10 Steps to Write a Young Adult Fiction that Sells
Authors have always written books for children. A few of the famous authors include Beatrice Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), J. R. R Tolkien (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). Young adults are also a part of the broad category of children’s books. As a separate category, it came into prominence in the 1960s and gained popularity in the late 1990s.
The term Young Adult itself is a bit vague. Michael Cart, author and former president of Young Adult Library Services Association, explained, “The term ‘young adult literature’ is inherently amorphous, for its constituent terms’ young adult’ and ‘literature’ are dynamic, changing as culture and society — which provide their context — change.” 1
Young adult literature is literature for and about teens that cater to the segment between children’s books and adult books. It is for readers that fall between these two segments. It is divided further into romance, paranormal, mystery, fantasy, horror and literary fiction.
The Target Audience
It’s essential to know your readers before you start writing for them. Unlike other book genres, young adult fiction or literature caters to two kinds of readers. First and definitely, the primary readership is the 12 to 18 years age group. A secondary readership is adults. Because even though this category targets teens, adults make up approximately half of this readership. About 55% of purchases of young adult fiction is by adults.2
If you have set your sights on writing for this age group, then read on to learn about young adult literature in general and how to go about writing it.
A Brief History of Young Adult Literature
Many books considered to be young adult literature were actually written for adults. They were later categorized as young adult fiction. Some examples are The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.
Young adult fiction falls in the scope of young adult literature. Let’s first look at a brief history of young adult literature.
1. The 1940s and 1950s: Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys led the blossoming of Young Adult fiction in the 1960s.
2. The 1970s: Young adult literature moved away from traditional roots tackling more realistic and controversial issues. It was considered the first golden age of young adult literature. Themes such as death, sex, underage drinking, homelessness, and drug use. Noteworthy books from this time are- The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970), Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks (1971), Heads You Win, Tails I Lose by Isabelle Holand (1973), The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974), Forever by Judy Blume (1975), I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan (1975), Gentlehands by M.E. Kerr (1978), and Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (1979).
3. The 1980s: Many authors began writing for teenagers in the 1980s. The Sweet Valley High series reached the New York Times paperback bestseller list. Authors also started experimenting with style and genre.
Noteworthy books from this time are- Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (1980), Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers (1983), Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal (1983), The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (1984), The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin (1986), Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986), and Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989).
4. The 1990s: The horror genre continued in this decade as the Goosebumps series exploded. Around this time, fewer young adult novels were published. However, in the 90s, a rise in youth culture helped young adult writing come to the foreground. Much of the credit for the explosion of young adult fiction goes to Harry Potter. More about it in the next section.
Noteworthy books from this decade are The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney (1990), The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening by L.J. Smith (1991), Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (1992), The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993), Sabriel by Garth Nix (1995), Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen (1998), The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999), and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999).
5. The 2000s: Many awards for young adult fiction were created in the 2000s. It was considered the second golden age in young adult literature. Twilight and The Hunger Games made the paranormal and dystopian genres popular.
Noteworthy books of this decade are The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (2000), Feed by M.T. Anderson (2002), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005), Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (2005), Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005), American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007), and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008).
6. The 2010s: This decade saw a diversity of voices and topics covered under young adult fiction. Writers of color wrote on previously forbidden topics like cultural differences, race violence, and homosexuality.
Noteworthy books of this decade are The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, To All the Boys I have Loved Before by Jenny Han, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and Maze Runner titles by James Dashner.
The Rise in the Sales of Young Adult Fiction
The credit for the explosion of young adult fiction in the 90s goes to the phenomenon of Harry Potter. Harry Potter is not technically a young adult. He is middle grade, but it still had an impact on young adult literature. First released in the U.K. in 1997, Harry Potter has dominated young adult fiction culturally ever since. It was unique that the books (many call it a franchise) grew up along with its readers for the first time. Unlike the series written in the ’80s and much of ’90s, some young adult fiction was serialized but could be read in any order. Examples are Goosebumps and The Baby-sitter’s Club. But Harry Potter was different. The characters in the Harry Potter books grew up along with the readers. They worked well for 12-year-olds as well as for 25-year-olds. Harry Potter was also instrumental in breaking the idea that some books are appropriate for certain ages. It made the books timeless and helped open the doors to the young adult literature revival.
