WoW Part 1: YA Writing

These next few blog posts will center around the words of wisdom (WoW) shared at the SF Writers Conference. While I highly recommend attending a conference, sometimes it’s just not feasible—but that doesn’t mean you aren’t serious about your craft. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you aren’t just because you can’t attend.

For this first post, we will focus on writing for the young adult demographic. Here are a few tips about how to write with a teen voice.

Know the appropriate education level and vocabulary

  • How old are the characters in your story?
  • What kind of education did they receive?
  • How did they grow up? What kind of environment?
  • What are the parents like? Siblings (older, younger)?
  • When and where were they raised?

All these questions will define the type of vocabulary your character will have and will set the tone for the story. A twelve-year-old will speak and think differently than a fourteen-year-old, and those two will differ from a seventeen-year-old. And to think, that’s only a five-year gap.

Someone who grew up immersed within literature will possess a larger vocabulary than someone who did not—and even then, type of literature will influence what larger vocabulary means. Someone raised within a certain geographic region may use unique turn of phrase. Those with older siblings may include lingo advanced for their age while those who have younger siblings may include more slang.

Oh geez, it’s like you’re creating a real person 😉

Incorrectly used or inconsistent vocabulary throws your readers for a loop and takes them out of the story. A book I recently read centered around a goody-two shoe, high schooler who, for the first fifty pages, spoke eloquently and analytically. And then BAM, the character defined something as “being wack.” While it may be appropriate lingo for someone her age, a contemporary seventeen-year-old, there is inconsistency between the beginning voice and the above slang. Yes, it’s only one phrase, but if the story is riddled with inconsistencies like this, readers will have a hard time finding a baseline for your character.

The adults have more interesting lives than their kids

Sometimes within young adult literature, writers tend to focus on the interesting lives of the adults rather than the kids. Which is a no-no. Why? Teens would rather read about interesting lives of those their age.

Does this mean the adults in your story can’t have interesting lives? Of course they can, but the story shouldn’t revolve around the adult’s opinion and ideas. Take it from the youth’s perspective. What does the teen find fascinating about it?

Well, let’s take a step back. Does this adult’s interesting life influence the teen in some significant way? Is it an external force that pulls your teen(s) away or pushes them toward something? If yes, then center the storyline around that. If not, then it’s superfluous information that does nothing to advance the plot.

But don’t delete it! Save that information in a separate word document. You may be able to use it in a future story or as a foundation for adult fiction. Double win!

Too many subplots or characters

Christina met Martin at a party—a party that his best friend Jacob threw two weeks into the second quarter of their senior year. At first, she attempted to ignore all the invites and texts from her friends because she had to attend her dad’s company dinner—Dad always wanted to show off the family. But when Friday came around, she faked a stomach bug. And thank god she did. Because when he opened the front door, she saw stars and sunshine at the same time. How that happens, she didn’t know, but she could only say it was magic.

But unfortunately, Jacob was dating Nadyne, who was currently failing in a couple classes—darn those professors, especially Mr. Alongi who was such a hardass—so Nadyne asked Martin for help because he was so good at science and math—everyone expected him to attend MIT. But Christina felt a little bit jealous so she confided in her best friend Sasha. On one hand she trusted Martin—because who doesn’t trust their beaus—but on the other hand she knows Nadyne is a flirtatious bimbo who’s cheated on Jacob like a bajillion times already.

But with him already set to going off to college and Christina still trying to ignore a horde of restless spirits that keep her awake at night and distract her during the day…

Still with me? Because I’m not. Haha. Forgive me for the terrible storytelling but this is an over-the-top example of possibly too many characters and plots introduced too much, too quick.

Consider this, if you introduce some complication or sub-plot, you need to be able to flesh it out. Readers should not finish your book wondering what happened to X situation that was introduced in Chapter 5, popped up in a few chapters afterwards, but wasn’t resolved during the 55-75K manuscript.

Same goes for introduction of characters. We can assume that if your story introduces Y amount of people, that those aren’t the only people in your story universe. But the reader doesn’t need to know every single person your MC interacts with. Each moment, each interaction, should be pivotal in some way to driving the plot.

Check out J.K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix:


Best way to avoid over complication of plot:

  • Have a notecard of each major and minor event. On the back, write how it drives the plot forward.
  • Have a notecard for each major and minor character. On the back, write how that character influences your character and/or drives the plot.

And you know what? That’s what second, third, fourth, tenth drafts are for: to really figure out which scenes and characters are the most pivotal for your storyline. For your first draft, go crazy. Let your creativity flow and just write. Then write some more. And when you wake up in the middle of the night with a scene inspiration and aren’t sure how that will fit into your story, write it down anyway. You could use it somewhere in the current story or, upon finding it just doesn’t fit, save it for something else.

Tell the readers what they need to know when they need to know

Readers don’t need to know everything right away. In fact, your readers will applaud you if you leave breadcrumbs throughout the story that coalesce at the climax.

J.K. Rowling did this magnificently within Harry Potter. Exhibit A: Severus Snape. Did she tell us how important Snape was in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone or to the entire series? Nope! He was just an antagonist, a dirty, up to no good, wizard.

We weren’t even given a hint about the depth of his character or how integral to the storyline he would become. And at the end, when we discovered who he really was prior to Harry even being born, the feels. SO MUCH FEELS. 

That is what you want to inspire in your readers. They don’t need to know everything right away, the motivation, each and every nuance. If the breadcrumbs are there, and they align properly, the aha moment will happen.

No easy feat, but magic doesn’t happen easily. And magic is within you. Let it flow. Test the page. Test your story and your limits.

Be aware of the rules and then break them beautifully 🙂 Happy writing, fellow writer.

If you found this helpful, don’t forget to share. I’d appreciate it.




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