2017 YA Fantasy Trends

captureThe crop of YA fantasy novels this year has been a true delight. It’s still February, and I’ve already ripped my way through hundreds of pages of adventure, anguish, and romance. As a reader, it’s been a blissful escape during a year that has been tumultuous for so many of us already.

As a writer, I’m also excited to see that there is a changing of the guard in terms of the kinds of stories being released. I mean no offense to gritty urban fantasy, heroines who seem born knowing how to fight off all kinds of monsters, and epic battlefield clashes, but it’s refreshing to find stories writ smaller, and more intimately, than ever. The new themes and personalities that are emerging keep writers on their toes and readers enthralled.

Here are some of the themes that I’ve found to be both popular and powerful this year.

capture3Parental (and family) drama takes center stage.
This year’s heroines are not the orphans and loners of yesteryear. They must navigate family politics and expectations, and break out of the childhood roles that bind them in order to find their identities apart from their parents. In Stephanie Garber’s novel, Caraval, the heroine has a father who brutally beats her and her sister. Part of her journey is not only physically escaping his control, but breaking through the mental trauma that defines her. What I love about the emphasis of the integral role of family on a protagonist, for better or for worse, is that it leads us away from the view that you can separate an individual from where they come from. Heroines who are the products of their history feel more personal, and believable.

capture4The power of art to change us and define us.
I have enjoyed the YA fantasy of the past few years taking a concrete approach to strength in its heroines. These women could fight the biggest monsters, wield the most magic, and us their wits and logic to overcome any obstacle. But I didn’t know that I was missing heroines with artistic, sensitive souls that gave them strength. Now, I can’t imagine a heroine without one. My favorite example is from S. Jae-Jones’ novel, Wintersong. Liesl, the protagonist, is a composer, and the power of music is a theme that acts as the glue holding the story together. It deepens and intensifies both the reader’s understanding of the protagonist, and lends believability to the “specialness” that makes her unique to a goblin king.

capture2Love interests who are happy to be “beta” males.
Praise all that is good, this year the alpha male appears to be taking a backseat to a subtler, more fragile and human male specimen. Bulging muscles and overconfidence are taken off their pedestal for men who are interested in the arts, slender in their build, and comfortable letting a woman take the driver’s seat. Sigh. I’m halfway in love, just thinking about them. A prime example is the character of Jest in Marissa Meyer’s Heartless, which was released last November, but I’m still counting in our 2017 trends. Jest is a performer and a lover. He’s heroic in his own right, but he never robs Cath, the protagonist, of her choices. There is the risk that he is too perfect, but I’ll take that when I see a heroine with the ability and choice for forge her own future.

Novels that play with our sense of what’s real.
Maybe it’s because so many of us are questioning if our news, our politics, even our own opinions can be trusted, but there is a distinct theme that I’ve found winding its way through YA fantasy this year. The current crop of protagonists not only don’t know who they can trust, but they also must question the reality of the very world they inhabit. From Caraval to Heartless to Wintersong, the heroines’ stories are upended as they question what is real, and what is part of a game. Maybe that’s what many of us our wishing – that we might wake up, like Alice, and discover that the upside-down world that frightened us was nothing more than a dream.

Any other trends that have caught your eye this year, or books that you’d recommend to a reader always starving for a good YA fantasy?

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Best YA Series Endings Ever

Picture1Maybe it’s because we, as readers, become increasingly passionate about our favorite series that we have higher and higher expectations for each book. When you think about it logically, authors like Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling must feel like Atlas, with the weight of all of their successful books on their shoulders, trying to keep their series from tumbling off their backs.

All too often, the end of a great series leaves readers feeling underwhelmed at best, and annoyed at worst (ahem, Twilight series). Many readers were infuriated when Veronica Roth killed of the heroine of the Divergent series, for example. But when a series is ended well, there are few things in the world more satisfying for a devoted reader. Below are my top three favorite YA fantasy series endings, and the lessons I took away from them. Beware of spoilers!

