Archive for April, 2015


April 9, 2015

Writing Novels For Teens… When You’re Not One, by Dandi Daley Mackall

I love writing for teens: mysteries, romance, horse novels, historicals, humor… Most of my readers are too polite to ask, but I’ll bet a number of them wonder how I can keep writing for teens when I’m not one and haven’t been one for a very long time.

Great question, right?

I have a great answer. My best and worst teen moments are frozen. When I need a power-packed, authentic teen emotion for a work-in-progress, I bring out my frozen moments, loaded with the same angst and intensity as any contemporary teen moment. I have a freezer full of them.

Frozen moments can give any writer an edge in developing powerful scenes and realistic characters. So, what exactly is a frozen moment? In Larger-Than-Life Lara (Dutton/Penguin), my narrator explains a moment she’ll never forget like this:

“All of this happened in just a couple of seconds, I guess, but it felt like it was a frozen piece of time. . . Sometimes whole countries and even the whole world has stuff happen that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Like Mrs. Smith said she knows people who were alive when President John F. Kennedy got shot and killed dead. And every single one of them can tell you where they were and what they were wearing and who else and what else was in the room with them when that president got shot and killed.

And I believe her because I can tell you exactly where I was on the day of 9/11, when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. I was home sick from school, only I was faking sick. I was all by myself watching TV. Only I’m not supposed to let on I was by myself because the social worker will get after my daddy again. I was wearing the pajamas I hate because they have kites on them and I’ve never ever had a kite, even though I would really like one.

The room smelled like tobacco and bananas. There was a buzzing from the TV because Daddy hooked it up himself to cable so we didn’t have to pay, and sometimes it looked like it was snowing, even on shows like Jungle Animal Planet. Then I was changing channels and saw a plane stuck in a skyscraper, with smoke and fire and people screaming. So I thought it was a movie and I’d watch it. Only… well, you know the rest…

But the stuff about frozen moments is important because if you land into one, then you got some good material for your story. Because you can call it up in your head again and have everything you need right there. It doesn’t go away on you, like other memories. It’s frozen. And this can be a good thing or a bad thing.”

My unscientific take on recent brain studies is this: When an emotion is strong enough, our brain is branded with the memory. That’s my secret as to why I can continue to write for teens. Every novel I’ve written contains a variety of frozen moments. Some series, like Winnie the Horse Gentler, Backyard Horses and Starlight Animal Rescue, use frozen moments to bring back the horses I rode bareback through my teen years.

In The Silence of Murder (Knopf/Random House), which won the Edgar Award for Best YA Mystery, a mother delivers a slap to her son in chapter one. I witnessed such a slap when I was a teen, and I never forgot it. My first sentence in The Secrets of Tree Taylor (Knopf/Random House) is my frozen moment from an early morning in my little Missouri town:

“The morning the gun went off, I was thinking about Tolstoy and the Beatles, and maybe, if I’m being honest here, a little about Ray Miller and how his eyes were perfect little pieces of sky.”

So, the good news is that I don’t have to stop writing for teens, not even when our teens grow up and have teens of their own. I will simply keep that literary freezer filled with frozen moments. Slang changes and clothing styles morph, but teen angst is teen angst.


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