Five Things: tips for YA Writing

As part of the Cooler Lumpur Word festival in Kuala Lumpur, I’m giving a workshop for writers on writing for teenagers. (Excited!) I will reveal my Seven Slippery Rules for YA Writers. Yes, seven. Not five, but seven. However, a cunning plan allows me to obey the instruction to write this post about five of them. After all, one is “all rules can be broken once you know what they are and why”. So I won’t need to tell you that one. (See what I did there?) And two can be seamlessly amalgamated into one. Leaving me with an obedient five.

1: Keep adults hidden and powerless

Even more than for younger children’s books, adults in YA fiction need to be feckless, powerless, absent, preoccupied or dead. But absence is not only for the adults in the book: it’s also for the author. Never must we hear your adult, parental, didactic, moralising voice, or even your nostalgically reminiscing one. The trick is the trick of a ventriloquist: tell the story through the young character, for the young reader, and keep your own self out.

2: Be true to the age of your main character (MC) AND reader

Generally your reader will be the age of the MC minus one or two years. This means that there are two slightly different contexts going on: what is right for the MC and what is right for the reader.  The YA writer bridges those two contexts perfectly so that nothing is out of place for reader or character. It means knowing a lot about teenagers of the generation/century in which your story is set.

3: Hide the safety net

Writers for different ages (and different genres within adult fiction, too) need a sense of where the safety net is: what is the worst that could happen? The writer also controls the reader’s perception of that safety net. Thus, the reader of a book for the very young knows that nothing terrible will happen; the reader of a horror novel knows that anything could happen. The trick with much YA fiction (but not all – because some YA fiction is gentler) is to make the reader believe that there is no safety net, while having one hidden out of sight. So, the reader thinks that anything might happen but in fact you have (usually) no intention of abandoning hope. (There are rare exceptions, but I can’t give you an example because that would reveal the ending of the book I’m thinking of!)

4: Make everything sticky

Teenagers have a lot of extremely exciting things they’d like to do instead of reading your book. They could very easily be persuaded to go on Facebook or send a text to a friend instead of imbibing your gorgeous prose. So, make every chapter/paragraph/sentence “sticky” – make it so that they don’t want to go. Indulgence is suicide.

5: Play lacrosse

Lacrosse is a game in which there are no boundaries. You can, in theory, run away with the ball and go to the pub. However, three things will happen if you do: 1) everyone will get annoyed with you and exclude you from the game 2) the referee will call you back and 3) you won’t score a goal. YA writing is like that: there are no visible boundaries but if you go too far the gate-keepers will call you back and you won’t achieve what you want to achieve: readers.

Another point about boundaries is this: there is only one boundary which you absolutely may not cross and that is “teenage interest”. If teenagers are interested, you can write about it. If they aren’t, you can’t. Things they are not interested in include: menopause, pensions and midlife angst.

At the festival, we are going to look at the opening of Elizabeth Laird’s wonderful A Little Piece of Ground, discussing safety nets, interest, tension and sticky things. And then we are going to do some writing. Oh yes we are.

I am hugely looking forward to it!

Do you have a work of YA fiction you'd like the world at large to see? Consider entering it in the Children's and Young Adult Fiction category of the New Writers Awards

Nicola Morgan

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction for teenagers. She also writes and speaks about how to get published. She is currently writing a guide to teenage stress, to follow her internationally successful Blame My Brain – The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed. Details of all her work and her advice for writers is at