This is the last of my six posts on constructing “young adult” (YA) mysteries — the next set considers revision from a YA writing standpoint. Stay with the Pen, Ink, and Crimes team, as we head toward the peak excitement of each SinCNE year: no, not signing the contract (yeah, that one’s personal!) but joining other authors, published and not, at the New England Crime Bake. This year’s Crime Bake conference is almost sold out, so check into it soon if you’re curious: http://www.crimebake.org/index.htm
Now, back to work:
Whether you’re a pantser (plotting from the seat of your pants) or a plotter (diagrams laid out in advance!), the ending of a YA book often can surprise you — even though you’re the one writing it. I’ve been through this enough times to notice that even when I believe I know the final scene, even the final words, the writing process has so much life in it, can be so wriggly, that Things Change. The cemetery stone above, the real one for murdered Sam Wah of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was at first the ending for my mystery COLD MIDNIGHT. But there were good reasons for that to change, as the book developed.
The best reason for finding that an ending-being-written needs to change is realizing that something already written demands a different finale. This can come from (1) re-reading the first chapter … Oddly, we often are wiser and deeper than we realize as we plunge into setting the opening of a book, and the re-read reveals promises made that need to be kept. Something in the ending usually echoes the most important of those promises. In CANDOR by Pam Bachorz, Oscar Banks has the disconcerting first-chapter experience of meeting a girl who doesn’t like him:
She snorts. “Like you’d do anything bad. You’re just like the rest of them. You’re the king of the rest of them.”
My facade fools her, just like everyone else. That should make me proud. Instead a flush crawls over the back of my neck. I want to prove her wrong.
We’re not just storytellers — we are story consumers. So we know that Oscar’s path will involve that desire, and we long for an ending that says he has achieved it. (No spoilers here, but Bachorz delivers on her promise in a much more disconcerting way.)
The planned ending also shifts when characters have developed depth during writing — a very good thing — and (2) you realize that your protagonist “wants” something different from what you’d first planned. In SAFEKEEPING by Karen Hesse, Radley’s search for her parents during a time of political unrest in the USA can’t end up the way Radley hoped. But the end of the book takes healing and recovery in new directions that the older, more mature Radley appreciates anyway.
And then there’s solving the mystery itself, the complex squirming bundle of red herrings and deliberate connections you’ve framed. You planned for the criminal to be captured alive, but one of the diversions you introduced somehow interferes, or — as in VIRALS by Kathy Reichs — (3) you realize that the protagonist’s future crime-solving career depends in part on something remaining unfinished after all.
Finally, writing a book isn’t like cleaning a kitchen — it takes more time, it’s more complicated, and it depends more on what’s inside the author. M.T. Anderson, in the foreword to “Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies” (by long-time Harcourt editor and now author Deborah Halvorsen), puts it this way: “Young readers are still constructing their understanding of life. … As they read stories, they learn about justice and injustice, happiness and sadness, glory and delight and sorrow.”
So the final chapter of a YA mystery isn’t just laying out the solution to the crime — it’s also leaving room for the reader’s discovery about Life. And when that works, for many YA writers, it provides much richer payment than the contract ever could. Remember in the last post when I mentioned the “words before The End” in a YA book? More often than not, they’ll be words that name a discovery the protagonist has made, on top of solving the crime. (That’s much more rare in mysteries for adult readers.)
Fear not! I’ll write about contracts and the publishing process later. But before any of that “business” can take place, the YA mystery needs to be well written. So in the next two posts, I’ll look at how revising your work for YA readers is different from other genres.
Wishing you a good writing season in progress, and the courage to complete that first draft!