Getting Serious

By Mark Alpert


Last weekend I went to St. Louis and found my calling.

Sounds like the first line of a novel, right? (See Joe Moore’s recent post.) But it’s also the truth. Within a span of 24 hours I stood on the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. I climbed to the top of St. Louis’s Gateway Arch. (Actually, I rode in a cramped elevator/tram with a couple of retired narcotics detectives, but that’s another story.) I even visited the street in Ferguson, Missouri, that became the flashpoint for so much anguish last year. All of this is beside the point, though. I found my calling in a more unlikely setting: the America’s Center Convention Complex.

The convention center was the site of the annual conference of the International Literacy Association. More than five thousand teachers, researchers and school administrators gathered there to discuss new ways to teach kids how to read. This is a subject close to the heart of all writers, because where would we be without new generations of readers? As the old public-service advertisements used to say, “Reading is Fundamental!” We can’t have a truly democratic society without literate citizens. If people can’t (or won’t) read books or magazines or newspapers, they’ll have to rely on television and the Internet to form their views of the world, and if they’re not careful they’re likely to get an unsteady diet of trash and misinformation and pure propaganda. How can Americans compete in the global economy if they can’t even identify the world’s continents? How can voters make informed choices at the polls if they can’t (or won’t) read about the issues?

But the problem is bigger than just teaching kids how to read — we also have to make sure they keep reading as they grow up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, I stopped reading fiction a long time ago,” or “I just don’t have the time to read a novel.” I think much of the falloff in reading occurs during the teenage years, partly because of school pressures, partly because of the lure of electronic entertainment, and partly because so many other things are going on in a teenager’s life. So I became determined to write novels for teens, exciting Young Adult thrillers that might tempt kids to put down their iPhones and game controllers, at least for an hour or two, and pick up a book.

That’s why I was so pleased when my publisher sent me to St. Louis to promote my first YA thriller, The Six, at the ILA conference. Last Sunday morning I arrived at the convention center just as they were opening the exhibition hall where all the publishers of children’s books and educational materials had set up their booths. The conference attendees flooded into the hall at 10 a.m. sharp and headed straight for the other side of the room. Another author — apparently someone much more popular than me — was giving away signed books. I waited at my table, next to my own stack of books, for about ten minutes, feeling a little foolish. And then the more popular author must’ve run out of books to give away, and people started converging at my booth. For the next ten minutes I signed and gave away books as fast as I could. My hand started to cramp, and I got so frazzled that I started to say the same things over and over: “Hope you like it! The book was a lot of fun to write! Yes, it’s perfect for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Hope you like it!” And then the stack of books was gone, all the copies signed and distributed, and everyone moved on to the next author.

Here’s what impressed me: for the most part, the attendees at the conference weren’t getting the books for themselves or their children or their nieces and nephews. They wanted the novels for their students. Almost every school in America is financially stressed, and there’s not enough money for the necessities, much less the extras. So teachers will jump at the chance to get free books for their classes and school libraries. You never know which book will inspire the reluctant reader or convince the struggling student that learning can be fun.

So I decided right then and there that I would do my best to help. My novels are about science — the workings of the brain, the remarkable advances in computer technology, the fundamental theories of physics, the exploration of the universe — and I love to introduce young people to these topics. If any teacher or school librarian would like me to talk to their students about science or fiction (or science fiction), I’d be happy to schedule a chat via Skype or Google Hangout (or in person, if the school’s in the New York City area). Just go to my website and you’ll find my contact info. And I’m going to think about other ways to pursue this calling.

And now, in an effort to end on a less serious note, here’s a conversation I overheard on the streets of St. Louis:

Five-year-old boy (to another boy): I don’t care!

Boy’s mother: No, no, you should never say, “I don’t care,” to your friends! Instead, you should say, “That’s very interesting.”


