Posts Tagged ‘YA’

I was talking to a new friend at Epic ConFusion about YA and the difficulties that many newcomers to the genre (especially those writers who started in adult markets) have in identifying it. This may be the reason why we keep getting these awful panels at sf/f cons that devolve into an hour-long discussion trying to differentiate between Middle Grade and YA (even though that is not the topic) or complaining about Twilight (which has gotten to be quite old hat). In an amazing recent SF Signal roundtable (which I hope to blog about more extensively soon-ish), Malinda Lo said, “Perhaps I’m the odd one out, but I guess I don’t think the definition of YA is that hard to pin down. I feel that publishers and the YA community have a pretty clear idea of what it is, and it’s folks who are new to YA who don’t understand and often make assumptions about what it is and who reads it.” Which is exactly the problem: the YA community knows exactly what YA is, but writers from other communities? Maybe not so much.

I’ve spent the last three years reading YA (and a bit of MG on the side) voraciously, and so yes, I have a pretty clear idea of what YA is. I told my friend that many times, the place where writers go wrong when trying to write YA is the voice of their novel. When trying to quantify that more for him, I could only say, “I know it when I see it.”

While it’s nice for me to be able to know it when I see it, that assertion is problematic on a few levels. It means I can say, “No, this isn’t really a YA voice,” but then draw a blank when I have to explain why that is so (not so helpful for other writers, is it?). It also means that I can’t work as concretely on improving my own YA voice. So obviously working to analyze what YA fiction really is and breaking down the different components that contribute to a YA voice is very useful. I’ve always wanted to attend a panel titled “The Differences Between Adult and YA Fiction,” but I haven’t seen it yet. So consider this that panel, and hopefully I can encourage others who know YA well to contribute to the conversation in the comments.

Yay, reading!

So what makes YA different than adult fiction?

1. The age of the protagonist: In YA, the protagonist is almost always a teenager, theoretically 14-18 years old. In practice, I haven’t seen that many 14-year-old protags–they indicate borderline Middle Grade (which is for readers age 8-12, and these kids tend to read up) and tends to read on the youngest side of YA at best. So practically speaking, 15-18. In a novel set in the modern world or its equivalent, the protagonist is always a high schooler. The summer after high school is fair game, but anything beyond that (read: college) is usually not done (which is another post of its own).

2. POV and tense: Arguably the most trendy POV and tense in YA right now is first person present tense (although I’m seeing something of a move away from it recently). First person past tense and limited/close third person past tense are also okay. Omniscient is out of fashion just like it is in adult fiction. Most novels limit themselves to one or two POV characters. If there are two POV characters, they often (but not always) change in alternate chapters. A trend right now is to have one female and one male POV that alternate chapters.

3. Tone: YA fiction can run the gamut between very light and very dark. It’s hard to go too dark, and there are very few taboo subjects.

4. Theme: YA fiction covers many themes, but very often feature some kind of coming-of-age plot. The teenage protagonist vs. society is also very popular (hence the dystopia, for example), as are issues of identity, peer relationships, and romance.

5. Genre: The most popular genres right now are paranormal and dystopian. The dystopias are beginning to show more sf-nal elements (yay for YA in space!), but dystopias and post-apocalypses are still the most common. There are also the high fantasies and the historicals (historicals w/ fantasy elements are probably more popular than the straight ones). In contemporary, we have the “issue” books, the romances, the thrillers, and the just plain contemporary books.

6. Boy books vs. girl books: I hate that this divide exists, but it does. Boy books usually have a male protagonist, and get readers of both genders. Girl books are more likely to have a mostly female audience. Boy books tend to be more externally focused, plot focused, and full of action. They often read a bit younger to me than girl books. Girl books tend to be more internally focused and usually include a romantic element. Some books lie somewhere in the middle and are particularly awesome. For example, John Green tends to write contemporary novels with male protags who are more internally focused, and The Hunger Games has a female protag and is full of action; there is a love triangle, but it’s not the primary focus of the story. (This is also its own blog post, and a super touchy subject, so keep in mind I’m doing a fast and dirty summary, and there are many exceptions. That being said, people in the industry do talk about “boy” books, so it’s a reality in the marketplace right now.)

7. Narrative Voice

We can see from looking at the above list how critical narrative voice actually is. YA is basically a teenage character reflected in the narrative voice of the novel who is embroiled in a plot that is relevant to them. Krista Marino says, “An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.” It follows, then, that a YA novel is filtered through the immediate viewpoint of a teenager. And so much of how that viewpoint is expressed is through voice.

