Why teen fiction?

Someone asked me recently why I write teen-fiction and why I like to read it. I could have said that most teen-fiction is written by adults and if you want to write it, you need to read it, but it’s more than that.

As an adult reader and writer of teen-fiction, I can tell you it will have you re-connecting with the teenager you once were. I can also tell you that re-engaging with some of those emotions, some of those firsts, can be a heady thing.

But does that make it worth reading? Does that make it good writing?

If, as an adult you get to recognise some fragment of your teenage self, be it the angst, the elation, the wonder of a first love, a first kiss, that first fall, isn’t that a good thing? It doesn’t matter if that first is set amidst a dystopian future-scape, the line between organised chaos and anarchy beautifully blurred, or an inner-city school where adults are fallible and bullies win. If it makes you feel something, it’s good fiction.

The trick with teen-fiction is to get inside that teenage head and stay there. It needs to be emotionally credible. Your character has to think and feel with the experience and skill-set of a teenager, not an adult. The subject matter is almost irrelevant, what matters is the emotional response and the character’s emotional arc, the learning. That is what is at the heart of the best teen-fiction.

I strive for that in my writing, but all too often the adult voice creeps in. If you think writing teen-fiction is easy, think again. It’s not. Capturing a teenage response to any given situation requires really getting inside your character, and getting it wrong will cost you that emotional truth. It won’t ring true.

Luckily, there is a small part of me which remains firmly rooted in those teenage years. Mine were remarkable (I’ll explain another time.) I had great freedom, but also great anguish, with family tragedy striking during some very key years. That pain, that learned experience is something I draw on when I write and I’m not ashamed of it. It’s mine. I earned it. It’s perhaps is why I return to those years in my writing now.

Teen fiction shouldn’t shy away from difficult subjects, they need exploration. The benefits of reading about a situation before having to tackle it for real, are obvious. For some teenagers though, it will be something they are already dealing with, and to find it on the page will be cathartic, perhaps liberating. It might just lift them out of isolation and empower them to change something, and therein lies another characteristic of teen-fiction –

No matter how dark it gets, there is typically a ray of hope. There’s always a reason to carry on, the belief that no-matter what happens, the sun will rise and tomorrow is another day. I don’t mean that flippantly; I’m not talking about a Disney ending. I’m talking more about a way out, a solution that the protagonist can steer. A future.

That is why.

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The Pride and The Pain

It is a complex thing, parenting a teenager. Knowing when to step back and let them try, and recognising the occasions to stop carrying them and let them manage, are not easy things to judge. A fledgling young-adult still needs support and guidance, but they also need the space and self belief to begin making larger decisions for themselves without interference.

That’s a fine balance, a tight-rope for parents to walk when only yesterday, parenting revolved around making sure they were warm and fed and loved. Checking spelling homework is easy. Making sure they’ve brushed their teeth and answering questions like “when will it be tomorrow?” are not taxing. Knowing when and how to let go? That is much harder.

For teenagers, the stakes are high. They are potent years. For some, the pitfalls will become chasms, for others, doors open onto the world and if the encouragement and the appetite are there, anything becomes possible. If they are lucky, they get to try these things with the safety net of home still in place. Many are not so lucky.

When writing teen-fiction, these are the moments of risk and wonder that need to appear on the page. These are what make it such an exciting time to write about – creating characters and putting them through so many “firsts.” Watching an identity emerge, a sense of self that is ready to take on young adulthood.

So, writing about it is one thing, but for me this week, it got personal. This week, my eldest along with many eighteen year-olds, received her A level results. She romped home with a perfect score and I am prouder than I can find the words for, but I am also just a little bit heartbroken, for now she will leave and open the door to her own world.

That she is strong and ready to fly, that she is ready to go and start making some mistakes and achieving some greatness on her own, fills me with unparalleled joy and pride. At the same time though, she will take one chunk of my life work with her which won’t come round again, one which is irreplaceable, her childhood.