14 March 2019

Lisa Williamson: ‘Write the book only you can write’

by Lisa Williamson From Our Students, Writing Tips

Lisa Williamson studied with us in London way back in the autumn of 2012, in a group that included other published alumni James HallMaria RealfFiona Perrin and Christina Pishiris.

Her groundbreaking YA debut, The Art of Being Normalwas a huge success, winning the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Fiction, and getting fantastic notices from the likes of Philip Pullman. She’s since followed that up with two more brilliant YA novels, All About Mia, and this year’s Paper Avalanche. Here Lisa talks through some of the current trends in the YA market, and offers up some tips for those of you working on YA or Children’s Fiction…

If Twitter is to be believed, young adult fiction, more specifically UK young adult fiction (UKYA) is DOOMED. Figures realised last month revealed that YA sales fell by £6.2m to £22.5m last year, the lowest point in 11 years, with volume down by 26.1% to 3.3m books sold. A number of pessimistic news articles and Twitter threads followed, bemoaning falling advances, an overcrowded market and the dominance of US titles, especially those with film tie-ins. Already, a number of my peers have jumped the YA ship to write for adults or children, and I suspect many more might do the same. More worryingly perhaps, I’ve spotted tweets from aspiring YA writers contemplating giving up on their projects entirely, fearful they will never find success in the current climate.

As a UKYA author, I was definitely rattled by the figures. However, my overriding response was one of disappointment. The news coverage focussed almost entirely on what was wrong with the industry. Where was the hope? Where were the positives? Where were the solutions? As bestselling YA author Sara Barnard tweeted ‘In about a year/eighteen months time there’s going to be a sudden dip in the amount of new UK YA and everyone will pontificate on why, and I’m going to tell you right now, it’s because of this constant doom and gloom atmosphere. It’s so dispiriting. A creativity suck.’ Another YA favourite, Holly Bourne, reiterated this sentiment, tweeting ‘…fear can destroy creativity. The most life-changing books I ever read, I read when I was a teenager. It’s so, so, important we keep pumping creativity into this hugely important market.’

In an effort to offset the surge in negativity, I decided to take the opportunity to shout about all the wonderful things in the UKYA scene. For a month, I championed a UKYA book per day, using the hashtag ‘CelebrateYA’. The enthusiastic response confirmed that although UKYA is undoubtedly going a quiet patch right now, it retains its unique ability to touch readers and in many cases (as per Bourne’s tweet) genuinely shape or even change lives.

The fact remains that young people want, need and deserve stories written specifically for them. Over four years after its publication, I still receive emails from young transgender people thanking me for writing The Art of Being Normal (a novel featuring transgender teenagers). My message to any aspiring YA writers reading this is therefore a resounding ‘KEEP GOING!’ Yes, the market is perhaps going to be more competitive than ever, but that doesn’t mean there’s not an audience out there just waiting for your story.

In view of this, I thought I’d share my top five tips for writing an authentic YA novel:

1. Write for your teenage self

In my experience, teenagers can sense a phoney a mile off. When writing YA, authenticity is everything. By authenticity, I don’t for one second mean your story has to be autobiographical. One of the things I love most about being a YA author is the freedom to explore teenage experiences totally unlike my own (ballsy, brash Mia in All About Mia is a prime example of this). Rather, I’m talking about having respect for your audience and characters. I’m almost certain the reason Non Pratt’s debut Trouble is so beloved is because of Non’s genuine affection and respect for her readers. She often talks about writing for her 14 year-old self and this comes across beautifully in her funny, flawed characters and witty, often tender dialogue. As a teenager in the 90s, I craved (but struggled to find) stories about teenage girls like me and my friends. Twenty years on, I’m finally getting to write them and am constantly elated and amazed to find they chime with present day teens.

2. Find the Emotional Truth

I’ve lost count of the number of people, who, when I tell them what I do for a living, ask incredulously how on earth I get inside the head of a teenager. ‘But you’ve been one,’ I tell them. ‘Yes, but I don’t remember any of it,’ they reply. As adults, it’s easy to get bogged down with all the things that are different about being a teenager in 2019 and assume they’re another species entirely. As a teenager in the 90s, I was free from things like smart phones and social media. Although these technological advances have undoubtedly had an impact on teenage lives, the emotional responses to hurt, rejection, success, falling in love, bereavement etc remain unchanged. Getting dumped still hurts whether it’s a phone call on your parents’ land line or a message via WhatsApp. There’s a reason why Holly Bourne’s novels are so successful. She’s an expert at accessing the emotional truth of every situation her characters find themselves in, regardless of the 21st century technology in the mix.

3. Listen to teenagers

The young people in my life are all under the age of ten and apart from a bit of eavesdropping on the bus, I come into little contact with teenagers on a daily basis. Although I remember a lot about being a teenager (thanks in part to my dedicated diary keeping), there is nothing like spending time with your intended audience to really get you in the zone. When I was writing my debut novel, a writing group colleague kindly ‘loaned’ me her two daughters and their teenage friends for the afternoon. Over pizza, I quizzed them about everything from dating etiquette and school cliques, to Snapchat and exam anxiety. The most important information of all was gained by just sitting back and observing the way they spoke and sat and interacted with each other. I went back to the writing desk feeling energised and inspired by my time in their company.

4. Find the extraordinary in the ordinary

I write contemporary YA, and as my #CelebrateYA posts reveal, it also makes up the bulk of what I read. There is a misconception that teenagers need twists and turns on every page to keep them interested. This may be true for some genres, e.g. dystopia or thriller, but some of my absolute favourite YA titles work on a much smaller scale. Sara Barnard’s Fierce Fragile Hearts is a prime example. Following the day-to-day life of care leaver Suzanne, Barnard weaves a compelling tale, finding power and beauty in the seemingly most ordinary of events (a shift at work, getting to know an elderly neighbour, meeting a boy at a party). The devil is in the detail. If the characters and voice are interesting enough, every single thing they do, from boiling an egg to taking the dog for a walk, will have the potential to draw in the reader. For further examples of this, take a look at the work of Jenny Downham, Clare Furness and Alice Oseman. All are masters at making magic out of everyday life.

5. Nothing is off-limits

UKYA is ballsy and brave. It explores race (Orange Boy by Patrice Lawrence), gender (I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman), sexuality (All of the Above by Juno Dawson), abuse (the upcoming Furious Thing by Jenny Downham), disability (I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson), poverty (Smart by Kim Slater), mental health (Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes? by Holly Bourne), class (Skylarks by Karen Gregory), and the care system (Salvage by Keren David). UKYA is hilariously funny (Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison), heartbreaking (Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield), gripping (White Rabbit, Red Wolf by Tom Pollock) and clever (The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James). When it comes to UKYA, there are no boundaries. Admittedly, some publishers might be more conservative than others when acquiring new titles, but if a book is good enough, I’m convinced it will always find a home eventually. Forget trends and market forecasts and bestseller lists. Write the book only you can write.

Finally, to anyone worried about the recent dip in sales, rest assured the publishing industry is so slow, that by the time your novel is ready to hit the shelves, the picture could be very different indeed. In the meantime, just get it written. There’s a teenager (or future teenager) out there waiting for it.

If you’re writing a YA novel, take a look at our tailored  Writing YA and Children’s Fiction online course with Catherine Johnson – a hugely experienced author who has written across YA and younger fiction for many years. Applications close this Sunday (17th!). 

Take a look at the other courses we have on offer here.

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