Last week, editor Alisha Niehaus shared her wisdom on middle grade novels. Today, we're going to hear what Nicholaus Eliopulos, editor at Random House Books for Young Readers, has to say about the YA novel. (ETA: Nick is now at Scholastic)
YA is a bridge from middle grade to adult. Because of this, there is no real limitation on content, but you must remain true and organic to the story. Depending on your content, you can get a younger or older teen audience – edgier novels with harsh language will attract older teens, and more moderate language and content will attract younger teens. If you aim for a crossover novel, you will likely send mixed messages. You’re better off if you aim for the middle.
In order for your story to do well, you must have an audience. That means you need to know what today’s teen likes or dislikes. You don’t need to hover around a high school, though. Teens are out on blogs and other social networking kinds of sites. Go there, listen to them, and find out what they are interested in, as well as what they are not interested in.
Regardless of what some people say, teens are still readers. They read and participate in blogs, texts, email, twitter, and the like. However, attention span can be an issue. As a result, a strong plot is crucial to attract the attention of today’s teen. The pacing must be quick and the stakes need to go up in order to keep that attention. Nothing holds a teen like a ticking clock: will the main character make it in time? What happens if he doesn’t? Secrets are also a big draw for teens, and romance is a must. That doesn’t mean you need outright sex, but you do need attraction and at least the possibility of romance.
So, after your story is written, go through chapter by chapter and assess what happens. Does everything move the plot forward? Do the stakes go up? Is anything unnecessary? Teens are smart readers, and will pick up on things that don’t belong. If this happens, you’ve lost one reader, as well as many others in the word-of-mouth chain.
The number one way to reach teen readers is this question: “What’s it about?” Having a one-sentence pitch will help spread the word about your story, drawing interest for many readers. This will also help you in the acquisition process. Your book must not only appeal to teens, but it also needs to appeal to the editor, acquisitions, booksellers, librarians, teachers, and more. A clear hook and a concise pitch will help with that.
Moving on to character...
The main character of a YA novel is always a teenager. The age of the character will contribute to the age of the audience: a younger MC will draw a younger teen audience, and an older MC will draw an older audience. Kids will read about older kids, and don’t really like to read about younger kids.
When you are creating your characters, keep this in mind. You are building a representation of teenagers, not necessarily a real one. In other words, your character must be believable, but not necessarily realistic. Teens will accept stories with less than realistic situations, such as The Boyfriend List, Twilight, Uglies, Gossip Girl, etc, as long as the actions of the characters are believable. You also need to be as mean to your main character as possible.
To achieve this, you must know what today’s teen is all about. You also need to maintain your characters. At every stage in the story, ask what your characters want. All of your characters – main, minor, and villains. Every character in your story must be believable.
As for voice, the story must have a definite teen voice and sensibility. Many authors insert their own wisdom, and teens can perceive that as preaching, even if it’s not. Knowing our audience will bring out the teen voice in a natural way.
Finally, it’s true when they say a female MC will draw female readers. A male MC will draw both male and female readers. As a result, many editors are looking for male protagonists.