Monday, November 12, 2012

Tips for Writing About Serious Subjects

One of the most amazing things about having a book out is finally hearing what lots of different people think about your writing. I've heard some amazing things and some bad things, but one of the most interesting things is how raw and realistic my work is, especially when it comes to heavy subject matter. What is heavy subject matter? Self-Esteem, Drug Use, Abusive Relationships, Self-Loathing, Insane Parents, Teen Pregnancy. Basically just your day-in-the-life of most teenagers or their friends or classmates. This isn't something I set out to do intentionally, but I am so happy I am being recognized for it.

I am so happy readers and reviewers think PRETTY AMY speaks to teens, adults, teachers, parents about the real issues they go through.

For my first official YAtopia member post, I thought I would share some tips on how to write about serious subjects and have teens and adults actually listen.

1. Do not censor yourself. As you're writing you might hear your inner editor say things like, don't use swear words, don't say things like that, don't let your MC admit they think things like that. When you are writing about serious subjects you need to put yourself and your characters out there, otherwise your readers will see it as inauthentic.

2. Open a vein. Not literally, but let yourself feel what your character is feeling. Teens feel differently and more intensely than adults do. They haven't learned to brush things off as easily as adults. If something happens to them, give it the attention it deserves in their life and on the page. In PRETTY AMY, Amy is arrested on Prom night, she deals with this challenge for most of the book. It would be strange for her to feel better, or understand the full-impact of her arrest immediately.

3. Don't Preach. Present the issue without any kind of opinion. This is very hard, but you don't not want to come out and say, drugs are bad, or you should know you're pretty, or anything like that. It seems inauthentic and will make a teen shut your book faster than they could download it.

4. Don't solve the problem with a neat little bow. Happy endings happen sure, but make it seem believable. If someone is going through something horrible, there is no way they will be completely better by the end of the book. They will be a little better, they may see things more clearly, but no be jumping up and down with happiness so create your endings accordingly. In PRETTY AMY, Amy has come to a place of understanding about herself and her life, but she also knows and acknowledges that she has a long way to go.

5. Use detail. Make your reader feel the searing pain of having a boy reject you, the fear of being arrested, the dull ache of not being good enough. You can't just say your character feels these things, you need to show how in scene.

6. Allow your character to grow. (This would be something I learned from my editor). When you are dealing with serious subjects, you tend to have characters that are negative, angry and closed off. They cannot be like this for the whole book. They need to open up eventually, or the reader feels duped.

7. Keep some scenes funny and light. Even if you are dealing with serious subjects you need to entertain the reader. Your whole book cannot be doom and gloom. Also having scenes that are funny and light tends to highlight the deeper and heavier scenes making them more poignant. There are several scenes in PRETTY AMY that have been referred to as "laugh-out-loud". I placed them strategically in between very heavy scenes.

8. Open your high school yearbook. I'm serious. Nothing takes you back to the way you really felt in high school than by looking at it. This all goes back to sounding authentic.

9. Use overarching metaphor. This gives your book and main character deeper meaning. Choose a symbol that brings to mind a particular emotion or feeling. In PRETTY AMY it was Amy's parrot AJ. It talked and she felt like she could not. It was in a cage and she felt trapped. It was set free at the end, where Amy starts to understand how to "set herself free".

10. Be real. Like really, really real. I think if you are a Contemporary YA author you have a duty to present the kind of issues and situations that teens really experience. Sure, not all teens are arrested on prom night, but what teen hasn't dealt with feelings of inadequacy. That kernel is where the true story should come from.

Any tips you would add? Please mention them in the comments.


  1. Thanks for this post, it's going to help while I edit my YA MS : )

  2. I really need to learn number 1, but I'm still scared at what book-banners will think of my book. I'm writing with the hope that if I make it real and powerful enough, then it'll break past the 'censoring.' Sigh. Great post though, I really needed this.

  3. Great comments! And very timely for Nanowrimo. I'm working hard to keep on keeping on without listening too much to my internal editor. I think that plunge toward acheiving wordcount makes some of what you're suggesting a little easier. After all, it's just a first draft!

    Add to the yearbook: looking through old journals. I have a ton of them and it's been helpful to revisit a few times. Also painful, but I remind myself it's for the sake of art!

  4. I will use your ideas to the fullest. It opened a lot of understanding to me.

  5. I will use your ideas to the fullest. It opened a lot of understanding to me.