How to write a young adult novel (with writing prompts and plot outlines!)

How to write a young adult novel (with writing prompts and plot outlines!)

I’ve written several short guides to writing YA fiction, and soon I’m going to turn them into an epic post with videos, writing prompts and plot outlines for different kind of YA novels. I’ll post it here when it’s ready! (This is mostly rough notes right now).

When I started writing, I read everything I could about YA and young adult fiction; I also read all the indie and trad published bestsellers. I had a good start. I figured out how to craft great plots. I’m not writing masterpieces, but they’re good enough that readers love them and they sell and review well. But I want more.

I want books that are good enough to pitch to agents and trad publishers; books that are good enough to sell to movie studios or Netflix. And people are actively seeking this content, because there’s a huge market that isn’t being filled fast enough. So after sitting down with several script writers who have sold YA book rights, I wrote down everything I could about how to write a bestseller YA book so good agents and producers would be fighting over it.

I don’t necessarily want to sell the rights or traditionally publish, but I do need to be able to pitch my idea well enough for it to immediately hook people; even if I self publish this will let me craft in-demand books that sell.

So here we go:

The industry

Adults read YA books, but they don’t watch YA movies. After Harry Potter, which created a huge demand for YA fiction, producers bought YA novels and turned them into movies, but most of them bombed. So they’re not doing it anymore: Netflix, YouTube Red and Amazon Prime, however, are actively seeking material because they’ve got the market (teens who stream movies). So, lots of content, with this in common: very tight, trope-heavy YA. They take all the common features of YA, and create the perfect storm.

What are the common features? I’ll talk about that more later.

 

According to scriptwriter Danny Manus, all YA novels are about two things:

  1. Love
  2. Acceptance.

YA is about finding their place in their world, their community, family, trying to find love and acceptance.

NA (new adult) is about finding their place in THE world, at large.

There must be a core dynamic relationship, an emotional investment that bleeds into everything and makes us care; this may or may not be a romantic relationship.

If you want to reach a MODERN audience, you need to include the world THEY know: open in gender, sexuality, LGBTQ aspect, genuine to that audience. Examples: The 100, the Shannara Chronicles, which have main characters who are openly gay or bi.

Would also be nice if a main character was a POC (person of color). Don’t just make one of your characters black as an afterthought and then kill them off in book one. Diversity. Write the world that SHOULD be.

Don’t talk down or condescend in YA. To them it is life and death, not just a cute summer fling or light bullying.

(Stakes should feel life or death to the protagonist, because they threaten THEIR identity and force them to survive or change).

Should include:

  • Social media, texting, video chat
  • Visual, and fun to read, pop
  • Friendships+ romance
  • Relatable stakes and themes.

The story should stand up for itself. You can use pop culture references, but keep them very broad and recognizable. Don’t overdue it with slang.

Audiences don’t pay for theme. It’s what’ you get for free.

Inspirational or aspirational themes: Inspire = to do. Aspire = to become.

You don’t have to be an adult to be a hero.

Everyone can save the world.

Rebellion, against authority, conventions, expectations, parents, stereotypes, gender…

Bring it out in cinemagraphic ways.

Is there enough on the line to make audiences care.

High stakes, high emotional stakes.

DILEMMA- between saving world, or their world. Best friend vs. love of life. Ethics vs. what they want.

Danny recommends writing down three things that are deal breakers for the protagonist. Goes against core values, choose one they have to break. He would never X. But to save the world, he must X. Never betray a friend, but then… has to.

YOU – why are you the expert for that story (media spin, etc. That’s why they’re asking)

“Write what you know – what if what you know is boring and stupid?”

(Some of these notes are bleeding into other conversations I had with script writers for TV.

Fatal flaw drives character.

  • A story
  • B story
  • C story
  • Runner

Goal of series – emotional version of character’s goal. 

Flaw (sympathy)

Set up dilemma

Pilots: 500 pitches, 100 buys, do 30… 4 make actual shows.

Episode=tell complete story, don’t save something for later episode.

Start fast, in the action.

Pitch, why are you the person to tell this story.

The hook or conceit (flaw/) USP

New world, new story, interesting character, core wound, lack and backstory.

1~7 main characters. Try to fill core wound and fail.

Pilot = 7 pages, 2 sentences. 10 seconds.

Main hook, should ALREADY have their attention.

Main character, flaw, goal, action.

“Closeted divorced dad in order to embrace authentic self must come out to family as trans.”

“Milktoast science teacher, diagnosed with cancer, in order to support his family, starts cooking meth.”

TV: 1 hour drama, 30minutes dramadies/comedies).

Pilot, logline. Pitch is about YOU. What you love, why you wrote this. Here’s why you want me on this.

 

Know your audience. Protagonist is 3 years older than the audience you’re writing for. 18 protagonist = 14~17 year olds.

What’s your happy meal toy: catch phrases of protagonist or antagonist. special object, symbols, tshirt.

Genuine dialogue. Iconic, bleeds into pop culture.

Appropriate. PG13 = say “fuck” once but can’t be sexual.

“Clean” YA – that’s just an indie thing, it doesn’t exist in trad publishing. Do what’s right for the story, be prepared to edit them out.

Cinematic value and cost efficient for price.

20 out of 10,000 books are made into movies. DON’T self publish (if you want to be a movie. But….Wattpad story Kissing Booth. Martian.  Need 50,000 copies before publishers would be interested. 

Trilogy (3 movies).

6 part, no (but self publishing, yes).

 

Choosing protagonist: the one with the greatest change, the greatest challenge, and the most to lose – whose arc is strongest.

Stay true to self, change the world, take a selfie.

Resolve story lines in first book. don’t put all the cool stuff in book 2 or 3,.

Book one can’t be backstory or setup.

 

How to write (and sell) a young adult novel.

85K/ length.

  • A 40K
  • B 20K
  • C 15K
  • D 10K

Main hook = A story online single sentence. interesting character, does something awesome, but question.

every sentence is important, make people lean in. Eyes wide. wow. “What?” get their attention in first sentence.

If they don’t buy into A story, the other stuff doesn’t matter.

150 to 200 words blurb

get them to download sample chapter.

X does Y for Reason (or HOOK / story question, surprise twist)

nonfiction: how to X without Y even if A.

pick best STRONG words.
Two teenage girls join a secret group. vs . two teenage girls infiltrate a death cult.

So compelling, first sentence, holy shit that’s awesome. Just that idea, that premise, I’m already hooked.

Pitch, what are YOU looking for, separate pitches for different agents. Do you like girls who kickass or monster-hunting psychopaths? (Give two options, they’re half bought in already).

“Kangaroo fights Monsters in Space.” Boom.

Logline: A does X becaause Y.

#mswl (find agents, list)

EXAMPLES

Kissing Booth

13 Reasons Why

Insatiable.

 

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