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Monday, September 13, 2010

Agent and Presenter Advice: Key Elements of MG/YA fiction

*I don't know why my post day says Monday, but I'm still doing Tuesdays and Fridays*

An amazing agent, Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, was in charge of the MG/YA Elements session at the RMFW conference last weekend and there were several other sessions that touched on the topic of writing for a younger audience, so I’m going to combine what I learned and give you few tidbits that hit home for me. You’ll note that many of these are things that we’ve heard about before, but they are SO important to keep in mind. Also, Ms. Rennert has a great website with resources like a fiction checklist, so feel free to check that out (link list at top right).

During the sessions, we were told about elements that are present in all successful MG/YA manuscripts. Here are a few of the big ones—nail these and you’ll be ahead of many incoming manuscripts. If they aren’t there, then consider doing a little more revising before you submit.

Authentic Voice: There’s no perfect formula—the more you read/write and the better you know your character, the easier this will get. How you’re accessing the voice will have an impact. First person gives you an immediate, intimate attachment to the character, but third person has its advantages as well. The point is, if you don’t have a voice, it’s hard to make your narrative compelling, even with the most outrageous, action-packed plots. Whether writing MG or YA, develop your own cadence and style and keep word choices in mind during dialogue—would your character really use the phrase, “He’s such a weirdo,” or are they more likely to say “He’s such a creeper”? (FYI, I got “creeper” from my teenage stepdaughter—I’d never heard the term)

Memorable/Dynamic Characters: Character Arcs, people! Check out your manuscript—if your protagonist hasn’t changed by the end, that’s a problem. Also, give your characters quirks and passions—make them unique, but with a purpose (aka, don’t say to yourself, “crap, she needs to be unique, I’m going to make her addicted to purple kool-aid, yeah, that’s the ticket!”)

Narrative Structure: The thing that stuck out most to me about this element is the metaphor of a pressure cooker. Keep the tension on your characters, guys, and remember that the goal is a vicious cycle (until the resolution, I assume). External pressure on your characters should lead to internal pressure, which leads to action, which leads to more external pressure.

Two more tips:
1) Let your reader arrive fashionably late to the party. Don’t start your novel when it’s only the party host and a big bowl of tortilla chips at 8:00 PM. That’s boring. Start when the action has already built up and escalated. Start your novel with the fight that happened at 1:00 AM, so that the action is there already. Start with an attention-grabber. By the way, this is metaphorical—if you’re writing a story about a cute, ten-year-old baseball team, do NOT switch your plot and send them to a kegger.

2) Look at every single chapter in your manuscript and identify the goal. Yes, that’s right, each chapter needs to feature a character wanting/needing to accomplish something, whether it’s a twelve-year-old spying on Old Man Higgins to catch him dumping poison on the neighbor’s roses, or a sixteen-year-old making a shaky-handed phone call to a crush.

That’s it for today’s conference info.


Miss Snark’s First Victim’s September Secret Agent Contest is coming up on the 20th. It includes MG/YA genres, so if you have a finished manuscript, get your butt over there to check it out and prepare. If you get in (tough to do, you have to have a trigger finger over the send button), you are guaranteed a short critique by peers and an actual agent! Reminder: this is for the first 250 words of your project.

YA Novel Contest (also see my link under contests/giveaways) Delacorte will be opening a contest for a first YA novel and the prize is a CONTRACT—check it out if you’ve got a finished manuscript.

For those of us still confused about conflicting opinions of word counts, please head over HERE, to Casey McCormick’s recent post on that very subject.

Be sure to check out the WriteOnCon site today and tomorrow for some amazing prizes from some Elevensies authors! That action is happening over on the WOC site, so go go go!! (thanks to Elana Johnson for the tip)

Lastly, Christine Whitthohn of Book Cents Literary DOES take YA, but she only takes submissions from referrals or conference attendees…so if she was on your list to cold-query, cross her off for now unless you get a chance to meet her in person (she’s totally sweet and awesome, so I hope you do!)

See you Friday for more conference tips!


  1. Hey Jess!
    Thanks for the plug.
    I had a blast at the RMFW.

    Keep in touch ;)

    Book Cents Literary Agency

  2. Heehee, I use creeper all the time. Then again, I'm almost a teenager, and most kids my age use it too. As in, "You're such a creeper!" or "He's a creeper; don't talk to him!" :)

  3. Thanks for summarizing this excellent information. I especially need to be reminded of tip number 2. I'm attending an "Editor's Day" conference Saturday and hope to come away with some good information worth sharing.

  4. Catherine~ Have fun at your conference!

  5. Wonderful advice! Thanks for passing it on, Jess. Can't wait to hear more!