Writing Young Adult Fiction: An Editor’s Guide to Awesome YA
Last updated: 04/12/2018
Young Adult is perhaps the largest category of new fiction today. Or, to put it another way, writing young adult fiction seems to be at an all-time high. There’s something about adolescence — coming of age, first loves, first triumphs, loss of innocence — that makes it the perfect backdrop for raw, honest storytelling. No matter how far we get away from them in time, the memories of our teenage years tend to remain fresh.
Kate Angelella is an experienced YA editor, formerly of Simon & Schuster. She has edited a number of popular series including Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. In this post, she shares her top tips for writing Young Adult fiction.
1. Don’t think of YA as ‘adult fiction that’s been dumbed-down’
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 García Márquez — is a fine example. She did not intend to write her cult classic Weetzie Bat series as children’s books, 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.
2. Make sure your characters are the right age
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.
3. Focus on authenticity
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 when plot developments, especially new relationships, happen because the author wants it to, not because anything is intrinsically driving the story.”
4. 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. Main characters who are 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.”
5. Find the right voice for your protagonist
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.
The main character’s voice is one of the single most important element of a YA novel, and it’s influenced by:
- 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.
Here are a few excellent examples of voice from Young Adult classics. The first one’s 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 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 and drama present here, 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 opening of 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, and the world he lives in?
The language is 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 generally cool, dispassionate feel of Titus’ voice.
The last example comes from the opening chapter of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which 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.
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.
Starr is the narrator: 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. 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.
6. 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.
7. Don’t 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 topic’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."
8. Papa, don’t preach
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, but your YA novel will also 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.
To learn more about how to write a young adult novel, check out Kate's FREE course on Reedsy Learning, The Ten Commandments of Writing YA Novels.
Are you an author of fiction for teen readers? Do you have any questions about the art of writing young adult fiction, drop Kate a message in the comments below.