Book Recipes: How to Write a YA Paranormal Romance

Time for another book recipe – the last one of 2017. This time I’ll be looking at YA paranormal romances, so grab the nearest mythological creature and get ready to fall in love.

 

Ingredients:

  • One aggressively average teenage girl
  • A totally mysterious hottie
  • A handful of bastardised folk beliefs and legends
  • High school
  • A slightly-less-hot third wheel
  • An incompetent, sneery villain
  • One spooky but still cool setting
  • Assorted mix of high school students, mythological creatures and authority figures, all to be ignored

 

Method:

  1. Introduce your aggressively average main character to the rest of the cast, and to the reader. She’s new in town, like always.
  2. Mention the bastardised folk beliefs/legends you’ll be ripping off inspired by, but do it quickly because –
  3. It’s time to meet our hottie! Make sure the reader knows how dreamy he is by describing him with the most over-the-top language you can muster, having literally everybody fancy him, and by having one mysterious yet still-totally-hot feature.
  4. Ooh, he’s so mysterious!
  5. Oh, and the third wheel is here.
  6. But never mind that! The hottie has finally noticed the main character! Talk about his eyes some more. He’s so tall…
  7. One of the background characters mentions the spooky legends some more. Maybe you should pay attention, once you’ve finished deciphering the hottie’s latest text.
  8. The main character and the hottie are getting closer, but something is mysteriously coming between them! Oh no, what could it be? Definitely not those legends we’re ignoring!
  9. Angst.
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No-one understands. (image: giphy.com)
    1. The hottie is so mysterious. The main character just wants to be with him, but he’s dangerous. But he’s also hot. But he’s dangerous! But he’s hot! Go and cry about it on the third wheel’s shoulder.
    2. Spooky happenings are in the background, but they’re not quite interesting enough to distract the main character from the thought of abs.
    3. The hottie’s terrible secret is finally revealed! Turns out all those glaringly obvious clues about supernatural creatures were pointing to him all along! Oh, but how could any girl love such a hideously attractive monster? Surely the main character shall faint now she knows the awful truth!
    4. She doesn’t. They make out.
    5. More spooky stuff is going on the background, but the main character understands it now. Feel superior to all the normies for a bit.
    6. Well we’ve still got five more steps to go and the last third of the book hasn’t been written. Time to add a pointless villain into the mix.
    7. The villain emerges, sneeringly. In a shocking display of competence he kidnaps the main character, probably because of a prophecy or something. This is the only time he ever does anything right.
    8. The main character is about to die. Oh no. Who will rescue her from this terrible predicament.
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I’m really cut up about this. (reactiongifs.com)
  1. It’s the hottie, of course! They have a fight, during which he is attractively but not seriously wounded, and the sneery villain is defeated…
  2. …just in time for the big dance! High school sure is fun now we know that paranormal beings are real.
  3. Drop a spooky hint at the end that lets you spin this out into a series.

THE END. Serve on a bed of shirtless, supernatural hotties.

 

Tips:

  • Even though your main character is in high school, she must never have any actual learning or homework to do. Lessons should be reserved for moping, significant stares, and summarising stuff that’s already happened in the character’s internal monologue.
  • Make sure you have a really good aesthetic. It doesn’t matter what actually happens as long as you could make a Pinterest board out of it.
  • Always use first-person, but make sure to say as little about the main character as possible. It’s not like we’re here to read a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a teenage girl, don’t be silly!
  • Include shirtless scenes. These are entirely necessary to the plot and your readers will thank you.
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It is. (image: giphy.com)
  • Don’t worry about accurate representations of the myths and legends you’re ripping off inspired by. No-one’s going to care about that when there are hotties nearby!
  • Everyone over the age of twenty-five is wrong, stupid or dead.
  • Never, ever, ever resolve the inevitable conflict of a human dating a supernatural being. You want this to be a series, don’t you?
  • Don’t forget the stupid names! Make sure they are the least subtle names you can possibly come up with. If you think Wolfgang Wolfson might be a bit on-the-nose for a werewolf, you need to lower your standards.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

The clifftop hotel had obviously been abandoned for a while now. I knew that just by looking at it – the big stone steps leading up to the front door were chipped, and all the windows were stained – but I still went inside. Bay had asked me to meet him here, and I didn’t want to seem like a baby in front of him.

