Parul was joined by fellow editor Rebecca Monterusso, host of the A Story That Works podcast. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Parul: The topic of today's conversation is the five traits of successful Young Adult novels from the past decade. Before we get into that, we actually really want to frame that discussion and talk a little bit about the history of Young Adult — because it's sort of debatable: people have different opinions on what constitutes YA. We're also going to just quickly what agents and editors are looking for and some recent trends.
Our Brief History with YA
Really, I say the category of Young Adult because Young Adult hasn't always existed as it does right now and it's been evolving over the past few decades. I want to ask Rebecca a question about what she read as a teenager, because there's a decade between us actually.
Rebecca: Yeah. I was 14 in 2005 or so. That's exactly when Twilight came out, so I witnessed the shift from the books for teens being in the children's section to their own section of the bookstore. I was reading Sarah Dessen, Scott Westerfeld, but those originally were in that Middle-Grade section, or what's classified today as the Middle-Grade section. How was that different for you, Parul?
Parul: When I was a teenager, I was reading Judy Blume, which was considered really controversial. That's probably how I first learned about sex, I think: someone whispered to me in the corridor that I should go check out a Judy Blume book. Sweet Valley High was also really popular amongst my friends.
It's interesting to look at what you were reading ten years ago compared to what I was reading earlier and what's doing well today. We've got Fault in Our Stars, The Hate U Give, Six of Crows, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Everything, Everything. What you can see — and what I'm trying to bring out — is that the experience of YA really depends on the decade when you're a teenager. It changes, it evolves.
Rebecca: What I think is important to remember when we talk about YA is that it was a marketing decision and that it is a category. When the publishers realized that they could market to teens and that (eventually, which we're going to talk about) adults would read those books too, it exploded in popularity and got its own section in the bookstore.
I think what's really interesting about YA is that it shifts as the culture does. If they tried to publish The Hate U Give ten years ago, they probably wouldn't have been able to. Not because the content isn't good, but because of the evolving cultural perspectives and mindsets. I think that's really important to remember that YA is always changing and so should your tastes... If you're going to write YA, you should look at what's out today.
Parul: Yeah, exactly. The takeaway from this little section is exactly that: YA is an evolving beast. Make sure you read lots of current examples. A lot of aspiring writers talk about Hunger Games, and how they want to be like Hunger Games, and that's great. but remember that Hunger Games is over a decade old now. Although there is a prequel, which Rebecca was telling me about, coming in 2020, there are some really amazing current YA books.
I say current, even in the last five years, Children of Blood and Bone, Six of Crows, John Green, Ember and Ashes. There's some fantastic material out there. We'll talk a little bit more about some of the amazing books that we've been reading and why we think they've been successful.
One other point that we will definitely discuss is where YA starts and when does that turn into New Adult or adult literature because that's something that we sometimes see writers getting a bit confused by.
What are editors looking for in YA?
Rebecca: Parul, that brings us to this discussion of what agents and editors are looking for. Are there any recent trends that you have found people are asking you specifically about?
Parul: First of all, I am now a freelance editor. That's a point of distinction you might want to know when you're trying to hire an editor for these sorts of things. I definitely am on top of the trends and I have friends in the industry, but an editor in a publishing house and agents are definitely are a lot more on top of the trends because they see the manuscripts actually coming through.
A freelance editor will get a lot of the gossip, but they aren't seeing the most recent manuscripts coming through. We mention this is because we get asked this question a lot. It's good to know about trends, to some degree, but take it with a pinch of salt. If you write according to trends, you'll be chasing your tails. Commissioning editors are possibly scheduling for late 2020 or 2021 right now — they book their schedule way in advance. It's really hard to predict what will be trending in two years' time. By the time you read the book and you think it's popular, that type of book may already have filled its quota, so to speak.
The other point is that editors and agents all have different tastes. I run something called the London Writers Salon — I had on this wonderful commissioning editor from Penguin UK and I asked what she was looking for. She said that she was looking for own voice projects, female leads. There's an agent that we've brought into the salon, and she was saying slightly different things. She was saying, "Actually I'm sick of female leads. I'm looking for male leads."
