12 tips for writing YA fiction

12 Tips for Writing YA Fiction

In this article, Sue H. Cunningham, author of dark comedy YA murder mystery Totally Deceased, explores what defines young adult fiction and shares 12 writing tips to help you hook your target audience.

What is YA?

A YA (young adult) novel is intended for a teen readership, bridging the significant gap between child and adult reading material. Although YA books are marketed towards the 12-18 age range, research tells us these books are just as likely to be enjoyed by adults. In 2012, Publishers Weekly estimated that between 55% of YA books were purchased by over 18s and more recent research commissioned by publisher HarperCollins suggests that a substantial 74% of YA readers are now adults (with 28% of readers being over the age of 28).

The report puts the increasing appeal of YA for adult readers down to reading for comfort – ‘a defence against the stresses of emerging adulthood in a generation taking longer to reach “adult” life’. There is no doubt the young adult market is growing into a highly profitable subsector – in 2022, YA books made up 4.6% of all book sales (climbing from 3.4% in 2018). With this trend predicted to continue, there’s never been a better time to write YA, so it’s interesting to think that, historically, there was no dedicated provision for YA fiction with kids segueing from children’s books straight to adult.

It can be argued that YA fiction has always existed – popular writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen often favoured teen protagonists. Moving forward to the 20th century, classic books The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951) and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949) were both intended for an adult audience but have remained staple reading for adolescents, likely due to their ‘coming of age’ storylines and teenage narrators (Holden Caulfield is 16 and Cassandra Mortmain, 17). However, it wasn’t until the 1970s (we see you, Judy Blume!) that YA became a recognised genre with designated areas in bookshops and libraries.

Know your market

Stories we read growing up tend to stick with us and it’s tempting to want to recreate a newer version of something you remember fondly or which meant a lot to you at the time. Consider how the market has changed since you were a teen, even if that’s only a few years ago. They say the best writers are readers and I’d recommend reading widely from enduringly popular YA authors such as Suzanne Collins, Jenny Han and John Green to YA fiction published very recently. Check out the YA section in libraries and bookshops – what is being promoted on the tables or face out on the shelves? When you sit down to write your query letter, aim to include comparison titles, preferably ones that have published in the last 5 years. If you struggle to find comparable books, recent TV shows or films are a good compromise. This shows the agent you’ve done your research and are up to date with what’s trending now.

12 tips to make your YA novel stand out

1 Make age and setting work for you

Defining the age range makes it clear where your book would sit in a bookshop or library and makes it much easier for an agent to sell your book. Children’s and teen books are not about adults and not all books with a child protagonist are necessarily written for kids. In Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the characters’ ages range from 6 to 12, but the disturbing subject matter would not make this a suitable read for middle-grade children.

Consider the age of your main character as well as the surrounding cast. Kids tend to ‘read up’ in that they enjoy stories with characters 1-2 years older than themselves. Therefore, lower YA or ‘Clean Teen’ protagonists are likely to fall into the 13-15 year-old range. Upper YA, which explores more grown up themes and has that potential crossover appeal for adults, will have protagonists in the 16-17 age range. In the US, the accepted age range for a young adult main character is 14-18 and there has been some overlap into a New Adult genre with college age protagonists (reflected in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl which explores an 18-year-old student navigating her first year at university). New Adult fiction hasn’t translated well to the UK market so, in the UK, I would suggest making your main character 17 at most.

The surrounding cast of characters should also reflect the age of the intended reader. A young cast is ideal, keeping a limit on the number of adult secondary characters. A savvy choice of setting can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you – This Book Kills (Ravena Guron) and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (E. Lockhart) both take place in elite boarding schools. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins goes one step further by trapping twenty-four teenagers in a dystopian arena. Even the adult characters in The Hunger Games tend to step outside the traditional adult model – Katniss’s mother leans heavily on her elder daughter to support the family, Effie Trinket has many childlike qualities and Katniss’s supposed mentor, Haymitch, is portrayed as irresponsible, with frequent reversal of their roles.

2 Make every word count

Accepted word counts are generally lower than for adult fiction with YA novels usually falling between 50,000 and 90,000 words. There has also been a welcome rise in the popularity of graphic and verse novels which tend to be shorter.

With the possible exception of fantasy, I’d recommend keeping your word count below 80,000, especially for a debut novel. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell comes in around 78K whereas John Green’s modern classic The Fault in Our Stars and Cynthia Murphy’s teen thriller Last One to Die both pack a punch at just under 66K. Fantasy tends to have a little more leeway – The Hunger Games trilogy all come in at around 100k, rocketing to over 150k for the much later prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (by this time, Suzanne Collins a well-established author).

