Many adult writers have decided to give young adult fiction a shot. They come to YA with formidable writing skills, but even so, the transition can be rough. If your background is in writing for adults and you’re seeking to make a switch to YA, my tips below are here to help make your journey smoother.
When I was in grade school, I’d proudly finish a story only to be engulfed by shame, realizing the extent to which I’d imitated whatever writer I was currently most into (L.M. Montgomery, Diana Wynne-Jones, and Robin McKinley come to mind).
Much later, when I was writing my own book, it dawned on me that my imitations were a normal step on the path of becoming a good writer and that all that reading had really been necessary for me to understand on a deep level how young adult fiction works.
Reading tons of YA will help you start to internalize its rules, traditions, and customs better than any blog post. When it comes time to write the first pages of your YA novel, you’ll be starting from an informed place if you do your reading.
2. THE VOICE
A former Writers House colleague once told me that voice was the defining difference between YA and adult. I wasn’t quite sure what “voice” meant at that time.
What I’ve learned since: Being unafraid to express feelings and emotions. Making jokes and having distinctive slang are often aspects of a strong, unique voice. An example of a book with a snappy, expressive voice is M.T. Anderson’s Feed. There can be quiet voices, though–Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time comes to mind.
And strong voice, when spoken of in YA, almost always means a first-person narrator.
Young adult readers want to really root for and identify with a narrator. A strong voice answers a need in them for human connection and understanding. The typical YA strong voice makes personality paramount (often the writer’s personality masquerading as the narrator’s).
3. AGE IS MORE THAN A NUMBER
This may seem like a gimme, but to someone making the switch, it’s not so obvious: YA characters should be in their teens—around fourteen to eighteen. When people approach me with characters who are nineteen or twenty-one, I recall Britney Spears’ “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman.” And that song’s relatively mediocre charting. The rise of NA (New Adult) addresses the fact that there is an opening in the marketplace for novels targeting this age group (roughly nineteen to twenty-five), but it’s yet to be seen if this hip, new category will survive.
4. BEDROOM AND BATTLEFIELD
Yes, sex can happen and so can violence, but there are tighter boundaries for what’s acceptable in young adult fiction than in adult fiction. Sex is not going to be explicit, if it happens at all. A lot of characters in YA are virgins. Similarly, violence occurs in YA–Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has made that clear–but it’s not going to be very close up or gruesome, compared to adult fare. Bethany Griffin’s Handcuffs handles teen sexuality very well, as do the books mentioned in my blog post on my favorite young adult romances.
You also might want to ask—if this were a movie, would it be PG-13 or R? It should probably lean closer to PG-13.
Before writing a sexy or violent scene, take a moment to remind yourself of the vantage point of the character you’re writing–a huge part of writing from a teen’s point of view is incorporating the fact that she is not only experiencing something, she is experiencing it for the first time.
YA fiction–whether it’s romance, sci-fi, realistic, etc.–tends to be faster paced than adult novels. You want to focus on hooking in the reader right away and getting the plot galloping along. Writers coming from commercial adult backgrounds may feel they have an edge over their literary peers when it comes to making dynamic plots—and they may be right. But both groups should mindful as they write that readers of young adult fiction many times would rather have characters stomping over the roses, plucking off their petals, or questing to deliver the flowers over the deadly dull activity of smelling them.
Have you transitioned from adult writing to young adult fiction? Feel free to share lessons you’ve learned in the comments.