Oh That Teen Angst: Writing YA Stories
When I first got the idea for my novel, Sapphire, I had no intention of making it a YA story. I had been watching a TV show about ghost stories and saw a tale about a "vanishing hitchhiker" that I really liked. I liked the tale of the ghostly girl, but then imagined what it would be like for a nerdy, lonely kid to be the one who had the date with the ghost. I incorporated elements of the story I saw into the tale, embellished it, conjured a backstory and changed the name (I believe the name for the girl in the story was Lavender, but I am not 100% on that).
It was just meant to be a creepy story. Our hero, Jimmy, would fall in love with a ghost and then set about trying to figure out why Sapphire was dead in the first place. Simple premise, but then something happened.
As I began to tell the tale, my way of telling the story changed. I softened the language almost without thinking about it. There was still violence, but this time around I didn't make it too graphic. I turned to my wife and said, "I think this new novel I'm writing is going to be a young adult novel."
Of course, YA novels were, and continue to be, very popular. The funny thing is that young adults are not the primary readers of them. Regular ol' adults are the ones who snatch up the books that, in theory, were meant for folks much younger.
Don't get me wrong, I know that young adults have read Sapphire and I have received actual photographic proof that they have been reading my Elementals series (The Lightning Weaver and The Lord of Winter). However, there is something about these books that reaches out and grabs adults. I confess - I have read several young adult books and series.
I think it has to do with just being a teenager - that ol' teen angst. Oh, don't tell me you didn't experience it. We all do. Every single one of us has that residual bit lingering in our brains from when we were teenagers. I mean, what amazes me about being an adult is that, when I was a kid, I thought my parents knew it all and I would too. Now that I am as old as they were, I realize I know very little and so much of that fear is still there inside me.
I think that's why we go back to these stories. In the young adult books, for the most part, these characters experience that awkwardness, loneliness, that feeling of wondering what their place in the world is, dealing with college, jobs, careers and family and they come out OK in the end. Real life is not like that at all.
I love reading for escapism and love writing for others to escape. If that means that reading the adventures of a teenage hero is what gets you through the day, so be it. I like to tell tales that are exciting and fun, without the audience necessarily in mind. Yes, when I write the YA stuff, I tone down the cursing, make sure the sex is very PG and try to make the violence a little less horrifying. I think what you still need to have, though, is the angst.
I explore that pretty well in Sapphire and then add the element of powers in the Elementals series. Imagine not only having to deal with teen acne, but then discovering you can manipulate the earth's magnetic and electrical fields? Sure, you can fry the bully who's calling you names in the hall, but you risk alienating yourself from - everyone.
So, if YA is your intended game, I think the word "angst" should be the one that you keep in mind when you write. Tell the tale you want to tell, but remember what it was like to be as young as your characters. It's that thing that will bring the readers in and keep them coming back.