The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Young-Adult Fiction Authors
Best-selling writers including John Green and Veronica Roth share their strategies for crafting authentic, relatable teen characters—even in fantasy worlds.
Young-adult fiction, commonly called "YA fiction," has exploded over the past decade or so: The number of YA titles published grew more than 120 percent between 2002 and 2012, and other estimates say that between 1997 and 2009, that figure was closer to 900 percent. Ask a handful of young-adult fiction writers what exactly makes a YA novel, though, and you’ll get a handful of conflicting answers.
At their core, YA books are for and about teenagers and pre-teens, usually between 12 and 18 years old, but sometimes as young as 10. Yet more than half of all YA novels sold are bought by older adults 18 or older, and certain titles published in the U.S. as YA are considered mainstream fiction for adults in other countries. Some authors believe the intent to write for young readers is a prerequisite of YA fiction; others don’t even realize their books will be labeled as YA until after they finish writing.
Many successful authors say there’s no secret to writing for teenagers. Good writing is good writing; believable characters and compelling plots are crucial regardless of who’s picking up the book. But many YA authors will also tell you there’s something particularly fulfilling and rewarding about writing for teenagers, who often respond to stories they identify with more intensely and gratefully than adult readers do. I asked eight writers and editors how they create characters and stories that feel real to teenagers, even when their world—and the world of the YA books they read—can feel like another planet. Below are eight of their most successful strategies.
Think Like a Teen
Rainbow Rowell never set out to be a YA author. Her first book, Attachments, was for and about adults, and though Eleanor & Park is a teenage love story set in 1986, her approach to writing younger characters was the same. It was only after the novel was finished that she learned it would be YA, and even then, the decision was debated. Because Rowell got her start writing for adults—and because the story’s relatability defied many adults’ expectations of what a “book for teens” was—some readers and reviewers questioned whether the YA label was applicable.
But what clearly makes Eleanor & Park a YA book, a fellow author told Rowell, wasn’t just that the main characters were teens. It was that the novel actually saw the world through their eyes. “The perspective was so firmly rooted inside of these teenagers,” Rowell says. “You’re not looking back or looking down. The narrator is not observing things the people themselves are not.” It’s the same quality—a lack of narrative distance—that’s led many writers to call J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye the seminal YA text: Readers experience Holden Caulfield’s version of events solely through his jaded, smart-alecky point of view.
“I think everyone’s got a little teenager inside of them still, and you just have to work to help yourself access that teenager,” says Veronica Roth, the author of the Divergent trilogy, whose final installment, Allegiant, is out now. “Every now and then I find myself having a character make a decision that feels very adult without having them earn it, and I have to go back and make sure I’m letting the characters make mistakes they would in real life at that age, like a parent.”
When the adult perspective creeps its way into a YA book, readers notice, too. “It’s a huge red flag,” says Rachel Cohn, the author of the acclaimed Gingerbread series, who says she’s vigilant about editing out the grown-up voice in early drafts of her writing. Cohn, who is often asked to review other YA books, calls this distance one of her biggest pet peeves.
“The books I turn away are when the dialogue reads false to me,” Cohn says. “It’s not that the words are wrong, because that’s subjective, but the feelings are wrong to me. It’s like an adult observing something.”
Find the “Emotional Truth” of the Teenage Experience
John Green’s hilarious and heartbreaking The Fault in Our Stars is not a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel like Divergent or The Hunger Games. But the lives of its protagonists, Hazel and Gus, hardly mirror the lives of their readers, who probably don’t have cancer and generally don’t fly to Amsterdam to track down reclusive, alcoholic authors. And yet, the book has been a New York Times bestseller for 46 weeks. “I get emails every day from people who are like, ‘I’m just like Hazel, except I don’t have cancer, I’m not 16, I’m not white, and I’m not female,’” Green says. “I’m like, ‘Well, you’re not just like Hazel.’”
