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.

What Fanfiction Can Teach Genre Writers

Welcome to Part 10 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Susana Polo (as moderator), Brent Lambert, Ira Alexandre, Jess Weaver, and Alexandra Rowland. The panel description was as follows:

Fanfiction’s popularity continues to grow, tapping into the special creative connection between authors and fans. What is it about this literary nexus that is so fascinating and stimulating for fans? And what might authors have to learn from fans who write it?

Fanfiction, for those of you who are unfamiliar, are stories written by fans of books or television shows or movies or games or whatever, expanding or reinterpreting the stories that the author presented. The official material is known as “canon”. (One ‘n’, not talking about the large gun). Fanfic has often been seen as ‘fringe’, even within fringe genres.

Although, these days, more and more professionally published authors are admitting to having written fanfic either in the past, or present.

In fact, an Archive of Our Own (or AO3), a website that hosts fanfiction from any writer who created an account, won the Hugo in 2019 for best fan work. Fanfiction as a derivative work is definitely becoming more accepted.

What Draws People To Fanfic?

There are tons of draws for both readers and writers of fanfic to enjoy:

  • more nuanced explorations of the characters and worlds that they adore.
  • unapologetically weird stories, freed from market pressure
  • a community with a certain level of acceptance — of ‘weirdness’ and letting people do their own thing, follow their own interests, and exploration
  • a found-family sense of community
  • a way to explore “what ifs”
  • turning conventional stories into far more diverse ones, giving more people representation
  • despite some stereotypes, the quality is often on par with non-fanfic writing
  • writing stories for an already existing fanbase — original fiction has to create that fanbase from scratch
  • the pure joy of sharing something you love

Popular Fanfic Tropes

  • slash fiction –
    In the days of yore, when fanfiction was originally shared online, it would often have the names of the main characters it featured in the title with slashes between their names. Such as “Kirk/Spock” or what-have-you.

    One very popular subgenre of fanfiction arose, called “slash fiction” in which canonically straight characters were shown in non-straight relationships. This type of fanfic became very common in the days when that sort of sexual preference was hidden in the subtext, if included at all. Some of these stories were sweet crushes, some were romantic stories, and some were straight up smut.
  • characters we always see ‘saving the world’ written into calm, coffee shop sort of situations
  • slice of life stories
  • fanfic enjoys the contrast: characters from loud/action heavy stories often get quiet fanfic, while characters from quiet stories often get action heavy stories
  • cross-overs! What would happen if character from this fandom met the character from that fandom? Doctor Who and Buffy or what-have-you
  • ‘but there was only one bed’
  • friends-to-lovers
  • ‘slow burn’
  • canonically divergent – but what if X had never happened

What Can a Writer Learn From Fanfic?

The biggest thing many writers learn is how to accept constructive criticism. When you’re putting your work out there, either in its entirety, or a chapter at a time, you’re getting likes and comments and unabashed love. But, while the readers love both the source material and your stories, and honestly just want the best and most nuanced reflection of the cannon work, their comments can be biting.

Fanfic, at its heart, can also be a deep criticism of the canonical work, in prose format.

Writing Fanfic teaches:

  • besides dealing with criticism — both constructive and not
  • how characters work
  • pacing
  • what excites readers and keeps them coming back
  • it lets them experiment with voices and styles and genres
  • Plus? plenty of tough love on grammar and more

Writers and their own Fanfic Communities

Writers have historically had a fraught history with fanfic. Some writers have embraced it (see the Lovecraftian universe), some revile it, wanting complete control over their created worlds and characters, and some have done both.

Legal disputes over the original author using plots similar to those found in fanfic of their works have led many authors feeling compelled to ban others from playing in their creative worlds.

The panelists shared a story of a guy from a Marvel fanfic community who disappeared, and the community was thrilled one of their own had made it! He’d been hired to write for Marvel! But. When Marvel found out, they dropped the job offer. It can be tricky.

So. Should you read fanfiction of your own works? It might be a bad idea. Once you put your world, your stories out there? The ideas belong a little bit to every reader. The experience of their connection to your book belongs to them. And being told that your reading of a book was wrong… invalidates that experience.

In the fanfic community, there is a belief that your work lives beyond you, and can exist on a whole ecosystem of beliefs.

Two views can be valid at the same time, without invalidating one or the other. But, it can be a struggle to internalize and balance other peoples’ opinions about your works.

Of course, there are some writers who write fanfic of their own stories — things that let them explore ‘what ifs’ of taking the characters or the stories in a different direction. As one of the panelists shared, it can give you the space to be black or queer or both. It can be healing to do your own fanfic, counter-balancing all the work you have to do to be palatable to the market, and remembering what it is to write someDthing not beholden to anyone (except the ‘like’ button).


