On Writing || People write YA books about girls like you…

I must be a bit early for my lesson because there are a few other girls already waiting in the corridor. They’re leaning against the lockers or sitting on the sparkling floor. They’re all beautiful and, for some reason, they’re all wearing their own clothes.
Oh, crap. I forgot. High schools don’t always wear uniforms. I nervously tug my pinstriped skirt and hope they don’t notice.
But from the fact that five pairs of almond, grey-with-hints-of-lilac eyes, have peeled themselves from the Sylvia Plath, Harper Lee and Jane Austen books on their laps and are fixed on me… I know they have.
“What’s happening?” I ask again. One girl, with tons of glossy auburn curls, stands up and looks at her watch.
“You’re late,” she says.
“Late?” I stare at my watch and see that she’s right. I panic and take a step towards the door but a hand wrapping itself around the top of my arm stops me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the girl snaps. “You can’t go in there yet!”
“Yet? B-but, I’m late and I’ve only just started here, I don’t want to make a bad impression!”
The girl tosses her curls over her shoulders and rolls her grey-with-hints-of-lilac eyes.
“That’s the exact impression you want to give. Do you not know anything?” she says. “And anyway, you’re not going in. It’s MacKintosh’s turn today.”

A mousy-looking girl appears from nowhere and looks at me through a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. On closer inspection though, she’s gorgeous. She has this milky-white skin that wouldn’t know a spot if an entir bottle of Simple facewash was squirted on it. Her hair, a dark brown the colour of Thornton’s finest, is pulled back into a ponytail that’s held by a black bobble.
Under her arm is a well-thumbed copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

“Hi Kinty,” says the girl.
“Is he in there, Clara?” asks MacKintonsh.

The girl with the red hair nods and grins. “Yep. And you’re fifteen minutes late! Have you got your science textbook?”
MacKintosh nods but stops when Clara tuts, holding out her hand. Clara puts the textbook in her bag.“Oh crap, I forgot!”
Clara smiles and takes out a fountain pen, removes the lid and flicks the nib at MacKintosh. She doesn’t even flinch as a spray of dark blue ink spatters across her nose. I frown and open my mouth to ask but MacKintosh is already gone, hiking her huge bag over her shoulder and pulling open the door of the classroom.

“Aaah… Ms Wildfyre, so nice of you to join us,” I hear the voice of what must be the teacher say. “If you’d just take a seat, yes… that’s right, just next to Ryver, that’ll be fine.”
I stand there gaping.
“I’m sorry, but MacKintosh has been waiting for so long for that moment.”
“That…moment?”
“Yes, her parent just died and she had to move to a different school and her ex-boyfriend is the biggest of twats ever. So… well… you know.”
I didn’t know. “Oh, wow. Is she OK? What do you mean ‘parent’? Which one died?”
Clara waves her hand. “Does it matter? Anyway, her first lesson is biology and if she’s late, she’ll get to sit next to Ryver and, well, she’s forgotten her textbook so she’ll have to share. And Ryver hates to share.”
“Oh. But…” I point helplessly at the textbook in her hand. “Why did you?”
The girls all laugh and Clara puts her hand on my shoulder. “Jo! Don’t you know that all the greatest love stories start with the hero being annoyed with the heroine? It’s common sense. Why would you want to spend time with a guy that you liked from the get go? Where would the fun be in that?”
The girls all laugh again. I huff.
“So, if I can’t go to biology, what shall I do now?”
“Well, it’s Byrd’s sixteenth birthday tomorrow,” says Clara and all the girls make a high pitched squealing. I wince.
“Who’s Bird?”
“No, Byrd. With a y? We’re throwing her a party and it’s going horribly! Want to help?”
I nod. “Sure, of course. What do you want me to do?”
“Well, can you give the caterers a ring and tell them not to come? And then can you go to that new boutique that’s opened on the high street and just, like, buy all of this dress,” Clara hands me a picture of a gorgeous yellow dress. “And then can you….”
“Wait!” I ask, holding a hand up to stop her. Clara frowns. “Why would I do all that? That’s horrible. We’ll completely ruin her birthday!”
“Of course we’ll ruin her birthday! That’s the whole point!”
She looks at my expression which must’ve been set in a mixture of “Am I going crazy?” and “Is she going crazy?” and shakes her head.
“If her birthday isn’t ruined, then how will she get so upset that her witchcraft manifests itself? And then how will Hunter know when to tell her the two of them are intrinsically linked?”
“Manifests… she’s a witch?!”
“Of course she does. Every girl discovers she has powers on her sixteenth birthday. Didn’t you?”
“Um… I went bowling. And then we went to Pizza Hut.”
“So when did you discover your powers then?”
I shake my head. “I don’t… um, have any powers.”

