When I began seriously pursuing writing as a career, I didn’t intend to write for young adults. My upcoming book, A WORK OF ART, was originally aimed toward an older audience, but my critique group convinced me (and rightly so) that it was suited for young adults. After all, its protagonist was a teenage girl, and many of her problems were teenage problems.
But making the transition from an adult audience to a YA audience was tougher than it seemed. My early drafts were written in third person, where everything was seen through the eyes of my protagonist. That’s all well and good, but I soon realized how distanced that kept me from the mind of a teenager. I found myself writing things like: “She gazed at her father’s painting,” which sounds nothing like how a teenager sees the world. I’d be much better off saying: “She looked at her dad’s painting.”
But even that wasn’t cutting it—not for my book, anyway. While writing in third person, it was too easy to slip into the mind of a forty-something year old mother. (Yep, that’s me.) My critique group recommended I write in first person. They said it’d be easier to stay in my protagonist’s head. I resisted and kept writing in third—mostly because I didn’t want to rewrite the first half of the book yet again. But I kept getting comments like, “I don’t feel what your character’s feeling.” Or, “Your protagonist feels distant.”
So finally I bit the bullet and tried writing my next chapter in first person. Wow, what a difference! Though I still found myself using the occasional “adult” phrases such as “I gazed at” or “I harbored,” the overall effect was startling. My critique group raved about what a difference the first-person made. They felt connected to my protagonist in a way they never had. And so I was off. I finished the draft in first person and then went back through the first half and “converted” to first person, which I soon discovered was a lot harder than changing all the “she’s” to “I’s.” That conversion from third person to first person made me realize just how distanced my protagonist was from the mind of a teenage girl.
So that’s one thing I learned the hard way. Writing in third person kept me distanced from the mind of a teenager. That’s not to say you can’t write wonderful YA fiction in third person. Of course it can be done, but I, apparently, couldn’t do it.
And here’s the second thing I learned the hard way: Replacing adult phrases with teenage speak (“That’s wonderful!” versus “That’s so freaking cool!”) wasn’t the way to go. Of course, that’s part of it, but swapping out adult phrases for teen phrases is one piece in a much larger pie. I had to immerse myself in the head of a teenager. I had to feel things the way a teenager would feel them. But how to do that? Me, who hadn’t been a teenager in twenty-five years and whose son was still in single digits?
I discovered that the best way to immerse myself in a teen’s world was to read young-adult fiction—a lot of it. Two books that broke something open in me were Crank, by Ellen Hopkins and Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. There are others, but these two books in particular transported me into the heads of much younger people and I found myself studying how the authors did it. And I guess that’s the third lesson. Read, read, read—and study what you read. Try to pinpoint how the author pulled it off.
I’m thick into the writing of my second YA novel, and I have to say, it’s much easier to be in the head of a young adult this time around. Years ago, when I started trying to write for young adults, I felt like I was merely dummying down the language. But now, through experience and study, I view a teenager’s vocabulary more like a dialect. Just as a person from the South would say things differently than a New Englander, a teenage girl would tell a story differently than a forty-some-year-old mother. The vocabulary isn’t dummied down; it’s true to life.