29 September 2010

Three YA Fantasy Authors

For today’s Writer Wednesday Interview we have three YA Fantasy writers discussing various aspects of writing for young adults, the complicated group more sophisticated in their tastes than middle grade readers, but not ready for certain heavier books with adult characters.  In the past few decades, YA has expanded it’s appeal and this has swiftly altered the landscape of this popular genre...

JJ McConnachie of Auckland, NZ, discovered writing about 2 years ago when she realized her musical talent was limited to jamming a few songs on a guitar and decided to leave it that way.  She blogs at  http://writersblocknz.weebly.com/blog.html

Jessalyn  Cockrell  is from Tempe, Arizona. A religiously observant teen, she was home-schooled until last year when she graduated at the age of fifteen.  She loves writing and reading books of all kinds, especially those that present entirely new worlds.

YA Writer JJ McConnachie
Adam Russell of South Carolina, USA is the author of nine previous novels, including PHASE, his most recent, a YA vampire novel, which is now being shopped around to agents.

PPM: What do you think makes the teenagers who read why YA endearing?

Jess:  …That’s a hard one, maybe it’s because we’re so obsessive over everything, if it’s not exactly the way we want it than it’s not right and we want to change it. Besides, we know how much our parents love feeding us, and love giving us allowance so we can buy things as great as purple Converse. I think the obsessive-ness adds a cuteness factor that is other wise covered up by the rest of our…interesting, qualities.

Adam:  They are so unafraid to tell you what they're thinking, things just slip right out before they realize they've said it.

JJ:  Teenagers are endearing? Hmm... don't know about that! I think they are relatable.

PPM: So, who reads YA?

Adam:  Almost anybody.  The vastness of YA stems from the vastness of high school. I think we can all remember what it felt like to be a freshman, new to the environment, quickly (or maybe not, in my case) eschewing our "childish" middle school activities to work on building ourselves up in that strange hierarchy.

JJ:  They appeal broadly also, because YA novels can usually be read quickly, and in one sitting and that has broad appeal to readers.

Adam: It’s nice to sit back and watch Bella stumble or Katniss goof when she's speaking to Peeta or Gale; its nice to watch Ethan Wate stick up for the new girl and slowly gain nothing but ostracism from those he's known since diapers, etc.

JJ:  And the themes are much more apparent in young adult fiction and YA novels rely hugely on plot, and tend to lack in exposition and long descriptions.

Adult fiction is often called depressing and negative, and is said to often leave the reader with the feeling that life is pointless. While this is certainly not always the case, many adult readers of YA fiction agree with this experience. Young adult novels on the other hand tend to be positive, and capture that sense of wonder that only children have. The end feeling of a Young adult novel is often more positive, and can make the reader experience a more enjoyable one.

Adam: YA, like teenagers, is just fun!

PPM: Which Harry Potter or Twilight Character would you slap?

Jess:  If I could slap any character from twilight it would undoubtedly be Edward Cullen, vampires are vicious blood sucking demons, not sparkling men.

JJ:  Bella. Seriously girl, everyone can see Jacob is hotter, nicer and generally less pasty than Edward.

PPM:  When did you start writing?

JJ: I wrote my first book at eight and my second at eleven; both of which I was incredibly proud of at the time.

Jess: I’ve been writing stories since the age of seven, poetry since the age of twelve.

Adam:  I've been writing since I was eleven years old. Finished my first book when I was 15; it was horrible! It took my three years to finish that second one.

JJ:  I finished my full novel a couple of years ago. It was terrible, but the idea still had huge potential so I cut my losses, tore it up and started again. What rose from the ashes of that experience is my current YA fantasy WIP, PHOENIX'S ASHES, though I have a few other works in progress and I’m researching one vaguely about Greek Mythology and Hades’s daughter:


PPM: JJ, why did you choose to write for a YA audience?

JJ:  Young adult fiction is unpretentious. The characters are exploring who they are and what they want out of life. They still hold the wonder of children, but are faced with adult problems. Young adult novels explore the characters' reactions to these problems, and we generally see more of a change in the characters than we ever can in adult books. Adults can be boring. We don't change much. Our ideas, values and beliefs are often fairly concrete.

