3 Tips for Young Adult Fiction

If you’re an aspiring first-time author, there’s a good chance you’re writing young adult fiction, a mega facet of today’s publishing market. Books in the young-adult genre have long been popular and make up a huge chunk of new releases today. Time magazine recently dubbed today’s book publishing world a “golden age of young adult literature.” And, according to this infographic, books in the young adult fiction publishing category have a yearly net revenue of $2.87 billion. There’s clearly something special about this genre that so many readers love.

However, there’s much more to writing a gripping young adult novel than it may seem. For one thing, it’s not about taking all the elements of a “grown-up” novel and making them PG-rated. There are several aspects a marketable young adult fiction manuscript must have. For the most part, they mirror what makes any successful fiction manuscript shine: a mighty theme; a conflict that can last an entire novel; a compelling central character with a journey that readers invest in; sparkling side characters; and a fleshed-out story world, to name a few.

But, as with any sub-genre, young adult fiction does have standard elements that publishers and readers will expect. Keep the following tips in mind when approaching your book.

How to write successful young adult fiction:

1. Make your protagonist feel real.

For the most part, the protagonist of a young adult novel is a preteen or teen — an adolescent who resonates with your target young readership. It’s important that this main character feels like an authentic teen; your readers must be able to relate to this person, and regard them almost as a flesh-and-blood person. Think of successful young adult franchises like the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games books. Each has a main character whose persona transcended the pages because they felt so real.

However, most young adult authors are adults. Many aspiring authors are surprised at how difficult it is to create a character that talks, behaves, and communicates like a teenager. Often, when I receive young-adult fiction manuscripts that have issues, more often than not this is because the author hasn’t done enough work with the main character. The protagonist can have an interesting story arc, but doesn’t come off as a living and breathing teenager.

Remember that teens grapple with myriad rocky transformations that make young adult fiction so intriguing in the first place; channel those potent emotions, struggles with self-esteem or self-doubt, or themes of identity that color the teenaged years.

Try this:

If you’re struggling with making your main character feel “real” and be someone your young readers could instantly relate to, try method writing. Method writing is a powerful way to get inside the minds of your characters. Do this with your teen protagonist to capture a realistic voice. Here’s a guide: Create Believable Characters — Using Method Writing.

2. Don’t shy away from intense subjects — but impart a lesson.

Just because you’re writing a book for an audience that’s technically comprised of children, does not mean you have to stick to “safe” topics. On the contrary: you should lean into intense topics. Your readers not only can handle it, but want to dig in to mature content and challenging concepts.

Think of some successful young adult fiction books that delve into topics that are difficult even for adults to ruminate on, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, dealing with rape, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, whose young main characters are dying of cancer. These are topics that many adults have difficulty discussing. However, they can elevate your book into the meaningful read your young adult readers crave.

Also keep in mind that young adult readers, charged with new emotions and insecurities, often crave more intense material. While you will want to adhere to some elements that make your book age appropriate — such as using high school-level vocabulary and straying away from overly graphic sex scenes — this does not apply to your overall concept. When treated with care, a novel with a big vision can have a greater impact on your reader.

Try this:

If you’re receiving feedback that the central conflict in your novel falls flat, consider if you need to raise the stakes for your characters. Ask yourself if you can dig in to existing themes. For instance, if your main character is struggling with his self-esteem, don’t be afraid to throw even more at him — have him have to grow in the face of his father’s death, or while struggling to escape abuse. With this, your job as author can become more than creating a more compelling tale — you could help motivate or empower readers to overcome their own struggles.

3. Don’t talk down to your reader.

You can ruminate on a meaty, intense theme throughout the course of your young adult fiction novel, but be careful to not preach to your audience. Not only is it a turnoff — teens, after all, historically don’t love adults telling them what to do — but it could make the entire lessons of your story fall flat.

Especially if your aim is to inspire or encourage your readers, a didactic tone can have the opposite effect. You want to ensure that the events of your novel prompt readers to feel changed and enlightened — as the main character should — by the end. However, a tone dripping with heavy-handed lessons will squash this.

Try this:

Outside perspectives are key here. Try finding some beta readers who are in your target market and ask them to honestly assess if they feel talked down to. Or, hire an editor with a lot of experience editing young adult fiction. With this, you’re trying to straddle a fine line between transforming yet uplifting your reader; it’s difficult to know you’re achieving this balance by yourself.

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