The Story Behind Young Adult Books

I put this post together for those of you interested in learning what YA (Young Adult) books are, and why people read and love them, including adults. I was recently at the Mountains to Sea Literary Festival, and have drawn some answers from the panels of YA writers. Plus my own reasons for loving these books, as an adult.

What is a “Young Adult” Book

General consensus is a YA book is one where the protagonist is a teenager. That doesn’t mean that it’s only for teenagers. It’s not a secret that more adults buy and read YA books than teenagers. Some writers do keep their teenage audience in mind and direct their story towards a teenage reader, whereas some don’t think about the reader at all, and simply let the story flow exactly as it comes to them.

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Why do People Write YA

This, as with any genre, is always going to be personal. I’ve heard a few writers (myself included) say they never planned to write YA, it’s just what came out when they started writing. Every writer has to find their own writing voice, and sometimes they can suffer disappointment when they realise that they can’t actually write like their favourite author or style of book. (I was rather disappointed when I realised that I am never going to be a Maeve Binchy for teenagers). But once they persist, they will find their own unique voice. It could be in YA, or fantasy, or Literary fiction. Until you start writing, you won’t know where your own voice leads you. So really, if you’re a YA writer, YA picked you.

Normalising the Abnormal

A common theme I noticed at the event, was the amount of writers who talk about how hard being a teenager is. How everything seems so difficult, and every little problem explodes. That teenagers often feel abnormal and isolated. YA books can help to normalise these feelings, to shed some light on a teenager’s problems and hardships, and make them see that they’re not alone. To say “I hear you” to the reader. When I was a teenage reader I loved reading books where the protagonist clearly had a much harder time than me, so I could reassure myself that no matter how bad I had it, someone else had it too. Or had it even worse, meaning if they could get through it, so could I.

Why do Adults Read YA

There were a few answers to this. But ultimately a book is only as good as it’s story and writing, and I personally believe that there is an abundance of excellent YA books around at the moment. A good story will always tempt adults into reading them, whether written for teenagers or adults.

YA books are shorter in general, they get to the point quicker, meaning you don’t have to make a daunting commitment to a block of a book. I love small books. It means I finish it quicker and can feel that wonderful glow of satisfaction at reaching the end sooner. I also like fitting as many books into my reading time as possible, so would rather read three shorter books (meaning three complete stories) than one long book. There are always exceptions to the rule, I know.

There is also a theory that some people (ahem) don’t ever feel like they’ve fully grown up, they still feel like a teenager at heart and therefore love reading about a character who they can connect with, and live a little through their experiences.

Truths and Lies

Every YA book panel or talk I’ve been to, there’s always a question around how the writer decides how far to go, how much truth to put in. Are young adults able to deal with the heavy issues being dealt with in so many YA books nowadays? I think the answer to this will always be personal. Everyone has a different opinion, because it IS an opinion.

But one thing I did take away, is that teenagers are very good self-censors. I’ve heard writers talk of their own reading experiences as a child and as a teen, how they often read advanced books (being the book worms that writers are), but they knew what to take, and what to leave behind. Teenagers know when a topic gets too heavy for them, and if a book is making them squirm then they will stop reading that passage.

There is also a big difference between reading about a heavy issue in the comfort of ones safe bedroom, and experiencing it first hand, or even watching it on screen. I am still haunted by images I saw on videos (yes, videos, I’m showing my age) as a teenager, but I have absolutely no haunting images in my head from books I read. Perhaps I didn’t read particularly heavy books then, but I believe it’s more to do with the fact that a reader creates their own images. The writer can explain, and describe, but every reader will imagine a different picture. Your imagination doesn’t wish to traumatise you like a Hollywood director.

Summary

A good YA book is well worth reading, same as any good story. They’re not all fantasy or sci-fi, but unfortunately they do tend to get shelved together in book shops, despite covering a range of genres. There are plenty of contemporary, funny, dystopian, and terrifying YA books to be found, and they’re all as different as adult books of different genres. So if you haven’t already read a YA book, give a teenage protagonist a go. You might just find yourself hooked.

Writing Fantasy: My 7 Tips

I’ve tried my hand at many genres, and found that nothing brings the same belly-tingling excitement as writing Fantasy. But it also brings challenges that other genres don’t. I find it the hardest genre to write as a result. I won’t claim to be an expert, and bear in mind I’m not published. But I did write a Fantasy novel, followed by a sequel, for kids aged approx 7-11. I’ve also read many children’s Fantasy novels. And I’ve certainly learnt a few things a long the way.

