Writing YA Novels

Heather Long
Young woman reading

YA novels refers to writing for young adults. The definition of young adult varies; what appeals to a 12-year-old will not necessarily appeal to an 18-year-old. When you say young adult, you mean no sex (mostly), no drugs (but not always) and only a nudge and a wink at rock and roll.

Choose a Genre

Young adult genres include every genre that appeals to adults, from science fiction to romance, to chick lit to adventure lit, to mysteries and even real life tales. The important thing to remember is that the age range means that YA writers need to address topics carefully. Most teenagers can handle scary topics like a good friend who does drugs or the boy next door who is abused, but it needs to be kept a step away from the character they immediately identify with.

Harry, for example, in the Harry Potter series is treated badly by his aunt and uncle, but their abusive tendencies are kept one step away from the reader - just enough for the reader to identify it and to dislike them, but not enough to truly frighten them. Harry also gets to get even now and then, which helps.

Characters and Emotions

YA books focus intensely on characters and emotions. Teenage years are ripe with emotions and the need to understand the deeper issues and connections in life. YA novels allow teens a safe way to experiment, explore and experience life's possibilities. When it comes to writing a young adult novel, you have to remember that young adult itself is not a genre, but a demographic. Different genres within the rapidly expanding YA market include:

  • Contemporary - Teen characters examine their lives and generally face coming-of-age dilemmas set in real world situations. These can be serious or humorous. Think Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar and Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
  • Dystopian - Typically a teen character surviving in an end-of-the-world scenario. Think The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Enclave by Ann Aguire.
  • Historical Fantasy - Teen characters facing coming-of-age drama amidst paranormal and historical circumstances. Think The Princess Bride by William Goldman or Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare.
  • Horror - Teen characters facing deadly scenarios and many friends and side characters may meet grisly ends - usually a metaphor for the horrible awkwardness of the teen condition. These can be serious or funny. Think Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake or The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey.
  • Paranormal and Paranormal Romance - Teen characters struggling with life and death situations, affairs of the heart and dangerous creatures of the night. Think The Vampire Diaries by L.J. Smith, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer or City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.
  • Steampunk - The popular subgenre has grown on teens and often involves corsets, airships, and mysteries. Think Leviathan by Scott Westerfield or Soulless by Gail Carriger.
  • Urban fantasy - Similar to paranormal romance without the emphasis on romantic themes. These usually feature a male lead, but can have a female and epic adventure set against a contemporary backdrop with mythological elements. Think Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling or The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong.
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Know Your Audience

Your audience will not be limited to a specific age group. The audience for young adult fiction ranges in age from eleven to fifty and beyond, as many adults enjoy YA fiction too. That said, there are different age groups within YA from pre-teen usually focusing on characters from junior high to their freshman year to upper YA which focuses on junior and seniors. The distinction is important in terms of sexuality explored in the context of the story.

Young YAs do not feature sex and may not even bring up a kiss whereas an older YA may have the characters faced with the decision of whether to become sexually active or not. The focus of the story, however, should always be on teen issues that are relevant to developing adults. Books that focus on more adult issues and themes can be found in New Adult, which focuses on the college aged characters.

Avoid Slang and "Hip" Speak

A common mistake of authors new to the YA genre is to try and make their characters sound hip and rely on slang to convey the youth of the main characters. Don't do it. Using current slang can date a novel. Consider the film Valley Girl. The hip language embraced by the film was extremely relevant when it was released, but does not hold up over the decades. If your characters develop their own slang within the context of the story (i.e. "Shiny" made popular in Joss Whedon's Firefly) that's fine.

A second common mistake is to talk down to the characters or the readers. The fastest way to turn off a teen reader is to sound patronizing in the telling of the tale. You have to immerse yourself in the teen mindset - the one that says adults really don't get it. Those adults that do are rare and should be treasured as mentors (Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alaric in The Vampire Diaries). Ultimately, the teens must take on the world and their problems and learn to cope. How they do it is where you find the story.

Develop Your Plot

Multiple plot themes exist within YA. Like any novel, you need to have a consistent narrative and goals your characters are seeking whether it's the perfect date for prom or safety from the zombies relentlessly pursuing them. Among the popular developmental plots are:

  • The Road Trip - Whether it's a contemporary tale of two brothers traveling to the coast to see the ocean or a horror novel about two brothers fighting monsters while tooling around in their Chevy Impala like in Supernatural, the road trip plot keeps the characters on the move. They will need gas, transportation and can meet many dangers and pitfalls along the way.
  • The Prom - Any big dance of the high school set will do. The conflicts include everything from finding the right dress to hoping the right guy will ask the character out. In Rosemary Clement-Moore's Prom Dates from Hell, her main character battled against a demonic possession that threatened her prom date. The theme provides a lot of flexibility.
  • Best friend to Boyfriend - The magical moment when you realize your best friend is actually the guy or girl for you as you struggle with high school or with saving the world can make for an excellent plot.
  • Fish Out of Water - The feeling of being a misfit can be explored in a variety of ways, from a paranormal creature trying to fit into normal society to the normal teen exposed to extraordinary revelations about themselves. Harry Potter didn't realize how different he was until his world changed when he learned he was a Wizard, but even among Wizards, he remained a fish out of water. It's the story about being true to oneself - even when you are different.

More Writing Tips

If you're planning a YA novel, keep in mind the following items:

  • Character age - Your character does not have to be the exact age as your readers, but you do need to understand how teenagers act, dress, think and feel (no matter what time period you're writing in).
  • Themes - Don't beat your readers over the moral of the story. Young adults are fairly sophisticated and understand the implications of right versus wrong.
  • Character Studies - Most YA novels focus on how the events in the novel impact the main character or characters. Never forget that the story is about that character or characters and let them experience it so the reader can too.
  • Novel Length - Most YA novels range between 40,000 and 75,000 words. Never try to write a story to a specific number of words, just write the tale you want to tell.
  • Point of View - First and third person tend to be the rule of thumb in YA novels; second person can be done but is very difficult to do well.

Restricted by Age

Writing YA novels does not restrict your use of vocabulary the way writing for children does, however, use profanity and stereotypes sparingly. Typically, if you're writing for the older teen set then you have more latitude than you do for the younger teen set.

Be aware of your audience as you're writing. Your story will capture your audience's attention much better if you write it with the full intention of keeping your readers entertained.

Writing YA Novels