Writing Excuses 4.10: Writing for Young Adults

Jessica Day George joins the Writing Excuses crew again, this time for a discussion of writing for young adults, and maybe for teens, or even middle-grade readers. This isn’t a podcast about rigidly defining the boundary between the YA and middle-grade genres, though. That’s publishing. We’re talking about writing.

If you enjoyed last week’s discussion with the sweeping generalizations and the appropriate application thereof, this ‘cast should be every bit as intriguing. What are teenagers interested in, and how is that different from what interests adults? Do stories need to be simplified for teenagers, or are we underestimating them when we do that? How does the age of your protagonist determine the age-group to whom your publisher will market the book? Why is it genre-appropriate for Dumbledore to repeatedly withhold crucial information from Harry, Hermione, and Ron?

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Dragon’s Blood by Jane Yolen, because a pit-fighting dragon is way cooler than the dragons of Christopher Paolini.

Writing Prompt: Take a protagonist younger than about 16 and put him or her in charge of a group of adults.

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28 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.10: Writing for Young Adults”

  1. Excellent podcast. Unfortunately explaining the kid-in-charge scenario is far too easy, all you need is a hereditary monarchy. As I recall, Edward VI of England was crowned at age 9.

    Regarding Dumbledore’s lack of disclosure, it’s still a disconnect, just not the instinctive one. An old man with proven competancy does not generally trust a 12 year old to do essential things for him. (spoiler tag) In book 2, he sends his pet phoenix and a magical hat that has sword generating abilities to a 12 year old so he can duel a 100+ foot long snake with venom more corrosive than 18 molar sulphiric acid and eyes that can either instantly kill or turn to stone (I forget which it was in the book). To top it off, he’s probably well aware that there’s an heir of Slytherin there as well, which probably means Voldemort or a close associate thereof (or in this case, a memory made flesh). If you had the ability to magically kick butt the way Dumbledore is supposed to, what do you do? Go in and save the kid, or give him a bird and a goofy hat that might give him a sword and hope he can work things out on his own? As for him not being able to get in…the bird got in. Surely a wizard of Dumbledore’s capabilities is able to keep up with a bird. (end spoilers/rant)

    If I’m hearing you guys correctly, the essential point for young adult writing, at least in a modern setting, is that young adults (which seems to be the phrase for “kids old enough to require more complex stories than inane fairy tales”) tend to avoid books that rely on complex world issues, which tends to limit their interest to high schools, and to break this you have to have high-school-esque cliques, one-upmanship, childish romance and the other elements that makes high school a first rate nightmare (at least for social misfits like me) in reality?

  2. I have a theory about why the whiny stage in Harry Potter doesn’t work. I like to call it the He lived in a staircase syndrome. The way his life is described to us at the beginning of the first book shows a boy that really has been horribly abused. Yet he is still a happy cheerful go lucky boy. fast forward a few years later and he is depressed, moody, and hates the world. This never fit for me, Harry’s quality of life increased amazingly when he went to Hogwarts. For the first time in his life he has friends, he has good food, good clothes, a real room. He is learning magic! That’s way better than eating leftovers, being locked under a staircase, getting beat up every day, wearing hand-me-down clothing that was way too big. Sure he faces a lot of trials, but he was never your typical kid, and while the whole school may not shower praise and affection on him at all times well he should be use to that. At least no one is beating him up anymore. Anyways that’s my Harry Potter rant.
    Brandon: Another great dragon book is the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey. (Ride half feral dragons into war)
    I’ve begun writing books aimed at the YA Genre. I tried to create a mix of older and younger characters. My main character is an 18 year old girl but she is surrounded by people of varying ages, ranging from 18 to 231 :P. I hoped to be able to give her a more balanced and mature way of dealing with situations while still allowing her to be a teen.
    I think there is definitely teenager’s that do love the books based around high school. My sister loves reading the books about high school girls and their drama. I think this tactic works best for the younger half of YA. Don’t underestimate young readers abilities to cope with new situations and locations. Reading book after book about the high school kids who pull off some crazy adventure against impossible odds gets old. Sure your setting can be in a high school but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make it reasonable.

  3. @Rashkavar: Okay, you found an easy answer. Now find a tough one. This is a writing prompt, not a pop quiz.

