Guest Post: Deborah Halverson on Viewing Narrative Beats as “Revelatory” Beats in MG/YA Fiction

Deborah Halverson

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We work hard to get to know our characters.

Creating bios, interviewing them, giving them personality tests. One discovery tool often overlooked in this great pursuit are the small actions tucked into the narrative beats.

Narrative beats are those little breathers in dialogue, sometimes filled simply with speaking tags like he said, she said. They’re rhythmic beats in conversations.

The actions that fill those beats can be priceless character revelations anytime, but especially in our first chapters, during our first drafting.

Alas, often writers fill those breaths with generic filler action. I see this at play when full manuscripts land on my editing desk.

Perhaps we writers drop in those generic actions because we’re so focused on getting the first scenes in place; perhaps we’re just not seeing those beats for the opportunities they are.

Oh, what treasure troves those little actions can be!

Regardless of why we do it, when we plug in filler action, we miss out on revelatory moments—“revelatory beats,” I call them—that can help us get to know our characters sooner and with delicious richness.

Our first step in mining these moments is spotting the filler. The filler in this example is looked:

Beth looked at him. “No. I want to go, too.” 

“Looked” doesn’t reveal anything about Beth. First pages full of similarly bland actions won’t help us get to know who she is. Other fillers include stare, glance, gaze, turn (to), smile, frown, and laugh. Synonyms for these actions creep in, too, like grin, snicker, giggle. The word eyes also appears in a lot of narrative beats, and those eyes are usually staring, looking, glancing….

We can turn these precious moments into opportunities to learn about our characters in our early drafting by pledging not to fill the breathers with generic actions, even when we’re speed-drafting to get the story tacked into place.

When we hold ourselves back like that, when we leave a beat demanding to be filled, our characters will step in to fill it.

Our characters will step up; they will do something that reflects who they are and how they’re feeling at that moment. What they decide to do is our revelatory gem.

What might they do? Click-click-click their pens, perhaps, to reveal they’re jumpy. Maybe they’ll pace, revealing they are particularly physical. Maybe they’ll rewash the same mug over and over and over, showing fastidiousness or revealing a tendency to avoid big things that demand their attention. Maybe they’ll pull out a tissue so they can open a doorknob without touching their flesh to the germy knob.

My pal Beth in the above example might do something to indicate how capable or strongly she feels about going, which in turn might prompt me to rework what I thought she’d say after the beat:

“No.” Beth darted ahead of him and blocked the doorway. “You’re not leaving without me.” 

Little actions, happening in the middle of an exchange with another character, reveal things about characters’ personalities, comfort zones, relationships, mood, and more.

Filling your first draftings with this kind of content instead of looking, or glancing, or brushing the hair out of his eye, helps you get to know your character early.

Revelatory beats may even cause us to alter the dialogue we were about to lay down. I didn’t know Beth was so forceful until I saw what she did in the narrative beat.

Are you wondering if you’re denying yourself those early revelations? Check. In your work-in-progress, do a find-and-replace search for each of the words above, no matter how much you’ve written. Tally up all their synonyms, too, to see how many times you choose the same general filler action. How does that number compare to your page count?

Then add all the filler uses together. How does that number compare to your page count? A manuscript I worked on recently used eye 150 times, look 301 times, and glance 16 times. 467 uses of the same general action, although some surely weren’t in the narrative beats. This wasn’t an unusual discovery, and the manuscript was a good one.

As an editor, I perform this search and tally often. I even have a name for it: The Stop Looking Test.

Click image to enlarge

For me, the test is an assessment tool to be applied to a finished manuscript. For you, it’s a tool to help you identify if you should make the first-drafting pledge.

Eventually, revelatory beats will become a subconscious part of your drafting style, so you won’t worry about bogging down your quick-drafting.

Not every narrative beat contains an action, of course. Sometimes that breather contains setting details or exposition. But when it’s time for action, we can make the action something revealing about our character so that we—and readers—will get a feel for the characters’ personalities from the very first pages in the book.

They are small moments, but they can add up to a big overall impression. And we all know how important first impressions can be.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Halverson is the founder of the popular writers’ advice site DearEditor.com and the award-winning author of  Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2011) and Writing New Adult Fiction (Writer’s Digest, 2014), the teen novels Big Mouth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008) and Honk If You Hate Me (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009), the picture book Letters to Santa (illustrated by Pauline Siewert, Becker & Mayer, 2012), and three books in the Remix series for struggling readers (Pearson Canada).

She was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books and is now a freelance editor specializing in young adult/middle grade fiction, new adult fiction, and picture books.

Deborah has worked with authors—bestsellers, veterans, debut, and aspiring—for twenty years. She also serves on the advisory board for the U.C. San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program.

