22 April 2010
The seminar on writing for teenagers at this week's London Book Fair was so packed there were people sitting on the floor. This was despite the level of exhibition visitors apparently being lower because of the flight ban (about 10-15% of the stands were empty too).
Barry Cunningham, founder of Chickenhouse publishers which is now part of Scholastic, had some good advice for writers: he said it was important that teenage fiction was told from the teenage experience, and wasn't viewed from an adult experience. He cautioned against writing adult books in disguise ("in animal suits"). There's a difference between books for teenagers and books that have teenagers in them. "It's an important definition," he said. "If we get it wrong, we might as well say all books are for everybody."
The lines are becoming increasingly blurred at a time when Cunningham says booksellers have moved teenage books from the children's section into the adult section, and we've seen so many crossover books which are read by both teenagers and adults (starting with Harry Potter, but also including the Golden Compass among others).
Sophia Bennett, author of the Chickenhouse novel Threads, said that she wrote her book for herself as an 11 year old, but had her own daughters (aged 11 and 13) in mind too. She believes her title is more for 14 year olds, but gets most fan mail from 10-12 year olds who are reading ahead of their age group. She said she has been inspired as much by movies and the internet as literature, and writes short, snappy chapters for "people with attention spans as short as mine".
There was some discussion about the degree to which the authors self-censor their work. Rachel Ward, author of Numbers which was shortlisted for the Waterstones prize in 2009, said that she didn't censor and her book includes bad language, sex, and drugs. The first draft had over 100 F--- words, but during the editing process she took advice on what would be acceptable to teachers, parents and librarians. The swearing was taken down to about 20 occurences, but she says reviewers still say it's in every paragraph. "In real life, the characters would use bad language," she said. Although she described the book as a "neutered version", she also said she was "very comfortable with anything that will get [her] published". For the sequel, she was more self-conscious about who would read the book, and after receiving emails from readers realised that many of them were 12 and not 14. The bad language is still there, but not as strong.
Bennett said that she created a problem for herself in the way her series was structured. In each book, the characters age by two years but the readers are not growing up so quickly. She tried using words like "Drat!" but it seemed too artificial. She found that it took two paragraphs to replace expressions like that without using swearwords, but she said that afterwards she couldn't tell where the edit was, and it felt like she was cheating when she was relying on bursts of dialogue. She also said that booksellers she's spoken to were particularly concerned about sex in teenage books because they want to be able to recommend them to younger girls.
One key idea to emerge in the session was the importance of following your own muse. Bennett warned that if you think about it too much and try to study the market, you'll be two years behind everyone else because that's where the market is today. "Write from the heart," she said.