Writing Young Adult as a Young Adult
One of my favorite sentiments in the world is that it’s never too late.
It’s never too late to try learning a new language, or putting more effort into a relationship, or yes, to start writing. But I think it’s just as important to remember — at least, when it comes to writing — it’s also never too soon.
I was sixteen when I first started writing seriously, and I still wish I’d started earlier. Now I’m nineteen, and I’ll be twenty come November when my debut novel, OUTRUN THE WIND, releases from Flux Books. In short, this novel is a YA reimagining of the story of Atalanta from Greek mythology — and I would be so pleased if you added it on Goodreads!
Here’s the thing. OUTRUN THE WIND would never have existed if I hadn’t been an avid young adult reader as a young adult. The stories that I read and loved were largely formative in my decision to start taking this whole writing thing seriously; they were also formative in helping me understand how and what I wanted to write. (And I think that writing characters who are the same age as me has made it all a bit easier.)
My advice for other teen writers is fairly straightforward. Seek to understand exactly why the stories you love resonate with you. Like I mentioned, it was the books I loved that pushed me to write my own stories. I’m sure there are some authors and stories that affect you in ways you hadn’t known possible. For me, they were (and let’s be real, still are) Rick Riordan’s myth-inspired series, particularly Percy Jackson. From age ten to now, his wild creativity in reimagining millennia-old stories into today’s world transfixes me entirely. I grew up alongside his complex, stunning characters, and was so moved by the finale to Heroes of Olympus that I knew I couldn’t wait a second longer to take a stab at writing my own book.
If I can create something even a fraction as compelling as his books, I’ll have succeeded many times over. The influence his stories had on me is fairly obvious. After all, my debut novel is entirely inspired by Greek mythology. I encourage you to untangle the stories that move you. What is it about them that hooks you? Is it the author’s style of characterization? Their world-building? Maybe it’s something hyper-specific, like a decade in history you have a relentless fascination with. Whatever it is, define it — and don’t let it go. Writing a book is a lengthy, stressful process. At least make sure that it’s with a cast of characters and a world you don’t mind getting stuck or lost in.
Here’s a couple concrete things you can try to start making progress…
If you’re not already keeping a journal, do it! Trust me, you’ll be thankful you did — even if it’s just one sentence per day. From a writing standpoint, this is essentially a time capsule back into your “YA” years that you can revisit once you’re older. In addition, journaling is a great way for you to articulate the events unfolding in your life and your reactions to them.
Secondly, adopt the three-sentence rule. Once you’ve got a rough idea of a story in your head, you cannot let it rest. The most important and useful thing you can do is to write every single day. Rain or shine. Happy or sad. Sick or well. Even if you’re beyond brain-fried and crumpling with exhaustion, I promise that you can grind out just three measly sentences. This is crucial in the drafting process. The longer a project sits unvisited, the wider the distance becomes between you and that world. It becomes exponentially more difficult to reenter that world, so don’t leave it! Three sentences a day will keep you in the right headspace, and will make you feel satisfied with yourself. No matter what, at least the story’s moving forward. (Ideally, you’ll write more than three sentences per day, but hey, that’s just the baseline.)
I’m not sure where you’re at in your writing journey. Maybe you have several completed manuscripts, or maybe you’re trying to figuring out the plot for your first one. In either case, I’m sure you’ve heard the difference between ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ — writers who either know how their story will end before they write it, or those who wing it. To be honest, I literally cannot think of one successful writer that I know of who’s a pantser. This isn’t to say they don’t exist or cannot get published, but I’m going to strongly suggest you have an almost-definite idea of the arc of your story before you start drafting. It’ll save you some of the pain of the dreaded aimless middle and tying up everything at the end.
I had three devastating false-starts on novels when I first started writing, and they’re the actual worst things ever. When I finally buckled in and wrote out a complete outline, everything felt better. Still, know that no matter how thoroughly you plot, things will inevitably change in the writing process, and that’s totally expected! At its best, plotting is the satisfying thrill of uncovering a mystery layer by layer. At its worst, it can feel like an endless, inescapable labyrinth with no way out. I still struggle with plotting, and trust me, all writers do. One thing that’s helped is to imagine a Russian nesting doll as the main theme or concept of your story. Open it up. Unpack it. What’s inside? Or rather, who’s inside? What are they hiding? There’s a doll within every doll. Keep following that trail until you have a full set of characters with defined motivations.
That’s easier said than done, obviously. There’s a multitude of other plotting methods if that doesn’t work for you. Look into the snowball effect, three or four-act structures, or even just start a Pinterest board with images that seem to connect with each other. Just remember, as a rule of thumb, to never spend more time creating aesthetic boards and daydreaming than you spend actually writing. Only your manuscript can get you published. Since that’s the ultimate goal, try another thing I wish I’d done sooner—write the query letter before your first draft. It’ll help you remember and communicate the specific story you’re setting out to tell. The sooner you have a marketable manuscript, the sooner you can move onto a new set of problems…the publishing industry!
The Rollercoaster Nature of Publishing
On that note, I’m gonna dump a few warnings, disclaimers, and reality checks real quick. When I was eighteen, I went to a writing retreat led by Kiersten White, and when she heard how old I was, she was very helpful and kind by telling me about the roller-coaster nature of the industry, while also assuring me that I had plenty of time to figure it out. Both of these are very, very true. Don’t rush, but if you have a manuscript that you think is ready to go to the next level, here are some things to keep in mind:
Have a critique partner? You need one, and preferably two or three. You’re blind to your own work. Maggie Stiefvater has a great critique partner matchmaking service! Check it out.
Start growing thick skin now. Find a way to remind yourself that your work is separate from you. If someone criticizes your work, it is not a personal attack. You will hear no more times than you can count. Expect it.
Don’t bother comparing yourself to other authors, especially those who are much older than you. No two authors have the same publishing journey. It all comes down to a whole lot of self-discipline and persistence, a fair amount of luck, and a tiny bit of talent.
If you can, mix up how you approach the industry. Query traditionally. Pitch agents at conferences. Join the Twitter scene and get involved with awesome programs like Pitch Wars and #PitMad…which was what ultimately ended up attracting the attention of my acquiring editor at Flux!
Through this crazy journey, remember that you have the power that every adult YA author wishes they had. You know firsthand exactly what it is to be a young adult, and how to most accurately convey that. The best time for you to start writing is right now. Like, literally, as soon as you finish reading this. YA is the best genre ever, because all it means is that your protagonist is a young adult — everything else is fair game. Nothing you write is a waste, so save it all. This is the most groundbreaking, diverse, and expansive genre ever, and I’m so glad you’re joining the team. Welcome aboard!