How To Create A Winning Voice

By Mark Alpert


It seems like everyone in the publishing world is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Go Set a Watchman, the long-lost novel by Harper Lee that will (at least according to the press releases) continue the story of Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is reportedly set in 1950s Alabama and reveals what happened to Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her upright father Atticus twenty years after the events of Mockingbird. But Watchman was actually written before Mockingbird; when Lee submitted the manuscript to her publisher, her editor advised her to set it aside and focus instead on Scout’s childhood. Some critics fear that Watchman won’t live up to expectations, but most Mockingbird fans are overjoyed just to get a chance to read about Scout and Atticus again.

And why is that so? What makes Mockingbird so universally beloved? Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to reread the novel because my daughter is studying it in her eighth-grade Humanities class. Although she usually prefers to read the assigned books on her own, she asked me to read this one out loud to her. I think that’s because I’m locally famous (at least within the confines of our apartment) for my expert rendition of Atticus Finch’s voice (based, of course, on Gregory Peck’s performance in the film version of Mockingbird – “Scout, I forbid you to fight!”) But as I read the novel to my daughter, I see it’s actually the voice of Scout, the book’s narrator, that makes Mockingbird so appealing. Harper Lee manages to capture the essence of an entire society, the world of a small South Alabama town in the 1930s, in the words of an eight-year-old girl.

Creating a compelling narrative voice for a novel is tricky. There are few hard-and-fast rules. One general guideline is to avoid words, phrases and grammar that your point-of-view character would never utter or think under any circumstances. So, for example, Scout would never muse about quantum physics or Marcel Proust. And yet the narrator of Mockingbird isn’t always the eight-year-old Scout; sometimes it’s the mature woman who Scout eventually becomes, the woman who’s looking back on 1930s Alabama with nostalgia and dismay. She tells us things that the eight-year-old couldn’t possibly know. But Harper Lee’s narration is so deft that the inconsistencies aren’t bothersome.

Without any strict rules to go by, a beginning novelist must stumble along in the darkness, listening for voices until he or she hears one that sounds interesting and real. Some authors create backstories and craft monologues before beginning a novel, but I prefer to dive right into the story and listen to the voice that’s telling it. This strategy doesn’t always work, but when it does the results can be satisfying. The voice that emerges is new and yet familiar, capable of having insights and telling jokes that I could never think of on my own.

I have a personal connection to Mockingbird: back in the 1980s I used to work for The Montgomery Advertiser, one of the newspapers that Atticus reads so religiously every evening. Mostly I wrote about state politics — George Wallace was still Alabama’s governor in the Eighties, believe it or not — but on Fridays I worked the police beat and carried a radio scanner with me wherever I went. The countryside south of Montgomery was pretty flat, so the scanner picked up police dispatch calls from all over the southern part of the state. One day I heard an urgent call from Monroeville, the seat of Monroe County. The police officer on the radio used the ominous 10-92 code, which indicated that somebody had been murdered. I immediately called the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to find out what was going on, and the sheriff himself answered the phone. I asked him what had happened, and he said he couldn’t tell me. He was extremely polite, but he wouldn’t disclose a thing. “I sure wish I could help you,” he drawled. “But I just can’t.” I kept pressing and pressing him and he kept politely saying, “I sure am sorry.” Finally, I got so frustrated I said, “Okay, if you can’t say anything about the murder, can you at least me tell me something about Monroeville?” The sheriff thought about it for a second, and then said, “Well, Harper Lee lives here.”

Monroeville, I learned, was the model for the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. The sheriff who was so successful at stonewalling me was the real-life counterpart of Heck Tate, the sheriff who declined to shoot the rabid dog in Mockingbird and instead handed his gun to Atticus because he was the best shot in Maycomb County. As long as I had the sheriff on the phone, I asked him if he could help me get an interview with Harper Lee, but he said that would be impossible. She never gave interviews, he said. He added that a lot of people in Monroeville were still mad at her for airing the town’s dirty laundry.

So I never got a chance to interview Harper Lee, but soon I’ll be able to read her long-lost novel. I can’t wait.


Goodreads is sponsoring a giveaway of The Six, my upcoming Young Adult novel. If you want a chance to win a free advance copy of the book, go here.



