Vintage YA Books + 4 Writing Tips from Legendary YA Author Lois Duncan!
Have you ever wondered what teens read before sparkly vampires and courageous teen wizards came around? Before postapocalyptic hunger gaming and the birth of John Green? I've got two and a half words for you: vintage YA. Our moms, aunts, and former babysitters read the work of writers like Lois Duncan (Debutante Hill, I Know What You Did Last Summer), Ellen Conford (To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie) and Lila Perl (Me and Fat Glenda), awesome books about best friends and crushes and secrets and psychics and just about everything you want to find in YA. And now a new imprint is bringing the best of those books BACK!
Lizzie Skurnick Books (LSB) will be releasing reprints of about a dozen vintage YA titles each year, dating from as early as the 1930s and starting this month with Lois Duncan's Debutante Hill. To celebrate LSB, Duncan recently spoke about her work and her life at McNally Jackson bookstore in NYC (see the sassy girl in pink, in the left-hand photo above? That's a young Duncan riding in HER car, which she bought with the money she made selling stories before her 18th birthday!). She also gave up some great tips for aspiring writers. Listen to the woman, she's a legend:
1. Find universal themes no matter what. So your main character is a time-traveling librarian who lives in an underground bunker below the sea? In between battling sea monsters and tracking down magical books in ancient Egypt, make sure she's also dealing with peer pressure, unrequited love, and sibling problems. "The amazing Dorothy turned her beautiful face toward the perfect merman, who immediately asked her to marry him," is not as interesting as, "Dorothy had a huge crush on Alexander Hamilton, which was such a bummer considering, a) he was into her sister, and b) as a time-traveling librarian, she knew how he was going to die."
2. Don't jump on the bandwagon just to capitalize. Just as, 5 years ago, hack writers across the world were quickly slotting sexy vampires and lusty werepanthers into their fiction willy-nilly, in the hopes of hitching their wagon to the Twilight star, aspiring authors are surely now churning out their own drab take on dystopic romance, a la Hunger Games, at coffee shops everywhere. Why not do something completely fresh instead? The Hunger Games wouldn't be the insanely popular juggernaut it is if it didn't feel so new when it came out. Be gutsy, and write about something that nobody else has thought of.
3. You need a map to get to your destination. Duncan doesn't just sit down and write—she maps out exactly where the story is going first, asking herself as many questions about her characters as she can. When you find yourself reading a book and thinking, "Where did the gun come from? NO WAY would she do something that stupid!," you're probably dealing with an author who wrote themselves into a corner, and had to shoot their way out. Don't make the same mistake! Know your characters, figure out what makes them tick, then plot out a book that uses everything you know to make it as believable as possible (even if you're writing about impossible things).
4. When in doubt, burn the house down. Even Lois Duncan isn't perfect. In two, if not three, of her books (she couldn't remember), she admits to not knowing what the heck to do next: "So I burned the house down." Sometimes you need to throw a real monkey wrench into things to get the story going. "What are we having for dinner?" "Chicken." "Chicken agai—OH, SWEET MERCIFUL HEAVENS, IS THAT A GODZILLA OUTSIDE?!" It's called a plot twist, son. Make friends with it.
Are you as excited as we are to read old-school YA? Will you use these tips to write your NaNo novel??