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – Solve a puzzle an entire series in the making.
It may be so obvious as to be a cliché, but Harry Potter has to take top billing for best YA fantasy series endings ever. There were clues planted from book 1 that were finally revealed, and they didn’t disappoint. My favorite moment in the entire series was when Harry finally saw Snape’s memories and understood his true motivation. And the final book was littered with details like this – the invisibility cloak, Dumbledore’s past, even the much-awaited kiss between Hermione and Ron. The final battle was brutal but satisfying, and the epilogue gave readers a sense of closure. Readers may have their issues with the series conclusion, but for the most part they were minor. The brilliance of the series ending was a testament to the brilliance of the entire series.

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield – Evolve your character in a meaningful way within each book and throughout the series.
Tally Youngblood, the protagonist in The Uglies Series, is a compelling example of how a character must continue to evolve in every single book of a series. Westerfield does a masterful job of evolving Tally’s thinking, maturity, and understanding of the world around her. She increasingly sees that things aren’t black and white, and as she understands nuance, she grows up. The Tally at the beginning and end of each book is different, and so are the Tally at the beginning and end of the series. The only way that Westerfield could have achieved this is if he planned the stages that Tally would go through from the beginning. It’s this level of planning that’s required to create a masterpiece.

The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry – Pivot perspectives to keep the series fresh.
Lowry takes a different approach than Rowling or Westerfield to keep readers hooked. Each one of the books of The Giver Quartet are unique, but interconnected. It’s fascinating to watch old characters interact with new, creating a webbed world that feels real because of its complexity. By the end of The Giver Quartet I felt so immersed in the world that I could have added my own chapter to it. When others want to continue living in a world you’ve created, you know you have a great story.

What’s your YA fantasy series ending ever?

Write an Opening Chapter that Hooks Readers

CaptureThis year, I have left behind the characters who populated the series that I’ve been writing for several years. I’m embarking on a voyage to a new world, with a crew who is brand new to me. It’s fun and thrilling to be writing something completely new, but starting from scratch is also much harder than continuing a series.

The first chapter of any book, but especially the first book in a series, has to be gripping. Win a reader and they could go on to follow your characters for a long time. I’m now on the fifth major rewrite of my first chapter, and in honor of that I thought I’d share some DOs and DON’Ts that I’ve learned the hard way, with examples of excellent series openings from successful YA authors.

DO get to the story quickly rather than delving into too much description.
When your readers know nothing, it’s tempting to want to share everything you can about their backstory and the world they inhabit. But readers want to be immersed in a world, unaware that they are learning a character’s quirks and how their world functions because they’re more involved in the drama unfolding. I love Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the first book of The Lunar Chronicles, because she doesn’t waste time introducing Cinder and Prince Charming and throwing them together right away. She hooked me by the end of the first chapter, and I kept reading until I finished the series.

DON’T jump into the middle of an action sequence from the first page. (Most of the time.)
Some authors take the advice of getting to the story quickly to mean that they throw their main character into the middle of a battle, or struggling to survive, from the first sentence. Remember, before your protagonist faces big danger, the reader has to care if they live or die. There are examples of stories that start “In Medias Res” (in the middle of things) but those done well are rare. If you’re a new author, stick to a simpler scene that lets us get to know the character.

DO give readers a picture of what the main characters look like.
While no reader wants to read pages about the protagonist’s long, flowing locks of golden hair, they do want to have a sketch of the characters in their minds. This is a tidbit that I’ve ignored in the past, and readers and agents have called me on it time and again. For an example of an author who puts a riveting picture in your mind from page one, check out We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. When the main character says of her family, “The Sinclairs are athletic, tall and handsome…Our smiles are wide, our chins are square, and our tennis serves aggressive” we can picture the protagonist and her family’s appearance and personality in one swoop.

DON’T start your story with your character waking up.
I saw this tidbit in several reputed literary agents’ pet peeves. Starting your story at the start of your main character’s day makes logical sense – to everyone. Readers, editors, and agents alike have read this kind of opening so many times that it has become cliche.

