Becoming a Storyteller: 4 Pitfalls of YA Writing

YAWith my current Work In Progress, I’m wrestling with a major genre decision that will frame my entire narrative. On the surface, the choice to make my main character 16 or 18 seems inconsequential, but that choice could very well determine in what genre my story gets slotted. Young Adult (YA) or New Adult (NA).

I’ve written about the idea of working in the YA genre before in two parts. Wikipedia says the following about the Young Adult genre:

Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA), also juvenile fiction, is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, although recent studies show that 55% of young-adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Authors and readers of young adult (YA) novels often define the genre as literature as traditionally written for ages ranging from twelve years up to the age of eighteen, while some publishers may market young adult literature to as low as age ten or as high as age twenty-five.

The New Adult genre is something that has developed in recent years. The term is credited to St. Martin’s Press in 2009. Here’s what the all-knowing Wikipedia says about the new genre:

New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.” New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices. The genre has gained popularity rapidly over the last few years…

The genre was originally met with some criticism, as some viewed it as a marketing scheme,while others claimed the readership was not there to publish the material.In contrast, others claimed that the term was necessary, with a publicist for HarperCollins saying that it “is a convenient label because it allows parents and bookstores and interested readers to know what is inside”. It has now become widely accepted with most traditional publishers now publishing NA books and Goodreads, Amazon and Kobo adding it as an official category.

So, in my effort to understand these genres, I’ve come across four common pitfalls of Young Adult writing that I’ll share with you.

  1. Young Adult Protagonists that are more Adult than Young
  2. The Narrative Lecture
  3. Clichéd Characters
  4. Action-less Introspection

An important element of crafting the Young Adult novel is putting a compelling young adult protagonist through an unforgettable problem. The danger there, as an adult writer, is staying, to borrow a term from drama, “in character”. It’s a challenge to develop and maintain an authentic teenaged Voice, avoiding even the slightest adult insight to creep into the perspective. It’s critical to avoid any adult details, and to make sure the MC can’t easily navigate obvious adult situations.

Avoid the Narrative Lecture is important, too. My teenaged students have never enjoyed lectures of any kind, so to slide out a soap box and pontificate from atop it would be a quick way to lose your audience. As authors, we have to avoid that moralizing that would turn off our target audience. We should strive to embrace complexity, perhaps folding in a few different points of view for the MC to deal with.

Clichéd Characters are a major No-No in any genre, not just YA. But when we’re talking YA, some of the clichés include the Loner Teen, the Nerd and the Deadbeat Parents. I’m sure there are more, but we’ve seen too many of these in YA already. For the story, it’s key to have not only a three-dimensional MC, but also a nice supporting cast of 3D characters. The MC should have a few friends they can lean on throughout their journey, like Sidekicks, a common aspect to Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth.

The Brooding Teen might be a clichéd character to avoid, and the simple act of brooding might be something to excise from your narrative as well. Sure, teens do plenty of brooding. They may enjoy isolating themselves. But if that’s the bulk of the story, I think the reader might find it all too boring to continue. As writers, we need to keep our MC (and by extension the reader) engaged. Keep them moving, talking, anything other than sitting in their bedroom listening to classic rock.

So, dear reader, what do you think? What else should we writers avoid when crafting our next YA work?

17 thoughts on “Becoming a Storyteller: 4 Pitfalls of YA Writing

    • For sure. That’s a good one. I guess it seems like the obvious place to go with a young character. Contemporary YA has to incorporate a school setting, but I guess you can move away from it in some Dystopian YA or other Sci-Fi or Fantasy YA.

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      • Even fantasy and sci-fi seem to have some kind of academy. I wonder if the use of a school is to make the protagonist’s age confirmed. People might think a young character not in school is wrong or not take it seriously.

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      • Absolutely. I guess since it’s such an important part of the life of a young character, it has to be incorporated some how. I guess the only place you don’t need to use the school/academy setting is in post-apocalyptic stuff.

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    • I think school is fine to use, so long as it is just a location or a way to move the character development, or plot forward. Let’s face it, school plays a major role in young people’s lives and it’s a setting they can relate to. I think sometimes we get sloppy and slip back to the cliches and that’s when “school” in the book becomes a drag on the story. But if you can find a way to make “school” unique or exciting, then it becomes almost like a character in the book. Would Harry Potter have been as exciting without “Hogwarts”?

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  1. Just thinking out loud here, so feel free to completely disregard everything that follows.

    Make the character in this book 16. Continue to follow this character and the next book they will be 18, thus falling into the next category. That will allow your readers to experience life with your character. If you do this correctly, your readers will grow with the character and thus ensuring you have a built in audience when you publish.

    Again, just a thought.

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    • It’s an interesting thought, absolutely. I’m working on a post about New Adult now, and an agent told me it’s rare that a series would span YA and NA, because at that point in becomes a “shelving” problem. It’s something to think about, though. Thanks!

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  2. What great tips! I find it best when writing to remember all things I dislike when I’m reading and try and do the opposite!

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  3. I have just recently finished my first YA novel and am in the process of trying to decide if I want to publish the traditional way ( I.e. agent, publisher, etc..) or go the indie route. I know I found it helpful to spend some time with my nieces and nephews ( who are all 13-18) and watch how they interacted with one another, how they spoke to their friends on the phone, how they handled stress, and how they reacted to the world around them. I think that helped me make sure the characters in my YA Fantasy were more than just caricatures. If you are going to write YA, you need to spend some time around your target audience.

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