I read A LOT of YA, both for work and for fun. Over time I’ve seen patterns in the books that don’t quite hit the mark, so I wanted to share these potential pitfalls with you to help you look at your YA novel with a critical eye. So without further ado, here are the seven most common mistakes I see in YA:
1. The age range is wrong.
While there are plenty of adults like myself who read YA, the main audience for YA is high school students. Publishers have found that children like to read about characters who are their age or slightly older, which means that your YA protagonist should be 14-18 years-old. In other words, your protagonist should be in high school. (If your story is told from multiple POVs, then all of the POV characters need to be in high school.)
I see a lot of YA submissions with a protagonist that’s outside of this age range, and it immediately dampers my interest in the book, before I’ve even looked at the sample pages, because it tells me the author doesn’t know the requirements of the genre, which suggests that they don’t read books in the genre. While it’s not an absolute requirement that an author be well read in the genre they’re writing, how can you know the norms of the genre if you don’t read it? How can you know what topics have already been done to death? And more importantly, why are you writing a book in a genre you don’t like?
Though some publishers will include college-aged characters in their YA age ranges, by and large having an adult or under-14-year-old protagonist means that your YA novel is unpublishable as YA. Having an adult protagonist in YA isn’t an automatic “no” from me, because I also represent adult fiction, so if I love the book, all we have to do is change the genre to Adult. And once or twice I’ve gotten a YA submission I really liked with a 12-year-old protagonist, and suggested to the author that they change the character’s age to 14. (I didn’t end up making an offer on the book, but I thought about it.) Books with protagonists around 10-12 years-old are typically classified as middle grade, so if your protagonist is too young for YA, your book might be middle grade. (I don’t rep middle grade, so your book wouldn’t be right for me, but it would be right for plenty of other agents.)
2. The purpose of the book is to instruct young readers, not entertain them.
I’ve seen a lot of YA queries that explain to me how young people today don’t know enough about an important historical event or more emotionally-fraught topics like how to recognize when they’re in an abusive relationship. The query points to this as the reason the author decided to write the book. Neither of these things are a bad motivation for writing a book, but they both run the risk of coming off as lecture-y. And they miss the point of why people pick up novels: to be entertained. A book can definitely be entertaining and informative at the same time, but sometimes when authors set out with the mission to educate their reader, they forget about entertaining them.
Often when I get submissions that fall into this category, the characters aren’t well-formed, and in some cases the tone of the writing is condescending. You feel like your 10th grade history teacher is berating you for not appreciating the role of the War of 1812 on contemporary society. So make sure you’re speaking to young adult readers on their level, and not talking down to them. And even if you start with the goal of educating readers, go back through your book once you’re done and critically look at all of its components (character development, writing, plot progression, etc.) and ask yourself if the book would still hold up if it wasn’t about a topic that’s important to you. It also never hurts to get some real teens to beta read for you.
3. The book uses a distant 3rd person past tense POV.
This is not a deal breaker, since there are some YA novels with 3rd person past tense that have been huge (like Eleanor and Park). But most YA is written in 1st person present tense, so using that POV might make it easier for your book to get published. The reason so many YA novels use 1st person present tense is because YA relies on a real emotional intimacy with the characters and a strong sense of immediacy in the writing. (Immediacy means there’s very little filter between the thoughts/feelings of the character and the words on the page. The reader is getting direct access to the character’s thoughts in real time.) It’s easier to accomplish these things in 1st person present tense, though it can be done in 3rd person past tense (or 1st person past tense or 3rd person present tense). The mistakes below are ultimately more damaging to creating a believable YA voice that readers can connect to than which tense you use.
4. The writing over-narrates/over-explains the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
This may be the most common mistake I see. (I see it in my adult submissions too.) When it explains the character’s thoughts, rather than putting those thoughts directly on the page, it creates distance between the reader and the character, which is especially problematic in YA since YA relies on intimacy and immediacy. Instead of feeling like we’re in the character’s head, seeing the action through her eyes, we’re reminded that we’re reading a book.