Readers also probably don’t directly identify with A, the main character of David Levithan’s Every Day, who wakes up each morning in someone else’s body and is defined only by the thoughts in his head.
But they don’t need to. “The defining characteristic of YA literature is emotional truth,” Levithan writes in an email. “Even if we’re not the same as the characters we read, they are all dealing with things—issues of who they are, who they should be, what they should and shouldn’t do—that we all deal with, in their own ways. With The Hunger Games, even if we will never be in Katniss’s shoes, the decisions she makes make emotional sense to us—even when she makes the wrong ones.”
That might be why readers find themselves so drawn to Hazel and Gus, whose relationship and health struggles offer avenues for teenagers to examine the bigger ideas they’re grappling with in their own lives. “Maybe some of what’s universal is the intensity of the experience, the intensity of falling in love for the first time, the intensity of asking questions about mortality and meaning for the first time,” Green says.
But even if YA books aren’t tackling issues of life and death, the best among them still capture the gravity of the teenage and pre-teen experience, whether it’s the sparks of a first crush or lunchroom gossip and bullying. “When you’re in that time in your life, the trials and tribulations of friendships, romantic relationships, it's all very crucial and vital,” says Kristen Pettit, an executive editor at HarperCollins. “That is one way the author presents themselves as authentic to the YA community, by nailing that keenness of feeling and emotion and high-stakes nature of the interactions they have with people every day.”
A Good Pop-Culture Reference Goes a Long Way
One reason The Fault in Our Stars’ Hazel feels so familiar to YA readers is the fact that she, like so many of her peers, is a sucker for America’s Next Top Model marathons. But Green didn’t include multiple mentions of Tyra Bank’s long-running reality show just for fun—the references teach us a lot about Hazel as a character and as a teenager. In the book, she’s obsessed with An Imperial Affliction, a made-up, highbrow novel very loosely based on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, yet her taste in TV shows is anything but sophisticated.
“One of the things I love about teenagers is they don’t make those distinctions between high culture and low culture like we do as adults,” Green says. “It’s not uncommon for teenagers to list their two favorite books as Gossip Girl and The Great Gatsby. They don’t think its weird to say, ‘I love Toni Morrison, and I also love Justin Bieber.’”
Rowell uses pop culture to ground her stories in reality, too, but she also knows the references don’t always age gracefully, or in ways that can be predicted. Attachments came out in 2011, but it takes place in the 1990s, where a Tom Cruise reference means Tom Cruise the movie star, not Tom Cruise the Scientologist divorcé of tabloids. Rowell’s latest book, Fangirl, about a prolific fanfiction writer who goes off to college, includes references to Taylor Swift, the Twilight series, and Kanye West, whose public perception, though she only wrote the book in 2012, has already changed significantly: He’s engaged to Kim Kardashian, his music took a dark turn, and his select interviews are more colorful than ever.
“I try to pick things people will recognize four to five years from now,” Rowell says. “I don’t think it hurts to add those. It adds to our cultural literacy. It adds to what we know about ourselves.” Technology and Internet culture, however, change even quicker than our pop-culture lexicons, so Rowell says she avoided references to Tumblr, Fanfiction.net, and some of the fanfiction community’s terminology—like shipping and slash fiction—out of concern that too many brand names or esoteric details would trip up unfamiliar readers.
Green, on the other hand, is confident America’s Next Top Model will be a timeless reference: “Even if you haven’t heard of the show in some beautiful utopia 30 years from now, the entire show is encapsulated in its title,” he says. “You know everything you need to know from the four words used to describe the show.”
Get Input From Real Teenagers
New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult has written close to two dozen novels, many of which—like My Sister’s Keeper and Nineteen Minutes—focus on memorable teenage characters. But it wasn’t until last year that she wrote a book specifically for young-adult readers, Between the Lines, which she co-wrote with her teenage daughter, Samantha van Leer.
