What sets YA fiction apart?
Bridget Collins: What I love about it is the intensity, and the freedom – because it’s in the middle of children’s and adults’ fiction, as it were, you have the best of both worlds! You can do things that in an adult book would marginalise you (The Traitor Game, my first book, has a strong fantasy element, and A Trick of the Dark, my second, is a supernatural thriller) and still be taken seriously, which is brilliant. And in a sense, the experiences that YA fiction tends to be about (coming of age, first love, first grief, and so on) don’t ever really get resolved, so even when we’re adults we can read YA fiction and find that it addresses our concerns. Unless that’s just me, and I’ve never grown up...
Julia Green: Well that applies to me too, then, the not growing up! I actually think it’s a necessary part of being a writer for young people, that ability to remember accurately the feeling of being the age of your young protagonist- whether that’s fifteen, or five, or eleven. You have to have some of that ‘young’ part of yourself intact, inside you, as you write. It’s one of the things I most love about writing for teenagers that I get to inhabit that story world I’m creating, and to see and feel and hear the world as a 15 or 16- year- old all over again. It’s not difficult for me to remember falling in love for the first time. My character Seb in Drawing with Light is closely based on a certain real person (he’ll never know! Sigh …). And I agree with Bridget that there is an intensity about YA fiction, because that’s how you experience things as a teenager, whether the emotion is love, or terror, or boredom, or your passion for changing the world or being totally different to your parents…
And when you’re writing it...?
Bridget: I think we touched on pace last week, and if there is one great divider between YA and adult fiction, I think it’s that. Not exactly narrative tension – I think you always need to believe that something is going to happen, no matter what kind of book it is – but the way it’s created. In short, I suppose in YA books more needs to happen, faster! When I say “more” I don’t mean that everything should be more extreme, necessarily: I know Julia mentioned I Capture the Castle last week, and in a lot of ways it’s a very gentle book, full of conversations and meetings and odd little events. But it’s never slow, or heavy, and in that sense I think it’s a great piece of YA fiction. In my newest novel, Tyme’s End, I tried to emulate that – part of Tyme’s End is a love story, and I wanted to keep it moving, create that sense of something unfolding, moment after moment, without ever coming to a stop... In the (adult) book I’m writing now I’m letting myself take more time on things, dwell a bit more on the “literary” bits, and go more for the slow burn. The main consequence seems to be the length – it’s 20,000 words longer than my YA novels!
Julia: Well, the things ‘happening’ in my YA novels aren’t the external, action–type things like car chases and terrorist bombs: they are the emotions and thoughts, the inner lives of my characters, the powerful and life-changing choices they make, the relationships and ‘stuff’ of real life, which I find fascinating and important and extraordinary myself. Those are the sort of novels I read now as an adult, and which I loved to read when I was a teenager. But there has to be a page-turning quality too, I absolutely agree about that. And a lightness of touch. It’s quite a subtle thing.
Is it possible to write well for more than one age-group?
Bridget: I certainly hope so! I’ve just started writing an adult novel, and so this is a question which I’ve been thinking about a lot. When you’re used to writing for one age-group it can be hard to transfer successfully to another, and I’m very conscious of that. To an extent, of course, you make adjustments in your writing style, by instinct, because you have a clear idea of your book in your head, and you already know that it is a YA book (or an adult book, or whatever). But on the other hand, writing habits can be hard to break, and things which are really important in one genre can be a lot less important in another. I think most writers, to be honest, are better at one than the other – although a great exception is Penelope Lively, who is brilliant in both – but even if you’re not quite as good, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. And the experience of writing will always help in some ways, even if you have to make adjustments.
Julia: I’m sure it’s possible. I’ve written for much younger readers, aged about 6, so it reflects the reality and sensibility of a child that age and is much more simply and directly written. It’s very short, too. My new book for 8 -12 year olds inhabits an imaginative space that I think is the particular territory of a child of that age, before teenage sets in. That story was a delight to write, and allowed me more freedom in some ways. I found it easier to move between the ‘real’ and the ‘fantasy’ elements.
Is it about “making allowances” for teenage readers?
Bridget: Not exactly, any more than it’s about “making allowances” for child readers. Teenage books are not automatically any less serious or thought-provoking than adult books, it’s just that they have different conventions, that they usually cater for readers with a different set of priorities. But teenagers aren’t any less demanding or intelligent than adults! There’s often this idea among novice writers that children’s (or YA) fiction is a good way to serve your apprenticeship, before going on to write “proper” books... Actually, YA books are definitely not easier to write – and I’m not just saying that because I write them! (Incidentally, it’s also a bit of a fallacy to assume that YA readers are only ever going to be reading YA fiction – when they read YA fiction, it’s because they choose to, because it’s what they feel like reading.)
Julia: Yes, teenage readers are very demanding and completely intelligent, of course. They seem to be more open than many ‘adult’ readers, especially in the way they cross genres. It’s good the way booksellers have a ‘teenage’ and/or ‘young adult’ section that isn’t, so far, divided by genre such as ‘thrillers’ or ‘science fiction’ or ‘literary fiction’. That may well come, however: there is a new sub-section called ‘Dark Romance’ in Waterstones. Writing for children and young adults is certainly not ‘easier’ than writing for adults. It makes huge and different demands on a writer, which is why there is a separate MA at Bath Spa University for Writing for Young People, running alongside the Creative Writing MA. We do have to be aware that our audience is not, ultimately, someone the same age as ourselves.