5 Things to Avoid When You're Writing a Young Adult Novel
Kate Angelella is a full-time freelance writer and editor. Formerly of Simon & Schuster, she acquired and edited dozens of critically acclaimed and commercially successful books. Authors include #1 New York Times bestseller Nova Ren Suma, and NAACP Image Award and Coretta Scott King Award winner, Kekla Magoon.
Hi, Everyone! My name is Kate Angelella. I was a children’s book editor with Simon & Schuster for many years, where I acquired and edited dozens of original novels as well as series such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Currently, I’m a full-time book coach and editor, which I love because it combines the best part of my old job, working one on one with authors and working in my jammies.
So today I’m going to be talking to you about the top five mistakes to avoid when writing your YA novel. These are issues that I came across time and time again in manuscript submissions at Simon & Schuster, and they are the most common mistakes I find in my freelance clients’ work to this day.
A small caveat on the information I’m about to cover: these tips are largely based on my experience as a house editor and a freelance editor who often works with folks hoping to get their work published by traditional means. Those interested in self-publishing may find that there is a bit more flexibility when it comes to industry-based rules.
Okay, let’s get started!
The Age of Your Characters
One of the most common mistakes I find in YA manuscripts it that the main character’s age is miscast. Often times, people confuse books that they think will appeal to teen readers with teen books, which are two completely different things. The protagonist of your YA novel should ideally be between 14 and 18 years old. Think high-school age.
If you’ve written a children’s book in which a character is twelve years old, this is a middle-grade novel. If you’ve written a book in which your character is nineteen, this is likely going to be considered either a New Adult novel or an adult novel, depending on your content.
There are, in fact, many adult novels with teen protagonists in the world, but these books are most often considered adult literature for the reason that the books are written with an adult audience in mind, such as Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep or The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, both of which feature teen protagonists who are talking about their teen experiences through the lens of an adult looking back on their teen lives, rather than as a teen living that life in the moment.
In a perfect world, books defy categorization. They expand past the confines of their boundaries and are marketed towards a broad array of age ranges and audiences. But in the world we live in, books sell through categories, by marketing departments, and as most published authors will tell you, those categories matter.
If you’re writing a YA novel, not only are you writing a book about a teen main character, you’re also writing through the lens of the teen experience. YA novels are most often considered coming-of-age novels, books in which teens are on the precipice of independence, yet still tethered to a world of rules set in place by the adults who govern their lives.
YA characters are often navigating teen-centric issues, such as identity, first loves, school-based stories, societal issues, and friendships. They often find themselves breaking away from the adults in their lives, learning who they are and what is important to them, in a state between childhood and adulthood. YA books should be a mirror for their target readers (which are twelve-to-eighteen year-olds).
Please note: this does not mean books that deal with heavy issues, such as sex, death, violence, drugs, mental illness, etc., fall outside of the YA purview. In fact, I always encourage my clients NOT to avoid such heavy topics, as these are issues real-world teens are facing on a daily basis.
In an article about the importance of YA literature, Michael Cart of the Young Adult Library Service Association says, “…Another of the chief values of young adult literature [is] in its capacity to offer readers an opportunity to see themselves reflected in its pages.”
Cracking the Beginning
Probably the second most prevalent mistake I see in YA manuscripts is that the story starts in the wrong place.
Though there are always exceptions to every rule, the general rule of thumb should be that your novel begins on the day that everything changes for your main character. This is true of any novel, adult, YA, or otherwise, but it’s especially true in YA literature because your target reader is likely to have far less patience with you, and is going to be less willing to wade through the chaff to get to the interesting part of the story.
Here are a few examples of what you want to avoid in the first pages of your manuscript:
- Too much backstory. You want to begin your story by immersing your character in forward action. When you pause to inform the reader about something that happened before the book began or give a small history about who the character is or who their friends and family are, it causes the pacing to lag and it tells me that the story is beginning in the wrong place because the writer is rushing to catch the reader up instead of simply telling the story from this point forward. Backstory is certainly important, and it can be worked in, in subsequent chapters, sprinkled in here and there, but in the first chapter, you should be striving to sweep your reader away with forward action only.