Inside was just as bad. The big front desk was all dusty and all the plaster was flaking off the walls. I dinged the brass bell on the counter and it cracked apart under my hand. Behind the receptionist’s desk was a dusty grid of pigeonholes, some with yellowing envelopes still inside them, and an old wall phone with a cone-shaped mouthpiece.

How could Bay – Bay Waterford Vodianoy, the hottest boy in school – be living here?

I shivered and pulled my jacket a little closer. Across the lobby was a wide staircase, carpeted in threadbare red, and a chandelier hung above it. It tinkled gently in the sea breeze, coming in sharp and salty through the broken windows. I could hear the crash of the waves on the rocks below.

“I didn’t think you’d make it this far,” said a voice.

I whirled around. Standing in a doorway was Bay, looking totally dark and mysterious in a black leather jacket. His obsidian eyes flashed like burning coals, and his brilliant, diamond-white hair caught the light as he walked towards me, attractively. I could see why every girl in school – even the head cheerleader, Angie, who was always so mean to me – wanted him so badly.

“I got your note. Do you really live here?”

He smouldered at me. “It suits my needs. I like to be close to the water.”

“But isn’t this where all those people who died in that terrible shipwreck were staying?”

Sam, my best friend, had told me all about it. Seventy years ago a group of guests staying at Coldwater’s best and most expensive hotel took their yacht out to sea, got caught in a mysterious storm and never came back. I was kind of interested in the town’s history, so he’d hunted down an incredibly rare first-edition volume of Coldwater’s local legends, had it professionally gift-wrapped, and gave it to me as a Tuesday gift. He’s such a good friend.

Bay shrugged, in a way that showed off all his muscles. “Doesn’t bother me. I like living in a place with secrets.”

“Secrets?”

He took my hand. I immediately lost all feeling in my legs and almost collapsed, but Bay held me upright. He’s so strong. And tall. But also mysterious, with the secret tattoo he always tries to hide…

“I’ll show you.”

Still holding hands, we went through a door tucked behind the front desk and down a rickety wooden staircase. I almost tripped three times, but Bay stopped me from falling. Eventually he just picked me up, bridal style, and carried me down the staircase, wheezing a bit. I didn’t mind. It was still really hot. The staircase was lit by candles all along the walls, and by their light I could see the tip of his tattoo – green wavy lines just touching the end of his collarbones. It sort of looked a bit like seaweed, but I don’t know why anyone would get that tattooed on them.

Eventually we came to an old stone passage, which opened up into a cave. There were candles everywhere and natural rock pools, and the sea rushed in and out somewhere at the other end of the tunnel. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen – apart from Bay’s face, of course. Or his arms. Or his abs. I hadn’t seen those, but I bet they were great.

Bay put me down, rubbing his arms a bit. He leaned against the wall and looked away, his floppy hair hiding his face.

“How much do you know about the history of this place, Aurora?” he asked.

It was the first time he’s ever said my name. I wished I’d taped it.

“I know about the hotel guests, if that’s what you mean?”

“And before that?”

Sam had told me about some of that stuff too. Apparently there was this old local legend that Coldwater had first been founded when a shipwrecked family had been saved by a mysterious water-spirit. Sam had got his old grandmother to tell me all about it, and then taken me out for fresh lobster because it was Wednesday. He’s such a good friend.

“I’ve heard the stories.”

I was shivering. Bay took off his leather jacket and put it around my shoulders, his expression unreadable. It smelled like the sea. I stared into his dark eyes and for a second, he almost looked scared.

