Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jackie: Teaching YA Fiction in the Writing Workshop

I thought I would sit down and spend a leisurely few hours working on this post, but my three-year-old daughter painted herself—head to toe—with plum lipstick, in the process painting the bedding and her baby doll. It would be fun to adapt the age here to sixteen, and imagine a situation in which a teenage girl or boy does the same, but that would be food for another post…

Instead, I’m going to take the next hour talking about my experience, this past autumn, teaching my first graduate workshop in writing fiction for young adults. I teach in the Creative Writing Program at Texas Tech, where students can earn an MA or a PhD with an emphasis in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It was the first ever workshop in YA literature here at Texas Tech, and of the seven writers enrolled in the workshop, only two were truly conversant in the genre. So as part of the workshop, I built in a serious reading component that introduced writers to contemporary literary fiction for teens via Megan Frazer’s Secrets of Truth and Beauty, historical fiction via Lisa Klein’s Ophelia, and fantasy via Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death. In the syllabus, I outlined the course objectives as follows:

The workshop is designed as a reading and writing-intensive introduction to the diverse genre known as young adult fiction with focus on contemporary and historical fiction that integrate literary archetypes (Ophelia and Hamlet, the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility) as well as fantasy. Though the fiction we write in the class will be aimed at young adults and will require writers to inhabit the consciousness of a teenager, an age driven by a host of issues (coming-of-age or “bildung” from the German Bildungsroman, exploration and risk taking, intense questioning and the challenge of authority, as well as breakdowns and breakthroughs), the workshop will focus on the key craft elements in writing character-driven, literary fiction: characterization, plotting (summary and exposition v. scene), dialogue, description, the creation of a dramatic arc in which the writing builds towards conflict and inevitably strives for a closure which is not necessarily resolution.

Because a good part of the workshop will be devoted to investigating the genre and cultivating a teenage voice, the workshop will certainly not discourage an ambitious writer to draft a novel during the semester. The workshop will require ambitious writers to produce three polished chapters of a contemporary novel and a synopsis alongside two polished chapters of a novel that integrates literary archetypes/myth and a second synopsis. These two chapters may be from a historical novel. (Writers interested in fantasy will be required to craft fiction that relegates fantasy to a secondary role, as in the examples of Libba Brays’ A Great and Terrible Beauty, Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death, and Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere. In other words, we won’t be writing fantasy novels. The fantastic may be an element of the story. In Elsewhere, the protagonist wakes up en route to the afterlife. In Beauty, the protagonist is a Victorian teen at an all girls boarding school who finds herself with otherworldly powers that lead her to another world.)

In my eight years of teaching creative writing at Texas Tech, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations, change my course, and essentially be open—essential components of my writer’s life. I therefore came to accept that one of the writers in the workshop was seriously invested in violence, profanity, and sex. He ultimately wrote more of a genre novel—a thriller/mystery—featuring a teenage runaway as the protagonist, a vigilante prone to violence and drinking who winds up winning the reader’s support because he fights on the right side in some college drug wars. So.

That said, this proved to be one of the most rewarding workshops I ever taught, in part because of the engagement of the writers and the intimate class size. Over the course of the semester, everyone chose to focus on writing 125-150 pages of a novel AND turning in a synopsis. Six of the novels were contemporary, and one was set in a sort of totalitarian New York City of the future (god forbid).

It would be impossible here to lay out 18 weeks worth of work, though I should emphasize the fact that after discussing the core values of YA fiction in each of the novels we read, we looked at the development of those core values in the evolving novels of every participant.
How, then, did I define YA fiction’s core values?

The protagonist is a teen. She is figuring out herself, her world, and questioning a lot. YA literature is an extension of the Bildungsroman, as in Great Expectations or any of Austen’s novels.

She is passionate: intense. Emotions are not lukewarm.

She is honest.

She is exploring and challenging boundaries.

She must experience crises and come through the other side.

Answers will never come from adults, at least not without the help of the teen herself.

An encapsulation of how YA literature works comes early on—at the close of Chapter 1—in Secrets of Truth and Beauty:

So everyone, Mr. Fitz included, wanted to see me do my presentation on being in a
pageant and getting fat? Was it really so fascinating? The thing was, if this could have
been an anonymous project, I actually did have something important and interesting
I might have explored. But it was too personal, and too messy, as real-life stories
tend to be.

It’s the last two sentences that contain the juicy essentials: something important and interesting I might have explored…too personal, and too messy…

YA literature is all about exploration, and it has to be messy: visceral: emotionally true. And the protagonist has to be someone the reader can get behind.

Getting behind the protagonist was the central problem for my student who wrote the vigilante novel. After all, who relates to a violent, distant main character? What humanized him was bringing in his history—his abusive childhood, his desire to protect his younger brother from his father—and the way that history proved relevant in his current behavior. And then there was one more thing: the writer made our vigilante a lover of superheroes. He actually wore a costume. And in the process, he became more vulnerable, as did the writer’s decision to make manifest his character’s struggle to connect with someone outside himself….

