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Monday, October 8, 2012

31 Days of Horror-- Day 8 Writing for a Young Adult Audience: Guest Blog by JG Faherty


Today I turn things over to JG Faherty who is not only a wonderful horror writer of adult and young adult novels, but he is also a tireless cheerleader for the genre.  He is actively involved in the Horror Writers Association sharing his experiences and mentoring young writers. And, he has taken over librarian relations for the Horror Writers Association.  So of course, I am a fan!

Today, I have asked him to share his experience writing for a YA audience.

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Writing for a Young Adult Audience
Guest Blog by JG Faherty, author of the Bram Stoker Award® finalist Ghosts of Coronado Bay


There is no denying that the young adult (YA) audience is one of the fastest growing segments of readers, especially in the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Because of this, more writers are trying their hand at writing YA novels, and many of them are finding out it's a lot harder than they imagined.

Now, I can't speak for other writers as to why this is. For me, it's been a pretty painless road, in part because my fiction writing career started in YA and then branched into adult fiction later, rather than the other way around. But having written for several different age groups, I consider myself pretty well qualified to discuss the differences in writing for adult and teen/tween audiences.

First, a little background. (I'll be brief, I promise!)

In 1999, I took a contract assignment to write some study guide books for The Princeton Review/McGraw-Hill. These are practice books designed to help grade school students prepare for standardized reading tests. At that point in my life, I hadn't written any fiction since college, 20 years earlier, when I attempted to write a horror novel and then gave up because it was not turning out anywhere near as good as the stuff by Stephen King or Peter Straub I was reading at the time. So when I took the assignment with The Princeton Review, I was a bit nervous, because it meant having to write about two dozen one-page short stories for third and fourth-grade readers.

Lo and behold, it turned out to be much easier than I expected. The words seemed to just flow out of me, and the ideas came effortlessly. When my editors told me how much they enjoyed the stories, I began to think that maybe I could write something longer. So I tried my hand at short stories. It took a couple of years, but eventually I started getting published in various genre publications. Adult horror, science fiction, and some YA fantasy. I wrote a couple of adult-level novels, and while I was trying to sell them, I came up with an idea for a YA sci-fi adventure. However, I was concerned that it might not be appropriate for a teen audience. Right around that same time, I attended a writer's conference and had a chance to talk to a YA editor from one of the big publishing companies. 

"Tell me," I asked her, "what is off limits these days in YA fiction?"

Her answer really opened my eyes.

"Nothing," she said, "within reason. Generally, the only rules are no graphic sex and no graphic violence."

"Teenage readers," she went on to tell me, "are more sophisticated than they get credit for. Your best bet is to pick up a few books and read them."

So I did, and this is the first lesson any prospective YA writer should take to heart. Read heavily in the YA genres if you want to know what's out of bounds and what isn't. While that editor I spoke with was correct, there's more to it than just that. Within the YA category there are different age groups to consider. Older teens, younger teens and tweens, elementary school readers. You can't write the same for all of them, not just because of sex or violence concerns, but also because what might make an older teen laugh could very well keep a nine-year-old awake for weeks with nightmares.

The second important aspect of writing for a YA audience is being a good listener. Any time I'm working on a YA novel, I make sure to spend extra time talking to, and listening to, my nieces and nephews and their friends. Teens don't speak the same as adults. Just listen to a conversation between any two – or more – sixteen-year-olds and you'll hear all sorts of phrases and expressions that aren't part of ordinary adult conversation. And don't think you can turn to television or movies to pick up teen lingo. More often than not, TV and movies either use slang that is very California-centric or they veer too heavily towards urban, hip-hop expressions. TV and movies live and die by using stereotypes; books are usually doomed to failure if they try the same trick. Another thing to consider is that teen language idiosyncrasies are constantly changing. The slang you put into your book today might very well be out of date by the time it's published. For this reason, the best bet is to limit your use of slang or teen-specific terms and stick with the ones that have remained popular for the past several years.

