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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 10: Writing for Young Adults

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 10: Writing for Young Adults

From http://www.writingexcuses.com/2010/03/14/writing-excuses-4-10-writing-for-young-adults/

Key points: YA, middle grade, and adult are mostly bookstore marketing labels -- where do we shelve it and who do we sell it to? Focus on writing for teens. Think about how to appeal to them, mostly by providing something they can relate to. The YA genre definition says school and romance are key interests. 16-year-olds are at a crux, where they can make decisions and do things, yet they are still told what to do. Teens may adopt the easy, superficial analysis just because they haven't got the experience to make them realize that's too simple. Be wary of writing teens as "little adults." Consider the character's background, experiences, and setting -- but don't overdo it.

[Brandon] We have, once again, the lovely and talented Jessica Day George with us. Writing for young adults. I'm going to make you talk first, Jessica, because you've written the most books, largest number of... you have approached writing for young adults the most frequently.
[Jessica] Oh. Yes, yes, I have.
[Brandon] Tell us what the... quick primer, what's the difference between the young adult genre, the adult genre, and the middle grade genre? We've talked about this before on the podcast, so just give us some quick pointers.
[Jessica] I don't really know. Because I have heard that middle grade is puppy love, characters about 13 and under. Then young adults can have characters 12 and up and they can have actual romances and stuff like that. Then of course adults is adults. But I kinda break all of those rules in my books, so I'm not really sure what to tell you on that one.
[Brandon] It's particularly complicated in fantasy, which a lot of us write. Fantasy and science fiction, because what's marketed as adult or what's marketed as young adult... Dan, your book... Serial Killer's been marketed both places?
[Dan] It is being marketed as both adult and YA depending on the market. It really does sit right on that upper end of YA where it could go either way. The thing about YA is that it's so much a book label, which means it comes in large part from a bookstore...
[Brandon] Right. Wanting to shelve things.
[Dan] Wanting to know where to shelve it and who to sell it to. I mean, when most of us grew up, they didn't have YA as a genre. We just grew up reading what was cool.
[Jessica] Well, there were kids books and adult books. There were like two sides to the room. Instead of like eight too little sections now.
[Brandon] I was so offended when they shelved Anne McCaffery in the kids section, because I was reading adult books and I didn't want to go into the kids section. So I actually appreciate the teen... the YA genre, yet at the same time, it does kind of force some of these extra limitations on.

[Brandon] So this podcast, let's not talk about writing for that genre. Let's talk about writing for teens. Even if you're writing an adult book, writing teenage characters or writing... you want to have things that appeal to various market segments. When you sit down and you write, Dan, and you are writing a book that you think... you say this is... how will this appeal to teens? Are there any things that you specifically do?
[Dan] If I'm aiming at teens? Or if I want to make sure teens will be interested in it? I will first of all make sure that there is something in it they can relate to. The book that I am writing at present, I honestly don't know if it is going to really hit the teen market because it is primarily a corporate satire. That's not something they have any background with. On the other hand, it is a corporate satire about the health and beauty industry, which is something that teen girls at the very least have a lot of experience with. So it may be able to interest them from that angle, even though it's not going to interest them from the head-on core reason of the book.
[Howard] I'm in kind of a funny position because I'm writing comics, and the perception of comics is all over the map. There are people who understand that comics are for all ages. There are people who assume that because there's pictures, it must be for kids. There are people who assume that if there are pictures but they are not pictures of Donald Duck, then uh, oh, this might be a grown-up comic and I need to not get it anywhere near my kids because the grown-up comics can be really dangerous. What I've found is that by including the pictures, I am getting the kids to read it and I'm getting the adults to read it. The generalization that something is only going to appeal to a teenager is, I think, kind of overblown. Because if you can draw the interest of a 16-year-old or a 14-year-old with what you're writing or what you're drawing, you can draw the interest of an adult, because adults are even worse.

