How To Write a Bestselling YA Novel (Without Vampires)


“Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doingwhat is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” – Stephen King

I feel a change in the winds, P&Q Rangers…and I’m not talking about last night’s visit to Taco Bell. The weather is changing, the nights are growing shorter. It’s autumn again. And we all know what that means, don’t we?

I just knew someone would say “the start of football season” or “the World Series,” so we’ll let those slide. Autumn is writing season. More specifically, it’s countdown to NaNoWriMo. I’m gonna conquer the bastard this year if it’s the last thing I do. If I have to feign some exotic disease and use up my sick leave, I will crank out 50,000 words by the time Thanksgiving rolls around.

Just for the sake of convenience I’ve decided on a YA novel. It doesn’t have to be the next War and Peace, I won’t have to invent an entire epic mythos a la A Song of Ice and Fire, and if the sucker is any good, maybe I can spin it into a trilogy. But what makes good YA writing (and is this different from good writing in general?) A YA novel is not a YA novel if those fickle teenagers don’t want to read it. The last few years working as a pseudo-YA librarian, I’ve read a few great novels (Libba Bray’s Printz Award-winning Going Bovine leaps to mind) and a whole heap of steaming crap. I mean, I’m talking about Augean Stables quantity crap. There are a lot of really bad YA novels out there.

I’ve taken some notes and tried to boil down the equation of the Perfect YA Novel. Of course, it’s a little like the formula for the perfect meat loaf or the perfect knuckleball. Everyone has his or her own definition of what perfect is. But if you end up using this strange bit of algebra and end up writing the next Hunger Games, you think you could at least mention me and/or my blog in your acknowledgements? Thanks in advance.

Be derivative…but not TOO derivative.

One thing I know for sure about YA books is that success spawns a host of imitators. Some obvious examples are the now-popular dystopian future novels like Gone and Divergent which The Hunger Games revived. Teenagers are a trendy bunch. The nice thing about YA novels is that you can literally ride a thematic horse until it dies. Just don’t go overboard (to wit, the vampire trend has now moved on to zombies, mer-folk and other supernatural beings.)

Mix it up with familiar and exotic names.

In the novel I just finished reading (Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races), there were characters named Sean, Maud, and Finn. There was also a Puck…who happened to be a girl. Unless you’re writing hard-core sci-fi or fantasy, hardly anyone will relate to characters whose names sound like metal bands or prescription medications. Your characters don’t have to be John and Mary and Robert, but it helps to have at least one of these in the background to keep it real.

Remember your audience.

The cool thing about YA books is that the protagonists are actually YA (duh.) They’re not going to be experts on life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Teenagers enjoy reading about characters having the same sort of experiences and conflicts as they are. That being said, if you are going to use the dreaded plot device of a romantic love triangle, at least make it believable.

Take a familiar story and spin it on its head.

My old writing teacher reminded me that every work of fiction since The Iliad has been fanfic. That’s true in the sense that there aren’t too many original stories left to tell. One of the megatrends of the last few years has been using familiar fairy tales and telling them in wild and unexpected ways (Wicked, Cinder, Snow White and the Huntsman, etc.) And then there’s the Supernatural Retellings kick-started by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’m not saying I entirely like this trend, but it’s not going away anytime soon and teens love it.

Re-read your favorite YA book. What made you enjoy it?

Mine fell into two general categories: the hilarious lighter books I read in-between AP Lit assignments and the otherworldly stories from Stephen King to Robert Heinlein that took me away to strange places. If it’s been a long time since you read your favorite book from high school, do yourself a favor and read it again. You may be tempted to copy the author’s style. If you’re just doing a NaNoWriMo manuscript, it’s a start.

Have a writing partner throw you a few curveballs.

I used to hate writing with a partner until I discovered how much fun it can be. Ask your tag team buddy to throw some hard questions at you. What if the protagonist did that? How would the villain react if this happened?

If all else fails, remember that Twilight actually became a best-seller.

If Stephenie Meyer made it to the big leagues, anyone can. There’s no accounting for poor taste.

Note to my readers: I’ve been working on getting the semifinals of the Fictional Character Hunger Games up and running. The first matchup should be posted by Monday at the latest, so stay tuned.

What kinds of things do you love or hate about today’s YA novels? Got any tips? Let’s hear it!

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on September 5, 2012.

4 Responses to “How To Write a Bestselling YA Novel (Without Vampires)”

  1. Reblogged this on jessicasdiaries.

  2. I tried NaNoWriMo once many years ago & failed so miserably I actually lost my novel – & I use the very word guiltily – but I lost the file on my PowerBook. That’s going some for psyching myself out of the running.
    I’m a voracious reader. Currently reading 1200 page novel by Tom Clancy who will surely bring the great nations back from the edge of the Third World War by the last few ages. He’s writing this book alone, but he’s also written dozens in collaborations with other authors.
    I have kept journals for 40 years. I write poetry. Haiku, as well as wry stuff for kids. So why no NaNoWriMo? I think it feels too much like an Olympian event. Write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Would there be time for me to paint? Because I’m that kind of artist, & November into Dec. is my busiest month. But still, I really feel tempted to try again. Maybe next year. A book about an apartment building filled with talking dogs & cats.

  3. […] Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doingwhat is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” – Stephen King I feel a change in the winds, P&Q …  […]

  4. An excellent set of guidelines.
    But I think the one that trumps is Have a good story to tell.

    I remember reading something about Lucas developing Star Wars. He wanted to cram in all these mythological references and archetypes, and confused the hell out of himself.
    Then he sat down and just wrote the story, and it turned out, he’d managed to cleanly work all that in any way. because that’s what the story was.

    Can’t wait o hear about the development of your NaNoWriMo novel.

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