Really, at the heart of what editors and agents are looking for (maybe this sounds cliché but I really think it's true) are good stories. You need to focus on the story itself. Focus on your story, and then you can try and find the right agent for you, which will inevitably lead to the right editor for you.
Writing about what you're genuinely passionate about is a really good indicator of where to go. The really big caveat there is you have to read widely. I'm sure there are writers there who just have a great imagination and just happen to capture or break into a new market, but generally speaking, if you don't read much YA then start now. It just gives you an indication of what the different voices are and will let you know what you like, don't like, and how you might do it better.
Rebecca: Obviously write the story that speaks to you, but then there are a number of things that she and I have looked at: the things that you can do for your story so it best speaks to the intended audience.
Five Traits of Successful YA Books
Rebecca: So, Parul, what traits do successful YA books have in common?
Parul: I apologize if the title is a little bit clickbait-y, but we do want to pinpoint five traits. The word successful is obviously relatively arbitrary, but I guess when we looked at it we're looking at books that had stood the test of time. One that people bring up as a book they've read, and ones that have had some success in transitioning into film or a TV series. That often indicates that it has a broad audience.
The sorts of books and authors that we'll look at include:
- The Hate You Give,
- Simon vs.,
- Harry Potter,
- The Fault in our Stars,
- Six of Crows,
- Everything, Everything,
- To All the Boys I've Loved Before,
- The Kissing Booth,
- 13 Reasons Why,
- Louise Rennison,
- Children of Blood and Bone.
Okay, so trait number one.
#1. A successful YA novel should have a strong clear value shift
Rebecca: At its most basic, a value shift has to do with character changes: how a character changes on a scale that we relate to as humans. We're talking something from a change of life to death, justice to injustice, or in the realm of love, which is what Parul and I will focus on at first.
Your character starts off maybe ignorant of someone and then by the end they fall in love. Pride and Prejudice is the best-known example of this, but you can also consider Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky in To All the Boys I've Loved Before where Lara Jean had a crush on him in the past but her feelings have all but fizzled out by the start of this story. Now, during the course of the story, they decide to fake a romance together, but they end up catching real feelings, which we know because in the end, Peter goes out of his way to go get her yogurt and he wants her to come to the ski party. She does the thing that she fears most: she gets in the car and drives to prove to him how she feels. Or in Love, Simon, the movie version, when Simon is waiting on the Ferris wheel for Blue to show up. He risks being ridiculed by all of his classmates just to find love.
In both of these cases, obviously, the characters' lives are very different from when they start out. They start off either ignorant or they aren't in love. By the end, they find some version of love. Obviously, then the problem comes in when authors believe they've made a clear value shift, but it doesn't come across to the reader. Parul, how can we as writers make sure we've written a shift or change that is easily understood?
Parul: I find that this is a common issue, not just with debut novelists but with established, published writers as well now and then. It's easy to think, "I've challenged this character really hard. I've made the value shift." But have you? How do you know?
Both Rebecca and I believe in the Story Grid template, which is just an editorial method. They refer to the "core event." You'll recognize a core event. In an action story where it's life and death (Harry Potter, Hunger Games) the core event will see the hero at the mercy of the villain. Think about those stories. What are those showdowns there?
In The Hunger Games, there's that scene where Katniss and Peeta are on that rock and are faced with this awful choice: which one of us dies? At this point, they're very much at the mercy of President Snow.
In a love story, the showdown/big event tends to be the "proof of love," where we see one character give selflessly to another character. In The Fault in Our Stars, after Gus dies, we discover that he had been working to contact the author that Hazel really wants to get hold of because she wants to know the ending of a story. This author was rude to Hazel, so Gus, even as he was dying, was pushing to get Hazel the thing that she really wanted.
What about The Hate U Give? What sort of story is that? At the core of it, I think it is a social story. It's about rebellion. It's a girl learning to stand up — she goes on an internal journey, but the core event is when the grand jury decides not to indict 115 and there are riots. There's that really amazing scene where Starr is in the midst of that crowd and she wants to stand up but does she? That's the showdown. She stands up and gives her voice.