What counts as over-narration? “I reached my right hand out to the side in the hopes that my inching fingers would feel the smooth plastic sides of my phone. I wanted to check if I had any new likes on the Instagram picture I posted earlier in the day.” A couple things make this fall into the category of over-narration. A) Look how directly I’m explaining what she’s doing. I am telling you that she wants to see how many likes she has. These are not thoughts appearing in her head, this is me explaining after the fact why her fingers are moving. And B) Look how many words I need to explain all this. It’s not enough that she’s moving her hand, I stop to specify that it’s her right hand. And I can’t just say she’s moving her hand, I have to include this weird description of her fingers inching along, like anyone actually does that in real life. And I stopped to specify that not only is she looking for the sides of her phone, but that it’s made of smooth plastic, like there’s any other kind of phone.
The first thing you could do to improve a piece of writing like this is to strip it of its superfluous words, like this: “I reached my hand out to grab my phone. I wanted to check if I had any new likes on Instagram.” Not bad, but not amazing. I’ve cut out the unnecessary words, but the writing is still kinda flat, because I’m still explaining this to you, rather than putting you in her thoughts.
What about this? “I looked great in the yellow chiffon. Bobby said it. Marcy said it. So why did I only have a thousand likes? Oh, wait. 1,023. And one new comment from @figgystar4evr, fierceness!! 🙂 I put my phone down.” I didn’t have to explain to you that she picked up her phone. It was implied by the new number of likes and the new comment. (And by the line where she put her phone down.) Instead of explaining these things, I went directly into the character’s thoughts. I decided to make her a child star or wannabe model with a team of sycophantic handlers trying to make her feel better after a photo shoot in a yellow chiffon dress wasn’t getting enough likes on Instagram. I could just picture her. Hopefully you could too.
5. The word choice is too formal/stilted/academic to feel like a natural teen voice.
This one applies to adult books too. You should try to keep your word choice within the bounds of words you use in everyday conversation, even in narration. Otherwise your writing can feel stilted and emotionally distant. For example, you wouldn’t have a contemporary teen narrate: “I traversed the promenade disconsolate over the turn of events.” I wouldn’t even recommend, “I walked across the plaza disconsolate over the turn of events.” “Disconsolate” ruins the whole sentence. Though I also wouldn’t recommend, “I walked across the plaza sad about the turn of events.” Even though none of these are big words, I feel like “the turn of events” is an antiquated phrase, so the writing still comes off as too formal. Teens are more likely to use a phrase like “how things went down.” So make sure your language reads as fresh and natural. Hang out with some real teens, or if you don’t know any real teens, eavesdrop on some at a coffee shop, if you need inspiration.
6. The concept relies too much on clichés and archetypal characters.
If I had a dollar for every pitch I read either in my email or on Twitter that talked about Mean Girls or Queen Bees, I could paper my walls with them. The Mean Girl has almost become an archetype, she’s been used so much in popular culture. So has The Cheerleader, The Nerd, The Jock, etc. The Breakfast Club has been done. And if all you’re offering is a stereotype that’s already been done, then you’re not making a great argument for why your book should be published. If you’re going to use a trope, then make something new out of it. Mega-bestseller One of Us Is Lying took Breakfast Club archetypes and gave them a depth and nuance that wasn’t in the original movie. The book is also a locked-room mystery, which also puts a fresh spin on The Breakfast Club. So if you’re going to use an archetype, turn it upside-down and show a different side that we haven’t seen before. In other words, transform it from an archetype to a fully-realized character.
7. The book is set when the author was a teen.
I often see YA submissions set in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. In the query, the author usually explains that this was the era he went to high school. Part of the issue with these settings is how the book will be categorized. YA that doesn’t have a clear-cut genre (like fantasy or mystery) usually gets categorized as contemporary or historical. And the 1970s-1990s are neither, which makes it harder to position the book.
And ultimately you’re writing for today’s teenagers, so how are you going to make a book about the Vietnam War or grunge rock relevant to them? It may have been very influential to you, but they have an entirely different point of reference, and may not know who Eddie Vedder is off the top of their head. (And again, if you’re writing the book to teach teens about Pearl Jam, then you might be coming at it from the angle of educating rather than entertaining, and mistake number two applies.)
I’m not saying you absolutely can’t write a book set during this time period. There have been some very successful books that were set in the last fifty years. I’m just saying, don’t assume your experience of high school is universal and will be appealing to contemporary teens. Come at your book from the perspective of today’s teens and write about themes relevant to them. You may still be able to use the time period you want.
The best way to see how your book stacks up is to read, read, read other YA books you feel are similar to yours in theme. Look at the writing, characters, setting, and plot. See if you notice any patterns yourself!