Avoid these pitfalls for maximum success.
by Sonja Stone
There aren’t a lot of rules when writing for the young adult (YA) market, but there are a few pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.
My youngest heads off for college in a few weeks, so it’s time to drag out my binder-full of lectures (Why You Shouldn’t Go to Frat Parties; Don’t Have Casual Sex But If You Do Use Protection; Don’t Drink, Smoke, or Use Drugs; Always Carry a Sweater Because You Never Know When a Cold Snap Will Roll In; Don’t Drink Caffeine After 3pm; Hang Up Your Wet Towel; Skype Your Mother Once a Week So I Know You’re Still Alive; etc, etc, etc). Two minutes into the first lecture I’m met with a heavy sigh, eye rolling, and the facial expression meant to convey that I’m old and don’t know/understand anything about the teenage experience… Which brings me to my first point of What Not To Do in a YA Novel.
1. DON’T PREACH.
If your goal is to share a moral lesson with young adults, don’t bother writing a novel. Teens (and many adults) won’t suffer a ten-minute verbal lecture, much less 300 pages of preaching. This isn’t to say that your protagonist cannot have a strong moral compass, perhaps even one that deviates from the new norms of society, but if your voice (as the morality-police-turned-author) seeps through the pages, do not expect a warm reception. (That said, it’s perfectly acceptable to stick to your own code of ethics. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not comfortable writing sex scenes for young adults, so I don’t. But plenty of YA writers do it very well.)
2. DON’T TRY TO SOUND LIKE A TEENAGER.
Let me rephrase: don’t try to sound like what you think a teenager sounds like. For me, this would include addressing one’s mother as ‘brah,’ and grunting in response to a variety of questions ranging from ‘did you register for your classes yet?’ to ‘what would you like for dinner?’ Trendy phrases quickly date your manuscript (‘groovy’ turned to ‘cool’ turned to ‘wicked’ turned to whatever-the-hell-kids-say-now).
Remember that teens–as a general rule–are fairly self-involved (this is why I write YA–it’s totally natural for me to be in that same mindset :)). A teenage girl will usually not think to herself, “Boy, my mom seems really tense. She’s been snapping at me a lot lately. I wonder what I can do to help her through this difficult time?” Her thought process is more like this: “My mom’s being a total bitch. What is her problem?”
3. TECHNOLOGY CHANGES.
Along this same line, I would avoid naming specific social media outlets, as these change and fluctuate. Anyone remember MySpace? Vine (the 6-second video platform) was huge last year, and as far as I know, no longer exists. If technology is critical to your story, consider inventing your own social media platform. You’re a creative writer, after all.
4. DON’T TALK DOWN TO TEENS.
Teenagers are intelligent. As a rule, while they may not communicate (at all) with their parents, they really are quite adept at navigating social nuances among their peers. There’s no need to over-explain your scene. Be subtle, and when in doubt, less is more (never use two words when one will do). Don’t be afraid to use intelligent vocabulary–there’s no need to dumb down the language. Furthermore, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your teenager probably knows way more about sex and drugs than you do. (Thanks, google.)
5. RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN
This seems especially true in YA literature–it seems anything goes. The Twilight and Harry Potter series successfully ignored the typical YA word count of 80-90K. No topics are off limits–drug use and abuse, suicide, sex, sexuality, racism, gender identity, dealing with death and grief. A great book doesn’t tell me how I should live my life. I believe the gift of a well-written YA novel sends the message: You are not alone.
Keep these tips in mind as you’re writing for teens, and please: add to this list in the comment section below!
photo credits: whatever, Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash
boy on dock: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
What fantastic advice, Sonja. It all makes such good sense, and having been through the teen years with a number of children and step children I can attest to the eye-rolling, the you-are-really-an-old-fossil (I still am) attitude, but that at the same time they're so darn intelligent. I love the way you captured the complexity. And that now few topics are off the table. Can't wait to read your next book!
Thanks, Gayle! I think every parent has gone through the eye-rolling phase. I have to say, though, that my kids are a lot more reasonable than I was at their age. My poor mother!
Welcome to the empty nest club. And great tips on writing YA. Every now and then I come up with an idea – if I ever decide to follow through – nice to have these.
What a great post, Sonja — such good advice for YA authors (and especially aspiring writers). Reviewing your list here, I see that you followed your own advice in your terrific YA novel, DESERT DARK…a really great read!
Great tips for the YA writers. I have several friends I've shared this with. I agree with Karna — DESERT DARK was a great read. I can't wait for the new book!