Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Know the Rules Before You Break Them

I'm involved in a great mentorship project right now as part of a Yahoo Group. In reading the messages between the mentees and the mentors I've seen a pattern begin to develop. I'm not sure if it's because we're writing YA, but a lot of us don't want to follow the rules. Maybe we're all 16 emotionally, and as my good friend Phillip was fond of saying in first grade - we don't need no stinkin' rules. Rules are for the lesser writer. Rules are for the people who have no imagination.

Rules are for the people who want to be published.

If you're writing for yourself and your friends, then never mind this post. Go crazy. Pull together a 500k word young adult contemporary with a talking dog as a main character.

There are some rules that unfortunately, new writers need to be aware of (and actually follow) if they are writing in the hopes of seeing the words on their laptop become a book someday. I'm going to gear this toward getting an agent because I firmly believe that you need to get an agent in order to write anything longer than picture books. Yeah, another stinkin' rule.

Some of my favorite rules include:

YA = Younger than 18. I hate to say this, but if you're writing about college students, you probably won't be able to sell it as YA. Yes, college is much easier to write - no pesky parents to worry about. But agents probably won't look at it. If you do manage to snag an agent with this manuscript, they're probably going to tell you to rewrite it as high school students before they'll send it out. Yes, I know that ALONG FOR THE RIDE by Sarah Dessen (one of my favorites) is set in the summer between high school and college. She's Sarah Dessen. You're not.

Keep it under 100k. We've all see the doorstops that pass as novels these days - 300 to 500 word (mostly paranormal) books that look like serious reading. Anything over 100k words is going to be a red flag for an agent. Save the big stuff for your second (or third) book.

Know your genre. Contemporary isn't fantasy isn't dystopian. Each genre is a separate being with it's own rules and regs. Study up and know what you're writing before you start submitting. If you're not sure, I suggest a few days spent perusing the posts over on the message boards at Verla Kay. A confused agent isn't likely to read very far.

Get a hook. Your gentle coming-of-age story about a girl who comes to terms with her parents divorce might be really well written, but you probably won't get an agent to read it. It's been done. Find something about your story that is amazing and original and will get the agent excited to read on. A rockus coming of age story about a girl who reacts to her parent's divorce by hooking up with a hot guy who turns out to be an alien sent to bring her back to the mothership? Much more likely to get pages requested. Oh, and make sure the hook comes early in the book. Like the first page.

No more backstory. The great thing about middle grade and young adult books is that they don't fool around. We don't want to see two pages on how the light is falling in the room as the sun sets over the dunes. We don't care. Get to the juicy stuff and make it quick. You might also want to rethink that prologue. Go ahead and write it if you must. Then delete it.

Get rid of the cliches. Does your book start with a dream? With a character looking in the mirror? Does she have a dangerous but attractive lab partner? Are one or more of the parents dead (okay, guilty as charged)? You need to brush up on your cliches because agents have seen them all. There are tons of great blog posts out there about the dreaded YA cliches - one of my favorites is by my pal Joelle Anthony (whose Restoring Harmony is a rockin' book).

The rules are a pain, but worth following, at least for your first book. I know of what I speak. Just ask me about the contemporary/romance/thriller set during freshman year of college I wrote. It's awesome. And unsold.

Agents get hundreds if not thousands of query and sample pages every month - don't give them a reason to reject you off the bat.

On this date: In 1990, Henry and June is the first NC-17 rated film.


Angela Carlie said...

For the love of... No more back story! haha:) Great advice. Thanks for the post!

DanaeAyusso said...

This is actually really amusing and I've said it many times myself. will re-post.

cynjay said...

Glad it wasn't too ranty for you! Sometimes it just has to be said ;)

Mary Brebner said...

Great post--and so true! Once you're published and a solid producer, then yes. Of COURSE there are exceptions. And maybe some of your readers here are exceptions to the rules. But everybody still needs to know the rules! (Okay, babbling in a circle tonight. I think I'm done.)

Thanks for the post!

Cate said...

Sometimes it's hard to hear, but it's all true. So often a writer is just desperate to get their story out, without asking themselves why, or for who. Whom.


Thanks for putting the message out there--

Julie_c said...

Awesome post. I should reread it often when I'm working.

Lisa said...

LOL - I think I inspired some of this :) I was pretty dead set against switching to from college to high school, but I've finally seen the light. Like you said, I love my book in college, but I'd love it even more published!

cynjay said...

Thanks guys - I wish I'd listened to these things starting out. I'd have fewer 'practice' books under my belt.

And Lisa, one of our emails got me thinking, but then I saw several posts/tweets in a row by people who were either writing college-age YA or books with upward of 300k words. Just something to keep in mind ;) And your book will be great in HS too.