From Harry Potter to Twilight, from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, readers have grown up with YA fiction – and YA fiction, in turn, has grown up for its readers.
With a genre that’s constantly evolving, how can you make sure your YA novel truly breaks new ground? How can you both use the tropes that young adult readers love, while also pushing boundaries? And how can you make sure agents and publishers see you as the next big thing?
The Novelry’s newest editor Simran Sandhu is here to answer all of these questions and more. Simran knows a thing or two about what makes a YA book stand out.
Before joining us, Simran was an editor at Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Pan Macmillan, home to beloved authors like Hilary McKay, Meg Cabot, Sir Lenny Henry, Judy Blume and Eva Ibbotson. Over five years, she honed her editorial skills, working across bestselling, acclaimed and award-winning YA authors like Children of Blood and Bone author Tomi Adeyemi, Costa award-winner Frances Hardinge, Carry On author Rainbow Rowell and Starcrossed author Josephine Angelini.
With her deep passion for all things revolutionary, fantasy and coming-of-age YA, Simran began to build her own list of authors, specialising in young adult literature, and editing a number of titles including the Branford Boase-winner Muhammad Khan’s trailblazing school story Mark My Words, George Lester’s Boy Queen and the YA Book Prize-shortlisted queer friends-to-lovers romance Melt My Heart by Bethany Rutter.
So, over to Simran now as she explores the good, the bad and the groundbreaking of YA fiction – before giving us her four top tips for writing a YA novel that will truly stand out from the crowd.
The misunderstood world of young adult books
Young adult fiction is sometimes misunderstood by those who aren’t already embroiled in its fandom. Many see it (incorrectly) as a formulaic category with well recognised tropes in different packaging.
Understanding those tropes and the expectations of your reader, and subverting them in the way that only you can, is what takes YA books from formulaic to groundbreaking, and what cements your characters in the hearts of YA lovers across the world.
But before we get to all that, let’s start with the basics...
The basics: writing good young adult fiction
Understanding your reader
YA readers are discerning: they know their category well and read across genres. They love and hate every trope, they are active in their community and they tend to be engaged in the wider context of the world.
It’s what makes writing for them so exciting – they will challenge and push you to think about things differently, because that’s how they think. They’re constantly questioning the systems that make the world work, the things they’ve been taught as fact by their parents and loved ones, and in that sense, are always on the lookout for fresh new takes on familiar concepts. They are picking up young adult books because they want to feel.
Keeping who your readers are and what they want in the forefront of your mind is key to writing unforgettable YA – don’t underestimate them or over-explain things to them. Trust them: they’ll pick up on everything in your work in the best possible way!
Keeping who your readers are and what they want in the forefront of your mind is key to writing unforgettable YA – don’t underestimate them.
Young adult characters and emotional depth
Though your plot needs to be pacey to keep your reader engaged, what YA fiction readers really care about are your characters.
At this point in your readers’ lives, they’re experiencing some of the deepest emotions you can feel as a human for the very first time: first love, first heartbreak, first righteous anger!
Emotion, growth and evolution are at the core of all your readers’ experiences – everything feels like the most important thing in the world, and it genuinely is for their journey into becoming adults.
So many of the books that really took off on TikTok – even years after their release – were ones that promised to ‘emotionally destroy’ the reader. And this is because for a lot of YA readers, young adult fiction is a safe space to actually feel these emotions deeply without being personally hurt in the process. This is precisely why when so many YA readers age out of the category, they still buy YA along with their adult titles.
With this in mind, your readers are on the hunt for characters to fall in love with, to grow with and to try to understand. The core YA reader is a re-reader of their favourite works. They’re also likely to read and write their own fan fiction because they prefer active engagement with beloved characters and worlds to passive admiration, and will examine your work from every angle possible. So readers know the stereotypical characters that usually pop up in YA; to write truly groundbreaking YA stories, you need to buck tradition and give them some of what they expect, and something new that only you with your unique personal history can write into your characters.
Readers know the stereotypical characters that usually pop up in YA; to write truly groundbreaking YA stories, you need to buck tradition and give them some of what they expect, and something new that only you with your unique personal history can write into your characters.
