What is Young Adult Lit, and Why Do I Write It?

Posted by David on July 30, 2014


(Back in February, I wrote a post on my old blog explaining why I write YA literature. I wrote the post in response to someone asking me the question, and I was grateful for the opportunity to sit down and really think about why I write for this particular demographic. That blog is available in its entirety below.)


The definition of YA fiction is constantly in flux. It changes depending on what's out there and what readers between the ages of 11 and 18 (give or take a year) want from their stories. I've thought a lot about YA fiction: what it is, what it means, what it should say, how to write it. A lot, but not enough. As much as I enjoy writing about the history and culture of video games (and in fact would be perfectly content to ride that track for the rest of my life), I would be just as content to wake up every day and write stories for young readers. Addressing the questions posed above gave me the opportunity to put on my thinking cap and suss out why, exactly, I wrote HERITAGE as a YA novel specifically--and why I want to continue writing for such a diverse and challenging age range.
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The first question, "What makes the novel young adult?," spawned a rather long-winded answer, so I'll tackle the other ones first. HERITAGE is an easy read. Not because I use two-dollar words, but because that's my writing style. I just say what happened with little embellishment, speaking in metaphors and similes to get a point across where necessary. Otherwise I focus on keeping the story moving, moving, moving.

You know how people say a good book unfolds like a movie? What they usually mean by that is A) the book flows at a fluid, steady pace; and B) they find it easy to visualize what's going on. Good writers achieve that goal by cutting needless words, and by keeping descriptions to a minimum. In other words, show, don't tell, so there's always something happening.

Content-wise, HERITAGE has a little bit of sexy time (there's no love lost between me and TWILIGHT, but I thank Stephanie Mayer for lowering the gate on the amount of treacly kissy-kissy allowed in the genre) and plenty of violence, though nothing gratuitous. HERITAGE is a fantasy novel. There are monsters, and swords and lightning bolts with which to pulverize them.

I did give the book several passes to make sure it was relatable to YA readers first, although I do think adults will find HERITAGE a satisfying tale. Those checks involved adjusting the age of Aidan and his friends (Aidan was in his early 20s in early drafts; the idea to convert the novel to YA came late in the process) and to make sure the situations were relatable. Metaphors, in other words, for situations teens might face. I never had to dumb down content or my writing out of fear that younger readers wouldn't get what was going on. Young adults are smarter than people give them credit for; in writing the book, I trusted them to follow what was going on.

Now let's talk about more about what I feel constitutes the core of a YA novel, and why I love writing them.

As the world changes, the challenges young people face change in tandem, but the essence of those challenges--peer pressure, trouble at home, growing apart from friends, and learning to think for themselves--remain the same.

To put it another way: same thing, different day, and different situation.

Aidan Gairden, the 16-year-old protagonist of HERITAGE, doesn't have to worry about going to school and turning down drugs and alcohol, or passing exams that go a long way in determining the colleges he can apply to, or playing the part of the rag in a game of tug-of-war between parents embroiled in a nasty custody battle.

Change into some old clothes, grab cans of paint, and whitewash that contemporary backdrop. Now replace it with high fantasy: wizards, kingdoms, a magical sword, and two realms who have been allies for eight centuries.

Heritage, the magical sword of the hour, has been in Aidan's family for just as long. Each Gairden can produce only a single heir, and when that heir comes of age, he or she takes Heritage and the throne of the kingdom. Some kids might be thrilled to rule an entire kingdom, but not Aidan. He's a chill guy who's not quite ready to grow up.

As it turns out, Heritage doesn't think much of Aidan, either. It takes a bite, decides Aidan's not to its liking, and spits him out. That leaves Aidan's kingdom without a ruler and Aidan's parents without another child they can groom in his place. Oh, and the entire kingdom saw Heritage deem Aidan unworthy of joining the family business. He's humiliated and confused: he didn't want the job, but it was the only job he could ever have. What, exactly, is he supposed to do now?

Fast forward a few dozen pages and Aidan gets a chance at redemption. His parents have been nasty toward him since he fell on his face in front of the entire realm, so they give him an out. Turns out Torel, their kingdom, is going to war with Darinia, that realm with which they've been chummy for 800 years. Never mind that they've got friends over there, and that Aidan's supposed to marry the daughter of the realm's ruler. Nope. Doesn't matter. They're going to war, and Aidan's parents command him to lead the charge--or else.

Or else he's done. Or else he'll lose everything. His parents, his title, his home. Maybe even his head. On the one hand, Aidan can lead the charge and keep his head. Or he can stand up for what he believes in and lose everything.

It's not turning down a cigarette, but I think the scenario, and the choice Aidan makes, will ring true for kids who have felt cornered at school, or at home, or even among their closest friends, forced to choose between going along with the grain or thinking for themselves and saying "No."

I didn't shy away from gritty content when writing HERITAGE. People often confuse "young adult" to mean happy-go-lucky 10-year-olds who would rather skip rope in the schoolyard than read a book that puts its characters in downright unpleasant circumstances. Adults who think that might also miss out on awesome stories and awesome-er characters just because certain books are in the back of bookstores in the "Kids" section. Several years ago, a little boy named Harry Potter changed all that.

Well, that's not exactly true. Characters in young adult novels have stood at crossroads and spied unpleasant outcomes in every direction for as long as humans have told stories. Harry Potter just made reading cool again for kids and teens, and made it acceptable for adults to carry around big books with colorful cover art. Because for as many classic YA novels that exist, kids want to read books that appeal to them, and meet characters that sling an arm around their shoulders and say, "I may carry a sword/magic wand/gun, but I've been there. I feel ya."

Harry Potter reinvigorated me, too. I met the bedhead boy wonder in a Young Adult Literature course where the professor assigned us Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban among a number of other novels. I got sucked into the story and remembered why I, then a 20-something who had subsisted on a steady diet of "adult" fantasy and horror for several years, loved the YA genre so much.

I've always been a kid at heart. I know, I know. Everyone says that, just like everyone refers to themselves as "nerds" on Facebook because deep down they're embarrassed for liking certain TV shows, books, video games, whatever. But in my case, it's true. I dunno, man. I've just always related to kids. I like them and they like me, maybe because I've always been on the level with them. The challenges they face fascinate me; I spend a lot of time thinking about them, and remember facing more than my share, so I create characters for kids to relate to when no one else seems to "get it."

I've got other characters and stories waiting in the wings, but Aidan and HERITAGE are leading the charge. I'm very happy with how he and his story turned out, and hope readers of all ages will enjoy tagging hanging out with Aidan--relating to his choices and discussing what they would have done in the same circumstance.

Well, a similar circumstance, anyway.


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