[Brandon] I think there's some very good points there. Because I think we... as a genre for some reason... as a business, we seem to underestimate people a lot. Teens, in particular, I've heard a lot of, "Well, this is a teen book, and this is what teens are interested in." According to the genre definitions, teens are interested in romance and school. If it doesn't include romance or school, then it is going to have a very hard time being targeted in the teen genre. That's kind of what teen genre means to a lot of people.
[Jessica] Those are your only interests you're allowed as a teenager. School and boys or girls.
[Howard] If I were going to try... based on that, if I were going to try to market Schlock Mercenary to the young adult market, the mercenaries...
[Jessica] Would be cadets.
[Howard] Would be the JROTC. Would be a Junior ROTC group who solves missions... solves mysteries and takes on missions on the side, and they have high school romances and crushes. But everything else would be the same. The intrigue, the vocabulary, the killing, the... all that.
[Dan] That would be a great manga.
[Howard] It would be a fantastic manga. That's one of the reasons manga does so well, is because it reaches across boundaries and says, "Oh. Well, I'm going to put in some things that interest this age group and now they're going to read it."

[Brandon] See, but... I mean... I think we're kind of... I'm not sure even how to respond to that, because what you just said is exactly the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom, at the same time, there wouldn't... every manga wouldn't take place in high school, if weren't doing something... that didn't have a certain amount of appeal. I don't think they're all sitting down and saying it has to take place in high school and not trying other things. I know they're trying other things and those aren't as successful as the kids in high school. So there is something to the conventional wisdom.
[Jessica] If they're younger than high school age and reading these books, high school is your dream. High school is exciting. You can't wait to get to high school, that's where all the cool stuff happens. If you are in high school, or older even, and you are looking for something a little lighter... like Dan was saying, high school kids are not interested in the corporate world. If you've got characters out of high school, then where are they? OK, maybe they're in college and that's older YA or something like that. But college is when reality starts to hit and you have to have crap jobs and stuff like that. So you can see the appeal of high school, where you don't necessarily have to have an afterschool job, you do have certain stresses, you are around a lot of people, you do have social... you have cliques and social hierarchies and all that stuff. It's a very fertile field for mayhem and romance and anything you want.
[Howard] But you can map those relationships onto... well, you can map them onto military organizations. You could write a story about police officers because there's those same sorts of hierarchies. In a corporate environment...
[Jessica] Yes, but teens are not going to be as interested in reading about a bunch of police officers.
[Howard] I know, but what I'm saying is... what you might be able to do, if you wanted to write that and not set it in high school, is take the high school relationships in your head and start mapping the corporate stuff or the cop stuff onto it so that it's going to be that much more accessible. Maybe one of the characters says, "Man, this is as bad as high school ever was." If he says it in chapter 1, that may be all that's needed to win the young adult reader over. I don't know, because I've never done it.

[Brandon] Let's pause for an advertisement, our book of the week. I'm going to go ahead and pick this week's book of the week. I'm going to pick one of my favorite... I don't know if it's middle grade or if it's YA. I don't know what it is, but I love it. It's Dragon's Blood by Jane Yolen.
[Jessica] Oh, gravy.
[Brandon] This was the original for me... I'm sure it wasn't the first, but it was my first original boy-finds-a-dragon-egg story. It is so much cooler than Eragon, it will blow your mind.
[Jessica] Yes!
[Brandon] Instead of finding a dragon to fly around and have fun, he raises a pit fighting dragon to kill other dragons in the arena. That is so much cooler. I love this book. You should read it. You should listen to it. Audible has it. Go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, download a copy of Dragon's Blood by Jane Yolen. You will not be sad, it is wonderful.
[Jessica] That was a great pick.
[Brandon] Yeah, I love that book.

