(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)
Cheryl B. Klein‘s session was called “YA Fiction: What It Is, Why It’s Hot, and How to Break Through.” She’s the author of a book on writing for children and young adults, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, and is also the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic. She has a podcast, The Narrative Breakdown, and until May 2016 blogged at Brooklyn Arden and now hosts a blog on her own website.
In Erik Erikson’s stages of development, “young adult” means 20 to 40*, but “young adult” in fiction YA means “don’t call me a child any more,” and means 13 to 18 or so. It’s not a genre, and in fact all kinds of genres are encompassed in the category. Many adults also read YA novels (I’m one of them), and it outsells adult fiction.
How did it get this big? Well, for one thing, simple demographics. There are a lot of people around between the ages of 13 and 18 right now. 2007 is the next boom birth year, she says, so another YA group will be coming along soon. For another thing, the success of the Harry Potter books precipitated a deluge of YA books on the market**. Trends in YA include paranormal, dystopia***, and realism like the writing of John Green. The category is sustained by adults, both millennials who grew up reading it and older adults.
What defines YA is a protagonist of the target age who is similar to American teenagers of that age in his or her thinking and behavior. The category is characterized by strong interest in the protagonist’s life, experience, growth and emotions. The teenage perspective is very immediate, and should change (at least in the more literary YA novels) over the course of the story. This kind of protagonist gives pleasure to the reader because it offers recognition, affirmation, connection, and escapism to actual YA readers.+
Qualities that make it appealing are an intensity of experience, with an action orientation, a focus on first times, and dramatization that is immersive. The protagonist is tested and challenged, and experiences things like jobs and romance for the first time. 85% of a good YA novel is dramatized action in real time, not narrated. Narrative in this category is basically connective tissue.++
A YA novel focuses on one protagonist over a limited time period, and is rarely more than 400 pages (250-350 is the general range, and a longer book like Octavian Nothing is an exception rather than the rule). Focus on emotional growth and end with a new beginning and, usually, some kind of hope.+++
Klein suggested five techniques that will help the writer break through:
1. A strong premise and a good hook, with emotional promise, interesting action, and a combination of familiarity with novelty. Make your reader feel emotions – sorrow, suspense, action, humor. Readers in this category like to read what they already know and love, which is why she suggested combining familiarity and novelty. ^
2. Voice: Positioning, specificity, observations, efficiency, authority, and truth. Bill Konigsberg is an example. Avoid “authorsplaining.” ^^
3. Believability. Be true to teenage experiences. As a writer, try to reconnect with your own teenage years, recognize the pressures on kids of this age, and respect them. Never use the word “youngster” in a pitch, she said – it’s a dead giveaway that you’re too distant from the experience. ^^^
4. Get a good gimmick, in other words a distinctive structural element. As examples, she gave Thirteen Reasons Why and The Rest of Us Just Live Here. She stressed that this was not the same as a premise, which shouldn’t be flashy; a gimmick is something that will catch a reader’s attention, some novelty in the style or construction of the book.
5. Write the book you needed when you were that age, or that you want to write now. Make yourself happy with what you’re writing. #
She recommended I Read Ya, a community of people who love young adult books.
Takeaways: As a private boys’ middle school teacher, I depended on our excellent school librarian for good recommendations for the summer reading lists, but in the end, as with all writing, so much depends on chance. It’s very hard to predict which books will catch the attention of the young. And the YA books I like to read are not always the same ones that kids like to read. My sixth grade boys were very different people from my eighth grade boys. Both grades were impatient with books that navel-gazed too much. And I strongly suspect from looking at the shelves in my local Barnes & Noble that a lot of YA books are marketed to girls first and then boys; though the Hunger Games trilogy was popular with my young men. In other words, don’t try to write a generic YA novel. There isn’t really such a thing.
The most important things about YA that Klein didn’t mention are why I like to read it: It is never pretentious, it is clear what is going on in the book, and the language and sentence structure are rarely too elaborate. I am a fast reader and I get very impatient when I have to stop and puzzle out the syntax of a sentence or try to backtrack to figure out who exactly is who. And I don’t love piles of exposition. I cut it out of my own writing. That is one of the reasons, I suspect, why another writer once said to me, “Your books seem kind of YA to me.” That, and she seemed to find me annoying. ==============================================
*Is there a category for actual young adults aged 20-40?
**and publishers have been trying to replicate its success ever since, which has resulted in a boatload of awful series.
***I followed a Twitter feed called Dystopian YA Novel which stopped updating in 2015, but it’s still gold. Example: “I’m so plain-looking, with my giant emerald green eyes, long brown hair, small straight nose, and perfect bone structure.”
+By this definition, Pride and Prejudice is YA.
++Which pretty much defines a lot of fiction, again.
+++There was a period (back when I took my Children’s Lit course) where YA fiction was mostly realistic and mostly ended in despair. This was supposed to be feeding a young adult yearning for authenticity. Although I do remember yearning for authenticity in my teen years, and had a few books I returned to for a good cry, I didn’t want REAL despair. Poetry’s good for that.
^In other words, pitch us something like what we have already published. But not exactly like that. We’ll know it when we see it.
^^Don’t get too damn wordy.
^^^Good advice for life: Don’t condescend. Ever.
#If you learn nothing from this talk, learn this. Write the book you want to read.