PPM:  If all the writers at a YA conference were to get in a fist fight with a group of romance, western, and kid's writers, who would win?

Jess:  The westerners would no doubt be pulling plastic guns from their holsters to try and use the gun fight scenes they’d written in their books as a battle plan, the kid books authors would have the guns from them in no time, since their good at wrangling toys and sharp objects from children, the guns would be no problem! The westerners would be hog tied in a corner next to the romance writers who would be cheering on the YA authors from the sidelines.

Adam:  I'm biased, so YA fantasy would TOTALLY win! J.K. Rowling would whip out this sick Body-Bind Curse or have Blake Charlton--a fantasy writer of a book called SPELLWRIGHT where characters can write spells by writing sentences--pen Dumbledore into existence and then the fight would be OVER!

Jess: Before long it’d come down to the YA and kid books authors, since the age groups we write to are the most insane.

Adam: Unless, of course, the Volturi moved too fast for our insanely sluggish human reflexes…

Jess:  Yeah, but JK Rowling would be trying to fend off the kid books writers and there many mythical animals with a wooden wand that wasn’t working at all. Cornelia Funke would read characters like Capricorn and Basta out of the pages to help her succeed in the fight, she’d be on the side of the children’s authors. 

JJ:Writers don't battle with their fists, they use words. But if they did everyone else at the conference would watch and start taking notes on whats happening and try to work out how they can integrate it into their next novel. Creative inspiration.

Jess: [I think] after a long and very colorful fight-thanks to all the paint from the children’s book illustrators-the only ones left standing would be one or two YA authors, and at least five children authors, the YA authors would then surrender and retreat to their writings to try and make some sense out of what had just happened.

What is YA and what doesn’t belong in a novel for young adults?

Adam: The simplest way for me to tell the difference between genres is usually age in characters (this age bracket is somewhat debated as either 12-18 years, or 14-21 years).

Jess: I think MG writing is very easy to tell apart from Adult writing, as a teenager when I see a book written by or for people my age it seems to have a deeper depth of emotion that isn’t held back. It comes off the book in waves washing you in whatever emotion the main character is feeling, whereas Adult novels I’ve read don’t seem to do the same, it seems like they’re a little more reserved and that makes their novels come out the same way.

Adam:  I don't believe there's any such thing as an inappropriate topic for an age…you have to remember that serious issues plague young lives earlier and earlier these days, and if we simply endeavor to answer these questions, casting them in the appropriate light for the appropriate age, the difference made is enormous.

Jess: If your touching on subjects like drugs and sex, its hard to keep it from just becoming a completely dirty novel, which is why I don’t use those for my novels.

JJ: True, it can't rely on graphic sex or incredibly gory violence to hold our attention which, means that plot and characters take priority. The end result is often a gripping story with believable characters that even adults can relate to, but anything can happen in a YA book. Violence, swearing, sex are all okay when done tastefully. What should not be done when writing a YA novel is to talk down to the reader.

Adam:  Lies. Dishonesty is the worst thing you can do in ANY book, not just YA!

JJ:  Treat them as equals, not little kids. There's nothing more off-putting in a YA novel than a moralistic story that aims to 'teach' teens something. Teens don't want to be taught, they want to explore and learn on their own.

Adams:  Authors must remove themselves from the material and permit their characters to breathe on their own. A novel about an adult looking back on his teenage years is adult fiction. The young adult voice is of a young adult. This is perhaps why more and more young adult novels are written in present tense.  But seriously, don't lie to your readers. Teenagers WILL snuff you out!

PPM: What are your favorite books?

Adam: The Harry Potter Series…

Jess: My favorite books of all time would have to be the first two novel’s in the Inkheart trilogy, and the chronicles of Narnia. Both of which have had an influence on my writing. When I first read Inkheart the characters were so real, the flaws and imperfections that made Dustfinger so alive, the curiosity that made Meggie into a real little girl.

Adam: The Twilight Series…

The book took you to a world with secrets lurking a round every corner and dark pasts coming out into the daylight, the narration in the book really helped me learn what a great novel should look like.