I would like you as a writer, if this is something you're struggling with, my question to you is, think of a book that you really admire, think of that showdown. How does your showdown compare to theirs? That's a really good in. Here's a really good article on how to think of core events for your story.
#2. It must be written from the perspective of a teen
Rebecca: Trait number two, these books are written from the perspective of teens, which sounds obvious because they're Young Adult books for young adults, but the idea is that they've captured the essence of being a teenager. If you break that down, we're talking about a few fundamental concepts. Number one, the age of the character. Number two, age-appropriate content. Number three, relatable conflict.
Parul: Yeah. There's so much to unpack in this. This is probably actually one of the toughest ones to really get into. When I had this wonderful commissioning editor come to the Writers Salon last week, she talked about how the Penguin team knows that 50% of their readers are adults. I find that writers often are trying to write for adults, as well.
How old should your character be? Characters are normally a few years older than the intended audience. If you're aiming this at a 13-year-old, your character might be 15 or 14. We had a little scan of all the books that we're looking at and we looked at their ages.
- Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, she goes between 16 to 18.
- Simon in Love, Simon or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens, book or film is 17.
- Harry Potter, 11 to 17. Starr Carter in The Hate U Give is 16.
- Kaz in the Six of Crows is 17.
- Bella Swan in Twilight is 17.
- City of Bones, Clary is 15.
- Katherine Danziger in Forever by Judy Blume (what a wonderful book) is 17.
- The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Cameron Post is 12.
The characters are young. Recently, I had an aspiring writer who wants to write YA. She said that her characters were adults. There you see, that's a really obvious one. Your characters should be children. In terms of ages, they should be a few years older than your intended audience.
The second thing is age-appropriate content. In these really successful novels, you'll see that the children are front and center in the book. Again, a really obvious thing to say, but I see this so often that I wanted to bring it up. Think of the role of adults in The Hate U Give, in Twilight, in Harry Potter, in 13 Reasons Why, in The Kissing Booth. The adults are there but they play a supporting role. In the end, it's the children that drive the story. They should have a sense of independence.
Rebecca, do you want to talk a little bit about age-appropriate content and this trickier concept of relatable content?
Rebecca: Yeah. I think both of those are tied really closely to the age of the character — in what the character is experiencing as a teenager. The age-appropriate content doesn't mean you can't have death, the things that we experience in life. The characters are dealing with them in a way that teenagers do so that the teens who are reading the stories can understand. When you're talking about Harry Potter, for example, there's a lot of death in that, but it's the way that Harry deals with it and how the adults are helping him deal with that in the process.
Relatable conflict. In The Fault in Our Stars, there's more adult content, but Hazel deals with it like a teenager. You want to let your audience relate to those characters on the page. A lot of Simon vs. is him finding out who he is as a person and being able to accept that. That's something that teenagers can really relate to, which I think takes us right into trait number three.
#3. The inner journey (or worldview) is made accessible to adults
Parul: This relates to YA books and how they attract adults. The one common thing that I'm seeing is that these books have a YA perspective but it's mixed with an inner journey that adults can relate to and enjoy.
Rebecca: The best way to sell books is still through word of mouth. When you have a book that's for teenagers, they can champion it, and their parents might read it. That's how it can spread really far and wide, when it's read both by children and adults. The books that are successful, that become movies, are the ones that sell.
Now back to the worldview: the worldview is, simply it is their inner journey. We talked about how characters change from one point of the story, from the start to the end. This is the change that they deal with in their own internal worlds. Is it a perspective changer? Is it a maturation plot? What is that inner change that they're dealing with? Parul, can you give us some examples of this?
Parul: Yeah. Actually, there are two books that I'm thinking of when I think of the inner journeys that two characters go through in separate books. One of them I find is more relatable to me as an adult and one that I would definitely reread.
