I know, *another* panel on writing YA. Yet every single one I've attended seems to tackle the subject in a different way. Here's what the authors at ECCC 2014 had to say.
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Writing for Young Adults
Ellen Guon Beeman, Lisa Mantchev
Moderator: Ren Cummins
How would you define the differences that distinguish YA fiction from all the other genres?
EGB: It's like Pixar said. About how storytelling is approached. Write the stories you want to tell, then take out bits not suitable for a young audience. Emotionally resonant stories that have strong impact and serious issues, then make sure they’re appropriate for a younger audience.
LM: Enjoyed YA when growing up, and didn’t sit down thinking, “This is a YA novel and needs to be X, Y, Z”. The character determines the story. Different imprints deal with diff stuff. Range of what’s considered acceptable. Various editors have certain preferences. Tell the story your characters are bringing you and they will decide where it’s slotted.
How has having children influenced, tailored or changed your perceptions in writing stories?
EGB: Part of it was edgy and not intended for younger readers, but having daughters – thought, “I can write stuff they can’t read, or I can write stuff for them.” So she writes for them.
LM: Wrote a lot of short fiction, then wrote a novel with a small child. Want to expose kids to certain ideas but have them ask questions. Writing the novels when she was small she didn’t think about it. But now as she’s older she thinks about the books that are out there on the market, and what’s missing. As a parent she brings that into her writing. You find you write edgier as your children get older, and will also write for your core audience aging to keep them as readers. Pushes herself out of comfort zones.
Can you gently nudge your tone, age the books up with your characters and readers? (i.e. Rowling did it brilliantly over 7 books)
LM: When you get to a certain age, everything is typically darker, more important. It naturally edges up over multiple books. The character looks back and sees everything that’s happened.
EGM: Something to be said for providing parents with age-appropriate, too.
There seems to be a requisite that protagonists have to be in the same age range as main character. Do you believe that’s a requirement?
LM: Doesn’t happen as often in YA, as they’re specifically going after readers looking for a certain experience in target parameters, targeted age range is because the readers are looking for someone that’s like them.
EGB: Baen books doesn’t do kids books, so the characters are typically older.
LM: Not every agent handles every genre, but also certain agents represent specific age ranges.
EGB: Wrote a very dark story, then translated it down to childrens' books.
LM: Amazon is getting into publishing, acquiring books and putting them out in hardcover; hopefully they will promote the heck out of it
LM: Really do write the story you love and needs to be told, and throw yourself into it, with the understanding that the more passion you put into it, the better end product it is going to be. This is especially true for YA because those books are the refuges, the places to escape when things are bad. There’s a responsibility when it’s being targeted at YA. Your books may be read by someone who needs those words.
LM: Have a teenager read what you’ve written to get their feedback. The voice and cadence. Soak in dialogue. Also, don’t date it with references.
LM: Teenagers have the most disposable income.
How have you found collaborating with other writers?
EGB: When you reach the “I hate this book” stage of the writing process, writing collaboratively is really fun, and the energy is great, too.
LM: It also helps the voice. Google Docs can be fun to collaborate with as well.
Audience Question: What about writing characters older than readers?
You want your characters to be a few years older than your target audience. Lots of people reading it, still read it. Another reason why the New Adult.
Audience Question: When writing other genders, other sexualities, affect the telling of the story, and who will publish it?
LM: Depends on the publisher. If the story is good, it will find a home.
EGB: Readability matters.
Audience Question: How far is too far with romance?
LM: Again, depends on the publisher. There are lots of YA books that include and describe sexual content, and lots that only hint at it. There is some concern about blowback from libraries, school libraries, parents, so it narrows the margin about what concerns each publisher may have. They’re less concerned about the content than what it provokes.
EGB: Has to be plot-important, integral to the story. Every plot element needs to be integral to the story.
LM: Put it in there and wait for someone to tell you about it, if it’s an issue. Won’t stop a publisher from acquiring a book that they love. Put it in there, they’ll tell you how much they want you to dial it back, then it’s up to you to decide how much you’re okay with.
Audience Question: Is there a relationship between the story’s reading audience and protagonists being too young or too old? Usually it seems to makes more sense to go older with a character’s age than the age of the readers.
LM: Sometimes the story calls for the character to start younger and age older. As a kid you don’t want to read about younger characters, but as an older reader, everything goes. 17 is usually a good age.
EGB: The age of the character is often pegged by the story being told. Starts with the story she wants to write then decides the age category.
LM: Also, in a large cast, the best friend is often a year younger or older.
EGB: The love interests are, too.
Audience Question: Do you have any advice for encouraging young writers? What would you tell them?
LM: There are internet resources – tons of online resources. Try NaNoWriMo, but don’t wait for November. January is a fantastic month. But for a novelist, every month is NaNo. It teaches them to meet deadlines and expectations. For the ones who want to keep going, there are workshops taught by writers. Let them find critique groups, too, as peer editing and review is educational and you learn how to deal with it. And if you learn how to say something doesn’t work in someone else’s work, you learn to see your own errors.
EGB: Critique group format: 1-1.5K per session, the writer reads it out loud, everyone takes notes. Always start with something positive. Sandwiching good-bad-good isn’t required, but can be helpful, too.