Editor’s Tips on How to Write a Young Adult Novel

How To Write a Young Adult Novel John Green

Kate Angelella is one of our most experienced YA editors on the Reedsy marketplace. As we’re nearing the end of NaNoWriMo, we thought we’d ask her for her top tips on how to write a Young Adult novel. YA authors, this one’s for you!

I am a proud reader of YA novels. If I lose my husband in a library or bookstore (and I do, quite frequently), there is a tacit understanding that he will always find me in the YA section. There’s just something so raw and honest about a good YA novel. Perhaps because there are so many universalities about adolescence in general, so many firsts. And if you think about it, many of us tend to remember our teenage years most vividly; no matter how far we get from them in time, they tend to be freshest in our memories, whether we want them to or not.

In my freelance career, about seventy percent of the novels I edit are YA, and it seems more and more writers are endeavoring to write for teens every day. Here are five basic guidelines to keep in mind if you’re thinking about writing your own:

Young Adult is not a dumbed-down version of literary or commercial adult fiction

Some of my favorite YA novelists are accidental children’s book authors. YA pioneer Francesca Lia Block—and author/maven of some of the most lyrical prose you’ll find this side of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—is a fine example. She did not intend to write her cult classic Weetzie Bat series as a children’s book, but Weetzie was destined to be a YA protagonist for the ages, doing and saying things while she came of age that would make Holden Caulfield blush, and the rest of us rejoice.

Though your character’s voice should be authentic to her identity and life experience, you never have to (and never should) simplify the language, story, or style choices in your novel in order to talk down to teen readers. YA authors should aspire to write at least as well as they would for adult fiction—and there are innumerable examples of YA fiction that outshine even the prettiest prose adult lit-fic has to offer.

Focus on authenticity

Let’s face it, tweens and teens have built-in BS-detectors. If there is even a whiff of preaching or didacticism to your prose, they will call you out for it faster than you can say “just say no.” If you’re writing to teach your reader a lesson, you’re writing for the wrong reason.

Remember that writing a YA novel almost always means writing from a teen POV—we should be experiencing your teen protagonist’s world as she sees it in the moment, not with the wisdom and practiced rhetoric of an adult looking back on her teenage years.

Authenticity is not just about a character’s voice, either. You should also be aware that story development needs to contain that clear ring of truth. Allison Singer, Editorial Assistant at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary, cites this as one of the most common issues in the YA fiction submissions she receives. “What turns me off most,” says Singer, “is a lack of causality—where you can tell that plot developments, especially new relationships, happen because the author wants it to, not because anything is intrinsically driving the story.”

Write fully-formed, three-dimensional characters

In a way, this is an offshoot of the above rule on authenticity. Your characters should have depth, dimension—just because you’re writing a teen character does not mean you’re allowed to stereotype.

The most realistic and interesting characters are the ones who are multi-faceted. A main character who is too perfect, or an antagonist with no redeeming characteristics (often called “stock characters”), are the most boring to read (and write). After all, how can the reader connect with someone who doesn’t feel relatable?

“A big turnoff for me would be stock characters,” says Liesa Abrams, VP and Editorial Director of Simon & Schuster’s Simon Pulse imprint. “Writers who make the mistake of assuming that the inner life and potential dimension to a certain character would mirror what that writer…assumed was the case for someone different from him/herself in high school. In other words…writing the ‘jock/popular’ kid as being a jerk or not smart, etc.‎ And that classic ‘bookish quiet’ character, even, without seeing that character’s tougher side.”

Allison Singer concurs: “If your characters aren’t developed well enough for their wants, desires, feelings, nuances, etc. to be evident, pretty much anything they do is going to feel like puppetry.”

Don’t write around heavy subject matter

One of the most common statements I hear in my freelance career? “My main character is a teen, but I don’t think my novel is YA because the content is too dark.”

Now I’m not saying that no subject matter is too dark for the YA market (my husband, J.R. Angelella, did a superb job of showcasing that too dark can be an actual thing with his first novel, Zombie). But I will say this: remember that your target audience is experiencing sex, drugs, bad language, and all the other Big Bads you might dream up in their everyday lives, whether they are active participants or not; writing about the teen experience is what YA is all about.

So long as you’re writing with purpose (and not just writing to be edgy), embracing heavy subject matter is essential when writing a YA novel that is both authentic and relatable.

Thou shalt not write into trends

It can be difficult to avoid the temptation of choosing your subject matter based on the latest Publisher’s Marketplace deal that just sold at auction for a “major deal.” But the truth is, trends in YA are fickle. By the time you get around to shopping your novel, the trend may have already passed.

