Top writing tips: Sarah Mussi
Sarah Mussi, author of teen novel Angel Dust, explains how to write for young adults, bringing in Big Brother, football and Skyrim along the way
"When you're writing for young adults you got everything going against you. For a start there's the internet, Facebook, zillions of social media sites… there's the Xbox, the Wii, Skyrim and World of Warcraft… there's music (I won't even go there), headphones (HELLO – YES, I AM TALKING TO YOU!), or you can SHOUT over the telly – who cares how much amazing sports coverage there is… and there's other fun stuff like watching Big Brother, eating, DVDs, sleeping and then there's The Mobile.
So if you think you can interest teens in a book, you'd better up your game, or you won't stand a chance."
Never forget that your young reader can simply shut the book and never pick it up again. They can hurl it across the room, or they can forget it on the bus. So tip one is about page turning. You've got to get them turning the pages. And here we need to learn from the amazing mistress of narrative drive: Scheherazade.
So what was tip one?
Be well read.
Back to Scheherazade. This is how the story goes according to Sir Richard: "The King lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The King asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story, and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through, at dawn. So the King again spared her life for one day to finish the second story."
You get the picture. In the words of Wilkie Collins: "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait"
So tip two ?
Arouse intrigue, delay answers.
So the King couldn't kill her every morning because if he did he'd never have known how the story ended. And lets face it – not knowing is tough. Nobody likes to be out of the loop. But page turning is not as simple as it looks. You can't just put PTO on the bottom of the page like you used to; so tip three is about creating a character that the reader can empathise with: somebody we really care about, somebody to champion. It's a must. Just think: we watch Big Brother when NOTHING happens because we care about at least one of the characters and hope they haven't got booted out while we've slept. We care if one of out loved ones wins a poster competition. I mean, I ask you – a poster competition!
So tip three?
Create a character that the reader cares passionately about.
Now we can get a bit tricky, because tip four is about creating the promise that something is about to happen. Back to Big Brother, and we can't turn the telly off in case that something (which we know is about to happen) suddenly happens and we miss it. Shucks. We're talking addiction here! And everyone knows how compelling that is. But don't forget what we're up against (do you know what they can do with apps these days on even a budget smartphone?). We've got to get downright dirty if we don't want to be left on the bus. So how do we create the feeling that something is about to happen?
Think of a football match. There never was there more narrative drive at work and less story or plot than in a football match! But we watch matches - not just in my family, but in every family and not just in my home town - we watch the footy globally. And all you've got is two sides and the promise that something has to happen.
So tip four?
You need an opposing force (and the stronger and meaner the better) locked in a collision course with your fav character.
But who cares? Who cares if Arsenal gets slaughtered and relegated (what exactly is relegation anyway?) The fans do. They care. So make your reader a fan who cares deeply, passionately, compulsively about what happens to their character. And that brings us to goals. (AHA! I always knew there was a reason why goals were called goals) Yes, have your character bravely struggling in an unfair system for a deeply desired goal. We all wanted little Jodie to win that poster competition, didn't we? Not because the of the £10 voucher at the end – not because we could boast about how clever she was - but because she wanted too win (and was going to be inconsolable if she didn't). She had a goal and we wanted her to achieve it.
Give your character a clear goal and, though many obstacles must be overcome, give your character the strength to win through.
Now we're talking.
Sarah Mussi was born in Cheltenham, raised in the Cotswolds, and studied fine art at Winchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art. She then spent over 15 years in West Africa as a teacher and now lives and teaches English in South London, splitting her holidays between England and Ghana. She is the author of three young adult novels - The Door of No Return (Hodder), The Last of the Warrior Kings (Hodder) and Angel Dust (Hot Key Books). Find out more about Sarah at www.sarahmussi.com.