[Brandon] Howard, you recently introduced a teenage character into your comic.
[Howard] I did.
[Brandon] Did you do this thinking, "Hey, this might be something that appeals to teens," or is it just "I need to fill out my cast with more variety" or what?
[Howard] I did it for a couple of reasons. I find young people a lot more interesting than I think I used to as characters ever since my daughter became...
[Brandon] A teenager?
[Howard] Yeah, a teenager. I realized wow, she is a lot more capable than I've ever given her credit for. When I have seen her in surroundings where she is surrounded by adults, she is absolutely dwarfed by them. Because she is petite, 14 years old. I thought, there is something to that, visually, that I want to play with. So I played with it. Now Para Ventura is not Keliana's age, Para Ventura is older than that. But it still... it lets me play with that a little bit. The other thing that I did, the other reason I brought her in, is because I wanted somebody in the cast who is a little more interested in clothing, so that I could change the clothing up a little bit, because Phil Folio told me that everybody shouldn't be running around in their underwear.

[Brandon] I agree with Phil. So, Jessica or Dan or anyone, really, when you sit down to write... Oh, we haven't even actually asked Jessica this, and you write the most of it...
[Jessica] Yeah?
[Brandon] Do you sit and think OK, this will appeal to my age group audience or not? Or do you just kind of let it happen?
[Jessica] My natural mental age is apparently 16. Whenever I sit down to write, the character I'm thinking of is about 16. So...
[Brandon] Give us some advice then on writing characters that act like 16-year-olds.
[Jessica] It's a hard... it's a hard, hard age. Because you are able to make decisions, you are able to understand complex topics, and think fairly rationally. You have some education, but not as much as adults. It's hard because you are still being told what to do. You can drive, you could go out and get a job and live on your own...
[Brandon] And have a family even.
[Jessica] And have a family. But you are still, according to most societies' laws, being told what to do, what to wear, where to go. So there is a great deal of just internal conflict, a great deal of kind of emotional roller coaster, of feeling confident, stepping out of your room in the morning and thinking, "Yes, I look good and I know what I'm going to do today." Then having someone swoop in and go, "You cannot wear that skirt, young lady, and by the way, you are going to your aunt's this afternoon." It's like all your decisions were just taken away from you, everything that you had chosen for yourself was just taken away.

[Howard] That's actually a trend that my wife Sandra commented to me and told me this is something that she's observed in a lot of middle grade and in some YA and that is that... it's something that grown-up readers... adult readers find annoying when the main character...
[Brandon] Is an orphan.
[Howard] Is told what to do. No, is told what to do and then does it, even though it's obvious that stupid, that's stupid advice, why are you doing this? But the reading group, those middle-age readers, those young adult readers are being told what to do a lot, and they are conditioned and expected... people are withholding information from them all the time. They're not being told the whole story, and that's just what they're used to.
[Brandon] We get frustrated when that happens in Harry Potter, because Dumbledore...
[Jessica] Why is Dumbledore not confiding in him? Well, he's 12.
[Brandon] I never actually even thought of that until this moment. How frustrated I get with Dumbledore, and scream at Dumbledore. Yet seeing that from the perspective of a 12-year-old, saying "Yeah, that's exactly what happens. Nobody ever tells me what's going on. They just make me do things." That's great.

[Brandon] Howard, I think you're the only one of us here that has a teenage child. Am I correct?
[Jessica] Yes.
[Brandon] Advice for writing teens. This is actually very pertinent to the podcast...
[Howard] I like how the yes came from Jessica instead of from me, but it makes perfect sense.
[Brandon] Well, I wasn't sure how old Jessica's kids are. Which is why... I know Dan's kids all... I'm not...
[Howard] It may be a fun moment for our listeners.
[Brandon] My kids are all still pooping in their pants.
[Dan] More of mine are than I would like.
[Howard] Clean rating. Clean rating.

