Tips and best practices for writing young adult books
Do you ever wonder how to hit the mark in your manuscript to bring all the elements together that will resonate with readers and potential agents? The challenge of making everything work — from dialogue to setting to characters to plot and more — is what makes writing so appealing to me.
I’ve been judging a YA writing contest this month and in the process, it’s made me think about what works and what doesn’t work in writing young adult literature.
Don’t underestimate or overestimate your audience. Consider the age range of your target reader. The language and style of writing for a 12- to 14-year-old may vary slightly from that of a 14- to 17-year-old. These kids are smart and often have flashes of maturity beyond their ages. That said, they are still who they are and will revert back to moments of immaturity. You might be writing a scene where a child is showing wisdom beyond her years, but the next moment have a meltdown. Think about how you can use this knowledge of your audience to create authentic characters who act their emotional age. Also, ask yourself if by the end of your story, your characters have evolved. They should have changed by the end in some way, gaining maturity and insight as a result of the conflict they’ve been through.
Create a gripping plot. YA writing is no different than adult fiction when it comes to writing strong plots with action, consequences and tension. Are you creating obstacles, amping up the action, and pushing the action forward in each scene to its conclusion?
Create a compelling narrative voice. You’ll engage the reader quickly if they can latch on to a voice they connect with. Think about how your reader might identify with the narrator and how the narrator says what she says.
Resist the impulse to have a strong “moral message.” Don’t be preachy. These readers are smart and savvy and that kind of writing will knock them out of the story world you’re trying to create. Let the themes and messages of your story organically reveal themselves through your characters and the progression of the plot.
Be casual, conversational, and active in your writing. You don’t always have to use correct grammar. If you’re lucky enough to have a teen in your house, listen and observe. Otherwise, hang out with young people and watch and listen. Pay attention to how they speak and interact. I used to do some volunteer teaching with middle school kids and older teens. They’re shockingly smart and have strong personalities. Listen to their language and see how it makes sense to create that style in your writing. That can mean being a bit dramatic and exaggerating some of the action and dialogue. Be judicious though in using slang, since that can date your book. This may be okay if you’re writing something historical and want to be accurate for the time period.
Don’t write sentences that are too complex, long, or dense. When I tutored young people in a former job, I was struck by how the appearance of dense material on a page created a block for them. Short snappy dialogue, shorter sentences mingled with long ones, and shorter paragraphs that leave white space on the page help remove that mental block and maintains readers’ focus on the story, particularly for younger readers.
Think about your readers. Beyond portraying the characters accurately, think about who will read your book. YA readers can range from younger — 12 years old in some cases — to 17 years. And many books written for the YA audience often migrate into the adult category. The style of writing for the older end of the range will be more complex than that of the younger end. While there are exceptions, I found young people at ages 12 to 17 aren’t always super self aware. They’re usually thinking more about themselves as they figure out their place in the world. Avoid too much self analysis and let them live in the moment.
Read award-winning books that have been written for the age range you’re writing for to develop a feel for what works for your audience. Also note what doesn’t ring true or work quite right in any of the books you read. Then, as part of your learning process, analyze why a story works and why it doesn’t.
For reading ideas, check out these lists of awards and the authors who won them: