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Friday, November 8, 2013

Writing YA and the Importance of Reader Engagement


Have you ever become so engaged in a book, movie, or television show that you dreamed about its characters? This happened to me during college when I allowed myself a one-hour study break each weekday to watch a soap opera. The show’s villains, heroes, and star-crossed lovers penetrated my psyche and took up residence. I became emotionally invested in their fates. I plucked the characters and twisting storylines and wove them into my own mental narrative. Successful YA novels inspire similar devotion and emotional involvement. Teens especially embrace trilogies and book series. They love returning to familiar worlds and journeying along as new truths are revealed, and more difficult obstacles must be overcome.

Intense Emotions and Reader Engagement

Do you remember the heightened emotions connected to high school? Developing brains and raging hormones amplified feelings about friendship, love, family, and peer approval. Beliefs and thoughts grew to epic proportions. There were no shades of gray. A well told YA novel will inspire similarly intense emotional engagement, and may inspire fan fiction, Street Teams, and reader/blogger loyalty.

In her Romance Writers of America University class, “Romancing YA,” author Nancy Holder asked students to “Describe how reader engagement is built into your story idea.” Since I write series YA (The Teen Wytche Saga), I applied the question not only to my individual books, but also to the overall series. I discovered I had employed the characteristics outlined in an article Holder referenced, “Fiction Writing: What Makes Your Readers Care About Your Characters?” and had strengthened them with each subsequent book. Ask yourself the same question about your work-in- progress and then read the Men With Pens article.

Your World As a Reader's Springboard
Imagine the world you have created in your YA novel, be it a contemporary high school, a dystopian setting, steam punk, Fairy, between worlds, or a mental institute. How would a reader react if he or she were plopped into your setting? Whether your characters are aliens, vampires, lunatics, or Every Girl and Boy, would the reader identify with their humanity enough to want to aid and befriend them, help them overcome their obstacles, and destroy their enemies?
As an author, my visceral reaction to the characters I write is a good predictor of how my readers will react. (I so wanted a happy ending for Aidan in Spell Struck!) Like the soap opera characters of my college days, I want my characters to be so relatable and compelling that they get inside a reader’s head and enter his or her dreams. I’d consider that level of reader engagement an epic success.

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