[Brandon] So, Howard. Advice on writing teens?
[Howard] John Scalzi talked about writing... it was the book that mirrored The Last Colony...
[Brandon] Zoe's Tale.
[Howard] Zoe's Tale. He talked about writing Zoe's Tale and said, "You know, if I'd been able to hang around at the school and listen to my daughter and her friends talk, that would've been awesome. But as a 40-something balding guy, that probably would've gotten me arrested." I remember reading that and laughing, because Keliana has a group of friends who will come over to my house and I listen to them, I listen to the way they talk. I realize, "Oh, I would not have dreamed of saying that."
[Brandon] Any quick pointers for those who...
[Howard] Those who don't have that sort of a resource?
[Brandon] Can't go without being arrested.
[Howard] Don't be afraid to take a problem, take a situation, and have the characters adopt the easy analysis, the first superficial analysis. Because these are characters who while they're smart and they're going to learn from their mistakes, haven't made enough mistakes yet to realize that this thing they are looking at is just... that's too simple...

[Brandon] I think this is something to consider... The genres are defined generally... if we're talking about publishing, which we've kind of thrown out. But they do look at it... they define a genre by age group, meaning the age of the protagonist determines whether it's middle grade or YA or adult in the minds of a lot of publishing. If you're going to write for YA, the default should be a YA protagonist. Generally two years or so older than the age group you want to read your book. It's actually kind of an interesting conundrum, because in a lot of ways, you want to be writing characters who act like a few years younger than they are sometimes to appeal to... it's really a weird thing to deal with. I don't even know how to do it. Because I tend to write characters... I fall into one of the... this is actually a problem that a lot of writers have. I have it too, I've noticed it myself. That writing young people, you just write them as little adults. If that makes sense?
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] As much as I love Ender's Game, I think this is a weakness of Ender's Game, that the kids... he makes them smarter, and so they are essentially just adults. That's how I generally approach too. I say look, I'm writing in a fantasy world, if I got an 18-year-old who's gone through a whole bunch of terrible stuff, they're going to have aged more than an 18-year-old in our society. So I'm not sure I can give you advice on this.

[Brandon] Do you guys have any last parting words, Jessica or Dan or Howard, on how to write someone who really actually feels like they are a teenager?
[Jessica] You've got to consider their background, as you say. In Ender's Game, we actually didn't work to some extent because they were more intelligent yet they had not had the life experiences that would have had them reacting that way. They had information but shouldn't have known how to use it quite so well. If you're in... I guess we'll call it a pre-technology type of world, an 18 year old is an adult. They will have had a great deal of life experiences. They will have seen death. They could potentially be married and have children, and it will be normal.
[Howard] We grow up a lot slower now than we did...
[Jessica] If you're in a contemporary setting, you've got to consider the fact that they will have been conditioned to follow adults. That they may have excellent educations, but not have the emotional maturity to make complex decisions...
[Brandon] Emotional maturity...
[Jessica] That they will turn to friends and family, and especially older friends and family, in order to get answers rather than seeking out the answers themselves. If you're in a more contemporary setting, where they would have led a cushier life honestly and had things all for them.
[Howard] I'd ask myself how many times has this character been able to subject themselves or been subjected to the consequences of decisions that they've made that have been difficult. The more that happens, the faster they grow up, and the better their decisions get... or maybe the worse their decisions get, depending on what sort of consequences they've been experiencing.
[Dan] We're almost out of time. I just want to say really quickly, don't overdo it. The fifth Harry Potter book, I think it was Order of the Phoenix, was a fantastically accurate depiction of what it's like to be 14 years old, and that made it so annoying for me to read. Because it was too close to real live 14-year-olds, and I didn't want to get that close back to the way they think again. It bugged the heck out of me.
[Jessica] I know a lot of people that had a problem with that.
[Brandon] Same argument with writing an accent or a dialect very accurately. Yeah, you got it dead on, that's so annoying. Jessica, thank you for sitting in with us. I'm going to make you give us our writing prompt.

[Jessica] Your writing prompt is to take a young protagonist, at least younger than 16, and put them in a situation where they are in charge of some adults. You have to have a good reason why they are in charge.
[Dan] Very nice.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: middle grade, romance, school, teens, writing excuses, young adult
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