- An unnecessary prologue. This is a notorious pet peeve amongst agents and editors. Again, there are exceptions, but the best prologues are short, sweet, necessary to our understanding of the plot, and do not stray too far from our teen POV character. One of the best prologues in a YA novel I’ve read and enjoyed can be found in Holly Black’s Valiant (read it in the Look Inside section of its Amazon page). But if you don’t need one, don’t write one.
- Beginning the chapter with a character waking up, turning off their alarm clock, and getting ready for school. This is likely just an ordinary day for most teen characters, and you want to get to the inciting incident as soon as possible (also known as the moment when everything changes for your main character). You should always be able to answer the question: why does my story begin RIGHT HERE? What is it about this moment, this day, that is significant.
Finding the Right Voice
Probably one of the single most important elements to any YA novel, in my opinion, is the main character’s voice. Voice can best be described as your main character’s personality, coming through in the words they’re using to tell their story. So a lot of new writers assume that voice has solely to do with the way your character’s voice sounds in their literal dialogue, which makes sense, but when we talk about voice, we’re talking about every word on the page.
In my Reedsy Learning class, The 10 Commandments of Writing YA, I go into more detail about what exactly constitutes voice and how to craft voice well, but for our purposes today, I’ll just name a few factors that affect how your main character’s voice comes across on the page:
- word choice
- sentence and paragraph length
One of the biggest mistakes I see authors making in YA manuscripts is thinking that teen voice means snarky and sarcastic. Though those characteristics may seem synonymous with the teen experience, and they are certainly valid choices, there are as many options for voice as there are personalities in the world—don’t limit yourself to just one.
I’m going to read passages from some YA novels so you can hear a few different examples of voice. All of them are excellent examples, from books I’d highly recommend. Listen to how different each one is from the others. Just a warning, there is a bit a language in some of these so if you’re sensitive to that, my apologies.
The first example is from The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot.
Lilly’s like, “Mr. Gianni’s cool.”
Yeah, right. He’s cool if you’re Lilly Moscovitz. He’s cool if you’re good at Algebra, like Lilly Moscovitz. He’s not so cool if you’re flunking Algebra, like me.
He’s not so cool if he makes you stay after school EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY DAY from 2:30 to 3:30 to practice the FOIL method when you could be hanging out with all your friends. He’s not so cool if he calls your mother in for a parent/teacher conference to talk about how you’re flunking Algebra, then ASKS HER OUT.
And he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.
The first thing that jumps out to me is word choice. Words such as “like” (“Lilly’s like,” not “Lilly said”), cool, yeah, hanging out. These all have a very casual, laid-back teen feel to them.
Cabot also employs repetition to communicate her main character, Mia’s voice. Note in the first paragraph how two sentences in a row begin with “he’s cool if” and the next several sentences begin with “he’s NOT so cool if.”
He’s cool if you’re Lilly Moscovitz.
He’s cool if you’re good at Algebra….
He’s not so cool if you’re flunking Algebra, like me.
He’s not so cool if he makes you stay after school….
He’s not so cool if he calls your mother…then ASKS HER OUT.
And he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.
Almost as though she’s ticking items off a list. Through the repetition, you can feel her attitude. There is some snarkiness present here, and drama, but note that it’s not off-putting or snarky to the point of meanness or cruelty, which would make us dislike her. Mia is pretty justified in feeling what she’s feeling here, and she’s not overly sarcastic. There are a few places where Cabot uses caps lock to get across Mia’s dramatic nature, but she’s not so ridiculous that we’re rolling our eyes.
The next example is from the first two paragraphs in MT Anderson’s Feed.
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was like, “I’m null too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good.
