Getting YA right

3 June 2013

Writing young adult (YA) fiction is a complicated business. Not only do I need to worry about getting the tone and dialogue right, but the story needs to be topical and entertaining enough to hold a young reader’s interest.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. It’s the best job in the world. But there’s a lot of thought that goes into the process.

Young adult fiction can never be patronizing and it can’t focus too much on issues at the expense of the plot. If it’s too childish it becomes Middle Grade, not YA. If it’s too edgy it becomes New Adult, or Crossover. If it’s too short it becomes a novella.

To some critics, violence is good, as it speaks to the realities that many young people face every day. Some critics say violence is bad as it can affect sensitive readers negatively. Sex is good. Sex is bad. Adverbs are always bad.

The novel must be fast-paced. It can always use more tension. It must be thrilling enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, but a chapter must never, ever end with a prognostication. Is there enough action? Should I cut the scenes where nothing is happening? But then how will the reader know the character’s state of mind?

(Is your mind reeling yet?)

The protagonist must be likable. What roles do the secondary characters play? Are they developed enough? Have I alienated the parents too much? Should I kill them off or is that a cliché?

Sigh. As a writer I have to think about these factors all the time. But none of these questions count as the one, all-important question.

Will this book change someone’s life?

When I was kid I would spend hours in other worlds, devouring other people’s words to feed my imagination. I lived and breathed books. Sometimes a book would be so amazing that I would stay up all night reading it, and then refuse to sleep so that I could relive scenes over and over again in my head. (Do you remember queuing at midnight for the next Harry Potter?)

What do you call that feeling when a book becomes all-consuming?

That’s my main goal when I sit down to write a novel, but at the same time it’s the most difficult thing to achieve. There is no formula or checklist to make a reader fall in love with your book. Sometimes I wonder if the writer has any control over this at all.

Does the magic lie in the characters, the setting, or both? In Twilight, Stephanie Meyer makes Forks sound like a romantic winter wonderland. But then again, kids don’t love the books because it rains all the time in Forks.

Does the answer lie in fantasy? Is it that escapist quality that holds the key? Not necessarily. I toppled headfirst into The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson which doesn’t count as fantasy.

Perhaps the answer is in the writing itself, coupled with the reader’s personal preference. In that case, what can you as a writer do?

Whenever a beta reader tells me they love my book, or a good review comes in, I always wonder if the reader had that wonderful connection that I was hoping for. Would they tell me? Should I ask?

I never ask.

Sometimes I’ll receive an email from someone describing how much they related to the book. These moments are worth more than royalties and advances. They’re little gold nuggets of confidence, and the more I receive the more I think that I’m on the right track.

That’s all any of us want, isn’t it?

What are the factors that make you fall in love with a book?

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