5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing a YA Novel

SandraGullandPlease welcome today’s guest Sandra Gulland—an internationally bestselling author of biographical historical fiction set in France. She is known for the depth and accuracy of her research, as well as for creating novels that bring history vividly to life. Published by Simon & Schuster and Doubleday in the US, and HarperCollins in Canada, she is now writing two Young Adult novels for Penguin in the US and Canada. The popular Josephine B. Trilogy about Napoleon’s wife Josephine has been published in over fifteen countries. Mistress of the Sun and her latest novel The Shadow Queen are set in the mid-17th century French Court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and are published internationally as well.

I am writing two YA novels about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense. Exploring this new genre after decades as a writer of adult historical fiction is enlightening and creatively invigorating. The explosive renaissance in YA fiction right now is both thrilling and inspiring.

Connect with Sandra on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing a YA Novel

I have been writing adult historical fiction for over thirty years. After publishing The Shadow Queen, my fifth novel, I got an offer out of the blue from Penguin to write two Young Adult novels.

This was a serious swerve for me: I had never considered writing a YA novel.

Just because a novel is written for teens does not mean that it’s going to be easier to write. Writing YA is fun, but it certainly isn’t easy. I don’t believe it’s any different than writing an adult historical novel. The same standards apply.

In retrospect, I don’t know why. I read and enjoyed YA. Before becoming a novelist, I had been a book editor—and the lion’s share of my work for over a decade had been editing a series of YA novels for reluctant readers. As an editor, I had explored the idea of developing a series of YA biographies. Researching this idea, I read a YA biography: it happened to be the story of Josephine Bonaparte.

Bingo! I got hooked on Josephine. Years later, I sent a book proposal to a publisher for a YA novel about Josephine. The publisher declined, but I persevered, and much—much!—later, my Josephine B. Trilogy was published. I wept finishing this amazing story. Josephine had been an important part of my life for over a decade. Sad and depleted, I plunged into the 17th century Court of the Sun King, selling my Napoleonic research books to make room for this new era. I was finished with Josephine’s world.

Or so I thought…

One of the YA novels, Penguin stipulated, was to be about Josephine’s daughter, Hortense.

I gave this offer a great deal of thought. Over the following months, I mapped out Hortense’s teen years, to see what her story might be. It was all there—enough for the two novels, in fact. I got excited. [Read more…]


Irony — The Final Cliché

Film Star Vintage  Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake  "The Blue Dahlia" (George Marshall, 1946)
Film Star Vintage
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
“The Blue Dahlia” (George Marshall, 1946)

Next week I’ll be moderating a panel at Left Coast Crime in Portland titled, “The Taste of Copper, the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction.”

This topic in one form or another crops up just about every year, making the panel itself a kind of cliché. I’ve heard Martyn Waite deride the jazz-loving detective, and Karin Slaughter bemoan sex scenes where all the male hero has to do is, basically, show up.

Someone sooner or later mentions the smoky-voiced, sex-soaked femme fatale who bears a greater resemblance to Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle than to any living, breathing woman. And Chandler’s old saw, “When you get stuck, just send somebody through the door with a gun,” is always good for a brisk flogging. (Why not send him in with a dowsing rod, or a flaming parrot, or a penis pump?)

But as I began to organize my thoughts for this thing, I realized that in all the general writing conferences I’ve attended, I have never – never, not once – seen a panel titled “Clichés in Literary Fiction.”

Why is that?

Perhaps the greatest cliché in literary fiction involves not phrasing or character, setting or plot devices, but tone. I mean, of course, irony.

Does literary fiction present such a broad range of human experience – beyond what one finds, for example, down the nearest mean street, or inside the average police station – that it doesn’t need to revisit the same predictable situations over and over?

Please. I wish to introduce Exhibit A: the middle-aged college professor (or the housewife with a degree in Comp Lit) contemplating an affair.

Are perhaps the writers of literary fiction so advanced in craft and lofty of mind they never succumb to a commonplace phrase?

If only. [Read more…]


Are There Any Original Stories Left?

Therese here to officially introduce you to our newest regular contributor: Cathy Yardley! Cathy is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin’s and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She’s also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Please join me in welcoming her to WU!

 “Everything’s been done already. Why am I even bothering?”

Are there any original stories left?
Photo by Scott Liddell

I hear this from writers all the time. This seems especially true for genre novelists, who worry that their story idea isn’t original, or worse, that nothing is original these days.

Does the world really need another swords-and-sorcery Tolkien knock-off? Why in the world would they want yet another billionaire’s secret baby?  And haven’t we seen the hard-boiled P.I. or cheerfully dotty amateur sleuth more than enough?

They’re asking the wrong question.

They’re examining the “problem” as writers — not as readers.

The better question is: why are these genres, tropes and archetypes still popular?

Fairy tales. Fables. Myths. Archetypes. They’ve been twisted, tweaked, and tailored to fit audiences for centuries, right up to today.

Writers don’t need to write something so unique it’s unrecognizable. Instead, we can address the emotional needs served by these so-called “unoriginal” tales — and create something that serves those needs in a new way.

And now for something completely different.

To understand why “nothing new under the sun” is not a death knell, we’re going to examine…


Specifically, The Superbowl.

(If you’re not a huge American football fan, neither am I. Please bear with me.)

The Superbowl first started in 1967. In all that time, the rules have remained fairly static.

