Thursday, May 21, 2009

How To Write YA

Yesterday I talked about How Not To Write YA, which is pretty easy in comparison to what I'm going to attempt to do today. I already know I'm insane for trying to write this post, and yet I want to give it a try anyway.

I've heard some stuff floating around out there about what YA is and how it should be written. Short answer—it depends. Of course it depends. I can't really tell you how to write your YA book—so much works in the market. But if you are going to write and succeed in the YA genre, the most important thing is understanding what makes something YA.

What makes a story YA? People make the mistake of thinking YA is super trendy. Maybe on the surface it is, but you have to look deeper. I'm only twenty-five, and the world has already changed since I was a teen. My friends, for the most part, didn't have cell phones, etc. That doesn't mean I can't write it. Most YA writers are in their 30s, no? If you're chasing trends, you aren't seeing the ultimate vision of YA.

Keep in mind this is one amateur writer's opinion, but a YA book isn't just a book about teenagers. It's a book about the essence of what it is to be adolescent, if that makes sense. This is why more than just current teens can relate to YA—we've all been there. The core themes in YA are timeless, human issues we all face.

And by issues I'm not talking sex, drugs, and alcohol. I'm not even talking teen pregnancy, depression, and abuse. While I'm at it let's throw out getting your license, going to prom, and the first date. Those are just reflections of the core issues all teens must come to terms with as human beings.

What issues am I referring to? I'm referring to the essence of adolescence:

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

There are lots of questions that stem from these, but it really boils down to these two, I think. This is why the YA genre is so vast and diverse—there are about a million different answers to those two questions, aren't there? And about a bajillion different ways to arrive at those answers. At the very heart, every YA book you read will be about the triumphs and mistakes of a teen discovering who they are and where they fit.

Adolescence is a time of incredible, fun, awful, scary, painful, joyous firsts. It's about discovering the world and where you fit in it. It's about learning the wonderful and terrible aspects of humanity. It's about life in its purest, most emotional form, when everything is new and intense and downright confusing.

This, for me, is what makes a story YA.

Let's look at a few classic and contemporary examples. Of course there are a ton of other themes that join this one in YA, but you'll most likely find "identity" near the heart of the MC's inner conflicts.

The Giver: Jonas lives in a "perfect" society and is chosen as the community's Receiver of Memories. The rest of the book is essentially him coming to grips with his identity and what it means.

Harry Potter: The entire series is about Harry dealing with his role as "the chosen one."

Twilight: Bella doesn't feel like she belongs in her world—she wants desperately to be part of another, one that she does feel like she belongs in.

A Wrinkle In Time: Meg sticks out, she's awkward, she doesn't belong. She learns to come to terms with that.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian: Junior is one thing—he wants to be something else. He straddles two worlds, which does he really belong to?

I could go on forever—every YA book has this theme somewhere—but I'll stop there. It's incredible that so many different stories can come out of a few common questions. Very important questions, in my opinion.

Coming into my own as a person was the hardest, most liberating processes of my life. I think that is why, as a writer, I keep coming back to adolescence, to YA. Sometimes I still find myself questioning where I fit as a person and if I really am who I think I am. It's a dang hard thing to figure out. I don't know if my stories will help others figure it out, but they have helped me understand more about myself. For that I am grateful.

In the end, I can't really tell you how to write YA—only what it is to me. Hopefully knowing the heart of the genre will help. Because it's so much more than some people make it out to be.


  1. I think you've hit it exactly. This is why some books with teens as MCs are adult books ("Pardon me while I analyze everything that's going on in psychobabble my author clearly learned from years on the therapist's couch."), and some books with older MCs fit better as YA.

    Who are we indeed ; )

  2. It gets even more interesting when you throw in superhuman/mutant/paranormal powers, and whether or not everyone else in the world may or may not have superhuman/mutant/paranormal powers.

  3. I mean here's a real life example. Just ask yourself, who am I? Where do I belong?

  4. Great post! This really fits with what YA is. Without those two questions being solved writers will hardly have an audience.

  5. Nat, so true. YA is deep and its full of emotions. Emotions we have all had at one time or another (usually in high school). And that's why YA books are so relatable. I love the genre. I love to read it. I love to write it. Your last 2 posts about it have been spot on. Thanks.

  6. It's funny, two simple questions, and yet they represent the crux of nearly every issue that every teenager faces at some point or another.

    Great post, Natalie.

  7. Great post. If you don't write these genres, it can be confusing. Can I beg to differ on one little point? I know that it's not kosher to disagree on blogs, but as a middle-grade writer, I have to say that The Giver is middle grade. That is why it got the Newbery Award. The Printz award is for YA. Also, I think Harry Potter is also middle grade...though it certainly straddles all genres.

  8. Ha, Tess, that's not really disagreeing, you're just setting me straight. You're right—technically middle grade though there is crossover.

  9. Natalie, That's a great rundown of what YA is.

  10. Natalie, this is an excellent post. I don't think you're crazy at all. You DO know what you're talking about. :D

  11. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Nick's points. I thought they were profound. (Except the first one totally steps on my next novel idea, but whatever).

  12. More seriously, I think you're right on, Natalie. I never really noticed it before. Those are also the same issues I see my teens dealing with.

    To paraphrase L'Engle again: Young Adult fiction is any book that young adults like to read. We do young adults (and fiction and ourselves) a disservice by assuming they need to read about teen protagonists who say "like" and chat on MSN all the time.

  13. Very good analysis. You really got down to the core of YA. I hope I'm dealing with those issues in my YA book. My second book is currently unclassified because of the whole age issue. My MC is 23, so I don't know if I can make it YA. It seems YA to me, but I'm just not sure...

  14. I cannot think of anything profound to add, because you already said it all. :)

  15. I do believe you have nailed it, Natalie. Excellent thoughts here.

  16. Great this and last post. I think my teen years lasted until I was 23 because I still felt like I was on that identity search. Or maybe it is because I met my husband at 23, and then I felt like not-a-teenager anymore. Yes, the themes of a YA book go so much deeper than what's on the surface. I like to refer back to my journals from teenagedom to remind myself just what questions I was asking and what I was thinking...and just how much I loved to write about boys. I mean, really.

  17. This is very, very true and although I suppose I always knew it, I never quite thought of it this way. YA is, in its essence, about those two questions. Great post!