    Or, if you want to go with the easy answer, make it hard on the protagonist: the child inherits the throne, and the adults will NOT listen. Not even the Lord Regent, who is supposed to help the child grow into his authority. The only person who actually heeds the child is the half-mad scullery maid who (dun dun DUNN!) has a secret…

  4. When I read the Harry Potter series I remember thinking that Dumbeldore didnt treat harry the way that a 100 (or whatever he was) year old wizard would treat what is effectively a junior high student. That he treated Harry way too adult (is that the word?) and it didnt fit for me.

    Now, I do think Katherine Kurtz did a decent job of showing a “kid” being shown as having to learn to lead adults in her Deryni books.

    Now I could be misremembering those, and mis-comparing them, I first started reading the Deryni stuff when I was in my teens, and I read the HP books in my late 30s…

  5. another interesting example of kids in authority over adults is to use an example from military history. Junior officers, upon exiting their schooling and heading out to serve, were sometimes as young as 12 or 13 during the age-of-sail. They may have been junior officers, butt hey were still officers, and the enlisted men were supposed to obey any lawful order the kid gave them.

    I’m using a model similar to this where all the officers of a special forces unit are teenaged wizards in command of elite non-magical commandoes twice (or more) their age. These kids have spent most of their lives learning magic and learning officer’s duties solely so they could serve in this elite military unit.

    They have the advantage of very experienced NCOs to help them not make terminally stupid decisions, but in the end, the final call is theirs.

  6. Jane Yolen’s pit-fighter dragons, yay! I love those books. They still have an honoured place in my book shelf.

    For writing kids I turn to my mother. She has 30-something years of kindergarten experience and we’ve had plenty of discussions on the mindsets of three-year-olds compared to seven-year-olds. So that’s my advice for writing children if you don’t have access to them; find a teacher.

    But when I write young teens, they tend to come out much like I myself was at that age; I was the brilliant misfit more commonly found discussing something with the grown ups than spending time with other kids. My parents tell me I was always like that; serious and likely to partake in adult discussions. I made my grandpa’s new wife (horrid woman, by the way…) hate me when I was eleven because I in a civil manner disagreed with her on a matter of politics, and I had the facts to back it up while all she had was pretty phrases, and she couldn’t take being challenged (and, hrm, logically flattened) by a kid.

    I know *all* kids aren’t like that, but I find it difficult to get into the mindset of anything else. Small kids are fine, those I can do, thanks to observation of little cousins and my helpful mom. But teens are difficult. All my teen viewpoint characters end up serious-above-their-age.

  7. Naw! <3 The Jane Yolen books is fantastic. I need to get over to my parents home and find them in the basement and give them a quick reread.

    About young leadership and the writing prompt, I think adults quite gracefully submit to an young leader in a an area of expertise and in a specific situation. I been doing martial arts for most of my life and instructed adults four times my own age as a teen. In martial arts you have a really clear hierarchy only based on belt color. And as soon as a group of beginners have accepted that sort of thinking on the mat they do easily accept being instructed and forced to do pushups til they are about to trow up by a 15 year old.

    But I believe that that sort of hierarchy would snap as soon as the situation changes, if the building down the street was on fire the group would snap out of the hierarchy by belt and the firefighting effort would get a leader that stepped forward in the new situation, probably someone older and more experienced.

    As a side note I find it funny and interesting from my Scandinavian perspective that in a discussion about writing for young adults sex wasn't one of the big themes. Because the when you're in you teens the big mysteries in life about sexuality, desire, and sexual identity and that something you¨re struggling too figure out and what to read about. It wouldn't be a theme in all young adults book but a strong theme in many of them. But cultural differences is interesting.

  8. I’d like to think that classifying something as YA vs. adult doesn’t matter, except that I heard one story from a YA horror writer who had a “first look” contract with his publisher, but didn’t get on with his editor, who wanted girly stuff. He wrote a book that he liked, but that he knew his editor would hate – a YA horror with two boy protagonists and lots of fun boy stuff. Only another editor at the publisher looked at it, loved it, and offered him more money than his original editor ever did. All things rosy, yes? Until the new editor left the company and his book was given to his old editor, who hated it and demanded that he change the boys to older girls and add hot guys and sparkly puppies, everything that he hated, but that comes to a lot of peoples’ minds when you say “YA” these days.

