17 April 2018

How to tackle tough subjects in YA fiction

Eve Ainsworth, Author
by Eve Ainsworth Author Interviews, Writing Tips

Eve Ainsworth is the acclaimed author of four YA novels, and is represented by Curtis Brown agent, Stephanie Thwaites. Before she became a published author, Eve worked in a large secondary school supporting pupils with their emotional and behavioural issues. Now she’s taken this interest forward into her fiction, which tackles real-life teen issues. Her latest novel, Tenderexplores mental health, family and friendship alongside the pressures faced by teenage carers today. Here Eve talks about why she’s chosen to write about the problems faced by contemporary teenagers, and how she does it:

I was inspired to write gritty and tough subjects in my books from around eight years old. I remember watching an episode of ‘Casualty’ at a relative’s house and was drawn to the chaos, the reality and the strong challenging characters. This interest continued as I grew, when I would later revel in the likes of ‘Grange Hill’ and ‘Eastenders’, devour early Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Blume books and try to replicate this type of writing in the safety of my own room.

Writing books with a real-life, contemporary angle can be tricky. There is a constant need to ensure your writing is authentic and reflective, but it is also crucial that the work is interesting to read. People like to read books that mirror the lives around them – but they don’t want to be patronised or preached to, and striking that balance is vital. It’s also important to note that some sensitive subjects will need thorough research and it may be wise to appoint a sensitivity reader if you are tackling something outside of your own remit or experience. I tend to write about subjects that I’ve either worked with or had a direct involvement in (ie. bullying) but of course, this could change in the future.

I often find that my stories start with a character. For example, even while I was still finishing my third novel, Damage, Marty from my latest novel was already in my head, pestering me. Marty is based on a collection of people from my real life: He is one of my older brothers, he’s a student I worked with; a boy I went to school with; a young Del-Boy from ‘Only Fools and Horses’. My brain mixes these characters together and creates something new and interesting.

When I pictured Marty in my head, the image included a scene at home where his Mum wasn’t well. Immediately I knew I wanted to focus on the caring side of his personality. At the same time I was meeting up with my close friend, who had a child with a life limiting condition. As we spoke about her experiences, another character developed: A young girl, who was struggling with her brother’s illness.

If I develop strong, believable characters, then the issues they’re dealing with become far more real and effective. Therefore it’s crucial that I spend time really ‘getting to know’ my characters – making notes about how they look, move, react to things. I have conversations with them out loud – I try to make them as realistic as I can in my mind.

I always carry a notebook with me. I’m a magpie, stealing little details and mixing them up in my cauldron to produce something that works for me. I often tell students how I once saw a man at a station who perfectly represented a side character I was trying to create. I immediately whipped out my book and made some quick notes about the way he was dressed, his hair and how he spoke. I often wonder what the man would have thought if he’d seen what I was doing!

When you’re writing gritty or real life issues in YA – or in any other genre – you need to be mindful of the subjects you are covering and ensure that you are presenting ‘real’ and ‘reflective’ characters. And think, also, about your reader – real life issues can provoke real-life emotions, and that’s a responsibility in itself. If you can do this, you’re on the right path.

You can buy Eve Ainsworth’s latest novel Tender here.

If you’re writing a book for children or young adults, take a look at our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course with tutor Catherine Johnson. The deadline for applications is midnight at the end of Sunday 22 April.

We also offer a series of six-week novel writing courses for all-comers, check out all of our current courses here.

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