1: World building

There are no rules in Fantasy: your imagination can run wild, creating worlds of magic and turning people into beings that contradict nature. But the world you create can turn into a trap. What suits the story at the beginning, might make no sense in your world at the end. Or worse, in the sequel. And at the sequel level, it’s too late to go back and change the first book (unless it’s not published, but that sounds like an editing nightmare). It’s also hard to remember every detail of your Fantasy world, so take notes as you go, and make sure each idea consistently makes sense. When editing, ask people to explain your world back to you and make sure it matches what you tried to get across in your writing.

2: Believability

I don’t read adult Fantasy novels, but I love children’s’ Fantasy. But I lose interest in a novel if the story becomes too unbelievable even for the world it’s built in. It’s tempting when writing Fantasy to curve the story to suit yourself. If your character needs a sword, why not let one magically appear in a tree? You make the rules in your fantasy world, so you can do whatever you want. Right? Wrong. It may be convenient, but it’s lazy writing. The reader won’t believe it, unless you give a very good reason for the sword to appear in the tree. Don’t use plot devices to the detriment of the story. That’s what your imagination is for.

On the subject of believability, readers quickly tire of characters who repeatedly succeed just because they’re the ‘chosen one’ , and not because they’re actually worthy of success. You the writer need to believe in yourself, and give serious thought as to how to make them awesome.

3: Description

I have often stopped reading Fantasy books due to description over-kill. I understand Fantasy books require a lot description as you’re trying to explain a whole new world. But I don’t want to read three pages of description. And I don’t just mean landscapes or characters. I also mean explanations of the world, the reason the protagonist is the protagonist etc. The world and situation you create can be described gradually, with clues along the way.

The first chapter of The Northern Lights (by Phillip Pullman if you don’t know, and if you still don’t know, go and read it) is a great example of how to get the balance right. The reader immediately learns characters speak freely with animals, but no explanation is given. The not knowing is what makes you read faster, desperate to know why and how. The descriptions are the salt and pepper, and the action is the dinner. It is tempting to over explain everything the minute you introduce it, but where is the suspense in that? Don’t describe your story, tell it.

4: Uniqueness

Your book has a dragon. So what? Loads of fantasy books have dragons. What makes your dragon so special that I should read it? Find what’s unique in your story and explode it, make your dragon stand out from all the others. I made this mistake, I included a boring dragon. On editing, I realised my dragon was as dull as the dirty ground he walked on. So I changed him, and made his role in the story shine. But I could also have deleted him. Does your story actually benefit from your dragon? Is their species relevant to your story? Make the choice, and make it work. It’s hard to delete. But it can be done. Here’s how: delete delet dele del de d —

5: Pace

Pace is always important to keep the reader hooked, but particularly in the middle of Fantasy novels. The beginning draws you in because you want to figure out what this new world is all about. Endings, by their nature, should have a good pace, magnetising the reader so they’re unable to put down the book until they know how it all ends. But the middle can fall through the gaps. The world is created, the character is known, they are possibly on a journey to a distant land or meeting new people and creatures. But journeys alone are boring. And I don’t want to learn all the answers now. If you get writers block in the middle, don’t fire in all the answers, and don’t throw in irrelevant scenes that stump the reader. I love when clues are still being added in the middle, and when new mysteries appear. Keep the suspense, and you’ll keep the reader.

The middle section of your novel is a perfect opportunity for your protagonist to develop as a character. Use this section to show how your character moves from the beginning to the end of the novel, and how they change in the process. What happens in the middle that forces the character to make difficult choices that determine the path of the novel? Keep the character’s arc in your mind as you write this section, and you’ll be grateful for it when you reach the end.

6: Confusion

I’d rather read a short novel that I can follow, than a long one that I get can’t find my way through. My pet hate in Fantasy is when I can no longer understand what’s going on. Take your time, develop your plot and characters, but don’t squash them in. Give them room to breathe and give the reader time to catch up and process the information.

And remember, your novel isn’t there to show off how clever you are. I don’t want to read a novel and say “Wow, that writer has a fountain of knowledge, but I have no idea what s/he’s talking about, and I haven’t a clue what the story is about.”