A third trick to writing YA books is to keep things moving fast. Of course, this is a good rule for any book, but adults are more likely to stick with a novel that has a slow build, while teens and children have notoriously shorter attention spans.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is know your audience. Are you writing for sixteen-year-old boys or for girls fourteen and up, like I did with Ghosts of Coronado Bay? Are you writing for a specific group, such as urban teens, or do you want the book to be read more broadly across the U.S.? Boys and girls think differently, more so than men and women do. A book about a boy on a farm who has to give up his prize pet pig to be slaughtered might not do well in urban schools, just like a book about trying to break free from a gang or escape poverty isn't going to be so popular at a fancy private school. If you really want to reach a broad audience, you have to tap into the things all teens have in common. A fear of not fitting in. A desire to be independent. Balancing school and social lives. Loving parents and hating to be around them at the same time. Raging hormones. A good story goes beyond immediate socio-economic limitations and appeals to everyone. The Harry Potter stories are a great example of this.

In my novel Carnival of Fear, which straddles the line between YA and adult horror (if you don't let your kids watch R-rated movies, you wouldn't want them reading this book!), I took a slightly different route. Instead of focusing on one character or social segment, I brought different individuals together in a shared dangerous situation. Urban youths, jocks, science club geeks, stoners – I took them all and forced them to interact in ways they normally wouldn't do. This not only increased the appeal of the book to a broader audience, it also allowed me to break stereotypical molds and build unique personalities.

So, with all that in mind, here are my personal guidelines for writing YA fiction:

1. Ages 6 to 10. No swearing. No sex. Only implied violence. Talking about death is okay, like in the Grimm fairy tales, but there shouldn't be any dwelling on it. No sad endings.

2. Ages 10 to 14. Humor involving bodily functions is always going to get a laugh. No swearing. Punching and kicking in fights is fine. More dangerous violence, such as murders or getting eaten by a monster, could be talked about but not shown directly. If what you write is okay for family hour on regular television, or in a Harry Potter movie, then it's okay in the book.

3. Ages 14 to 16. Mild swearing is fine. No graphic sex scenes. Lesbian and gay characters and couples are fine. Think hard PG or mild R-rating.

4. Ages 16 and up. Pretty much anything goes, but only if absolutely necessary. No gratuitous sex. This is the age group that's going to R-rated movies and watching Showtime, Cinemax, and HBO. Now, this isn't to say you should write a steamy erotic novel for teens! This group isn't reading 50 Shades of Gray. But they are watching True Blood and Game of Thrones, and they are seeing horror movies like Saw, Human Centipede, and Touristas

Of course, there's plenty of overlap between the categories I've arbitrarily created for myself. I know a lot of kids who are 12 or 13 who are were fine with the themes in Ghosts of Coronado Bay, which included a girl wondering if she should lose her virginity and a ghost who wants to rape and kill her for a magical spell. And then there were kids who, at the age of 14, still weren't ready to read the book. This is where you can only try your best and hope parents have a good handle on what their kids can handle.

The great thing about writing for the YA audience is they force you to really do your best. They're smart, they're looking for action-packed stories, and they will not sit through any crap. As a writer, you have to eye your work carefully and strip out anything that hints at slowing the pace or talking down to the audience. In many ways, a lot of YA novels are better reads for adults than so-called adult novels. Since I began writing YA, I've discovered many good books I might never have found out about otherwise.

To sum things up, writing for a YA audience can be easy or hard, rewarding or frustrating, successful or a flop. It takes the write combination of talent and effort.

A lot like writing in general!

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About the Author...

JG Faherty is the author of Carnival of Fear, Cemetery Club, The Cold Spot, and He Waits. His YA paranormal adventure novel, Ghosts of Coronado Bay, was a Bram Stoker Award ® finalist in 2011. His next novel, The Burning Time, will be released in January 2013. His other credits include more than 2 dozen short stories. 

You can follow him at www.jgfaherty.com, www.twitter.com/jgfaherty, and www.facebook/jgfaherty.

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