Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Writing for a young adults audience

Not too long ago I had a post on writing for a middle grade audience. But what about teens?

I really enjoy reading books targeted for young adults, so it’s no surprise that I also enjoy writing for this age group. Teens are passionate readers, many falling in love with their favorite characters. Authors who are able to capture a teen’s voice also capture their readers’ hearts.

Teen novel often delve into tough subjects like absentee parents, drinking and even suicide. You’ll notice the characters in these stories are exploring how they fit in with their peers whereas in middle grade they were figuring out how they fit into the world.

Readers of young adult typically range from 14 all the way up to adult. Although many adults are reading young adult novels, you can’t set out to write the next big crossover book and I don’t feel you should try to do this. If you are writing a young adult novel, then write it for teens. This is your targeted audience.

In young adult, your main character’s age is going to depend on who they are and what conflicts they will face along the way. Getting to know your mc is the first step. So how does a writer get to know a fictional character? Why, by listening to them, or course. 

Some ways of doing this are:
  • Have your mc write a letter either to you or to a supporting character in the story.
  • Sit down and write about them. This can be anything: a big event in their life, how they spent summer vacation, a typical day. What you write may not end up in the story, but it will help you get to know who your characters are.
  • Create character sheets that not only includes basic features (age, color of eyes, etc.), but notes fears, allergies, likes and dislikes. Answer questions like “I love my mom, but …”  “My dad always…”  “I wish…” and  “If I could change one thing…” 

Completing these exercises will help bring out your main character's voice. I believe that voice is everything in a teen novel. Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong formula for creating voice, but if you have a strong and unique voice your writing will stand out from others. And if your characters don’t sound like a teenager, you’re going to lose your readers.

What is voice? It’s word choice, style and reflection. It’s seeing the world through a teen’s eyes. To help bring out your mc’s voice, bring things back to them. For instance, a character may comment on a poster they have hanging in their bedroom: I can’t believe I still have that unicorn poster on the wall. Or they may notice that a person’s eyes are the same green as their grandmothers.

To improve the authenticity of your character’s voice, visit places where teens hang out. Observe their actions, body language and speech. Take a notepad with you and jot down what they do and say. Okay, this may seem a little creepy, but as a writer we watch people all the time anyway and I’m not suggesting you sit across from them with a notepad and pen like you’re directing the scene. Blend in. Have a cup of coffee and a book in front of you. Wear headphones with no music. Attend high school sports, plays and other events that are open to the public.

This brings me to the last part of my notes. Plot. The first thing I'd like to say is...

Hook is not plot. Hook is what draws your reader in.
Plot is what carries your reader from page one to the end of the book.

I have this in my middle grade notes, but since it applies to young adult too, I felt it was worth repeating.

So how do you develop plot? You think about what is important to teens the same age as your mc. Then, you ask yourself if the conflicts make sense to a person of fourteen or sixteen, etc.

Things to remember when writing for young adults:
  • Teens are not dumber than adults. They've just had less life experiences.
  • Teens are complex.
  • Include inner monologue.
  • It’s okay for things not to be black and white. There can be gray areas in young adult.
  • Your character should grow during the course of his or her story.

Things to avoid:
  • Stay away from trendy teen-speak. This changes quickly and will date your novel.
  • Don’t be vague. Your story can’t be absent of details.
  • Don’t chase trends, meaning don’t set out to write a vampire book just because that is the current hot selling trend. Do write what you know and enjoy reading yourself. Trust me, if you don’t like fantasy or dystopian or historical fiction you’re not going to be able to write it well because your story won’t be coming from the heart.

I hope you found some of my notes helpful. If you have any tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.


  1. Great advice, Cherie! I like the part about avoiding current teen speak too. By the time I know what words teens are using, they're likely out of date anyway hee hee.

  2. Re: Hook is not plot. Hook is what draws your reader in.
    Plot is what carries your reader from page one to the end of the book.

    That is so very true. This applies to anything, whether writing for YA, MG or adult.

    Also, you are spot on about writing what you enjoy, not chasing trends. That can turn disasterous and leave a writer staring at 80k words of something they just don't care for.

  3. Cherie, I love this post! You have said many profound writing tools in a few paragraphs. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! Thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday! I'm signing up to follow you! And congrats on your soon-to-be-released book!!!

  4. Great advice! I think this is something all beginning authors should remember, and it's something those of us who have been doing it for a while need to remember, too.

  5. Jen, I know what you mean.

    Angela, I’ve always felt a writer should write what they know and love.

    Thank you, Megan and Candy!

  6. Awesome awesome post.

    My favorite part: "Teens are not dumber than adults."

    I think we all need to say that together: TEENS ARE NOT DUMBER THAN ADULTS.

    (I work with college students, and this assumption is my biggest pet peeve, like, EVER.)

  7. This was great advice. And this -- Stay away from trendy teen-speak. This changes quickly and will date your novel -- made me laugh. Definitely stay away from it. Not only does it date your novel, it sounds RIDICULOUS. I'm 19 and I still roll my eyes at "teen-speak."

  8. Leigh, I agree with you. It's a big pet peeve of mine too.

    Fancesca, I haven't been a teen for, well awhile, and teen speak in a novel sounds ridiculous to me too. Usually, it sounds forced and pulls me out of the story.

  9. Hi Cherie. I'm a new follower. Glad I found you.
    Love the advice, really meaty. I'm deep in revisions, so the best advice I've seen recently (which pertains to all genres, but especially in fast-paced YA) is: "Do you jump too quickly into the action, and not give ANY hints as to what's going on?

    I love to consider why people love mysteries: beacause they figure out what happens WITH the main character. But they can't do that without clues!"
    This comes from Natalie Lakosil over at adventuresinagentland.blogspot.com. It's easy to get caught up in creating action and excitement, but you can't forget to leave clues for your reader so they can 'get there' along with your MC. Otherwise you leave them confused. Like I said, I'm struggling with this in this third round of revisions for my YA Fantasy.

  10. @magpiewrites, that is great advice and I have heard that before too. It is difficult to avoid jumping into action too quickly while not starting too slow. I struggle with finding a happy balance. I'm always rewriting the opening chapters of my WIP trying to find the right pace with the right clues to keep a reader wanting to know more.

  11. Excellent posts, this one and the one about MG. Glad you pointed me to them.