Who is Amy Green? Sarah Webb on teens, trouble and terrific stories!

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews

By Hazel Gaynor

Sarah Webb is the author of the hugely successful Ask Amy Green books for young teens. She was recently shortlisted for both the Queen of Teen and the Irish Book Awards for the series. She was a children’s bookseller for many years and also writes best selling popular fiction for adults.

Here Sarah Webb tells Hazel Geynor for writing.ie all about how Amy Green was born…

How did you first develop the idea for the Amy Green series?

I do a lot of school visits both with the Writers in Schools scheme and independently. On one visit in 2007, I got talking to some of the girls afterwards and they asked me would I consider writing for their age group as I was clearly (in their words) ‘just a big kid’! So I said I’d think about it and off I went. I was out walking one day the following week before sitting down at my desk – to finish an adult novel – and I started thinking about my own teenage years and how things haven’t changed much. There’s still peer pressure, body image issues, bullying, the cool girls and the not so cool girls etc etc. And then Amy Green popped into my head almost fully formed, a version of myself as a teenager, but way cooler, obviously!

Once I had the main character, and her voice (first person – I love first person) I was off. Clover came next, Amy’s mad 17 year old aunt who works on an Irish teenage magazine called The Goss, then Amy’s best friend, Mills, then Seth, her boyfriend, and the rest of her slightly eccentric Dublin family – her mum, Sylvie, Dave, her step-dad, her useless dad, Art, his new wife, Shelly and so on. I had such fun creating them all! And Amy’s first book, Boy Trouble pretty much wrote itself.

I sent the first three chapters, a plot outline and some characters notes, complete with a letter in Amy’s voice, to my agent, and she sent it out to several publishers. Walker Books put in a pre-emptive bid ahead of auction and Amy’s fate was sealed. The books are now published in Ireland, the UK, Australia, the US and Poland, with Italian versions coming next year. I was and still am hugely excited to be working with my favourite children’s publisher, Walker Books (and I’m not just saying that – I have worked in children’s books for nearly twenty years and they are amazing!) – it’s a complete joy. I started off writing for children and now I feel I’ve come home.

What research did you carry out for the characters and for writing for the ‘teen’ fiction market in general?

Luckily I read a huge amount of teen fiction for fun. It’s brilliant, the characters are cracking, and the plots so carefully crafted. I adore Judy Blume, Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson. Oh and Sarah Dessen is also amazing. And I’m a big teenager at heart, so morphing into the mind of a 13 year old isn’t all that hard!

But I do have a special teen editor, Kate, who reads my books before my editors do and keeps them on the teen straight and narrow. And next year I’ll be recruiting some new teen editors to do early reading for me and to tell me what it’s like being a teen today. But I mainly do this ‘cos it’s fun!

If people do want to write for teens, it’s vital they read as much modern teen fiction as they can get their hands on, in the genre they want to write in – urban fantasy, family drama, comedy, romance, sci fi, fantasy etc. Teen is an age group, not a genre after all!

The most important thing of all if you want to write for teens is this – find an authentic and original teenage voice. Remembering your teen years like you can taste them gives you a kicking head start.

What are your top 5 tips for creating character?

Tips? Yikes! OK, I’ll give it a go!

1. No character is all good or all bad – even the worst characters must have some redeeming characteristics; even the best must scream at their mum now and then. Make them realistic.

2. Think about how your characters speak. It’s says a lot about a person.

Do they use ‘like’ a lot? Do they have a special vocab or special words they like to use?

Clover says ‘coolaboola’ a lot, calls Amy ‘babes’, ‘hon’, and ‘Bean Machine’. Her favourite swear words are pog and poogarooney (you can’t swear in young teen books, so I made up swear words!). Amy has a jaunty, fun way of speaking and she often invents words too. The D4s are, like, so sad and from the way they speak, think they’re in California! Play with dialogue, it will make your characters come alive.