The girls gasp and clutch at each other, looking at me as if I’m a freak. One of them faints but, luckily, a passing tall boy with cute hair catches her before she cracks her head open. Clara smiles proudly at her.

~*~*~

I feel I need to say something straight away: the only thing I got from a science lab was laddered tights and a just-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth B. Not a love affair that will span centuries. .
OK people, today, as you’ve probably guessed we’re talking about YA heroines today. Oh yes, my favourite subject. If you’ve ever spoken to me or read one of my reviews/posts, you’ll know how…um… vocal I am on this subject.
Before I lurch headlong into a proper barrage of thoughts- if you get confused at any point during this post, please read the interview I did with Melina Marchetta On Writing Heroines. Basically, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Right, let’s get to this, shall we?

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Heroines are powerful creatures in the YA community. Hermione, Lyra, Tris, Quintana, Carly, Deryn, Katniss, Viola, Bella, Karou, Mia… the heroines are the things that you remember about a book. They’ll be the ones that come to your mind when someone asks you what you thought of the book. And they’ll be the ones that help you decide whether you enjoyed the book or not.

Heroines: for better or for worse.

I know I’ve mentioned before that the story I’m writing is dual perspective. One boy, one girl. And let me tell you, I thought I was struggling with Frasier but Gemma? God that girl is going to be the death of me.

Writing about teenage girls is the literary equivalent of tight roping across a ravine after a few shots of tequila. And I don’t even like tequila.

When I sit down to spend some time with Gemma, I’m always so conscious of the fact that the majority* of the people who will read this story (yes, OK, I get ahead of myself a bit. Whatever) will be female. And they, like me when I’m reading, will be able to pick out her flaws. I don’t mean flaws in her personality or character, I mean the flaws in me writing her. And they’ll know if…no when I slip up with her. When she says something that a teenager would never say. When she does something a teenager would never, ever do .And, worst of all, when I start to gallop into cliché territory.

And they’ll know this because they either are a teenage girl or they have been one. And no one forgets what it’s like to be a teenage girl, do they?

Girls at this age are in that stage where they don’t want to stand out because then they, well, um… they’ll stand out. I may be speaking for myself here, but when I was 16 I was so afraid of having a hobby or a ‘Thing’ because… HELLO… that means everyone would know.
Teenage girls are all so aware of what is around them; they catch every single glance someone makes after they’ve said something a bit stupid and they hear every little snidey comment. Every sentence was loaded with an ulterior motive, friendships came and went in the blink of an eye, no one could ever understand.

Or maybe that was just me?

Good luck putting that into a story.

I asked two of my favourite ladies, both readers and writers, Emily and Maree to help me out with this post and tell us how they feel about writing these tricky creatures.

Emily.

As a reader, I want strong heroines. I think writers/publishers know this sells so there are a lot of ‘kick-ass heroines’ out there right now, but most of the time they don’t feel authentic to me. I think this comes down to inconsistency. One second they’re determined to see through their mission save their friend/family/the human race and the next they’re staring all gooey-eyed at the (leather-jacket clad) hero without a worry about their original goal. I love a good kissing scene as much as the next reader, but I love it even more when a heroine can stand on her own. When a heroine is authentically strong, it makes for an oh-so-good reading experience.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to write a ballsy heroine and get it right. It’s not always easy to balance swoon-worthy romance with a whatever-get-out-of-my-way-I’m-saving-the-planet heroine. The same goes for quietly strong heroines in contemp novels. And I don’t have any words of advice for how to get it right. I’m still learning by reading and studying books by authors who – in my opinion – do get it right, such as Melina Marchetta, Ruta Sepetys, Isobelle Carmody and Kirsty Eagar.

Some other pet peeves: heroines who have no female friends/see all other females as a threat, the way too perfect to be true heroine, the totally average girl who manages to bag the hottest guy in the universe…etc.

I think the biggest thing for me is, no matter what kind of heroine she is – ballsy, quiet, sad, bouncy, lethal – I want her to feel real.