The outcome is also predictable: one team will win, one team will lose. It cannot end in a tie.

Nor will it end unexpectedly with the teams breaking into interpretive dance around a painted yak in the third quarter.  “Originality” is not the point here.

It’s the same game every year. Only the players are different. So why do so many people tune in every year? [Read more…]


Bringing a Strong Vision to Your Fiction

QQ Li (Flickr Creative Commons)

Please welcome Laura K. Cowan to Writer Unboxed. Laura writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Laura’s debut novel The Little Seer was a Top 5 Kindle Bestseller for free titles in Christian Suspense and Occult/Supernatural, and it was hailed by reviewers and readers as “riveting” as well as “moving and lyrical.” Her second novel, a redemptive ghost story titled Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection, The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen, received rave reviews, and Music of Sacred Lakes also topped the Kindle free bestseller lists during its launch.

A combination of emotional abuse and multiple near-death experiences as a child, coupled with a highly intuitive personality that caused her to have dreams and visions of future events in her life even from a young age, led Dreaming Novelist Laura K. Cowan to the work of writing spiritual fantasy.

A combination of emotional abuse and multiple near-death experiences as a child, coupled with a highly intuitive personality that caused her to have dreams and visions of future events in her life even from a young age, led Dreaming Novelist Laura to the work of writing spiritual fantasy, in which she both explores paths to emotional healing and the supernatural nature of the world we live in, the places beyond it, and what happens when people step between them.

You can connect with Laura on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter, and find her at her blog.

Bringing A Strong Vision to Your Fiction

Spirituality in writing. It’s a hot topic. Too hot to handle, rather.

In the United States, where I live, there has been a slow devolving of public discourse on politics, spirituality, and other topics you should never discuss at the family reunion. But why is that? It’s not because they don’t matter to us anymore. It’s because they are so important to us, and so emotionally charged with histories of abuse and pain, that many of us can’t handle discussing them in a civilized way. Many writers take the hint and steer clear of these topics, particularly spirituality, which is somewhat out of fashion in fiction at the moment. But I never seem to be able to steer away from what is important to me. I steered right into it. And in the process I discovered something I think is important for all of us as writers: how to bring a strong vision to your work that will inspire people to see the world in a new way.

My fiction is technically magical realism or literary fantasy, and has been compared to fantasy sci-fi authors Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury. But it has a distinctly spiritual flavor because of its cosmological speculative elements about how the world might be knit together—portals between worlds, visions of what kinds of fantastic beings might be out there, that kind of thing. Even though I never aim to tell people what to think with my fiction, I did realize after a lot of reading and writing that I don’t like stories that don’t have some kind of depth to them, emotionally, spiritually, even intellectually. I now believe that artists need to bring some strong vision of the world to the page, or else why do we want to experience their view of things? [Read more…]


O, Brave New (Adult) World!

"Emergence" by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)
“Emergence” by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Today’s guest is Lorin Oberweger. Lorin has been an independent editor and story development coach for almost twenty years, and her company Free Expressions also offers some of the country’s most highly regarded writing workshops. Lorin and New York Times Bestselling Author Veronica Rossi—writing together as Noelle August—are launching their new adult trilogy this month, beginning with the novel Boomerang. Says Lorin, “Noelle August is an anagram for Veronica Rossi and Lorin Oberweger. Just kidding, it’s a pen name!”

I’m interested in the topic of genre inclusion and in pushing beyond the limitations supposedly prescribed by the marketplace.”

About her post today, Lorin says, “Though I don’t pretend to be an expert on the genre, I haven’t read much about it (the new adult genre) on Writer Unboxed, and I felt moved to explore it a bit for the WU readership. In addition, I’m interested in the topic of genre inclusion and in pushing beyond the limitations supposedly prescribed by the marketplace.”

See www.noelleaugust.com for more on both authors! You can also connect with Noelle August (and Lorin and Veronica) on Facebook and Twitter as well as on the Noelle August blog.

O, Brave New (Adult) World!

As a longtime publishing professional and a basic journeywoman writer, I’ve long held the mindset that any writing work is good work, that getting paid to do what I love, in any form, puts me at the tippy-top of the heap in terms of good fortune and career satisfaction.

So, I was over-the-top giddy when my friend, New York Times Bestselling Author Veronica Rossi and I sold a series of three books to Harper/William Morrow on the basis of a proposal, something that felt like the equivalent of sinking a basketball into a net one-hundred yards away.

And then came the comments:

“New Adult? Isn’t that just smutty YA?”

“Oh, it will come out in trade paperback? I’d never want to publish something that didn’t debut in hardcover.”

“But that’s not your genre. Why would you want to do this?”

Those remarks felt deflating, of course, but also curiously familiar.

In the olden days—1995—when I began my career as an independent editor, it was not uncommon for me to meet writers who, when they found out what I did, would basically sling bulbs of garlic at me and back away while making the sign of the cross.

Back then, far fewer reputable independent editors plied their trade than do now. Someone else controlled the conversation about the value of such professionals. That conversation has most definitely changed, and two decades later, I’m sought after and respected for the skills I’ve acquired and the work I do. But it took a climb to get here.

I get it. We writers live in a state that feels a little like building a house on quicksand. The ground is always shifting. Someone is always coming around to wring his or her hands and cry doom. It comforts us to feel like we understand our little patch of solid earth. We get the parameters and can tell each other how [Read more…]