Editor's Tips on How to Write a Young Adult Novel
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."
What do you struggle with when writing YA? How do you write your characters? Let us know about your