Young adult (YA) fiction is one of the hottest genres in modern publishing. It’s hardly surprising that so many authors are considering how and why to write for this market. What about you?
The Pros of Writing Young Adult Fiction
There are plenty of reasons why you might want to consider writing YA fiction.
Firstly, there’s the fact that this is a huge market. Recent data shows that around 30,000 YA books are published each year. Together with children’s fiction it represents a market with an annual worth of nearly three billion dollars. If you want to make a living off your writing, that’s a good thing to tap into.
This is encouraged by the prolific reading of many teens and the enthusiasm with which they approach their books. While they may not have a huge amount of expendable income, those who are heavily into books will pour a lot of their cash into reading. Sharing books among teens can help to spread the word about your work. Their embrace of social media and enthusiastic tone online can help to build up your profile.
Creatively, YA fiction provides interesting challenges. Its different tone and style make a refreshing change from writing purely for adults. The fact that YA books are often shorter also gives you the chance to experiment with new ideas without committing so much of your writing to a single project.
It's worth noting that YA books aren’t just for teenagers. Over half of these books are bought by adults and series such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have found an enthusiastic adult fandom. Some writers are able to carry this readership over to their adult books.
YA books are evening receiving literary praise. In 2002, Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass became the first book for teenagers to win the Whitbread prize.
Understanding Your Audience
If you want to write YA, the first thing you have to do is understand your audience. Teen readers are a distinct group with a distinct experience of life, and this is reflected in fiction aimed at them.
Research the lives of modern teenagers. A lot of this can be fun to do - reading their magazines, watching their shows, listening to their music, tapping into current trends. Watch out as well for articles in the news about modern teen experiences, as social research, while dry, may highlight issues that pop culture misses.
To help get inside teenagers’ heads, think back to your own youth. Dig out mementos from the past and see what feelings they bring to life. Focus on the universal experiences, the emotions, social dynamics, and concerns for the future. The clothes may change but some experiences remain the same.
As with any genre, read the sort of fiction you want to write. Look at what’s on the YA shelves at the library. Try to read recent works so that you know where the market is at now. Pay attention to what appeals about these stories.
Common Features of YA Stories
While there are exceptions to any rule, certain features are common to nearly all YA stories.
Most importantly, the main character is a teenager. If they aren’t the point of view character, then that character is also a teen. These are stories that empower teenagers, showing that they can make a difference, and so it’s important that they are the ones driving the story.
These stories usually have a strong coming of age element. This can be obvious when the story is based in the real world, as the protagonist may be dealing with issues that real teens face as they grow up. But even in YA fantasy and science fiction, coming of age is central to the character’s story arc. His Dark Materials is all about the loss of innocence. Harry Potter is about facing the darkness and responsibility of adulthood. The Hunger Games is about developing agency and mature emotional relationships.
Sensitive issues shouldn’t be avoided. In fact, they are often the backbone of YA stories, giving them their power. It’s important not to minimize their impact or sensationalize them. A realistic, grounded tone will let you talk about difficult subjects.
A relatively fast pace is important to YA, as you’re aiming at a readership who want excitement and don’t all have long concentration spans. Upbeat endings are common but not compulsory. Some focus on friendship and romance is practically compulsory. These are the emotional heart of teen experience, the issues that will hook younger readers into the stories you write.
YA readers are happy seeing their fiction mix in other genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and thrillers. By keeping the focus of the story on character, theme, and emotion, you can make unusual settings relatable and turn YA readers into future readers of other genres.
Common Features of YA Characters
As mentioned above, the central characters of YA are almost always teenagers. They provide the protagonists, the love interests, the point of view characters, and the close friends who help them along the way.
These characters are usually dealing with the changes that come with growing up. This includes the change in teenagers’ bodies, which will vary depending upon the age and gender of the characters. It also includes the changes in personality that accompany physical change. New interests and experiences, even new emotions are all part of growing up. How directly you address these will depend upon your story, but they should usually feature in some way and can provide the basis for really accessible and engaging character arcs.
This isn’t to say that YA is a world without grownups. Most YA includes adults in some form, as parents, mentors, and even antagonists. They can represent both the opportunities and the dangers of adulthood and their presence is often crucial. Just don’t slip into making it their story.
Making it Relatable
Writing YA fiction at the distance that comes with being an adult, how can you make it relatable to teens?
One of the most important things is to focus on emotions. Tap into the memories of your own feelings as a teen and use that. Make the feelings clear rather than skirting around them. You want this to be relatable while avoiding tipping over into heavy-handed writing.
Most teens live at home, as do the protagonists of most YA stories. Family relationships are central to their lives, so make the most of this. Feature these relationships in your story. Show the joys and the challenges they bring.
Think about the characters’ wider social environment. This is very important to teens and so thinking it through can add to your story’s power. Who are the character’s best friends? How do they fit into the cliques and conflicts of their social world? How popular are they and how are they treated by others?
The life experiences of teens are very varied so it’s worth considering what your characters have experienced. Have they tried drink or drugs? How knowledgeable are they about sex? Has their background given them great dreams for the future or battered their sense of hope? If you can, use a range of characters to cater both to teens with sheltered lives and those who have had difficult experiences, to broaden your audience.
Making it Believable
However compellingly you write, if the teens’ lives in your story don’t seem believable then you’ll lose your readers. The research mentioned earlier will help with this, but approaching your writing in the right way is important too.
Don’t get too carried away with the results of your research. Tastes in clothes, music, and everything else change quickly among teens, so if you focus on specifics then your work will quickly become dated. You can avoid this by giving your character their own distinct fashion style and having them enjoy local bands or fictional TV shows. Alternatively, set your book at some time in the past and make outdated trends a feature to explore rather than a flaw.
Avoid stereotypes and clichés. While it can be tempting to play around with these or set them up ready to undermine them later, if they ring false at the start then you’ll lose readers. The same applies to overly exaggerating characters’ lives, making everything either perfect or terrible. Life is a mixed bag and teenagers know that.
Use dialogue that is realistic for teens. A character who is too respectful or formal will seem false, but so will exaggerated levels of slang and teen speech. A little can go a long way and it’s better not to go too far and risk sounding fake.
Don’t let your authorial voice intrude. A distinct literary style can be useful in adult fiction, but YA is focused on character and story, not style, and this will seem like an intrusion from the adult world.
If you can understand your audience, provide the sort of story they expect, and present it in a believable, relatable way, then you can create YA fiction that will appeal not just to teens themselves but to the wider market that is YA readers.