Next time, I’m going to break down voice into various aspects so we can hopefully gain a better understanding of what it is and how it contributes to that YA feel of “I know it when I see it.” In the meantime, please feel free to comment below and tell me your opinion: what I missed, what I got wrong, examples in current YA novels, questions, etc.

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A friend of mine wrote me awhile back and asked me if I could write a post about resources for the YA writer. I’ll admit, I was stymied. In spite of the fact that I began writing in the YA genre, and as such it is my first true literary love, I realized I didn’t know nearly the number of resources that I could spout if he had asked the same question about speculative fiction. There is SCBWI, of course, the teenlitauthors yahoo group (although it tends to get a bit bogged down with congratulations and personal news), and Vera Kay’s Blueboards (where I’ve rarely been active). I’m sure there must be how-to-do-it books on YA (mustn’t there?), but I’ve never read them. Likewise, there must be various relevant blogs, but the few truly YA-focused ones I used to read are rarely if ever updated anymore.

Meanwhile, YA continues to be hot, hot, hot, even while agents and editors are cautioning writers that there is a glut of YA, and maybe writing some quality MG wouldn’t be a bad idea right around now. They say this at conferences, in any case, but I’m still hearing stories of agents recommending that their actual clients write YA, even if they’ve gotten their start in writing for adults. (Which incidentally tends to make me cringe. I understand intellectually that there is more money for fiction writers in YA, and the sales might be easier to make due to the aforementioned hotness, so it makes sense from a business perspective. But I’d like to think there’s more to writing YA than just good business sense; that it’s the end result of receiving a calling, of having some kind of affinity to teenagers, of what kind of stories a writer deeply desires to tell. I’m not saying a writer can’t write both YA and adult fiction–I do that myself. I just want it to be a case of good business uniting with a true interest in writing for teens. But I digress.)

I could write another whole post on the differences between the speculative and YA communities from where I sit (and maybe I will), but the fact remains that I don’t have a treasure trove of resources to share. Instead I will give three pieces of advice (which you can take or leave), advice that unfortunately does not offer any shortcuts but has helped me learn more about YA in the last three years than anything else.

READ YA. Read a lot of it. Read MODERN YA written and published in the last ten or so years (at least some of which has been published in the last three years) so you know what’s going on now instead of what was going on when you were a kid (trust me, unless you’re close to being a teenager yourself, it is different now). Read some MG (Middle grade) so that you understand the difference through examples instead of relying only on my handy-dandy list. Read different genres of YA; you might only be interested in writing science fiction YA, but read at least a few paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary novels as well. Read a few of the really “girly” book series so you know what’s going on there. Read the blockbusters of the field. I don’t care if you don’t like Twilight; if you want to write YA, you should read it anyway (at least the first one) so you can understand what about it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time and understand the ripples it generated (and still generates). Likewise, you should read The Hunger Games, and even though much of it is MG (in my opinion), you should read at least some of the Harry Potter books. Then go read some obscure titles no one has heard of.

STEEP YOURSELF IN TEEN-NESS. If you haven’t spent any in-person time with teens since you were a teenager yourself, it’s time to change that. I don’t care how–you can hang out with a family member, volunteer, teach a class, offer to mentor a teen writer. If all else fails, you can scout out where the local teens hang out after school, go there, and shamelessly eavesdrop. You can watch TV shows and movies targeted at teens (just NOT during your writing time, please): Buffy the Vampire Slayer is old school but still helpful, and lately I’ve been spending time watching Veronica Mars, Glee, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl (and I’m sure there are others). I don’t watch these shows thinking they are necessarily a realistic representation of teenage life, but to watch for more widespread trends: how do relationships/hook-ups work now? how do teens use technology? what are the latest fashion trends and the current slang? how do the characters speak to each other? what issues tap into today’s teen experience that might be a little different from your own teenage years? Sure, if you’re writing a far future dystopic novel, today’s slang might not be so relevant, but it’s still important to try to understand how your readers see themselves now.

REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE. Not just the clichés, and not from a superior, “now I’m a wise and mature adult” perspective. How can you understand as deeply if you’re looking down at someone? No, exercise that empathy muscle and try to remember how you actually felt: the frustration of not having complete power over your life, even if you were spending a lot of time watching adults royally screw up; the surging hormones and confusion when trying to deal with lust and affairs of the heart; the uncertainty of not knowing exactly who you were and how you fit into the larger world (or perhaps bending self perception of who you were to fit into a fantasy); the endemic unfairness; the world-crushing importance of everything going on in your life; the huge milestones bearing down on you, one after another (and whether you looked on them with excitement, horror, or a co-mingling of the two). And then remember that all of the above plays out differently for different people, both in terms of which ones are relevant to each person and what’s going on inside versus the show they’re putting on for the outside.

