YA Futures

YA is big and has been since the late 90s. But the future today doesn’t look like it did even 10 or 20 years ago. What does YA science fiction readers want today?

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, I had the opportunity to listen to the top professionals in the field discuss what they see coming. On the panel were Charlie Jane Anders, James Smythe, Eric Picholle, Fonda Lee, and Kristina Perez.

3 Things That Don’t Fit In the YA Science Fiction of Today

  1. A sense of inevitable progress
    The golden-age of science-fiction brought us flying cars and space cities. From the Jetsons to Star Trek, optimism for a better world was writ large in our stories.

    These days, we’re making our dreams a little more down to earth.
  2. Angst
    The 90s and 00s taught us that angst and cynicism were ‘grown up’ and ‘mature’. Spoiler: they not. And teenage angst when written by adults, far too often turns into teenage melodrama.
  3. Space
    With the advent of the space race, sf writers assumed our future was out amongst the stars. These days, we’re looking at our own planet and resources.

    Space, right now, is a hard-sell in YA.

10 Things In YA Science-Fiction Today

  1. Social issues
    You don’t have to evaluate them, but they should be in there.

    Related? Teens don’t need as much hand-holding or explanations when dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, versus adult readers.
  2. Near future
    Where we might be in 20 years, not 100 or a 1,000.
  3. Taking the brakes off
    With YA, you can turn emotions up to 11. As a writer, you can delve into your own neuroses and baggage and trauma on the page.
  4. Hope
    The reign of dystopia is changing. The future looks bleak and people are looking for hope.
  5. AI
    Even if we’re not there yet, we’re getting really close to being able to fake true artificial intelligence. I would say some robots are pretty close to dog-level intelligence at this point.

    And then? There’s always “the singularity”, when the first artificial intelligence becomes self-aware.
  6. Genetic Manipulation/Trans-humanism
    The science is there. It’s time to explore the moral and ethical quandaries inherent.
  7. Fun Adventures
    Doing stuff with friends to fix things, save someone or something, or just wild hijinks!
  8. Hackers
    Hackers are more and more becoming the heroes of the story.
  9. Online Friendships
    Friends aren’t always local these days. Plenty of friendships have started or moved online as distance becomes less of a constraint.
  10. Mixed media
    With text conversations and real world descriptions, mixed media storytelling is getting bigger.

Clearly, as we don’t actually have any time-travel machines, these are all guesses and YA trends change faster than any other genre.

Let me know what you think is coming for YA. Did the panelists get it right?


As always, thanks for reading and I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

“Coming of Age” versus YA

Now that YA (young adult) novels are such a large part of the book landscape, it can be a challenge to know where a novel fits. Coming of age stories have always been a large part of the fantasy genre in particular, but now, it can be hard to know where to draw the line between YA and Adult novels.

On the titular panel at Balticon 53, Lisa Padol, Leah Cypess, Jean Marie Ward, Ken Altabef, and RR Angell discussed ways to sort out the confusion.

In days of yore, there wasn’t this issue. There was the children’s section — divvied up by reading level, and the adult section — divvied up by genre. But, with the emergence of the YA market, most famously heralded by JK Rowling, the distinction got a lot fuzzier.

What Is A Coming Of Age Story?

Before we can decide if a coming of age story is Adult or YA, we need to define what a coming of age story is.

It’s a character on the cusp of becoming.

The character has to grow, to change, and to find a life that suits their new self. Be it a high schooler graduating, an apprentice slaying that dragon, or a teacher retiring, a story focusing on the transition to the next stage of one’s life is almost always a coming of age story.

6 Ways To Tell If Your Coming Of Age Novel Is YA or Adult

There are a few key things that help determine if your coming-of-age novel should be in the adult section or will find a better home in the YA section.

  1. The length
    • adult should be over 70,000 words
  2. The voice
    • YA should have a genuine teen voice — not necessarily snarky!
    • YA is more often 1st person POV (point of view)
    • YA has faster pacing
  3. The story’s focus
    • Adult novels handle more adult issues
      • aging parents
      • kids
      • jobs
      • etc
    • YA novels typically focus on a single week/month/year. Adult novels are typically more open to a longer time frame. (added thanks to Dal Cecil Runo‘s insightful comment on my vlog version of this post.)
  4. The character’s relationship with authority
    • YA typically has teens breaking away from what was once their authority figures (parents/etc)
  5. Sentence structure
    • Adult tends to dwell more on detail
    • Adult tends to have a higher reading level
      • Reading level is calculated based on some formula including syllables per average word and sentence length.
  6. Where does the marketing department think it’ll do better?

YA Without “Coming Of Age”

YA isn’t just coming of age novels!

  1. The main character learning the truth about their world — or their self
  2. There’s a partial coming-of-age, but the character doesn’t fully come into their own
    • Instead of ‘happily ever after’, there’s a ‘happy for now’ feel
  3. In series novels, especially mysteries, the main character doesn’t usually change. Instead, they follow the genre story template.

Hopefully, these tips can help guide you down the narrow line betwixt and between the two.

One final thought – as a warning for those of us who are writing what we think is YA as adults: teens are SICK of ‘adults in kid-suits’ thinking things teens wouldn’t and the whiny/emo teen is overdone.

We need to represent teens more authentically, or leave it to those who are teens or still close to their teens.


What are YOUR favorite coming of age novels?
Let me know if they’re YA or Adult — and why!

Are there any differentiators I missed or the panel didn’t have time to address?

Image of all the panelists sitting in a row at a table.