First off, we have The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen. Externally, of course, she's facing loads of trouble that I've never faced as an adult, and I hope I never have to face. Internally, what's interesting is she starts off at a fairly sophisticated place. She takes on the role of carer: she shoots animals and tries to fend for her family. She has a very strong moral stance. We see that from the beginning because she steps in to help her younger sister. She's very closed, and I feel like she has a very black-and-white view of the world. By the time we shift to all that she's experienced — remember that she's experienced the death of a number of people that she loves, including Rue, that very vulnerable girl — she's gone from distrusting Peeta to trusting him, and she's managed to keep her moral stance in place despite all of the things that she's seen. There's a maturity to her by the end that wasn't there before. It's a subtle shift. I would love to have that level of integrity if I was faced with that sort of situation.
As a side note, there's a whole commentary on society and the increasing role of technology and the idea of being watched. There are other tonal things that make it adult. Even just if we focus on that inner worldview shift, Katniss is somebody we can relate to as adults. I think that she is one of those people that both children and adults can relate to.
The other example I had, which I'm less sure about crossing over for both adults and teens, is The DUFF. I love it. I think it's a really fun book. DUFF is Designated Ugly Fat Friend. It's a book about a girl who basically has very low self-confidence and one of the popular boys tells her that she's a designated ugly fat friend. She's sort of hiding from her own emotion and from her family troubles. By the end of it, she definitely has a shift in internal values. She no longer thinks of herself as ugly. She no longer sees the world as black and white. She understands and accepts the world and the truth — being that her family is quite messed up. That she's insecure and that she wants to be loved. But I'm not sure that that's as universally relatable.
Because there's a love story in there,we can compare that to Hazel in Fault in Our Stars, again. She's a teenager, she very much has a teenage perspective, but she's dealing with massive questions. She's got cancer and she's dying. She says she doesn't want to fall in love because she's a grenade and she might hurt someone. In the end, she realizes that actually, yes, she's going to hurt her parents when she dies. But she also accepts what Gus says, which is that in life we do hurt people, and life hurts us, but we can choose who we allow to hurt us. She has this sophisticated view by the end that as an adult I can still relate to and it still made me cry.
Finally, The Hate U Give. Starr Carter, again, she's very much a teenager. She goes to her dad for cuddles and help. She goes from having this black-and-white view of what it means to be safe to understanding the reality of the situation, that she's needed. She can accept that responsibility that the society needs her to take action. Again, I think that's a really good example of a worldview shift that adults can enjoy.
#4. Impactful writing
Rebecca: I think that ties really nicely into trait number four of these books, which is to say that they include great writing. Parul, you had some examples in terms of quotable lines and things like that.
Parul: I do. This is when it gets a lot more subjective.
What is great writing? Yes, there are books like 50 Shades of Grey that did very well, which I wouldn't necessarily call a literary masterpiece. But there are some amazing Young Adult books out there that have done really well and, oh my God, the lines, they're just brilliant. I've got some of my favorites here:
"My thoughts are stars that I cannot fathom into constellations," which is from Fault in Our Stars.
"Remember, we're madly in love so it's all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it." That's from the Hunger Games and that's really sarcastic. That's showing the cynical aspect of their play in the Hunger Games.
"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live," which is from Harry Potter.
Another Dumbledore quote: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
Your favorite, Rebecca, is, "Everyone is so obsessed with themselves nowadays that they have no time for me."
Just because it's YA doesn't mean it's not going to be insightful.
Rebecca: Or add that comedic effect like Louise Rennison does. The thing that I wanted to say about this topic is that a lot of people think that they'll break in writing YA because it's easier to write. The point we're trying to make is that these books have quotable lines and intricate plots. It's not that they're easier to write. It's that the authors who write them have found the correct voice to do so and they've gone above and beyond doing it. You, as a writer, need to pay attention to what your writer's voice is speaking to and if that audience is teenagers, then that's exactly the space you should be writing in. Just paying attention to your voice and how that comes out on the page.
Parul: If you look up Holly Bourne, and find some of her YA books, and look at the reviews. They always say that she gets people. She gets teens saying, "How did you get into my head? How did you know this?" I think that's a really amazing example of someone who's really understood their audience.
This comes back to that really basic point of reading widely.
