How to Write a YA Novel
20 Tips to Get You from a Blank Page to a Finished Manuscript
By Cheryl B. Klein
In sixteen years as an editor of children’s and young adult books, I’ve worked with a wide range of authors — editing their novels, witnessing their methods, listening to their difficulties, and celebrating their successes. Based on those experiences, here are twenty practical tips for turning a cool idea into a complete novel, drawn from the text of my new book, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults.
1. Writer, Know Thyself.
Think about how you wrote papers in school or how you like to approach any large task. Do you prefer to blast through a project and clean up the details later? Or do you like to polish things piece by perfect piece? Are you disciplined about setting aside writing time? Motivated by deadlines? Or do you need to be responsible to someone, like a writing partner or group? Whatever your style is, try to set up a working method that suits it. There is no shame in any habit that helps you get the work done.
2. Invest the Time.
Many writers establish a routine with a set time of day, a place, and a goal — a word or page count, a scene, a time period. (As Robert Pinsky said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in a half hour a day”; Richard Rhodes adds, “A page a day is a book a year.”) But if a fixed routine isn’t possible with your life circumstances or just isn’t the way you work best, that’s fine too. The only requirement for becoming a writer is doing the writing.
3. Defeat Distractions.
Put your phone in airplane mode and leave it in another room during your writing time. Download an Internet blocker for your computer (Mac Freedom, Anti-Social, WasteNoTime) and use it as necessary. Some writers keep a notebook by their computer or a journal/freewrite file on the desktop that allows them to note passing thoughts and reminders without leaving their working document. If you have a hard time getting started, try the Pomodoro Technique: Set a timer for twenty-five minutes and force yourself to write until it rings. Or end each day’s work in the middle of a sentence or scene, so you always have something obvious to complete when you come back to the manuscript.
4. Develop a Framework.
Before you dive in, it is useful to have at least a general sense of the premise, your protagonist, his or her desire, a couple big scenes, and the climax or ending. All of those things can absolutely change in the writing, but setting out with them in mind will give you a character and situation to play with up front, and something to write toward in the long term.
5. Finish a Draft.
Your first major goal is to finish a first draft of a novel, and you must complete a first draft of one of the first four novels you start. No matter how messy the book itself is, the accomplishment and discipline of writing all the way to the end will teach you things about novel writing that you can only learn through that act.
In the meantime, your job for the first draft is to explore: to find out what characters spark both for you and on the page, what the story is, what the book is about — to locate the heart and spirit of the project. If you can find that spirit and keep to it as you write your first draft, feel free to ignore mechanical issues like changing a character’s name halfway through, or the fact that you didn’t really set up that plot twist you now love. You can easily tidy up those details in revision, but you can’t revise text that hasn’t been written, and right now you just need to get that text on the page. As Jane Smiley says, “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”
7. Expect and Accept Bumps in the Road.
It is 99 percent guaranteed that at some point in this process, you will feel lost, overwhelmed, worthless, talentless, stupid, stuck, or all of the above. This is an absolutely normal stage in writing, and stressing about these emotions will only pull you deeper into the spiral. Do some freewriting or journaling about your problems to suss out your concerns. What inspired you to write this novel in the first place? What are you afraid of now? What would help you overcome that fear? If perfectionism is your problem, give yourself permission to write badly. You will have many opportunities to revise this text, and nobody else has to see this book unless you choose to publish it and show it to them. It’s okay not to have it “right” from the start.
8. Trust the Flow.
Once you develop a writing process, trust it. If you get in a flow, don’t break it. You can write scenes out of order if you like, but in doing so, you are making a promise to your book that you will go back and fill in the missing scenes, and revise the scenes you wrote first so the whole narrative hangs together. If you don’t have the discipline to do this, try not to write scenes out of order.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help.
If you’re puzzling over something, call up your critique partner or editor and take a half hour to talk through a difficulty. You will need to define the problem you’re facing in order to describe it to them, which can be useful on its own, and then they can help you untwist its knots or brainstorm solutions. But do this sparingly; often the value of solving a narrative problem lies in the struggle of it, and if an author was calling me every week, I’d start to think he needed to do more of his own thinking.
10. Secure Your Data.
Back up your computer frequently, or e-mail your working files to an account in the cloud. Paste anything you must cut into an outtakes file. This costs you very little in time and digital space, and it allows you the security of knowing nothing has been lost if you want to use it later.
11. Celebrate Completion!
It is a real accomplishment to finish a first draft, and many wannabe writers never even reach that step. Treat yourself to a massage, a new book, a nice dinner out.
12. Take Time Off.
Unless you require momentum to keep working on a writing project, put the manuscript away for a minimum of two days and a maximum of two months before revising it, so you can approach it with a reader’s fresh eyes instead of a writer’s fond heart. To clear your mind, work on a different writing project in the meantime.
Your second major goal is to revise the first draft you completed. When you’re ready to dive back in, change the font of the manuscript and then print it out on paper. Do not start actual revisions as yet; instead, require yourself to read all the way through the draft, taking notes on both the material you like and what needs work. What should you revise toward? Try to maximize the four Ds: Revisions should increase the drama of your action, dimension of your characters, distinction of your prose, and depth of your themes and the reality of the whole.
14. Create a To-Do List.
Based on your notes from your reread and other observations, create a to-do list of tasks you want to accomplish in the manuscript in order to stay focused through the morass of revision. Only once you have that full view, and possibly the opinion of another reader (see the next point in this list), may you go back and start revising the text itself.
15. Solicit the Opinions of Others, but Cautiously.
Be careful when you get feedback, and from whom. If you’re the kind of person who wilts under criticism, it may be worth trying to get a whole draft done and even revised before you seek outside counsel. When that time comes, try to choose a person who thinks critically, who is on your wavelength literarily, who will be both kind and honest with you, and who can articulate feedback beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t.” (If you don’t have a friend like this in your social circle, find a critique partner in person or online.)
16. Everything Can Change.
In revising, remember: You made all of this up. Nothing in the book is set in stone, and you can rewrite any or all of it at any time to make its pieces snap together more elegantly. Keep an eye out for moments where some aspect of your first conception of the novel is getting in the way of larger and more important plot, character, or thematic dynamics or goals, and revise accordingly.
17. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.
And the prize is not making the text “perfect” — an impossible and illusory goal — but finishing a manuscript to the best of your present writing abilities, and sharing it with readers. That’s really it.
18. Skip the Comparison Game.
You will end up comparing yourself to other writers — it’s an inescapable feature of the literary life. Remember that everyone finds the process difficult at times. Everyone has to revise. Katherine Paterson, John Green, Jacqueline Woodson, Sherman Alexie, J. K. Rowling: All of them were once where you are now. They all have bad writing days, they all have to toss material, they all get edited, and they probably all grump about the process. What makes them successful is that they put in the time and do the work — and you can do that, too.
19. Choose Your Shots.
Any piece of writing can be made better through the application of time, thought, heart, and effort. Not all writing is worth these resources. The only way to learn which work is worth it is by doing a lot of writing, getting feedback on it, figuring out what most pleases both you and your readers, and moving in that direction.
20. If You Enjoyed the Process and Created Something You Love:
Cheryl B. Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., where she edits a wide array of popular and award-winning titles. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.