Challenges of Writing YA

As I’ve been stumbling along in lurching steps toward THE END, I’ve been reflecting lately on how different and challenging it has been to write a YA.  Red is the first YA book I have written since I WAS a young adult.  While in some respects it’s been easy (it’s shockingly easy to go back to those days of feeling like a total freak and outcast), other aspects have been much harder for me to grasp.

I was not a normal teenager.  I loved words from a very early age and had no qualms about using them.  If there exists a word that is perfect to describe something, why not use it?  So I spent years with my peers looking at me sidewise like what?  Part of the challenge in writing this book has been to capture an authentic teenage voice that other people will consider authentic rather than slipping into language that people think is too adult (even though that’s exactly how I spoke at that age–ask my mother–I’ve been 30 since I was 5).

One of the other things I didn’t count on when writing this book is how utterly exhausting it would be to be a teenager again.  No one in the world FEELS with so much emotion as teens.  Everything is so HUGE and meaningful.  As a generally more sedate adult, it’s definitely been kinda draining to write like this and FEEL like this again.  I confess, I’m really looking forward to stepping back into grown up shoes for a while.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is not making these characters perfect, rational thinking adults in teenage bodies.  Because teenagers are NOT perfect, rational thinking adults.  They’re teenagers.  They don’t have the life experience, the education, or usually the wherewithal to always make a good decision.  They make mistakes.  Not that adults DON’T, but teenagers make mistakes that I, from my perch of 31 and really well-versed in crime, criminal behavior, forensics, and other various and sundry things, am sitting back thinking You MORON.  It has been so hard for me to really immerse myself enough into them to write such mistakes and faulty logic well.  Because there’s always that under-current of “That is a really stupid idea.  Why are you doing that?” even though it may be perfectly in character.

What are some of the challenges you’ve found in writing YA?  What about things you think other authors struggle with from a reader’s perspective?

12 thoughts on “Challenges of Writing YA

  1. I’ve also had issues telling what’s normal or not for a teen as I did not go to what could be considered a normal school and I could not relate to the people that I went to school with. So, I wrote my story that way, but gave my main character a good reason for not understanding her peers (as opposed to being confused like me). While I did sent my main char. to prom, I skipped the actual details. The only thing that I know about proms are what I’ve seen in movies and on TV, and even to this day it all seems pointless to me. And while I didn’t have a boyfriend until college, I imagined that my main char. would probably have been clueless no matter when this happened for her. That made it fun to write, and, I think, realistic in a way (I hope anyway).

  2. I had exactly the same trouble with my main character. Well, initially I didn’t, then on the first edit I kind of went the wrong way and my CP had to shove me back on track. I think I’ve probably got my MC being too adult at other points in the book, one of my edit goals is to get back on that and sort it out. It is hard writing a teen, especially when you love them and you want them to make the right decisions because you want them to suffer only minimally. But it’s a book and they have to really SUFFER.

  3. This is one of the reasons I definitely DO NOT want to write YA. I do enjoy reading it from time to time, especially from my favorite authors, but I have no desire to try to get into the heads of teenagers and write about it. I’ll stick with adult themes. But I really, really admire an adult who can write YA. I know it’s exhausting and I know it’s hard. So kudos to you, Kait, and all the other YA authors out there who step back in time for just a little while to bring us a good story.

  4. I don’t write YA, although I enjoy reading it. Getting into the mind of a teenager is tough. Anyone who takes on that theme gets major kudos from me because I can’t imagine writing a story teens would like and having to make things hard for your characters when they’re just kids.

  5. I love writing YA. Possibly just because I never found the self-confidence that most adults have, part of me seems very much stuck there. And it’s probably exactly what you point out–that everything is so FELT and everything is HUGE–that makes it enjoyable for me.

    The easy answer to what’s hard about writing YA is that it’s hard to decide what’s appropriate for the audience in terms of sex, language, and violence. You’re definitely walking a line between what you perceive as reality and what others want to believe is reality. I guess it’s essentially the same tightrope an author walks in writing an unlikeable hero or heroine. How unlikeable can I make the person, or how big a mistake can I have them make before the reader turns on them?

    Sex, language, and violence are things we’re supposed to protect children from, and people who think of young adults as children don’t want to see the characters acting as poor examples to the children who might be reading. So how realistic can you make the characters before the protective adult reader turns on you for the sake of the children? How much can you hold back before the teen reader turns on your for being lame and wimping out?

