How to Keep the Lovers in Your YA Novel Apart

shutterstock_217031539I’m not going to try to deny it. I love a great love story. Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Katniss and Peeta. The problem as a YA writer, though, is that there are only so many good reasons that an author has to keep the lovers in the story apart. One of my favorite love obstacles was on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Buffy and her love, Angel, were “together”, Angel becomes an evil vampire hellbent on killing her due to an ancient curse placed on him. It made for pretty intense viewing, but it could only last a few seasons before the options fizzled out.

As I continue to noodle on my next series, which will have a fairly weighty romance element woven in, I wanted to consider some of the options for making love difficult for my protagonist (poor thing – not a word written and I’m already trying to sabotage her). Here are some of the classic romantic obstacles and examples of how they’ve been handled by YA writing pros.

The Love Triangle
Sure, it’s overplayed. For a good reason. A well-written love triangle gives readers the exhilaration of true love and the pathos of heartbreak in one neat package. A really cool twist on the love triangle that I recently enjoyed was Timebound (The Chronos Files Book 1) by Rysa Walker. The heroine has the ability to travel in time, and making changes to history affects the world as she knows it. As a result, she has two soul mates from different timelines – but she only remembers one. Too bad he doesn’t remember her… Some prominent voices in traditional publishing are saying that love triangles are really overplayed right now, but I think there is still a place for them. However, it has to be tackled with care – three likable characters are a must and a unique twist is even better.

Somebody’s Already Taken
There’s nothing like falling in love with someone who’s already in love with someone else to create high drama. I thought Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins did a good job of evolving friendship into love without being cliché. In this case, it wasn’t the protagonist who was taken, but the boy she likes. It brought me back to the days of watching Joey pine for Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. So relatable and the drama carried me through for this super quick read.

They Hate Each Other…Until They Don’t
This is a staple of a lot of romance novels, and I’ve seen it work for YA fiction as well. The key to doing it well is having the lovers have a compelling reason to hate each other (think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth hates what a snotty brat Mr. Darcy is, and Mr. Darcy is appalled by her trashy family, rather than a Harlequin romance). Where it falls apart is when the reason the characters don’t like each other is flimsy to begin with, because the conflict in the story feels artificial, or there simply isn’t enough of it.

They’re From Two Groups Who Hate Each Other
The classic example is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but for a more recent example, check out The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The author uses a caste system in the series. The heroine is from a low caste, and the hero is a prince. It leads to lots of conflict because there are many people invested in seeing their relationship fail. One reason I think this device works well is because the hero and heroine don’t have to lose faith in each other, cheat, or doubt their feelings, which can make a reader’s interest fizzle. They’re on the same team, battling forces outside their control.

It’s Too Dangerous to Be Together
Especially in YA fantasy and dystopian books, this is a popular theme. The Twilight series famously combined this with the love triangle and was spectacularly popular. I have to hand it to Stephanie Meyer, the idea that your soul mate might kill you at any time was a twist I hadn’t seen a lot of in YA fantasy before she wrote her series. But other books have been successful here too – I enjoyed the Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi. The world is toxic and on the brink of war, so the main characters have to put aside their love for each other to battle the bleak realities of their lives.

Something No One’s Seen Before
This is the hardest and best option. The devices listed above are tried and true, but as a reader there is nothing that hooks me more than a love that is too nuanced to be shoved into one category. I recently read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and the hero and heroine are kept apart by lots of things – their age, insecurities, and personal tormentors, to name a few. But the depth of and sweetness of the feeling couldn’t be denied. In the end, good writing trumps all.

I’m on the hunt for YA books that handle romance skillfully as inspiration for my next series. Any recommendations?

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The Pros and Cons of Cursing in Young Adult Literature

expletiveAfter six books that were curse free, I’ll never forget my surprise near the end of the final Harry Potter book, when Mrs. Weasley calls the woman who killed her son a bitch. I remember wondering – can she do that? Of course, she can and she did. But that’s J. K. Rowling. Should you, in your self-published young adult novel, take the same risk?

The general consensus is that there is no consensus. Some parents (and even YA readers) are completely offended by profanity of any sort in literature aimed at readers who are not technically considered adults.