Fanfic is filling the role of folk-art in our modern culture. We have a need to communal stories and this lets us explore this. Copyright allows people to make money and to own their own story and canon.


Have you written fanfic? Have people written fanfic about your original works? Tell me about your experience!

Writing SFF From The Margins

Welcome to Part 9 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: E.J. Beaton (as moderator), Maiya Ibrahim, Michi Trota, Dr. Eugen Bacon, and Kieron Gillen. The panel description was as follows:

How do marginalised aspects of identity — gender, sexuality, culture, race, health, ability and more  — shape our creative work? How can we empower, express, and explore through writing fantasy and SF?

Politics and Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction as a whole makes it easier to explore the concepts of race, of sexuality, of disability, and — what does it mean to belong? Additionally, by placing it in a speculative setting, you can show the issues zoomed into the individual level, without making it personal — because you’re not talking about yourself directly.

Speculative fiction is all about the world building. Despite its reputation as ‘escapism’, it gives us the space to show potential worlds where people of all races, abilities, gender, and sexual orientations are accepted. It can give voice to ‘the other’, showing stories of diversity and hope. From the very beginning of the genre, it’s been used to tackle very complicated issues and concerns.

Still, there is pushback. People say that stories, that media should be entertainment, not political. So, let’s look closer.

Let’s explore who is featured in these stories and what sort of things happen to the characters? When you look deeper, you can often see a pattern of what society deems acceptable and mainstream. Yet, none of us are the ‘average person’, we all have unique challenges and skills, so reducing our stories to that is erasing the reality of what it means to be human.

When you write and create new worlds with different economies and religions — you’re exploring that. What you chose to write — and what you chose not to write says something.

If you take a look at older books, from the 1980s or the 1950s or the 1920s or the 1800s, the assumptive context presents a world view that says something about the time, the intended audience, and the culture that created that work.

In other words? Telling a story about something seen as ‘different’ is always seen as political, but upholding the status quo is, in and of itself, a political decision.

When we say that someone is ‘writing from the margins’, what does that mean?

Typically, they’re writing about an experience that is not the ‘default’ in the literary or publishing world. They’re writing about race, or gender, or country of origin, or disabilities, or … the list goes on.

But. Why are they still in the margins? Why is it still considered that?

We all know that it’s dangerous to be visible outside the margins — it makes you a target. There are accusations of pandering and forced diversity and undeserved recognition due to quotas. Any success is rationalized away from the creator, turning them into an identity statistic and a publicity stunt.

When writers stories spotlight the issue that makes them marginalized, people often focus on the issue and not their writing. They often end up pigeonholed, talking about why these issues deserve a space on the bookshelf, and what’s it like to be an X writer in the SF community.

What we need is more space for them to talk about what their situation adds to their writing, to celebrate the diversity of human experience.

Struggling with Inclusivity

Many writers who have been marginalized can find themselves even white-washing their own self-inserts, because of the influence of the dominate culture. It can be hard to go against these cultural influences.

If you are sharing your own experience, you get the chance to normalize your way of life! Your experiences! Because it can be normal for the point-of-view character — thanks to the magic of fiction.

Some people struggle when writing stories that are close to their own trauma. One suggestion is to switch from first-person to third-person point-of-view, this can pull it back a little and make the story read and write a little less immediate.

On the flip side? If you want your readers to really understand the trauma of the situation you’re writing, (assuming you can pull it off), you might want to try second-person.

For those out there who aren’t from a marginalized background, it can be hard to know what to do. If you leave out diverse characters, you’re chastised; if you get it wrong, there’s might be a mob calling to cancel your book, or worse.

The best answer I’ve heard is to include the characters. Write the characters either as tertiary, secondary, or even primary characters — but don’t have the story plot be centered around the aspect that marginalizes them. Plus, get a person (or three — they are not a monolith and have different views) from that lived experience to proof the story for you (and be willing to pay for their labor), to make sure that you’re getting them right — that you’re not falling either into stereotypes or whitewashing.

The Complexity of #OwnVoices Stories

The hashtag #ownVoices is used a lot in literary circles these days to represent stories in which the author has lived experiences with some of the struggles presented in the story, based on identity.

Using this identifier can help get past the standard “did not connect” rejection, hopefully making the agent or publisher take a step back and evaluate the reason why they didn’t connect. Is it because it’s so foreign to their own lived experience, and not a problem with the writing or story? When the agent or publisher goes in expecting a different culture and viewpoint, they may be open to a better array of stories.

