On the writers’ forums I go on and interact with my fellow pen-pushers, I’ve noticed a trend. It’s really, really common to find YA writers. Not to say that other strains of writer are absent, but sometimes it seems like everyone I talk to is a YA writer. Some days, I’m not sure what to think about this. I quite like the YA genre. Some of my favourite books are YA (I’m currently rereading the Skulduggery Pleasant series and oh the childish glee I have reawakened).
I’ve had people say to me in the past that I should write YA. Apparently I have the sense of humour for it, or something. Or someone’s asked a question about a particular storyline I’m writing, and my response is “It can’t be like that; then I’d be writing YA fiction, and that’s not something I can do.”
This, of course, is leaving aside the people I know who seem convinced that writing YA is somehow ‘easier’, which I am highly, highly dubious about.
But, on the other hand, you can get away with a lot in YA fiction, particularly in the way of interstitial or genre-blending texts. You’re tapping into a market with way more free time to read books. I don’t think it’s any surprise that three of the last five huge blockbuster book series have been YA (Harry Potter, Twilight, the Hunger Games, respectively – the odd ones out are Fifty Shades and Game of Thrones).
YA also gets the advantage of periphery demographics. A great YA series is way more likely to be read by adults than a great adult series is to be read by teens.
And to be perfectly honest, I expect I really could write YA fiction if I tried. But there’s a few reasons why it’s not my thing.
It’s Way Too Hard.
Yeah, yeah, what a copout. Here’s the thing. If I were to write YA fiction, I’d be looking at the same themes as I do in my adult-aimed fiction (and I think themes will definitely be the topic of a blog post in the near future). For the last couple of books, those themes have been themes like friendship, death, duty, self-sacrifice and power dynamics.
Can you write a great book for teens that explores this theme? I’d smack you upside the head if you said you couldn’t. Neil Gaiman deals with death in ‘The Graveyard Book’, ‘The Hunger Games’ is all about social power dynamics.
‘Frozen’ is a kid’s movie that challenges social norms about the role of romantic love in narratives.
‘The Secret of Nimh’ is a kids’ movie. No explanation needed.
It’s practically a badge of honour on the Internet to have cried at ‘The Lion King’ or ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, for goodness’ sake.
Kids’ fiction absolutely can and does touch on some pretty heavy topics. But the catch is, you’re not allowed the full scope of language to talk about it.
I’ve gone on before about Plain English, and I absolutely believe in putting things in as simple terms as possible. But there must be a streak of contrary self-importance in me, because the thought of developing prose that’s easily digestible by fifteen-year-olds just turns my blood cold. Maybe it’s because I have no children myself, maybe it’s because I don’t interact with teens since I left high school, and maybe because you’ll separate me from my pompous metaphors and overcomplicated symbolism over my rigor-mortis’d corpse. Whatever it is, whenever I write for a young audience, I always feel like I’m doing something wrong. I’ve seen people use the simplest language to talk about very complex things, and yet every time I try, it comes across trite and simplistic and patronising. As I said above, I could learn, but it’d take a looooong time and some serious brain reworking. Maybe I’ll try it one day.
My Characters Aren’t Right.
While YA books can indeed focus on just about any theme you care to name, one of the things they must do is be relatable to teen readers. That’s not to say they all have to be about high school and relationships and the transition to adulthood (I’d argue that making them all so directly relatable is doing the genre a disservice). But it certainly helps if you have a main character who is roughly of the right age, or the right period in their life (I’d argue many fantasy protagonists would suit simply because of their naïveté – usually the farmboy type who gets embroiled in conflicts far beyond their experience, without needing to be precisely the right age).
These are not the protagonists I tend to write. Sure, I love shoving people into situations they don’t understand, but my adults are irrevocably adult. I don’t go in for bildungsroman stories that much. My characters come at problems with a wealth of experience behind them to make decisions with, even when the situation is new.
I expect this links back to that “I haven’t interacted with teens since high school” bit I was talking about before. I mean, I don’t know them, I don’t particularly connect with them, so how on Earth am I supposed to write something that appeals to them? It will all end in tears, bruised egos, and the shunning looks of people several years younger than me on the street.
Content Is Tricky
I wouldn’t consider myself a writer who relies on shock value. I don’t tend to use a lot of swearwords in my novels (not to say I don’t drop judicious profanity on occasion), I don’t write a lot of sex scenes, I don’t even have climactic battles in my books to get gory with.
Mind you, when one of my books has a character very symbolically and deliberately remove his own eyeball and present it to another person as a gift, you kind of have to wonder whether I’m not better off somewhere other than the teen fiction section.
Not that I think the teens can’t handle it – not at all. I’m sure most of them would be positively gleeful. It’s the parents I’m worried about. I live with a housemate – if I get my own stuff razed and the earth salted, it’s my own damn fault. She, on the other hand, might take issue with that.
Flippancy aside, what I actually mean by that title is that I just … what do you even … what do you write? Somehow, I don’t see any of the books I write appealing to those I know in the YA market (a couple of family friends and my cousins). It probably comes back to the characters above – but here’s what I think: The problems my characters have aren’t necessarily ones that will grab the readers in the YA demographic (carefully avoiding grouping them all as “teen readers”, since I really, really don’t want to imply that teenagers can’t deal with issues beyond ones they have themselves. That would be condescending and untrue). As I said, my characters are adult. Their outlook is adult, their problems are adult. I sincerely hope there are teenagers out there who read, enjoy and connect with my books, but I don’t think that’s what the YA genre is looking for.
And now that I’ve dug myself into that particular pit of patronising and condescension, I think I should sign off. Kudos to the wonderful YA authors out there who do what I could not, and I’m going to go back to unashamedly reading your books because some of them are just plain awesome. I hope you all keep dishing out plenty more awesome material, keep our kids and teens reading good-quality fiction and all that.
Any YA authors read this blog? Have I completely misrepresented the genre? What do you yourselves find difficult, or easy, about writing YA fiction (or conversely, what are the challenges transitioning from writing YA to writing adult?
And now, of course, the next time someone asks me why I don’t write YA “because it sells so well right now”, I’ve got a convenient link for them.