Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kat Heckenbach Discusses the Finer Points of YA

Today I'm excited to have a guest post from award winning YA fantasy writer Kat Heckenbach. She is the author of two novels: Finding Angel and its sequel Seeking Unseen. (You can find my review of Finding Angel here and my interview with Kat here.) Below, Kat discusses the defining characteristics of well-written YA novels.

Young Adult (YA) fiction is a hot genre. The millions of books sold, the billions of dollars made by Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, the overnight success of Amanda Hocking and others, and the scores of adults reading YA have authors from all over scrambling to get a piece of the action. It seems that every other author out there suddenly has an idea for a YA vampire novel or a dystopian series.

The problem—besides an over-saturation of the market—is that too many of them don’t really understand the genre. Some of these authors are established in the adult market, and their attempts at YA really reflect that. Some are newbie authors who seem to only want to write YA because it’s the thing to do. Have they even read YA? Is it a passion? Or are they just jumping on the bandwagon?

Imaginary GirlsI read YA almost exclusively, and lately I’m finding common mistakes that indicate to me that certain authors writing YA are only following the crowd. Does it make them bad writers? No. But if they don’t understand the following elements of YA, they may be better off sticking to another market. (Or at least, the mama tigers of this market are going to bare our claws and let them know what we think.)

LamentVoice. In a lot of YA books, it boils down to voice. Now, you have a bit more freedom with certain genres within the YA market, such as epic fantasy, historical, and dystopian, where teenagers aren’t necessarily going to be like today’s teens (although they can be) and their situations aren’t going to reflect a lot of teen angst. But if your story is set in contemporary times in a typical high school, your main character better sound like a teen. He/she can sound like an oddball teen, or a mature teen, but not an adult or a child. (I have read several books that had something either too adult or too childlike about the voice, and each and every time I’ve found the author is established in the adult market and this is his/her “first YA novel.” Sigh.)

Authors with great voice: Nova Ren Suma and Maggie Stiefvater.

Tyger TygerIntelligence. I said your character needs to sound like a teen, not an adult or child. Plenty of teens talk like adults, with adult vocabularies and a maturity above their years. But even those still have a slightly different quality, and it generally comes from intelligence rather than life experience. And yes, teens are intelligent, so don’t write like you’re writing for a child. Don’t dumb things down because you are afraid they might not know the meaning of a word or understand a concept. (On the flip side, don’t be a vocabulary show-off.)

DivergentAuthors who know how to write smart teens: Kersten Hamilton and Veronica Roth.

“Show, don’t tell” still applies. Authors of adult fiction are slammed with that command from the day they meet their first experienced critique partner. Show me he’s angry, don’t tell me. Don’t over-narrate. Get me into the head of character and let me experience things. It applies to teen books, too.

The Lost HeiressThis kinda goes along with the “don’t dumb down” idea. Teens can figure things out. They’re intuitive and can handle abstract ideas and sort out cues that show emotion. So telling me over and over that a character “felt lonely” or “felt out of place” or that their group of friends is “respected” by classmates….no. If you can’t back that up with action by the characters then it’s not going to feel genuine.

CinderWorld-building requires showing, and these authors know how to do it: Catherine Fisher and Marissa Meyer.

Slang. Another issue is the overuse of current slang/cussing, or making up slang words to avoid cussing. To be honest, the latter is something to leave to the masters (like Scott Westerfeld in his Uglies series). There are ways for your characters to sound like genuine teens without having them throw out the f-bomb every other page. But making up goofy substitutes isn’t it. Besides, do you really believe the teen isn’t thinking the “real” word when they see substitutions like “shuck” and “flagging”?

UgliesAnd if you are going to use current slang (cussing or not) you better do it right. The old saying, “Better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Well, let’s change that to, “Better to keep quiet and be thought uncool than to slang wrong and remove all doubt.” Teens respond to genuine and can spot a poser a mile away.

The master slangster: Scott Westerfeld.

Dialog. This is something that combines all of the above ideas. These are teens. They must talk like teens. But the type of teen they are. Not all teens are snarky and rude. Not all teens are wallflowers. You have to write their dialog realistically. Don’t put words into their mouths. Even intelligent teens aren’t going to word things exactly the way an adult would. I recently read a book where one teen speaking to another sounded like a parent speaking to a child. It wasn’t what they said, it was the way they said it. Too formal, too stiff.

Thirteen Reasons WhyThirteen Reasons Why is a story in which a teen leaves messages on tape, so it is her talking through much of the book and it is very realistic: Jay Asher.

Audience. Your high school experience may not have been the mainstream. Maybe you envision your character pretty narrow in scope when it comes to peer groups. But your audience should not be narrow. I don’t care if you were an intellectual, a Goth, a druggie, or a cheerleader. A huge portion of your readers will not be. If you limit your reach to those exact types you will not sell very many books. Obviously, your character will fit into one of those niches, but he/she needs to be accessible to readers outside of it.

NevermoreNot a cheerleader or a Goth? You can still relate to them in Nevermore by Kelli Creagh.

YA fiction is my passion. I love to read it. I love to write it. I love seeing teens excited about books, and especially excited about books they can relate to. Teens need to be respected for who they are. They are not big children. They are not little adults. They are this amazing and beautiful mid-transformation that is both and neither simultaneously.

Their genre should not be seen as a bandwagon.

To read more about Kat and her writing, visit her at or


  1. Thanks, Jeff (and Kat) - invaluable stuff.

  2. Jeff, thanks so much for letting me hijack your blog today!

    And Simon, thanks for stopping by :).

    1. You're welcome. I have some new books and writers to add to my reading list.