There’s no question about it: The young adult (YA) audience is a hot market, one that is steadily growing in popularity and garnering attention from young readers as well as literary critics. This means that this market is healthier than ever–and so is the competition for getting published. So what are the keys to writing a successful young adult novel? Before you even start typing, you must get into the mind of your target audience. Mary Kole, author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit, shares invaluable advice for walking in the shoes of the YA reader.
INSIDE THE MIND OF YOUR YOUNG ADULT READER
There’s something crucial that I want you to remember about YA, and that’s the all-consuming nature of being a teenager. It’s that sense of possibility. That feeling of your heart welling so big it could explode. It used to happen for me when I was driving around my hometown, late at night, in my wizard-purple Ford Taurus (before the hip redesign, thankyouverymuch) and the perfect song would come on the radio. Everything felt so big and so important in that moment, like all the parts of the universe had finally—yet fleetingly—clicked into place.
Remember the electricity of adolescence? You have your first love, your first heartbreak, your first truly selfless act, your first betrayal, your first seriously bad decision, your first moment of profound pride, the first time you’re a hero. These milestones space out as we age, but when you’re a teenager, they all happen in very close proximity to one another.
The decisions you’re making feel like they will have ramifications forever. You feel by turns invincible and vulnerable, inconsequential and permanent. All of these experiences are ones you’re having for the very first time, and you’re packed into a group with hundreds of other teens who feel the exact same way (though they hardly ever let on). So you’re also isolated and craving community, which is why you search for a book that feels like it’s written just for you.
It’s, in a word, intense.
I like to quote a YA-before-it-was-YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, which was published in 1999 for the adult market (my, how times have changed). In one scene, his teen characters go through a tunnel and emerge into a beautiful view of city lights. The narrator, Charlie, says:
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”
Romance and Darkness
Teens feel everything very intensely, and two things in particular: An interest in romance and darkness. If you’ve been in the teen section of a bookstore recently, you’ll know what I mean. It seems as if every cover greets you with the same combination of a pouting girl, a brooding boy, and the colors purple and black.
Paranormal and dystopian are such forces in the marketplace that I’m dedicating this entire section to explaining them. First, the discouraging fact: These genres are on the wane, so I wouldn’t dive into them right now if I were you. A lot of publishers are committed to paranormal and dystopian trilogies through 2014 and even 2015, and they’re not signing up many new projects in these veins.
A lot of readers and writers (and yes, editors and agents) are getting tired of these genres and wondering why they took off with such velocity in the first place. When I think about teen readers and their mindset, the reasons become clear.
Romantic relationships are a huge obsession for teens. Most teens, however, lack real-life romantic experience. Teen boys inviting you over to play Xbox and teen girls texting through dinner dates at The Cheesecake Factory must leave a lot to be desired. Since there aren’t many dashing Edward Cullens willing to die on the fangs of vampires for today’s teen girls, these hungry readers turn to fiction to flesh out their rich fantasy lives.
Teens also don’t often feel empowered. Their lives can seem like a track from AP classes to test prep to sports to volunteer work and the message they hear is: If you get off this track, fail the SATs, or don’t get into the right college, then the rest of your life is in jeopardy. They feel trapped and helpless. Most want control, so the kick-butt aspect of paranormal (vampire slaying, zombie battles, etc.) is attractive.
Finally, teens are exploring the dark side of their personalities around the time they hit fourteen or fifteen. They get interested in suicide and serial killers and other darker shades of humanity. Death-related worlds and characters help them explore that through fiction. One of the biggest hits of the last five years is Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a book about one girl’s suicide and the reasons behind it.
Some teens start to see the darker underbelly of life during high school—a friend starts cutting, someone gets pregnant, a classmate dies—and they use fiction to explore these issues in a safe way. The recent trend toward dystopian is an extension of this, and a way of dealing with the anxieties of living in a world full of economic depression, war, and terrorism.
When you think about your teen readers, keep the above in mind. Whether your romance is paranormal or not, know that your (mostly female, per the previous chapter) audience craves stories about crushes and relationships. Even if your story doesn’t have a darker shade to it, acknowledge that your readers are dealing with a complex world where everything isn’t always unicorns and rainbows.
I would not counsel you to include one of the stock paranormal elements in your manuscript—vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, demons, mermaids, Greek mythology, zombies—because of overcrowding on the shelves and general fatigue. If you simply have to do paranormal, find a unique twist or uncover an underutilized mythology or creature. A fantastic new take on “angels,” for example, is Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
On the other hand, if you can, do try and include some kind of love interest. You don’t have to write an all-out romance, but you’ll be missing a huge potential selling point if you don’t acknowledge this part of your readers’ lives. As you will soon see, the romantic element in your story can range from an unrequited crush to falling deeply in love.
Themes and Big Ideas in Young Adult
When you know the teen experience and can place yourself in your target readers’ experience, you’re that much more likely to write a book that resonates with them on a deeper, thematic level.
Let’s go to the shelves for a look at how YA writers have incorporated theme into their teen characters’ narratives. First up is McLean from Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye. She moves around the country with her restaurant consultant father, trying on new names and personalities in each town. As she lands in a new spot, she contemplates her predicament:
Sure, it was always jarring up and leaving everything again. But it all came down to how you looked at it. Think earth-shattering, life-ruining change, and you’re done. But cast it as a do-over, a chance to reinvent and begin again, and it’s all good. We were in Lakeview. It was early January. I could be anyone from here.
Teens often feel like their identities aren’t quite fixed yet, like they could rip themselves up and start all over again if they wanted to. Honor that and see if you can’t incorporate it thematically.
Next up is teen-mindset-master John Green and his book Paper Towns. In it, an earnest teen boy, Quentin, or Q for short, falls for a hipster named Margo Roth Spiegelman, a teen so disillusioned with her suburban life that she runs away. Being the stand-up (lovesick) guy, Q spends the rest of the book trying to save Margo from herself.
A lot of teens see the world or society and want to change it. Here, Margo speaks about her claustrophobic Florida town:
All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.
And here’s Q trying to put himself into Margo’s Converse All Stars a little later in the story:
And all at once I knew how Margo Roth Spiegelman felt when she wasn’t being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty. She felt the unscaleable wall surrounding her.
These teens see the world and interpret it intensely. They feel deep longing and pain and love and searching. Understanding these qualities about adolescence will make your literature for these readers richer and deeper.
Writing Irresistible Kidlit is a comprehensive, in-depth guide to writing middle grade and young adult fiction. Study major aspects of the craft–plot, character, theme, and more–through the lens of kidlit writing.