Monday, May 16, 2011

5 Things to Avoid in Your Young Adult Manuscript!

Five Things to Avoid in Your Young Adult Manuscript 
Guest Post By:
Brian Farrey

As a rule, I shy away from giving writing tips. Sometimes, they’re misinterpreted (don’t get me started on why the much maligned “Write what you know” is a perfectly legitimate piece of advice). Most often, they get subjected to the “yeah but” people. The ones who can ALWAYS find an exception to any rule you’d like to supply. And I’ll admit that every time I find a writing absolute, someone makes a valid counterpoint.

So instead of giving you a list of THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER DO WHEN WRITING OR ELSE YOUR FACE WILL FALL OFF AND EVERYONE WILL POINT AND LAUGH, I’ll shoot for the slightly less ambitious, but still thought provoking:


Avoid. Not “don’t do.” But things to consider editing out if you do them. Or, at the very least, think really, really hard about what it could possibly be adding to the book by including it. Most of these are things I see in my day job as acquiring editor at Flux. (Qualifier: Nothing I list here will bar you from being published or keep you from being considered. However, it might make me roll my eyes. Just a bit.) Bear in mind: this is subjective (although I’ve discussed each of these points with other editors who agree with my stance). That said…

1) Mirror, Mirror on the wall…
I think you’d be hard pressed to find an editorial letter in any language on the planet that contains the phrase: “You know what this book needs? More mirror scenes.” A mirror scene is a technique most often employed by a first person narrator with a burning desire to describe in detail every piece of clothing they’re currently wearing. To achieve this: they look in the mirror and report back to the reader. Rule of thumb: avoid mirror scenes unless you have a phenomenally good reason (ie integral to plot/character). Good reason: it’s a light comedy and the main character is a budding fashionista, thus justifying the need to narrate clothing. Bad reason: it’s a heavy drama and the protag is a quarterback whose drug use is threatening his scholarship to Notre Dame. No matter the reason, stop and ask yourself: ultimately, how important is this information? Am I better off demonstrating the character’s fashion obsession through other means and allowing the reader to visualize a suitable bit of haute couture?

2) The Born Again Teen
This is a contemporary teenage protagonist with anachronistic interests and an encyclopedic knowledge of a different era….which is coincidentally the era when the author was a teen. These BATs namedrop things like The Brady Bunch or Fonzie or other pop culture references that most contemporary teens are unlikely to either know or care about. (I recently spoke to a group of thirty teens age 14-18 and asked, “How many of you have seen an episode of The Brady Bunch?” 1 in 30. And it was half an episode. I’m not saying this was a scientific study but…) Some sneaky authors know in their guts this is wrong so they throw in a line like, “I watch The Brady Bunch because my mom got me into it.” Uh-huh. And I have fond memories of my mother indoctrinating me into the world of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. (This is not intended to be a factual statement.) Basically, it doesn’t necessarily make for a unique character if you’re simply forcing your own nostalgia on them. You might think you’re doing today’s readers a favor by introducing them to the awesomeness that was the early 70s Saturday morning Krofft show, Land of the Lost, but chances are you’re not.

3) Where are Tom, Dick, and Harry?
Here’s the first of a couple tips to do with names. I understand the compulsion to give characters a memorable name. The compulsion becomes dangerous when it goes overboard. It starts simply with the introduction of your protagonist, Cheyenne. Soon, he’s at school with his two best friends, Sully (a girl) and Cephas (a boy). The dramatis personae ramps up with Asima and Nevlin and Eir and Rasmus and soon the reader is suspecting these children were all named by escapees from Bedlam. Where’s Mike? Where’s Ben? Where’s Jenny? No room for them in the School of Exotic Names. Use exotic names sparingly. Here’s a fun fact: the Social Security web site keeps a list of the most popular baby names by year. In 1995 (the year a current 16-year-old was born), these were the top ten most popular names for girls and boys.

4) Your name is WHAT again?
Another bit to do with names. So you’ve decided to name your character Cloudburst Manic Days Jenkins. How very brave of you. No doubt you’re feeling the compulsion to explain the origin of that name. My first question to you is: why? Is it really that important that we know? If we see a wacky family in action, isn’t that explanation enough? Granted, sometimes there’s a cute or clever story behind it. Or the name has a deep meaning to the protagonist that is somehow reflected in the themes of the book. Most times, we get the Cop Out: “My parents were hippies.” (It’s doubtful that a contemporary teen, born circa mid-90s, has parents who were adults during the sixties when the hippies were at their apex.) If you must explain an exotic name, please leave the hippies out of this. (I’m waiting for a submission where a teen named Freetrade explains that “My parents were hipsters.”) I may be alone in this but as a reader/editor, I don’t necessarily need the bit of backstory that explains the protagonist’s name. Keep it as a clever anecdote you tell at book signings.

5) I’d rather hear that story…
I think the number one problem I see in the work of beginning writers has to do with backstory. In fantasy, this is often in correlation with world building. Some writers fall a little too much in love with their backstory and spend pages and pages and pages talking about what went on before the current book even started. Occasionally, the before proves more interesting than the here and now and that’s a problem. A big problem. Like exotic names, backstory should be used sparingly. It should motivate characters and inform the reader but not overwhelm. Don’t create a thousand years of political history for the world of Xandos and fill your chapters references to famous historical figures and their deeds at the risk of intruding on what’s happening right now. Like real people, characters are influenced by their pasts and it can—and should—affect the present. Just keep the present present. If you see this as a problem in your own writing, here’s something to think about: sometimes—sometimes—if your backstory is more interesting than the one you’re trying to tell in the present, it’s a sign that you’re telling the wrong story.
Brian Farrey’s debut YA novel, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, will be published May 24 by Simon Pulse. He tweets @BrianFarrey and he blogs at Brian Farrey Books


  1. Thanks for the tips. I always enjoy posts like this.

    Congrats on WITH OR WITHOUT YOU.

  2. This is an awesome post! It's always really good to hear of ways to improve! :)

  3. That was really informative! Great post!

  4. Hey everyone, thanks for stopping by and reading Brian's post!!

    And Brian, thanks for stopping by! I loved this one.. and I'm about to start your book! Can't wait :)

  5. Thanks so much for the tips! Congrats on With or Without you!

  6. Great tips! Thanks for posting.



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