That’s all I’ve got. If you know of any YA resources I didn’t mention, please give them a shout-out below. Also, if you think all a modern YA writer needs to read is the juvenile Heinlein oeuvre, tell me that too because then we can have a truly epic argument.

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I’m freshly back from the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, where, as expected, I had a lot of conversations about writing. And even some conversations about writing YA (aka teen fiction). At one point, I said, “One of the most critical things in a YA novel is to get the voice right.” And my friend said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m pretty sure I got it right. My protag is a whiny teenager.” The conversation quickly moved on to other subjects.
However, this reminded me about one of my pet peeves regarding would-be writers of YA. Why is it that so many of them assume that all (or even most) teens are so easily characterized as consistently whiny? And inevitably, if they’re not whiny, they must be snarky. Or ideally both whiny AND snarky.

Why, if these writers have such a low opinion and one-dimensional idea of teenagers as whiny butts, are they writing teen characters for a teen audience? Why? Please explain, because I fail to understand how this would be fun for either the writer or their prospective readers.

Yes, teenagers can be whiny. Some teenagers whine a lot. But you know what? Sometimes adults whine a lot too. Believe me, I’ve listened to them. Sometimes even I whine more than I should. But some teenagers rarely if ever whine, and some teenagers only whine sometimes, and some teenagers whine mostly to their parents. So if you want to write a teenage character who happens to be a very whiny person, fine, but that doesn’t mean you’ve nailed the elusive teen voice. If anything, it means that you’re going to have to be careful that your character doesn’t become really annoying to your readers. Because guess what? Teenagers can be annoyed by whining too.

As for snark, well, I like it as well as the next person. It’s entertaining, it’s funny, and a snarky character can be very engaging and likeable. But not all teenage characters have to be snarky. Depending on their backgrounds, their environments, and the stories you want to tell about them, it might even be impossible for them to be snarky. And adding more snark is not necessarily the way to go either (a lesson I have learned the hard way). Too much snark and a character might just be plain mean. Not to say that you can’t have mean characters, but you want to write a character mean because you’ve decided they’re going to be mean right then, not accidentally because you’re piling on the snark in an effort to be funny or edgy or have “an authentic teen voice.”

Perhaps these terms are mere shorthands that we fall back upon when trying to communicate about our writing. But I’d encourage writers who are trying their hands at YA (and more and more of them are, given its hotness in the book marketplace) to develop a more nuanced view of the teenagers they are writing for and about. I’ve worked with a lot of teens over the years, and you know what? Some of them are super sarcastic, or complain a lot, or are scattered and irresponsible. And some of them are brilliant and talented and working really hard and rising to the challenge of coping with difficult circumstances. All teenagers have some combination of positive traits and drawbacks, just as all adults do. But when they think about themselves, do you think the first word that pops into their heads is “whiny?” I doubt it, but perhaps they would be justified if the first word they think about adults is “condescending.”

Our job as YA writers is not to condescend but to understand. And in my mind, that’s a very big difference.

Disagree with me in the comments, or chime in and tell me that I’m not the only writer who thinks this way.

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Why I Write YA

Ooh, it’s reader question time! I adore good reader questions. Derek asks, “I’m rather curious about the distinction between YA and “regular”/adult fiction writing.  What makes you prefer one over the other?” (He actually asked a couple other really good questions about YA too, but I’m going to save them for another post.) I have blogged about why I like to read YA, but not why I like to write it. One of my first reactions was that I don’t necessarily prefer writing YA to writing adult fiction, but then I thought about it some more, and yeah, I kind of do prefer it. We will pass very quickly over my one attempt at writing an adult novel, which was an unmitigated disaster, and take a look at my short fiction, which I write to sell to so-called “adult” markets. Even so, most of my short stories include characters who are kids, teens, or college-aged. Not all, but most.

I think the reason for this preference is that I love teenagers. A lot of adults look at me kind of funny when I make statements like this (especially if they are parents of teenage children), but there it is. I think teenagers are great. I love teaching teenagers; as a group, they have consistently been my favorite age to teach (and I add preteens into this group, so think ages 11-18 or so).

Teenagers are so inspiring to me. They have most of their lives in front of them, and they genuinely believe they can accomplish great things. Many of them are passionate and smart, ambitious and driven. Sometimes they are complete wrecks, but they haven’t ossified into their wreckitude.  They also haven’t developed the thicker persona that so many adults have, so they feel very, very real. They’re in the thick of trying to figure stuff out, complicated life stuff, and their emotions are flying all over the place, and who knows how it will all end up? Teenagers are exciting.

