Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Novels

by Nora Raleigh Baskin

I didn’t start out writing for children. Like many of my fellow young adult/middle-grade authors, I spent quite a few years (five) writing adult fiction before getting published. Then a well-intentioned woman in a writing course made the unwelcome suggestion that I consider writing for children. Hey, just because I wrote about children didn’t mean I was relegated to writing for children.

But after a good cry, I went home and gave it a try. I soon began getting my first handwritten, personal—and helpful—rejections. It took a lot of work, a couple of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conferences, and a children’s writing critique group until I finally found the right combination of what had been brewing inside me.

Here are six lessons I learned about writing for young adults:

Get the POV right. I don’t just mean first person or second person, but from what point in time is your narrator speaking? In writing for young adults, do not write as an adult looking back. The perspective needs to be immediate. A teenage character can look back on his younger years, but he cannot have an adult’s wisdom gained from hindsight. This is harder than it seems. It requires truly putting yourself in the teenage mind and often not caring much at all about the grown-up world.

Make sure your character’s age suits your audience. The age of the protagonist in YA novels will likely be the age of your intended reader. Kids will read up but not down; they will pick up a book about a kid a few years older than they are but not the other way around. Therefore, middle-grade novels tend to deal with middle-school-age characters and young-adult novels deal with high school-age characters. However, most high-school students read adult books, so the real audience for YAs is seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. The important thing, again, is not to have an adult perspective, not to “look back” and reflect on the emotion or the situation. Your character needs to learn, grow and change during the course of the novel from the events she is experiencing in the book. (This is how YA novels differ from novels for adults that feature an adolescent protagonist.)

Figure out the voice, and the language will follow. Sentence structure, vocabulary, and even plot structure in a middle-school novel will be more complex than a chapter book, but perhaps not as complicated as a YA. Do not dwell on this while writing your first draft, though. Find the right voice, and the right language will follow. If you have to consider if a word or sentence structure is right for your book, chances are you haven’t nailed the voice yet. Don’t talk down to your reader. There is very little (if any) difference in the language of a YA novel than an adult one.

Touchy Subjects
Don’t shy away from touchy subjects. Pretty much any issue goes these days in terms of what is appropriate for young-adult fiction. As a general rule, middle-grade fiction will not actively involve sex or drugs. For young-adult novels, there are no bounds in terms of topic; you can write about sexuality, homosexuality, abuse, drunk driving, incest or rape. But it is not about finding an issue and then creating a story around it. It is about finding the right voice, finding the right character, and telling his story.

Don’t get preachy. “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” This quote, often attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, says it all. Nobody wants to be taught lessons when they are reading fiction. Never is this truer than in writing for young adults. Writers do not need to answer questions, only raise them. Certainly your views and opinions will peek through your narrative, but do not enter this special contract between reader and writer with the intention of changing someone’s mind or preaching. Teenagers have radar for this, and the voice will feel inauthentic because—well, it will be.

Hopeful Endings
Write hopeful endings. For the most part, young-adult novelists leave their readers with hope, if only a glimmer, despite whatever grim action came before. Adult novels, while dealing with the same issues, can leave a reader utterly sad, even completely bereft. But in writing for young adults there still seems to be a sense of responsibility—not to drill in lessons and give warnings, but to allow for possibility. Let your readers believe that in the end the power, the choice, is theirs.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.