Probably one of my favorite first lines in any book, ever. We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. What does this sentence say about the main character, Titus, about the world he lives in? Throughout this sample, the language is kept casual like in Cabot’s example, but there’s a different feel to this voice. While Mia’s voice felt a bit dramatic, Titus seems just the opposite. “Shit-all” to do. Boring. Stupid. Without it being stated outright, Titus comes across as kind of apathetic and impassive. And though there are some words in there that Anderson has made up (null, unit) we are able to understand through context and tone that these words, too, are adding to the general cool, dispassionate feel of Titus’ voice.
The last example comes from a recent YA novel, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which I believe hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list its first week out. It’s a novel that explores police brutality and systemic racism in America.
Here is an excerpt from the first chapter:
We break out the crowd. Big D’s house is packed wall-to-wall. I’ve always heard that everybody and their momma comes to his spring break parties—well, everybody except me—but damn, I didn’t know it would be this many people. Girls wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail. Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms. My nana likes to say that spring brings love, but it promises babies in the winter. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them are conceived the night of Big D’s party. He always has it on the Friday of spring break because you need Saturday to recover and Sunday to repent.
Listen to Thomas’ main character, Starr. Her voice is thick on the page. Take the sentence: Girls wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. You can feel the rhythm, the cadence of these words. Word choices like “momma” and “everybody.” Slang like “kicks” and “basic,” “laid and slayed.” From this paragraph, I can tell that Starr is very matter-of-fact. This is how things are, and the way they’ll always be. She calls it like she sees it. There’s no room for sarcasm or dramatics or even apathy, as in the other examples I’ve read from today. She’s telling it like it is, no frills. No fuss.
In all of these examples, see how the punctuation (or lack of punctuation) and sentence-and-paragraph length play a role in the feel of a voice too.
Conflict in Young Adult
I’m sure most of you already know what conflict means, but for purposes of clarity, I’ll define it as "anything that gets in the main character’s way in her attempt to achieve her goal."
Say, for example, my goal is to get 1,000 words written before the end of my day. Here are some potential sources of conflict for me:
- My apartment, which is suddenly beckoning me to clean it from top to bottom.
- My landlord, who has just knocked on my door to tell me there is a leaky pipe and there will be maintenance folks clanging around in my apartment for the rest of the afternoon.
- My cat who, upon hearing the maintenance folks clanging about, suddenly desires to reside in my lap and keeps pawing at my hands every time I go to type anything on my computer.
- My professor husband, who is home for the summer and would prefer that I watch another Nicholas Cage movie with him than watch me work on my novel.
These are obstacles keeping me from my ultimate goal of writing, and therefore provide conflict in my day. And conflict is important, because isn’t it far more of an accomplishment that I get my 1,000 words in despite the fact that all this is going on? If I got my words in while it was raining outside and no one was around to interrupt me and I’ve brewed the perfect pot of coffee and found the perfect playlist as the soundtrack for my work-in-progress — yeah, of course, right? Seems like an easy feat. It’s a more interesting story when there’s something for me to overcome.
It’s common for writers not to put enough conflict in their story, but there is something about YA manuscripts, in particular — I find that writers endeavoring to write YA fiction, especially, tend to avoid putting their teen protagonists through conflict. If I were a therapist, I might hypothesize this has something to do with wanting to shield our teen characters from trouble in their lives — we want to make it easier for them, protect them instinctively. But conflict is what creates tension, and tension is what makes your pacing fly.
I was once a participant in a YA writing workshop where someone submitted the first twenty pages of their YA novel. In those twenty pages, the sixteen-year-old girl protagonist finds out her parents are getting a divorce, her boyfriend of two years breaks up with her and starts dating her best friend. One of the other women, at one point in the workshop, stopped the conversation to tell the author, “Look, I’m worried about your main character. What’s going to happen to her? Maybe this is too much, too soon!”
And I thought: exactly! All of these obstacles make us worry about that character, which means we care. We want to know what’s going to happen next, so we turn the page. We invest.
