Writing for Fickle Boy-Readers

When it comes to reading, boys tend to be less than enthusiastic.  Ask any frustrated teacher, librarian or parent who is trying to find enticing material for the young male reader.  If that doesn’t convince you, check the statistics. According to the International Reading Association, 39.9% of boys surveyed called reading ‘boring’; 11.1% said the stories they were asked to read were boring; 7.7% said they just couldn’t get into it.  Compared to girls, boys spend less time reading, prefer activities like watching television or movies, and score a grade and a half lower on reading tests. For many boys, reading is ‘something that girls do’.

The reasons for the dismal record are varied and complex, mired in genetics, social stereotypes and environmental influences at home and at school.  For writers of material for young people, though, the news is a silver lining of sorts. The market is rich in opportunities for those who know how and what to write for the fickle boy-reader. Witness the success of series books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, proof that despite their lacklustre reading interests, boys can, and will become hooked if the material and approach are right.untitled

For writers up to the challenge, here are a few things that turn on – and turn off – boy readers, and perhaps editors who are looking for marketable boy material, too.

Guys lead…

According to Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? (Robert Lipsyte, New York Times, August 19, 2011) while girls will read books about boys, boys – especially teenagers – rarely read books with predominately female characters – at least not willingly or openly.  Whatever the genre, a strong male cast with one or more central male protagonists encourages boys to read further.

Go big, go bold…

Call it stereoboy adventurertypical, but it’s often true: boys tend to be adventurous, competitive, and risk-takers when it comes to physical pursuits. In Why Johnny Won’t Read (School Library Journal, 08/01/2004), Michael Sullivan says: “Developmentally, boys view the world as a place filled with rules and tools, and their job is to understand how it works in order to get things done.”  All of this plays out in the topics that interest boys – sports, dinosaurs and daredevils, mystery and adventure, magical and supernatural encounters.  Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where oversized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds.

 Action first, then emotion….

Just watch a group of boys at play. Roughhousing and competition are mainstays.  Feelings and emotions, meanwhile, often take a backseat. While girls find satisfaction in internal reflection, dialogue and passages that strike an emotional chord, for many boy readers this is a turn-off According to www.guysread.com/about/, “boys aren’t practiced and often don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction”.  To grab boys’, action and plot – physical stuff – should be front and center.  Emotions and feelings – the things we often associate with character development – can follow but as a consequence.

Fast and sure starts …

No tortured and slow beginnings for boy readers who don’t have the reading skills or patience for this. The first few paragraphs must capture their attention, and embroiling boy readers in action from the start is one way to win them over.

Add sensory jolts…

brainBoy brains function differently than girl brains, and that impacts the way that boys process information.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (Jossey-Bass, 2002) writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’ and to fully engage boys while they read, they need additional sensory input – a boost of sound, color, motion, or other physical stimulation.  Authors wise to this, reach boy readers by delivering extra doses of sensory detail.

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for young people.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

When Characters Come to Life

My eyes popped open and my heart was racing – ‘Write! Now!’ pounded in my brain. I peered at the red digital numbers, 3:34 a.m.

The main character of my YA work-in-progress, seventeen-year-old Raven, screamed and pounded on my skull. She needed to speak and morning would be too late. I dragged my butt out of bed, stumbled down the stairs and powered up my monitor. Then, for three hours, I wrote every word she screamed through my fingertips.

It was the first time any character I had created truly came to life and lived through me. (If I sound like I’d cracked, I did wonder that myself.)

For the next two weeks, Raven screamed, yelled, tantrumed. I got little sleep and spent every spare moment obsessively pounding on my keyboard until I reached the end of her story. Only then, Raven stood satisfied, quiet.

I mentioned my experience to writer friends of mine and some knew exactly what I was talking about, and others were curious about the experience. Non-writers chalked me up to nuts. (I could tell from the look in James’ eyes, so I stopped telling non-writers.)

It was fun. I loved it. And I wish it to happen with every story I write. But what is the formula?

