Writing Genres YA writing

How to write YA fiction: 10 YA tips

Young adult fiction, also known as YA, is a very popular fiction category, but how much do you really know about it? Here are 10 facts about writing YA that may be of interest if you are thinking of tackling this type of fiction:

Young adult fiction, also known as YA, is a very popular fiction category, but how much do you really know about it? Here are 10 facts about writing YA that may be of interest if you are thinking of tackling this type of fiction:

YA is not technically a genre

YA is a marketing category, but a YA book can belong to any genre. That means a YA novel might be fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, horror, thriller or mainstream. Consider the popular YA novels The Fault in Our StarsThe Hunger Games and Pretty Little Liars. These are all very different types of books, yet they are all YA fiction: the same reader might enjoy reading all three of them. Some YA writers cite the freedom to move more freely between genres as one aspect of writing YA fiction they particularly appreciate.

YA is about more than age

A YA book has a young person as a protagonist, but that in itself is not enough to make a book YA. Examples of books that are not aimed at young readers despite a young protagonist include two of Donna Tartt’s novels, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch; Megan Abbot’s The End of Everything; and Emma Donoghue’s Room.

What defines YA as separate from adult fiction? Surprisingly to some, it isn’t subject matter; there is little that is taboo for YA readers these days. Instead, it is more a sense of narrative distance and perspective. YA novels tend to be immersed in the young person’s point of view with little sense of an adult perspective or context. The reader is invited to identify fully with the protagonist.

To a lesser degree, other aspects such as pace and language may influence whether or not a novel is regarded as YA. A novel with a slower pace or with difficult language or stylistic approaches is more likely to be classed as an adult novel.

YA novels are not easier to write than adult novels

Some people may assume that because they are shorter or because they are not for adults, YA novels are easier to write, but this is not the case. In fact, YA novels have a number of requirements that might not apply to adult novels. YA novels must have an economy of language and strong pacing. Writers cannot assume that they can fall back on plot clichés simply because they may be writing for younger readers. A YA novel requires the same amount of skill as writing for any other audience.

Some YA clichés should be avoided

How to write YA fiction - The Hunger Games

There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, YA as a category has now been along long enough that most can agree there are a few things readers might tire of seeing:

  • The protagonist is the chosen one. This is a time-honoured trope in fantasy fiction, but it may be time to give it a rest. Instead of fulfilling a destiny, what if your main character is just smart and resourceful?
  • The protagonist is an orphan. This is a convenient way of getting the parents out of the picture and making the protagonist more vulnerable, but again, it’s been done so often that it has begun to feel tired.
  • The protagonist is caught in a love triangle. Readers swooned over Edward and Jacob in the Twilight series and cheered for either Peeta or Gale in The Hunger Games trilogy, but at this stage, the heroine caught between two love interests feels overdone. Remember that plenty of great YA was written before the love triangle became a necessity, and plenty can still be written.
  • The story is a trilogy. Some series demand to be trilogies. The Hunger Games trilogy had a lot to say about war and revolution that could not fit into a single novel. However, just because you are writing a YA novel doesn’t mean it has to be the first of three.

There are many adult YA readers

A book is ostensibly considered to be YA when it is aimed at readers in the 12-to-18 age range, but in fact, over half of all YA books are purchased by adult readers. Depending on which survey you look at, that number ranges anywhere from 55 to 77 percent.

While the Harry Potter series was one of the first to successfully find an adult readership, today older readers are increasingly those who grew up reading YA and saw no reason to stop as they ostensibly outgrew the marketing category.

Increasingly, it seems that YA is more about a sensibility and an approach than it is about writing for a narrow age group. If your audience includes both 14-year-olds and 30-somethings, how can you hope to write something that appeals across such a large age group? Plenty of writers have, and here are some things you can keep in mind as you write for a diverse audience:

You must know what your audience wants

Fortunately for the aspiring YA writer, YA readers like to go online a lot and share their opinions. Writers can check out sites like Goodreads and forums for YA readers to get a sense of who their potential readership is and what they are looking for, whatever their age.

YA differs from middle grade in several important ways

Once a writer starts to consider the broad audience for YA novels, it can become easy to mix up middle grade and YA conventions. However, even though middle grade fiction may have older readers just as YA does, there are a few significant difference between the two:

  • Middle grade protagonists tend to be around 10-12 years old as these books are aimed at an 8-to-12 demographic. YA protagonists are generally mid- to older teens.
  • Middle-grade books are shorter with a word count around 30,000-50,000 words while YA books are around 50,000-70,000 though some run well upwards of this.
  • Middle-grade books tend to be less complex in general and deal with fewer controversial issues.

