How to learn the market you write for: Young Adult (YA) fiction

Something to be conscious of as a fiction writer is the market for which you write. Young Adult (or YA) fiction isn’t a genre, but it’s a defined label in publishing, typically considered for readers aged 12-18 (though this too is fluid).

Since the publication of titles like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, YA is a term you need to know if you’d like to write for a teenage audience, as well as convince literary agents and publishers that you can.

The most important thing is to always read debuts in your genre, and for the age you’d like to write for. These are the books publishers are looking for.

Whilst it’s true publishing trends will always shift, books read by your ideal ‘audience’ are evidently the books they enjoy, so it pays (literally) to be conscious of them.

Read on for our top tips on how to learn about the YA market and write for this age group.

Step 1: Write your own trendsetter

It pays to be aware of trends and the market, if only so you can buck them a little.

This is a balance, however.

Readers of The Bookseller can see regular updates on new UK book deals, and every spring, may espy annual coverage of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, with ample talk and speculation of what’s hot and selling as foreign printing rights are bought and sold. There will always guaranteed be a sentence or two on trends, on what publishers of Middle Grade or Young Adult books are hunting for.

It’s as well to be conscious of trends, but what’s trendy will soon be outdated. If you’re still writing, a hot topic now could be obsolete by the time you’ve finished your novel.

Trends move fast, and a single book can also change things.

‘Twilight’ | (c) Summit Entertainment

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight happened to be a YA phenomenon, but the ensuing paranormal romances ‘competing’ for attention with Twilight blurred a little into one another, even as the tide continued and anticipated the rise of dystopian fiction, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and so on.

The lesson of all this is to try and present an idea (even an old idea) authentically. Vampires have been written about before and Bram Stoker’s titular Dracula preying upon Lucy Westenra laid the founding of an established trope. Twilight just happened to hit a certain chord for its readership and this at once predicated and, in so doing, slightly nullified its trend.

So be careful and cautious of trends, since these can be a double-edged sword. Trends are transient, they escalate and subsist again.

Whilst it pays to know your audience and what’s in the bookshops, to be conscious of the books teenagers are drawn to and reflect on why this is the case, bear in mind trendsetter-novels aren’t necessarily the books you want to compete with. Satiated trends mean a saturated book market (for the time being).

Even if you’re ahead of the bookshops, trying to keep up with publishing news and new book deals, what you know now won’t be the thing your writing can keep up with.

You’ll need to write your own trendsetter.

Step 2: Read, read, read YA fiction

That said, read around and shop as much as you can for YA fiction, obvious or intuitive as this may sound. Your novel can’t exist in a vacuum. It’s no good disregarding what your audience is reading now, so know YA books to know your audience.

You’ll need to write in this subtle tension, conscious of taste in YA, of past commercial successes, making your novel similar enough and yet entirely original.  You must create a book that fits into the market.

Read around the sort of thing already out there you’d like to write, too. It’s not that vampire-human romances hadn’t been written about before Stephenie Meyer’s Bella and Edward. It’s not that Greek gods hadn’t been written about before Percy Jackson and the Olympians from Rick Riordan. It’s been observed how similar J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a Wallflower are, etc.

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ | (c) Summit Entertainment

You’ll want your book to fit with a canon of similar stories, without just writing ‘copies’ of things done before.

YA novels like Beauty by Robin McKinley, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas or Uprooted by Naomi Novik share links to Beauty and the Beast, but each of those books is still unique. The same is true of books like Ash by Malinda Lo or Cinder by Marissa Meyer, with ties to Cinderella.

It’s just that an old idea was reworked by an author in new ways.

So learn what teenagers like, then read what they like. (If you’re not sure, look up book blogs like The Mile-Long Bookshelf.) How does your novel compare to the YA books you’ve found? How do you feel your own work will be judged?

It’s also worth noting that it pays to read contemporary YA fiction. Classical lyricism and verbosity needn’t concern you so much as writing a resonant, gripping story to hook modern readers.

There have been various game-changers in fiction-publishing for young people. Melvin Burgess’ Junk (or Smack in the US) was one. The book won the Carnegie Prize and Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in the UK in 1996. Whilst its subject (heroin addiction) caused ripples of shock, Junk paved the way to an increasingly mandatory style of authentic, honest, raw writing that’s now commonplace in YA publishing.

The success of Junk among its readers, with its prize-winning status, changed perceptions and sent publishers a message.

What’s needed in successful YA fiction is resonant, emotional experience teenage readers can connect with.

Step 3: Know your subject (and write sensitively about it)

If you’re also thinking of writing on a possibly more controversial topic, explore sensitively and with all due research. Don’t just write to shock. Write to be poignant, and so to connect.

The Fault in our Stars by John Green caused a stir when it was accused of being ‘sick lit’ (a pair of terminally ill teenagers fall in love). Whilst its subject seemed to ‘shock’ some adults, its poignancy that so stirred readers nullifies these sorts of ‘grown-up’ objections.

Who cares?

‘The Fault in our Stars’ | (c) 20th Century Fox

The Fault in our Stars isn’t a shocking novel. It’s a moving one. It’s been adapted for film, its catch-lines passing into contemporary language via its readership. (‘Okay?’ ‘Okay.’)

Melvin Burgess has shared how his novel Junk, about teenage drug addiction, has been life-changing for some teenage readers, but it’s important to note Melvin Burgess knew his setting. He knew these emotional landscapes.

More recently, Lisa Williamson wrote a resonant transgender protagonist in her YA novel The Art of Being Normal, though she herself is cisgender, but she’s spent time working for the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service. She brought her experiences to her writing.

Bear in mind, though, LGBT+ is not its own separate genre or subgenre, nor should fiction be defined by country or ethnicity, as still per some bookstores.

Patrick Ness’ novel More than This features protagonist Seth, who is gay, but this is incidental to its main plot and it’s okay for this to be the case. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a high-school love story between a Korean boy and an American girl, and sometimes it need only be this simple.

You needn’t write clunkily to make a point.

As Rainbow Rowell herself has said:

“Why is Park Korean?” The first time I was asked that question, three or four months ago, I had a pretty short answer: “Because Park is Korean.” … Because Park was always Korean. Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.) Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.

Only by writing sensitively and incidentally can writers help make sure all sorts of characters become unquestioned players of mainstream fiction, not sectioned by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or anything else.

Everyone, everything, should be mainstream, especially in YA publishing.

Teenagers, who will be faster than adults to question norms and pick up on injustices, should be catered to in the novels they read and not be defrauded in this respect.

Appreciate and accommodate for diversity in your own YA writing.

It’s good also to have first-hand experience of what you’re writing, but if not, the importance of empathy and careful research to create an authentic emotional experience can’t be stressed enough.

Step 4: Know your audience (and keep prose authentic)

This is important. You must know your audience. You can’t write about living in a teenage character’s shoes unless you know teenagers well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write about and to.

YA readers will be looking for experiences outside their own, looking for ways to challenge and break rules, and will be (strongly) averse to feeling patronised or educated in fiction. Write about being a teenager, and never write to educate.

Again – to best do this, read and read up on YA novels that are doing well.

Respecting ‘voice’, too, author Joan Aiken has also observed adolescents are ‘lightning-quick to spot hypocrisy or artificiality’. Never patronise and never attempt a ‘coolness’ that can’t sound organic, at home and natural in your first-person narratives.

An inauthentic teenage voice will destroy your book before it ever reaches a literary agent. This offers a good reason YA fiction should be taken seriously.

A manuscript assessment can also certainly give you invaluable editorial feedback with insights into the commercial perspective that drives YA publishing, and to harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in YA fiction.

Happy writing!

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