I hope this post generates some discussion from those currently teaching the genre of hoping to do so. As a last thing, I thought I’d share my first day’s assignment which I adapted from Victoria Hanley’s Wild Ink, a handbook on writing for teens, though it’s really only the introductory chapter that I found worthwhile. Hanley does a good job of contextualizing YA literature using broad brushstrokes, and she includes a dynamite assignment. Here’s how I adapted it:

ASSIGNMENT A: “WRITE A NOVEL FOR YOUNG ADULTS”—Okay, make this your header. Now step outside yourself. Pretend you’ve been given the assignment of getting “YOUR NAME HERE” to write a young adult novel. First you have to figure out what you have to work with. To begin, search the person’s mind and heart. What sort of mind and heart does X possess? Curious? Inventive? Fearful? Mistrusting? Persistent? Next, turn to the person’s experiences. List as many as you can. Nothing is ordinary or dull. (EX: A fabulous story-in-embryo could begin with a character whose part-time job involves working at a preschool. What if this person’s father left when he/she was 4? What kind of memories would the work bring back?) Now, jot down the skills the person has. And after that, put down the person’s dreams. And of course include his/her fears. Once you have all of this information gathered, ask what sort of author might this person be? How will his/her character traits, skills, interests, experiences, dreams & fears come together in a writing voice? *Let me stress again that as you do this exercise, really consider the person at the top of the page as if you were meeting him/her for the first time. And remember, an essential of writing for teens is to create characters they can relate to.

After you’ve completed Assignment A, turn to ASSIGNMENT B: FINDING YOUR INNER TEEN—The following questions are designed to help you mind material that will create the base rock for characters and plot in this semester’s writing:

What is your clearest memory of feeling alienated? Misunderstood? Betrayed?

What is the most unfair thing that ever happened to you? How did you react?

In what way did your upbringing seem utterly different from that of your peers (not necessarily your friends)?

When have you gone against peer pressure to follow what you believe?

How do you react to authority? Give 3-5 concrete examples. Is there a pattern here?

What has been your moment of greatest rebellion? How about your greatest dream of rebellion?

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? What was the outcome?

Have you ever done something impulsive that had a long-lasting impact on your life?

Have you been disbelieved when you were speaking truthfully? Have you feared the truth so much that you lied (to yourself and/or to others)?

Has someone you loved lied to you about something that mattered?

What is the most traumatic historical event you have lived through? How close were you to the event? (Living a block from the World Trade Center v. watching it on TV in Texas v. watching it in Texas and knowing that your best friend was interning there…)

have you grown apart from a close friend? Was it gradual or sudden? Reasons?

Have you ever been so mortified you wished you could disappear?
What’s the most unconventional thing you’ve done? The most cruel? The most generous?

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?

Have you ever been in a situation from which there seemed no escape? How did you handle it?

When was the loneliest time in your life? How did you deal with it?

When did you first fall in love? What happened?
Has someone important to you rejected you?

Have you ever lost total control or done something so wild you surprised / terrified yourself?

Have you ever laughed so hard you cried? Cried so hard you laughed?

Have you ever suddenly changed your appearance dramatically?
What has been your most euphoric moment? How did it change you?

What have you longed to do but never done?
What and whom would you die for?

What have you yearned to find but never found?

Now that you’ve finished answering the above questions, use what you’ve discovered to write 4-6 pages in a teen voice. These pages should be contemporary. Plan to read a section of these pages aloud at next class.


  1. Great post Jackie- Those are excellent questions to ask before creating a teen character, and with slight modification they can be used to help create any character regardless of age. Hope you took some great photos of your daughter before you scrubbed off the plum lipstick - too funny.

  2. Excellent post. A lot to consider. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Paul,
    Your own novel sounds most engaging! Jacqueline

  4. Thank you Jackie. Have you seen my novel?

  5. Cheers! I have one thought about your wonderful FINDING YOUR INNER TEEN questions: how do I keep my protagonist from becoming completely autobiographical? I do not see her as me, but as a truly separate entity. Lisa

  6. This is a wonderfully inspiring post, Jackie. Thank you so much for sharing. Assignments A and B can open doors to creativity, and so well exhibit what is important in YA fiction while encouraging the writer to dig deep.

  7. Yes, these are fabulous writing exercises from WILD INK by Victoria Hanley. I would encourage all of your readers to pick up the book and use the rest of the exercises to explore writing and YA fiction.

  8. What I meant to say (posted as Anonymous above) is that I read Wild Ink and found it very useful. You should read it too!

  9. And I thought one just sat down and wrote.

    I don't know if I'd even contemplate writing a novel if I had to go through all those steps at the beginning. Kind of drains all the passion out of the project.

    But I would be willing to go back, after I'd completed a first draft of a novel, and do the analysis.

    But, then, I'm a "pantser."