Writing Teenage Boys: Guest Post with Teri Polen

I’m not much of a horror reader since Dean Koontz scared the bejeezus out of me as a teenager. I’m also not a huge fan of teenagers. The real ones are tolerable, but the ones in books sometimes drive me crazy. They’re angsty,  dramatic, and they make dumb decisions. They remind me of me at that age.

So… when I picked up Teri Polen’s YA horror novel, Sarah, I was worried.

Well, silly me for fretting. The book was awesome. I’ll give you my review below, but first, I had to quiz Teri. One of the best things about the book was the way she dove into the experience of Cain, a 17-yr-old teenage boy. It felt totally genuine to me, and I happen to know Teri isn’t a 17-yr-old teenage boy. How did she do that with such authenticity? How did she prepare? Here’s her answer:


You’re not the first person to ask how I channeled the voices of 17-year-old boys, Diana. A good friend is convinced I was a teenage boy in a previous life. I have two sons—I honestly don’t know what I would have done with girls—and we’ve always had a steady stream of their friends hanging out at our house.

I spent countless hours driving them to sports and band practices, sleepovers, movies, dances…you get the picture. They trash talked each other while playing video games, compared puzzling encounters with the female species, and debated superhero movies. I’ve witnessed their heartache after breakups, their bets on when a friend would get dumped by a new girlfriend—and if it would be by text or in person, and their vehement defense of each other when challenged.

All the while, I listened. And it’s mostly been quite entertaining and enlightening. When the characters in my head demanded their story be told, it was natural they’d be teenage boys, because that’s what I know.

Cain’s pigsty of a bedroom is a near perfect picture of my oldest son’s room—or as my younger son calls it, ‘The Black Hole’. Things have literally disappeared in there, and the smells emanating from that room have been horrific at times. If a zombie apocalypse happened today, we could live on the half-empty Gatorade and water bottles, snack bags, and protein bars for quite a while.

My sons and their friends probably never dreamed some of their comments would come back to ‘haunt’ them in a YA horror novel. You never know who’s listening.


My Review: 

Sarah is categorized as YA horror and the book fits the genre perfectly. Sarah is a teenage ghost seeking revenge for her murder. She returns to the scene of the crime, now the home of Cain Shannon, a 17-year-old horror fan. At first, she appears shy and vulnerable, and Cain agrees to help her, but she’s not as helpless as he believes. With each bloody act of revenge, she grows in power, and her tactics increase in brutality. Before long, Cain is in the battle of his life against a ghost intent on death.

This book has some really creepy, icky, suspenseful, and scary things going on, but the scare-factor and gore feel appropriate for YA readers (as well as adults). The story grabbed my attention from the first page, and the tension and suspense escalate at a steady pace without much of a break right up to the climatic end. Even the last few paragraphs of the epilog are worthy of a few terrifying chills.

Though the horror aspects of the book were engaging, what impressed me the most was Polen’s outstanding characters. All of them felt well-rounded to me with fully developed personalities, but I was totally taken with the main character Cain and his friend Finn. They felt authentic to me in their thoughts, emotions, dialog, banter, friendship, and relationships with others. I’m in awe of the author’s ability to capture the essence of teenage boys with such expertise. I found the pair of them refreshing and likable, and therefore enjoyed the non-horror moments of the book as much as the horror, if not more so.

Another thing that impressed me was the believability of the characters’ choices. I often find that characters in horror (movies) make stupid choices because the plot would keel over and die if they acted sensibly. Polen was meticulous in building a backstory that supported Cain’s decisions, particularly his choice not to involve his mother and to stay in the house despite the presence of a murderous ghost. This careful attention to character and plot kept me enmeshed in the story from chapter one right through to the end.

An excellent book for both YA and adult readers of horror and suspense.


Eh, what’s one more book in your TBR pile? Here’s a link: Sarah

Connect with Teri on her book review blog: Books and Such

I am Worldmaker: Changing Perspective


A couple weeks ago I posted I am Worldmaker. It was a first person flash piece based on the image above. As an exercise in point of view, this time I switched it all around, retelling it from a completely different perspective. What do you think?

Worldmaker: Take Two

The bathroom latch clicked closed, and the old woman turned to shuffle down the hallway. Her gaze swept her granddaughter’s door, the picture thumbtacked at eye level beckoning her to pause.

Pinned above the “No Trespassing” sign, the image was silly fantasy, of course. Not real art worthy of inspection. Or introspection. Yet, the crystalline gaze drew her near. The pale eyes compelled her tears and awakened a dormant longing at her core. There was power there, a dare, an offering, an accusation.

The gray woman blinked and held her breath as the unseen rip in her heart began to fray. What peered through that unraveling gap bore the annihilating finality of regret and death. For in that visage, she beheld the lapse of her youth, risks denied in the name of conformity and security, the dimming of her own light so that others might shine. Long ago, she’d settled for a deadening compromise with dull mediocrity.

Once she possessed that allure, the smooth sunless skin and full lips, the seductive tilt of her head that shadowed a temptress’s eyes. She too once held a blazing array of futures at her fingertips, worlds of her own making begging for birth. Why hadn’t she seen them, clutched them, owned the fiery possibilities poised above the palm of her hand?

