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.

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.