Adam: Looking for Alaska by John Green…

JJ: I just discovered John Green. Looking for Alaska was an incredible read. And not fantasy! But it was years ago when I found Tamora Pierce's THE SONG OF THE LIONESS books, I was HOOKED.

Jess:  The Christian Fiction Left Behind series helped to teach me pacing and how to keep a reader glued to the page. I can read just about any novel; there’s always something new to find in the pages.

Writer Adam Russell
Adam: Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson…

                 The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini… 

PPM:  Adam, what in technique helps you stay appropriate for your audience?

Adam: VOICE. VOICE. VOICE. Not slang. That's different.

Jess:  To stay appropriate I just keep from writing things that would make me uncomfortable to read, it helps that I’m in the age group I’m writing for though. In my novel the heroine is a year younger than me, at fifteen, and is just starting to understand love and relationships a little bit more than when she was younger, I kept the relationship as light as I could since Rose, the main character, is a bit naïve to the world outside her own, and somewhat of an innocent. I don’t really think about genre’s or ages as I’m writing the novel, I slip into the characters shoes and try to write their lives through their eyes, show the world for what they see it as. And seeing as my characters are almost always teenagers that keeps the novel young, and just makes it that much more fun to write.

PPM: Are any unknown YA writers any good?

JJ:  You mean me right? Of course. I'm amazing. Just ask my husband.

Also, Sherryl Jordan (one of my all time favourite YA fantasy authors) is a New Zealander. Read WINTER OF FIRE and see for yourself.  We also have Margaret Mahy to thank for children's and young adult's fantasy fiction in New Zealand. 

PPM:  Kiwis can write?  I thought they only provided backgrounds for epic films of fantasy novels.

JJ:  New Zealanders can write. How could we not write fantasy with all our beautiful scenery to get inspiration from? And we do write. I'm even the graphic designer for a site dedicated to helping New Zealanders write: www.kiwiwriters.org  Kiwis write incredible fantasy fiction.

PPM: Are you sure?

Yes, because we are unique. NZ setting is often used, as was the case in Maurice Gee's UNDER THE MOUNTAIN which has recently been made into a movie. Our uniquness is often quirky, and somewhat whimsical, and I think it is an advantage because it gives kiwi writers a different edge that is still appealing world-wide.

PPM: I shouldn’t tease you since you are contributing to a publication for Peevish Penman, which I'm very excited about...  have you written anyone from your life into your work as a character and done something unspeakable to that character?

JJ:  Yes, in a short story I made my old boss pick his nose.

PPM: Hmm, Jess, as a teenage YA writer, do you have any advice for older writers?

Writer Jessalyn Cockrell
Jess:  As a teenager I can say there should be no more discussion about acne at all, after all, why remind people of a problem they can’t fix? It’s not fun, at all, plus it’s just awkward to bring up.

I haven’t been through everything an adult writer has been through, so that adult writer has an experienced point of view to tell stories from. Instead of being already experienced I’m in the process of experience, I think that makes the novel a little more unique.

PPM: Can you tell you tell if a book is written by a teenager?

Its the same thing I mentioned before, the rawness of the emotion that adults often miss… When I’m writing a novel, especially in first person, I can show my characters for what they are, strong, independent, funny, but still childish, and looking to find their own place in life, just because I have been in their shoes at one time or another. I always try to make situations as real as possible, so I borrow from my real life.

PPM:  Almost everyone has heard about Christopher Paolini writing Eragon at fifteen, what about his work didn’t work?

Jess: Honestly, I loved his first book, but he seemed to think himself more intelligent than the reader, instead of describing something in a clear and colorful narrative he explained it in words most people don’t even use. I prefer books that are clearer and simpler, while painting a vivid picture of what’s going on. 

Interview by Carrie Bailey


  1. Thanks for the great interviews Carrie! Not only do they promote the authors, but they teach us other YA authors something.

  2. That's an astute observation darling, I was aiming for exactly that.

    *snoopy dance*


  3. Thank you for that excellent article! As someone who wants to write for the YA market, I appreciate insights from people who have done it successfully.