Friday, June 24, 2011

What Writing YA is Really Like

Oh, my. It's the summer of Let's Insult YA Authors, Readers, and Teenagers in General.

First, there was this now-infamous article in the Wall Street Journal. It could have had some valid points, but if so, they got obscured in sweeping generalizations. (BTW, I shop at Barnes & Noble all the time, I live in the YA section, and I find all kinds of books that aren't dark or about "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation." In fact, I regularly walk out with books that just about any parent would find appropriate for a 13-year-old.)

Then there was this rather odd article titled "Writing Young-Adult Fiction" by Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix (co-authors of The Magnolia League). Their backgrounds are in literary fiction and journalism, respectively, and they got tagged to write their YA novel. The article seems like it should be about what it says—writing YA fiction. By the end, I wasn't sure what it was about, other than their book.

I began to feel like something strange was going on with this line:
It would be creepy if we included explicit sex scenes with glistening young skin and heaving young bosoms, but we keep it on the clean side. This isn't Twilight. No slutty werewolves here.
Um, I've read Twilight—the whole series, in fact. As I recall, there's one off-page sex scene in the fourth book. So I began to suspect that these authors haven't read the books. If they haven't read those, do they know anything about the YA market, really?

Then they mention how odd it is that they're "being paid good money to be literary predators and come for people's children." Now I get the feeling they don't know many (any?) teenagers in real life, either.

Overall, it seems their experience of writing a YA novel was a lot of giggling and silliness and hurry-up-and-get-it-done-ness. Writing their own wish-fulfillment fantasy, the "high-school experience we never had."

Okay, that's their experience. Good for them.

I haven't gotten paid for my YA writing yet, but I think I've done enough now to speak to my own experience. Here's what YA writing is like for me.

I live in fear of letting my students down. My students range from 14 to 21, and they read almost exclusively YA (aside from what their English teachers assign them). They are my little microcosm of the YA market, from voracious to reluctant readers, straight-A students to strugglers, jocks to theater geeks—with a ton of overlap within and between categories.

I've had students literally slam a book down during silent reading time. They hate it when characters do stupid things just for the sake of the plot—and yes, they do notice. They hate feeling talked-down to. They loathe dialogue that feels like a trying-too-hard adult wrote it.

You know what they like? Some actually like a clever turn of phrase, a well-crafted description. One girl asked me to recommend a book that would help push her vocabulary and comprehension. (I recommended The Monstrumologist.) Some want to be writers themselves. They like characters that are complex and twist stereotypes. They like stories that feel real, even (or especially) when they involve fantastic elements.

So I work my butt off. I draft, revise, run it by readers (both students and adult YA readers/writers), and revise again. Whatever I can do to make it real. If you didn't figure it out already, I talk to teens (students, cousins, whatever) about books. I talk to them about life.

I talk to them like they're people ... because they are.

There's the key, I think. I've known some (well-meaning) teachers who talk to teens like they're still in elementary school. Teens aren't adults yet, but they also aren't children. I've found they'll usually live up to high expectations ... or down to low ones.

The best YA authors (and I'm certainly not placing myself among them) have high expectations for their readers. The read can be light or dark, funny or intense, about mermaids or cutting.

Just respect your readers. They're pretty smart cookies ... even the ones who don't like math class. ;-)


Richard said...

Good post R.C. I don't read YA, so can't really talk about it. I tried reading a couple that were recommended by another blogger, but they just weren't for me. But for those who like it, and there seems to be a large number of adults trying to write YA, it's a challenge, I'm sure. But, if they follow your advice, they should be okay with their readers.

Christine Murray said...

That was what got me about the article too, the lack of respect for their readers. That, more than anything else in that crazy article, told me that they shouldn't be writing YA.

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Richard and Christine. It kind of touched a nerve for me, because I already get bugged when people talk like teenagers are stupid and/or immature. (Sure, they can act stupid or immature sometimes ... can't we all?)

My students are some of the most amazing people I know ... even when they're driving me up the wall. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It's good to know that there are people writing YA who actually respect their audience.

Alta said...

How did I miss the slutty werewolves in Twilight? Oh, wait, there weren't any.

Loved your post. I'm an aspiring YA author, and I hate the idea of dumbing anything down. I know these kids can hack it.

Thanks for your insight!

cherie said...


Great post. I'm tweeting this. ;)

Jen said...

Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for saying everything. Why do people assume that YA must be for those who want an easy read with no adventure. I read YA, because it's generally clean and good entertainment. I hate it when people talk about things they know nothing about because they haven't experienced them, Great post!!

R.C. Lewis said...

Absolutely, Alta. You can make things accessible without dumbing it down.

Thanks again for the tweet, Cherie. :-D

And thanks, Jen. I can't imagine writing for adults--I just wouldn't know how. YA is what I love and it's where my brain lives.

Julia Darcey said...

I love this post! I completely agree - anyone who thinks teenagers are "just kids" is never going to be able to write well for them. As we get older and still don't feel very adult, I think it's easy to assume we must have been EVEN more clueless as teens. But when I was 16, I really did feel like an almost-adult. I liked the same books I do now, had the same friends, had the same CAR (ugh). I mean, it's called young ADULT for a reason.

Marilyn Almodóvar said...

It's been a couple of bad weeks/months/years for our genre. Especially with WSJ recycling horrible articles that target our Genre as a really bad influence on Teens.
Like you, I am an aspiring YA writer, and I still can't believe that any self respecting YA writer would be so condescending and insulting not only to the Genre, but to the readers and fellow writers.

I found it in very poor taste for them to compare YA writers to pedophiles. I wish I could burn the article from my memory.

Also, I just wish that I knew which version of Twilight they read... probably the one being produced by Summit Entertainment.

Stephen L. Duncan said...

Excellent post, and so true. Andrew Smith just did a post over at defending YA as being more difficult to write than commercial adult, and I have to agree. Our readers, I think, are more aware of what's BS than other readers.

Does it count that I tried to read Twilight? ;)

Riley Redgate said...

Ah, how I love this post. Double high-five-fist-bump.

And Stephen... YES! My BS detector works double, because I'm always like... *narrows eyes at teen section* everything here was written by adults. Let's see how it measures up, BWAHAHA.

*cough* Uh, yeah, about that maturity thing...

R.C. Lewis said...

Stephen, as long as you don't make claims about what does or doesn't happen in the Twilight books, I think that's okay.

Riley, I need the "wub" emoticon from AQC to post here. ❤ ❤ ❤ :-D

John Betcher said...

Very well done, RC. I'm not deep into YA . . . but kids are sure important to me. Sounds like you've got the right perspective. Keep up the great work.


A.M.Supinger said...

I really love this post. Thank you so much for citing those articles...I was amused (and slightly appalled) by them.

I will make triple-sure to expect great things of my readers, and to respect their intelligence ;)

R.C. Lewis said...

Anytime, A.M. And we know how awesome teens can be, for we know RILEY REDGATE! (And I know my awesome students, too.) :-D