Writing for Young Adults, My Top Five Tips.

Unattended children.Some years ago, I made a decision to write but I wanted to take it seriously. My first attempt was contemporary adult fiction. The result was heavily autobiographical and missing what you could call a plot, suffice to say it now hides in a corner of my study along with the thriller I started soon afterwards, to be honest I am no Tom Clancy.

It took those failed attempts to realise I actually wanted to write Young Adult fiction. I have now completed several drafts of my novel, The Impossible City, which is a fast paced adventure story loosely inspired by Victorian Science Fiction, Steampunk and conspiracies.

At the start I had no idea of the genre I was walking into or its tropes, but as I have written and revised my own book I have learnt a few things.

So, in no particular order here are the top 5 things I’ve discovered that really matter when writing for YA…

  1. Know your audience.
    Personally I find it a sticking point placing age guidelines on books, but publishers need to sell your work. Customers looking for a book that is suitable for an eleven year old will have very different expectations to buying for a teenager. Edgier themes dealing with love, sex, and substance misuse are not going to find a home in the under thirteen bracket. Universal themes related to family, loyalty, betrayal, and relationships these are the lifeblood of YA.
  2. Treat the reader with respect.
    Write for your audience but write for them as people first and children second. Children may be limited by life experience but not emotional range and the universal themes of life and death are compelling to us all. It’s just the delivery that needs to be tuned. After all no one likes to be patronised.
  3. Less is more.
    Write a narrative that is tight, crisp and snappy. For a debut author and one in the YA genre manuscripts over 90,000 words are going to be a tough sell no matter how well written. Having said that, if your work is Sci-Fi or fantasy there may be some leeway, as these tend to have longer story arcs.
  4. Follow your fantasies.
    Write only what you can write and write what you know. I know about UFO’s, alternative history and conspiracies and they influence my work. I am also interested in themes related to the loss of parents and the search for a place in the world you can call home.
  5. Do some research.
    Actually,  do a great deal of research… I would say the most effective way to learn how to write YA fiction (aside from your own writing) is read it for enjoyment but learn to be critical. Know what works for you in a story and what does not. If you find a book that hooks you, read the entire series back to back, see how the characters change and how the author improves as a writer or loses momentum. But know and understand your opinions and then reflect them back to your own work.

So there you have it, although I can’t say these are definitive, the bottom line must be a compelling story and characters we care about. Apparently publishers like something that is similar to what is out there already, but yet different…

Good luck.

4 thoughts on “Writing for Young Adults, My Top Five Tips.

  1. Nice post. I don’t agree with Martine’s school thing. It could be the summer holidays, take place in one day or be concerned with something away from school. It could be about a runaway, gangs or someone not in a conventional setting. I think it’s easy to assume YA has to be at school. I think it’s an obvious setting, rather than a rule for success.
    Peter’s right though – there are a lot of settings that replace or echo the same, handy constraints that school offers. They’re a great plotting device.

    I’d probably add that kids tend to read about characters who are slightly older than themselves. So consider the age of your protagonist and the reader. 9 year olds may read about 12 year olds and early teens about 15 year olds etc. I know when I was reading teen stuff at 13, the characters in books were around 16.


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  3. Great post, Peter. You’ve said everything I would have said about the genre. I totally agree on your point about not patronising your reader. It’s a delicate balancing act, as you don’t want to talk over their heads, but at the same time not talk down to them. Difficult to do well.

    I would also add that, if you place your protagonist(s) in a present day setting (a la ‘Twilight’, ‘Harry Potter’), then you might need to give your characters a school/high school environment for them to interact. This puts your target reader on familiar ground, even when everything else in the story is getting weird – which in itself acts as an analogy to the hormonal changes they’re subject to at around that age

    It’s a general rule, though, not a hard and fast one, as the Phillip Pulman books (Northern Lights, etc) show. Although Lara goes to school at the beginning of the trilogy, her life there plays a very short and minor role. That is similar to your book, where Sal is already displaced from his normal life before we even meet him.

    Thanks for the pointers. 😀


    • Thanks Martine, that’s a really good point and it set me wondering how many other series are set in and around schools or use a surrogate. It turns out there’s a fair few of them particularly out of the books I have read and enjoyed, here’s a few more…

      Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ – Tom’s ‘school’ is a museum where he is an apprentice
      Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books – a training camp for demigods
      Charlie Higson’s ‘Young Bond’ series – James Bond’s boarding school
      Garth Nix’s ‘Sabriel’ – Sabriel is a necromancer, but starts out in a girls boarding school
      Alex Scarrow ‘Timeriders’ – their base is analogous to a school complete with human and AI ‘guides’

      These are all extremely successful and in all good bookshops 😉


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