Secrets of Voice and Plot: YA Novels With Editors Krista Marino and Lexa Hillyer

Originally Posted: Jan. 16, 2010

by Emily Goodman

Krista Marino, Senior Editor at Knopf Doubleday Dell (Random House) and Lexa Hillyer, Editor at Razorbill (Penguin) divulged some secrets of YA novels at the December SCBWI Metro New York Tuesday Professionals Series.

“A well-developed plot, believable characters, and a strong voice: It’s surprisingly hard to find books that have all three,” Marino said.

She and Hillyer spoke on the craft behind two of these elements of a good novel: Marino about voice and Hillyer about how to develop plot. “Think of characters from books you’ve read that stick with you, and try to figure out why they’re so successful,” said Marino. She suggested that usually, the reason is that they have a “100 percent believable voice.” She discussed elements of narrative voice, including characterization, dialogue, and diction. About characterization, Marino said, “In a YA novel, you’re reading a teen outlook on the world, and that’s defined by their limited life experience.”

Yet, she added, teens are not simple, and authors shouldn’t make teen characters simple. “One may have very strong beliefs as a teenager. As an adult, after seeing more of the world, meeting different people and learning about different cultures, those beliefs might change.”

Dialogue, the second element of narrative voice, can help convey character. “It must feel real, not like a sitcom,” Marino said. She suggested that writers go to malls or playgrounds and “use your ears. Learn how teens actually talk.”

Interior monologue can be just as important as dialogue “because it shows how teens react to things; it shows their judgments.” Diction, meaning the verbal style of a character, can be used to convey the difference between teen and adult outlooks on the world, such as what an adult actually says versus what the teen hears.

Most important, said Marino, is to be faithful to your protagonist. “In high school, the process of figuring out who you are is just beginning. The reader doesn’t know your protagonist’s complexities. You must communicate them using these tools.”

Lexa Hillyer is a strong advocate of outlining. She compared outlined and non-outlined novels to neat and messy offices. Both can work, she said, but “an organized story makes your point clearer and sends a strong message that the reader is in good hands.” While it seems obvious that a novel must have a beginning, middle, and end, Hillyer pointed out that many novels have errors in this basic structure. Some have lots of beginning, not much middle, and a quick end; others have an endless middle.

She suggested plotting a novel’s events on a diagram to see where the bulk of the action falls. The writer may need to rearrange a story so that its events come at the best time. Hillyer wants the beginning of the book to introduce the main characters, define what’s at stake for them, and set in motion the subplots.

“You have goals to accomplish in the first 30 or 40 pages,” she said. In the middle, Hillyer said, tension must build as the stakes are raised. She recommended not putting the biggest events too early: “bigger deal” moments should happen later in the book so that the action is always rising. In addition, she reminded writers that each subplot must develop at its own pace.

The end, Hillyer said, is for revelations, and is often the easiest part to write. It’s very satisfying, she noted, if all the subplots can be wrapped together with the main action and all solved together in the climax. Within the book, each chapter should have its own mini-arc, Hillyer said, and chapters should be roughly equal in length. This length can vary, she added: some people write short chapters, which tend to read faster, because the action is more broken up. She suggests ending each one on a cliffhanger to keep people reading. Longer chapters can have more nuances; Hillyer likes these to end on resonant moments, perhaps a strong image or a really good line of dialogue.

Both Marino and Hillyer emphasized that there are “no rules, only tools.” Most important for characters, they said, is to be believable. For a fictional plot, most important is to make it interesting!

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets (Charlesbridge) was named the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009

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One comment

  1. I have only written one YA and I haven’t tried to do anything with it, though I’m told it is really good. It would need a lot of editing for the very reason you described – voice. I used MY words and not the words a boy would use; i.e. sluice. Can you imagine? I even chuckled at myself when I read that. Maybe someday…

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