    To me, YA fantasy has always meant authors like Lloyd Alexander and Diana Wynne Jones, or Bartimaeus or Narnia or Harry Potter (the only “school” books I’ll read, though I completely agree, I did not care for the teen angst in the later books). So many of us adults reading YA these days, though a lot of it used to be in the adult section of the book store.

  9. Hey, long time listener, first time cal- I mean, commenter.

    I’m sure this is how these comments always go, but I love your podcast. As an aspiring comics creator, not only are Howard’s comments useful to me, but I feel like the people around me in comics ignore conventional writing advice, so I love that aspect too. The contrasts between you three really makes the podcast stick out.

    But, and I’m sure you were expecting this, I have to say that my experience with manga, I think, disproves the idea the teenagers only like to read about relationships (although I’m assuming you mean romantic relationships, but I could be wrong…) and high school. It’s true that the manga market is glutted with high school manga, but if you look at the most popular and influential, most of them have nothing to do with either topics, and even when a character is in high school, the fact seems almost irrelevant. In fact, many of them feature adults, although for the most part there will be at least one or two younger characters.

    I do feel there are common themes which run through the popular manga (and most popular fiction in general), but I worry that this post is long and rambling as it is, so I think I’ll hold off on that for now. I will point out, however, that I don’t think any of us had trouble looking up to Han Solo, or Luke Skywalker, or Indiana Jones despite those characters being 10-20 years older than we were as children. I always felt it was odd that there’s such an odd gap in fiction targeted towards YA and teens, since even as a kid adults seem relatable (at least to my memory).

    But then again, that isn’t my expertise, so I must defer to your superior knowledge and experience. I hope this doesn’t make you think I have some sort of ax to grind with a comment like this. I just felt like I should chip in in some way. Thanks again so much for taking this time out of your weeks to do a podcast like this.

  10. I saw this podcast last night and I was excited for work today because I listen to the podcasts at work. :P

    My currect protagonist is 17. In the previous book, she is 12, but I don’t really think of her as the protagonist in that book.

    Anyways, I figured out a way for it not to be creepy to hang around high schools… I teach high school. haha. I bounce ideas off students that are interested to see if they would be interested in my book. The danger here is that they could be saying they like it, because they like me as a teacher or because they think their mark depends on it.

    But the honest ones, (ie the ones that I’m not teaching) are excited about this idea. I’m looking forward to shopping this one around.

    The other good way to see if it is what teens would read, ask some teens to read it. They’ll tell you if they like it or not. They will also tell you what you messed up. haha.

  11. There were those Thai twins who led a guerrilla army as teenagers because it was believed they had magical powers. And I recall an episode of ST:TNG where Capt. Picard was turned into a child by the transporter. (Those are my contributions: magical children and transporter accidents.)

  12. A sixteen year old, leading a group of adults, eh? I wonder how the writing excuses crew would do if the producer was a sixteen year old girl? :)

    I think that the distinction between YA and adult is much more fuzzy than the distinction between YA and middle grade. There are a lot of adults out there who love to read YA books, but not very many who read younger than that (except in the case of the Alcatraz series, but I think that those were mislabled as middle grade). And while it isn’t true that adults are just bigger teenagers, it’s not exactly a lie, either.

  13. Absolutely love Alcatraz by the way. ( A matter of fact, I dreamed of it last night and it put me in a good mood the whole morning)

    I never cared for the high school type books and I have always preferred some meaningful relationships between the characters rather then just a childish crush. Maybe it’s just me though.

    Oh, and I am glad I’m not the only one annoyed by the later Harry Potter books. I was reading them during the height of Harry Potter-isem and was wondering if something was wrong with me because I didn’t enjoy the later books (any thing from Goblet of Fire on) and I didn’t even read the last one.

  14. At ArmadilloCon last summer, a lot of people asked the YA panel about the difference between YA and adult. The only real difference mentioned was that the main character had a “cone of safety” – nothing really bad was going to happen to them, at least not on screen – though bad things can happen to other characters.

    On adults loving YA books – so many of the most popular movies these days are the ones for all ages, like the Pixar movies. People want to have fun.