3. Keep a character notebook. Before you start writing the plot, think long and hard about each main character – who they are, what they love, hate. Their passions, their dreams. The more you know about them, the easier they will be to write.

4. Think larger than life. Make your characters BIG. But not all of them.

I wanted to make Amy Green a kind of everygirl – someone readers could connect with and image as their best friend. But Clover is certainly larger than life – big, bold, daring and a little crazy!

5. Names matter more than you think. Give your characters apt names. If they live in Cork, they might be McCarthy’s or O’Donovans. If they are Polish, they might be Martas; English, Charlottes. Have fun with names. My D4s (the mean girls in the Amy Green books) are called Annabelle Hamilton, Nina Pickering and Sophie Piggott (who really is a pig). Amber Horsefell is another D4, and Cliona Bang is Clover’s arch enemy.

What techniques do you use to develop your characters across a series such as Amy Green?

Techniques? Double yikes! I do have a character bible, where I jot down all the details about the different characters – birthdays, likes, dislikes, eye colour, height etc – so I don’t get anything wrong three books in. Sadly I think of my characters as real people, they dance in front of my eyes, so I don’t have problems developing them. To me, books ARE character, plain and simple.

How do you approach a series such as Amy Green? Do you have several manuscripts in progress at once, or do you finish one entirely before starting on the next?

Good question. At the moment I’m finishing up an adult book – The Shoestring Club, working on the edits of Ask Amy Green 4: Party Drama-Rama, and thinking about book 5: Dancing Daze, as well as mulling over some ideas for a brand new series for young teens.

This is how it has been for the last few years. Luckily I know Amy and the gang so well at this stage I find it easy to jump in and out of their lives to work on other projects. But I know I’ll be distraught when I have to say goodbye to them. Sorry, I’m coming over all J K Rowling!

How important has the Amy Green website been as an extension of the books?

I do love my website – www.askamygreen.com – it’s so pretty, like Holly Hobby, remember Holly Hobby? And it’s a great way of communicating with readers and building an Amy Green community on-line.

Readers must be able to contact writers these days, it’s vital. They expect it, and getting emails and Facebook messages from Amy Green readers is fantastic. I’d highly advise anyone interested in writing for children or teens to invest lots of time in building a cool website – but remember content is king. You have to work at it, update it and blog as often as you can.

Do you use different techniques to write the content for that?

I’m liking this whole ‘technique’ thing – but I must admit I have no idea what it means. I’ve never done a writing course or anything like that, I’m very much self taught. I write the website content in the same way I write the books. It’s all just me. Luckily readers seem to like my writing voice – which diamond rocks as Amy would say. I think the most important thing when you’re writing – fiction or fact – is to just be yourself!

Find out more about Sarah on her Amy Green website www.askamygreen.com

© Hazel Gaynor for writing.ie

About the author

Hazel Gaynor is a blogger and freelance writer, specialising in parenting and the modern family. Hazel’s blog ‘Hot Cross Mum‘ offers an honest, frank and humorous insight into life at home with two young boys. ‘Hot Cross Mum’ was listed in The Independent Top 50 Parenting Websites and Blogs in October 2009 and has been ranked in the UKs Top 100 Parenting Blogs index since September 2009. ‘Hot Cross Mum’ was shortlisted for the 2010 Irish Blog Awards and was awarded a gurgle.com blog award in July 2010.

When she’s not blogging, chasing around after her two children or avoiding the ironing, Hazel writes features for the Irish Examiner, The Irish Independent and Modern Mum magazine and contributes regularly to parenting websites. She has also written a weekly column for The Leinster Leader andblogged for Hello magazine.

Hazel has appeared on national radio and TV and was featured in The Sunday Times Magazine in January 2010. In addition to running the Inkwell Blogging & Beyond online workshop, she is currently working on her first fiction novel.

Hazel lives in Co. Kildare, Ireland with her husband, two children and a kitten which is intent on destroying her leather sofa.

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