Intern Insights: Highlights of SCBWI LA 2018

Lin Oliver interviews Lois Lowry at SCBWI L.A. Conference

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In August, I attended my very first SCBWI international summer conference. It was truly an amazing experience, but also a bit overwhelming with nearly 1,200 people in attendance.

Thankfully, we all share a love of children’s books, making it much easier to talk with people than typical social situations.

I came home with both inspirational and practical advice, and have a few highlights to share.

By far the most magical aspect of the conference was SCBWI Co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver’s lunchtime chat with Lois Lowry. She thoughtfully reflected on her 40-year career with humor and humility as she addressed questions many of us who create for children continually ask ourselves.

When The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) was published, some people thought the subject was too dark for a children’s book. One website even called her “the Antichrist.”

None of it changed Lowry’s philosophy about what topics should be covered in children’s literature: dark subjects exist in life and need to be dealt with and written about with sensitivity.

“I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be written about,” she said. 

Lowry also talked about the book’s genesis. Her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease made her think deeply about memories and ask the question, “what if there were a way to manipulate human memory to forget pain?”

Like so many writers, Lowry admitted she wonders if she’ll have another good idea and also mentioned writing “a book that was unpublishable (but we won’t dwell on that.).” Even her casual asides are full of sage wisdom!

Her next book, On the Horizon, is due out in 2020. It addresses the familiar theme of human connections in a global way, exploring our relationships to each other around the world.

She gave an example of global connections, explaining how she discovered at a 1994 awards ceremony that she and author/illustrator Allen Say lived in the same Japanese town following World War II. They had seen one another, but never had a conversation or discovered the connection, until winning the Newbery and Caldecott awards in the same year.

An interesting thread I found in several of keynotes were references to music.

Daniel José Older used The Killers’ 2003 song Mr. Brightside to illustrate a number of writing insights:

  • the importance of a good beginning 
  • “good books are made of bad decisions” 
  • trust the reader 
  • earn your metaphors 
  • end the story when the story is over
  • “words are supposed to sound good when you put them together”
  • He urged everyone to read their work out loud before submitting it.

My volunteer duty at the conference was to assist authors Deborah Heiligman and Deborah Halverson during the autograph party. So much fun chatting with the Deborahs and those getting books signed!

Lynda Mullaly Hunt talked about vulnerability being a double-edged sword and how The Last Song, written by Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John was the catalyst for her to open up to a fellow teacher who ended up becoming a mentor in several aspects of life and writing.

Brian Pinkney played the drums on stage and talked about how drumming and dreaming helped him discover the text for Max Found Two Sticks (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Napping as part of the creative process sounds too good to pass up!

Andrea Davis Pinkney starts each day by walking up and spending 30 minutes with her eyes closed thinking about things that make her happy. Then, because writers write every single day, she writes from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. before exercising and heading off to her other job as editor at Scholastic.

Other creative advice came from Mike Curato: “Make things that make you smile” and eat cake, and ice cream. He went on to say, making a book is about discovering who we are.

During the agent panel, Jenny Bent offered a bit of advice in wake of recent events: request publishing contracts with split payments, so the publisher sends royalties to both creators and agents, rather than all funds going to the literary agency first.

In addition to the keynotes, I also met some fabulous people during the breakouts and social events.

Illustrators Manelle Oliphant and Gladys Jose, both new members of their SCBWI Regional Teams. Manelle is the illustrator coordinator in Utah/Southern Idaho, while Gladys is assistant regional advisor in Florida.

SCBWI co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver and SCBWI board member Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.
I was very excited to meet Cynsations Reporters Angela Cerrito, (Europe) and Christopher Cheng
 (Asia, Australia & New Zeland). 

Guest Post & Giveaway: Deborah Halverson on Five Things YA Writers Should Know about New Adult Fiction

New Adult Covers

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Just as the difference between a middle grade story and a young adult story is more than the characters’ ages and grades in school, the difference between a young adult story and a new adult story is more than the characters’ ages and their graduation from high school.

Young adult writers often ask me to articulate that “more than”—a task I’m happy to take on.

Some of those writers want to work out whether their stories on the upper cusp of teenhood are YA or NA, and others just want understand this new category that brushes up against their own.

Here are five key differences you need to know about YA and NA:

1.) Age: Yes, age matters. YA protagonists are usually 12 to 18 years old, still living the high school life or under some kind of adult oversight or power structure. NA protagonists are 18 to 25, often in college or taking first steps into career.

Notice the overlap at 18? Some young people are free from adult oversight at that age and are embarking on the next phase of life, so you’ll find them in NA. This is where you can get tripped up by focusing on age as the delineator: People point to stories of teen orphans or adventurers out battling the world for survival, far from their parents. Does being on your own mean you’re no longer a teen? No one would claim that about 14- and 15-year-olds, but what about 17- and 18-year-olds? At what age do you draw the line? See, problematic. That’s why numbers 2 and 3 below matter, too.