But, it can be fraught to ask what aspect of the story is #ownVoices, because those are identities that can leave a writer open to attack.

Worse? There are people advertising works as #ownVoices, because they see it as a trend and a way to get ahead — without the story actually being #ownVoices.

A real question we don’t have the answer to: where is the line between gatekeeping and helping people promote their own voices.

Additionally, there’s the feeling from some publishers that if they have “one Asian” story, they don’t need another that year — despite the wide array of cultures and stories that fit under that umbrella. Or? The publisher ends up chasing trends, and showing up late to an oversaturated market.

Any work can find an audience if the publisher is willing to put in the work and the money — and that’s outside of the writer’s control. Which ends up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy (as any writer, #ownvoices or not can attest), the publisher invests no money because they don’t think there’s a huge market, because no one knows about it, and it sells poorly. And with inclusive stories, that makes it less likely the publisher will take a risk on the next inclusive story, not just that one writer.

Self-publishing is helping break down the walls, but most self-published books are fighting for an ever-shrinking margin, and it can be hard to stand out with poorly edited novellas flooding the market and losing the audience’s willingness to take a risk on an unknown author.


Writing inclusive stories is hard. Writing from the margins is often harder.

How can you make a difference? Besides including the true diversity of the human condition in your own stories? The same way you can support any writer.

Read stories by writers in the margins, review them, and tell your friends.

Constructed Languages

From Elvish to Esperanto to Dothraki to Belter

Welcome to Part 8 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: David Peterson (as moderator), Lawrence M. Schoen, Ryn Yee, and Jean Bürlesk. The panel description was as follows:

This is not a 1950s movie. The aliens don’t speak English. Fictional societies, whether on distant planets, in the far future, or in secondary fantasy worlds, will have their own languages unlike our own. These constructed languages (conlangs) can be fun–and devilishly difficult–to construct. Language experts and writers (aren’t writers language experts?) will talk about making a conlang, and how they figure into stories, from first contact to diplomacy to bargaining for your life.

How Far Should You Go?

When reading a book — like Lord of the Rings or Embassytown or watching a tv series — like Star Trek or Babylon Five, or even a movie like Arrival, even the casual fan can pick up a word or two in a constructed language (or conlang). But, from the outside-looking-in, it can be hard to determine: did the writers invent a word? Or a full language?

More importantly — if I’m writing a story, how much of this language do I need to invent? Do I need to act like Tolkien?

Well? All languages are comprised of a multitude of layers.

Layers of a Language

  1. Vocabulary — The most readily apparent. The conlang consists of words with meanings. But, let’s think about the ways the vocabulary we use reflects on us.
    • Word choice can demonstrate a particular culture (references to particular gods or rituals, expected life events, etc)
    • Word choice can also demonstrate class (“How y’all doing? versus “How do you do, today?”)
    • Words also have connotations, that may not be familiar to non-native speakers. (“My big sister” versus “my large sister”).
  2. Grammar — Most humans are designed to recognize patterns, if only to make sure they can tell when something seems ‘off’. What is grammar if not patterns of word use?
    • What order do you put your parts of speech — your nouns, verbs, adjectives, and more?
    • Do the verbs/nouns/etc change form based on other factors in the sentence? (i.e. verb conjugation based on tense or subject)
    • Punctuation (I love the Oxford comma!)

Do I Need The Whole Language Before I Can Write?

Short answer? No.

Long answer? It’s up to you. And you can always write your story and then layer the language part in.

Options for Conlangs

Treat language as world building!

  1. Opt out! Use universal translators.
    • But! Think about idioms and how poorly they translate between earth cultures. “Raining cats and dogs”.
    • Think about things that can translate content, but not intent.
  2. A few words here and there, just thrown in.
    • You can spell it either in the way that makes it more pronounceable by the majority of your audience, or stylized to give a sense of culture, (but harder to pronounce).
  3. A few sentences — an idea of the spelling of things, a form of grammar, what letters and vowels are more common in the language.
    • Try to be consistent for certain sounds. For example, pick either “ck” or “k”, and “s” or “c”. Unless there’s a cultural explanation.
  4. Give the created culture verbal ticks (“like”, “um”, etc). Plus, their own accents – both with their own language and yours.
  5. Remember those idioms? Think about what sort of hyperbolic phrases the created people’s culture might use.
  6. Have a creole language! Now, is a creole language — using part alien/ part your language easier? No. All languages have their own grammar and patterns and cultural baggage! Even dialects of your own are internally consistent.
  7. Some languages have a better vocabulary for certain concepts. Show the characters switching languages based on conversation subject matter.
    • This also means you can imply words that are too complex to be said in one (for example) English word.
  8. Next step? Think about the history of the culture. Invaders and conquests, what sort of languages got filtered in.
    • English has “beef” that comes from “cows”. How did these words get to be so different? Because “cow” is from the Germanic, while the conquering Norman (i.e. French) lords used the term “boeuf“, giving ranchers one word, and the people eating the meat another.
  9. More! What font, alphabet, pictograms, logographic, syllabaries, etc would your society use? Could it be translated into the language you’re writing in? Or not?
  10. Okay. You’ll need a glossary by now, and might be time to start thinking about a dictionary. Maybe a grammar book.