The surefire way to ensure that an agent, editor, or reader will fall madly in love with your book is to write about something that lights you on fire. Something you wake up every day ecstatic to write, regardless of the subject matter’s trend status. Your passion and originality will come through, and there is nothing more infectious.

“When reviewing YA submissions,” says Melissa Nasson, Associate Agent for Rubin Pfeffer Content, “one of my biggest gripes is when I start reading and immediately feel that I’ve read something similar before. Originality is so important, so when I sense that an author is trying to emulate Suzanne Collins or Veronica Roth rather than telling their own story, it makes me less inclined to continue reading…. if I find the manuscript too familiar, then editors (and eventually readers) certainly will too.”



Follow Kate and Reedsy on Twitter: @kateangelella and @ReedsyHQ

What do you struggle with when writing YA? How do you write your characters? Let us know about your 


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  • Nick

    Good advice here. Particularly with focusing on characterization and authenticity. The ‘my novel is too dark’ thing drives my crazy too.

    A few other things to consider:

    – Write in a YA voice (e.g., a little bit snarky)

    – Consider making the MC female (most YA readers are women)

    – Have some sort of romantic element

    I would add the caveat that not writing to trends only really applies if you’re trying to land an agent and going the trad publishing path. Readers like to read books similar to what they’ve read and enjoyed before. If you’re indie publishing you can make A LOT of money piggy backing off trends. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, started a whole genre of billionaire BDSM romances. There are YA readers out there desperate to read the next book like ‘Mortal Instruments’ or ‘Hunger Games.’

    • Kate

      Thanks, Nick! I’m glad you liked the article and I appreciate your feedback.

      Voice is incredibly important– you’re so right. I was always willing to work with an author to revise plot issues, but voice is a bit more difficult to teach.

      A quick side-note: though it’s true that more women purchase YA titles than men, studies show that women are less likely than men to choose a book based on the MC’s gender. I would argue that it’s more important than ever to hear from main characters of all genders, races, cultural backgrounds, etc. Books by and for men (Chris Lynch, John Green, MT Anderson, Tim Wynne-Jones, and Ned Vizzini are among some of my favorites, just to name a few) are doing important work, and seem to be doing pretty well in the YA market to boot 🙂

      Thanks again for your feedback– happy writing!

  • TigerXGlobal

    Great tips, Kate!
    In my recent work with YA authors I often encounter the ‘crusader’, the author who is so concerned with the teen problem they’re attempting to address (showcase) that the story and character development suffer. Their passion for the dilemma topic is admirable and usually well-placed, but the book becomes (as you mention) an enormous ‘lesson’.

    When editing, I often talk with my authors about what they read as a teen, and not what they think teens are reading now. We also talk about what emotional or mental satisfaction they were searching for as a teen reader.

    At this explosive and tumultuous time in every person’s development, there is a grasping for understanding, the first experiments in rationalizing, and the inevitable frustration when the complexity and contrariness of the world seems so impossibly overwhelming.

    Most of my YA authors, in our discussions, eventually say that their teen reading was a search for validation and acknowledgement…plus the hopeful promise of someday gaining a firm foothold that would propel them into their futures.

    A last thought: YA books need characters that are not only well-developed as individual characters, but that provide strongly integrated and interactive groups. The group mentality, the loners, the insiders, the fringes — teens use the constantly morphing groups all around them to navigate through their lives. Teens continually try on personalities, surf different groups, ‘break up’ with groups, and crash other groups. It’s a violent (in terms of abruptness) time and decisions are often based on nothing more than survival, grasping the nearest group ‘log’ where you don’t get your hand bitten off and might even get to climb up out of the uncertain waters surrounding you.

    Again, thanks for the great tips — this is clip-n-save advice, especially for the newbie YA author.

    • Kate

      Thanks for your thoughtful response! I agree that many YA readers are looking for connectivity– a character (or author) who shows us that we’re not alone in what we’re thinking, feeling, experiencing.

  • Leanne Dyck

    I’ve written for adults, new adults and children. I woke up yesterday with this great idea for a YA. And a questions — how? can I? Thank you for empowering me to try.

    • Kate

      I’m thrilled to know that you’re feeling empowered by this article, Leanne! Everyone has a story to tell 🙂

  • Cheryl M.

    What is your opinion on writing books appropriate for ya (say pg 13 ish) but the characters are adults?

    • Kate

      I’d say that if the characters are adults, you’re writing adult fiction– even if the book is YA-audience appropriate (which many are). Unless you’re saying the main character is a teen but all the rest of the characters are adults? In which I’d say that it depends on the context, but even then the MC should have friends/a love interest/others his/her age around (unless there are truly extenuating environmental circumstances).

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