What Went Wrong in High School: Writing YA Without Knowing It

When I asked what I should write about for this post, one of the suggestions was to describe how writing YA differs from writing adult fiction. The very short answer is that for me, there isn’t much of a difference at all. I don’t write novels with young adults in mind. I just happen to write novels that feature a lot of young people. A few hypotheses:

  1. As the title of this essay suggests, I’m trying to do over high school.
  2. I’m 26 ¾ and fresh out of grad school (well, relatively fresh). Though I’m an adult (I have the outrageously expensive rent receipts to prove it), I feel as though I know more about being a young adult than I do about being an “old” adult (after all, I just purchased my first life insurance plan—presumably for my first life—but can remember all the words to the theme song from Pokemon.) Only in the past 2 years have I really engaged with adult characters, and while they’re beginning to come easier to me, I still can’t shake my youthful roots[i].
  3. I come from a family of teachers and school administrators. I have 2 aunts who teach high school math, another aunt who is a preschool teacher, and a mother who has been both an early childhood educator and an early childhood education administrator. So, while people under twenty terrify me (even when I was under twenty, they/I terrified me) I also appreciate the complexity that is growing up. There’s something both painful and beautiful about it.

So what do the hypotheses mean? Well, nothing and everything. I treat my young adult characters the same way I treat all of my other characters—I try to get to know them and learn as much as I can about them in a given amount of time[ii]—and I treat young adults the same way I treat older adults. I wish I could say that I write with audience in mind, as I know this benefits the overall writing and the manuscript’s chances of publication (in order to sell you should know who you’re selling to). But the truth is that I expect a sophomore in high school to be mature enough to feel the same or similar emotions as does a ninety-year-old in a retirement community. How the sophomore expresses her emotions will and should differ from the way the ninety year old does, and this difference, I suppose, is what makes a work YA instead of adult literature. But is a difference in expression really a reason to choose a different writing methodology? Wouldn’t my haphazard way of coercing characters to work with me work just as well in either case?

As it stands, I try to write literary fiction. YA can be literary—it should be literary, in some cases—and the only way to showcase its merit is to hold it to the same standards you would adult literary fiction. Shouldn’t YA have strong characters combined with a strong story and striking details regardless of the characters’ ages? And if it does, how is it any different from literary fiction?

Short answer: I don’t think it is.

[i] I just went to Downtown Disney today and bought a “Too Many People Grow Up Shirt.”

[ii] For a short story, I can spend as little as a day and as much as a year with a character before I get the work to a happy place. On the other hand, I’ve never written a novel without getting to know the characters for at least one year. This is not a recommended work method. In fact, none of what I’ve written is recommended. Do better.

11995618_10206351770285382_2091049982_nJenny B lives in Orlando, Florida, where she spends her time writing, reading, and watching Korean dramas. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Minerva Rising, Quad Literary Journal, and Pulp Literature.

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