Six Writing Tips From The Master

By Mark Alpert


If you’re reading this post, you’re probably interested in writing commercial fiction, which can be loosely defined as fiction that has the potential to make some money because it’s entertaining. So you should pay special attention to the works of the foremost master of commercial fiction, a novelist whose exceptional books garnered oodles of cash and millions of rabid fans and an international fame that will probably endure for as long as our species does. No, I’m not talking about James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. I’m referring to Charles Dickens, the veritable Father of Commercial Fiction, the patron saint of all who hope to make a living from this crazy business.

I recently renewed my acquaintance with Dickens after I noticed a paperback copy of Little Dorrit sitting on one of the bookshelves in my living room. I honestly don’t know how it got there. The residents of my apartment building often leave their cast-off books on a table in the building’s lobby, next to the bank of mailboxes, and my wife sometimes picks up one or two of the freebies, so that’s a possibility. The paperback was old and worn, and the cover was dour, all black except for a cameo of a plain-looking woman in nineteenth-century dress. The novel was quite long too, almost 850 pages including the textual notes and appendices. I hadn’t read any Dickens since plowing through Bleak House in the early 1990s, an endeavor that took several months to complete. But I opened Little Dorrit anyway, and now I’m very glad I did.

After three weeks I’m only halfway through the novel, but every night I eagerly look forward to the fifteen or twenty pages I read before bedtime. And as I’ve followed the adventures of Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam and all the other characters in this sprawling story, I’ve taken mental notes on the techniques Dickens employed to capture and hold the reader’s attention. Although the book was written more than 150 years ago, it offers some very useful tips to today’s novelists:

  1. Writing an outline can be helpful, but it doesn’t have to be too detailed.

Dickens was an outliner. He had to be. His novels were published serially in British periodicals, some of them monthly, some of them weekly. Most of his books appeared in twenty monthly installments, and when the first installment came out he was usually at least a year away from writing the last chapter. He couldn’t afford to go down blind paths in his narratives, because he didn’t have the luxury of revising earlier chapters. So he made plans and followed them.


Luckily, the outline for Little Dorrit has been preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (and a couple of handwritten pages appear in an appendix in my paperback; see the photograph above). What’s remarkable about the document is how sketchy it seems. Dickens’s plan is far less meticulous than the massive 60-page outlines written by James Patterson and other 21st-century novelists. For each planned chapter, Dickens scribbled ideas for scenes and characters on the left side of the page (Waiting Room? French Town? Family and two daughters?) and on the right side he marked his decisions about whether to include the proposed elements in the chapter (Yes. No. Slightly. Not Yet). For some chapters he noted the inspiration for a character (the clarionet-player I saw at the Ambigu in Paris) and sometimes he jotted down an inspired metaphor that he planned to insert into the manuscript. (House like a bottle of smell. When the footman opens the door, he seems to take the stopper out.) But there are few detailed blueprints of the plot. In most cases Dickens gave himself only generalized instructions. (People to meet and part as travellers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be now shewn to the reader but to be worked out as in life. Try this uncertainty and this not-putting of them together, as a new means of interest.)

Dickens had some practical reasons for not planning his books in minute detail. Sometimes he changed the course of his novels in response to his readers’ reactions to the installments; if his audience seemed to adore a particular character, for example, Dickens would make sure this character played a large role in future chapters. But this strategy is a wise one for all novelists, even if they’re not publishing their books in monthly magazines. It’s a good idea to keep the outline rather sketchy and leave room for changes and surprises. If a writer is surprised and delighted by a plot twist that unexpectedly occurs to him or her while drafting the manuscript, then the odds are good that the readers of the book will be delighted too.

  1. The key to suspense is not telling your story too soon.

I was struck by how many times Dickens scrawled Not Yet in the outline for Little Dorrit. He knew what he wanted to write and was anxious to write it, but he deliberately held himself back. At the end of one of the chapters, an ancillary character named Mr. Pancks makes a shocking discovery, and Dickens describes the amazement of the other characters when they learn the truth. But Dickens doesn’t reveal the nature of the discovery until later. It’s an old trick but it works. I certainly wasn’t going to put the book down until I learned what Pancks had uncovered.

