Young adult (YA) fiction has dominated the market for years. Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games have achieved blockbuster success with fans of all ages. Books by YA authors like Rainbow Rowell and John Green have become favorites among adult readers as well.
Many writers have decided to try their hand at YA, either because they enjoy reading it themselves or because it seems like a hot market (or both). However, that has led to some oversaturation. Competition to get your work seen can be fierce. If you want to write YA, here are a few dos and don’ts to help your work succeed.
Pay attention to timelines.
I spent a lot of revisions getting the school year right in my novel Driving Forces. My main character argued with her parents about college applications, went to her senior homecoming dance, and had a very unusual Thanksgiving dinner. These events, along with other teen staples like prom and football games, tend to happen at specific times of year. If your timeline doesn’t make sense, it will distract from your story.
Use normal spelling and grammar for text messages.
Most people don’t use a lot of slang or abbreviations in text messages. The people who do tend to be, well, older. Those of us who started texting on flip phones remember so-called textspeak, which made liberal use of abbreviations to save both time and space. Today’s teens were raised on smartphones and have no need for such efficiency.
Read successful published YA.
Lots of writers want a piece of the YA market — which means you have a lot of competition. You need to know what kinds of themes, story structures, and writing styles YA readers enjoy. The only way to get a feel for that is to read books that have already done well in your category.
Be careful with social media platforms.
Everyone knows teens use their smartphones to stay in touch, but do you know which apps and platforms they prefer? Hint: a lot of them think Facebook is for old people. The online landscape can change quickly. You don’t want your story to feel dated before your readers even see it. Avoid getting too specific. A close point of view leaves plenty of room for a character to say someone “messaged” them without naming the app.
This is not to say you can never name a social media platform in your work. Some of the most successful YA novels do. But be aware that too much emphasis can freeze your work at a certain point in time. Imagine reading a book today where all the characters communicate on Friendster, MySpace, or LiveJournal. You’d have trouble viewing the story in the context of current events because those platforms have long since been abandoned.
Ask an actual teen.
As we get farther from our own teen years, our memories can get fuzzy. The world also changes quickly these days, and with it the experience of being a kid. Many of us writing YA novels today came of age in a time without smartphones, when getting our driver’s license felt like the ultimate ticket to freedom. Some aspects of adolescence are timeless and universal. Other details will change with each generation. If you want to nail your YA fiction, you need to enlist some actual young people to answer questions and beta read your work.
Overuse pop culture references.
I know, I know. Certain Very Successful YA Authors do this in their books. Until you attain your own mega-success, however, use real-life pop culture references sparingly. Most of us have been at a social gathering where two or three people spend most of the conversation name-dropping their favorite indie bands. It feels alienating in real life, and it will feel the same if your fictional characters do it. Plus, you never know how long a famous actor or pop star will remain in the spotlight — or how their reputation might change. If you rely too heavily on real-life pop culture icons, you risk making your work feel dated before its time.
Try to be hip.
Think back to your own time as a teen and ask yourself: how did you react when an adult tried to speak your language? To act like they knew how to fit in with the cool young people?
Pretty cringeworthy, right? These attempts usually end up looking like a caricature — not a good look if you want a believable YA voice.
Teens want to read characters who feel like real people, with lives and problems they can relate to. They also have excellent radar for adults who are trying too hard to reach them. A teen beta reader two will let you know right away if you’re overshooting the mark.
Lean on stereotypes.
Our teen years are often times of great insecurity. Whether we found our tribe with the marching band, the theatre kids, the nerds, or the varsity cheerleaders, those cliques helped us find a sense of identity and belonging. And many of us tended to villainize or stereotype members of other groups.
The problem with stereotypes is, we’ve heard all those stories and seen all those characters before. Make your characters three-dimensional people with complex backstories. Give them reasons for being the way they are that stretch beyond their public identities. Same goes for parents. They’re real people, not two-dimensional props.
As adults, it’s easy to stereotype teens as self-centered and melodramatic. And maybe they are, but that’s part of what adolescence is all about. Our teenage years are full of angst, exhilaration, and new experiences. While those kid problems may no longer feel like a big deal to you, they mean everything in the moment. Tap into that intensity as you write your young adult characters.