by Jennie Jarvis
Last month, I had the privilege of moderating a panel at the Florida Writers Conference on writing for young audiences. Speaking on the panel were the following dynamic writers: New York Times Bestselling Author Beth Revis, Comic Book writer/editor, Graphic Novelist and YA Author Roland Mann, award winning children’s book author and screenwriter Julie Anne Wight, Young Adult novelist Sarah Nicholas, and agent Laura Zats. As you can imagine, this panel was really well attended, especially with so many Young Adult books are being turned into Hollywood blockbusters.
Being a Young Adult novelist myself, I was delighted to have the chance to dive into the minds of these successful writers and ask them how they craft works for audiences that are very different from themselves – age wise, at least. Plus, I got to take some really silly fan photos of myself with some of these great authors.
While I – sadly – don’t have a transcript of this powerhouse panel, there was a lot of wonderful information shared during this session on how to write for younger audiences.
Here are four of the biggest lessons you need to know if you want to write for youth:
1. Remember Not to Preach!
One of the best (worst?) parts of growing up is gaining wisdom. It’s one of those things we can’t do when we are younger. Wisdom requires living and only age can give that to us.
When we write for younger audiences, we have to be careful not to shove the wisdom we’ve learned into our work. If we do, we run the risk of sounding like we are judging younger audiences for any mistakes they are making or risks they failed to take. When we do this, our books can read as preachy and sermon-ish.
And let’s face it, young readers don’t want a sermon.
It’s much better to tell the story (action, events, intrigues) of the character and let the audience deduce the lesson themselves. Don’t say that it’s wrong to kill someone or have the protagonist wallowing in her regret for 100 pages. Just show how the protagonist’s life falls apart after she murders her gym teacher. The reader will figure it out on her or his own.
While this may just sound like another “show don’t tell” lesson, it is easily forgotten because we might sometimes think “I’m writing for kids.” The truth is that younger readers are far more intelligent and mature than many people give them credit for. Don’t talk (write) down to them. Some of the most popular examples of Young Adult books deal with extremely mature subjects, including dealing with cancer, molestation, physical and emotional abuse, suicide, racism, and so many more dark subjects. The authors of these books handle these topics with a maturity that doesn’t pull any punches just because the books are “written for teens”, making them just as engaging for adults to read as teens.
2. Do Your Research!
If you don’t have kids in the targeted age range of your market, then it’s time to start stalking playgrounds! Okay, not really, but you need to be around that age group as much as you can to make sure you are properly representing those age groups. You can be around them in person or online (Twitter and Tumblr are wonderful for that), but you need to know how they think, interact and talk.
Society is changing, and so what was “true” for teenagers twenty or fifty years ago is no longer the case. Look at the stereotypes that used to rule high schools – jocks and cheerleaders picking on nerds and geeks. While there are still power struggles in all school settings, what determines who is “cool” and who isn’t looks much different now. When Roland Mann was a kid, reading a comic book was the best way to get you beat up. Now, if you don’t rush out to watch the new Marvel show on Netflix, you are the odd ball out!
Plus, many adults automatically think that teenagers are completely engrossed in technology, when that’s not actually the case. It’s the college aged kids and above that are completely addicted to their tech. This was a fact that shocked a lot of people when many studies showed that younger readers prefer real books over e-readers. Yes, they use social media, but not the same way that adults do. It seems that, the older someone gets, the more plugged into the matrix they become.
Aside from studying how kids think and interact, you want to make sure you pay attention to how they talk as well. If you can’t say whether or not your bae is on fleek or basic, then you may be a bit out of date on what the kids are saying these days. Granted, you don’t want to go overboard using today’s popular slang since it will change into something else pretty fast, but make sure you aren’t talking about how someone is “slamming” or “fly” when no one uses those expressions anymore.
3. Know your Market!
If you want to write for children’s literature, mid-grade or young adult, then make sure you write the kinds of stories that fit into these very specific genres. You can’t just write any story and call it Young Adult. You have to fit into the parameters recognized by the industry.
Surprisingly, this doesn’t really mean censorship. As mentioned above, it’s okay to deal with challenging subjects, even if you are writing for younger audiences. Pictures books exist that talk about dealing with a parent in prison. Kids can have sex and use the “F” word in Young Adult. You don’t have to go down this route if it doesn’t appeal to you or work for your characters, but don’t feel like you have to cut back on the dark stuff just because of your market.
One of the parameters that does matter is the age of your protagonist. The protagonist of a Mid-Grade book is usually 10-12 years old (no age 13!), while the protagonist of a Young Adult novel tends to be 14-17. Once you hit those college aged years (18-20 something), you are really writing more for New Adult, which is its own strange genre that has had trouble gaining traction outside of the ebook romance genre.
Equally important to look at is the word or page counts for each kind of book (only 32 pages with about 500-600 words on each page are allowed for picture books, 20,000-55,000 words for middle grade, and 55,000-70,000 for young adult). These really aren’t negotiable if you plan to publish traditionally.
4. Work Collaboratively and Professionally!
Some of these genres includes the opportunity to work with illustrators (either for page by page illustrations or just for cover art). Keep in mind that sometimes, you will have the chance to work closely with an illustrator, as comic writer Roland Mann had the chance to do many times. He was able to give page by page recommendations of what needed to happen in each comic panel to his illustrator.
Beth Revis was asked to draw up a space ship to help with the cover design of her bestselling title Across the Universe, although she admitted she isn’t very good at drawing and really allowed her cover artist to do the hard work. And she was grateful she didn’t have to design her cover herself!
If you get the chance to work with an illustrator, make sure to clearly communicate your thoughts about what you want, but don’t get bossy about it. Be polite and professional, and realize that chances may need to be made for one reason or another.
Granted, in many cases, you won’t have any say about what the illustrations or cover art will look like at all. Julie Anne Wight would send in her picture book manuscripts to her publisher and have no idea what the illustrations would look like until the finished book was released, although she was almost always happy with what she saw in the end.
However, horror stories exist. One writer got a mock up of one of her covers back only to realize the artist gave her protagonist the wrong ethnicity! Fortunately, it was fixed before the book’s release.
Just remember that letting go of what happens with the illustrations is part of the industry. You want to speak up if you see something that doesn’t quite work, but make sure you do it in a way that doesn’t make the publisher question if they want to work with you again. If you have an agent, this is a great time to use her or him! If you don’t like your art or cover, get your agent to play the bad cop and speak up for you!
I know this was a very brief recap of the panel, but I hope it gives you some guidelines for writing for younger audiences.
Do you write for audiences of a different age range than yourself? What do you to make sure you are writing age-appropriately?