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Deirdre Sullivan on Improper Order & Getting it Right in YA

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing for Children & YA

Deirdre Sullivan

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Sometimes, people ask me if it’s challenging to write for children. If I have to edit myself more carefully, and weave my words through with a sort of instructive morality. The short answer to this is: “No. Because that would be patronizing.”

But there is also a longer answer. I write books for children- young teenagers, specifically. When I was in sixth class we were handing around VC Andrews books- Flowers in the Attic, Heaven, Dawn. Lovely big trashy southern gothic novels, spiced with rape and incest. And they didn’t do me a blind bit of harm. Children can handle a lot in literature. Some of them already have to handle a lot in life. And, I think one of the functions of literature, for children and for grown-ups as well is to teach empathy. But fiction can’t do that explicitly. It has to kind of do it by osmosis. By sucking you in and making you feel what the characters feel, making you identify with them and their situation. The kind of reading people do during their childhoods is all too often lost in adulthood. The gobbling up and spitting out of books the assimilating and processing. The reading and re-reading and re-re-reading, the old-jumper comfort of familiar stories. Of well-loved words. If you write for children or teenagers and they really like it, they will read it more than once.

YA, or young adult fiction, is a strange classification. Because all that is really required for a book to be YA is a teenage protagonist. So, YA incorporates horror, sci-fi, contemporary fiction, short stories and poetry. All the things that are normally consigned to separate sections can co-exist side by side on YA bookshelves. So YA isn’t actually a genre, it’s just a demographic. Books people market to teenagers. Sometimes, like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, these books cross over and get to hang out on the bestseller lists with books marketed to adults. Because the thing about teenagers, is every grown up has been one at some point. And we can identify.

I remember really clearly what it was like to be a teenager. The emotional turmoil of it still cinema-sharp. And that is why I write for teenagers. Because they interest me more, from a creative point of view, than adults do. When I write a first draft, I don’t filter. Things get taken out in edits sometimes. Things that parents won’t like. But I think that for a first draft, the best thing to do is write what you want to write, and throw the filter in a drawer, to be re-used during the edits.

When you have a first draft, you should leave it to sit on your computer for at least six weeks before you start to edit. This is a tip I was given by the lovely Siobhán Parkinson, and it has helped my writing immeasurably. Because when you have finished a thing, there is a sense of pride and accomplishment and a love of your characters that blinkers you to flaws in the narrative, and things that could be made better, or taken out entirely. You need to have perspective before you can edit your work. At least I do.

The way teenagers talk and interact is changing all the time, and I think the best way to make your YA novel as accurate as possible is to read. Read YA, read literary fiction with teenage protagonists, read non-fiction memoirs of teenage years. Read the internet. Read blogs and articles and tumblr. Read teenage magazines. Read Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s website for teenage girls. Read books on feminism. Read everything. Read like you are a child again. Drink it in and assimilate the most nourishing bits for future use. Be aware of how internet-savvy they are, how clued in about certain things. Know the things that advertisers think that they should want. Learn about the school system. The way that is has changed since you went to school. Do your research is basically what I’m saying. But if you are writing YA, a lot of your research will probably overlap with things that are awesome.

A sense of place is something I have trouble with, because I find character interaction more interesting to write about. I kind of sketch the world around my characters, colouring in the bits that I have to, as required by the story. The last book I wrote, which is sitting on my computer waiting for me to take my filter out of the drawer and edit it was set in a world where paranormal things were possible. My first two novels, Prim Improper and Improper Order were set in Dublin. But not an overly specific Dublin. Your world doesn’t need to be geographically specific and completely accurate. It just needs to be true to your character and believable in the context of the narrative. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. With the paranormal, the sense of place becomes more important, because it has to foreshadow things and be a little bit magical while also being as believable as you can possibly make it. I tried to accomplish this by stealing bits of Woodford and Connemara and also by looking up lots of lovely old castles on the internet. YA writers probably had to leave the house a lot more before there was an internet.

So, if you would like to write for teenagers,  don’t patronize them, because you are you and not a sort of Y-Aesop, make it as good and as true and as real as you possibly can, do your research and enjoy yourself.


About the author

deirdreosullivancrop(c) Deirdre Sullivan
Deirdre Sullivan is from Galway. She studied Legal Science and French at NUI Galway and completed an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies before going on to do a postgraduate course in Primary Education in Colaiste Mhuire Marino. It was there that she took a course under the direction of Siobhan Parkinson and had her first novel, Prim Improper, commissioned. Prim Improper was shortlisted for the Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Award 2010-11.
Deirdre contributed two books (Help! My Brother is a Zombie! and Guinea Pig Killer) to Little Island’s nightmare club series in 2011. 
Deirdre enjoys acting, reading, writing, crafting and day-dreaming about the viking who will one day rescue her from her life of drudgery. Also cake. She really, really does enjoy cake.
She blogs at gunstreetgirls.blogspot.ie – you can follow her on twitter- @propermiss
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