How to write a great Young Adult (YA) novel

It’s a new year, and what has 2012 taught us?

My first takeaway is that it’s time to jump onboard the YA train.

It seems that everywhere you turn, authors are transforming first-novel successes into full-blown, billion dollar series that become movie franchises with video game options. And it is not hard to see why: although few adolescent adults are keen to read adult fiction, a horde of adults eagerly anticipate installments of the latest Young Adult (YA) fiction along with their young counterparts. According to a Bowker Market Research study , over half of all YA sales were courtesy of adults. The market for YA is large and growing larger, as among printed trade books, the gains in 2012 were entirely due to YA sales .

From a business standpoint, a larger market means more opportunity for authors. But even if you’re not in it for the money or the glory, YA fiction can be extremely rewarding—and not just because it is fun to write. In what other genre is there such an opportunity to change lives?

But how does one go about reaching this volatile and demanding group of readers? Well, here are some tips for how to write a great YA novel.

1. Read     In the spirit of “Write what you know,” you should read YA novels in order to get to know both what is trending and what are the foolproof, timeless elements that YA readers love. To that end, check out NPR’s poll of the best teen novels ever and The Atlantic Wire’s YA/Middle-Grade Book Awards  for a list of great titles. Compare and contrast the best and the worst in order to refine your expectations for yourself as a writer. And if longevity is your goal, particularly pay attention to the titles that are still popular even after a few decades have passed.

2. Create     Although derivative works can make you a tidy sum, we must face facts: the next Harry Potter is not going to be a story about a young boy going to wizard school and, let’s all say it together, now, “No. More. Vampires.” Now that you’ve done the research and you understand what makes a successful YA novel, it is time to create something new—something that no one has seen, but that everyone wants.

3. Get Real     Whether your protagonist is a kid just trying to survive high school or a dog that lives on Nebulon 5, your YA novel must have elements of authenticity in order to create strong bonds that will connect your readers to the story. That means real emotion, real conflict, real relationships, and real people. Young readers know better than anyone how confusing, cruel, and bizarre life can be, and they will reject characters and stories that do not reflect the real human experience.

4. Write Up     Young adults hate to be talked down to and, since over half of the people purchasing your YA novel are likely to be adults, there is no reason to protect your reader from adult themes. A great part of the success of movies such as Shrek and books such as Harry Potter is that they include hidden jokes for the adults that many younger people don’t understand on the same level (and if the younger people do understand, it’s because they are already informed). Furthermore, the experience of being an adolescent adult is characterized by the transition from childhood into dealing with “adult” issues such as sex, death, and personal responsibility. You want to acknowledge and speak to this experience. Walking the line between adult content and age appropriate expression of that content creates a tension and realism that all audiences enjoy.

Now, it is time for you to go forth and write! If you get stuck, don’t forget that there are services available to help you develop an outline for your book or provide developmental feedback on your first draft. To get started, go to: Submit your job.

Leave a Reply