In conlang circles, the Darmock (season 5, episode 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation) is infamous. In the episode, while the translators work as usual, the culture uses references to famous (on their world) stories for many concepts.  For example, the expressions “Darmok on the ocean, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Darmok and Jalad on the ocean”, convey a sense of two opposing persons, who arrive separately at an isolated place and, forced to cooperate when faced with a fierce beast, leave together as friends.(1)

Things To Be Wary Of

  1. Science fiction and fantasy has overused the apostrophe in created names and more. Be sure you need it before using one.
  2. Is borrowing from a dying language a good idea?

    I mean, science is known for using Latin for its naming conventions.

    No. Remember those connotations and contexts we mentioned? If you’re not a native speaker, it’s easy to get those wrong. And using one language to represent an imaginary language is kinda the definition of cultural appropriation.
  3. What about using words from a real language?

    Is it because you have characters from that culture? Sure! Just make sure a native speaker reads it and makes sure it both says what you meant for it to say, and that the connotation is what you intended. (‘Big sister’ versus ‘Large sister’). Just make sure the words are there for a reason, not just window dressing.

Are you ready to start creating a language?

Have you created one in the past?

Let me know how it goes/went!

Fairy Tale Contract Law

Welcome to Part 7 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Kathleen Jennings as moderator, Sascha Stronach and AJ Lancaster. The panel description was as follows:

Our panellists consider various bargains made in fairy tales and fairy tale fantasy, and what that means for the laws of the land of fables: How could Rumpelstiltskin’s contract been enforced? What court could hold Jack (of Beanstalk fame) guilty of trespassing? When does a promise become a curse, or a quest a contract?

I love fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and creating my own, so when I saw this panel was going to happen, I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

Who Makes The Rules?

When reading fairy tales, it can be rather nebulous to determine if a law is intrinsic or something instituted by a peoples.

The power dynamic is sometimes part of the story. Who knows the rules and can enforce them (Baba Yaga or Rumplestiltskin)?

In folk horror, the rules are unclear, and the rules will come and bite you. In fantasy, the rules typically come from the author or the rulers, something a little more knowable.

Although?

The punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

Like a force of nature itself. Fairy tale contracts are a way of reassuring people — if they follow the rules, they’ll be safe.

But, the saving grace of fairy tale law is there is usually a loophole. The petty details are what keeps the capricious being from completely destroying you.

Consent Matters

While in the modern era, a contract cannot be legally binding if the signer doesn’t understand it, that rule is clearly not true in fairy tale law. Perhaps, fairy law represents a shift in culture… whether one’s word is something that can be trusted?

However, the fairies can’t demand something for nothing. In order for it to be a contract, no matter how capricious it seems, the fairy has to have given you something. This is why folks are warned not to eat or drink anything in the fae realms.

No matter how ignorant of the rules the victim of fairy tale contract law might be, the mortal has usually done something to — consciously or not — agree to the contract.

Even if they don’t believe in it themselves: think of Sarah in the movie, Labyrinth, bargaining her little brother away.

One way to get trapped is either making false claims, or having someone make them on your behalf, such as the woman in Rumpelstiltskin. Her father’s claim that she could spin straw into gold started the whole mess and dragged the titular character into the story.

But? Cheating can get you out. While the fairy folk might rant and stomp until they stomp their way out of the mortal realm, they can’t deny your win. Likely because they cheated you into this contract in the first place. But, by doing the impossible, the character is shown to deserve their prize.

Common Tropes

Firstborns are often promised in fairy tales — perhaps as a way of winning back land that the humans stole from the fairy folk? With these tales being written in a time when the first born often was the sole (or primary) inheritor.

The youngest — of three, or seven, or nine usually — is typically the one to save the day. Because, in a time where the firstborn inherits, by the time you get to the last-born, they’re expected to get by on nothing but their wits.


While fairy tale contract law can be cruel and capricious, one can usually escape if you follow the rules, and think outside the box.

What are your favorite fairy tales? What loopholes have stuck with you?