Bird Face Wendy

Things relevant to reading, writing, publishing or marketing teen fiction.

Turn Up the Music in Young Adult Fiction


Image courtesy of Morguefile free photos

Name one non-living thing that teenagers everywhere love: music.

It may be Christian rock, country western, hip-hop, or the traditional music of an exotic culture—but I haven’t known a young person from any background who didn’t enjoy some type of music.

Featuring music, or a love of it, is a great way to make a story and its characters more relatable to a teen audience.

Sometimes music is fundamental to the story and the main character. Sometimes it plays a supporting role, with the love of a certain type of music appearing as one facet of a secondary character’s personality. The plot or main character arc may depend on music to motivate a character to act and change, or a character’s involvement with music may influence another character’s feelings for him.

Examples of contemporary YA fiction employing music in the storylines are Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby and Just Listen, Michelle Buckman’s My Beautiful Disaster, and Judy Blume’s Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson. A friend and fellow author also suggested a YA fantasy novel, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong. In my novels, 8 Notes to a Nobody and 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status, one of the main characters plays the clarinet, and her music is an important part of her life.

Before you search your favorite music to incorporate it into your fiction, a word of caution about including any part of a song’s lyrics: you might get into trouble! Lyrics are copyrighted, and it’s difficult (or expensive) to gain permission to use them unless you know the artist personally. However, in the U.S. any song or musical work published in 1922 or earlier is in the public domain.*

Society tends to associate particular musical instruments with certain looks and personality types, but if you think outside the (music) box, they needn’t be stereotypical combinations.

When you imagine a male teenager who plays electric guitar or bass, how do you picture him? Is he a bad-boy rebel with long hair and a sketchy reputation, or a modern-day Buddy Holly with close-cropped hair and glasses? If that musician is a girl, is she a Shania Twain or a Cindy Lauper?

How about a female flutist (a.k.a. flautist)? Do you imagine someone outgoing and a member of the marching band or a lover of the classics who is quiet and shy? She may be a serious student, or perhaps she uses her music to escape her troubles at school or at home. If your male character plays the flute, does he date a girl in the student orchestra, or is he an introvert? Does he play classical music but listen to hard rock? Does he study the martial arts?

If you employ irony by pairing a musician’s love of a particular instrument with that of a hobby that seems to contradict it, you can make a character even more memorable. Is the cello player also a skydiver? Does the drummer rescue cats?

Playing music can be a diversion, a forced extra-curricular activity creating conflict with a parent, or perhaps a young person’s primary focus and anticipated career. Your teen character may play the organ at church, compose guitar music for a band, write lyrics in secret, or work in a recording studio—for fun, for profit, or to gain experience.

Bonuses in incorporating music into a story come not only in more relatable, three-dimensional characters, but also in creating believable settings and scenes with easy-to-use sensory details.

In addition to the obvious instrumental sounds, consider other sounds as well as the marvelous sights and smells surrounding the playing of music. Think of the aromas of wood or a leather case—from an acoustic guitar or a cello, antique or brand new. Light plays with musical instruments, bouncing from metal horns and showing off a violin’s luster. Back to sounds, some of the most interesting are those that occur before and after the music plays. Sheet music rustling, discordant tuning, cases rattling or scraping the floor, locks snapping shut. Use them to show joy, frustration, or anger.

Remember that teens all over the globe can identify with other teens who love music or are involved with it in some way. Your story will truly resonate with them when the music one of your characters loves happens to be the music they love too.

Which YA novels have you read that feature music?



Decorating the Real and Fictional Worlds

Maybe it’s because I spent a number of years working as a decorator, but description of settings in a novel is important to me. I like to read enough detail about the location for any scene to get a clear mental image.

I would rather see too much description and skim over some details than receive too little information. When I can’t picture the setting from the author’s description or from my personal experience (as in contemporary realism), I feel like a blindfolded captive.

Where am I???

Image courtesy of Morguefile free photos

If a reader is more into action than ambiance, he may not appreciate the way I use home furnishing descriptions in my scenes. That’s okay. But I use them to help the reader understand not only the physical setting but also the scene’s tone and the characters’ personalities or emotional state. My decorating experience taught me to understand a client’s needs, desires, and fears when it came to creating an interior environment for him or her. That understanding is reflected in my writing, I hope.

If a character sits in a chair, he interacts with it. How does it look and feel to him? Does the color remind him of something pleasant or unpleasant? A writer can go overboard, but some outward detail can offer the reader inward details about the character.

Whether the fictional environment is a home, a public building, or the wild outdoors, the setting description is an opportunity for the writer to reveal more.

So why not decorate the space and make the most of it.

Do you enjoy reading many setting details or can you do without them? Does it make a difference whether the setting is historical, contemporary, and/or fantasy or science fiction?


The Art of Characterization


When I open a novel for the first time—usually several per week until I find the right one—it’s because I’m attracted to the premise. But even a high-concept premise isn’t sufficient to hold my interest if characters don’t exhibit distinct personalities.

