Why write YA? The virtues of this category and concepts every writer should know.
This Spring I attended a SCBWI Southern Breeze SpringMingle conference with Jacquelyn Mitchard. Mitchard is a New York Times bestselling author and editor of Merit Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Her novel The Deep End of the Ocean was Oprah Winfrey Book Club’s inaugural selection and was later adapted into a film.
During her workshop titled Why write YA? she talked about the virtues of writing for the young adult (YA) book category and some concepts every aspiring YA writer must know.
YA is a growing market
YA is the only consistently growing category of fiction. Teens are embracing books and buying hardcovers over e-books. They love stories like no one else. To a teen, the characters in these books are real people. When you write YA, you hook a reader for life.
A short history of YA
YA is a category of fiction written for one age group: teens.
It started in the 1930s with Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer. Later came The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, followed by Judy Bloom’s Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret.
Some of the main themes of these books are being estranged from the world of adults and alienated from the human experience.
In YA the main characters must be teenagers. They have to take care of themselves and solve their own problems without adult intervention.
There is almost no topic that is too dark in YA. There is also a great deal of emotional topography because teens are highly acute to their emotions. Everything is new. Everything is happening for the first time.
By the same token, they are as emotionally connected to others as they will ever be in their lives. Teens are seeing the world for the first time.
The YA voice
The most important element in a YA novel is voice.
Anyone who has read Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger will never forget it. The voice remains with you forever.
Voice is more important than plot in a YA story. Generally, a teenager doesn’t have as much freedom as an adult, so their geography is limited.
A teen’s focus is pointed outward from their family but they are not completely out in the world yet. These stories take place within very structured settings which is why the boarding school is a popular troupe in YA.
The YA timeframe
YA normally takes place in a very short space of time. A saga in a YA would be a whole school year. What is a long time for a teen? A day? A week? Everything happens at warp speed. Not much has to happen but it is essential that the reader connects with the protagonist, regardless of whether they are sympathetic. The reader must care.
Who is your readership?
YA novel readers are primarily teens, but not exclusively so. Adults love the energy and the no-holds-barred that YA novels bring. You are writing for smart 14 to 18-year-olds, but you are also writing for adults. YA is a category, not a genre.
Your teen protagonists should suffer from problems that are common to teens. Sex, drinking and drugs are part of a teenager’s world. These things are a part of teenager’s life, and you have to be comfortable writing about them. You have a hormones tornado paired with an unfinished brain. Your audience is still in a pod. Their brain has yet to completely develop. The impulsive behavior is normal for them.
Because of the intimacy, YA is often written in first person. It involves the reader in an intimate way. But your teens shouldn’t sound like adults and they shouldn’t speak the kind of slang (think Mark Twain trying to render Southern speech) that would confuse the reader. You want your book to be read a generation from now so avoid fashionable trends and pop culture. Instead, use references that are iconic and would last from generation to generation.