I’ve had a couple of emails in the past week about writing YA or teen fiction, with emphasis on what the writer has to do differently in terms of plot, worldbuilding, characterization, description, dialog, etc. when writing for that audience. So I thought I’d talk a bit about that today.
My first reaction was, predictably, that the writer doesn’t do anything different about any of those things just because he/she is writing for a younger audience. At a certain point – middle grade and under, usually – questions of reading skill come into play, and vocabulary and sentence length get shorter and simpler as you get more and more toward beginning readers, but from YA up there really isn’t any difference in the amount of work the writer puts into each of those things.
What there is, is a difference in tone. This is difficult to describe, and is getting less important as YA and teen publishers go for “edgy” titles that get gritty and graphic about problems like drugs, sex, and suicide (to name three that are perennially popular topics for edgy teen fiction). If you are determined to consider your audience while writing (something that has never worked for me), the best way to get a feel for YA tone is to read a lot of YA books.
My personal feeling is that one gets the best results by telling whatever story one needs to tell, to the best of one’s ability, in whatever way and with whatever techniques, characters, world, etc. that particular story seems to require. Once it is all done, then you figure out whether it will sell better as a YA, teen, or adult book. Or better yet, let your agent decide what it is, assuming you have one. The market keeps changing, and what used to be adult fantasy is now YA, and several YA series have migrated to the adult shelves.
Doing it this way can be disconcerting. You may write an entire 90,000 word novel that you are positive is going to be gritty, realistic, fraught adult SF, only to discover that your agent is merrily sending it to YA and teen lines. You may find your fluffy YA going out to a “light fantasy” adult line. If something like this happens, you will undoubtedly be tempted to make some revisions to “make the story more compatible with its intended audience.”
My advice is, do not do this. Not unless, and until, an editor has bought the thing and asks for some specific changes, and even then consider carefully. Because if you followed the initial advice – write the story you need to tell, to the best of your ability, in whatever way it needs to be written – then trying to tweak it for a specific audience will very likely break one of those things, to the detriment of the story. (That it, it will no longer be quite the story you wanted to tell, or done the best way, because that’s where you started off before the tweaks, and there’s nowhere to go, theoretically, but down.) And in my experience, it is easier to sell a story that has been done as right as one can do it, than to sell one that has been turned into something mediocre but with a “slant” toward a particular audience.
There are certainly exceptions to this, but they are few and far between, and generally not the sorts of things that arise for an unpublished or early-career writer. About the only one I can think of is the rare instance in which the author has, for some reason, had an epiphany about writing and/or the particular story that changes one of those basic parameters – that is, the story you want to tell or the best way to tell it. (I am currently doing a major rewrite on an unpublished short story that I wrote nearly thirty years ago, as a result of such an epiphany – I ran it through my current writer’s group, two of the members fingered two separate problems, and in a stunning revelation I realized that eliminating one character and giving all his action to a different one would not only solve both problems at once, but would significantly tighten the story. So this kind of thing is not limited to a particular point in one’s career, or to a particular time period after completing a draft.)
All that was my first reaction to the whole “What is different about writing YA?” question. My second reaction was much delayed, probably because it ought to go without saying for every audience, but it is a problem one sees more frequently in children’s fiction than in other sorts:
Do not condescend to your readers.
This is a Bad Thing no matter what you are writing, but it is especially deadly in children’s books, because you can get away with it just long enough to wreck things permanently. Children’s book manuscripts are bought and edited by adults; once published, they are largely reviewed, distributed, and sold to other adults. If the book pleases those adults enough, some of them will overlook a light condescending tone, or even see it as a nudge-nudge-wink-wink that adults will get and kids won’t.
That trick never works.
Kids are, if anything, even more sensitive to being condescended to than adults are, and they will stay away from such an author’s books in droves. Eventually, this will get through to the adults who are buying copies for libraries or grandchildren or nephews and nieces, and the author’s sales will tank. If the author is lucky, he/she will be able to switch to selling to the adult market, but that doesn’t happen often. Basically, if you think you are smarter and better and cooler and more grown-up than kids, and/or that you have lots of worthwhile lessons to convey to them in your writing, you probably shouldn’t be writing fiction for them at all.