Workshop: Writing For Young Adults

As part of the Perth Writers Festival, I was lucky enough to participate in a workshop with A.J. Betts on how to write for young adults. As the author of the completely wonderful Text prize winning Zac & Mia (which I read in one sitting) and part time teacher, she’s a pretty great person to listen to on the subject.

157574862013 Australian Edition

As promised, here is a summary of my notes and the writing exercises we worked though. There was a lot of class discussion and general chat that I won’t bother going into, and this is in no way a good substitute for a three hour workshop, but it’s a decent overview and hopefully it’s helpful to some of you.

General Notes: 

  • A Young Adult book is 30k – 100k words, with the average sitting around 50k – 60k.
  • They are divided into chapters, which are usually short and snappy.
  • Young Adult can be divided into Upper YA (14 – 17 year olds) and Lower YA (12 – 14). Each should be relevant to and feature a protagonist in or just above the target age range.
  • This is a great time to get into Young Adult writing. It’s the only area to have seen an increase in book sales, as opposed to a drop in all other categories.
  • Almost 50% of all book sales in (Australian) bookstores are Young Adult books.
  • Young Adult is not a genre. Young Adult fantasy is by far the leading genre, but Young Adult contemporary is making a comeback.
  • The protagonist is a teenager with a distinctive character arc. Adult protagonists can be unchanged by the end of their novel, but Young Adult protagonists should be taken on a journey.
  • Teenagers look forward, while adults look back. Even the most cynical teenagers have some hope for the future, and tend not to dwell too strongly on the past.
  • The protagonist is active, not passive.
  • Whatever the genre or setting, themes are relevant to teenagers: first love, loss, acceptance, independence, friendship, family, etc.
  • Don’t embarrass yourself trying to talk like a teenager, and don’t talk down to your audience. Teenagers can smell inauthenticity a mile away. Remember when your Mum or Dad used to try to sound cool? Yeah. Don’t do that. Use words that will be timeless, not whatever ‘in’ teenage lingo you’re aware of. ‘Cool’ has always been acceptable. ‘Radical’ and ‘wicked sick’ have not.
  • If you have to use pop culture references, try to choose something that will always be recognisable and relevant, not someone/thing who’ll be forgotten in two years. It’ll date your writing, and whatever association you’re trying to make will be lost.
  • Don’t go out of your way to create an ‘original’ character, to the point they seem forced and overly quirky. Everyone has already written every type of character. The important thing is to keep them real and genuine, and tell their story your own way. An authentic character will always shine through.
  • Dialogue is crucial to Young Adult novels. Use it to move the story forward, and make sure the characters sound as real as possible. Listen to the way teenagers talk. Listen to the way adults talk. Listen to the way they interact with each other.
  • Have hope – teenagers prefer endings with a sense of optimism, even if the world is ending – but don’t be cheesy. Teenagers are smarter than they’re given credit for.

Writing Exercises: 

  • I write because…
  • I don’t write because… (what stops you?)
  • I mostly read _____ because…
  • I’m interested in writing for teenagers because…
  • What I really hope to achieve in my writing is…
  • If I could give my fifteen year old self two pieces of advice, they would be…
  • Describe your favourite article of clothing when you were a teenager.
  • Describe a teacher who was odd.
  • Describe the most popular boy or girl at your school.
  • Describe your favourite place to be alone when you were a teenager.

Writing for young adults is not a get rich quick scheme, and it’s not easy. Connecting with teenage readers (or adults who read Young Adult fiction) requires emotional honesty and respect. You have to read Young Adult books, and you have to like young adults (and not in a creepy way).

I got a lot out of this workshop, and Amanda was a fantastic person to listen to. Go out and read her book when you get the opportunity, it’s being released worldwide this year. Comparisons have been made to The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, due to the boy and girl with cancer theme, but the comparison stops there. It’s honest, it’s messy, it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s just really lovely.

Stay tuned for notes on my second workshop, Standing Out From The Crowd with Susan May, focusing on marketing your work as an indie author.

9 thoughts on “Workshop: Writing For Young Adults

    1. I’m glad! It was a really great workshop. At the end of the day, I think the most important things to remember are not to talk down to your audience, and to be as genuine and real as possible. Which is good advice for any audience, really.

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