7: Characters

I personally struggle with excess characters with unusual or foreign names. Not just in Fantasy (I had to stop reading War and Peace because I kept mixing up who was who with all the foreign names and places. A sad reflection on me, but a reality of many readers. Judge my intellect if you must, but I’m just being honest). Someone once told me they re-named all the characters in a book they were reading to John, Mary etc.. And made a list at the front of the book, so they could follow the story easier. Complicated or what?

This can easily happen in Fantasy, not just from made-up names, but from traits. Too many unusual characters or places can lose the reader. There is power in simplicity. Don’t name more than one main character with similar names, or names beginning with the same letter. Naming characters based on their traits can help. At it’s most obvious level, take these two names and guess which is the troll and which is the fairy: Twinkle-dust and Rotten-breath.

Epilogue

Fantasy is a genre dedicated to imagination and the wildest of dreams. It is a genre to be celebrated and loved. Mostly, I think it’s a genre to be thanked, as it is what made me and many other children fall in love with stories. And once you fall in love with stories, you fall in love with books. And that, to me, is FANTAStic.

Writing for adolescents… and the challenges it brings.

I never intended to write for a teenage audience. It just happened by itself. Now I question why I was drawn to this genre? As an adult who does not usually read young adult fiction, it was not the natural choice for my pen. The market is small and unprofitable (obviously making exceptions… Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault In Our Stars ). But then, what joy would there be in writing only for money? Writing for teenagers is not as easy as it sounds. For one, teenagers are harder to please than adults. Teenagers are stereotypically prone to mood changes, hunger for information, hunger for love, anger at everything that they thought they knew but then realised they didn’t.  Perhaps I thought I could make a difference.. Perhaps I romanticise the thought of helping a teenager through the challenges that adolescence brings. Or perhaps there is no reason and I just wrote what came into my head.

The first thing I noticed in myself as the writer was being hyper aware of morality; what a challenge. Teenagers don’t want to get a lecture in a novel. They don’t want to be made feel guilty for their thoughts or behaviour, especially when the thoughts confuse them. They want to identify, they want answers. They don’t want to be patronised. I can’t imagine Louisa May Alcott having these issues as she wrote “Little Women”, which is basically a morality code for young ladies. But if that classic was written in this day and age I wonder would she have the same good response. Because morality has changed and I can’t keep up. And because I can’t keep up I cannot focus on it in a novel and I certainly can’t preach it. I did have a smug initial thought of writing a modern day “Little Women” and quickly realised it was a hopeless idea. Teenagers simply would never agree nowadays on what is right and what is wrong, Whether it’s right to have sex at fifteen or not, whether to take drugs or get drunk, whether you should get on with your parents or hate them. Behaviour has become individualised and therefore there is no handbook to refer to.

The second hardest thing to deal with was how to tackle life changing issues like death. How far do you go, how much do you tell? To get an idea of how far to go I began to read other Young Adult fiction and was frankly shocked. Both by the way the stories got under my skin and by how much the authors made the reader completely immerse themselves in the issue and experience it for themselves (The books I read and recommend were The Fault in Our Stars, Infinite Sky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower). It made me realise that in fact a novel is a perfect way for a teenager to discover the hardships of life… heartache, death, abuse, family problems etc. Because they can feel the emotion for the first time, hopefully, and then put down the book and walk away. But in the process they have learnt to empathise and become a tiny bit more prepared to deal with these issues should they ever experience them.

The common theme in Y.A novels is romantic love. It appeared in every novel I read to varying degrees (I am still searching for a Y.A novel that does not look at this issue at all. I am open to suggestion). It became clear to me that to write a Y.A novel without some concept of love and lust would be a pointless battle. Thinking back to my teenage days, I was obsessed with love. If I was not in love I was dreaming of being love. Everything else came second in my mind list of priorities of life. This raised more questions for me because everyone experiences love differently and everyone has different beliefs about what love should be. One girl will love the idea of a guy who opens doors for them, makes the first move, tells the heroine how beautiful she is a hundred times a day. Another girl would hate that and want the relationship to based on complete equality, the girl asking him out as much as he asks her.

All these questions and challenges made me realise something vital. A writer can never please every reader. And a young adult writer can never please every parent. The book is not for the parents approval. And it is not for every teenager. I can only write what I feel and what I know. The reader chooses what to take on board and what to leave behind. When I started to believe that, it made it easier. In fact, it made it wonderful.