got so crowded that I could barely close my mouth. I went to Indian Health Service to get some teeth pulled so I could eat normally, not like some slobbering vulture. But the Indian Health Service funded major dental work only once a year, so I had to have all ten extra teeth pulled in one day.
And what’s more, our white dentist believed that Indians felt only half as much pain as white people did, so he gave us only half the Novocain.
What a bastard, huh?
-Sherman Alexie , The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian


• Watch your vocabulary.
• Keep dialogue natural and conversational, and try to avoid slang as it can date a story.
• Watch the adverbs ie She whispered fiercely, she growled angrily.
• Said is the perfect invisible tag for dialogue.
• Ensure all characters have a different voice. They need to sound different to each other when speaking.
• Swearing is fine, in moderation.

An example of swearing and absent parents in YA:

That night, not long after I order pizza for me and my parents, who are—as always—late at the hospital, Tiny Cooper calls me and, real quiet and fast, he blurts out, “Neutral Milk Hotel is supposedly playing a reunion show at the Hideout and it’s totally not advertised and no one even knows about it and holy shit, Grayson, holy shit!”
“Holy shit!” I shout. One thing you can say for Tiny: whenever something awesome happens, Tiny is always the first to hear. Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand. But anyway, he’s a genius. “When?“
– John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson


• Every novel starts with an idea – a what if?
• Writing is storytelling.
• The plot is the journey the character undertakes.
• The story is the character’s emotional journey.
• Ask yourself the question “What does your character want and why can’t they get it?”
• Work on your character arc – the changes they undergo from the beginning of the novel to the end. How does the plot shape the character?
• Just like in screenwriting, ask yourself “What is your character’s motivation?”


• Kill your darlings – get rid of paragraphs and chapters that don’t add anything to the story or slow down the pace, no matter how beautifully written they are.
• Ask yourself. “What’s at stake?” Then raise those stakes.
• Add conflict and tension to add momentum.
• Keep hooking your reader throughout the story.

Literary devices to add pace:
* Conflict and action
* Narrative tension
* Grab your reader in the beginning
* Use cliffhangers
* Cut to scene
* Shorter sentences
* Shorter chapters

An example illustrating conflict and action:

I had managed to drag myself and my chair over to the door and prepared an ambush that sent two guards sailing head over heels as they tripped on me when they came in. Von Linden really should know me well enough by now to realise that I am not going to face my execution without a fight. Or with anything remotely resembling dignity. When they had got me resurrected and pulled up to the table again, von Linden came in and laid a single white pill in front of me. Like Alice I was suspicious. I still thought I was about to be executed, you see.‘Cyanide?’ I asked tearfully. It would be such a humane way to go.
But it was not a suicide tablet, it turns out. It was an aspirin.
– Elizabeth Wein, Codename Verity


• Make your setting suit your genre.
• Mixing genres is okay.
• Fantasy is not just swords and horses.
• Do your research thoroughly, but don’t get stuck in the details. (Someone will pick up a mistake if the research hasn’t been done properly.)
• Capture the time and place of your setting.
• Incorporate the five senses in your descriptions of the world.
• Create a familiar setting for your reader within this world, ie school.

Point of View

• First person is very popular in YA fiction.
• First person adds immediacy and puts the reader in the mindset of the character.
• Third person is also popular in YA fiction, especially for books with multiple points of view. It also adds immediacy.

An example showing First Person point of view:

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

Top tip – don’t resort to prognostications to keep your reader hooked. I.e. I was about to find out just how wrong I was.

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