Writing Tip for Today: What is YA and how do you know if your story fits the genre?
How Teens See the World
Just because you have a teen protagonist doesn’t mean the novel is YA. If you try to write a story for teens which preaches or moralizes to them, chances are they won’t make it all the way to The End. John Green, master YA storyteller (The Fault in Our Stars), says a writer must find the emotional truth in the character and story. Teen experience the world intensely, and their world is full of Firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first bad decision, first heroic action. It’s also a world where possibility reigns–the sky’s still the limit. Teens feel a lot of opposites: invincible yet vulnerable, insignificant yet indispensable, isolated while yearning for community. Writers of YA need to understand these emotions and see the world through their teen-aged character’s eyes.
Some writers who want to ride the YA wave think all they need are some vampires or other paranormal creatures or else a dystopian world where nothing is right and it’s up to the protagonist to save the world. In truth, both publishers and readers have grown weary of these settings. It’s probably risky to try to reinvent Harry Potter, Edward the Twilight vampire or some version of The Hunger Games. If you must write about paranormal or dystopian worlds, try to be original is all I can say. And about including teenspeak slang: Slang for teens tends to change about every two to four years. If you include too much of it, you date your work. Be true to the WAYS teens speak and what they speak about. This will give you more staying power than inserting a “radical!” (OK I’m dating myself and badly!). Many times dialogue is better when the throwaway words like “like” are omitted or perhaps sparingly sprinkled in the story.
Since most readers are female, I think it’s always good to include some sort of romantic angle in the story. Teens are consumed with crushes and relationships, so adding this element should only deepen your story. A good example is Katniss Everdeen. For most of the Hunger Games trilogy, she’s just trying to stay alive and save her district. But Peeta adds a layer of complexity to Kat’s character that speaks to teen experience. No matter what teens are doing, they are almost always contemplating their relationships, sexuality and trying to figure out where they belong.
Don’t Sell to Teens, SPEAK to Them
Writers of Young Adult novels must keep in mind that they are not trying to sell books to teens. Teens crave novels which SPEAK to them. One of my students was trying to write a YA novel about a boy who wanted to play baseball. His family relocated just as he was starting to play well, and the new team did not welcome him. The story had a great premise (how many children’s stories are about an unwelcomed move?) but went off the rails when the writer projected his own grown-up self onto the character and the novel ended up sounding like a lecture from a disapproving uncle. A hallmark of YA is the lack of narrative distance–the character isn’t looking back or down. This is why that lack of distance is often manifested in first person, present tense. Write YA characters who are full of possibility, exploring all the firsts of life and who feel everything intensely. You’ll be much closer to writing a YA novel that sells.