In short, let bad things happen to your teen characters. Allow them to make mistakes, as teenagers do. Enforce consequences for their actions on the page. Allow them to get caught when they sneak out. When they stand up in the middle of the cafeteria to take a chance and defend the geek in the corner of the room, maybe the room doesn’t erupt in applause the way it might in an old, cheesy Disney sitcom. Perhaps, instead, your character winds up knocking over a chair, as in my husband’s novel, Zombie, and the room erupts in a taunting chant: Dork! Dork! Dork! Dork! And the main character slinks down in his seat, feeling humiliated.
Put as many obstacles in your character’s way as you reasonably can. Your plot—and your reader—will thank you for it.
Writing into trends
So we’ve got conflict, voice, beginnings, and your main character’s age. Now we’re going to talk a bit about writing into trends. More than any other words, the following are the one I hear spoken most often about why clients decided to finally sit down and write a YA novel: “How hard could it be?”
There is something impossibly beguiling about the possibility of a big payday, and because of the success of writers like Suzanne Collins, John Green, and Stephanie Meyer, I think many people sit down to their computer screens, dollar signs in their eyes, hoping that their YA novel will be the next big thing.
And look, I am not here to squash your dreams. Why couldn’t you be the next big thing? Instead, I simply want to caution you about writing solely to cash in on trends.
There two big problems with writing into trends. The first is timing. The nature of trends is that they are ever-changing and difficult to predict. So often, by the time you finish writing your on-trend novel, the trend has already passed. Now, I know that self-publishing is different—it moves faster than traditional publishing, you’re not having to wait on the publisher’s time schedule, etc. But the reality is that writing a book—a good book—takes time. So no matter how you decide to publish, timing is an issue here.
The second, and most important, problem with writing into trends? When you’re writing something you’re not passionate about, your reader can see it on the page. Ask any agent or editor and they will tell you, they can tell the difference. They get hundreds of submissions every month that are regurgitations of bestselling plots and characters, yet they don’t shine the way the original does because A) it’s not original and B) the authors are often simply trying to capitalize on trends rather than writing what they’re passionate about.
Recently I attended an AWP conference in DC where bestselling YA author Nova Ren Suma led a panel of authors, each who spoke about writing the novels of their hearts. Bennett Madison, author of the YA novels September Girls and The Blonde of the Joke had an interesting take on writing into trends. He agreed that writing a novel for the sole purpose of capitalizing on a trend isn’t the best idea, but he suggested looking at trends as a means to spark inspiration in you.
I really like this, because who’s to say you can’t write from a place of passion and be on trend at the same time? But making sure it’s a topic you care about, something that inspires and excites you, is the key. Otherwise, you’re writing to please others and fill a quota, which is the formula for something tepid at best.
I talk about this more at length in my 10 Commandments of Writing YA class, but Nova Ren Suma wrote a great blog post about what happens when you write for other people. It’s called “The Unstuck Story of the Walls Around Us” and it’s an inspiring and freeing post about Suma’s experience writing the book that ultimately landed her at the top of the bestseller list.
Okay, so I said there were five big mistakes to avoid when writing YA, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include a sixth here: some call it preaching, some call it didacticism….whatever you call it, whatever you do, please don’t talk down to your YA reader.
By this, I mean that you should never set your main character up to take a fall simply to teach him or her a thing or two. Not only will your teen reader smell the fakey-fake lesson cooking in your prose a mile off, your YA novel will suffer for it. Because writing YA is not about the result at the novel’s conclusion; it’s about the journey, about finding the center of your character’s emotional truth to present a very real, very relatable human being who is currently in flux, and figuring things out.
YA readers deserve your emotional honesty. They deserve authentic, emotionally resonant characters that serve to show them they aren’t alone, not characters who are being used as tools to sell moral high ground or life lessons.
Thank you so much for checking out this talk! If you want to learn more about writing YA, please sign up for my free course, The 10 Commandments of Writing YA Novels. If you want to get in contact with me, you can find me on the Reedsy Marketplace. Just drop me a request for a free quote or just to discuss your options.
What are your major bugbears when it comes to writing (or even reading) YA novels? Share your thoughts or leave a question for Kate in the comments below.