“Then it’s time for me to show you what I am.”

He stepped into the water. There was a bright light, a vaguely tinkling sound, and then Bay was standing in a rock pool, shirtless and wet. His abs were everything I had dreamed of and now, I knew I could die happy. I could finally see his tattoo clearly as well – it was of long, twisting ropes of seaweed going all the way up his arm. The bits on his bicep were very intricate and complicated, so I stared at them just to make sure I could picture it properly. Y’know, for later on.

Then, he went blue, took a great heaving breath and collapsed into the water.

“Bay!” I yelled, running forward. I tripped, and his hands shot out of the rock pool and caught me before I hit the floor.

“Sorry,” he said, still up to his neck in the water. “It’s a bit touch and go when the gills come in.”

I stared. He did have gills, and I was pretty sure that his hands and feet were webbed, too.

“I don’t understand.”

Bay took my face in his hands and stared into my eyes. “I’m saying that the legends are true, Aurora. Everything you’ve heard about the water-spirits is real. Until we turn twenty-one we take a human form, but when we’re in the water – we turn into this hideous monster!”

I took a good look at him. The webbed hands and feet were a bit distracting, but the gills were hardly noticeable. Aside from that he looked exactly the same, and more importantly, his transformation had somehow got rid of his shirt.

“I don’t think you’re a monster.”

“You don’t understand. At La Laguna Negra we’re told there’s only one way to escape becoming gross, scaly fish-monsters and that is to earn the love of a human before we turn twenty-one. You’ve no idea what that can do to someone! My brother, Gill – well, he’s definitely not showing up in the last three chapters, there’s no point talking about him. But – Aurora, I love you. I can’t keep this secret from you any longer. I…I just wanted you to know the truth before I say goodbye.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Well, yeah.” He held up his webbed hands and waggled them at me. “Y’know, gross fish-monster. I couldn’t put you through that.”

“Do you still need to breathe through your mouth when you’ve got gills?”

“No, but –”

I kissed him. I was lying on a cave floor, my head dangling over a rock pool, but it was still the best kiss anyone has ever had ever.

“You might be a fish-monster,” I said, “but I don’t think you’re gross at all. Unless – you don’t have any tentacles, do you?”

He pulled a face. “No! It’s fish-monster, not octopus-monster.”

“Okay, we’re cool. Budge up, I’m coming in.”

 

And that’s it for 2017! Normal service will resume in the New Year. My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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Mary Sue: So Bad It’s Good

Quick roundup of what we’ve learned so far. We’ve talked about what a Sue is and how to recognise one, including a short list of the different types. We’ve also discussed why Sues as character types are problems: a potted summary is that their lack of characterisation distorts the story around them and glosses over serious issues. But last time I raised the issue of gender criticisms of Mary Sues – namely, that a lot of the flak they get tends to be couched in all these weird gender connotations. From a purely literary perspective, some of the criticism is justified: Mary Sues are bad characters. But some of it isn’t, and that’s usually where the gender stuff comes into play.

Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?

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Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)

Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.

For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:

  • Does everyone love her?
  • Does she ever find anything difficult?
  • Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
  • How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
  • Does she change over the course of the story? How?

The ideal answers should be: no, yes, yes, not much, yes + explanation. But this is a very brief guide: there are plenty of excellent resources out there which will help with character building. There’s an extremely comprehensive Mary Sue litmus test floating around, plenty of writers’ resources, and there’s also my own ten-question test I used in the Strong Female Characters series. The bottom line is once you’ve identified your Sue it’s not the end of the world. There are plenty of tools to help you fix it, and in doing so you’ll become a better writer.

But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: coolspotters.com)

But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.

Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.

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I mean, who doesn’t? (image: justanotheranimefan.wordpress.com)

This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.

Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.

Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.

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No no no NO NO NO NO (image: tumblr.com)

But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.

So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.

Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.

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You’ll get there eventually. (image: buzzfeed.com)