Friday, 31 May 2013

Keeping Up With Teen Culture

Sara Grant in 1986
EDGE Author Sara Grant Questions How Adults Write Cool Rad Boom Modern Teen Characters

Recently I dug out old keepsakes from my senior year of high school. (Proud graduate of Washington High School Class of 1986. Woop! Woop!) I found a survey compiled by my class on the best of 1986:

  • Man of the Year – Don Johnson
  • Woman of the Year – Madonna
  • Major Problems – AIDS
  • Best Movie – Rambo
  • Best TV Show – The Bill Cosby Show 
  • Best Song – ‘Smokin in the Boy’s Room’
  • Best Music Group/Singer – Motley Crue

I’d wager that teens today wouldn’t know most of these cultural references. (Gotta love Madonna for hanging in there!)

During my walk down memory lane, I flicked through old photos, laughed at my angsty poetry, reviewed yellowing news clippings and read hand-written notes – all the flotsam and jetsam of my high school life. I wondered how this small town teen in the 1980s could identify with today’s young adults. (God help me, I found a note where I actually used the term ‘foxy’.) We listened to our music on vinyl records or cassette tapes. Our VCR remote controls were not wireless. And home computers and mobile phones were still years away.

I believe that certain universal experiences touch most teenagers whether they listen to eight tracks or iPods. I suppose every generation can say that the next will grow up in a vastly changed world. But what does it mean to grow up living your life on social media? To communicate with friends 24/7 with instant messaging and mobile phones? To live with a 24-hour news cycle in a global economy? How does it change your brain and your behavior? 

Today's teens are smart and funny and creative and amazing – but they think differently than I did. I’m not making a judgment. In some ways they are more mature and  sophisticated than I was. I’m sure my parents thought I spoke another language and didn’t understand my obsession for Rick Springfield. Yes, I did say ‘totally awesome’ and ‘like’ like every other word when I was in high school.

But it feels as if cultural references and language are evolving at an alarming rate. Do teens say OMG anymore? Do they use Twitter and Facebook or Tumblr or Pinterest or...? I know it depends on the teen and the country and their socioeconomic status etc... I read an article that said something like: where teens are concerned, if it’s more than two years old it’s ancient. That feels true. Almost the moment I write slang or reference music or fashion in my manuscript, it feels out of date.

Page from WHS 1986 Yearbook

I’ve read teen books that have young main character referencing 80s culture – because their parents listen to Bon Jovi or watch Bewitched. Yeah, I know kids are subjected to their parents' retro tastes, but mentioning music or shows from the 70s, 80s or 90s, emphasizes the age of the writer not the reader. 

I’ve been working on my next teen novel. It’s set in the present day. I’ll use the same character development techniques that I would use when writing about a child in Victorian times or an alien from outer space. I can’t assume I  know how teens think or talk or act without doing my research. 

I recently attended a One Direction concert. The great thing about being a writer is that everything can be considered research. When I looked around the O2 at the thousands of teen fans with their 1D banners and T-shirts screaming for their favourite band member, I was taken back to my first Rick Springfield concert when I was sixteen years old. I remembered how overwhelmed I felt to be in the same place and breathing the same air as my heart throb. (Yeah, I know, we don't say ‘heart throb’ anymore.) At the end of the One Direction concert, one young girl told her BFF, ‘this is the best day of my life’. And I remember feeling just the same twenty-something years ago.

Guess at heart we still have a lot in common. 

(I'm going to see Rick Springfield in concert next week.I'll let you know if we've changed...)

Sara Grant's first teen novel Dark Parties – a dystopian thriller for teens – was published last yearon Orion’s Indigo imprint (Follow Indigo on Twitter @fiercefiction). Half Lives – an apocalyptic thriller – was recently published in the UK and will be available in July in the U.S. Learn more about Sara and her books at or follow her on twitter @authorsaragrant.

Friday, 17 May 2013

An Edge Too Far? – by Guest Author Cathy MacPhail

This week we are delighted to welcome best-selling author Cathy MacPhail as our guest at The Edge …

A boy witnesses a man tumbling to his death from the top of a tower block, and landing with a Splat!

This is how my next book, Mosi’s War begins. Well, you’ve got to hook them from the beginning, haven’t you? 

From then on there are machete fights, riots, murder, a bit of slicing and dicing, cannibalism … oh, and a vampire … did I mention a vampire? All in the name of gritty realism.

But this is a book about a young African asylum seeker who harbours a terrible secret, and who then sees, right there in the Glasgow estate where he lives, someone from his past, someone who terrifies him. So in order for it to be truthful, it had to be violent.

But that’s the dilemma about writing young adult fiction, especially when, like me, you write for the younger adult age group. 

Just how truthful, how graphic, should you be?

I know there is a debate at the moment about just what subjects you can tackle in young adult fiction. And the answer seems to be, you can tackle anything you want, it is the way you handle the subject that matters.

You want your book to be as honest as possible, but you also want your book to be accessible not only for the age group you’re writing for, but also acceptable for teachers, parents and librarians too.

