An early Goodreads contributor recently quipped “If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would be the creepy one standing outside the window, wanting to join them.” A good line. But only half right.
I’ve been a high school English teacher for ten years and have worked with literally thousands of teen readers. In that time, I’ve developed specific ideas on the best literary devices, voice and structure to entice, particularly, reluctant boy readers. Devices, voice and structure I simply didn’t see being used in most other current YA novels (as good as many of these books are).
While my upcoming adult book (Cain’s Blood) employs mostly traditional devices, structure, etc. for the adult techno thriller it is, I always wanted something very different for the teen novel Project Cain.
Examples: My students really enjoy the fact-filled Krakauer books we teach (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air.) I’m not a fan, but I also recognize male readers of all ages statistically (and significantly) prefer nonfiction over fiction. So I wrote a straight-forward book which weaves in facts and history throughout. My students gobble up both the free-verse novels of Ellen Hopkins and manga comics. “Quick reads,” they explain. So I wrote a book that reads fast, real fast. Adjectives are for 500 page books I know my own two teenage sons don’t want to read yet. My students, jaded millennials that they are, still respond to and welcome direct/open questions. Our best class conversations often come from a simple query like: Have you ever wanted to kill someone?
This Goodreads member read about 40 pages of Project Cain before giving two thumbs way down, specifically targeting the dry style, “info dumping,” and a couple direct addresses to the reader. Things I put in the book deliberately so Project Cain would not be exactly like all those other YA books — which clearly failed for this reader.
But I also sold this novel on proposal alone, submitting only the first 40 pages as a sample of what I had in mind. The exact same 40 pages so hated by this reader for not being the book she thought it was going to be. The same 40 that got me a major agent, a major publisher and a major deal in less than two months. Because the writing stood out from all the other three thousand books that came in that month. My 40 pages were different.
This isn’t some thumb-to-nose moment. My sale doesn’t discount this reader’s reaction. “Good” or “bad” is always up to each individual, and I’ve collected (and expect to collect) strong votes on both sides with this book.
And so, the smart thing I did to sell my manuscript was stick to my objective: To not just imitate the other good YA books out there. But to write the kind of YA book that I thought my own students and two sons would want to read. Whatever else may come, I’ve done that. Write the book YOU want to. The right publisher and audience WILL find you.
If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would indeed be the creepy one standing outside the window. But it’s not to join them.
It’s to douse their house in gasoline, and just maybe strike a match…