I love writing and editing young adult novels, but it’s occurred to me that I haven’t written many posts specifically about YA. So, I thought I’d offer some general tips for writing young adult books and making sure that yours is a good fit for the category.
Note that I say category, not genre. I’ve already discussed the difference between category and genre in this post, so I won’t spend much time on that here. But it’s important to understand that YA means books specifically targeting a teen audience that can be in any genre.
So, here are my tips for writing YA:
- Read YA books
This should go without saying, but if you want to write YA, you need to read it. A lot of it. I don’t just mean the bestsellers, either; there’s so much more to the category than that. The number one best way to learn how to write a YA novel is by reading other YA novels. This is the best way to pick up on the standards of the category.
- Have an authentic voice and dialogue
To me, having an authentic teen voice and dialogue is what really makes a YA book. Teens can spot a phony voice a mile away. And by “authentic teen voice,” I don’t mean slang. Peppering the book with slang is probably going to sound forced (and will soon be outdated if it isn’t already). Instead, a YA writer must capture the nuances of how young people speak, which is much more difficult. Pay attention to sentence structure, grammar, cadence, and tone. It’s not just what they say, but how they say it. Don’t talk down to your reader, but also be careful about overwriting sentences.
- Pick up the pace
Not all YA books have to be fast-paced, but YA books do tend to have faster pacing in general than adult books. If you don’t capture your readers’ attention right away, or if things move too slowly at any point, they will lose interest. There are some exceptions here, especially depending on genre, but this is a good general rule.
- Don’t get preachy
Again, don’t talk down to your reader. No one wants to read a book that sets out to teach a lesson instead of telling a good story, including (or even especially) teens. Don’t be didactic. Focus on the story, not the moral. By doing so, I think you’ll find that the moral is already present in the themes of your story, and readers (of any age) will appreciate the subtlety.
- Think about your character’s decisions
One of the biggest differences between writing teen and adult characters is their decisions. Teens don’t think through consequences or make choices in the same way that an adult would; they don’t have as much experience as an adult. They’re going to make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that teens are always stupid, or that they’re always going to make the wrong choice. Inexperience can actually be a good thing, as it might lead your character to do something brave without thinking about the potential results. When giving your characters choices, consider the ways that their age and inexperience might influence their decisions.
- Capture the emotion
Part of what makes YA so compelling, at least to me, is the emotional depth of the characters and their experiences. It’s a tumultuous, emotional age, and the best YA books are those that convey that. Your character is experiencing and exploring many things for the first time, and it’s important to capture the intensity of those first experiences.
- Remember that teens are people
Again, this one should be obvious. But I see too many teenage protagonists who are simplistic clichés that fit an adult’s idea of what teens should be like, rather than complex, nuanced people. Don’t look down on your characters. Not all teens are the same, and no real teen can be reduced to a single stereotype. When creating your characters, remember that there is so much more to them than just their age.
Finally, I will leave you with this article from The Atlantic, in which several bestselling YA authors discuss how they write authentic teen characters. Writing YA can be daunting, but I hope these tips will help you get started.
What do you think? Do you have any tips for writing YA? Is it something you struggle with? Need a recommendation for YA books to read? Let me know in the comments!
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