Paint me a portrait of each character, at least those crucial to the plot. No, not a flat paper doll image. I want sculpture. Better yet, one of those giant inflatable figures that wave from a parking lot as I drive past. Or an automaton in lifelike colors. Wait—a hologram. With audio. And smellio. Yeah, that’s it.

I want characters that intrigue me with their quirkiness or humble me with their kindness. If one can annoy me a little without making me so angry I turn my back on her, I’ll love her.

The right prose will form mental images of the characters as they move through the story: what they look like rising from bed in the morning, how they react to surprise, if they become grumpy when things don’t go their way, how they treat their mothers or their pets. Even if all those details aren’t revealed through the plot (and some should be, don’t you think?), I want to be able to imagine them based on the author’s art of characterization.

I’ve enjoyed some novels told from an omniscient point of view that portrayed the main characters very well. I felt connected to and invested in them. I cheered and shed tears for them. I cringed when they messed up.

Other novels have evoked those emotions through deep point of view. I felt as though I intimately knew each POV character (as intimately as anyone can know someone who’s fictional). The authors made me experience everything from within the POV characters’ skin and through their eyes. And deep point of view worked together with all the other elements of the story such as setting to Make. It. Real. It was like being in a movie playing inside my head.

Author, editor, and writing coach Fay Lamb explains this technique much better than I in The Art of Characterization. For years, I’ve followed her advice at The Tactical Editor, and I’m one of many fiction writers who are grateful she decided to compile and share some of her expertise in a book. Only 64 pages, this is a little gem from Write Integrity Press. If you’ve followed my blog, you already know that I love small books that pack a big dose of help for writers.

Art of Characterization Cover FINAL FRONT (2) (408x640)

As the back cover describes, “Great storytelling isn’t done haphazardly. Storytelling is an art which requires practice to master. In The Art of Characterization authors are shown elements of storytelling which, when practiced correctly, utilizes forward-moving description and back story, deep point of view, dialogue, and conflict to create a cast of characters readers will never forget.”

Ms. Lamb is a multi-published novelist who writes emotionally-charged stories that “remind the reader that God is always in the details.” Her fiction titles include Libby, Charisse, Stalking Willow, and Better Than Revenge, among others.

The next time you cry your eyes out over a character, you know to blame the author’s art of characterization.








Using the Arts to Create Setting

sculpture head

Perhaps you’ve written a middle-grade or young teen novel.  Or you’re reading one.

It’s natural for many of the scenes to take place at school or at someone’s home. Or maybe at a sporting event. Those places make up a big chunk of a young person’s world if he doesn’t drive.

But I love it when a story surprises me with a scene  at an art fair or museum, a dance recital, concert, or movie theater (some do consider movies “art”).  Although a change of scenery can play a part in the plot, it doesn’t have to—not for me, anyway.  I simply enjoy reading and writing about young characters’ interactions in  artsy settings where they might easily find themselves even if they don’t drive.

Opportunities abound for vivid writing to engage readers. Scene descriptions that employ sensory detail such as color, smell, sound—and often taste—make what’s going on with the characters in a scene all the more exciting. And there’s occasion for characters’ reactions to their surroundings, which can reveal their personalities and relationships or show character growth. In Bird Face, Wendy reveals a lot about herself when she watches her dancing best friend, Jennifer, practice and perform.

Reading and writing novels that use the arts to create setting have been a fun way for me to learn about some of the arts I’m less familiar with. Whether a character visits a junkyard sculpture booth at an art fair or attends a street music performance, you may find an art-loving character a lot more interesting to read and write about.

If that character is a jock or a farm kid or a villain, even better.

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The Little Things (Make a Big Difference)

You sign a publishing contract. Your manuscript goes behind a curtain, the publisher waves a magic wand, and BAM! A finished book, right?

Let me start by saying I knew better than that. But I’d like to share a few things authors might be asked to address after the structural editing is completed. Even if you’ve spent a great deal of time on them already, a little more won’t hurt.

!. Characters’ names: Are they different enough from one another so as not to confuse the reader? (My main character’s surname has changed from Thibodeaux to Robichaud, because Thibodeaux was similar to Chanceaux, the dog’s name.) Are they interesting without being too weird or difficult to remember? Are they rare enough or common enough or at least not the names of well-known public figures or celebrities?

2. Word Choice in Dialogue, Internal Monologue, and Narrative: Does every word and phrase spoken or thought by each character sound appropriate for that character? Are the vocabulary and sentence structure in the narrative appropriate for your target audience? Are you willing to “kill your darlings”?

3. Setting and Scene Details: If your novel’s setting is one with which you are familiar, are you careful about details? Do any need to include further clarification because the average reader will not be familiar with the setting? Do your scenes contain enough sensory detail to make them both believable and appropriate to your setting?

3. Blurbs, Back Cover Copy, and Bio: Can the book be summed up in three short sentences–or two–or one? There will be a need for descriptive copy of various lengths, for the cover and for marketing purposes. In your bio, can you portray yourself succinctly and make it sound interesting enough for readers to care about you? (Do you have a good photo of yourself?)

This by no means is meant to be a comprehensive list, but I hope it gets you thinking about the little things before that big break comes your way. Then you will enjoy it even more.

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