Do some character mapping and make sure all the characters who have any significant page-time are as 3D as humanly possible. Connect moments of their development to plot points and moments of connection with other characters throughout the story. Think about your voice and the characters you want to create, and then consider these questions:
- How do they go beyond tropes and tradition?
- Where do you pull inspiration from?
- Are your characters showing your reader a wealth and breadth of different backgrounds and angles with which to experience your story?
- How do they all grow separately and together as an ensemble?
- How do they work together as a team? How did they grow up? What drives them?
- Why would they act the way they do and what would need to happen for that to change?
- If they’re a villain, how do they justify their actions in their own head?
- If they’re supposed to be falling in love, what draws them together beyond just the ephemeral ‘spark’?
- What will your characters be remembered for by your readers and will they fall in love with them?
Everyone needs to be complex, and to push and pull on each other for drama and inspiration. Get a killer cast together and you’re looking at a brilliant YA novel.
Escapism and reader safety
YA readers can be very steadfast when they find a writer who is able to craft a world thoroughly because what they are after (in the current market) is escapism. This is across all genres: romance, fantasy, murder mystery, horror, sci-fi; the end goal is the same.
Understanding why, and how to make sure you hit the escapism quotient while still keeping one toe in reality, is how you make sure you’re hitting the mark with your young adult fiction.
The world is completely bonkers: we’re all living through and witnessing awful worldwide events and with the climate collapsing, the future isn’t as bright as it used to be.
Gen Z and Gen A (your current audiences) are fighting tooth and nail to be taken seriously as a voting demographic for the future, or have completely detached from everything because it’s just too overwhelming to think about. 1 in 6 teenagers suffer with mental health issues and beyond since the pandemic.
This is the context from which you’re providing escapism, and it’s important to keep this in mind in order to do it sensitively.
For fantasy, even though so many of the YA stories people are reading can be filled with horror and revolutions and despots and evil, in general, the idea is that we’re going to watch the good guys get somewhere close to winning or at least some kind of justice being served.
I was once told by one of the best YA editors in the business that what really separates adult fiction from YA is that YA promises hope – so you need to deliver. I’m not saying they’re guaranteed a happy ending, but they are expecting it to feel like the characters have helped make their world a slightly better place, either by finding each other and love despite horrible circumstances, by finding the courage to stand up for what’s right, or by helping free their world from some evil that gives way to a more hopeful future.
What really separates adult fiction from YA is that YA promises hope – so you need to deliver.
Keep hope in mind and feel free to be as literal or subtle about it as feels right to you – the groundbreaking bit comes in when you’re able to create enough safety that you can shine a light on topics your readers might otherwise not feel safe enough to explore.
Thinking about contemporary stories, particularly romance, I find it helpful to look at books like Heartstopper.
What was groundbreaking about what Alice Oseman did here, besides the grassroots approach to growing her graphic novel audience online before taking it to publishers, was the actual handling of the story itself.
She built a cast of memorable, loveable, wholesome characters, most of whom belong to the LGBTQIA+ community, and explored how they were able to create safety and happiness together so they could tackle difficult things like eating disorders, homophobia at home and at school, narcissistic parenting and transphobia.
She did this in a way that didn’t feel like their struggles were the main part of who they were or what defined them, but their search for love and happiness amongst that. The focus was the friendships they made along the way, so the reading experience (and now watching experience) is an overwhelmingly happy one – escapist and pure, with real, true representation pinned to the heart of it.
Following this formula, you create that escapist sense of romance, of budding first love between brilliantly diverse characters, you touch lightly on the darker things they have to handle in order to be together, and you make sure your audience comes away with a big cheesy grin at the end of your story (and the need to immediately check out fan fiction on AO3).
For grittier stories...
For more gritty contemporary stories, the challenge then is to keep the story feeling manageable, and like your main character isn’t going through it all alone. Character is key here, and make sure again to try to bring a more modern understanding to what you’re exploring. Whether that be cold case murder mysteries, gritty urban thrillers, family and social dramas or more, the process of discovery has to still feel like it was worth it, and you need to give us a character to root for.
So give your reader safety and escapism – but trust them to be able to handle some of the heavier stuff at that distance too.
