“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.”