Writing for Young Adults (YA)

12th October 2020
7 min read
Guide to Writing for Children & YA

One of the most rewarding but complex areas of writing, the teenage and YA market is as varied as any other but it poses its own challenges. As a category, it includes books for 11-13 year-olds (Clean YA), books for the 14-16 age group and ‘crossover’ books, which appeal to both YA and adult readers.

The subject matter and how this is treated is what differentiates the books in each age range. Similarly, the difference between older middle grade books and YA lies almost entirely in content; YA books are not necessarily longer but the ideas and subject matter can be more complex and often deal with aspects of life that would be entirely unsuitable for pre-teens. YA novels frequently feature characters looking within themselves and thinking about identity and life choices as well as all of the other issues that affect the emotions and experiences of emerging adults.

YA novels encompass almost every genre; science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, crime, romance, historical and realism. The main focus is the young person and their concerns, so unless it involves their parents and thus directly impacts on their lives, subjects such as mortgages, divorce, old age and associated problems or high finance are not likely to be of interest. This does not mean that they are narrow in outlook or possibility – quite the reverse, in fact. YA books often feature a deep consideration of many bigger world problems explored in fictional terms, including subjects in as wide a range as ecology, war, refugees, cults, and serious illness, but also consider personal issues such as body image and the full range of interpersonal relationships.

What most YA novels do best, and in my opinion so much better than many adult novels, is grab the reader’s attention and hold it, with little waffling or self-indulgent writing in the middle, because the best YA writers know that it would lose them readers. 

Many YA novels are written from a first-person perspective, because it puts the reader immediately in touch with the main character, hearing their voice. In some ways, it is a natural way to start since often teenagers feel that the whole world does (or should!) revolve around them, and until something bad happens they may have little thought as to the consequences of their actions.

The first-person viewpoint gets the reader immediately inside the character’s head, observing the world as they do. This does have a drawback, though, if the character’s narrow interpretation of what is happening is fl awed or if the writer wants to show something happening elsewhere in the story.

To write in any character’s POV, you need to know that character well and their voice must be distinctive. I often begin by letting the character rant at me about whatever they want. I know that sounds a little strange, but try it; it works. I start to write with whatever comes to mind, not stopping to think too hard, and once they talk to me I  ‘discover’ all sorts of things about them. It might go something like this:

'I hate my sister, really I do. She is the most irritating person on this earth, greedy and totally self-centred, but if anyone tries to hurt her they’ll have to come through me first. And that means Godfrey, my step-dad, especially him. But if she goes through my emails one more time I’ll… ’ 

Having the character complain and get annoyed helps me get a sense of what matters in his life and also it often gives me ideas about the plot, which is good since I am not a planner. It is even more important to get the ‘sound’ of a character right if you decide to have more than one POV in a story, because if the characters don’t sound different enough, the reader will get confused and eventually lose interest in the story. 

In Spider, I have three different characters speaking in the first person: Spider; his friend, Andy; and Deanna, his new girlfriend. Spider has been caught stealing cars and joyriding, but is trying to stop as he has a lot to lose if he gets sent to prison. He is persuaded by Deanna to go on one last ‘ride’, and with Andy they steal a car, ending up in a horrendous crash. I also used the third-person POV for times when I needed to follow the only adult main character, a detective, because I wanted the reader to see him less personally. It can be tricky for a reader to handle all these different points of view so I asked the publisher if we could have slightly different typefaces for each of the three main characters, as a subconscious hint to the reader.

Architect or gardener, planner or pantser?

Whatever you call it, whether you plan or not is a personal choice and I would suggest you try both and find out what works best for you: there is no right or wrong way and each book might be different for you. 

Despite not being a planner myself, I usually have an idea of what is going to happen at the end of a book; it might not be in detail, but at least I have something to aim for. Sometimes I will even write a scene close to the end, especially if I can ‘see’ it in my head. When this happens, by the time I get to that part of the book it usually fits in, with just a little editing. With Dead Boy Talking, I was not sure whether Josh would live or die, but by the time I got there I knew what felt right; if you read it, you can decide for yourself. Not being a planner does cause problems, sometimes, though, especially when I was writing my third YA novel, a kind of detective story. 

If you want to hide something from your readers, be careful not to give away even small clues, inadvertently. As I mentioned above, Don’t Judge Me is about a fire but it is also about the four young people who are suspected of starting it. I wrote the entire book not being sure who or what had caused the fire, and it took me rather a long time to puzzle it out while I was writing because I kept changing my mind. Despite that, it worked out well because many readers have told me they too had not worked out who did it until the very end of the book. For me, too much planning takes the joy out of discovering what the story is, but it doesn’t work like that for everyone. Do what feels right for you and your book.

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