Writing for Young Adults: Something I Learned the Hard Way, Part 1

When I began seriously pursuing writing as a career, I didn’t intend to write for young adults. My 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.

Click here for Part 2.

Melody Maysonet

Melody Maysonet has been an English teacher, editor, columnist, and ghostwriter. A self-proclaimed geek, she loves reading fantasy, but prefers writing edgy, real-world fiction—as evidenced by her first novel, A WORK OF ART (Simon Pulse), which received a Starred Review from Kirkus, won the 2016 Hoffer Award for best fiction, and was named a Best Book of 2015 by YA Books Central.

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