  1. Provide clues to something terrible that happened in the past, and intimations of something terrible that will happen in the future.

At the beginning of Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam suspects that someone in his family once committed a horrible crime that he needs to atone for. When he asks his invalid mother if that’s the case, she denies it, but at the same time she raises her arms over her head as if to ward off a blow. So the reader knows for damn sure that Clennam’s suspicions are correct. I still don’t know what the crime is — I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet — but it probably involves Amy Dorrit’s family. Maybe Clennam’s parents somehow caused the downfall of Amy’s father, sending him to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison for twenty-five years. That might explain why Mrs. Clennam hired Amy as a seamstress.

You see how intrigued I am? I just have to know. And I won’t stop reading till I find out.

In the early chapters Dickens also introduces a sinister Frenchman named Rigaud who apparently murdered his wife but somehow evaded the guillotine. Over the course of the novel Rigaud turns up in England under an alias and begins to lurk among the Clennams and Dorrits. The guy is patently evil — he even has a Snidely Whiplash mustache — and yet it’s a delicious thrill to see him biding his time and concocting his plots. The coming catastrophe is so inevitable, it’s like watching a car crash. The reader can’t turn away.

  1. Don’t be afraid to express strong opinions.

Dickens had an agenda. When he was twelve his father was sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison, and the boy had to live apart from his family and work in a shoe-blacking warehouse. Although Dickens later became very rich from his novels, he never forgot the trauma and injustice he faced when he was poor. He realized how extreme poverty could warp the body and soul. In Little Dorrit, he frequently mentions how the walls of the Marshalsea cast shadows that continue to darken the characters’ lives long after they leave the prison.

But Dickens wasn’t a radical. As any reader of A Tale of Two Cities can attest, he was horrified by the French Revolution. No, Dickens was a moderate, a believer in sensible reforms, and he used all the tools of fiction to expose England’s inequitable society and prod it to do better. My favorite part of Bleak House came right after the wretched death of Jo, the young, homeless street sweeper. At that moment Dickens abruptly abandons his measured narrative voice and directly addresses the reader:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

This political agenda didn’t reduce the appeal of Dickens’s novels. On the contrary, it gave them power and importance. It elevated them from soap opera, turning trivial family dramas into heart-wrenching universal stories. It’s why we still read Dickens today. He believed that violence and social disruption stemmed from injustice, and that the violence would grow worse until society stopped torturing its weakest and poorest. Isn’t this the same message we’re hearing today after the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore?

  1. Don’t be afraid to portray strong emotions.

Dickens is equally good at describing the more personal, intimate varieties of heartache. In Little Dorrit, the 40-year-old Arthur Clennam resolves most emphatically that he will not fall in love with the 20-year-old Minnie Meagles, better known by her parents’ affectionate nickname for her, Pet. He makes a point of harboring no ill-will toward the caddish young man who woos Pet, the arrogant Henry Gowan. But Clennam doesn’t feel the full impact of his sacrificial resolve until Pet announces that she and Gowan would soon be married:

At that time, it seemed to him, he first finally resigned the dying hope that had flickered in nobody’s heart so much to its pain and trouble; and from that time he became in his own eyes, as to any similar hope or prospect, a very much older man who had done with that part of life.

  1. Memorable descriptions can make your characters come alive.

The plots of Dickens’s novels are famously convoluted and sometime creak under the weight of so many events. I spent all that time reading Bleak House, and twenty years later here’s the only thing I can recall of the plot: It’s about a lawsuit. But I’ll always remember Dickens’s characters. He had a knack for using memorable phrases and metaphors to fix a character in your mind, nailing it down as firmly as a butterfly on a pin.

