Marianna Baer is the author of the YA novels The Inconceivable Life of Quinn (Amulet/Abrams) and Frost (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins). She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and edits both YA and adult fiction.
As a writer and editor of YA fiction, I hear opinions about the genre all the time—from authors who write for adults, from nonwriters with YA book ideas, from the guy next to me on the airplane. . . . And there are a few misconceptions that come up over and over again. While I’m not too concerned with what the outside world thinks of my profession, I do think it’s good for aspiring YA writers to know the real deal.
1. You have to make your writing less sophisticated for a teen audience.
This is probably the biggest misconception, and I’m honestly not sure where it comes from. After all, most people begin reading books written for adults while they’re in their teens—if not for pleasure, then definitely for school. Teen readers don’t need us to coddle them by simplifying our vocabulary or sentence structure or the narrative structure of our books. If you want to write something simple and straightforward, like a contemporary version of the Sweet Valley High series you loved as a kid, go for it! Nothing wrong with that. Or if you want to write about a more serious topic in a way that will be accessible to teens at a lower reading level, that’s fantastic—there’s a real need for “hi-lo” books. But if the story you’re telling demands a more sophisticated narrative voice or structure, don’t hold back. Your readers will be right there with you.
2. You have to avoid certain subject matter when writing YA.
My recently released YA novel, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn, is the story of a sixteen-year-old daughter of a politician who is trying to solve the mystery of her seemingly virgin pregnancy while also facing the public scandal it causes. Because of the subject, the book goes to some dark places and touches on some controversial doozies. (Sex! Religion! Politics! Yikes!) Did this stop a major publisher from picking it up, or stop Publishers Weekly from giving it a starred review? Nope! The truth is, if you’re worried about censorship, or teens not being interested, or about introducing them to something too dark, chances are your worry is misplaced. YA novels explore issues and experiences that teens face—and teens face just about everything you could imagine. Aside from that, teens are engaged members of society—they care about what’s going on in the world. If it’s a well-told story, there will be teens who want to read it. (Not to mention that a good number of YA readers are adults, but that’s a subject for another post.)
A caveat about dark subject matter: writing for teens does carry a certain responsibility. Take care that you’re handling topics with sensitivity. Be aware of what you’re putting out there.
3. Your YA novel needs to have a romance in it.
I’m not going to lie—I do hear a lot of editors say that romance in YA is key. But is it necessary for your book to include a little (or a lot) of kissing to sell it—either to a publisher or to a teen audience? No. Definitely not. If a romance isn’t a natural fit in your story, trying to shoehorn it in isn’t the way to go. It’s bound to feel out of place. There are plenty of editors and readers who don’t need romance and plenty who are actually looking for books without it. I often have friends ask me to recommend YA for teens who want stories that are romance-free.
4. You should avoid having adult characters in your YA novel.
While it’s true that the main character in YA fiction is almost always between thirteen and nineteen, plenty of books have either parents or other adults as important secondary characters. I think the “kill the parents” myth came from the (correct) belief that your main character should take the lead in actively achieving their central goal. But having them act with a certain amount of independence doesn’t mean that you can’t have older characters play significant roles in the journey your character takes, either as antagonists or as supportive forces.
5. You’re going to get rich writing YA.
Um . . . you might? I guess? After all, some people win the lottery! But if making a fortune is your ultimate goal, you might want to reconsider. Buying lottery tickets is a lot easier than writing a bestselling novel. (Not to mention that in most cases, it takes more than one bestselling novel to get rich.)
If you’re one of the many writers trying (or thinking about trying) to break into this vibrant market, I hope that this quick rundown will be of help! And there’s no substitute for reading widely in the genre, to see what’s happening in YA firsthand. Aside from looking at bestseller lists to find books that are doing well commercially, check out the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) yearly booklists. They’re a great resource for finding both popular books and award-winners. I absolutely promise that exploring the depth and variety of what’s happening in YA is the most inspiring way to bust all the myths.