Editing is key to cut any excess padding and make every word count. I suspect my own favourite teen reads from Jane Austen would find themselves heavily edited for the modern market. Pride and Prejudice has more than 122,000 words and Emma weighs in at a hefty 160,000.

There’s also a practical consideration to keeping your word count in check – rising costs of paper and printing make shorter novels more appealing to a potential publisher and are therefore easier for an agent to sell.

3 Pick up the pace

Gen Z teens have notoriously short attention spans and are used to the instant gratification of YouTube and TikTok – there’s a reason why the most popular TikToks are 7–15 seconds long! The Netflix generation are accustomed to being able to binge watch a whole series in a weekend and reading styles, with some exceptions, may have changed to reflect this.

Immediacy is key. Start your novel at the inciting incident – the point where everything changes for your main character. This should be the case when writing a novel for any age group but teens are perhaps less likely than adults to have the patience to wade through pages and pages of set up. Avoid slow openings and extensive backstory. If you include a prologue, make it concise and necessary to the plot.

Keep chapters short with cliffhangers to keep your reader turning the pages. Play around with point of view and tenses – the intimacy of first person point of view works well in YA, especially when combined with the increasingly popular present tense which feels more immediate, making for an active read. Writing in present tense can also help define your teen character as living in the ‘now’, navigating those emotions and experiences in real time rather than reflecting back from an adult perspective.

4 Nothing is off-limits

The remit of teen fiction is hugely varied and, in some ways, the term YA as a genre is misleading as it really indicates age range rather than the style of fiction. YA novels can encompass the same wide range as adult fiction – thrillers, sci-fi, dystopia, crime, romance, humour. Themes don’t need to be specific to teens, like peer pressure or bullying – your characters could just as easily be facing unrequited love, corporate conspiracies or mortal combat.

Writing for a younger audience doesn’t mean you should shy away from exploring controversial subjects – death, mental illness, drugs, violence and sex are all issues the reader may have experience of or curiosity about. Nothing is off-limits as long as it is appropriately handled. Reading can be a safe space for teens to explore difficult topics, but remember to write through the lens of a young adult experiencing these issues for the first time, not with the hindsight that being an adult brings. Coming of age topics like identity, navigating first love and friendships which mirror the real life experiences of teenagers work well. Consider what is important and appealing to your reader, whether it be climate change, knife crime or STEM. The sky’s the limit, so play around with ideas before you start and take time to choose something you’ll enjoy writing.

5 Keep it real (even when it’s fantasy!)

You don’t always have to write what you know, but do try to write what you love as teens can spot inauthenticity a mile off. Remember that publishing is sloooow – chasing trends can be risky as, by the time your book makes it onto shelves, the moment may have long passed. Dystopia has been hugely popular for the last two decades but, post-pandemic, there’s been a surge in readers understandably seeking comforting, uplifting reads. Romantasy (a winning combination of romance and fantasy) is driving sales at present and retellings of classic fairy tales and mythology are also doing very well.

Don’t write purely to fill a perceived gap in the market, but if you can present your work as something that will plug a hole, go for it! Maybe your YA book is the perfect step up from a popular middle grade book e.g. ‘this would appeal to readers aged 13-15 moving on from The Last Bear by Hannah Gold’. Check out industry websites – most agents will have a manuscript wish list detailing what they are looking for right now which can give you a good idea of what’s selling.

6 Hook your reader

Can you sum up the basics of your plot in one sentence? A clear elevator pitch with a clever hook will go a long way towards engaging your reader and snagging an agent. If it takes you ten minutes to explain the plot of your story, maybe you need to rethink and simplify. TikTok/BookTok is a great driver for YA sales so ask yourself whether an influencer could get your premise across in that optimal window of 7-15 seconds!

My debut Totally Deceased is a dark comedy murder mystery which can be summed up in one line:

17-year-old Jess wakes from a heart transplant to find she’s being haunted by the ghost of her murdered donor.

If you’re struggling for ideas, the ‘what if’ scenario is a useful one to explore. Choose a character, a setting and then add in a little conflict.

What if you wake from an emergency heart transplant to find you’re being haunted by the ghost of your donor?

What if she tells you her death wasn’t an accident?

What if the two of you are stuck together until you agree to help solve the mystery of her murder?

Even worse, what if she’s posh, entitled and a total pain in the arse?

