Top 5 Mistakes in YA
As a writer, I’ve tackled many different genres from romance to science fiction to urban fantasy, but until a few years ago, I’d always steered clear of YA. It was a genre I felt I knew a lot about as a reader, but very little as a writer.
Strangely though, YA kept pulling me back. On those days when I felt down or like the world was just too dark, it was always those YA books I turned to. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain. A lot of chronicles there! Even the grade-school books pulled me back from the edge of darkness. Blanche the Blue-Nosed Witch was one of my favorites, about a young witch with a blue nose trying to fit in with the elite group of witches in Scurry #8.
But as much as I leaned on YA, I never thought I would end up writing it. And then one day, I was in a critique group—the last of my MFA—and the YA writers there told me I’d written the beginning chapter of...you guessed it—a YA. “The voice!” they said. “This is exactly what a teenage girl struggles with.” The instructor, a YA author herself, confirmed that the story would be a great YA, and so off I went on my merry way, to write in a genre I knew so little about.
As you can imagine, I made mistakes. Boy, did I made mistakes! Writing YA, as it turns out, was every bit as hard as I’d thought it would be. It’s a daunting task, to be sure, so I’m here to pass along my Top 5 Mistakes and how I corrected them.
I made them so you don’t have to.
1. Not Reading in the Genre
I’ll list this first since it was my biggest mistake. How could I expect to write YA when I didn’t have a good grasp on it? I had no knowledge of how to portray believable young adults, and yet I wanted actual young adults to read my book. Fat. Chance.
How I Corrected It
FaceBook and Goodreads were my saviors here. I friended people who I knew were YA fans, and I asked them what was good. I joined YA groups and engaged in conversation. I asked specific questions and asked for specific recommendations (e.g., solid female characters, non-heteronormative, etc) and I said thank you for their time and answers.
In addition, I searched Goodreads for LGBT YA and came up with a list there. I looked at other people’s reading lists. Then, I went out and bought a Kindle Paperwhite, which is ONLY for e-reading, and I began downloading samples. I read and read and read. I am still reading.
Friend other YA fans/Join YA groups on FaceBook
Ask for specific recommendations
Be polite and say thank you
Check Goodreads for lists of YA books
Read, read, read.
2. Whiny Heroine
Okay, this one was hard to admit. My heroine, while she kicked a lot of butt, kind of whined about it the entire way. That wasn’t my intent, of course. I intended to create a layered character who had real problems and needed real solutions. The problem was, like many people in real life, she complained but had no plan to change anything. This made her unlikable and a complete Miss Whiny Pants
How I Corrected It
I started to read like a writer. That is, I read, analyzing what the authors I liked did. I went back to the heroines I liked. They, too, had real problems. And sometimes they did whine a little bit. I’ll emphasize the a little bit here. But whine or not, they always had a plan. And they always picked themselves up no matter how down and out they were. They were go-getters, not stay here and whiners.
When I went to my manuscript, I did two things. First, I made sure the heroine’s plight was sympathetic. To do that, I made it universal. This is because while very few people can identify with the physical and mental hardships Frodo suffers in Mordor, everyone can identify with fear of failure, fear of letting down our friends, the fear and pain of loss. That’s where to put your focus. On your hero’s very basic internal needs, wants, and desires.
Second, I allowed my characters 1-2 lines max to whine and feel sorry for themselves, and then I made them realize they’re being completely Miss WhinyPants and they need to get up and move forward. These two techniques in conjunction made it so the character was both relatable and likable. Because, it’s easy to like someone who, when faced with failure, picks herself up, dusts herself off, and tries tries again.
Read like a writer
Analyze how other authors make their heroines likable
Do that thing
Make the heroine’s plight universal
Make sure she has a plan
3. The Stakes Weren’t Evident
While this error happens a lot to writers in every genre, I’m listing it because it came out of my preconceived notions of what YA is.
I made the mistake of thinking that YA had to somehow be “fluffier” than fiction for adults. Boy, was I wrong! Once I started reading in the genre, I discovered that a lot of YA tackles some serious material—drugs, abuse, rape, teen pregnancy, coming out, transitioning, suicide, loss. Let’s be honest, it’s darn tough to be a teen and pre-teen in today’s world. Kids have a lot of pressures these days, and watching heroes and heroines tackle those challenges in fiction is affirming. We need more stories like this. I’m a firm believer that most young adults would rather hear terrible truths than pretty lies.
How I Corrected It
I stopped making it fluffy. I let my heroine get hurt. And I showed how she’s stronger for recovering, for never giving up. I let her feel pain, and I let her react to it, but I was conscious that she should be proactive and have agency and consistently adjust to the curve balls that life threw at her.
Stop making it fluffy
Let your hero get hurt
Have your hero make continual adjustments and keep going
4. Purple Prose
Oh, holy cats, this is my weakness in, like, everything. My first draft was seriously waxing poetic—a lot of ten-cent words and imagery, which was beautiful but extremely distancing. In YA, that just wasn’t the voice that would capture my target audience.
For the most part, YA readers want to be in the hero's head, which means a lot of internal dialogue, a lot of close POV. The problem with that is, purple prose by its very nature is very distancing.
How I Corrected It
First, I changed the verb tense to first person present tense. Now I know a lot of people don’t like this tense, but you really can’t beat it for immediacy and being in the mind of the POV character. And, honestly? It changed everything. It gave me more immediacy and more of a feeling of being connected to the heroine.
By no means am I advocating for anyone to change their verb tense. Do what works for you is what I’m saying. In my case, it was first-person present tense.
Second, I went for short, punchier prose with a healthy dose of snark and wit, and you know what? It worked. The characters’ voices suddenly worked because they sounded authentic.
Don’t clutter your story with long descriptions and overwrought text
Stay in the heroine's mind and let the reader know what she thinks about all of this.
5. Wrong Age Group
So, when I first began writing YA, I thought that young adults wanted to read about other young adults their age. It seemed so elementary, right? Again, I was completely wrong. So very completely wrong. What I learned was that young adults tend to read “up.” That is, thirteen year olds want to read about fifteen and sixteen year olds. Someone once said to me, “Well, you looked up to your big brother, right?” And then it all made sense.
How I Corrected It
I changed the ages of my protagonists to suit my target audience. In Circuit Fae, I made the primary heroine, Syl Skye, fifteen and a high school sophomore. I’m hoping younger adults see her as someone cool to look up to!
Young adults like to read “up.”
Make your heroine a few years older than your target audience
And that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are any number of “big mistakes” you can make, but these are my five biggies—the Top 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made So You Don't Have To.
As always, thank you for reading!