Thursday, 4 October 2012

Bookengine guest #1: Miriam Halahmy

Welcome to the inaugural Bookengine guest blog.

I'm very privileged to welcome Miriam Halahmy, the Carnegie Medal-nominated author of three powerful YA novels, Hidden, Illegal and Stuffed. Her work has garnered rave reviews from the likes of Wendy Cooling and Nicolette Jones.

My thanks to her for taking the time to pen this post. Her website is
Her publisher is Meadowside Books, whose website is

Miriam Halahmy and some of her teen readers

Tips on writing gritty teen fiction without giving a lecture.

My books cover some of the most controversial issues of our times including human rights, immigration, racist bullying, dysfunctional families, crime, self harming and mental health issues. I have been interested in social and political issues from childhood. It is inevitable therefore that my fiction will reflect my interests and passions. So how can we weave gritty issues into a novel without sounding like a Humanities teacher reading from a text book?

Here are my top ten tips :-

1. All writing revolves around the characters. You can’t have a plot on an empty stage.

2. Don’t let your research bog down the text. No-one wants to read social work reports. Keep your information in the background.

3. Controversial Y.A. fiction doesn’t work as a soap box – it works the way all good fiction works with characters that stand up and stand out on the page.

4. Well written fiction can be far more effective than a classroom lesson or a history book. My novel Hidden has themes of immigration, racism and human rights. I have a gang calling an Iraqi boy ‘paki’ and ‘terrorist’ but then I deconstruct this awful language in the story. The impact on teens can be quite profound. A twelve year old girl wrote to me saying, “I didn’t know we had immigrants in England."

5. It is not the issues which will keep your readers page-turning. It is the characters and their journey. Make sure your characters are layered, with strong back stories and everyday problems to deal will while they confront the big issues.

Writing in a Costa coffee shop

6. Equally, don’t shy away from controversial issues because of a fear that young readers aren’t ready. Controversial fiction helps young people to form independent opinions. One thirteen year old told me after reading Illegal, “I like reading about lives which are so different to mine.”

7. Don’t forget humour. It can be one of the best ways to tackle serious issues. One of my favourite novels, Two weeks with the Queen by Morris Gleitzman, deals with leukaemia, death, aids and gay love. But it is laugh-out-loud like all of Gleitzman’s books. Humour is a very powerful tool for dealing with gritty issues.

8. Keep it clean please! The three sss – slang, swearing and sex, often become stumbling blocks for writers wanting to deal with gritty themes. My two novels keep slang to the minimum, avoid swearing and only allude to one sexual episode. The decision on how much of the three sss to use is for the individual writer to decide, but it would be wrong to feel that you must use them to write gritty fiction.

The poster says it all

9. Is there anything you can’t write about? According to the teenagers; no. I have asked them directly and they all say, Write about anything you want. Ultimately, the writer has to decide where the boundaries lie for them and yes, we do have to be aware that some gate-keepers might not be happy but the decision is all yours.

10. Write the book you want to write whatever genre, that’s the only way you will be remotely happy as a writer.

Y.A. fiction is at the cutting edge of contemporary fiction in the UK today. Our job is to write the best books we can but let’s keep the narrative alive and engaging. No-one wants to be lectured to when they settle down for a good read.

Miriam Halahmy


  1. Some fabulous tips here. This stood out for me "It is not the issues which will keep your readers page-turning. It is the characters and their journey." That is so true of any book but a great reminder if you're writing about something very specific. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Miriam. I agree YA fiction is at the cutting edge writing nowadays. Whatever you write it has to be relevant to their lives, but the kids are on the whole very broadminded and open to ideas. I think that's why I like writing for that age group: the whole world is expanding for them and they are thirsty for new perspectives.

  3. Thanks for your comments Carolyn and David and I agree that teens are 'thirsty for new perspectives' ... they always have been haven't they? We were ... its just that no-one was writing specifically for us. Exciting times we live in.

  4. Great tips, and emphasises how important it is to get your characters right. Thank you!

  5. Thanks to you all for visiting Bookengine and reading Miriam's excellent post. Thanks, too, for commenting!