Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Countdown to NaNoWriMo Day Two: Writing YA

I said I'd do it.  Here, look at me!  I'm doing it.  Blog post.  Two days in a row.  Five more coming, so stay tuned, Dear Reader.  If you don't have a clue what the heck I'm talking about, you can visit this link, and it will tell you all you need to know.

Today I'm cutting straight to the chase.  The gold nuggets for today are the highlights from a workshop called "Writing Novels For and About Young Adults" by author Helen Hemphill (LONG GONE DADDY, RUNAROUND).

8 Traits that Define YA
  1. Teen protagonist
  2. 200-250 pages
  3. Marginal adult characters and limited amount of secondary characters
  4. Brief times span, and a universal and familiar setting
  5. Few subplots
  6. Current teen language, slang, expressions
  7. A positive resolution to the crisis at hand, although never moralistic or In Your Face
  8. Focus on the experiences and the growth of one MC with problems specific to teens, and the journey into adulthood.
In the last 10-15 years, the resurgence of the YA novel has come up in pure entertainment. 

Decidedly teen problems don’t necessarily exist anymore.

Imaginative plots, characters who are more than they seem, and complete creation of a world are all things readers want.

* Conflict: Writing is about creating story.  At its most basic, story IS conflict.  No matter what the idea, something has to happen in the story.  Hint from page 1.  Choices, actions, and reactions must define and drive the conflict.  Characters must be forced to make choices.  They must be tested.
* The plot of your novel can’t sag.  It can’t be loose or lacking tension and conflict at every turn.  Conflict must be at the center of your story.
* Believability: the story must work.  It must seem as if it is true.  You want your readers to be so immersed that they forget they are reading a book.
* Do a proper set-up.  If something unusual happens in chapter 15, you have to set it up in chapter 2.

* Coincidence: don’t use it.  You get one per novel.  It upsets the balance of reader expectations.
* Avoid cliché.  You don’t want to be predictable.  Be surprising.
* Resolution: Satisfying ending. You want a definitive change or outcome.  It must be in the here and now of the story’s resolution.

o Round characters have the quirks, the insecurities, etc.  They are the real ones.
o But in today’s YA, readers want more than just round characters.  They need a defining role, trait, or association.  They can’t just be normal or ordinary.  (Bella, Edward, Katniss, etc.)
o POV is the qualifying factor in a YA novel.  The hub.  Most YAs are in first person, but that is rather limiting.  3rd person threatens to be too distant, but it can be managed.  Action must move forward with each voice.  Narrative voice should ring true to life.  They should fit the characters.  Their dialogue should reflect their personality.
o Super-round characters come from observation combined with imagination.
o “As a writer, you don’t have to live an exciting life; you just have to have friends who do.”
o You are telling a story.  Great plots, characters we care deeply about, and places that enthrall us.
o The best book of all is the one which takes us by surprise… because it refreshes what we already know… borrowed and uniquely imagined.”

Any thoughts?  Do you write YA, and if not, do you think Ms. Hemphill's advice can translate into other genres?  And what about those who do write YA: do you agree or disagree with these gold nuggets, or have other things to add?


  1. I agree with most of the points after the "nuggets," especially "KIDS ARE READING FOR ENTERTAINMENT." While a lot of the other tips go without saying, this one can't be emphasized enough. So many writers bitch and moan about Twilight being popular despite its terrible writing, but they fail to recognize that the series offers teens a simple, palatable story they enjoy reading about! The majority of teens today, considering their other options, would rather not pick up a long book like IT or LORD OF THE RINGS because they don't have the attention span for such delayed gratification. Then again, I wasn't in that majority, but there are always exceptions.

    Still, I disagree with a couple of the "nuggets." Sure, 200-250 pages is an ideal, non-intimidating range, but I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule. Eragon was around 500 pages if I recall correctly, and it was a hit for kids, let alone teens.
    Also, while most YA books have few subplots, that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad to include. Subplots are simply difficult for many authors to develop properly, so they tend not to show up too often. But they are incredibly important to any author who wants to create a more realistic, nuanced world for their characters. What would Harry Potter 6 have been without that subplot involving Malfoy? The confrontation at the end of the book would have never been believable. The HP books are built around subplots; they are the subliminal forces that build up to challenge the protagonists in the end.
    And no happy ending need apply here. Happy endings satisfy people's yearnings, but often, they make things too "easy." If we're writing realistically, then we keep in mind that there are no "happily ever afters." Bittersweet endings, therefore, elicit stronger emotions: sympathy, gratitude, thankfulness, sorrow, and satisfaction all at once: think, Mockingjay.

  2. October, I totally agree with you. I believe Ms. Hemphill--though she didn't specify this--was perhaps speaking from the standpoint of a realistic standalone novelist. I think many great novels--fantasy in particular--break the rules, and do it intentionally, which is what makes them so great. Also, I think Harry Potter is in an entire league of its own, and ought not to be held to any standards that apply to other books. Because... well, Harry isn't like any other book. Of course, I also think Harry Potter is the holy grail of YA, so maybe I'm biased. :)

    Thanks for your comment. You raise the very important point that standards and rules can and should be broken by writers who know they are doing it, and who do so for a reason. Thanks!

  3. As book a YA reader and writer, I pretty much agree with everything in this post. Thanks for the info--really helpful. :)