I interviewed Kesia Lupo for this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum #253 19 Apr 2023 about how far you can go when writing horror for children.
Kesia Lupo’s recent novel, Let’s Play Murder, is 100% a pandemic book. Kesia told me she had the idea during spring 2020, when she was confined to a one-bedroom flat shared with her husband, and she wrote/edited it over the following two years. The characters are trapped in a house, desperately attempting to figure out what to do, surrounded by fear and doubt… sound familiar? Kesia explained writing the book was a way of working through the feelings raised by living through a pandemic.
She said there’s definitely been an uptick in scary YA thrillers in recent years, thanks to authors like Holly Jackson, Cynthia Murphy and Kathryn Foxfield. However, the market tends to swing one way and then another – a few years ago, it was all about fantasy, now the market is balancing itself out. Kesia thinks the upper end of YA has been pushing older and older for some years now – it’s not really just for teens.
Even so there are definitely grey areas but it’s difficult to be specific. Everyone has their own sense of what is TOO scary. Generally, for middle-grade, Kesia recommends avoiding graphic violence and disturbing themes. She explained as a rule, thrillers for middle-grade tend to be focussed round a mystery – even if they are murder mysteries, they will largely avoid any truly difficult content and will generally have a happy ending. For YA, the boundaries are more relaxed – you can have violence, death and dig deep into atmospheric horror. However, there is a line: e.g. very graphic or disturbing violence will probably be inappropriate.
Kesia told me you can definitely include blood and gore – as she does in Let’s Play Murder. The first instance is where she describes, in detail, the corpse the players find at the beginning of the game… it’s pretty gross. There are multiple instances of violence on the page, too – for instance when some of the players are attacked by rogue zombies from a different game, or when certain other murders occur. Kesia believes this level of violence is appropriate for readers aged 12+.
The violence is always necessary for the story so isn’t gratuitous, nor is it of a truly disturbing nature, it’s never sexualised, and there’s no torture. Sometimes YA is classed as 14+ so may go a bit darker. Ultimately, if you’re not sure, Kesia suggests it is a good idea to share extracts with your writing group and gain other perspectives – especially if you have teachers/parents of teens to help you.
“One of the things that helps me create tension when writing eerie scenes is to think about my main character’s backstory and what they’re scared of. For Veronica, even being in the Game is her worst nightmare due to a terrible VR accident that occurred in her past. Another aspect is playing with the unknown – what you don’t see or know is much scarier than what you do. So withholding information is super important for horror. Not quite seeing is a lot scarier than definitely seeing.”Kesia Lupo
Her tip to other writers wanting to keep teens turning the pages is to firstly, keep the story moving: in YA, every scene has to earn its place – no room for filler scenes. If she ever loses steam and finds herself writing a sort of ‘in between’ section, she ask herself: what’s the worst thing that could happen to her character at this time? Then, she makes it happen. Secondly, end every chapter on some kind of cliffhanger so that every time they take a break, your readers can’t wait to pick up the book again. And lastly, make sure YOU are enjoying writing the book. If you’re not, it’s probably going to be a chore for readers too.
“Let’s Play Murder is (in my opinion) the best book I’ve written, hands down, but it was REALLY hard to write. I sold it on the pitch, then produced the worst first draft ever. My poor editors, Zoe and Katie, had to work really hard with me to knock it into shape. All that’s to say: don’t worry if you’re struggling. Find a writing group or a critique partner – different perspectives are your most valuable tool.”Kesia Lupo
She recommends if you aspire to write thriller/horror books for children should read loads in the genre to get a sense of what’s popular. You don’t want to follow trends, but it really helps to get a sense of voice and how to pitch your story for the age-group. Immerse yourself in the YA worlds. Also, it’s always fun to eavesdrop on conversations if you can, to pick up tips – if you’re sitting in front of a chatting teen couple on the bus, take note of how they interact. Beware, though, not to try too hard – using too much specific/current language will date the book quickly.
If you’re struggling for ideas, have a think about what really scared you as a teen – or even what scares you now. Sometimes it’s not as obvious as ghosts or vampires – it could be ‘being watched’ or ‘feeling trapped’. Can you build a story around that?
For teen or YA readers, kesia suggests 60k-80k as a rule of thumb. In terms of point of view, first or third person is fine – if third person, try to write a ‘close’ third person, meaning you are not a detached omniscient narrator but someone who is practically inside the main character’s head. This means that your readers will still feel very connected to the main character and involved in the story. Chapters should be relatively short – maybe 2k-4k.
You can follow Kesia Lupo on Twitter @keslupo and TikTok: @keslupo and on Instagram Instagram: @kesialupoauthor
To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #253 19 Apr 2023 issue of Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.
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