Writing for Young Adults

'Corn' by Katya Becerra

In October I went to an ExpressMedia event – Talking YA at the Wheeler Centre. What I originally thought to be an evening of wonderful Melbourne-based author Leanne Hall talking solo about writing YA (that's industry talk for ‘Young Adult fiction’) turned out to be an even better thing – a conversation between Leanne and Adele Walsh. Adele is Program Coordinator for the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria.

As an avid reader and an emerging YA writer myself, here are the key points I took away from the event:

When writing YA, imagine writing for yourself as a young adult

By far this is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard from an established writer. And so this got me thinking. Looking back at my own YA Project I realize that on a subconscious level I have been going just that – writing for myself as a teen. But what a peculiar and worrisome creature I was! I suspect that what I would have loved to read as a teen wouldn’t necessarily appeal to many others that age. And here is why: when I reminisce about what I was reading when I was a kid, a young teen, an older teen… the answer to that is I mostly read what was available in the house.

A product of Russia’s turbulent nineties (think food stamps, black bulletproof BMWs and raging turf wars), I’ve been reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Bulgakov when I was twelve because that’s all we had from before the ‘regime change’. Around the same time, on our book shelves hidden behind Russian classics (we didn’t have much space so we had to keep our books in two or three rows), I one day discovered a bunch of books translated from English. And so my reading list expanded to include Hemingway and Salinger, Greene and Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury and Walter Scott. Not a YA literature per se. It was only later in my teenagehood that more ‘age-appropriate’ books became available (though by then it was kind of too late for me as technically I was no longer a young adult), though I still enjoyed Alice in Wonderland, Chronicles of Narnia and Volkov’s retellings of the Wizard of Oz.

Now that I write fiction of my own, I can’t help but wonder if a seventeen-year-old me would have liked what I write. I really hope she would… So in an attempt to please the teen-me, I channel that spirit of perpetual resistance that she possessed into my female protagonists, making them reflective of my past self yet possessing mindsets of their own. Sometimes they resist.

Keep true to yourself

When breaking into a YA market - a lucrative and super-competitive sphere of publishing, emerging/aspiring authors may find themselves under immense pressure to ensure their manuscripts are both original and marketable. The ‘marketable’ bit unfortunately has a potential to stifle the ‘voice’ and impede the creative process.

It is not a very smart idea to write to the current trends assuming that these trends will persist by the time you finish your book. Therefore in order to prevent yourself from producing miserly clones of works that made it big and did set a huge trend in YA (‘reinventing ___’ [insert any title that’s currently hot]), keep on to your path and work towards a strong and polished piece of writing that’s original and engaging. Leanne said that Australian publishers are still pretty much the ‘bleeding hearts’ nurturing romantic notions of discovering and showcasing new and unique talent.  

Current YA market is still mainly exclusive of non-traditional protagonists and topics. Diversity is lacking

How many YA books have you read that has main protagonist of racial/ethnic/cultural etc etc background other than mainstream (you know what I mean by that)? I can think of a very few!
The current reality is - issues of race, culture, sexuality, religion and anything else 'deviating from the norm' are rarely addressed in YA books and if they do, at best, they are only touched upon and not really developed. At worst they are tokenistic, stereotyping, sometimes even insulting.

Another issue here is majority of the YA market centres on girls as readers. Some agents I follow on Facebook (understandably) lament about a lack of YA books for mid grade boys and books for boys in general. And what I say 'Books for boys', it usually means two things: the protagonist/narrator is male and/or the book addresses the topics of interest to boys. 

When I ask myself how many YA books that I’ve recently read had a male narrator, I can only think of one! In case you were wondering, it is amazing Lia Habel’s zombie steampunk Gone with the Respiration series that offer a shared Point of View between Nora and Bram and a few other minor characters. And that’s about it. I’ve heard of a few other books where there is a male protagonist/narrator but those still appear to be written for girls as their primary audience.

Diversity, when well executed can be definitely a strength in the monotonous market  

Another impression I got from the conversation between Leanne and Adele is that not all publishers would want to deal with diversity-heavy books. When shopping a manuscript around, its author at first should target specific publishers that specialize in books where characters happen to fall heavily outside of mainstream. Also again, there is a fine line between diversity and tokenism. And it was noted by both Leanne and Adele that teenage readers can be the best ‘bullshit detectors’ when it comes to reading some annoyingly tokenistic writing and when authors look down at their reader and insult their intelligence.

Read a lot of YA books and books in general


If you are writing or thinking of writing YA fiction and think you’re reading enough, think again. After Leanne and Adele’s talk, I was reminded yet again that even though I have officially become Russian-Australian, I haven’t grown up in this country. It means I’ve been reading very different books to what most Australians my age were reading as teens (see point # 1).

When Leanne and Adele were asked to name five YA books each that they believed were the most influential (to them growing up and to the Australian YA scene, in general), I have to admit I had no idea what they were talking about.

The only Australian YA I’ve read to date were the Burn Bright series by Marianne de Pierres and Leanne’s This is Shyness. That is all. In my defense, over the last couple of years I’ve been devouring everything written by Richelle Mead (this one never dissapoints), Cassandra Clare and Amanda Hocking. A month ago I've discovered Libba Bray. You get where I'm going with this. Also, because of my long-standing prejudice against fantasy (long story, another post…), I’ve been avoiding Melina Marchetta. Last week I caved in and purchased my first Lumatere volume. I’m three chapters in and so far, so good. Who knows, maybe there is a fantasy fan in me after all. Will have to wait and see.

Anyway, here are the books Leanne and Adele named as the most influential Australian YA to date (listed in the order the books were named). The ladies were supposed to name five each, but in the end it just became one big merged list:

This was the only title named by both Leanne and Adele


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