“Having a co-writer who was a teenager was like having a built-in B.S. meter sitting next to me,” Picoult says. “Every now and then, Sammy would say something out loud that was such an apt metaphor. It wasn’t something I would have thought of, but it was something she was living every day because she was in high school when she was writing this book. The example I always think about is a group of popular girls in the book who are described as being like a bunch of grapes because, honestly, do you ever see just one of them alone? I thought it was hilarious because it was so true.”
It’s not the first time Picoult used a real-life teenager to make her writing more accurate. When she was writing The Pact, a 1998 novel about a teenage suicide pact, she picked up some pizza and soda, called up her babysitter, and interviewed her and her friends. “I just listened to them talk to each other and tried to hone in on where their minds were about that topic,” Picoult says. “I think if you’re a writer, you do your research and do your due diligence. It sounds funny to listen to teenagers as research.”
Not every writer takes this approach—Rowell didn’t need to investigate online fan communities when crafting the characters of Fangirl. “I’m addicted to Tumblr, so when I was writing, I had read so much fan fiction and spend so much time in fandom places on the Internet, a lot of it I had internalized,” says Rowell, a former newspaper columnist. (Fangirl, unsurprisingly, was the first pick for Tumblr’s official book club).
But Rowell did draw on those communities when she needed feedback. “I had friends in fandom who I would say to, every once in awhile, ‘Tell me how you feel about this, does this ring true to you, talk to me,’” she says. “I write from what I know, and if I write something I don’t know, I’ll go out and talk to them. It doesn’t feel like an expedition to find out what the teens are doing. Because I was a reporter for so long, it makes sense to me.”
Use Slang Words at Your Own Risk
The more authors try to capture the exact idiosyncrasies of how teenagers talk, the more they risk alienating or distracting readers.
“The problem with that is your book has a shelf life of two to three years,” says Kathryn Reiss, a veteran YA author who also teaches young-adult fiction-writing classes at Mills College in Oakland, California. “It won’t be a classic because the coded language of teens changes every four years with every high school generation.” Unless they’re aiming for historical fiction—in which case, bring on the groovy! and the radical!—authors who pepper their YA writing with “modern” vocab can easily seem like they’re out of touch, or, worse, trying too hard.
Some writers can pull off slang successfully: Rachel Cohn’s debut novel, 2002’s Gingerbread, introduced readers to punk-rock protagonist Cyd Charisse, whose youthful vocab brought her to life on the very first page and made her one of the most memorable YA voices in recent years:
My so-called parents hate my boyfriend, Shrimp. I'm not sure they even believe he is my boyfriend. They take one look at his five-foot-five, surfer-shirt-wearin', baggy-jeans-slouchin', Pop Tart-eatin', spiked-hair-head self and you can just see confusion firebombs exploding in their heads, like they are thinking, Oh no, Cyd Charisse, that young man is not your homes.
Dig this: He is.
Though the book earned plenty of praise, not every critic was charmed. “I remember at the time being really offended, reading that it had an overuse of slang and made-up words and was just ridiculous, over the top,” Cohn says. “I remember being so offended on behalf of my character. ‘Screw you! You don’t know what you’re talking about! That’s the way I talk!’”
But when she reread the book five years later, Cohn had a slight change of heart. “It was kind over the top! I like it, but I think as I’ve evolved, I wouldn’t write it that way now, for better or for worse. And probably for worse.”
Keep It Moving
When Goosebumps author R.L. Stine went to a recent YA reading, he noticed far more 20- and 30-something women in attendance than teenagers. He was puzzled, so he asked Pettit why this might be. “I said it’s because of the way [these books] read, because of plot,” Pettit says. “So much of adult literature has become so precious that sometimes what you just want is the ride. I think YA authors are freer to take you on a ride instead of constructing overwrought sentences and impressing you with their skill.”
