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Cheat Sheet

Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies

From Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies by Deborah Halverson, M. T. Anderson (Foreword by)

The elements of storytelling are the same for young adult fiction and adult fiction, but writers of young adult fiction must come at those elements with a wholly different mindset. After all, this category has its own rules, its own quirks, and its own very opinionated audience: teens and tweens.

Young Adult Fiction Categories and Age Ranges

The two categories of young adult literature — young adult (YA or "teen fiction") and middle grade ("MG fiction") — are split into several age ranges to help book buyers and readers judge the age-appropriateness of the content and the writing. The shift from tween to teen begins around age 12, and standard age ranges reflect that.

Middle Grade (MG)

25,000 to 45,000 words
Ages 9 to 12 Older elementary into middle school, grades 4 through 7
Ages 10 to 14 Middle school into early high school, grades 5 through 9; these kids may be reading older MG and younger YAs
Young Adult (YA)

40,000 to 60,000 words
Ages 12 and up Older middle school into high school, grades 7 through 12
Ages 14 and up High school, grades 9 and up; generally understood to cap at age 17

Writing Young Adult Fiction: Creating a Youthful Narrative Voice

Narrative voice — what your narrator says and how he says it — is a defining feature of young adult fiction. Here are five ways to make your narrative voice teen-friendly, whether your narrator is your young main character or an all-knowing omniscient being:

  • Embrace your inner drama queen. Use hyperbole, or words and phrases that suggest an overly dramatic view of the situation, its extent, its implications, and its impact on the protagonist herself. "It was the best day ever." "Mom was going to kill me." Many teens lack the experience to put things in perspective, and their stress and frustration often show up as exaggeration.

  • Relax your grammar. Let sentences purposely run on, double-back on themselves, repeat, and end prematurely for a natural flow. As long as you keep the meaning clear, the grammar police won't come after you. Creative grammar lets you selectively deviate from the rules for a more casual, off-the-cuff, and ultimately youthful quality.

  • Match sentence structure and paragraphing to your audience. As young people's emotions, intellect, and interests change, a writer's word choice and sentence structure must adjust. Generally, use shorter, more declarative sentences and frequent paragraph breaks for tweens and younger teens so the pages don't seem dense and daunting; slip in longer sentences for rhythmic variety as long as they're direct and active. More complex sentence structure and longer paragraphs tend to convey a more mature voice for older readers.

  • Embrace immaturity. Young tweens are typically focused inward, with conflicts stemming from that. They're struggling to find out who they are, first and foremost. Don't let young narrators sound too self-aware by analyzing themselves or others. Let them judge and act quickly, harshly, and wrongly — and then face the consequences. Teens are starting to look outward as they try to find their places in the world and realize that their actions have consequences in the grander scheme of life, affecting others in immense ways. Your narrator's observations and commentary must reflect the appropriate youthful outlook for your protagonist and audience age range.

  • Don't preach. Let the characters embody your message and live your lessons.

Creating Teen Dialogue when Writing Young Adult Fiction

Writing dialogue that sounds like it spilled from the lips of teens makes your young adult fiction novel more believable to your audience. Use these five tips to defy your age and write dialogue that's both young-sounding and youth-pleasing:

  • Blurt things out. Teens often talk first and think second. And their tact filters aren't fully developed yet.

  • Choose simple words. Young people don't generally break out the 50-cent words in normal dialogue unless they're fascinated by words or maybe want to show off how smart they are.

  • Exaggerate. For emphasis, teens and tweens often talk in exaggerations, revealing their still-developing perspective of the world and their tendency to overstate in times of high emotion and frustration. Think, "I'm a total loser."

  • Lighten up. Ditch stiff, proper grown-up delivery and embrace casual syntax instead. String your words together in a more footloose fashion, and maybe throw in a little bad grammar while you're at it. Few people implement grammar precisely when they're in a back-and-forth. After all, when you're trying to get the words out, why bother sorting out sentence structure just so you can use "whom" properly? Loose syntax is more effective at conveying youthfulness than depending on slang, which can date your book.

  • Make the conversation about the speaker. Teens are a self-absorbed lot, and that can come out in their words. Frame teen dialogue from a perspective that focuses on how the circumstances affect the speaker. Thus, instead of "Tom seemed sad today. I wonder why?" use "Tom blew me off today. What's up with that? What did I do to him?"

Evaluating Character and Plot in Young Adult Fiction

As you write your manuscript for young adult fiction, edit your work by evaluating characters and plot. Self-editing lets you address story issues even before you ask someone to read your young adult novel. Here are five questions to help you decide whether you still have some character- and plot-shaping to do:

  • Did you force your protagonist out of his comfort zone at crucial moments?

  • Has each obstacle pushed the plot and characters forward?

  • Are the consequences of failure dire enough at each stage of the plot?

  • Does each scene in each chapter contribute to its chapter's overall goal, and does every chapter contribute to the character's achievement of his story goal?

  • If you take your protagonist as he is in the final scene and drop him back into the first scene of the story, has he matured enough to handle the initial conflict so well this time around that your novel wouldn't even be necessary?

If you're confident answering yes to all, you may indeed be at word-tweaking stage and perhaps last draft.

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