Don’t underestimate the audience

Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Ellie Marney interviewed by Alex Fairhill

Photo of Ellie Marney
Ellie Marney. Photo by Justin Bernhaut.

Writing for teenagers is not ‘easy’, says author Ellie Marney. The audience is savvy, demanding and facing complex issues. Ahead of her Advanced YA workshop, Ellie tells Writers Victoria’s Alex Fairhill that young adult readers deserve respect.

YA stories are popular with both teenagers and adults. Why do they appeal so strongly to readers outside the target audience?

What’s not to love?! Lol – no, seriously, I think for some adults it’s a sense of nostalgia about that time they’re never going to see again. I mean, teenage life can be difficult, but most people look back on their teenaged selves with a certain sympathy. I also think YA literature has a sense of hope, that there’s still a lot of possibility in life – and YA stories often try to reflect that hope, no matter how dire the circumstances. And personally, I’ve always just loved the writing – I think YA has some of the freshest, most exciting writing around. Look at AS King, or Fiona Wood, or Jared Thomas, or books like ‘Illuminae’ that smash old ideas of form… YA is where it’s at.

You’re involved in the #LoveOzYA movement, run the #LoveOzYA book club and you’re a Stella Schools Program Ambassador. How important is it that Australian audiences read Australian stories?

Local stories are crucial. If literature is a reflection of who we are as a society, then it’s important that we be able to see ourselves somewhere in that reflection: our diversity, our landscapes, our language, our streets. It’s important that Australian teenagers have the chance to read stories where Christmastime is in baking summer heat, not feet-deep snow; where characters speak slang they recognise; where farmers drive utes not pickup trucks and have to watch out for roos on the road; where contemporary Australian issues are part of the story. It’s not about nationalism – it’s about the delight you feel when you spot your own reality somewhere in the pages of the book you’re reading, and it’s about saying that reality is valid. I love reading books from everywhere, but I particularly love and treasure the books that give me insight into the world I live in now.

Your course is for advanced YA writers. Who will it suit, and what stage should the participants’ manuscripts be at to get the most from the course?

It will suit people who’ve already got some understanding of YA as a category, and are keen to start sinking deeper into their writing. You might have a finished book that you’re looking to polish and seeking some insight into readership, tone and market. You might not have started your manuscript yet — but you should already have tried your hand at a novel-length form, and you should have a sense of commitment to writing, and be taking a professional outlook.

What are the biggest myths surrounding writing for teenagers?

Probably that it’s easy! I think that misconception is pretty popular: that because kids and teenagers are younger, their literature is less complex and therefore easier to write. That whole idea always makes me laugh my head off — if anything, writing for teenagers is that much harder. You’re dealing with a highly savvy and demanding audience. If you think you can get away with lazy writing with a teen readership… wow, think again. And if you don’t think that the themes and issues confronting teenagers — and dealt with in their literature — are complex, then maybe you don’t have enough understanding of and respect for teens to write for them.

Are there any challenges unique to writing YA? If so, what?

Convincing people that books for teenagers are real books! That old prejudice against children’s literature still exists — I’m often asked if I’d ever write a ‘real’ book for grown-ups. Aside from that it’s an imaginative challenge, as an adult caught up in the day-to-day conundrums of adulting, to step back and remember that feeling of being a teenager, but if you’re a fiction writer that’s just something you have to able to do. The infrastructure of teenage life — phones, tech, social interaction online — has changed a lot since I was a teenager, so that can sometimes be tricky. And of course, walking the line between what you want to write, what you think teenagers might want to read, and what your publisher is willing to release is sometimes a challenge.

Do YA writers need to have ongoing contact with teenagers to write for them?

It’s not compulsory, but it helps a lot. I’m currently living with two teenagers — with two more coming up! — and it certainly gives me significant insight into how teenagers think and what concerns them. You should be able to access those memories of your own teenage life, though.

What are your three top tips for anyone wanting to write YA?

Read YA. That’s always my biggest tip — don’t think because you read ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and ‘Twilight’ you’ve now got a handle on the category. There’s a lot of YA out there — it’s been around for about forty years now, so there’s a lot on the shelves — and there’s a huge variety within the category. You need to be across it to understand tone and approach. I still read a couple of YA books a week, minimum, just to stay current.

Spend some time thinking about your own life experience as a teenager. Remember the emotional journey of it. If you can’t access that, you’re going to have a hard time relating to the material.

And finally, I guess you need to like teenagers. I like teenagers pretty good. I have a lot of admiration for them — being on the cusp of adulthood and figuring yourself out is tough, whichever way you slice it. I find teenagers interesting to talk to, and a lot of fun — I guess until I get so old that I want them to ‘get offa my lawn’ I’ll still have a desire to write for them!

About Ellie Marney

Ellie Marney is a teacher, and author of the highly-awarded ‘Every’ trilogy of crime novels for young adults. ‘Every Breath’, the first book in the series, was listed by ALIA in 2015 in their top ten most-borrowed YA books in Australian libraries. Ellie is a #LoveOzYA advocate, coordinates #LoveOzYAbookclub online, and is a Stella Ambassador. 

About Alex Fairhill

Alex is an emerging children’s and YA author and Writers Victoria volunteer. She posts writing-related thoughts on her blog and Twitter (@AlexFairhill)).