***

Now, I just love that and I’m so glad that Emily knows how I feel about the difference it is between being a reader and a writer. It’s extremely easy to be like “Yerugh, that would never happen” when you’re reading a book and then realise you’ve just done exactly the same thing you hate

I just want to focus on a few things that Emily mentioned and the first one is the idea of a heroine being “real” and “authentic”. I think real and authenticity have got quite a bad rep because somehow they have become synonymous with boring. No one’s going to want to read about the girl who was alright at school, who had a decent group of friends, who didn’t really get in trouble if you ignore the few detentions. Are they?

YES! Well, I do anyway. Not every girl can be quirky, be badass, be a standout, catch the eye of the token hot guy. But I bet you, if you give them a chance, their stories will be just as exciting.

I also love the fact that Emily mentioned the idea of heroine’s friends. I’ve recently had a mild freakout [basically emailing my CP bods and being like “HELP. SHE HAS NO FRIENDS”] because of this and I think I’ve sorted it.

One thing that I’m always aware of when it comes to both reading and writing heroines is how they react to other girls in the story. I really dislike it when authors create heroines who look down on other girls who wear make-up or nail varnish and like to go shopping and make them out to be vapid or anti-feminist. Personally, I find that just as damaging as saying any girls who wear jeans or enjoy watching sports are a crap girl.

I know girls who wear skirts, heels, bright nail varnish, dye their hair every month who can down pints better than guys on rugby social. And I know girls who wear baggy jeans, hoodies and can think of nothing better than watching the football with a white wine spritzer. With a sparkly umbrella.

That’s the beauty of girls: none of us are the same!

Maree.

I’ve actually been thinking about this for the past few days since I went to an author event about the boundaries which should be pushed (or not) in YA. At some point we got into a discussion about whether sex should be included and someone in the audience asked if by not including it, the book would be unrealistic. This got me thinking about ‘realistic’ YA novels. See, I always say how I want to read realistic contemporary, but really isn’t reality subjective anyway? What’s realistic and relatable for one reader may be the opposite for another. And that’s where writing about any character gets problematic.

So far my actual experience about writing heroines is limited because on my first attempt my heroine was remarkably similar to myself. However, I’m just about to embark on a new project and my heroine is, on the surface anyway, the complete opposite of me. In fact, I think I might have much more in common with the hero, and that poses another problem for another post about whether I’m able to write him ‘realistically’. But that comes back to what’s ‘realistic’ in the first place…

I sometimes feel like the YA girl tends to fit into one of several roles. She can play dumb and totally rely on the boy for help and ‘protection’ (cringe), or she can be the feisty man-hating feminist who will eventually meet the perfect boy for her. Obviously I’m making very hasty generalisations here, but sometimes I wonder if there’s ever going to be a heroine who’s really obsessed with The Beatles and likes to lounge around in her PJs looking unattractive and who eats an entire packet of TimTams. Or you know, I could just write that book. But see that book would just be a little boring wouldn’t it? Or I’d wonder if I was writing about a particular interest just so the girl had something quirky about her. Something a boy will find cute and romantic.

In your post last week Jo you talked about the boys who burp and fart and watch the footy, but I wonder where are the girls like that? I’m a girl who likes to watch Rugby League every week and cheer for my team, but I am the least sporty person on the planet and I’ve never been a tomboy. Why can’t girls like watching sports while painting their nails? My best friend is obsessed with a particular AFL club and is certainly not afraid to show it. Yet, we both love chatting about fashion just as much as footy. Why do things like that have to be one or the other? Why can girls only be proper and delicate…or, well, the opposite? I mean no one is like that all the time.

And where are the smart girls who know they don’t need to play dumb to get a boy to like them? Where are the people who love academic competition and love learning new things. And, while I’m on that topic, where are all the history nerds? I know they’re out there somewhere! Also…back to The Beatles…where are the girls who like to quote facts about their favourite bands? And by band I don’t mean 1D. Where are the nice girls who like to have the occasional bitch-sesh about that girl they’re all ‘friends’ with but don’t really like.

I think Maree’s really hit the nail on the head here. One of my biggest worries when writing girls is fencing them into a stereotype because it’s the one thing that can really ruin a book for me. I know it’s easy to want to describe your heroine with a single adjective: shy, feisty, clever, sporty.

But then I realised how stupid that was.

Real life girls don’t just get one adjective, we get a whole book of them.

If you limit your heroines to one word, then you’re limiting their character and their development. They’re only ever going to be one dimensional and, well, does anyone want that?

Even though I said I dread spending time with her, I adore Gemma. And that’s why I always find myself going back to her chapters, tweaking this bit, changing that bit. I want to understand her, see what makes her tick, why she makes stupid decisions and why she’s like who she is.