There are ways around this, of course. Authors like John Green, in addition to the occasional real swear word, also invent their own (like “douchepants” in The Fault in our Stars). Personally, I think that made up curse words rarely  have the same impact as the real thing, and, at worst, come off a little silly. Occasionally there’s a word like “frak” from the Battlestar Gallactica TV show that resonates, but often it feels like what it is – a bit of a cop out.

In general, using a few well-chosen curse words in YA literature seems like a pretty safe bet. Most people are comfortable with it in specific situations, especially if the words chosen aren’t the really forbidden ones. (You know what they are.) YA authors who use some cursing  are in good company – a 2012 Brigham Young study reported that 88% of the top 40 YA books contained at least some profanity.

Of course, there’s always the option to stay completely clean, although I can’t imagine a scenario where a young adult says, “Aw, pickles!” when he’s really frustrated. That might inspire my laughter, but there is no universe in which that character can be considered anything approaching cool.

I’m considering, for my next series, writing from the perspective of a character who would swear A LOT. It feels like it would be true to her voice to never hold back. Have you ever known someone who curses less in anger, but more as a matter of course? I have, and it’s funny and refreshing. But then again, I was raised in a house where cursing was okay as long as we didn’t do it in public. I don’t think that’s rare – teens are exposed to swearing much more today than a few decades ago, and it doesn’t have the same power to offend that it did in the past.

I would really value some advice on this one. Do you think that considerable cursing in YA literature is acceptable, or should I tone down how my character talks so as not to offend?

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How to Kill the Villian in Your YA Fantasy Series (with Style)

shutterstock_96012164The time has come, now that I’m wrapping up my YA/Middle Grade fantasy series, The Conjurors, to say goodbye to my favorite character – the villain. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s going to get the axe. Unfortunately, his actions have been so unforgivable that I can’t risk leaving him alive in a jail cell somewhere. He’d always be at the back of my mind, and I’d worry that he’d get loose and hurt the characters in my story who have earned their happily-ever-afters.

So what should be my weapon of choice? A simple thrust through the heart, perhaps? Or something more complicated, like when Voldemort’s own killing curse is reflected back on him and he technically dies by his own hand? If you sense that I’m morbidly excited to off him, you’d be absolutely right.

As I plot my own villain’s demise, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from all-star YA fantasy authors who have axed their villains with flair.

Make it personal.
Dark Triumph, His Fair Assassin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers
In order for readers to truly relish the demise of a villain, the protagonist needs to have a profound connection with her nemesis. In many cases she has spent years or even decades battling this foe, with a string of defeats behind her. That’s why it’s so sweet when the villain is slain at last – it makes the world better, yes, but it also fundamentally changes the protagonist for the better. When the heroine in Dark Triumph, Sybella, kills the truly horrible villain of the first two books, d’Albret, it isn’t abstract or at a distance. Raised as his daughter and tormented by him her entire life, the demise of d’Albret can be at no hand but her own for the reader to find it satisfying. And LaFevers doesn’t disappoint. Sybella personally plunges her dagger into his belly and damages as many organs as she can. Both the personal connection Sybella has with the villain and the personal nature of how she destroys him makes his demise gory but intensely satisfying.

Let your hero win the day but share the glory.
The Last Olympian, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Rick Riordan
There is a cathartic enjoyment watching a protagonist ride into the sunset in a blaze of glory and recognition, but there is a deeper, more profound satisfaction from watching him give the credit away, giving up the fame and being the quiet, unsung hero. Riordan does a great job of executing this in the final battle of the Percy Jackson series. Percy is fighting a friend, Luke, who betrayed him and is now possessed by the villain of the series, Kronos. For a moment Luke manages to regain control of himself, and Percy gives him a knife and Luke kills himself, delivering the final blow to Kronos at the same time. Luke’s sacrifice makes him the hero. But Percy is a hero too, choosing to trust Luke to make the right choice and not to insist that he be the one to deliver the killing blow. As a reader, I never liked Percy more than at that powerful moment.

Have your protagonist tap into new strength/power/mental toughness.
Clockwork Princess, The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare
If you’re writing a series and are finally coming to a point where it’s time to kill the villain of the series, your protagonist has likely had some successes. She has tapped into new powers, learned new skills, and grown as a human in every book. But now you have to top yourself one last time, and let her tap into something truly amazing within herself in order to finally emerge victorious. In Clockwork Princess, Tessa does just that. She has the power to change her form and become anyone, as long as she has an object that belongs to them. In the climax of the series, she turns into an angel who is trapped within a necklace, and destroys the villain, Mortmain, in a blaze of power. He dies scorched in her grip. I also like that Cassandra Clare makes Tessa pay a price for tapping in to so much power, and she nearly dies. Destroying your arch nemesis shouldn’t be easy.