It is what the shift means in numbers. The number of young adult titles published in 2002 was 4,700. By 2012, it had more than doubled to over 10,000 young adult titles. That’s for the print books.
Now, let’s look at ebooks. Young adult eBooks also exploded around the same time. The point to be kept in mind is that the digital book market also expanded around this time. However, the percentage of growth in sales for young adult books exceeds that of young adult ebooks. It means that the young adult market was booming.
Quite a lot of the popularity of young adult fiction had to do with movie adaptations. Bestsellers such as Suzanne Collins’s dystopian Hunger Games trilogy, John Green’s love story The Fault in Our Stars, and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, were also made into movies and drew the reading public to their books.
The entire young adult category has been driving publishing growth in the past few years. It flattened out in the past year, but it is still ahead of other categories. Industry experts predict dystopian and horror genres to make a comeback because of how the world is now. Other predictions include more adaptations of young adult fiction for small and big screens. .
Features of Young Adult Literature
You know how popular this category is. Now let’s look at what features define it. You might need to incorporate some or all of them in your book.
- The age of the characters: Usually, the characters are those the reader can identify themselves with. Hence, the characters are either teenagers themselves or not much older than the age group they are intended for. For example, Aristotle is fifteen years old in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
- The high emotional stakes: Successful young adult books have one thing in common. The emotional stakes are very high. For example, the fate of the world lay in the hands of the teenage protagonists. It creates an emotional intensity that matches the raging hormones of the teenage audience. For example, in The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins, teenagers have to fight each other to death on a reality T.V. show.
- The point of view: Usually, young adult books are written in the first-person narrative. It is because teenagers like to read about other teenagers. If written in the third person, then it is a very sympathetic third-person point of view. For example, in The Hate U Give (2017) covers serious issues from the perspective of the teenage female protagonist.
- The absence of adult figures: In young adult stories, adults usually stay out of the main action so that the young adults can take center stage and accomplish the work they have to do. For example, in the Lord of the Flies (1954), the children would not have started hunting had an adult been around. If adults do appear, they are mentors and not parents, and the teen has to sort out their own problems.
- The fast-paced narrative: Young adult fiction is fast-paced. The teens, the primary audience, read for entertainment. Without a quick pace, they will not be willing to wait patiently for the action to unfold. The quick pace is also why there are a limited number of characters and fewer narrative events. Also, the language flows naturally, so you might want to incorporate informal everyday language. The trendy and popular language is often important in young adult fiction.
- The variety of genres: The young adult category includes several genres in it. Young adults are interested in non-fiction, poetry, drama, science fiction, historical fiction, and even graphic novels.
- The mood is optimistic, and characters make worthy achievements: Young adults in young adult books know what they are doing, and often more than adults do. It appeals to the readers. Teenage is a very crucial time in terms of the development of an individual’s personality. The books show young adult characters making decisions and solving challenging problems, which is very attractive to young adult readers.
Recurring Themes in Young Adult Fiction
You know the features of young adult literature. Now let’s look at some popular themes which keep appearing in young adult fiction.
- Coming of age: The transition from childhood to adulthood is a popular theme in young adult fiction. The protagonist faces many problems or challenges which are connected to this transition. They face emotional change, either alone or with the help of others. Examples: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Holes by Louis Sachar.
- Building relationships: Another popular theme in young adult fiction is building relationships. The protagonist faces many trials and difficulties which they could not overcome without the help of their family and friends. Usually, the relationship between the main character and their close circle of parents and friends start out being weak and becomes stronger as they overcome their problems. Examples: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
- Self-discovery: In young adult fiction, a popular theme is of self-discovery. The protagonist faces many obstacles and overcomes them and, through this process, learns about themselves. He or she questions existing norms and seeks to find a way by themselves, making them their own person. It inspires others to follow them. Examples: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis Searching for God in the Garbage by Bracha Goetz.