How many years ago had she beckoned with that gaze, wielded her power and offered the sublime mysteries of an ardent heart? She’d dared her desire to turn away and he’d stayed. Yet, why had she stopped there? Why was that enough in a world of shifting boundaries? Why had she ceased feeding her life’s fires, watched the embers cool and turn to powdery ash?

The answer was no secret.

Her gnarled fingers trembled as she touched the petal-thin skin of her cheek, tracing the invisible runes. Other fingers had caressed that cheek, seen the indelible beauty in her soul. There were no regrets there, at least.

The ice-green eyes demanded her attention. The image extended her hand in offering, the power to create still awaiting her choice. She studied the picture for something she’d missed.

“Oh my,” she whispered, a hand to her lips.

A smile rose to the ancient face. She placed her fingertips on the burning globe, not on the world dying in a crimson inferno, but on the world newly born, the unfathomable promises and possibilities of an unknown future.

She untacked the picture from her granddaughter’s door. Respectful of the “No Trespassing” sign, she knocked, fully intending to engage in a bit of trespassing.

“What?” the teenage exasperation questioned from within.

The old woman opened the door, the image trembling in her extended hand. “I’d like to talk with you about this.”

Her pale-eyed granddaughter looked up, eyes fearless, blond hair falling forward and framing her face, her lips a perfect bow. She saw the picture in her grandmother’s hands and smiled. “I already know.”


Omniscient POV versus Head-Hopping


Today, I’m going a little techie for all the writers out there. This is another one of my “learn by failure” posts.

When we write, we strive for stories that will grip our readers. We want an emotional investment, and the best way to do that is to immerse our readers inside our character’s head, heart, and skin, the deeper the better. The reader sees, hears, smells, and experiences what the character does, up close and personal.

When I started writing, I was a point-of-view “head-hopper.” I wanted to share every character’s thoughts and feelings in every scene. My writer’s group rolled their eyes and eventually critiqued it out of me. I learned the hard way – by rewriting my entire book!

Head-hopping is a common glitch in early writing as authors learn the ropes. It’s often confused with a Third Person Omniscient Point of View. So, what’s the difference?

There are 3 types of point of view:

In first person, the main character is narrating the story in his or her “voice” and will use I, me, we, and us. The reader experiences the story through this character’s senses, thoughts, and feelings. A few considerations:

  • The character doesn’t know anything about the people, places, or events that he or she hasn’t personally experienced.
  • Other characters’ thoughts and feelings have to be communicated verbally or interpreted through the POV character’s observations.
  • The POV character has to be in every scene.

In second person, the story is told from the perspective of you. This POV is tough to master and is used most frequently in instructional writing.

In third person, the narrator is not one of the characters. Third person uses he/she, they, them and is the most common POV in writing. There are 3 main types of Third Person POV:

Third Person Limited: This POV is limited to only one character and the narrator sits “inside” the character’s skin, sharing the story in the character’s distinctive “voice.”

Similar to first person, this means that the narrator only knows what that POV character knows, only has access to that character’s thoughts and feelings, and the character must be present in every scene.

Third Person Multiple: This POV is the same as Third person Limited, but the narrator is “inside” more than one character in the story. Switching POV from one character to another usually occurs at a chapter or scene break.

Third Person Omniscient: This point of view still uses the “he/she/they” perspective but now the narrator does not sit “inside” a character but hovers overhead. Instead of using the character’s voice, the narrator uses the author’s or storyteller’s voice (the “God” voice). The narrator is telling the story from the “outside,” can make comments about what’s occurring, knows things that the characters don’t, and can see the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters. Think of the narrator as having his/her own personality separate from the characters.

Because the narrator’s voice is “outside” the story, the greatest challenge of this point-of-view is eliciting an emotional investment in the characters. Unless a writer is highly skilled, the distance can result in a “telling” style of writing and fail to grip the reader.

So what is Head Hopping?:  It comes down to “voice.” Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene.

But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner “voice” to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.

Here are a few POV “Rules” that will prevent head-hopping:

  • Don’t switch points of view in the middle of a scene.
  • When writing a scene from Mary’s perspective, don’t include information that only John knows.
  • When writing a scene in John’s POV, don’t relate Mary’s thoughts or feelings. Mary can express her thoughts or feelings verbally or John can infer them from Mary’s behavior.

And, naturally, every rule has exceptions:

  • If for some reason a scene break just won’t work and you need to shift a POV, prep for it carefully so the reader isn’t confused or jarred by the switch. A love scene is an example where a well-prepared head-hop may be appropriate. The writer may want to describe both characters’ internal thoughts and feelings, but can’t stop in the middle of sex for a scene break!
  • As you might imagine, romance novels tend to have more head-hopping than other genres. This is partly due to the genre’s focus on the characters’ relationship and how both participants respond to it. Romance readers are more used to the style, though writers should still limit head-hopping to those scenes where it can’t be avoided.

Writing without head-hopping requires a writer to “show” everyone’s state of mind through one character’s perspective. It isn’t always easy, but your reader will appreciate the clarity and the deeper immersion in one point of view.

Hope this is helpful. Happy Writing!