DO end your first chapter with a teaser that invites the reader to turn the page, NOW.
No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it takes time to get a reader to invest emotionally in your character’s life. The first chapter is about piquing the reader’s interest, but it will take longer than that to earn their sympathy and empathy. With that in mind, a little mystery or promise of something fascinating to come goes a long way toward keeping readers moving forward with your story. Maggie Stiefvater does an excellent job of this in The Raven Boys. She introduces the protagonist, Blue, as a girl from a family with supernatural gifts. They’ve always predicted that she will kill her true love. The chapter ends with a promise from one of the characters that this is the year that she’ll fall in love. Will I continue reading? Hell, yes!

DON’T be afraid to change your first chapter, even if it impacts the rest of your story.
I know from experience that there is nothing more daunting for a writer than making a change to the first chapter that ripples through the rest of the book you’ve written (or in some cases, the series). But taking the time to make the opening perfect is an investment that will pay you back in spades. If readers aren’t hooked, they’ll never have the opportunity to see how great your writing gets by chapter 6. So grit your teeth and make it perfect, consequences be damned.

There are few things more difficult to do, or more critical to your success as an author, than writing an outstanding first chapter. But when you get it exactly right, the momentum can carry you through the rest of the book, and even the rest of the series. Readers will forgive a crappy chapter 32, but they will never read past a weak chapter 1.

How to Weave Believable Technology into Your YA Dystopian Novel (Part 1)

CityI’m in the process of closing my current series and beginning a new one, and I’m thrilled at the chance to create a new world from scratch. My next series will be dystopian YA, and in preparation I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the kinds of technology that I want to incorporate into the world. When I’m engrossed in a well-written YA dystopian novel, the technology never feels foreign. I think that’s because it’s a natural extension of technology that exists today, and therefore feels so plausible that it doesn’t give me pause. On the other hand, when technology is not done well, it often feels superfluous, like a special effect that isn’t really essential to the plot.

Below are some of the ways that successful YA dystopian authors seamlessly integrated technology into the worlds they created.

Have relevant technology interact with the setting of your novel in a way that shapes your protagonist’s mental landscape.
Under the Never Sky, Veronica Rossi
In Under the Never Sky, the heroine, Aria, lives in an enclosed city because the outside world is considered toxic. As a result, space is at a premium. So that people don’t go crazy by being trapped in tight quarters, the Internet and virtual reality mingle to create a world of infinite space. As a result, in reality people may be weak or even malnourished. So when Aria is cast out of the city into the toxic outdoor world, she is more vulnerable than the “savages” who have spent their lives fighting for survival, and are therefore in prime physical condition. This unique use of technology and setting feels like a natural extension of how the Internet works today, and it isn’t superfluous. It’s essential that it exists in order to drive the plot forward.

Modify an existing technology by taking it to the extreme.
Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman
Today, kidneys, hearts, lungs and other organs can be transplanted, but imagine a world where that technology is taken to the extreme, and eyes, arms, even brains can be transplanted. One of the creepiest YA books I’ve encountered was Unwind. The premise is that parents can choose to have their kids “unwound” when they’re teenagers – have every single body part donated to science, so their troublesome teen is effectively gone, without officially having been murdered. Most of the technology in this series isn’t creative, but this one strong premise makes it feel wildly futuristic and spookily familiar at the same time.

Have your young protagonist interact with technology of the future in a way that adults wouldn’t.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game is a classic, and a longtime favorite of mine. The setting, though it is in a very futuristic world complete with space ships and flashy weapons, is also not particularly unique. It’s technology we’ve seen in Star Trek and a number of popular sci-fi books. What makes it unique, however, is that the protagonist is a kid, and he reacts to it differently than any of the adult protagonists of other books and shows do. He finds creative ways to manipulate this technology, and ultimately is himself a victim of his own innocence when it comes to the power of the technology he wields. As a YA author, considering how your young protagonist will inhabit the world you’ve created is crucial. Remember that they are learning about it alongside you and your reader, rather than guiding you through it.