     • Raven’s story was the first one I wrote in first person. Usually I write in third.

Was this the magic?

     • Raven’s was the first true life experience I wrote about. Usually I write fantasy.

Was this the magic?

• Raven’s was the first story I outlined to death (or maybe in this case, to life!) 

Was this the magic?

I ponder this as I start writing my next endeavour. Will I experience this magic again?

Have you ever had this experience? What magic do you feel when you write? Do you know the formula of bringing your characters to life?

¸.•´¸.•*´¨) ¸.•*¨)
(¸.•´ (¸.•* Suzanne Costigan writes middle grade and YA novels. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada with James, her children, three dogs and four cats.

Suzanne’s first novel, Empty Cup, is an edgy contemporary young adult story about a seventeen year old girl who lives through life’s ultimate betrayal. Suzanne lives in Winnipeg, MB.

Two days + One Word = 48 Hours of Frustration.

tabloidI spent two days on one word: tabloid. The word made it to my third draft and as I toiled on that fourth draft the word grabbed me. It’s a fine word if you’re a thirty something mother of four, an example of me intruding on my protagonist’s story. She’s a seventeen year old girl and she hated the word. It’s not something she would say. I thought back,back, back to when I was that age. I wouldn’t have said tabloid either. My mom used to read romance novels; my teen self called them “mom’s kissing in the wind books.”mcmullet

I decided to consult the experts. I started with my in-house target audience: my daughter. “What would you call those magazines about celebrities in the grocery check out? She looked at me like I was nuts. She’s always sceptical when I approach her with odd hypothetical questions. She knows it’s for a book. “I don’t know.”

Well, that was unhelpful, so I went to my second source. My husband’s work requires him to have an ear to the ground for youth culture. I threw the question out to him. He informed me that teens don’t read those magazines. They get their “news” online and talked about a flat world. Ah, yes. Israel invades Gaza. News. Kim Kardashian leaves her husband. News. But, it’s not my protagonist reading the tabloid, it’s her mother. And she thinks they’re low brow (also not a term she’d use), but I was still left with the question: what would she call them?

I played with different ideas–synonyms, antonyms, and an internet search to find names of different tabloids and still nothing seemed quite right. After two days of thought I finally found the phrase I was looking for. What is it? It’s something unique to my character, it’s how she thinks and in the words she thinks in. I’m on the hunt for more of these words so I can toss them. Hopefully they all won’t take so long to resolve.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Katniss Vs. Bella

katnissA couple of years ago I stumbled across a heated online debate and I can guarantee that if you read YA fiction you’ll have an opinion. Who is the better role model for teen girls; Katniss from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Bella from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight? The question irritated me and not because I couldn’t decide between the two. It made me question my role as a writer. Is creating role models for teen girls my job? Should I be concerned about the example my characters set?

These questions split me down the middle. As the mother of a teenage daughter, I want her to read books with characters who set good examples. But the writer side of me screamed, “No way!” I want to develop characters who are real people and real people are flawed. Real teens make mistakes. They shoplift, smoke, and do drugs. They fall head-over-heels for boys who aren’t good for them. They lie, they sneak out at night, and they ditch school. They drive too fast and they post pictures online they should’ve kept private.bella

Let’s look at sixteen year old Bobby— an excellent student, star of the basketball team, and always obedient to his parents. A great role model, but where’s the story in that? In fact, my teen self hates Bobby and his perfect life. If I tell you one day perfect Bobby snapped and set fire to the school gym—now we have a story. Bobby wasn’t so perfect after all.

As a writer I also need to create change within my characters. My characters need to learn and grow as the book progresses. They will  revel in their successes and suffer for their choices. I refuse to preach to my readers; I allow my characters to live with the consequences of their decisions—good and bad— and let my readers draw their own conclusions. I pose questions and it’s up to my readers to answer them.

My best Katniss impression. I manged to throw the spear about 20 feet. If I had to kill in order to eat, I'd starve.
My best Katniss impression. I managed to throw the spear about 20 feet. If I had to kill in order to eat, I’d starve.

