Writing For Young Adults

Welcome to Part 11, the penultimate of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: A.j. Ponder (as moderator), Katya de Becerra, Darie Little Badger, and Joe Struss. The panel description was as follows:

Does writing for young adults differ from other writing? In what ways?  How do writers approach it? What are some examples — from classics and from the panelists own work?

In the modern publishing industry, YA is a booming and, for now, a seemingly ever growing market. Despite the huge variety found within the category, there are two unifying requirements:

  1. The age of the point-of-view (POV) character needs to be young adult themselves, typically sixteen to maybe nineteen.
  2. The story must address issues that are important to young adults – such as coming of age, starting their independent lives, and establishing their own identities.

    While these themes can be explored in adult literature, those characters are often dealing with the aftermath of the decisions they made as young adults and the shape of the lives those decisions created.

Why is all the best literature YA and what makes it so great?

Obviously, we can’t list all the reasons, but here are some of the ones that easily sprang to mind for the panelists.

  1. YA literature is targeted toward teens as they’re growing and changing, and can be a formative part of their growth.
  2. YA literature is often about characters who are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and that sort of growth makes for good stories. Stories are almost always about change.
  3. It has a great source of variety and diversity.
  4. There is a lot of space for experimentation in YA, with the genre expectations less strict
    • Graphic novels
    • Horror stories within a story
    • Epistolary – which is more texting than letters and newspaper clippings these days.
  5. Books can help model ways of handling things teens are going through, in a way that’s removed enough to not be traumatic, nor preachy. They can help with topical matters, trauma, depression, anxiety, and more.
  6. Dystopian YA shows that you can stand up to huge systems and make a difference — it’s an empowering message

What are the limits on cursing, sex, gore, violence, etc within YA?

It’s continually evolving. It used to be, you couldn’t use the ‘f’ word. And then you could use it once.

For the rest? It can be there, as long as it’s there for a story reason, not just for shock value, titulation, or gore’s sake. Consider your audience and write it in a meaningful way.

Mistakes To Be Wary Of

Of course, with writing, if you do it well enough, nothing is truly a mistake. But, these are things you may want to avoid:

  1. Chasing trends – the market fluxuates and your story may come after the enthusiasm has died down, especially if you’re being traditionally published, a process that can take years.
  2. Giving up too soon – publishing is a hard business, but perseverance can take you a long way. Maybe your road to success is your fifth manuscript, or your 200th agent query, or your twelth re-write, or self-publishing. But, you’ll never know if you give up.
  3. Not reaching out and hanging out with better writershaving a supportive group of writers you can call on is so helpful during the process. Having good friends who are better writers can only push you to reach their levels.
  4. Not being open to constructive criticism
    • CAVEAT – Constructive criticism from people you trust. BEFORE the work is published. After it’s published, it’s no use to you and will only make you second guess yourself.
    • There is very little to glean from negative reviews, unless you have structural or sensitivity issues. It’s best just to not read reviews. Or have a friend only forward the ones they think you need to see.
  5. Not writing things you enjoy or not using a voice that works for you and/or the story
  6. Not reading widelywhile you shouldn’t chase trends, you should know the shape of your market, and reading outside your genre just broadens you.
  7. Not doing your teen research – A lot of writers these days have teens magically loving 80s music and pop references. While there are some teens who do, they’re not the norm, and the trend is a bit overdone these days. Also, you have writers ignoring technology. If you’re doing a contemporary story, pay attention to the apps teens are using, how they’re using them, current slang, and more. These things become outdated quickly.
  8. Overdoing the angsty teen stereotype – Okay, this one wasn’t in the panel, but I skipped that phase, myself. (Right, Mom?) And when done poorly, it makes it hard to connect to the whiny main character.

YA stories these days run the gamut of genres and intensity, just like the true lives of teens themselves.

If you’re writing for teens, just be careful. With the popularity of YA books amongst adults, more and more YA books have main characters that teens often claim sound like adults. Keep the teen perspective in mind and write for the intended audience — or age your character up and just do an adult novel.


Do you enjoy YA novels? What are your favorites?

Have you written a YA novel? What did you find to be your biggest struggles?


P.S. Over on my podcast, this week’s episode is : How To Write? You Do You!

There are more ways to write a novel than there are writers — and what worked last time, may not work this time. In this episode, I talk about all the advice out there — and ways you can use and adapt them to work for you.

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