7 Don’t give your characters an easy ride

Protagonist is just another word for main character – or is it? Don’t forget that protagonist also means ‘active participant’ or ‘driving force’, so throw conflict in their way and ensure their actions and decisions propel the plot rather than having stuff just happen to them. Teen characters will generally have more structured lives and less freedom to make choices than adults (school, parents etc.) so find inventive ways to give them a bit of agency! A sympathetic main character will face challenges and make mistakes – they don’t have to be likeable but they do need to be relatable. Give your characters flaws, quirks and redeeming features (even the villains!) and remember to consider motivation and arcs for secondary characters as well as your main guys.

8 Give your characters distinct voices

Consider how teen speak differs from adult – typically, this might mean shorter sentences and less formal use of language but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all young people speak in the same way. Think of ways to give your characters individual and recognisable voices. A useful trick is to examine a passage from a book with plenty of dialogue – if there were no speech tags, could you still tell who is speaking? Give each character their own speech patterns, favourite words and phrases, but beware of using specific slang as this can date your book very quickly. Maybe, if your novel doesn’t have a contemporary real world setting, you could invent your own slang words?

9 Bring on the drama

Teens love a bit of drama! As my son’s headteacher says – high school kids have only two friends: nobody and everybody (as in nobody goes to bed this early and everybody else is allowed to go to the party). Feel free to embellish but don’t overdo it – exaggeration can work particularly well with humour as long as you don’t cross the line into slapstick.

10 Avoid clichés

There’s a reason why tropes are popular – the Chosen One, friends to lovers, rivals joining forces to defeat a common enemy – but think how you could put a fresh twist on things if you want your work to stand out to agents and publishers.

Clichés to avoid:

  • Starting page one with the main character waking up
  • Female character describing themselves to themselves while looking in a mirror
  • The orphan – can you find more inventive ways for your protagonist to evade adult authority?
  • The clumsy heroine
  • The love triangle of girl torn between cute, safe boy-next-door versus dangerous bad boy (both super-hot in completely different ways) – how about a flipping this to make a love triangle with one guy and two female love interests instead?

11 Respect your reader

Teen readers have already begun to develop their own reading preferences and, in most cases, will enjoy selecting their own reading-for-leisure material after years of having this provided for them by adults. Consider it a privilege that they might choose to read your book.

Don’t talk down to your reader by being preachy or patronising – there is very little difference in the language of a YA novel compared to an adult one as long as you keep the focus firmly from a teenage perspective. Aim to entertain not educate, raise questions rather than answering them and avoid being flippant or dismissive of teenage concerns that may seem very minor to you.

Kids like to see themselves reflected on the page so aim for a diverse cast without resorting to stereotypes. Consider what life experience you can bring to the table, the importance of own voices and, most importantly, whether this story is actually yours to tell.

12 Consider a happy ending

One area where YA books may differ from adult fiction is the expectation of a hopeful ending. Adult novels dealing with serious issues can go either way – the feelgood finale versus the devastating tearjerker/heartbreaking ending and that’s acceptable as most adults can suck it up. For YA fiction, however dark the content, look for the silver lining and leave your reader with at least a vague possibility that things will turn out OK.

There’s a certain responsibility in writing for young people. It’s fine to provoke an emotional response but, if you’re planning to make them sob on the last page, aim for happy tears rather than sad ones. Teens have enough stuff to deal with – allow reading to remain their safe space, OK? And don’t forget that substantial cohort of adult readers who may have long forgotten their own personal teenage angst but are seeking the ‘comfort blanket’ solace of a YA read with a joyful ending too.

And finally…

Know when it’s time to move on. Be ready to start afresh if something isn’t working – it might be a good idea to give yourself a deadline for closure if you’re struggling to tear yourself away. Loving your manuscript is one thing but getting overly invested in the ‘book of your heart’ makes it really hard to move on to something new if this project doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Remember that nothing is wasted – if you’ve written a Dracula retelling which you adore but the market for vampires seems to be saturated or waning, hang on to it. Publishing tends to be cyclical – wait long enough and that vampire trend may well be resurrected!

Exercises to try

  • Choose three books you have enjoyed recently and write a one line elevator pitch for each.
  • Write a passage of dialogue between two young adult characters without using any speech tags – have you made it clear who’s speaking?
  • Check out this video which takes an irreverent look at common tropes in YA

Author bio: Sue H. Cunningham writes young adult fiction with humour and a hint of magic. Her debut dark comedy YA murder mystery, Totally Deceased, was published by Scholastic in October 2023.