Take the minor character of Mr. Pancks, for example. He’s a rich man’s rent collector, and Dickens illustrates Pancks’s nonstop subservience by comparing him to a tugboat that’s always pushing his master’s ship from harbor to harbor. Better yet, Pancks is constantly snorting like a tugboat’s steam engine. It’s a funny description, but it also makes him come alive. I can picture the guy. I can hear him snorting away as he badgers the poor tenants of Bleeding Heart Yard. He’s a real jerk.

Another great example is Tattycoram, the foundling who’s adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Meagles to serve as their beloved daughter’s maidservant (and as a substitute for Pet’s twin sister, who died in infancy). Although the Meagles are practical people who believe they did a very charitable thing when they adopted Tattycoram, the girl ultimately grows resentful of their charity and condescension (not to mention the ridiculous name they gave her, which seems like an insult in itself). Mr. Meagles tries to control her eruptions of anger by repeatedly urging her to “count to five-and-twenty,” but that just make her even more furious. Her character is encapsulated in her cry of frustration and despair: “But I am ill-used, I am ill-used, I am ill-used!” (I like this sentence so much that I’ve adopted it as my new mantra. I mutter it under my breath when I have to wait in line at the supermarket or the drugstore.)

But enough with the literary criticism. I’m looking forward to reading another twenty pages of Little Dorrit tonight.


I can’t resist sharing the news that my soon-to-be-published Young Adult novel, The Six, just got a starred review from Booklist. You can read the review here.



A Great Book Conference

By Mark Alpert


Back in the summer of 1981, between my junior and senior years of college, my roommates and I drove to California in a friend’s dad’s Cadillac. We left New York City at 9 p.m., watched the sun come up over Indiana, spent the afternoon in the Wisconsin Dells and kept on driving till we hit South Dakota. Over the next three days we toured the Badlands, gawked at Old Faithful, and somehow ignited a thingamajig on the Caddy’s underside, littering sparks on I-15 as we crossed the Mojave Desert. After delivering the battered car to its owner, Mr. Grisanti (who was none too pleased when he saw its condition), we spent the following two months in various parts of Los Angeles, mooching off our friends in Westwood and playing volleyball on the Santa Monica beach and working temp jobs at a Zody’s Department Store. I loved every laid-back minute of it.

Strangely enough, though, I never returned to the L.A. area until two weeks ago, when I attended the American Booksellers Association’s Children’s Institute conference in Pasadena. I was there to promote The Six, my Young Adult thriller about terminally ill teenagers who give up their dying bodies and download their minds to U.S. Army robots. The Six will come out in July, and my publisher wanted me to showcase the novel for the benefit of the booksellers from all over the country who come to the conference to see what’s new and exciting. The conference organizers stage a ritual that’s a bit like speed dating: while the booksellers eat lunch in a hotel ballroom, the representatives from the various publishers hop from table to table, describing their spring and summer offerings to each group of bookstore owners and buyers, summarizing their lists in a wild rush before moving on to the next table. And then a few hours later the authors of said books come to an evening reception to sign advance copies and answer questions from booksellers who are already eager to read the novels. Needless to say, I had a blast at the reception. It was an incredibly gratifying and flattering experience.

What struck me the most was the enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit of the booksellers. Many of them were young and new to the business, and many were longtime owners of revered stores, but all of them were upbeat and passionate about books. Their optimism stands in stark contrast to all the dismal prognostications about the future of book publishing. One conference participant pointed out a strange consequence of this disconnect between expectations and reality: a few customers at her bookstore act like mourners at a funeral. “They come up to me with very concerned looks on their faces and ask, ‘Are you all right? Is everything okay?’ And they’re genuinely surprised when I say, ‘Yes, business is great!’”

My favorite moment from the conference was when a bookseller showed me a review of The Six written by a fourteen-year-old boy in her town who’d read an advance copy. He loved the book but felt obliged to add that it was a bit scary.

