Why I Write YA

Sunday, September 13th 2015 • Advice, Writing

On nearly every panel I’ve ever participated in, there’s a question that bubbles to the surface about why or how I write young adult. Some people assume that, as a teacher, it’s natural to write about YA because I’m plugged into the young adult world. It’s true that I do pull snippets of my teaching life, but it’s usually logistical stuff like scheduling or how a school day would run. Mostly, my experience from writing young adult is pulled from my own teenage experience and my own experience now as an adult human being. It comes from observation and eavesdropping and reading young adult stories and watching young adult films and a basic empathy and understanding for that horrifying time that we call adolescence. But above all, I believe that I write young adult literature because I have a deep and profound respect for young adults and their varied and incredible lives.

Many people want to write young adult because it seems easier than writing literary fiction or science fiction or some form of adult fiction. Young adults are easy to understand, right? They all have the same problems (relationships, school, relationships, school, school, school). They do the same things (study, party, ditch, party, make out, drugs). They want the same things (acceptance). They go through the same emotional wheelhouse (fear, sadness, anger). I mean, the books write themselves, right?

Wrong.

These might be hallmarks of the young adult world, but they’re by no means a comprehensive guide. To write decent or good or great young adult fiction, you need to first accept that young adults are just as complicated as adults, and probably more so. All of those big emotions that I mentioned are new and breaking and terrible and terrifying. An adult may have been through five or more broken relationships, but a young adult is experiencing it for the first time and are completely unprepared. That’s a gold mine for fiction, but before you dig in, you need to respect that the reactions of a young adult are going to be different than your own as an adult. And those reactions are just as valid as yours.

See, young adults make mistakes. Lots of them. They face enormous pressure to make something of themselves, yet making mistakes during this process is inevitable. Understand that young adult characters will make realistic mistakes and deal with their consequences. They might not handle this process with grace, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s often the foundation of a real and tangible narrator.

Above all, make sure that a scene always makes sense given the context of the young adult’s life. Avoid having kids have adult reactions/responses/dialogue. Don’t write a young adult novel to convey your adult moral. Don’t try to use your young adult characters strictly to teach a lesson. Give them lives that make sense given their day-to-day struggles, and make sure that you actually view these struggles as meaningful and difficult. If you don’t, it will show in the writing and your story will lack authenticity.

Recently, I had the privilege to see a showing of The Breakfast Club in Griffith Park. Actor Judd Nelson presented briefly before the film, and he spoke about how John Hughes was one of the first people to recognize that teenagers had stories worth telling. John Hughes wasn’t afraid to show teenagers in their environment as they really were. He listened to his young actors and he acknowledged and validated the realities of his teenage characters. He told a simple detention story that revealed five very different, very damaged, very interesting characters. He didn’t dumb down the story or try to dictate how young adults should live their lives. He saw a window of a story and told it as authentically as possible.

That’s what all good storytelling should do, young adult in particular. We should write to tell our truth and the truth of those we share this world. We should give our characters life that’s rings real for the audience, eve if that real isn’t perfect or shiny or pretty. For me, that’s why I write, and that’s why I write YA.

Until next time,

V

 

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