There is a typical YA voice

One thing writers may begin to notice is that the typical YA voice tends to be first person, present-tense, chatty and heavy on dialogue. This does not mean that all YA novels need to be written in this voice, and indeed, writers might set themselves apart by using a different approach altogether. But it does provide a hint to the breezy, casual yet intimate manner of narration many YA readers want.

Be careful about slang

how to write YA fiction - using slang properly - illustration

Great dialogue in general mimics the way that people talk without being a direct transcript. The voice in YA should avoid using copious slang and other pop culture elements, as too much slang may date the book quickly unless the story is tied to a specific time period. Even if this is the case, a little slang goes a long way. Writers should consider how much they want to make reference to pop cultural items and avoid going overboard.

You can still draw on your teenage experience 

YA writers may wonder how they can write for teens if they have not been teens for a long time themselves. This can be even more complicated if they are not older siblings or parents of teens and are not regularly around teenagers. However, this is one reason that fast-changing aspects of teen culture such as slang should be avoided. It’s difficult to get right and it ages quickly. What all writers can draw on is the emotional truth of having been a teen. This is something that does not change across generations. In fact, capturing the intensity of those teenage emotions is key to writing successful YA fiction.

Young adult fiction has been a hugely successful category for years now, and it shows no sign of flagging. Authors who want to become YA writers have a potentially huge audience that reaches far beyond teenage readers. However, they should beware of some pitfalls mentioned above. Even so, because every writer was a teenager at one time, every writer has had the experience necessary for learning how to write YA fiction. By drawing on your own past and remembering how things felt, you can create a YA protagonist and world that will ring true to your readers even if you are decades older than your target demographic.

What do you think is one important fact about writing YA fiction?

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

9 replies on “How to write YA fiction: 10 YA tips”

I disagree with the statement that there isn’t much that’s taboo in YA these days. I actually read a book marketed as YA the other day that was brimming with sex/sexual references/sensuality. I went to the comments section on Goodreads and had a difficult time finding a single positive comment. Even if the reader liked the book, they stated they could have done without the sexuality. Leave sex out of the YA books. There’s enough stress and difficulty in our age bracket without encouraging this too.

Thanks for the insight, Cori. Good point that even if writers are doing it, readers aren’t necessarily loving it (i.e. it might not seem taboo from a writer’s perspective but from a reader’s it certainly can be). Are there any particular YA books you’d recommend?

I recommend a book by Jim West called Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) that my 11-year-old daughter just finished reading. The story is about Alex, a young precocious girl, who mysteriously gets transported to a strange world where Latin and Math combine in formulas and equations with magical effects. With a cruel council leading the only safe city of its kind in this world, she will have to prove her worth to stay as well as help this city as it is the target for two evil wizards who seek to destroy the city and its ruling council. To help the city and also get back home, she will need the help of the greatest mathematician of all time, Archimedes. In a world where math is magic, Alex wishes she paid more attention in math class.

A Goodread 5-star review said:

“The storyline inspires a hunger for knowledge and a ‘can do’ attitude – a strong message of empowerment for young readers. I’m sure that this book will be interesting to read for both, boys and girls, as well as adult readers. Libellus de Numeros means ‘Book of Numbers’ and it’s a magical textbook in the story. Math and science are wonderfully incorporated into a captivating plot: Latin and math are presented as exciting tools to make ‘magic’ and while Latin is often used as a language of magic the addition of math is definitely a fresh approach.

“The main heroine Alex is a very relatable character for young people, especially girls. I love that she has her flaws and goes through struggles all too familiar to a lot of young people. Alex is an authentic female role model – a very courageous girl, who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others and who is able to learn fast how to use knowledge to her best advantage.

“She can definitely do everything that boys can and I find this to be a very powerful message that is needed in our modern society. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to read through the pages of a well-formatted eBook. Highly recommended!”

Thanks so much for the recommendation, Tamara. Sounds like a fantastic premise and also a great idea for instilling a love for mathematics in this age group. Will definitely look the book up.

I’m always thankful when someone clarifies that YA is a marketing category, and not really a fiction genre. I go crazy when someone just says “I like YA novels”. What, mystery? Urban fantasy? No, don’t tell me, you’re talking dystopian or paranormal romance, aren’t you?!

It’s true. Although I suppose what people might identify as genre characteristics are more stylistic – i.e. age-appropriate style and so forth. There are so many different terms and categories to keep track of.

I’m guilty of saying I like YA novels, but only to give a general idea of the type of books I’m interested in. I view YA as a category, just as children’s books is a category.

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