Give your protagonist a positive motivator to destroy the villain (rather than being driven by hate).
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
It can sound counterintuitive to say that your protagonist shouldn’t be fueled by hate for the villain, but I’ve found again and again that the best protagonists grow to be motivated by a positive emotion, like love, rather than a negative one, like revenge or hatred. Warm Bodies is an unusual example of this, but bear with me. In this story, the true villain is a plague that turns people into zombies. That plague is really apathy and giving up on life, and the hero of the book, R, fights back, even though he has succumbed to the plague. When R chooses life and love, risking everything for his soul mate, Julie, he defeats this enemy by coming back from the dead, returning to life.

 

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On Using Story Cartel to Get Reviews for Your Self-Published Book

Story-Cartel-logo-300x284For self-published authors, establishing credibility with a substantial number of honest reviews is crucial in order to sell books. In an effort to get more reviews of the first book in The Conjurors Series, I tried a website called Story Cartel. For $30, you are allowed to list your book on the site, where readers can download your book for free. Readers who write reviews of the books they download are entered into contests for various prizes, like gift cards or a new Kindle. During my promotion and I received 8 reviews (four4-star, four 5-star).

Ultimately I’m happy that I decided to use Story Cartel. I kept my expectations reasonable. There are some folks who received 50 reviews using Story Cartel, but most of my research prepared me that I’d be lucky to get more than five. I now have seven more positive reviews of The Society of Imaginary Friends than I did before, which will hopefully make the next promotion of my book more powerful.

Pros:

  1. Story Cartel has a built-in network of readers who have probably never seen your book before, so you have the chance to get new, honest reviews. You are guaranteed to get at least one new review or you get a refund.
  2. After the promotion, Story Cartel gives you a list of the names and email addresses of everyone who downloaded your book. This provides you the ability to politely reach out after your promotion to see if they are interested in reading other work by you.
  3. It’s a great opportunity to get some honest feedback about your book. Especially if you’ve only had a friendly audience reviewing your story, even a few new reviews can help you understand if there are major changes that you need to make before you continue to promote your book.

Cons:

  1. It isn’t free, and you only get your money back if you get no reviews at all. Story Cartel charges $30 for their service, which is money they use for prizes that they give to readers who post reviews.
  2. It’s up to you to promote your giveaway on Story Cartel if you want more than a few reviews. I made a couple of posts on Twitter and Facebook, and that seemed to help get a few extra readers of my book.
  3. Some reviewers don’t post genuine reviews. I had one reviewer who writes generic reviews and posts them for a whole bunch of books in order to be entered into the Story Cartel prize drawing multiple times. She didn’t actually read my book and provide an honest review.

Has anyone else used Story Cartel? What was your experience like?

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Calling All Self-Published Authors: Book Review Exchange

shutterstock_108685118One of the most powerful marketing tools that your book can have is one that doesn’t cost anything at all – honest reviews. It’s one of the first things that readers look for when they’re deciding whether a book is worth checking out. In particular, self-published novels need good reviews, because readers are trying to sift through hundreds of cheap – or free – books, many of which aren’t high quality.

The other value that I’ve found equally important from reviews is that it is a great way to get honest feedback about your book. Friends, family, and even beta readers are biased. Strangers can often provide insights that you’d never get otherwise. For example, reviews of The Conjurors Series have alerted me to the fact that I may be targeting the wrong audience for my story. I’d considered it YA fantasy, but readers think it is more appropriate for a younger audience. In the future, I’m going to promote it more heavily to middle grade readers.

I’d also like to get more reviews for the books in The Conjurors Series. To that end, I’m asking anyone who is interested in exchanging books to read and honestly review to reach out to me in the form below. I’ll read yours and provide reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other sites where you’re promoting your book, if you’ll do the same for me.

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How to End Your Self-Published Book Series

shutterstock_55706296As I begin plotting the final book in The Conjurors Series, I noticed that it is by far the hardest book to write. It feels as though the stakes for my protagonist have never been higher, and it can be intimidating trying to ensure that she lives up her potential.

