How to write YA fiction: 10 YA tips

How to write YA fiction - Young adult fiction writing blog coverYoung 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 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.

It’s 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 clichés should be avoided

How to write YA fiction - The Hunger GamesThere 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 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 - illustrationGreat 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?


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