MedicalInvent a medical technology that solves a current problem in a way that creates a new one.
Uglies, Scott Westerfeld
There are a number of effective uses of futuristic technology in the Uglies series, but the most dramatic is the extreme plastic surgery that everyone undergoes to be made beautiful as they enter adulthood. Aside from looks, this also includes messing with the brain so that people are placid drones who don’t question the status quo. What worked well with the way the technology was handled was that the author didn’t over-explain it. The mechanics were hinted at, but specifics were left to the reader’s imagination.

Incorporate technology that affects the social structure of your world.
Matched, Ally Condie
In Matched, it is less the physical technology that takes center stage, but rather software that matches soul mates to each other that forms the premise of the series. It’s easy to think of futuristic technology in terms of things, like hovercrafts, but this more subtle use of technology can be even more believable and compelling. Matched, like Uglies, seamlessly wove in technology without over-explaining specifics of how it works. In hardcore sci-fi and fantasy, this would never fly. But with YA readers, it works well. Imagination supplies answers where needed, and readers are more interested in the character development than geeky details.

For those interested in learning more info on how to create believable technology for your dystopian YA novel, my next blog post shares resources that can inspire you if you’re having trouble envisioning what the technology of the future will look like.

What’s Your Story’s Logline?

shutterstock_208876747In the writing world, there is a lot of talk about creating stories that are high concept, especially if you’re writing YA fantasy, like I am. Basically, if your story is high concept it has a compelling idea that can be summed up succinctly. (The Writer’s Store does a great job of explaining the concept here.) If you hear a high-concept idea, you know it because it stays with you. You find yourself already picturing the movie in your head.

The idea of creating a high concept novel reminded me of a term I learned about in my days writing screenplays. Every script had a logline, in which the author summed up the protagonist, conflict, and what made the story unique in one or two crisp sentences. Though novel-writing is a completely different medium, I think creating a logline for your story is the perfect place to start before you pen your first chapter. If you can’t identify what makes your story different and the emotional impact it will have on the reader at the highest level, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Once you’re deep into your book (or series), it’s tough to make big changes. It’s impossible to change the fundamental concept – you might as well start over. Writing a logline forces you to make sure that this is a path that you want to spend months or years of your life exploring. All the editing in the world can’t make a story more high concept, so it’s the one thing you have to get right from the start. You probably have many ideas in your head, and most of them are okay, or just good enough. It’s worth taking the time to write a logline to see if your idea pops, if it is THE ONE.

I wanted to see if my theory applied to some of the most successful young adult fantasy novels over the past few years. I went to IMDB to read the loglines for these books, which are all now turned into movies, to see if their core premise could be summed up in one or two compelling sentences, or if the plots were too nuanced to draw readers in without a little explanation.

Here are 10 examples of the loglines from YA fantasy movies that instantly convey a high concept.

Divergent
In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Beautiful Creatures
Ethan longs to escape his small Southern town. He meets a mysterious new girl, Lena. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
When her mother disappears, Clary Fray learns that she descends from a line of warriors who protect our world from demons. She joins forces with others like her and heads into a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
A teenager discovers he’s the descendant of a Greek god and sets out on an adventure to settle an on-going battle between the gods.

The Giver
In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.

Warm Bodies
After a highly unusual zombie saves a still-living girl from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to compete.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Rescued from the outrageous neglect of his aunt and uncle, a young boy with a great destiny proves his worth while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Twilight
A teenage girl risks everything when she falls in love with a vampire.

Eragon
In his homeland of Alagaesia, a farm boy happens upon a dragon’s egg — a discovery that leads him on a predestined journey where he realized he’s the one person who can defend his home against an evil king.

And though it wouldn’t make the top 10, below is the logline for the first book in my own series, The Conjurors.

The Society of Imaginary Friends
Valerie Diaz has magic that she can’t contain, and it’s killing her. In order to survive, she must embrace her power and travel many light years away to fight an enemy who has been trying to kill her since she was a child.

What’s your story’s logline?

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?

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.