Research for Writing New Adult Fiction

2) Narrative sensibility and character mind-set: This is about how your characters process the world, which affects their priorities, goals, dreams, and fears, and it’s about about how they express themselves.

Teens are typically starting to look outward as they try to find their places in the world and realize that their actions have consequences in the grander scheme of life.

In contrast, new adults are typically picking up the self-exploration that began in adolescence, expanding their worldviews and becoming fully self-responsible after leaving some kind of adult-regulated life. They are now free to determine their own schedules and activities, are generally responsible for no one but themselves, and are increasingly making their own life plans as they gain wisdom through experience.

Overlaps remain between the two life phases, though. Friendships are intensely important to both age groups, although in new adulthood the traditional family structure gives way to a new “family” of friends. That word “new” matters, as new adulthood is a time of immense change and new stuff. Thus, new adulthood throbs with instability and the stress that goes with it.

Peer pressure is also important to both groups, as the part of the brain that helps us inhibit impulses, plan and organize our behavior to reach a goal, and manage our reward system isn’t done developing until age 25. This means teens and new adults are hyper-interested in risk-taking situations and very influenced by peer pressure; only, NAs are now totally free to indulge, so the partying and other risky behaviors can intensify.

This is why many people describe NA as seeming “bigger” or more intense than YA, even though teenhood is pretty dang intense itself.

Deborah’s “mobile office”

3) Circumstances: The storylines we create for each age group reflect their phases of life. YA fiction features teens yearning for full independence despite their lack of experience and perspective. These young people think big and take big action, struggle with over- and under-confidence, mature in their decision-making and coping skills through their adventures, and embark on their first forays into romance, with romantic attraction becoming a significant part of life.

NA stories show young people with a little more experience under their belts—often just enough to make them over-confident. We get to watch them deal with the realities of that independence they craved, have high expectations for themselves that don’t always match reality, strive to break from their teen social status and build an identity from scratch, continue to mature in their decision-making, take big risks as they experiment and explore, and delve into more intense romances, laced by self-exploration and influenced by new a freedom to explore their sexuality.

Because there’s lots of planning and replanning during new adulthood, NA fiction includes first forays into careers, allowing the characters to test their career plans before they have to settle into adult life.

4) Sexual Explicitness: Romance is a part of almost every upper YA and NA story, as well it should be—love is a main area of identity exploration starting with puberty. Teens tend to be exploring love for the first time, trying to understand what it feels like, and NAs are starting to gauge who they want to be in these relationships and what they want out of their partners.

The explicitness of the physical love scenes differs for the two categories, big time. YA has its sexual content but writers must be sure that their level of detail is organic and necessary to the story. Generally, that which doesn’t happen off-scene altogether is softened so as not to be overly graphic. Even so, those stories can face “gatekeeper” challenges because they’re clearly positioned as teen fare.

The constraints are gone for NA, which is marketed for over-18s. New adults are free to explore relationships and sexual identity, experimenting as interest, opportunity, and willing partners allow.

Pioneering NA novels often featured explicit love scenes, but now, two years into the category’s evolution, NA writers and readers are debating just how vital steamy sex scenes are for the literature.

5) Audience: The YA audience includes teens and “crossover” adult readers.

NA may get some teen readers because young people do read up, but that said, many teens aren’t interested in that time of life yet.

NA writers who craft stories about 18-year-olds are aware they may have young readers, so often they’ll opt for a “Mature YA” label, giving them the elbow room to go into more detail with the sex but still keeping it tame.

We don’t have industry studies to confirm this, but it’s believed that the biggest NA readership is that same crossover adult readership that made YA a publishing industry juggernaut.

New adults themselves are considered a large secondary readership, happy to see their experiences finally reflected in their own fiction.

I hope these five things illuminate how YA fiction and NA fiction are near neighbors yet still distinct categories.

Personally, I’m happy to see NA fiction in the mix—the category is exciting for readers who long craved stories about this time of life, and it’s exciting for writers who yearned to explore the new adulthood experience and now have the opportunity to do so.

Happy readers, happy writers … sounds darn good to me.

View from Deborah’s mobile office

Cynsational Notes 

Deborah Halverson is a veteran editor and the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies.

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Her latest book, Writing New Adult Fiction, teaches
techniques and strategies for crafting the new adult mindset and
experience into riveting NA fiction.

Deborah was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years and is now a freelance editor, the founder of the popular writers’ advice website DearEditor.com, and the author of numerous books for young readers, including two teen novels.

Visit DeborahHalverson.com or DearEditor.com.

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