Faced with such high expectations, I looked at how other successful authors have successfully tackled ending their series. Below are the tips I found most useful as Valerie embarked on her final adventure.

Keep up your momentum and passion for your series.
Whether your three books in or twelve, by now you’ve probably invested hundreds of hours and maybe even several years of your life to the characters in your series. You’ve analyzed the character traits of your protagonist so many times that she starts to feel like an annoying family member who won’t leave you alone. But readers who have grown to love your protagonist want to see her make her final stand with flair and walk into a satisfying sunset. Remember how excited you were to plot book 1? Make sure that same energy pervades every last sentence of your series.

Reread your series to make sure you complete all of the storylines you started.
There is nothing that makes me crazier than a series that doesn’t tie up all of its loose ends. Whether it’s a character who is introduced and then disappears or foreshadowing that never results in anything, I find that the disappointment of a missed connection can sour a series that I’ve otherwise enjoyed. You never know what tidbits your readers will remember, so be sure that you don’t leave any holes in your story.

Show readers how much your protagonist has evolved (or devolved, as the case may be).
A good series has its protagonist evolve not just within each book, but over the series as a whole. When you’re wrapping up your series, remind readers of how far your protagonist has come. In the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, Katniss revisits District 12, where she grew up, and we are reminded how she went from being a scrappy kid fighting for survival to the inspiration of a revolution that changed the country.

Take time to say goodbye.
You don’t need to write a farewell speech for each of the key players in your story, but take time to give readers a sense of closure for the characters they’ve become attached to. Also give yourself a chance to pause and realize that your epic has at last reached its ending. For yourself as well as your readers, it’s okay to slow down in order to punctuate that this is truly The End.

Let readers know how to find your future work.
Especially for self-published authors, it’s critical to have your contact information easily accessible to readers who want to continue to read what you write in the future. Whether it’s your website, Facebook page, or even Twitter, provide venues for fans to stay in touch. You’ll be glad when the next book of your new series comes out to have a built in fan base who already likes your style.

Helpful Links

  • This post on The Editor’s Blog on setting up a series.
  • This post on Standoutbooks on what to consider throughout your series.
  • This post on my blog on creating a series bible.

 

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When to Include an Epilogue in Your Novel

shutterstock_177324332Unlike prologues (which I covered in last week’s post) epilogues are a much less controversial concept in the writing community. Everyone from J.K. Rowling to James Dashner uses epilogues to wrap up loose ends and generally give a novel a complete finish. But I would argue that epilogues are just as likely to be abused as prologues, and it is essential to write one only if your novel demands it. Do more details of “happily ever after” really merit an epilogue? Sometimes it is more powerful to let the end stand for itself, and allow readers to make guesses or inferences based on the text.

However, there are also times when an epilogue can be a powerful tool to enhance the reader’s experience.

Introduce a secondary point of view that sheds new light on the story.
In novels that are written from the perspective of one character, the epilogue can be a great place to add an additional layer to your story by giving another character a voice. In The Conjurors Series, I write exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist. I use the epilogues as an opportunity to show a nuance to the story, namely, how the villain of the series is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Use it as a cliffhanger to encourage readers to check out subsequent books in your series.
I’ve seen highly effective epilogues in series that give a little peek into the next book. In the self-publishing world, writing a series is one of the most effective ways to build an audience that is interested in your writing. Epilogues are a great place to give readers an additional scene related to your current story that also has them asking questions that will make them eager to read your next book. I loved the epilogue in The Maze Runner by James Dashner because it not only introduced a new perspective – that of the enemy – but also revealed to the reader that the safety that the main characters believe they have found at the end of the book is false. To discover how they’ll survive, you have to continue the series.

Set your epilogue in the future – but only if you have something new to say.
All too often epilogues simply expand on the happily every after. For example, two main characters get married at the end of the novel, and in the epilogue they have a baby. In this case, slash the epilogue. The reader doesn’t learn anything new, and it can detract from the impact of your novel’s close. On the other hand, there are instances when new information from the future can be powerful and worth including. For example, the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gives readers closure for the characters they had grown to love by showing them as adults. Information set so far in the future makes sense to be separated from the main text, but is meaningful enough that it is worth including.

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