And it was good to visit Southern California again after a 34-year hiatus. I had some fantastic sushi at a restaurant a few blocks from the Pasadena Hilton. After dinner I strolled over to the campus of Caltech, which is a shrine for science nerds like me and probably the least laid-back place in the whole state. I admired the bronze bust of Robert Millikan, the legendary physicist who was the first to measure the charge of an electron. I peeked into the windows of the labs and saw frazzled students still hard at work at midnight. It’s definitely not a good college for partying; there was no music blaring from the dorm rooms, and the only socializing I glimpsed was a rather pathetic klatch of half a dozen students standing around a pony keg. Worse, I overheard one of the students lecturing the others: “There are several types of fun, you know. There’s Type 1 Fun, which is very different from Type 2 Fun but somewhat similar to Type 3…”

I didn’t stick around for the full explanation.



How To Write A Young Adult Novel

By Mark Alpert


I love Young Adult novels. For many years I read the books aloud to my son and daughter, and when my kids got old enough to read the books on their own, I would sneak into their bedrooms late at night and swipe the novels from their desks so I could keep up with them. I longed to write a YA novel of my own, and a couple of years ago I had an idea for a science thriller that might appeal to teenagers, a story about robots and artificial intelligence and whether a person’s mind or soul can really outlive the death of the body. Titled The Six, the novel will be published in July, and it’s already received some advance praise from R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series (my son’s favorite bedtime read when he was a second-grader), and Michael Grant, author of the Gone series (which my kids also loved). Now I’d like to share some of the things I learned while writing the novel.

1) It’s all about The Voice. One could argue that the best YA novel of all time is The Catcher in the Rye. My daughter, now in eighth grade, read the book for her English class this year and was completely enthralled by the adventures of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. It was Holden’s voice that grabbed her, the vivacious, confused, sometimes angry, sometimes wise voice that ridiculed all the phonies at Pencey Prep and wondered what happened to Central Park’s ducks in the winter. For a few weeks she adopted Holden’s voice as her own and spoke exclusively in Holden-speak, complaining nonstop about her “goddamn homework” and declaring “That kills me!” every time she saw something interesting on the street.

Of course, the narrator’s voice is important in all novels, but I think it’s absolutely critical for YA books. Young adult readers are especially eager to identify with the protagonist. They want to see the world through his or her eyes and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

2) YA can be more daring than adult fiction. Writing in first-person is a very effective tool for creating a compelling voice. The main character can quickly establish a wonderful sense of intimacy when he or she is speaking directly to the reader. The problem with writing in first-person is that it’s hard to do well. If J.D. Salinger had been less adept at it, Holden would’ve come across as a whiny snot-nose. One of the keys is balance: the narrator has to be forthright but not arrogant, courageous but not stupid, compassionate but not a sap.

Because first-person is so difficult to pull off, I think many writers shy away from it. I don’t have any definite numbers on this, but I feel confident that the overwhelming majority of thrillers are written in the more conventional way — that is, third-person, past tense. That’s the way I wrote all my thrillers for adults. But YA authors seem to take more chances. Suzanne Collins made a brilliant choice when she wrote The Hunger Games in first-person, present tense. If it had been written in third-person, I don’t think readers would’ve fallen so madly in love with an unusual character like Katniss Everdeen. And the use of present tense energized the book’s gladiatorial combat scenes.

I decided to write The Six in first-person, present tense, and I think it made a world of difference. The book’s narrator, Adam Armstrong, is a seventeen-year-old suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s been in a wheelchair since the age of twelve and his heart is starting to fail. He has less than six months left to live. And yet he’s also a bright, funny kid who writes virtual-reality programs and loves the New York Giants. I don’t think I could’ve successfully portrayed this character if I wasn’t inside his head, telling his story in real time and talking directly to readers.

3) YA is usually shorter than adult fiction. A hundred thousand words is LONG for a Young Adult novel. Cut as ruthlessly as you can.

4) It’s good to have both boys AND girls in the story. What’s Harry Potter without Hermione? What’s Katniss without Gale and Peeta? One of the things I really liked about Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is that it’s split almost evenly between female and male point-of-view characters.