- Dealing with loss: Young adult fiction often addresses uncomfortable topics like losing someone or something special. Sometimes that could be an animal, a thing, or a person. This loss is not always death. It could also be a missing parent and the loss of close emotional bonds. The story tells us the way the protagonist heals this loss and learns from it. Examples: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan.
- Young love: Young adults are supremely aware of their changing feelings towards the opposite sex. Hence, romantic relationships are a huge draw. The main character or protagonist’s first love, first kiss, first heartbreak, and first rejection, all help the protagonist love unconditionally without judgment. Examples: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks.
- Dark side: Young adult fiction seems to be a bubbly happy category, but some books tackle the dark side of humanity: suicide, racism, teenage pregnancy, rape, social inequality, mental illness, etc. The young adult protagonist confronts this dark side and learns to process this experience. Examples: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn.
Steps to Follow When Writing Young Adult Fiction
Finally, now that you have an excellent understanding of young adult literature, let’s look at how to write a young adult novel.
1. Understand your audience:
Teenage is a very intense time. Young adult literature should address this quality of its readership. Think of yourself as a teenager and recollect all the experiences that you have had. If you do that, you will be able to write a book for young adults that resonates with them.
2. Don’t dumb it down:
Many people think that young adult fiction is adult fiction dumbed down. It could not be farther from the truth. Writers of young adult fiction recognize the intelligence of the teen and celebrate it in their works. You need to write as well, if not better, for teens. Remember, an adult might finish a book out of a sense of duty, but a teen will drop it if it does not interest them.
3. Have characters of the right age:
The main character should be between the ages of 12 and 18. There is a difference between adult novels in which adults look back to their teenage years to relate their story and young adult novels in which the main character experiences their own story in the present or past. An example of the former is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides. An example of the latter is His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman.
4. Be authentic:
A young adult novel is almost always from a teen point of view. So make sure that a teen’s experiences are being portrayed rather than an analytical adult’s. Therefore, be authentic to the characters and the plot rather than forcing any developments into the story.
5. Create rounded characters:
The development of your characters for young adults should be as it is for adults—rounded and well-formed. Stay away from stock characters and stereotypes. Create flesh and blood characters whose wants, feelings, and desires engage the reader.
6. Find a unique voice for your protagonist:
Your protagonist is your unique creation. His or her voice should convey this uniqueness through word choice, sentence length, paragraph length, punctuation, and cadence. This applies to not just direct dialogue but every word on the page. You might have to work a bit to find this unique voice.
7. Address rather than avoid dark issues:
Not all young adult fiction needs to be about light, frothy material. If your story is light, it is fine. If your story is dark, there is no need to avoid it. Young adults are mature enough to handle dark topics provided they are written sensitively. For example, When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina is about the Soweto uprising in 1976 in South Africa.
8. Don’t force-fit into a trend:
There are trends in young adult publishing which rise and fall just like trends everywhere. For instance, a few years ago, dystopian and horror were selling well. However, they might not last. It’s best not to follow a trend because you might end up force-fitting your book, which might not work.
9. Focus on the language:
The language of young adult fiction is quite important just as it is for adult books. You need to keep the language to the level of young adults. It has to feel natural to the age category as well. Look out for language quirks of teens that you can use in your book.
10. Don’t preach:
Finally, no matter what you do, don’t preach from a position of adult authority. As a writer, it is your job to be sympathetic to your characters and readers and not teach either a lesson. Any moralizing or preaching is a big put off for your young adult and adult reader as well.
To sum up, you now have a broad overview of young adult literature starting from its readership, its brief history, its popularity, its features, its recurring themes, and you also now know the steps to follow when writing for young adult readers. You should be confident enough to get started on your novel right away.