Not everyone who reads teen novels is a teen. Some market estimates suggest that almost 70 percent of young adult titles are purchased by those between the ages of 18 and 64. Subtract the number of those buying books for family members, and you still have a large, non-teen reading base purchasing those books for themselves.
I began reading YA books (again) when I decided to write my first of four. Although I could have returned to favorites such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Catcher in the Rye,” they had become classics, and I needed to see what followed them, including what topics and voices engaged teens today.
I bounced from an anthology of short stories set at proms, to “North of Beautiful,” to “The Hunger Games,” to “The Fault in Our Stars,” to novels with any number of topics and themes that made me feel, relate, and care.
Here’s what I took from those books into my life and my own novels, and not just the ones for young adults.
▪ Don’t bore us; get to the chorus. When I was working on a nonfiction book about writing fiction with my friend novelist/screenwriter Christopher Allan Poe, he shared with me a term he had learned when working as a touring musician. Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.
Most of the time, it’s best to start a story in the middle of things, after an inciting incident, when life will never again be the same for your main character.
▪ Focus on people, not plot. Many authors think they need convoluted stories with vampires and ghosts. That’s fine, but an author still needs to know the character who drives that plot. “The Hunger Games” has many twists and turns, but at the heart of story, is a young woman trying to save her sister.
Suzanne Collins, the author of that series, says, “Telling a story in a futuristic world gives you this freedom to explore things that bother you in contemporary times.” That’s what Collins does. She writes about war, but she does so from the point of view of a young, empathetic character.
▪ Respect your reader. Successful, authentic YA writers don’t talk down to their readers. Nor do they try to engage them with OMGs and current slang on every page.
Instead, they try to find the emotional truth in a character – not just what that character does, but how that character feels. How did you feel as a teen when experiencing joy or loss? That’s emotional truth. Language changes; truth does not.
▪ Read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that,” says Stephen King.
Before I wrote my first YA novel, I read many. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which has an active group in Sacramento. That experience made me aware of even more books by many talented authors.
Teen Read Week is an excellent opportunity for those of us who are no longer teens to read books about young people. I bet we’ll learn something.
Bonnie Hearn Hill mentors writers from all over the world. “The River Below,” her 17th novel, which is set along Fresno’s San Joaquin River, will publish in January, and a film based on an earlier novel is in pre-production. Hill discusses books monthly on KMPH “Great Day.” She can be reached at www.http://bonniehhill.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.