Sam Bonner recently caught up with Lil Chase, a fellow Creative Writing classmate of his from London Metropolitan University, to talk about writing and editing. Since leaving university, she has gone on to publish two books for teens with Quercus, Boys For Beginners and Secrets, Lies & Locker 62.
Sticking to the writing routine is the hardest thing about being a writer. I have a part-time day job so on the days that I’m working I come home from work, walk the dog, eat dinner, then head up to my desk at 9pm. I tell myself that I only have to write for twenty minutes, but when I get there I usually write for an hour or two. I also spend one day of the weekend working. I have heard that some people aim for word count targets, but I find that too intimidating. I accept that there are some days when the words won’t come, but if I stick to a routine no matter what, I’ll be back again writing the next day, when hopefully the words will be back too.
Explain how the use of language affects the pace of a YA book. What are some of the genre trappings you try and avoid when writing?
Language affects pace in all books: every word choice is crucial. It’s hard with YA because teens use so much slang in their speech, and slang is always changing. I try to use slang that is unlikely to date, and also invent new slang; that way it will never date. Inventing slang is also a good way to avoid swearing. So Gwynnie, in Boys For Beginners, says ‘What the flan [am I going to do?]’ quite a lot. Maya in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62 uses variations of the word ‘hideous’ and makes that her thing that she says.
How much do you edit after you have finished the first draft? And how much do you have once a new editor comes aboard?
I have said many a time, “I’m not a very good writer, but I am a very good editor.” The writing is done quickly, over a few months, and I overwrite like mad: the first draft of Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 was 74,501 words. The final draft was 49,396 words(!). By cutting back that much you can make sure that every word is a good one.
Outside editorial feedback is essential, and my editor at Quercus is amazing at picking out the parts to change to make the book more cohesive. I’m always amazed at how each round of edits improves the manuscript and I have never disagreed with a suggestion she’s made…even if it hurts to hear it at first.
What literary tools do you employ to engage with a reader?
I took a BA in Creative Writing and some of the most helpful modules were the poetry modules (there is a little poetry in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62, but that’s not really what I mean). Poetry is a really good way to learn how to use language effectively: how an image can convey so much more than a statement (essentially, show, don’t tell). How the last word of a sentence should be the word with the most punch. How ‘less is more’ is always the best policy. I wouldn’t ever advocate ‘flowery prose’ in novels, especially not for teens, but being aware of the power of each one of your words is terribly important.
What, in your opinion, distinguishes your writing from your peers in your genre?
Hmm, this is a tricky one. I write in the first person – which many YA authors do – but I really work hard to make that young teen voice authentic. When I write a sentence I ask myself, “can I imagine a 13 year old saying that?” When was the last time you heard a 13 year old use the word, ‘exclaim’ or ‘retort’ or ‘pondered’. Actually, when did you hear anyone use those words outside of a book?
But there are plenty of writers who get this spot on: Louise Rennison is an obvious choice. Chris Higgins is another. Melvin Burges for slightly older readers. Their writing feels 100% authentic, and teens love it.
Explain how you learned the craft of writing, and what you believe have been the most integral areas of this learning process.
Practice, practice, practice. Keep reading – to learn what styles you’d like to emulate and what styles you don’t want to emulate. Keep writing – to develop your voice, and to get in the habit of the writing routine. Keep listening to criticism – it’s always useful, even if you ignore it. If you are not able to take a degree in Creative Writing as I did, then read Story by Robert McKee. It’s about screenwriting, but it works for novel writing too. It is, in my opinion, the most useful book on storytelling available. His focus is on moving your story forward so as not to bore your readers. And he gives you the techniques on how to do just that.
What books would you say you learnt the most from with regards to your own writing style?
Before writing my first teen book – Boys For Beginners – I read Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. It is unbelievably funny. As an adult, you read it with such nostalgia thinking “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what it was like.” I genuinely did not know that books for teens were allowed to be that good, that kind of no-holds-barred funny. It was an inspiration.
Learn more about Lil Chase.
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