I had the pleasure of leading a class of talented teen writers this summer at the Center at Miami-Dade College. The students ranged in age from entering high school freshmen to entering seniors (so roughly 14-18)–pretty much the “target market” for young adult fiction. I *love* working with teens, and especially teens who are willing to give up four Saturdays in the summertime to work on their creative writing skills. Seriously, four three-hour-long classes? In the morning? On a Saturday? These kids meant BUSINESS. But aside from just enjoying my time with them, I learned a few things too. Thus these five tips for writing YA fiction.
Five Tips For Writing YA Fiction
Tips for Writing YA Fiction #1 – Teen “slang” is regional
I mean, this is sort of obvious, right? But I guess it really hit home for me when I heard them using a term to describe a certain “type” of kid that I’d never heard before. Turns out it’s a Spanish word (note: I was in Miami!) and all the kids in the class knew the word’s meaning in this context–everyone but me, a New Yorker. It was a good reminder regarding research: If you’re setting a book *anywhere* other than your own geographic location, make sure you speak to/connect with teens who actually live there. Get to know their slang.
Tips for Writing YA Fiction #2 – Teens use big words
Really. Don’t think for a second that you have to “dumb down” or simplify your prose for young adult readers–if you do, they will be bored stiff (not to mention insulted) by your writing. Each and every time my students had to read aloud a sample of their writing, I was blown away by their wide, expressive vocabulary and sophisticated prose. Why on earth would you want to write at a level *below* what they themselves are writing?!
Tips for Writing YA Fiction #3 – Teens are just like you and me
Another obvious one, right? I mean, okay, they probably aren’t worrying about paying the mortgage (at least, I hope not) or buying groceries or their kids’ college applications. But besides that? Yep, they’re the same. Actually, if you can’t really relate to teens today and understand where they’re coming from, you probably shouldn’t be writing for them. Most YA authors–at least, the successful ones–are wildly in touch with their inner 14-year-olds. They get the Bieber thing and they can name all five members of One Direction (Harry, Liam, Niall, Louis, and Zayn, in case you’re wondering).
Tips for Writing YA Fiction #4 – Their reading tastes vary widely
No one book is going to appeal to ALL teen readers. Duh. My students talked about reading everything from Nancy Drew to Tolkien to Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey. Forget about trying to please them all.
Tips for Writing YA Fiction #5 – They want more diversity in fiction geared toward teen readers
Actually, this came less from the teens in my class and more from readers/librarians/teachers who attended one of my recent signings. Somehow, a question during the Q&A portion of the event led to a very intelligent, frank discussion about race and ethnicity in young adult fiction, and the lack of diversity found therein. It’s *way* past time to remember that the world we live in is a very diverse place. Books and the characters within them should represent that. ‘Nuff said.
And there you have it. If you want to write YA fiction, I think it’s very important to get to know your readers–and to remember that, despite the adult-crossover success that YA is experiencing right now, teens *are* your primary readership. Walk with them, talk with them. Make friends with them. I think you’ll be surprised at just how much they have to teach you.
Curious how hold your YA protagonist should be?
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.
Thank you soooo much for posting this!
I don’t appreciate when authors use a bunch of profanity in YA novels (because believe it or not, most teens don’t curse in every single sentence, or at least the teenagers I know).
Also, I extremely dislike when authors don’t use a wide variety of vocabulary words. After a while, everything begins to feel like déjà vu.
No teen is alike, authors in the YA genre should keep that in mind. I’ve never enjoyed Justin Bieber or One Direction, some of my friends do, some of them don’t. In many ways, teens are similar to adults. For example, not every single adult enjoys a superb romance, and the same goes for teenagers.
Again, thank you, Miss Kristi. I agree with you on every point.
Kenzie (age 15)
You’re welcome, Kenzie–and what you say is *so* true! Exactly. Just like adults, no two teens are the same.
Slang, and other similar trends, is indeed regional. And some of it can be dumb. For example, using the word “beast” as a synonym for “cool” needs to die in a fire before it becomes this generation’s “radical”.
Funny enough, this week’s topic at #yalitchat was diversity. We pretty much agreed that we need more of it.
In a teen’s writing group I was in earlier this summer, I found that we both love mainstream stuff like The Hunger Games, and more “literary” stuff like Thirteen Reasons Why and The Book Thief. Oh, and I got envious of the poetry and satire we produced.
I taught 9-12 graders for 8 years, including all ranges of intelligences and interests. No two are exactly the same, as you pointed out. However, I don’t believe you can discount the general similarities most teenagers exhibit. For example, teenagers tend to be more self-involved than older groups, as well as more strident advocates of their likes and dislikes, though that advocacy isn’t always well reasoned. Generally, they like what they like and dislike what they don’t. Often vehemently. Their brains are these wonderful, awful, stews of hormones, emotions, and whatever you would call what happens when their own ideas begin to take shape in accordance with, or in the face of their parents beliefs. I enjoyed teaching all of them, even the jerks, because it was something new every day.
Thanks for posting this! Indeed, slang is regional and so very time sensitive. The slang written in a novel today, might not be sold until next year, and published for another two years after that. By then, the slang may already be passe.