When I first started writing—really writing—I was in eighth grade. I wrote longhand, in cursive, on notebook paper. My first “novel” was about a boy with wings who crashed in the woods, and he was captured and imprisoned at a nearby research laboratory. (Because they always have those in the middle of the woods.) This story was brilliantly titled “Flyboy,” after the main character. Flyboy.
I can’t believe I’m admitting that in public.
This guest post is by BRIGID KEMMERER. Kemmereris the author of LETTERS TO THE LOST (Bloomsbury; April 4, 2017), a dark, contemporary Young Adult romance; THICKER THAN WATER (Kensington, December 29, 2015), a New Adult paranormal mystery with elements of romance; and the YALSA-nominated Elemental series of five Young Adult novels and three e-novellas which Kirkus Reviews calls “refreshingly human paranormal romance” and School Library Journal describes as “a new take on the supernatural genre.” She lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and four sons. You can visit her at www.brigidkemmerer.com.
But I digress. Bottom line: From the moment I first put pen to paper, I’ve always loved writing about the fantastic. My first novel (well, my first published novel, Flyboy aside) was Storm, which came out in 2012. The ensuing series of books follows a family of four orphaned brothers who control the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, all while dealing with the normal trials and tribulations of high school. Fantasy, paranormal, magic, you name it: I love it.
That said, the more I wrote, the more I realized that I really loved writing about people most of all. In the Elemental series, the Merrick brothers can control the elements, and I have some awesome scenes with fire and earthquakes, but my favorite parts of the books are when the brothers are truly being teen boys, and learning to deal with themselves, each other, and the outside world. I love writing (and thinking) about how human beings interact, and how the challenge of growing up can eclipse everything else, even paranormal abilities. So when it was time to put together a new proposal for my agent, I tossed around some ideas and started writing Letters to the Lost, my first contemporary YA.
Making the shift from paranormal to contemporary seemed challenging at first, but when I really broke it down to look at what would need to change in my own writing, it wasn’t as big of a jump as I anticipated. Here are four things I needed to consider:
POINT OF VIEW
My paranormal YA novels are all written in close third-person past tense, while my contemporary YA novels are written in first-person present tense. Both alternate POV between a boy and a girl, but the voices feel vastly different. If you’re looking to make a change and write something new, changing your POV can be a way to help your brain work in an entirely new headspace.
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When writing paranormal or fantasy, you can have a lot of external conflict that’s not rooted in reality. It’s another layer of world-building to keep track of, which can be more complicated, but it’s also easy to throw in an explosion or a paranormal event if you need to break up the monotony of everyday life. In contemporary YA, everything is grounded and real. Conflict must be organic and natural for each character. When you look at the primary points of conflict in your everyday life, consider what sparks disagreements. I always visually consider my characters as moving toward goals that never precisely align. In Letters to the Lost, Declan feels like a reject who’s judged for one huge mistake he made, while Juliet feels like she can’t get her life back together because she’s still dealing with the trauma of her mother’s death. They’re both working to find themselves, but in vastly different ways, and sometimes their methods of healing and growth collide. While I’m generally a “pantser,” meaning I don’t work with a detailed plot outline before writing, I find a rough outline to be much more helpful when I’m writing contemporary. There’s just no option to throw in a firefight if your plot gets stuck.
When writing paranormal or fantasy, you’ve got an entire world in your head, and you need to keep track of rules for magic, special powers, prophecies, or whatever system you’ve put in place. What’s great is that if something stops working, you can change it, because you’re in control of that system. In contemporary, you need to work within the confines of our society. Our rules are (generally) pretty established. In Letters to the Lost, Declan is a 17-year-old boy who’s serving community service after getting drunk and crashing his car. In the book, I have him driving all over the place, and it didn’t occur to me until after the book was written that most states will revoke a minor’s driver’s license if they’re convicted of a DUI. I have to work within our rules and laws, and sometimes that can make things more complicated. (Considering in a paranormal novel I probably could have had him glamour a judge or even escape conviction altogether.)
Generally, when I write YA of any flavor, I want my protagonists to start the story looking at the world through the eyes of a child (i.e., “All the adults/events in my life are having an impact on me, and I have little agency to control them”), but should have a journey through the story to where they end the book viewing the world through the eyes of an adult (i.e., “I do have an effect on everything around me, and we are all interconnected parts of one larger community”). When writing paranormal/fantasy, this arc will be woven through (around?) fantastic elements, too. Sometimes the paranormal elements will be the basis of this arc (a teen learning to control their powers, a teen figuring out their role in a family of magicians, a teen witch discovering whether they will be good or bad, etc.). In a contemporary story, this arc must again be organic and grounded in reality.
Those are my top four considerations. Have you jumped between genres? What else do you typically consider? Which genres do you find easier to write?
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