It’s going to be a long journey and I’ll want to throttle her and yell at her but I think once I’ve got it right- once I’ve got her right- it will be worth it.

So what do you think? Are you writing a YA book with a heroine as the main character? What’re the things that you find the most difficult? Do you think it’s easy to fall into clichés?And, most important, why do you love writing about girls?
*Boys would be allowed to read it… well, you know, if they know the password. Nerrr.

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11 thoughts on “On Writing || People write YA books about girls like you…

  1. Love this, all of it! It really is like walking a tightrope, isn’t it? So hard not to fall into cliches or to go so far the other way that it seems like you’re trying too hard.

    My heroine, Rowan, has changed a lot from early drafts, mostly because I’ve been trying to avoid labels and cliches and to let her be her own person. Yes, she has grey eyes, but with no lilac. Yes, she loves books; it was unavoidable for her motivations to make sense. But she loves the outdoors, she’s a stubborn pain in the butt, she’s terribly unobservant and can’t make a decision until it’s almost too late, she adores her best friend and feels uncomfortable when it seems like she’s going to end up with the perfect guy at the beginning of the story.

    In earlier drafts she was far too passive; I don’t like that in a heroine, but I also don’t like the ones who are impossibly badass, who never have a weak moment and won’t take help from anyone.

    I don’t think she’s perfect, and sometimes I feel like she’s more trouble than she’s worth, but I do love spending time with her. So much more fun that the pretty girl whose only flaw is being clumsy when it’s convenient. :)

    I do find it easier to write her than the male perspective.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I adore how you opened it; too perfect!

    • Thanks Kate,and you’re so right about the tightrope.

      I agree with you about the passivity of a heroine but yes, you’re completely right about them not always being a ‘badass’.

      “I don’t think she’s perfect, and sometimes I feel like she’s more trouble than she’s worth, but I do love spending time with her. So much more fun that the pretty girl whose only flaw is being clumsy when it’s convenient. :)”

      LOVE THIS. So true.

      ps. I love the name Rowan too. :)

  2. Jo, Emily, Maree — I’d love to see all the girls you mentioned in books because I think at some point or another, I/we could’ve been in each category. Minus the spot-free girl with milky skin and a K in her name. Or the kickass world saver. I’m way too lazy for all that. But when I think of my girlfriends, they all have so much going on and so many different interests.

    My biggest pet peeve is when I read a heroine who is so weighed down by the fact that she is SO unique and SO “not like any other girl.” Girl, please. Or the girl who is SO cool she only has guy friends. You can be cool AND have female friends AND be down with the guys. They’re not mutually exclusive.

    I can’t wait to see what happens next with Ryver.

    • I’m too lazy to save the world too.
      I’m thinking of writing a book where we just sit around watching kickass girls save the world while we have lots of fun and chat and paint our nails. Deal?

      Urgh, the whole “unique” girl thing is so frustrating. It’s like… what’s wrong being like other girls? I can’t stand it when girls don’t have a single girl friend and they’re so judgy about girls who do.

      NO.

      Ryver + Maggie 4evz.

  3. LOVED the intro, you should keep writing these sort of YA piss-take scenes, put them in a book, and sell it. You will make squillions!

    I defo want realistic characters, espesh when it comes to girls. I am a bit sick of the unique girl, the quirky girl, the girl who hates on all other females etc.. but if a quirky girl does show up in a book, and she feels real, then I am down with that.

    Brill post :)

  4. I suppose in theory we all remember what it’s like to be a teenage girl but it we were honest… the reason it’s so easy to fall into cliche territory when we write about them is precisely because we’ve forgotten how VERY REAL our emotions (immature or not) were back then. How very intense we felt about things. But some of the things we were so intense about back then have ceased to matter now. Or perhaps we now realize we needed to be more open minded. Less arrogant.

    And so, we’ve forgotten the WHY of what we felt back then. We remember our surface level likes and dislikes, but it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten the train of logic we had back then.

    Sigh….good times.

    But anyway Jo, I missed visiting your blog! It’s good to be back!

    • There’s a small part of me that’s glad I can’t remember in vivid detail how horrifying my emotions were when I was a teenager. It WAS very intense but I think that’s such a great thing to try and channel into writing.

      Thanks for your brilliant comment, Alejandra! And I’ve missed you too ;)

  5. Pingback: Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O’Porter | Maree's Musings

  6. Pingback: Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O’Porter | The Unfinished Bookshelf

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