Curious about Writing YA? Three Things to Keep in Mind
“That movie was so damp, amiright, Ava?” said Isabel, wrapping one of her tapered curls around her finger. “I. Can’t. Even.”
When I say I write young adult literature, I’m sure many folks imagine the Glee soundtrack pumping through the speakers of my laptop as I type sentences like the one above and stop every few minutes to post smiling selfies to Snapchat.
Let me clarify.
1. Writing YA does not mean you are living a delayed adolescence.
You don’t have to read Teen Vogue or shop at Forever 21 to write YA. You don’t even have to read YA novels exclusively -- although you should read some. Take it from me, someone who left teenhood behind nearly two decades ago: You can be pretty uncool and out of touch and still write for a teen audience.
So what’s the secret?
2. Capture the essence of adolescence.
Don’t look externally for content. Don’t eavesdrop on kids at the mall and scratch down their lingo (it will be outdated in a year or less). Don’t worry that your novel needs dystopian elements…because isn’t that what “the kids” are reading these days? Don’t give your novel to your sixteen-year-old daughter for feedback; I know she’s brilliant, but she isn’t yet trained as a literary critic or editor.
Look internally, and mine your own memories for ideas. Marc Aronson believes that the best writers of YA experienced their adolescences with particular intensity and are driven to explore these experiences artistically. As he puts it: “One way…to bridge the generation gap is to write a book that is so true, so powerful, it captures the essence of adolescence, rather than the vagaries of growing up in one time or another.”
Most of us adore the YA novel Eleanor & Park because it resembles our own first love in some way. Think about your teen awkwardness, your rage, your optimism, your heartbreak. Remember these feelings and give voice to them.
And speaking of voice…
3. The ideal YA voice is self-involved but NOT grating.
How many times have I heard: “I don’t read YA. It’s too whiny.” Yes, some of it is. But the best YA voices strike the perfect balance between egotistical and literary.
A sixteen-year-old’s narration is bound to be self-involved. She or he is riding high and sinking low daily. Hormones are ricocheting. Friendships are crumbling and reforming. Adults are alternately objects of reverence and rebellion.
It’s about crawling into an adolescent’s brain and embracing this self-absorption, while also using your skill to craft engaging prose. Don’t forget the basics. Language matters. Metaphors and imagery, too. Vary your sentence length and structure. Adjust your style to your protagonist’s personality: terse and defensive, elegant and descriptive, pensive, wry.
Keep in mind, too, that while a lot of YA is written in first person, third person is also an option. Once again, in Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell uses third person with great effect (and humor):
“And it’s not like the devil-kids on the bus were going to wake up on the other side of their beds tomorrow. Seriously. It wouldn’t surprise Eleanor if they unhinged their jaws the next time she saw them. That girl in the back with the blond hair and the acid-washed jacket? You could practically see the horns hidden in her bangs.”
In short, the best writers for young adults respect their readers and treat YA as literature. They use their own experiences coming of age as creative wellsprings instead of a time to endure and forget.
Elaine Dimopoulos is the author of Material Girls, a YA novel published in May 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which Kirkus Reviews called “sly, subversive fun.” She is a graduate of Yale, Columbia, and Simmons College, where she earned an M.F.A. in writing for children. She teaches children’s literature at Boston University and is also an instructor for GrubStreet. Elaine served as the Associates of the Boston Public Library’s Children’s Writer-in-Residence and as a St. Botolph Club Emerging Artist. Follow her @ElaineDimop.
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