Personally, I look at it is as a challenge to be overcome, rather than a problem that has to be faced. 

I think there are always ways to get round it. For instance, we all know a lot of children swear, but I wouldn’t get away with a load of swear words in my books, nor would I want to. And after all, if you were adapting your book for children’s television you wouldn’t be allowed swear words. The challenge is to depict your characters’ dialogue honestly without using any actual swear words in your story.

Overcoming that challenge is something I enjoy. We know dark things can go on in a young person’s life, but we can hint at it, without being too specific or graphic. What you leave out can be as important as what you put in.

I’ve been lucky, from the beginning I have written about dark subjects, and I have never had anyone say, that’s too dark, cut it out. In Grass, a boy witnesses a gangster blast the life out of another gangster and I’ve read that scene out at schools, even primary schools and you can hear a pin drop when I do, and never once has a teacher told me it was too graphic.

I wrote Roxy’s Baby after hearing a report on radio about a girl who had come to this country and then found out she was pregnant. People offered to look after her and she thought they were being kind. When the baby was born they told her the baby had died. Only later did she find out the horrific truth. The baby had been sold on for its organs. I had never heard anything so horrific. I knew I wanted to write that book, but how could I possibly write a book about such a horrific subject when I write for such a young market. How could I make this book accessible to my readers, and still be honest? Then I realised I could put a young girl, perhaps 14, into my story, and at fourteen I would never suspect such a horrendous truth. My fourteen year old imagination’s worst nightmare would be that they were witches, and wanted my baby for some kind of blood sacrifice, and so Roxy never finds out the truth till the very end, and neither do the readers. And once again, I have never been told at any high school not to talk about Roxy’s Baby.

So I think there are always ways round any topic, no matter how dark and edgy and gritty. Put a young person in there and see it through their eyes, see how they would deal with it at their age.

I’m so glad I was allowed the violence and blood that there is in Mosi’s War. It’s a book about a boy soldier, and the terrible things he has had to do to survive. It had to be gritty. But it’s also a book about a boy, who has had his childhood taken away from him, who has lost his belief in everything, and who, in the end, gets his faith back.

And that was the only thing I wasn’t allowed to mention … God.

It seems He was an edge too far.


For more information visit Cathy's website and blog.
Follow her on Twitter @CathyMacphail

Friday, 3 May 2013

Genre Juggling

Edge author Katie Dale asks 

"Can you and should you juggle genres?"

I was extremely lucky to get a two-book publishing deal for my first YA novels, but now I’ve fulfilled that contract I felt unsure what to start next. With no set deadline before me, I felt in a sense free to write whatever I liked, a prospect which was at once delicious, yet a little daunting. What should the next project be? Should I knuckle down straight away on another YA novel to try to keep up the momentum of a YA book a year? Or should I use this opportunity to stretch my writing muscles in another genre – Middle grade? Picture books, even?

Of course, I don’t want to alienate my YA readers, some of whom have already contacted me, impatient for the next book, which is incredibly lovely, and part of me feels it would be silly to start writing in another genre when I’ve been lucky enough to have two YA books published. Most authors stick mainly to one genre, right? That way you build your author “brand”, try to develop a following of readers who expect a certain kind of book when they see your name on the cover. It makes sense.

But…while I absolutely adore writing contemporary YA fiction, I find there are other stories and styles that sometimes I’m just itching to write! In the same way that I like to read a variety of genres, I also like to write in different genres too, to express different elements of my personality. My first publication deal was not for YA after all, but a series of rhyming books for 5-8 year-olds. While I was preparing and editing my first novel for submissions, I was also intermittently looking up rhymes for “Witch” (LOADS!) or “Wolf” (there are absolutely none!) and I found it incredibly refreshing to switch from one to the other – they were so completely different, it was like taking a break.
Likewise, I was approached to submit a short story for an anthology entitled How To Be A Boy – “How could I write a story about how to be a boy when I’m a girl?,” I thought. “I have no experience of being a boy!” But by giving it a go, by branching out, experimenting and leaving my comfort zone I found a whole new “voice” and actually really enjoyed it. It exercised my creativity, and I found it refreshed my writing.

There are authors, of course, who manage to juggle genres  beautifully. Sara Grant recently simultaneously launched her next YA novel “Half Lives” and her “Magic Trix” series for 7-9 year-olds; Eoin Colfer writes for 5 year-olds up to 16 year-olds; JK Rowling decided to switch to writing adult books after Harry Potter, whilst John Grisham conversely started writing teen, and Ian Fleming wrote both James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Likewise, I'd like to continue writing YA, but I'd like to branch out a bit as well - but is this like wanting to have my cake and eat it too?

What do you think? Are authors better off sticking to one genre? 
Would you find it confusing or alienating as a reader if your favourite author suddenly started writing in a different genre or for a different age group? 
Or do you think it’s good for authors to diversify?
If so, do you think they should use different names for different genres? 

Katie Dale is the author of YA novels SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE and LITTLE WHITE LIES (Simon & Schuster) and the FAIRY TALE TWISTS series (Orchard Books)