Thursday, May 26, 2011

Conference Secrets - Say Yes to YA

Check out my fellow conference attendee, Laura Campbell, and her post on: Writing Meditation.

This workshop was lead by writer and lawyer Heather Terrel.

Heather is an interesting writer with a cool story. She was a New York lawyer for years before deciding to write historical fiction. By her own admission she's a research 'freak', loving to delve into source material and find the origins of history, myths and legends.

After writing several historical fiction books she had an idea that was sparked by researching the apocryphal gospels. An idea about angels and vampires. But the catch was, once she started writing it, that it turned out to be a YA book. She shared with us what she learned about some of the differences between writing and promoting YA books

Defining the YA Book
We had a spirited discussion about what exactly constitutes a YA book. There seems to be some discrepancies when talking about actual age ranges, but Heather noted that readers for YA are getting younger and younger. A middle grade student between 12-14 who's advanced will easily read YA that's geared towards 14 through 18 or older. The idea of the main character being about two years older than the age group you're targeting seemed to make sense to most.

Setting - Even for a paranormal or urban fantasy book, the setting should be mired in the familiar. High School can become a Vampire Academy, a middle class suburban home can be an orphanage for kids with special powers. You get the drift. It has to feel familiar to the young adult. No young adult is going to identify with corporate board room settings.

Characters - Need to feel real, recognizable, similar age. Again, despite any paranormal or fantasy world building, the characters are primarily focused on themselves and questions like: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? How do I handle relationships? These are universal teen/young adult issues and they need to resonate with your characters.

Details - The devil or God is in the details, and whichever one it is, you have to get the details right. This means, particularly if you're writing a contemporary YA novel, that clothes, music, technology all have to be spot on - BUT, and here's the tricky part, these details can't be so specific that they become dated in a short period of time. If you have someone using an iPad and two years from now it's an iPad5 or something it can be a problem. That's especially true since from submission to print can take upwards of 2 years. So it takes a careful hand to get the details true enough so they resonate, but not so specific that they become obsolete.

Details also need to be right with the characters actions. Whereas an adult might walk six blocks to a friends house to talk to her about an important topic, a teen would whip out her smartphone and text her friend. Don't get in the situation where your plot hinges on an action that you later find out a real teen would never do!

Dialogue - Similar to details, needs to sound right, have the right tone, cadence. It's not a question of being patronizing or 'dumbing down', teens and young adults are very erudite. But there are words that sound wrong coming out of a teen characters mouth. Find a teen, have them same the dialogue and see if it sounds off to them. They'll have no problem telling you if it does! And just like details, dialogue can't be too of the moment, lingo changes very quickly.

Point of View (POV)
There's a reason why lots of YA is in the first person, and often in the present tense: immediacy. YA readers want to feel close to the action, in the thick of it, embodying the characters. That's easiest to accomplish in the first person.

Show don't tell
This is true of all writing, but with YA particularly, it's important for the reader to see the action, not be told about it. Less talk more plot. Fantasy, because of the world building necessary may need more telling, but when possible show the world, don't explain it. Also, many fantasy readers love the bells and whistles of heavy details as opposed to the contemporary.

Length of Book
Generally, 60K is a good number, fantasy can be longer 70-75k (there's that world building again)

Crossing the Line
We asked Heather if there were any lines that couldn't be crossed with YA. She pretty much said that sex and cursing were acceptable but they had to be handled skillfully. Sex is definitely an element in the YA novel, but 'don't follow them into the bedroom' it's not about showing exactly what happens in the bedroom, it's about how the characters feel about it. Limit explicit detail.

As for cursing, if it's appropriate to the story, it can be used (yes, the f-bomb too.)

Trends & Series
Although she doesn't recommend following trends, because they change too quickly and you should write what interests you, Heather did acknowledge there were strong trends. Paranormal still rocks as does dystopian and urban fantasy. And mermaids are hot. You heard it here first.

Heather also mentioned series, and how important they are to readers and publishers. If you have an idea that is a series, easier to sell.

Young adults spend a lot of time online, and as a YA author, that's where you will do the majority of your promoting. Even more than for adult books, you need to create on online identity. And you need to tend to that identity. When YA readers email or post something on facebook, they expect quick responses, so you have to be online consistently, if not constantly. Same goes for blog posts, they need to be updated on a regular basis. You need to create the impression that you are accessible.

You can also take advantage of book blog tours like this one that Heather took part in. You should also participate in book giveaways, reach out to YA specific review blogs. (YA Highway and YA Bookshelf are great examples)

Finally, remember that YA readers love give aways, so if it's a signed ARC, a special copy of something, or an illustration of your main character, giving away stuff is the way to your YA readers' heart.


  1. I think many people, including myself, are surprised at the amount of adult material in YA novels. All good intensions aside, an adolescent's desire for adulthood is overpowering.

    The tasteful inclusion of adult material, i.e. sex, can show young people the outcomes of healthy and unhealthy decisions. It also can be a way to open a safe dialogue between parents and their children by reading and discussing the novels together.

  2. Okay, I'll be honest. It's just before daybreak and I'm blog-hopping. I'm not overly fond of writing instructionals, probably because I was an English teacher for several years and get PTSD flashbacks. Or something.

    So. I didn't actually read your post but I'm here, commenting in your little comment box, because I read your profile description and laughed out loud. Noice!

  3. Btw, that's a huge mug of coffee with the words 'novelist fuel' on it, isn't it?

    Where do we queue up?

  4. @Laura, I feel the same way. Marbury Lens is blowing my mind right now. I'm like, whoa, this is YA? It's excellent, but not what I thought it would be.

    @Suze, thanks for dropping by. I went to art school, so I need all the writing instruction I can get, though I can understand the feeling of not wanting to get 'schooled' in something you already know.
    And I'm totally serious about those gerber baby spoons - they are going straight into my orbital cavity if things don't go well. You heard it hear first. ;)

  5. whoops! meant 'here' of course! who drank too many G&T's this memorial day?


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