#5. Protagonists that we can empathize with
Parul: All the books that we have mentioned so far have characters that we, as readers, are invested in. When Katniss is close to death or when she suffers, don't you feel that, too? I did. Going back to this core event concept in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens, he's on that Ferris wheel waiting for Blue. Your heart is in your mouth as well. We're behind them. What's the secret to achieving this? How do you get this right?
Rebecca: Parul and I have discussed this and we think it's all about what your character wants and what they're willing to do to get it. We can talk about what your character looks like, we can talk about how they describe themselves, but the actions that they take in order to get what they want really prove who they are. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has a point that "characters are the choices they make when they're under pressure to do so."
If we all had the ability to sit on our couch all day watching TV, don't you think we would make that choice? The things that we need to sacrifice, sacrificing sitting on the TV all day because we need to make money, we have to eat, we have to go out and socialize, just we as humans have to do these things. Those choices we make — and what we risk to get those things that we want — really show who we are as people. We want characters to do the same things because we can empathize with them. We really relate to them making those choices. I think that's what makes for protagonists we can stand behind.
Parul: Sometimes I feel like this is obvious. Some nuances within this. A character will show us what they want in the first 25% of the story — in the hook near the beginning.
As the story progresses, they won't get what they want. We will care. You as a writer will make us care about that. Suzanne Collins definitely made us care about Katniss. She got us close to Katniss. We know, for example, how important her sister was to her and how much she worried about her sister. We knew that it wasn't about her. Going back to her moral position, she had a strong moral position that she was to take care of her family. When she doesn't get that, when she gets closer to death, we're way more invested in her life than in some of the other contestants.
By the end payoff, in the last third, is when you probably will have the showdown. When the character will almost not get what they want and then they'll get what they want. We will be cheering them on. Katniss Everdeen on that rock: we're going to be there wanting her to live.
In Simon vs. Blue, Simon encounters an online character — the one who says that he feels the same way that he does. Blue writes a post about being gay and Simon reaches out to him. What Simon wants is to find out who he is. But then there's what he needs. Simon just needs to accept himself. His family will turn out to be accepting, but really there's a whole struggle that's going on there for him. Can he accept himself really? Can he truly? He doesn't want to tell his friends. It takes him ages. What he wants and what he needs are two really important things.
Same with DUFF. What she wants is to forget the pain. Whenever she has strife in her life, she will turn to the popular boy, to have sex with him, because she's trying to forget the difficulties in her life. Really what she needs is to love herself. She needs to understand and not run away from the difficult home life that she has and her insecurities.
Fault in Our Stars. She wants to find out what the ending of the book is. She wants to know that the story ends okay for the parents. That's what she wants to find out. But what she needs is a lot more than that. She needs to accept the really difficult circumstance that she's found herself in. There's more than that. She wants love. From the first couple of chapters, we know that fundamentally she wants a kinship with Gus. But actually what she needs again is to accept herself.
Bonus point: the endings are inevitable but surprising
Rebecca: In the case of the Hunger Games, we know Katniss is going to survive the Hunger Games. The story is from her point of view after all. The fact that she does it by keeping her and Peeta alive is the surprising part. That interesting twist at the end really makes us want to share the story with everybody, like, "Oh, you have to read this. It's so good."
Parul: The other twist is, yes, she wins that battle but she's now created an enemy with President Snow and she's starting a rebellion. That's another surprising element about the ending.
Let's look at Harry Potter. Yeah, he wins. He defeats Voldemort. But he doesn't realize that he has to be prepared to die in order to defeat him — he didn't expect to defeat Voldemort in exactly the same way his mother died, exactly the way his mother did for him.
In The Fault in our Stars, we think Hazel is the hand grenade. We think Hazel is the one that's going to go first. She's trying to battle that. But actually, it's Gus who goes, rather unexpectedly.
In Simon vs, the ending is that he finds Blue. Great. He discovers who it is. He essentially comes out to the whole school. The surprising thing about all of that is the way that the entire journey is really about himself. It's about coming to accept who he is along that journey.
This is a challenge to you guys. If you are thinking about writing a story, what's inevitable about the story that you're going to write and how could you make that surprising? Okay.
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