AUTHOR ALLSORTS

A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

How YA Saved My (Writing) Life

It’s been quite a while since I was a teen. And I wouldn’t ever want to be one again (because that would mean being at school again… shudder). Yet I write for teens, and about them. Why? What made me decide to become a YA (Young Adult) author?
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. 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. My solution? 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 – 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. My teenage years are a time I remember so clearly, and I felt an instant connection to the characters in those books. But 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.
*Worry not – I have since re-read TKAM, and I loved it!
Emma Pass PhotoEmma Pass
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Emma Pass has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. Her debut novel, ACID, will be published on 25th April 2013, followed by another stand-alone thriller for young adults in 2014. By day, she works as a library assistant and lives with her husband and dog in the North East Midlands.
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This entry was posted on August 21, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , .

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