How to write groundbreaking young adult books: Simran’s four top tips
We’ve looked at the good, but how about the groundbreaking? The novels that buck trends, twist the tropes and push the genre forward. Taking everything into consideration, I’ve come up with four tips for taking your young adult novel that crucial step further:
1. Consider what you want to say
Every book is written because the author has something to say. The story itself is always carrying a set of morals or something people can learn to care about in some small way.
Don’t bash us over the head with it – trust your YA reader, but be clear about what it is and make sure it’s connected to everything when you’re mapping out your plot.
It’s also worth considering:
- Why are you the right person to be telling the reader this?
- What about what you’re saying feels exciting and new to the market?
- How can you make this all crystal clear to your reader in your first chapter?
2. Subvert tropes
This is the big one! Friends-to-lovers, enemies-to-lovers, the one-bed trope, the best friend sidekick, the chosen one, the stoic masc soldier, the quippy one-liner friend who doesn’t seem to do much else – I could go on!
There are so many beloved and hated tropes that are key to YA literature. Readers want the familiar – but they want to see it done better than before. Subverted so it feels fresher. This is truly where the groundbreaking comes in.
What classic YA tropes are currently present in your book? How can you use what you want to say and your unique voice to twist it so it’s a little different? This is where I suggest you have a rummage on TikTok and see how people are reacting to the tropes you’ve used. What do they think is great, what do they think feels overdone? What feels out of place in the modern world?
Let’s take an example: enemies-to-lovers in YA romantasy.
Two love interests, on either side of some kind of war. One with the ‘bad guys’, and the other someone the bad guys have told the love interest to hunt down.
What about this trope do your readers love?
The passion, the spark, the tension – that all needs to stay and is what keeps your readers coming back for more. The idea that the good guy is going to convince the ‘bad guy’ to join them because their love is worth it, and help them see the error of their ways or free them from whoever they were serving, is the usual end to this trope.
How can you bring your own twist?
Maybe instead of good convincing bad, it happens the other way around? Perhaps we think at the end of book one that good has lost because they’ve switched sides to be with the person of their dreams – maybe we don’t see until the epilogue it’s all a ruse and they’re planning on bringing it all down from the inside! Maybe they were never lovers at all and it was all a ruse to finally get close to them? Maybe both of them decide fighting on either side of it all is pointless and find their own happiness – only to be interrupted in book two?
Whatever angle you go for (and there are SO many options!), try to keep it relevant to what you’re trying to say. If you’re exploring what a world would look like when hatred is given real power, remember the context you’re saying this in, and make sure the reader feels that connection too.
3. Keep an eye on the market
Four years ago, new voices in young adult fiction were struggling to be heard amongst established brand authors. Now, because of a new algorithm courtesy of TikTok, publishers have a way to connect directly with how people are finding new books – so you should be looking into this too.
BookTokkers are grouping books by aesthetic, by levels of devastation at the end, by how it made them feel. Genre has become more specific so that readers can find their niche. Booksellers are listening to that and beginning to highlight their favourite YA love triangle or body horror.
You need to be consistent with what you’re giving your reader throughout your book so that the atmosphere and tone of your work can find the right audience – get involved with the community and see where your book would sit. What makes it stand out in that space? How do you bring that aspect of the book to the forefront? If you can, go to YALC and engage with the readers you’re writing for first-hand. What excites them? What are they looking for on their bookshelves?
4. Know your audience
As much as your publisher and agent might have a brilliant strategy for your work, it’s important you do too, so that it’s clear to them when they pick up the manuscript.
Think about this year’s YA debut UK bestseller, Girl, Goddess, Queen. The author, Bea Fitzgerald, is a TikTok creator with a large following, specifically making comedic content about Greek gods.
She was able to see exactly what kind of content worked with her audience and it led her to her book: a retelling of the classic tale of Hades and Persephone that empowers Persephone in ways the myth does not, making it more palatable to modern audiences. With plenty of spice and a fake dating trope thrown in, she had YA readers completely entranced!
It’s a brilliant success story and the clarity of her pitch and her market knowledge was so clear that her team was able to facilitate that vision, leading to the deserved success of the book.
Whilst you don’t need to have built an audience before you get an agent, that clarity of mission and understanding of the market is key to making sure you’re creating the best young adult fiction possible for your readers.
So go forth, find the message that only you can give, research your young adult fiction, get to know your audience – and then deliver them something that even they didn’t see coming.