Last week I asked my Facebook followers: If you could sit down with me over coffee (or tea or wine), what is the one question (any subject) you would ask me? One of my writer friends responded: “How do you write for YAs without ‘talking down’ to them?”
The key is not to write for YAs but to write from the YA perspective. That may sound like quibbling over prepositions, but the distinction is a crucial one. For and from reflect mindsets that guide not only how and what we write but also how we are received (and whether we’re received at all). Personally I prefer to leave out the preposition altogether and just say I write YA.
Now I admit that writing “for” anyone has a nice feel; it’s like creating a gift for readers. Even my master’s degree is in Writing for Children and Young Adults. But remember the first time you got a gift you didn’t want? I recall the excitement of opening an enticingly wrapped gift only to get a sinking feeling when I saw that the shirt inside was something I would never wear. Color, fabric, even design were all wrong. I smiled, of course, and said thanks but never wore the shirt. I don’t want my YA novels to be like that gift. So instead of writing for, I have to write from.
Write from what?
1. Write from a teen point of view.
If the main character is an adult remembering what happened as a teenager, it’s not YA, because the telling of the story is filtered through the adult’s experience-filled point of view. In YA the teen is the relatively inexperienced protagonist, and the story is immediate. The only filter is his or her own mind. Even in a historical YA, the events happen in the teen protagonist’s present or recent past. And if the novel is told in multiple points of view, all viewpoints are generally (though not always) teen POVs. (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is one example of an exception. ‘Death’ narrates, but the protagonist is a teen; the story is immediate and hers.)
2. Write from emotional truth.
A good novel rings true emotionally; a good YA novel rings true to the intensity of teen emotions. Writing YA requires tapping into universal emotions and recalling how intensely we felt them as teens when experiences began skewing less into the childhood realm and more into the adult realm. Remember? So much was new, happening for the first time, and we could magnify small events way out of proportion. We may now have settled, more or less, into adulthood, but we have the same basic emotions. We just have to access them and remember their teen-spiked intensity.
3. Write from the search for identity.
I love this crowd sourced definition of YA from a Publishers Weekly Shelftalker article “The Ultimate YA Definition?“: “If youth was measured by a clock, and the end were to occur when both hands struck twelve, then YA stories are those that take place between 11:59 and a couple seconds after midnight. They end when the protagonist has a foot – or maybe just a toe – planted on both sides of the innocence/experience fence.” YA novels are, naturally, coming-of-age stories. In adolescence the teen’s main task is to move from dependence to independence, to become a person in his or her own right, to form a personal identity: Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I believe in? These are the big questions we grapple with at any age, but in adolescence they’re front and center.
4. Write from a place of hope.
Novels for adults can end in despair; YA novels should end with at least a kernel of hope. Even if the book deals with dark issues, at the end, “There’s a sense that it’s worth waking up tomorrow,” says author Kathryn Reiss.
5. Write from the story inside you.
Ultimately the best advice is to first tell the story that burns inside you, and then see if it belongs on the adult shelf or the YA shelf. Rainbow Rowell is an author of adult novels who wrote the award-winning Eleanor & Park thinking it was an adult book. Why did her publisher categorize it as YA? Because “the novel actually saw the world through their (teen) eyes,” says Nolan Feeney in “The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Young-Adult Fiction Authors.” He quotes Rowell herself as saying, “The perspective was so firmly rooted inside of these teenagers. You’re not looking back or looking down.”
So that’s the key: not looking down at teens, not talking down to teens, not writing to teach them something, but simply writing a good story from their point of view, their world, their emotions.
Happy Reading! Happy Writing!
P.S. Your turn: If you could sit down with me over coffee (or tea or wine) . . . what one question (any subject) would you ask me?
© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com