On Writing is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you some more invaluable writing tips from the DA Agency authors and the DA Children’s Book Agency authors. This series will lead us into the beginning of September, known in the publishing industry as the beginning of ‘Frankfurt Book Fair fever’.
To kick off the new series, we’re looking at writing characters who are at one of the most pivotal and life shaping stages of their lives: adolescence. A teenage character is quite often one of the hardest age groups to accurately portray or write convincingly. Nothing is more jarring, or even cringe inducing, than reading a teenage character who is evidently written by an adult (e.g. if you’re writing dialogue that includes “far out” or “tubular” in 2019 – it’s pretty safe to say it’s not an accurate portrayal of a contemporary teenager).
To help guide us, we have the critically-acclaimed and bestselling children’s book author Cathy Cassidy. Cathy is the author of over 30 novels for children and young people, including the outstanding Chocolate Box Girls series and the Lost & Found series. She has now sold over 3 million books worldwide and has been lauded for writing ‘touching, tender and unforgettable’ characters. Her unique and distinctive voice always feels truthful to a young person’s experience.
We asked Cathy a few questions to give us an insight into how she brings this authenticity to her writing:
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Inspiration is everywhere… things I see, hear, remember, imagine! People are a huge source of inspiration – I am a real ‘people-watcher’ – and I’m fascinated by emotions too, so there is never any shortage of ideas! My readers are constantly in touch with me and I meet them regularly at signings and events and book festivals, and sometimes readers have unwittingly inspired a story. By the time I put that spark of inspiration through the whole daydreaming, story-making process, they wouldn’t recognise that the story had any links to them at all!
How do you make your characters feel and sound authentic?
The characters are ‘real’ to me, I think that’s the key! The story unfolds in my mind in daydream form, as if it’s a movie, and as the author I get to pull the strings and direct what the characters do. They don’t always listen! I always feel that I know far more about my characters than is ever revealed in the books. I always draw the main characters, which somehow makes them come alive for me. I think if those characters are real and authentic to me, that carries over into what I write. I hope so!
What is the biggest challenge?
Managing my time and staying disciplined… and meeting deadlines! Sometimes it can be hard to get a good balance in life, especially when life throws a few curveballs at you, but once you jump into the story it generally grabs you and pulls you right in, so then it’s just a case of sticking at it. I don’t plan on paper, so I sometimes go off at tangents… but sometimes they are the best bits!
What are things to bear in mind when writing for teens or a younger audience?
I think that for me, it’s just the way my stories come out – the ‘voice’ is not a conscious thing, it’s instinctive. I’ve written for that age group for most of my life, even before the novels… short stories for teens, work as a teen mag journalist etc., so the way I write is very much natural and ‘from the heart’. I think kids do pick up on this… if you’re not being authentic or true to yourself, they’ll spot it. I’d say it’s important not to ‘write down’ to children or young people… not to be patronising or twee… and to tackle difficult issues (if you are going to tackle them at all) with honesty, warmth and hope.
How do you keep up with relevant issues for teenagers?
I don’t think too much about it to be honest. Many of the themes are timeless, though the details may change with time… for instance, when Honey is stalked in Sweet Honey, it’s cyber stalking and that whole online safety issue and the concern of internet safety is explored. I suppose I stay pretty much up to date on what concerns my readers have because they email and message me constantly to tell me just what worries them! I think if a reader identifies strongly with a book, they then come to trust the author and perhaps confide in them. Either that, or it’s my past experience as a teen mag agony aunt coming out!