Today I am going to talk about my interview with YA author Tracey Darnton and her writing process and advice to aspiring children’s book writers. The full feature appeared in this months Writers’ Forum #249 30 Nov 2022.
Tracey’s novel writing career began with a short story when she won the Stripes/The Bookseller YA Short Story Prize which was published in the YA anthology I’ll be Home for Christmas.
As a result of working so closely with the team at Stripes, she was asked to pitch a novel which grew into The Truth About Lies. Tracy has always had an interest in memory so she decided to build a story around a girl who could remember everything. The Truth About Lies was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and selected as a World Book Night title.
The short story now sits at the beginning of The Rules. Full of themes around the role of rules in family and society and the effects of preparing for disaster, The Rules is about a girl on the run from her prepper dad. This proves you never know where a competition could lead you.
Tracy’s latest novel, Ready or Not is about a Teenager Kat goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek at a late-night party on holiday. Three families have holidayed in a lovely house in Cornwall since the kids were born so the teens have all grown up together. Tracy tell the story through the eyes of the youngest, 15-year-old Millie, who’s devastated by the absence of her best friend, Kat. The remaining teenagers all go back to Creek House one year on and secrets finally begin to be revealed about what’s happened to Kat.
Tracy explained that this novel came out of a very strong image she had in my head of a girl standing by a tree with her eyes covered, counting slowly. This image triggered many what if… questions such as, what if when she opened them she couldn’t find her friend? Tracy told me she wrote a short paragraph ending with the line ‘People don’t just disappear, do they?’ and built the story from there. That line ended up on the cover as the strapline.
“I usually set off writing with the beginning paragraph and a paragraph or two of the ending. I don’t plan before I write. Having that sense of the ending helps me work my way through the middle, heading for a clear target. I always brainstorm different possible endings and then try to pick something which falls between the lines. Endings are my favourite part of my books.”Tracy Darnton
As you live and breathe a book for such a long time through the writing, editing and marketing processes, you certainly need to choose something which intrigues and interests you. Ready or Not has themes around friendship, obsession, privilege and game-playing – both the ones they sit down to play and the games played with other people’s feelings.
Tracy said engaging characters are key to a good YA thriller. The reader must really care about what happens to them for the high stakes to mean anything, and to keep turning the pages.
Tracy prefers writing in first person because it gives a more immediate strong voice and insight into what’s going on in the main character’s head. She revealed she often writes letters or diary entries in her character’s voice to get to know them better. In Ready or Not, Millie’s letters became an integral part of the story.
“I have a ‘Bible’ notebook for each novel where I set out the timelines and use this notebook to sketch out the location and collate any research notes. I used to be a solicitor and I can’t shake my attention to detail. I have a glossary of terms so that I can be consistent (over things like whether hide-and-seek has hyphens) and I pass that list on to the copy editor at my publisher.”Tracy Darnton
Tracy elaborated everyone needs to find what works for them. She believes all writers should experiment and play with their writing. Her writing tip for other people wanting to write YA is to read as many as you can – and you have a very good excuse to watch thriller films and series too. Although you’ll inevitably have adult characters, be careful that you don’t end up focusing on a heavy cast of police, forensic scientists, lawyers, teachers, parents etc. Keep agency and focus with your teen protagonists – they must be driving the plot forwards. Throw in a closed setting, a ticking timeline – and craft moments of suspense. The more secrets your characters have, the better. See where it takes you.
But her main piece of advice to aspiring writers is to get on with it, finish that book.
“I waited far too many years before getting back to my writing and I regret it now. What on earth was I waiting for? There are always excuses not to do something but, take it from me, there is no mythical date in the future when you’ll have more time and inspiration to write.”Tracy Darnton
Carve out that time now. If you need a deadline, enter a competition or set one with a friend. Finishing and polishing a complete short story or novel is where you will learn so much about the craft of being a writer.
You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton and Instagram @TracyDarnton
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