How do you strike a balance between recognising that young adult readers are no longer children, but are not quite fully fledged adults either? Do you ever second guess yourself and tone down or take out particular scenes or plot lines?
I spend a great deal of time before I start my draft, getting to know my characters. I create profiles, collages and write letters from them to me, which while it sounds crazy, ensures I know each character intimately. This helps me find that balance. Plus, I spend a fair bit of time with young adults, and with children, so I think I have a handle on the different interests, attitudes and issues. I think! Keeping in touch with my audience is important to me.
Once I start the draft, I TRY to just write and not second guess myself…try – I’m not always successful. I rely heavily on my incredible editor and my trusted writing friends to pull me up if I’m either too over the top or sounding to adult. Trusted readers are a writer’s best friend, and their feedback is such a huge gift!
Storytelling has been in your life for a long time – your grandmother was an English teacher, and you say your father and grandfather were always telling stories. How do you think this experience of devouring the tales of others shaped your journey as a writer?
Absolutely! My grandmother and her sister on Mum’s side of the family were obsessed with books and were either reading or talking about books all the time. That naturally rubs off.
My dad practically ate books! He’d have a massive stack of novels by his lounge room chair and would read late into the night. I swear he read a book a day! He also used to tell us a story, rather than read a book to my brothers and sister and I. As I grew older, he would recommend books for me to read – mainly British books. He was quite the Anglophile. Dad’s father taught me rhymes and encouraged me to see the wonder in the world.
Mum took us to the library every Saturday and read to us, and our home had many bulging bookshelves. All of that combined created not just a love of stories, but a thirst for them in all forms – books, movies, oral etc.
How do you approach language as a YA author? Do you try to include the latest lingo and slang as spoken by adolescents in the dialogue of your characters, or does that date too quickly to put into print?
That can be so tough! I try to steer clear of swearing where possible, though having said that, Alex, the main character in my next YA novel, Still Water, has a fair potty mouth at times! Again, I tend to just write what feels right in the first draft and pare back when I edit, and further with the help of my editor.
I avoid lingo wherever possible for several reasons: it often feels very unnatural and try hard when I am writing it, it can date a book, and slang varies so much from place to place, even school to school. I don’t want anything in my writing to distance or exclude my reader.
I do throw in a few things that suit the character, but generally only those that slip through without ‘thought’ on my behalf.
What is it about that adolescent, coming of age period that interests you so much? Is it an inherently fascinating area of examination, or is it one that allows for broader brushstrokes and moments of realisation?
That’s a tough one. I guess for me, my interest is a more personal one. Adolescence was a tough time. I remember being endlessly confused about who I was and where I fitted in and angst ridden about so many things – body image, environmental stuff, friends, teachers etc. I always felt different – that in some way I didn’t fit. Friends, music and football were my world – an extension of me somehow. And I used humour as a defense and way of coping with everything (yep, I was a loud mouthed smart alec – hold on, I think I still am!) Wow – that’s kind of baring it all!
What I’m trying to say is I have enormous empathy for teenagers, especially those who are struggling. I was so lucky to have people in my life who looked past my noise and bluster to see the real me and helped me see what that was. That has taught me to try to look beyond what is presented and that has very much influenced my writing. I love to explore why a character is acting as they are, and what it ultimately takes for them to change.
Sue Lawson will be teaching Stories That Resonate: Writing for Young Adults over two days on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 May.