In a typical conversation with a teenager, they’ll talk about their friends and some recent friend/boy drama, or they’ll talk about school work. They’ll talk about their interests with huge amounts of enthusiasm once they’ve gotten comfortable with you. They’ll talk about their plans and/or dreams for the future, they’ll talk about the problems they’re having with their parents, they’ll talk about prom (or fill-in-the-blank Big Event). They laugh a lot and still know how to be silly. Sometimes they cry too, because they’re not all about keeping up that perfect veneer. Sometimes they’re flaky and irresponsible, but they’re still learning so at least they might not be forever flakes. They literally vibrate with possibility.

Contrast that with adults, with whom I might normally converse about the weather, or health problems, or their crappy jobs, or home improvements, or “what do you do for a living,” and really the only question remaining in my mind is, why don’t more people prefer teenagers since they are obviously so much more interesting? I’m the kind of person who is always changing and afraid of stagnation. I’m not saying I always like change, but I’m fascinated by it and ultimately see it as a positive thing. I get excited when other people are changing too. And pretty much all teenagers are changing, whether they like it or not.

Luckily I know many interesting adults too (and no, I’m not just saying that), but I find the teenage years to be of inherent interest and inherent conflict. And inherent conflict and characters in the throes of change theoretically lead to riveting story; it’s a little more complicated than that, obviously, but it’s one of my strongest reasons for liking to write YA.

What about you? Why do you like to read and/or write in your genre(s) of choice?

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I have noticed a lot of confusion in the speculative community about the difference between Young Adult (YA) fiction and Middle Grade (MG) fiction. Indeed, some people seem unaware that there is a difference, a problem with which I sympathize, since I had no idea about this myself until a few years ago. So I am going to attempt to explain the difference, and I’m counting on my Kidlit colleagues to correct me where I go wrong (or expand, as the case may be). 

Middle Grade:

Age: These novels are targeted at readers aged 8-12. The protagonists are often (but not always) aged 8-14. (Kids tend to read up. So do teens.)
Word count: The word count tends to run 25-40k for a completed novel.
Conflict: Characters are learning how they fit into their own world. At the same time, the conflict is more likely to be focused on the external (ie our Hero is trying to save the world or save the day).
Edge factor: No sex, no drugs, no swearing. Usually not much romance at all, although there are often boy-girl friendships with hints that it may become romantic someday in the future, and/or “crushes” that don’t lead to serious, deep relationships.
Action: MG novels tend to be more action-packed, with tighter writing, faster pacing, and less time for reflection and/or angst. That doesn’t mean that well-drawn characters aren’t important in MG, just that the focus is different.
Themes: often focusing on the protagonist’s family, friends, and community. Can deal with puberty changes. Often wide in scope (the protagonist as Hero).

Young Adult:

Age: These novels are targeted at readers aged 12 and up. The protagonists are often (but not always) 15-18 (due to the reading-up phenomenon mentioned earlier).
Word count: The word count tends to run 45-80k, and longer if it is a speculative fiction YA (then 90-100k is not uncommon, and sometimes you see books running in the 120k range).
Conflict: Characters are confronting adult problems, often for the first time (coming of age, etc.).The conflict is more likely to focus on the internal (although this by no means excludes external plot as well, particularly in speculative YA).
Edge factor: Writers can get away with a lot more edge in YA, although sometimes these books will be recommended for ages 14 and up, instead of age 12. Also romance plays a much larger role in many of these books, as either the main plot or an important subplot. (This is possibly because so much of the YA market is currently focused on a female audience.)
Action: It depends on the book, but with more focus on the internal and subtle character nuances, YA novels are often less action-packed than their MG cousins (although not always). Keep in mind, too, that YA novels can easily be two to three times longer than MG novels, so the action is often more spread out.
Themes: often focusing on the protagonist growing up and becoming an adult. Often shows a teen’s relationship with society (hence why YA dystopia is an easy fit). Can still be epic in scope, but is more likely to spend more time dealing with the teen’s internal life.


Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling) – in my opinion, the first three books (maybe four) are clearly MG, and then it gets a bit more murky as the series gets darker in tone and spends more time focused on Harry’s inner life.  People enjoy arguing about the classification of this series.

Twilight (Stefenie Meyer) – classic YA. Bella is 17 years old when the first book begins. The book’s main plot is a romance, it’s more internally focused, Bella is dealing with growing up; by the end, she’s married with a baby.

Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – YA. Katniss is 17 (I think?) at the beginning of the first book. While this book has a lot of action, its focus is on Katniss’s inner journey just as much as her outer one. It begins when Katniss performs an act of sacrifice and takes on an adult role, and follows her struggles to perform that role. Also has a strong romantic subplot.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl) – MG. Charlie is younger, and his family relationships are of crucial importance to him (and not in a breaking away from the family as he grows up kind of way). Lots of cool stuff happens in this book, and at the end Charlie is the Hero, the winner of Willy Wonka’s challenge. Has a more external focus.

Charmed Life (Diana Wynne Jones) – MG. Again, a lot of focus on Cat’s relationships with his family (Gwendolyn) and his surrogate family. Lots of cool stuff and action happens. Cat gets to save the world, something he didn’t know he was capable of doing. Has a more external focus.

13 Reasons Why (Jay Asher) – YA. A lot of focus on intricate social relationships as framed by high school. Talks frankly about suicide, sex, rape. Shows a coming-of-age that fails, and how that failure shapes the coming-of-age of a classmate.

All right, now it’s your turn to chime in. What did I get wrong? Do you have other examples of YA  or MG books? What exceptions can you think of?

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I didn’t used to read much YA fiction (otherwise known as Young Adult, otherwise known as Teen). But once I decided that I wanted to write in the YA genre, I felt it behooved me to get to know the current marketplace a little better. So around two or two and a half years ago, I became an avid reader of YA. 

The funny thing is, I was thrilled to be reading it. I would gleefully hang out in the YA section of the bookstore and collect a stack of glossy, intriguing novels that I couldn’t wait to read. It hadn’t occurred to me to shop in the Teen section for years, except when I was checking to make sure Robin McKinley didn’t have a new book out. But now that I had a Serious Purpose, (reading YA was research after all, and research is work!) I quickly developed a YA habit.

I recently suggested to a friend of mine on Twitter that she blog about what it is she likes about speculative YA (because speculative is her thing). After reading her post, I began thinking about why I like YA, and I came to realize that really what I was thinking about was why I like YA as an adult. I’m not alone in this preference either; I keep reading how more and more adults are reading YA. Perhaps it began with Harry Potter (although technically some of Harry Potter is MG (middle grade) fiction, but I’m splitting hairs), and perhaps it continued with Twilight. But it hasn’t stopped there. (There are many articles about this subject. Here’s a sample.)

So here is my list of reasons I like to read YA (hooray, a list!):

1. Close POV: I love reading in close POV. I really enjoy first person, but I also like close 3rd. As a reader, I don’t tend to like head-hopping and massive numbers of POVs quite as well (although there are exceptions, if well done). Most YA these days is in close POV, and the majority in first person. (Granted, some of it is in first person present tense, of which I wasn’t such a fan, but I’ve gradually become more accustomed to it.)

2. Pacing: Generalization alert! While not always true (unfortunately), I’ve found that on the whole YA authors pay more attention to pacing issues in their novels. They’re exciting, they’re suspenseful, I want to find out what happens next, and the chapters end on a rise that makes it hard to put the book aside and go to sleep.

3. Plot Tropes: I enjoy many of the common plot tropes featured in YA. I’m also a fan of John Hughes, so there you go. I like reading about the social dynamics of high school because I still find them truly fascinating (it helps that I’ve spent a lot of time with teens in the past several years so high school doesn’t feel so far removed from my life). I am generally fond of dystopias, which are hot hot hot right now in YA. I also like love triangles, budding romance, forbidden love, and family conflict, other staples of the genre. And I haven’t yet gotten tired of coming-of-age stories.

4. Life as Discovery: I love seeing the world (whether our modern-day world, the future, or another world altogether) through the eyes of a teenager. I love watching as they experiment, question, and explore what it is to be alive. I love the ambiguities and moral dilemmas they face. I love how even the most cynical teenage character doesn’t know as much as she thinks she does. I love the potential, that this character is still at the outset of his life and so many things are possible for him. The teenage years (and early 20s) are a time of big change and discovery for most people, and I love to read about it and watch the characters unfold.

5. Kick-Ass Female Protagonists: More YA is directed towards females than males. I hear this fact bemoaned time and time again, because we want to be encouraging male teens to read too, etc. etc. And I don’t disagree. But I love the female protagonists of so many YA books. They aren’t kick ass in a way that seems really far removed from my life (see some adult urban fantasy); they’re kick ass while struggling and staying real. If they have a special talent, they usually don’t have complete mastery over it. They make bad decisions, they’re swayed by their feelings and prejudices, sometimes they’re even just plain petty. It’s such a relief to read about these flawed teenage heroines, who are brave and silly at the same time. Because I am brave and silly at the same time too.

I could probably think of several more reasons I enjoy YA, but now it’s your turn. What aspects of YA do you most enjoy?

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