Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Not To Write YA

It's no secret that YA (young adult) is kind of a hot genre right now. There are a lot of people trying to get in on the fun. It's interesting to me that people are choosing to write in the genre just because of that. I'm one of those hippies who thinks everyone has a "right" genre for them, that you can't just hop genres without a lot of relearning and work. There's no way I could write a thriller just because the market is hot, ya know?

Anyway, there are some people that think weird things about writing for teens. Actually, I'm not even sure they are consciously thinking it, but it comes off that way in their writing or how they talk about the genre. It's subtle, but it makes all the difference. Let's look at a few.

1. Overusing "Teen Speak"
Of course there's room for a little slang, but it's wrong to think that you can turn your book YA by making all the characters talk like they lived in the Sweet Valley High books or Clueless. Beyond the fact that it's kind of annoying even to teenagers, you run the risk of coming off very fake.

Why? Because teens are constantly changing their language. Every year there will be a new hot word, a new phrase parents don't get, etc. Slang also varies a lot based on region and even clique. I still remember moving to Utah and people laughing their heads off when I said "hecca tight." Oh, those were the days.

Also, not every teen speaks like that—you are using a stereotype. And teens really hate being stereotyped. It would be like writing every American with a Southern accent.

2. "Dumbing Down"
I think a lot of YA writers find this one particularly enraging. Believe it or not, there are people out there who think you have to write "simply" for teens and their "smaller" minds. Simpler plot lines, more straight forward characters, nothing to make their brains hurt. I'm getting a little ticked just thinking about it.

Uh, do you remember what you read in high school English? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure The Scarlet Letter is NOT on the list of easy reads.

Teens hate being talked down to, and they can spot it from twenty miles away, I tell ya. I had a teacher once who talked like we were in kindergarten, and I remember all my friends saying the same thing, "What, does she think we're six?" We hated her just based on that.

Also, teens are smart. And teens who love to read are even smarter. If you're planning to write a book for "dummies," you are writing for the wrong audience.

3. Straight Up Moralizing
Teens are like most people—they don't want to read a book that forces its views on them—but it seems like some people want to write for teens to teach them how they should be. Sure, in some niches you can get away with that. In general, not so much. Teens are very aware that reality rarely matches up to the ideal and they will call you on it.

That doesn't mean you can't have messages—it just means the book can't be solely about that message. First and foremost it needs to be a great story with compelling characters. Not a tale on the hazards of insert-awful-thing-teens-do-here. If there's an awesome message, yay, but don't shove it down my throat, ya know?

4. Too Influenced By Teen Pop Culture
Seriously, not every teen loves or acts like Hannah Montana, etc. Once again, this is a stereotype of one aspect of teen culture. I will bet you cookies that there are teens who despise Hannah Montana and everything she stands for. It's like assuming every teen girl out there watches Gossip, I'm positive that's not true no matter how popular the show is.

And speaking of Gossip Girl, not every teen is wildly having sex, either. And high school today is so not like High School Musical. Copying what you see isn't going to get you there—you have to go deeper and understand why these things are successful.

Of course there is room for pop culture in the YA market—but it is NOT the whole market, not by a mile. And there has to be an authenticity that you can't quite capture from solely imitating pop culture.

So, if writing YA isn't any of this (and believe me it's not), then what is it? I'm going to attempt the answer, at least for me personally, tomorrow. Yeah, wish me luck.


  1. I totally agree with all of it. I have a teenage boy and their vernicular changes weekly.

  2. I agree about the dumbing down. I have a six year old nephew, and I can't even get away with dumbing things down for him. He calls me on it. Even if he doesn't understand what I'm talking about, he prefers that I speak normally.

  3. How do you come up with so many awesome posts? Envy.

  4. "Hekka tight" lol! I got laughed at by the guys I work with because I say dude all the time. I grew up in California and never lost the habit. I still say it. A few other dribs and drabs of surfer dude speak pop out occasionally, too, confusing the locals.

    Very thoughtful post. It's true that you can both limit the shelf life of a book and label yourself a pretender if you use the wrong slang or too much of the current stuff. "So" and "Like" are really overused, but they are still useful at this point in time, even for adult-oriented stories.

  5. I write MG and can relate to this post. People find out I'm a writer and are interested and then find out I write for children and suddenly lose interest. Why? It is just as challenging...they don't get it, I guess.

  6. You know I agree with you on this on. :)

    Honestly, if all YA books were like that, I wouldn't want to write it.

    Great post.

  7. Amen!

    Speaking as a young adult, I hate shallow, bubbly, empty-calories books. I can't stand shows like Gossip Girl, Hannah Montana, and High School Musical and I absolutely abhor books in which the biggest conflict is what dress to wear to prom. I want serious books. And you're right, we teen people can spot artificial slang from a long way away. My take is, use it right or don't use it at all. It's annoying.

    Anyway, great post. I may be stealing the idea for a post of my own in the next few days. :)

  8. WW, I say "dude" all the time! And I did grow up in No. Cali. I can't kick the habit, hehe.

    Tess, some people really, really don't get it. Sorry they aren't acknowledging your awesomeness. Btw, I heard you live close to me;) We should chat sometime.

    Jenna, yay! I'm glad I got something right:) Thank you so much for your perspective!

  9. I read this book, the alchemyst (or alchemist- he spells it different ways) that must have been dumbed down, because I got really frustrated by it. Does anyone know a teen who has read that one? I want to know what a real teen thought of it.

  10. Finally, someone said it!

    As a teenager, I usually throw those books against walls. Why can't I read literature? Why am I expected to read stupid "Valley Girl" books? Don't even get me started on TV shows!

    I write YA and one of my goals is to not sound like those examples. Bleh!

  11. Mariah, I never wanted to read those books either. I guess some do, since they're out there, but there definitely needs to be variety. I think more now than ever there are great YA books out there:)

  12. Madeleine L'Engle was often frustrated with the misconception that people write for children because they aren't good enough to write for adults. She said that, if anything, writing for children is harder. Children (teens included, though I know they're not children) can see through the crap much better than adults.

    A Wrinkle in Time got rejected repeatedly because it was supposedly too difficult for children to understand.

  13. You've hit the nail on the head about the language — how to keep it all young and fresh and cutting edge without deploying hip phrases that will perish before the book is even published.

  14. I found your blog following a link on twitter - wow, what a gold mine. I went straight to your posts on YA. You've hit something key here - young people are smarter than they are often given credit for (your point about Nathanial Hawthorne and the level of what they study in school is spot on).

    I write YA and work with young people in several capacities - i am so impressed with the teenagers i meet. I wrote a post about how it comes down to this: loving them, and in loving them, taking the time to know them, to get them.