Master Mondays, Week Three: The YA Novel Class Recap

Master Mondays, Week Three: The YA Novel Class Recap

Figure 1. The Princesses of Iowa by Molly Backes, now in paperback

Figure 1. The Princesses of Iowa by Molly Backes, now in paperback



A good way to preface a class is to have beer, garlic knots and pizza with Molly Backes, you guys. Dunno if the class went any better, but I felt pretty satisfied upon arrival. It’s been a menstrual week, what can I say?

TL;DR version

This week: more on plot, more on Jonah Griggs of Jellicoe Road, an eensy bit about voice and then a Q&A with Molly Backes!

More thoughts on plot

Clearly I am neurotic about this. I sat down and made a little list of things I’d actually learned while writing books, not just things I’d heard other smart people say.

Luckily Molly was around to save the day with some discussion on How Top Gun Can Help Us Understand Three Act Structure! Which means that many of us probably left the class with “Highway to the Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away” in our heads. Just me?

Molly Backes Highlight Reel!

Regarding plot:

“Your character must be taking action and making choices.”
“Your character must change over the course of the story.”
The inciting incident provides the reader with the understanding that the story’s beginning marks something significant about to happen: “Why is the story happening now instead of some other time?”

Each chapter should answer a question you’ve brought up in the story at the mid-point and then ask another question at the chapter’s end, creating a kind of cascade of questions.

“People like stories because they like reading about people dealing with changes and making changes.” This is because, Molly explains, making changes personally is a very difficult and long process in reality; people like to see this dramatized in a book.

Student Questions for Molly

“But what if the reason I want to write my story is that I do have a message?”

Molly’s response was that she thinks good stories don’t provide answers but just pose important questions –  “how do we really know ourselves, why are labels so important to us” – and that providing a ‘message’ often means that the author is telling us the answer, telling us how to think, instead of inspiring us as readers to think.

“I see so many bad reviews on GoodReads complaining about how unlikeable the characters are; I’m writing a pretty unlikeable character so I’m a little nervous about this.”

Molly thinks everyone has unlikeable aspects, but if a character is going to change in the course of a story, they can’t always make good decisions, i.e. behave “likeably.” Also, she shared that she’s been critiqued similarly, with one GoodReads reviewer writing, “Congratulations, you’ve written the most unlikeable character in literature.” Molly’s feeling is that this is a big problem for female characters; they aren’t allowed to be petty or angry or mean without our entire society’s judgment of such bleeding into the opinion. Her own adolescence involved being ‘mean’ to all of her friends; she considers this bad behavior part of growing up: “I didn’t have friends who were nice to each other all the time until I was much older.”

(I had to interject: GoodReads can be a super gross and horrible place.)

“You talk about your editor making changes in the book. But then we always hear that you’ve got to make the book perfect, as good as it can be, in order to sell it. How does this square?”

Molly: “You have to write a good enough book to get an agent. Then you and your agent write a good enough book to get an editor. Then you and your editor write a good enough book to sell as many copies as possible.” Molly also said that editors expect and want to add to the process of creating the book, making it the best it can be. But that you as the writer must bring your manuscript as far as you can possibly take it before querying agents.

On The Princesses of Iowa and her own writing 

– The Princesses of Iowa when she was 25 years old, teaching middle school in New Mexico, and living in a tiny town where she knew nobody, had no television, and very little to do with her spare time: “This is a situation I don’t think I’ll ever be able to duplicate again.”

– she starts stories with archetypes and then starts to fiddle with them, make them singular as she goes along, breaking the patterns and conventions of the stereotypes she’s built; putting characters in a variety of contexts and situations helps with that: “Say you have a meathead jock guy who crushes beer cans on his head. Well, does he always do that? Does he crush beer cans on his head in front of his grandma? What is he like on Sunday morning at church? When his dog dies? He can’t always act and be the same way if he’s to be real.”

– The best piece of advice she remembers receiving about writing was a professor who told her that “the book will teach you how to write it.”

– Regarding publishing: “Everything takes ten times longer than everyone says it will.”

– She loves YA stories that are set in the Midwest, with characters that don’t come from a lot of money. She likes intelligent characters with strong voices, and characters that are essentially good people, but that still screw things up regularly. She cited the Ruby Oliver novels by E. Lockhart as being a good example of this: people with problems who aren’t having problems because they are at heart vicious or evil but because that is the nature of life. She likes the idea of girl characters who are feminist in their thing but at the same time still confused and consumed with liking boys.

Class Recap/Books Mentioned

1) Announcements:
Carrie’s book release party for Perfectly Good White Boy is this Friday, October 3, at 7 pm at Addendum Books in St. Paul.
No class October 13 and November 17, as Carrie will be out of town those days; updated syllabus provided
Steve Brezenoff is guest speaker for 10/13 class; librarian panel set for 11/24
2) Writing Practice Tip: read your story out loud to catch language that doesn’t flow right or areas that are confusing/go on for too long
3) Plot exercises: students think of a small problem a character in their story could be having, write it on a slip of paper, then write a scene. Then students passed that slip of paper with the problem on it to the left and now must write a scene where one of their characters contends with that problem, even if it’s not possible in their world, e.g. a flat tire on the Rings of Saturn.
4) Shared/discussed scenes/some notes about plot from Carrie
5) Jellicoe Road discussion: What do you think of Jonah Griggs? Does this story have magical realism elements? How is the character of Taylor emerging?
6)Brief mention of voice and article: Fingerprint Words by Matthew J.X. Malady
7) Q & A time with Molly Backes
8) Closing assignment: write flap copy of your book

Books Mentioned (thank you, Keith, for taking note!)
1) The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness (first book = The Knife of Never Letting Go)
2) Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta
3) The Bone People by Keri Hulme
4) Witch & Wizard series by James Patterson
5) The Ruby Oliver novels by E. Lockhart

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