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:
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.
What is YA fiction?
According to scriptwriter Danny Manus*, all YA novels are about two things:
YA (young adult) 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.
Weirdly, YA is usually more about earth-shattering conspiracies or conflicts (because the YA psyche is desperate to MATTER and make a difference in a major way). And NA tends to focus more on close, personal relationships. So maybe, epic fantasy is more common in YA; while urban fantasy is more common in NA.
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. Some authors ask about “clean” or non-romantic titles. But teens are seeking connection and acceptance, and getting their feelings hurt trying to fit in; and even if they are not active in dating, their peers are. Including romance is a way to make the emotional stakes matter; and can also create great conflict when each love interest has core beliefs or commitments that conflict with the protagonist’s aims.
Inclusivity in YA
If you want to reach a MODERN audience (and most teen readers will be modern) you need to include the world THEY know: open in gender, sexuality, LGBTQ aspect, genuine to that audience.
Examples: The 100, or the Shannara Chronicles, which have main characters who are openly gay or bi. Scifi tends to be a lot more open to non-hetero relationships, in my experience. It’s also common for side characters, who may or may not be killed off, to tick the box; but be careful not to add a token character without offering them a satisfying story arch.
It would also be nice if a main character was a POC (person of color). But don’t just make one of your characters black as an afterthought and then kill them off in book one. Lots of YA authors are fretting about the need to include diversity in their books, or say things like “I write what I know! my town is all white and straight!”
This is probably untrue, but I have a feeling big city kids read more, and are also the most diverse. It probably is true, statistically speaking, that reading teens are more diverse than the town or state you grew up in. Don’t pander to your audience, but understand you want readers to be able to find themselves in your characters, and are hungry and desperate to appear on the page and be given real voices. Give them more options to find themselves by having a diverse crew or cast.
“What about #ownvoices?” – some YA authors avoid specifying details to their characters, to avoid politics. And others have gotten in trouble for writing stories they weren’t authorized to tell. It’s worth being aware of the problem, and educating yourself on similar stories; but in general, indie authors are allowed greater leniency, in that we are often seen as entertainment providers (whereas, YA trad published books are seen as propaganda: what books are accepted and published and shared and promoted is a VOTE for the “right” kind of stories).
Almost always, your YA book won’t face that kind of scrutiny until it’s a major major success, so be aware but don’t panic. It’s a lot more important to tell a good (enjoyable) story, and that’s something you can definitely learn and improve.
Themes & Stakes in YA fiction
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).
Things to include 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… sorry they’re a bit rough still!
How to write YA fiction
Ok since the notes above are rough, here’s mostly what you need to know: young adult fiction is still fiction – the most important thing (!) is telling a good story. If you’re a pantser, that means lots of intrigue and suspense, which is about resisting explanation and easy answers (infodumps/backstory) and tense relationships. If you’re a plotter, use a book template or chapter outline to make sure your book has some structure (I recommend the simple 8point “plot dot”), but my 24 chapter outlines are great too.
Don’t worry about being formulaic; a good structure just means there is motivation, so the story doesn’t fall part or getting boring. Then, there’s going to be genre tropes and cliches for scifi, romance, fantasy etc – don’t try to avoid all of these! These are the defining elements of a particular genre, that readers love and respond to… this is why they’re reading. You just have to respin them in fresh ways to tell new stories.
You might be a great writer, but pretty words don’t make a good novel. Get the basic plot stuff right first; the drama/conflict is usually increased during revision and edits, as is description (so don’t get stuck in the first draft trying to clean it all up. Focus on dramatic story.)
Every scene or chapter builds towards one new surprise change twist or reveal, something unexpected, something that forces them to change and adapt. That’s where you break or end the chapter, without showing the response (to heighten suspense).
Writing prompts for YA fiction
I have tons of resources where I’ve fleshed all this stuff out in more detail, but if you need a fun simple tool to get inspired, check out this writing prompts generator.
How to write a pilot episode
More notes, sorry…
Fatal flaw drives character.
- A story
- B story
- C story
Goal of series – emotional version of character’s goal.
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.
- 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.
(Just realized these notes are from Russell Nohelty.)
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)
13 Reasons Why
- thanks again to Danny Manus for many of these tips.
- Examples, most highlighted sections (coming soon)