At the same time writers don’t let their characters get away with much.  Perfect Bobby wouldn’t be an interesting story, neither is Bobby taking the devil’s lettuce every lunch hour, getting expelled from school, and then living happily ever after. Again, no story. At least not one with any conflict and writers are all about conflict. I’m not a public service announcement, but Bobby’s decisions are going to have radical consequences that the reader will live with him.

Finally, I’m not into creating characters who promote a political agenda. Who decides who is a good role model and who isn’t? Maybe you like that Katniss portrayed a strong woman. That’s nice, but most of us can’t nail an adversary through the heart with a bow and arrow from 100 yards out. Most of us girls harbour insecurity and self-doubt, so when we write about girls, some girls are going to appear “weak,” but don’t we all have our weaknesses? Doesn’t it give us comfort that there are others out there like us?

So, no, I do not create my characters to be role models. It might happen they show admirable courage or turn their lives around in a way that’s sets a good example, but it’s not what I set out to do. I set out to stay true to the character and the story she needs to tell.

And do I want my daughter to be like Katniss or Bella? Neither. I want to encourage her to be herself, to live in her own story, to be strong in her own character. As a parent I’m still the number one influence in her life; I want to teach her to make wise decisions and I want to have discussions about the books she reads and the characters therein. They should be discussion starters. What were Katniss’ or Bella’s flaws? How did they deal with them? What were the consequences of their decisions?

I know, I know, even as you read this in the corner of your mind you’ve been deciding– Hmm, Katniss or Bella? Go ahead and share your opinion, better yet, tell me what role you feel the writer plays in bringing forward characters who set good examples.

◊  ◊  ◊

Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Speaking of High Treason

Independence Hall
Independence Hall

Philadelphia 1776. The Declaration of Independence was edited, signed, sent to press, and then carried into Independence Square. For the first time, ordinary citizens— British citizens– heard these words: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands…”            

A riot broke out. Windows smashed. Shops looted. Loyalists hid. Even those sympathetic to the cry, “no taxation without representation,” trembled. For, what would the king do to them when he realized their insolence? Many average citizens did not want to disturb the status quo. They wanted go about their days peaceably: make a living, feed their families. This move could destroy it all.

My husband and I journeyed to a town outside of Philadelphia for a friend’s wedding. We had one day to ourselves, so being a history buff, I was anxious to see the birth place of the Declaration of Independence. Setting foot inside historic Independence Hall gave me chills.

I imagined men seated at wooden tables, arguing the creation of a new nation, a pen dipped in an ink well, pressed to parchment that would form the cornerstone of a future world power. I also sensed mothers quaking for fear of their children’s future and the wives who had to face the strong possibility that their husbands would be executed for treason. That loyalists family members would disown them. That the king would take everything from them. I sensed the courage it must have taken to be labelled as traitors—terrorists of the day.

Assembly room where the Declaration was signed.
Assembly room where the Declaration was signed.

My first novel shared so many themes with those men as they sat on the cusp of either a revolution or a squelched rebellion. Over the previous months I struggled as I edited that novel and I realized that some of my frustration lay with my protagonist; I didn’t know her well enough. That day I walked through Independence hall with her. We breathed in the history that would repeat itself for her. She had to make the same decision: to quietly endure the circumstances of a dystopic world, which was her nature, or to risk her life by rising up to “throw off such government and provide new Guards for their future security.”            

I felt both her fear and her courage, what it must take to stand up against incredible odds. She knew her chances of success were slim, but the alternative, never trying for fear of losing was unacceptable, detestable. That infinitesimal glimmer of success became the anchor her hope was tied to. She didn’t write a formal declaration, she developed an internal one—her own manifesto: it’s better to die free than to live under tyranny. I returned to the novel with a renewed commitment to see it through to the end. My protagonist needs to tell her story and the world needs to hear it. What steps do you take to explore your characters, isolate their voice, and walk in their shoes?


Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.
Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.
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