Writing YA

This week, I’m beginning my foray into fiction; I’m working on an assignment for Laurenbarnholdt‘s Young Adult (YA) writing class. I’ve done some initial research on plot structure, character development, and dialogue (yada yada)  — hours of work so far, translated into four pages out of a requisite ten. I’m no YA prodigy, that much is already clear.

An article in this morning’s LA TImes is all about YA-writing prodigies of all ages, but it focuses its attention on teens authors who “write life as they live it,” in books intended for their peers. “Why let a bunch of middle-aged people tell you what it’s like to be an American teen,” reporter Josh Getlin asks.

Courtney Toombs, coauthor of The Notebook Girls, says few adults understand teens. “Your parents think you just get on the school bus in the morning and you sit in your class all day, and you go somewhere and you come back,” she says. “They don’t realize that you live this entire life that they really don’t know about.”  Oh yeah, that’s just what I needed to hear.

But can teen authors really write? This article says yes. “Teenagers, after all, are forever sending text and instant messages. They spend hours updating blogs and keeping online journals. The discipline that adult wannabes fight so hard to master in night classes and writing colonies — the need to write, write and write some more — comes effortlessly to many teens. For them, daily life on the Internet has become an almost natural prelude to the writing of short stories, essays and novels.”

One LJ friend makes her case: “Why should I have to wait years to get a book deal?” asked robbiewriter, author of the novel Better Than Yesterday, which will be published by Delacorte in 2007. “I mean, I’ve been writing since I was in the eighth grade. I felt that I had something to say.”

But some industry experts say teen writers are gifted exceptions. “Until our educational system gets better we won’t see much of this,” said E. Lockhart, who wrote The Boyfriend List (required  reading for Lauren’s class) and Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything.”

I find Lockhart’s success story comforting. “It took me until I was at least 30 to write a publishable book,” she says, “and 38 to write a decent book.” “Some people are prodigies, God love them, but it’s not that common. Fiction takes time to do well.”

Some authors suggest that, when it comes to writing, it’s all about talent and discipline rather than age. “I don’t see a huge talent difference between one age group or another,” said Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. “It all comes down to who has the dedication to sit down every day and put something on paper. It all starts from there.”

I’m trying out this genre of writing, mainly because it sounds like a lot of fun. It’ll encourage me to see the world from a different vantage point, and I believe it’ll improve my overall writing skills, too. But whatever an author’s age or reason for writing YA, there’s no doubt that there’s a market for good work. 

According to Getlin, “While revenue in other sectors of the book industry remains flat, YA is booming… A key reason for the success of YA books, which run the gamut from romances to mysteries, thrillers to self-help, religion to sports, is that there are far more teenagers than there were 15 years ago. They’re part of the 12- to 21-year-old demographic that spends a staggering $170 billion annually on entertainment, including books.” I gotta admit it: that’s motivation, too.

You can read the whole article here.


  1. Well, I wrote and revised my first novel when I was 13-15, and it was *almost* picked up by a Canadian publisher…and it still took me another ten years and string of practice novels to learn how to write a book that, as one writer so succinctly put it, “really hangs together”. And that is just the way it is. Even a musical prodigy (which I am not, by the way)doesn’t sit down at the piano knowing exactly how to play it; some instruction and practice is involved. (I mean, did you *read* the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY book review of Paolini’s Eragon sequel? One of the most brutal reviews I’ve ever read. And no writer I know of takes the kid very seriously as an actual writer…)

    And there’s also the HUGE marketing angle: publishers love to trumpet a story of a teenage prodigy (I’m thinking of, in the last five years or so, Jenn Crowell and Richard Mason, teenagers who published adult novels to huge advances. By the way, where are they now? And have you heard of them?), and kids love to read books published by other kids, partly because it makes them believe that they, too, can become published authors…like, tomorrow.

    And yes, the ‘well-connected’ angle figures prominently in pretty much every story of a teenager getting published that I know of…Teenage writers tend to have prominent mentors (Bret Easton Ellis had one, who helped him radically reshape his ms.; Crowell had Ford Madox Ford; the guy who wrote ‘Twelve’ — Nick somebody — was *born* into the elite New York publishing world — Amelia Atwater-Rhodes (the teenage vampire writer) had a mother who was an agent…and so on…even in my own case, way back when, I had Canadian writer Scott Young [father of Neil] championing my ms to agents and editors. When you’re older, you get good enough to make your own connections — they happen naturally as you develop your craft and put yourself and your stuff out there — but when you’re young, you really do need help.)

    Being talented and tetting published young is one thing; truly learning your craft is something else entirely, and I think one reason why so many young writers flame out so quickly is because they just haven’t had time to develop the craft and general Life Experience and maturity to write a good *second* novel, and a third novel, and so on…And, as Jenn Crowell herself noted when she entered her twenties, as soon as she became a regular ‘adult writer’ suddenly nobody cared that much about what she was writing (she has yet to produce a third novel).

    The best YA writers out there are still the grown-ups. Show me a teenage girl who can write something as good as Richard Peck’s ‘Princess Amy’ (told from the perspective of a 15 year old girl. Have you read it? I love that book…).

    Anyway, this is a favorite topic of mine, so thanks for the article! (And with a YA novel of my own currently in submission, the ‘YA is booming’ line — which I’ve heard echoed in other places as well, as well as by my own agent — is always really nice to hear!)

    • Thanks for weighing in with your perspective and experience about this. Writing YA all so new to me, so I love hearing what other writers think. (By the way, for that reason and because you’re a great thinker/writer, I _always_ read your blog.)

    • Anonymous

      Amelia Atwater-Rhodes had a chance meeting with a teacher in her soon-to-be-high-school, who was an agent. He didn’t reshape things or mentor her.

      • My bad. I thought I read somewhere that her mother was an agent.

        But my point was one about being unusually well-connected; having a chance encounter with a teacher who turns out to be an agent would qualify. 🙂 In any case, Amelia is an example of a young writer who went on to build a career over many books, which makes her a different story from the others.

  2. Good, informative post. Thanks for sharing. Part of me is, like, “Hey, live some life, earn being able to say something…” I guess because I’ve paid my dues, raised six children, sacrificed. I haven’t ” walked” into anything, why should some kid?

    On the other hand, there are some valid reality points.

    Still, I have four teens, and I know alot of teenagers, most of which want an escape from reality when they read, rather than to be thrust back into what they live with, when reading a book. So it comes down to satisfying that need, which can be done by an author of any age that writes well and has a story to tell.

    • I’m sure your experiences — personal and indirectly, through your kids — make your writing relevant and interesting.

      I am interested in what you said about books being an escape from reality. Thanks for giving me that to think about.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I read the whole article, which raises some interesting points, many of which you highlighted in yours.

    In response to what someone said in response (Mouthful), Eragon is an interesting case of this. I’ve read Eragon, not Eldest, so I can’t speak for the 2nd installment. Kids love Paolini’s novels. I’ve seen at least a half a dozen boys, not girls yet, reading one of his two books during their silent reading time in class. And when I’ve asked them about the books, their eyes get big with delight at 1) the book and 2) a teacher cares about the book their reading because he’s read it too. As far as writing quality, it’s not bad for a kid. It’s not Tolkien, but who is? And would Tolkien have been Tolkien at 15? Who knows.

    Anyway, thanks for posting here. I’m sure Robbie’s thrilled, or bashful, about being quoted in the article.


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