  15. @Matthew: that’s a good point, but it’s hard to deny the overwhelming preponderance of YA-targeted Manga that is set in school, and that includes lots of relationship stuff.

    Of course that’s not ALL that it’s about. It’s just that in order to cement YA interest, those things are almost always present.

  16. I second @Lisa’s mourning of the “Buy Dan Bacon” button.

    Speaking of, why “Buy Dan’s Book” all singular-like and just the Amazon link to the first book in the series? I ordered “Mr. Monster” from the UK super-easily with their awesome free international shipping.

  17. I had a few issues with some of the ideas put forth in the podcast.

    First, while many popular manga and anime such as Bleach or Code Geass are set ostensibly in high school, I think it’s important to realize that it’s not necessarily because the readers of those manga are so desirous of high school settings. School provides a convenient shorthand for many writers and readers, but plenty of other shorthand/genres are available. There’s also the issue that most children in our world at the age of manga characters would be in school, so if you’re using and earth based setting, school is going to be a major aspect of that setting.

    Pure sci-fi and fantasy manga/anime have been very popular, even set mostly outside of a school setting. To Aru Majutsu no Index and its spinoff take place primarily when the characters are out of school. So do Eureka Seven, One Piece, and Full Metal Alchemist. Yet these are among some of the most popular manga/anime ever. The manga/anime community is just as divided among genres as adult or YA fiction, and I think it’s a mistake to say that the vast majority of manga/anime are school-centric.

    Another important factor is the sector of the YA audience to which you are writing. SFF readers are often among the smarter, more mature readers in the YA sector, and they often read up quite a bit more than their peers. Many are also not exactly enjoying the school experience. They may also connect more with adults or older young adults. I think you’d find a lot less need for a school setting when writing for this part of the readership.

    Some very popular YA in this genre include Garth Nix, whose “Seventh Tower” and “Old Kingdom”series were not set in school, and yet sold quite well. Similarly with Narnia, Cirque du Freak, The Giver, and other material. Anne McCaffrey’s Pegasus/Talent series, or her PERN or Tower and Hive series. The list goes on.

    Now, “relationship stuff” is pretty prevalent across all genres, whether it be moony teenagers or moony middle-agers.

    I don’t have quite as much experience in other genres. But it seems like a lot of YA mystery is not necessarily set in school. There’s also a fair amount of non-school horror.

    tl;dr: Yes, school is both a common setting and a common theme, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessary or sufficient to attract YA readers.

  18. I think the key element in YA is the protagonist’s quest to define themself. The relationship/social hierarchy stuff creates superficial reader identification, but the ultimate psychological struggle of adolescence is the establishment of an independent identity; if that is present in a book, it will resonate with teens. Well, at least this teen (but as you can probably tell, I’m a bit weird).

    Just a thought: you might not want to promote Dragon’s Blood on the grounds that pit fighting dragons are cool. I don’t think the book promotes animal abuse, but putting it that way makes it seem like it could, and that could put off readers who are sensitive to animal rights issues but would appreciate the unique, nuanced, and authentic characters and story.

  19. Great podcast, as my current project is YA, but that’s not really why I’m commenting…

    Though the Pit Dragon Trilogy is not the first fantasy/SF story I was exposed to or read, it is undeniably the first one that made me really love the genre. Eight or so years after reading it (when I was in the seventh grade), I can still remember many plot points, character quirks and setting elements… more than I can say for some of the books I’ve read more recently. Thanks for promoting it, and for reminding me that I’ve been meaning to dig it up for a reread.

  20. I read manga, and I believe your ideas on it are a bit skewed. In actuality, not even half of them are aimed at teenagers, and even less of those are set in highschools.

    I hated children’s fiction, and was overly happy when I discovered that there was more out there.

  21. I know I’ve a few years late to the show, but thought I had a comment that still might be useful. It was specifically how the children thought and processed information in Ender’s Game that attracted me to the book back when I was a child. I loved it because it was the first book that felt like it accurately represented how children thought. I made the mistake of sharing the book with a few adults, who disliked the book because they thought that children didn’t think that way.

    There are three ways that a child’s thinking can be portrayed: how adults think children process information, how children think they process information, and how they really do. A book will be a hit with children if it does the second option well, but it will get past adults if it does the first one well.

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