I attended a couple of writers’ conferences last summer. I enjoy conferences. I like notebooks and name badges and having an excuse to wear the three cute outfits I own.
But this year it felt like I gained less from the sessions themselves than I usually do.
This is probably due to a lot of things, not the least of which is that I’ve been doing this for a while now and I’m simply farther along the learning curve than I used to be.
As a result I spent a lot of time twisting in my chair, wanting to shout out the things that I’ve learned so far. But I couldn’t. Because shouting is a good way to get escorted out of the Hyatt or the Marriott.
So instead I’ll do my shouting here–in the comfort of my own blog.
Please note that what follows is my HONEST opinion about the differences in writing for teens and adults. If you don’t want my honest opinion, stop reading. If you continue to read, consider yourself warned.
One of the sessions that I attended was a session on the differences in writing for teen and adult audiences. But two minutes into the session I wanted to stand up and tell everyone in the audience that they were asking the wrong questions.
Now don’t get me wrong, they were no doubt very common questions, but in my opinion if you want to be successful in the YA market, they were the wrong questions.
So here is my lame, Thursday-morning-just-got-back-from-the-gym-and-I’m-too-lazy-to-go-upstairs-and-do-some-real-work attempt at answering the wrong questions and steering people toward the right ones.
WRONG QUESTION: How do I develop an authentic teen voice?
THE RIGHT QUESTION: Do I have a voice that’s appealing to teens?
After all, would you ask “how do I write in a voice that mystery readers would respond to?” Or “how do I sound like a science fiction reader?” No. You wouldn’t.
Your voice is your voice is your voice. Period. And frankly, either you’ve got a voice that teens will enjoy or you don’t.
Furthermore, all teens don’t sound the same and neither do all teen novels.
There are very successful teen authors who use long sentences and huge words and very complicated sentence structures. And then there are teen authors like me.
There is no such thing as a “teen” voice. And no amount of hanging out in shopping malls and eavesdropping on the kids at the next table is going to teach you to write in a manner that will appeal to those kids.
Furthermore, trying to mimic those readers is an almost surefire way to make those kids hate your book. They know imitators when they see them. They don’t take kindly to pandering.
Trying to write like you think teens want you to write is the fastest way I know to fail in this business.
Write how you write. Either it’ll work for the YA market (or the horror market, or romance market, or scifi market, etc) or it won’t. At the very least, teens will respect you for it.
WRONG QUESTION: How long does a YA novel have to be?
THE RIGHT QUESTION: How important is pacing in YA novels?
It’s true that, in general, the average word count for a YA novel is shorter than for an adult novel–probably in the 50,000 word range. (FYI, my novels are usually close to 60,000 words, but that’s simply what works for me.)
If there is anything that Harry Potter and Twilight have taught us it’s that word count doesn’t make or break a YA novel.
Pacing is what really matters when writing for teens.
Teens don’t care if your book is 1,000 pages just so long as something incredibly interesting happens on 999 of them.
So write your story. And then stop. And then rewrite and rewrite until you’re not saying something with 12 words that could just as easily be said with seven.
And that’s how long your novel needs to be.
WRONG QUESTION: How much should I “lower” my writing when writing for teens? (Basically, how much do I dumb down my books?)
RIGHT QUESTION: Do teens have different attention spans, vocabulary capabilities, etc than adult readers?
Yes. It has been my experience that you should have different expectations of teen readers than adult readers: you should expect your teen readers to be smarter.
Now, I’m not saying that adults are dumb. But it’s been my experience that teens have far more highly-calibrated BS-o-meters, and therefore make for far more discerning readers.
Adult readers might patiently wait four chapters for a story to start. Teens have things to do and places to be. If you want them to engage with your story you need to give them something good on every page.
And it even goes beyond pacing. If a character has a moment where she acts in a completely uncharacteristic way, your teen readers will notice it. If the entire plot of your novel could go away if the main character would make a perfectly logical phone call, then teen readers will point that out.
I don’t know if it’s a generational difference or simply something that happens between the ages of 13 and thirty as we start spending less time in classrooms and more time doing the same functions day after day, but that has certainly been my experience.
Teens are used to being challenged and tested and forced to think about things analytically, so do NOT write down to teens. Not if you want a career in YA literature.
WRONG QUESTION: How is the best way to market to teens? Do I have to blog?
RIGHT QUESTION: Do teens use the Internet to connect with authors?
If you are a new, relatively-unknown author I do not believe that blogging will have a noticeable impact on your book sales. Blogging when you have no audience is very much like singing in your bathroom–no one is going to hear you.
Even if you’re fairly well-known, I don’t think that blogging itself (or really any kind of web presence) is something you should expect to draw new readers to your books.
I do, however, think it’s a way of connecting with readers and perhaps keeping them interested until you’ve published your next book. I feel very certain about that.
So my take on blogging and all things Internet is my take on all aspects of marketing–do what you enjoy and nothing else.
I don’t blog to sell books. I blog because I like it. And if it keeps me on readers’ minds while they’re waiting on the new book, then all the better.
But don’t go out and set up a blog, a Myspace, a Facebook, a website, and everything else under the sun and then wonder why you haven’t hit the TIMES list. In my opinion it doesn’t really work that way.
THE WRONG QUESTION: How much sex, violence, bad language can I put in my YA novel?
THE RIGHT QUESTION: My story contains very adult themes and elements. Will this change how it is published and marketed?
YA novels span the content spectrum. My “adult” books (CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE, LEARNING TO PLAY GIN) are far cleaner than a lot of YA books that are out there. And that’s okay.
There is no right and wrong answer to the first question–which is why it
‘s the wrong question.
There is no magic list of words you can’t use or topics that you can’t cover.
You are only limited by what you can do well and what is honestly necessary.
Sex for sex’s sake will not sell your YA novel. Language won’t put you on the TIMES list. But neither are these things taboo when they are honestly appropriate for the story you’re trying to tell.
That’s not to say that teen novels with more “adult” content won’t be handled slightly differently.
For starters, YA books typically come with an age recommendation. For readers 11 and up… For readers 14 and up… Etc.
Books with a lot of adult content will likely be 14 (or maybe even 16) and up. They probably would be targeted more at high school than middle school audiences (which is fine.)
They might not be picked up as readily at retailers that try to stock books for the widest possible segment of age ranges and readers. I dunno.
What I do know is that it’s perfectly acceptable to write your story about a 15-year-old girl with a potty-mouth who turns to prostitution to pay for her heroine habit…
Just don’t be surprised if they aren’t selling it at your middle schooler’s book fair.
I write “clean teen” (as my former editor used to put it) books because…well…that’s what I write. I probably couldn’t do dark, gritty, or edgy if I tried.
And that’s worked well for me.
I highly recommend you do what works for you and the stories you want to tell.
Thanks for listening, gang.
Tomorrow (if you guys want) I’ll tackle the questions that people don’t ask at all…but should.