10 Things I Learned from The Dark Arts panel at the London Book Fair

By Sarah Clare

Posted on April 23, 2015 in Books with tags Writing Advice, Young Adult

At this year’s London Book Fair I went along to the panel on Writing Fantasy and Horror for Young Adults. In a discussion chaired by Total Film magazine’s acting editor Rosie Fletcher, fantasy authors Sally Green (Half Bad), Joshua Winning (The Sentinel Trilogy), Liz de Jäger (Banished), Tom Huddlestone (The Waking World) and Zoe Marriott (The Swan Kingdom) explored the complexities of writing for young adults and why teen issues go hand in hand with darkly magical stories. Here’s what I learnt:

  1. Be true to your characters. This point made by Sally Green is obvious, but sometimes as a writer the inner-editor gets in the way and you need to be reminded that your characters (almost) always know best. Green was asked about some of the more violent scenes in Half Bad and she openly admitted that she took her characters to some dark places, physically and mentally. But wasn’t worried it was ‘too much’. Instead, she asked herself what would her characters actually do in the given situation? You have to trust them to lead the narrative.Half Bad
  2. Don’t censor yourself… Not with anyone else’s guidelines at least. This is more prevalent in the early stages of creation; the story must be allowed to develop as it wants to, regardless of which path it might choose. Use your own moral compass and common sense as a marker and worry about appropriateness later.
  3. Sometimes you just need a bear. Sure, fantasy doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom and death and wrongness. Zoe Marriott emphasised how just one moment of horror or tragedy can have more of an impact than slasher depravity page by page. Tom Huddleston spoke about how he was urged by his editor to add a little more violence. Enter the bear; a shocking moment of violence (with life altering effects for the characters) sorted.
  4. Violence can be gratuitous, but what’s the point? Violence for violence sake is going to be questioned. As above, it can be a small moment, but it needs to aid character development, or plot. Random acts of violence don’t happen, there’s always more to the story, there’s always motivation.
  5. If at first you don’t succeed… re-write your whole book! Ha! Maybe not, but after having Half Bad queries rejected, Sally Green took a brave decision to rewrite the whole novel from a different perspective. Boom. Accepted. You have to have faith in your story, and in your self.
  6. ‘Real issues effect real teenagers’. Zoe Marriot talked about the darker themes YA fiction can tackle and the controversy it can attract. But these kinds of stories are important in offering an education, an understanding, but most importantly; hope.waking
  7. ‘Below the waist, forget about it’. They talked about sex. C.J. Daugherty would rather leave it to the reader’s imagination, rather than a one page sex scene becoming all that is talked about out of a whole novel. Sexuality can be an important part of a story, or it can detract from the key themes. It comes down to personal preference, but including a steamy scene between characters could come up against more retaliation than a hack and slash bloodbath.
  8. Fantasy is freedom. Writing fantasy allows you to create beautiful, astonishing worlds; glorious and glittering to pit against the horror and angst being experienced by the character.
  9. The YA readership should never be underestimated. Coddling, sugar coating or trying too hard to be ‘cool’ isn’t going to wash with such an intelligent and keyed in target readership. Write however feels natural; forcing it will result in a flop.
  10. Writing with a full time job is doable. Several of the panellists penned their first books while still maintaining full time employment on the side. It was a very real and honest discussion about determination and making time. If you want to write, you will write and these horrible-fantastic worlds we create offer us as much of an escape as anything else.


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