This fall, students in Sonja Vitow’s Creative Writing elective enjoyed a visit from literary agent Rebecca Podos, who is also the author of the upcoming young adult novel The Mystery of Hollow Places, which will be published by Balzer & Bray in January 2016. As both an agent and a published author, Rebecca provided invaluable answers to the writers’ questions. When 11th grader Kendra asked about what she looks for in a manuscript, Rebecca said she values a good sense of plot and character, along with a strong command of language. (She also advised writers never to begin stories at the start of the day: “That can’t possibly be the most interesting time to begin a book, right?”)
When Tati, an 11th grader, asked how to write a young adult novel that isn’t cheesy, Rebecca advised, “respect your characters, whoever those characters are -- they can be space travelers or princesses, but respect them as people.” Rebecca also said she’s tired of all characters looking and sounding the same, and she strongly prefers books not focused solely on “cisgendered, white, teenage, suburban, affluent characters.” Elizabeth, a 12th grader, wondered whether she should write about characters who lack morality, and Rebecca insisted that those characters are often the most interesting, adding that the idea of “likeability” is a frequent and flawed standard for characters in young adult novels, particularly girls and women. In early reviews of her own novel, Rebecca said she was gratified to find that her female protagonist was described as “fascinating, but not always likeable.”
That description could be used for many of the characters in young adult novels these days, particularly those that focus on popular subjects like vampires, zombies, werewolves, and other apocalypse-generating forces. Rebecca stated that darker stories and horror are actually among her favorite genres. When Ruby, an 8th grader, asked whether there’s a limit to how gory or violent a young adult story can be, Rebecca’s answer didn’t dictate to writers, but asked them to make thoughtful choices. “Make sure there’s a reason for the violence,” she said. “Ask yourself, why do that many people have to die in that particular way?” In other words, it all comes back to one important policy: respect your characters.