One of the enduring misconceptions about YA fiction is that it’s dumbed down, that writing for young readers means writing in a way that’s easy for them to comprehend. Cohn estimates that about 60 to 65 percent of YA fiction is written in the first person and present tense, but not because YA readers can’t handle complexity—take a look at the average high school or AP English reading lists for evidence to the contrary—but because the simplicity and immediacy of that particular style helps writers develop the voices of their characters.
“You settle down in a character’s head and just go,” Cohn says. “I do some teaching, and I always recommend changing the tense, changing the perspective, see what happens. If I’m stuck, and I’m not writing in first person present, I’ll start writing in that because it’s easy to tap into.”
Similarly, Roth describes the process of finding the voice of Divergent’s heroine, Tris, as a writing exercise. “I had been trying to write in this more poetic, flowy sort of way, and I was noticing I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted to in terms of controlling my language,” says Roth, who was inspired to write Tris after reading a line (“My will is mine, I will not make it soft for you”) from the Greek play Agamemnon. “Tris came [to me] at a really big point in which I needed to work on being more concise, and her voice was concise—a little repetitive, but definitely stark and straight-forward.”
It’s Okay for YA To Get Dark
There’s nothing off-limits when it comes to YA fiction, which frequently dives into unsettling territory like death, drugs, and rape across all of its genres and styles. Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is about a high school girl who commits suicide and mails cassette tapes to classmates explaining her motives and who drove her to it; Francesca Lia Block’s 2003 novel, Wasteland, features an incestuous relationship, and it’s one of a handful of young-adult books that do so.
For Picoult, who has written about murder, abuse, and school shootings in her books for adults, this was news. “I went into the domain of YA fiction completely unschooled,” she says. “I assumed that if we were going to be gearing it to a younger reader, it should have a feeling almost like a Shrek fairytale. Sammy was the one who said no, it should really be dark so Happily Ever After has much more at stake.”
How authors present that subject matter depends somewhat on which ages they’re aiming for. A number of YA books take place during the Holocaust, for example, and they all take different approaches to the subject matter: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak—marketed for ages 12 and up, but published as an adult book in Zusak's Australia—is narrated by Death; The Devil’s Arithmetic, marketed for ages 10 and up, takes a modern-day teen back to Auschwitz through time-travel as a way of somewhat removing the reader from the horrors of that time period. Depending on the author’s audience, putting some distance between the characters and the issues they examine can be an effective way to address difficult topics.
“Go Ask Alice [a fictional diary of a drug-addicted teen girl], a book like that, it’s a safe way to have the experiences that are in that book, a way of exploring the darkness out there without being in danger or acting irresponsibly,” Pettit says.
Find the "Kernel of Hope."
Not every book has a Happily Ever After. For example, S.E. Hinton’s YA classics, The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now, which deal with drugs, drinking, and gang violence, don’t offer easy answers to the questions they raise in the end. Today, decades after they were first published, they’re still taught in schools. But there's almost always an underlying optimism in YA, an identifiable maturation or development that Reiss calls “the kernel of hope.”
“There’s a sense that it’s worth waking up tomorrow,” Reiss explains. “Things are dark, things are terrible, but tomorrow’s another day. Ninety-nine percent of books for teens have that at least at the end.” This change doesn’t always unfold in ways that are explicit or conventionally heroic. In The Hunger Games, Katniss ends up winning the deadly, titular tournament she enters, but it’s not the victory itself that’s important—it’s more about how she wins on her own terms of integrity and empathy. In realistic YA fiction, a friendless, social outcast may not become the most popular kid in class, but it’s unlikely he or she will stay a total loser for a whole novel.
Including this perspective isn’t sermonizing or making an after-school special of what young readers experience as they grow up, as these authors see it. Rather, it’s just part of presenting an authentic story.
“That's life, isn't it?” Levithan says. “Shit hits the fan. The abyss opens up. But then you get through it. You wrestle it down. You find a way to survive. YA only reflects that. It’s not about being preachy or pragmatic to say that most people find a way out of the maze of adolescence. It’s only being accurate.”