My YA novel focuses on five teenagers besides Adam, three girls and two boys. They’re all terminally ill, which makes them eligible for an experimental procedure that scans their brains in such detail that the full contents of their minds — all their memories and emotions and virtues and flaws — can be digitally recorded and stored in advanced electronic circuits. I call the six teenagers the Pioneers because some futurists believe that all people will be able to make this leap from biological tissue to computer processors, perhaps by the year 2050.

5) Give the kids special abilities. Those abilities don’t have to be supernatural or futuristic powers. Maybe one of your characters can have a fantastic memory or an amazing pitching arm or a remarkable singing voice. Special talents are actually pretty common among teenagers. If a kid has a passion for something, he or she will practice constantly and get absurdly good at it in a relatively short amount of time.

Growing up is the subject of most, if not all, YA novels, even the most fantastical ones. I remember when my daughter was a toddler she had very poor balance and was always slipping off chairs and benches. One day we were sitting on a bench on a concrete patio, and she started tipping backwards. She would’ve hurt herself very badly if I hadn’t swooped my arm around her, grabbing her in midair just before her head hit the concrete. It was really no big deal, one of the routine things parents do everyday, but at the time the thought occurred to me: To her, I am Superman. I have powers of speed and strength and agility that are far beyond her poor childish abilities. But when she becomes a teenager, she too will gain those physical and mental powers, and she’ll have to learn how to use them. Then I understood why I enjoyed the Harry Potter series and all the other books about teenagers struggling to control and take advantage of their newfound abilities. They’re all metaphors for the primary challenge of growing up.

6) Give the kids someone to love. Teenagers fall in love all the time. When I was seventeen I fell in love with a different girl every week (and ninety-nine percent of them were blissfully unaware of my passions). That’s one of the charming things about teens: most of them haven’t been really hurt yet, so they’re still willing to open their hearts. And that’s why love triangles are so popular in YA novels. These kids don’t know what they want yet. They’re still experimenting.

This experimentation often involves sex which you can see video examples of its depiction at cartoonporno. No other toon tube can touch, and the best YA books don’t shrink from describing sexual situations (I’m thinking of Holden Caulfield’s sad encounter with the prostitute in Catcher). In my YA novel the relationships are a little more unusual because the teenagers are transformed into giant clanking robots with bullet-shaped torsos. This is an advantage in some ways; the robots lack sexual equipment of any kind, so I don’t have to worry about disturbing younger readers (and their parents) with any graphic descriptions. But even though my teenagers are trapped inside machines, they still find ways to experiment. Adam figures out how to share circuits with one of the female Pioneers, and while they’re occupying the same machine each teenager has full access to the other’s memories and emotions. It’s a romantic connection that’s actually much more intimate than ordinary sex.

7) Don’t be afraid of the dark. Authors of YA novels no longer have to avoid the more upsetting aspects of adolescence. You can delve into heavy subjects like suicide and drug addiction without alienating your readers. Teenagers are talking about these things anyway and learning about them in their health classes. If a YA novel treats these subjects with the proper sensitivity, then reading the book might help kids make better decisions.

I was a somewhat morbid teen, appalled by the inevitability of death. It seemed ridiculously unfair. In The Six, I tackle these fears head-on by describing the death of Adam’s body. The teenager dies and is reborn as a machine. Then he and his fellow Pioneers must confront an even greater threat, an out-of-control artificial intelligence that’s seeking to exterminate the human race. If our species goes extinct, what was the point of all our struggles? Yes, it’s a dark thought, but teenage readers can handle it.

8) Above all, it has to be fun. Even the most serious YA novels have some humor in them. Kids are amused by the absurdities that adults have stopped noticing. The other day my son told me, “In a hundred years, people will be living to the age of 150. That means there are fifty-year-olds today who will still be alive a hundred years from now. So cheer up, Dad. You might be one of the lucky ones.”

It’s a funny quote, right? I’m going to try to fit it into another YA novel.