    I’ve taken jabs and ratings point hits for my language. I’ve fretted over the increase in sensuality and violence in the new book. Shrug. There’s always going to be some reader who laments: Why can’t everything be Anne of Green Gables?? And you’re left wondering why they’re reading about demon hunters. In the end I guess the only answer is to serve the story and your own vision and hope for the best.

    • I was absolutely the teen who hated YA at the time because authors wimped out and wrote unrealistic, moralizing stories and weren’t relatable. Sometimes I wonder if the reason we have so much better YA now is that those of us who grew up during that sterilized genre, who knew that teenage life was not like that, who knew that things could be hard and awful and DARK, have just had time to grow up and write about it for a generation where these things may be even worse. Food for thought.

  6. I’m currently working on my first YA novel and have found that leaving my Mom-badge at the door helps my writing a great deal. Here I’m allowed to make bad decisions, get a crush (maybe a couple), hold a grudge against my best friend and create, oh, so much more unthinkable scenarios.

    What I’ve found to be lacking in the YA genre is humor. What’s wrong with some laughter every now and then? Sure, even for many adults life is dark. Especially in today’s economy. But it doesn’t stop people from laughing at their favorite comedies or the silly things family/pets do or the crazy things they themselves do. Now I do love dark stories, but I think for a book to be well-balanced, you need some light in them as well. And who doesn’t believe there’s light in laughter?

    Another issue I have with some YA stories is a lot of the superficiality in them. Not everyone can shop on Rodeo Drive. Not everyone can buy Manolo Blahniks (sp?). And one of my biggest pet peeves is not everyone lives in New York City (nothing against the NYC, of course). But keep it real. Have a teenage protagonist that shops at Walmart or Target. Let me read about how they rarely had money for lunch at school or, even better, show me that took on odd jobs just so they could have money for lunch at school. I have a fifteen year old, and this was one of the major issues that frustrated her (and me) to the utmost. The lack of realism.

    A lot of YA books have a tendency to talk AT their readers instead of TO them. Ease up. They get enough of that from the adults that are around them everyday. Many teens want to be taken into worlds beyond their own while at the same time being able to relate to the characters emotionally. Being a teenager is hard. It was hard when I was one and, according to my Mini-Me, her friends and the news, it’s just as hard, if not harder, now.

    This is just my opinion, of course.

  7. Heee, one of my favourite things about my Big First Novel is that two of the main characters are still definitely still teenagers, and I get to write all their flawed reasoning and self-important world view. I enjoy writing it probably far more than I should, especially with all the older characters just trying desperately not to shake their head and sigh at them. There is another character who’s a teenager who definitely does not act like one, but that’s a crucial aspect of her character, and another one who definitely reminds me of all the mistakes teenagers (and young adults my own age!) make regarding relationships. Might be a little autobiographical in that respect. XD

    And, even better, I know I get to write them in later books as they grow up and change, too.

    I don’t read a lot of YA (but I do read some!) and I don’t plan to write much of it either (although I am reconsidering whether or not to make a certain series YA or not), but I do like having YA characters and it can be a lot of fun playing around and trying to make them realistic.

  8. This post amused me because writing in a YA voice is so intuitive for me. I honestly don’t see what’s hard about it, and that tells me there must be something wrong with my brain. When I look at all the bonehead things my characters are doing, I don’t think you moron, I totally understand them and sympathize, even though I know it’s not the smartest choice they could make.

    I guess you’ve confirmed it, Kait. I’m perpetually 16 years old. No wonder I’m afraid to open my mouth in social situations. Who wants to hang out with a middle-aged teenager? 😉

  9. Great post Kait. If I go back to writing YA, now that I’m in romance, I think I’ll find it hard to return to making even hand holding seem exciting – I can do that in the earlier chapters of a romance, knowing that there’s more to come. But to make hand holding, or kissing (or something just a little further than that) the be-all and end-all of a relationship takes a lot more effort.

    • You must not be reading much current YA if you think ti stops with kissing and hand holding. 🙂 Real teens have sex and teenage heroes and heroines often are too. Not necessarily as explicitly described as in much of the romance genre, but it’s still happening.

  10. Oh that’s certainly true. But I was thinking of the ones where it doesn’t and still manages to shoot sparks, like the Miracle Girls series or Amanda Howells’ The Summer of Skinny Dipping.

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