5 Reasons Your Young Adult Novel Might Suck

20 October, 2012 Musing Musers 36 comments

5 Reasons Your Young Adult Novel Might Suck

There’s absolutely no hard and fast rules about writing YA other than the fact that the characters probably need to be young adults. It’s such a fluid, changeable genre that it’s hard to pin down. However often there is a sizable disconnect between the actions of the character and their situation. Sometimes the reader can be left wondering if the author has even spoken to a teenager in the last fifteen years. When aspiring authors ask if they can use swear words in young adult, it’s a sign that either they may not read enough Young Adult literature or don’t know teenagers well. Which is not to say that, for example, all teenagers swear, drink and do drugs. There are many responsible, mature teenagers out there and they shouldn’t be stigmatized. Like any group of individuals, there is a huge range of behaviours. What they do all share, though, is the experience of being a teenager and how that affects them. What does that mean? How can a writer capture that?

Short answer, I’m not sure that I know or can even answer that, but I do know five ways you can probably not capture that.

1. Nobody swears, has sex, drinks, cuts or does drugs. Ever.

This isn’t to say everyone should swear all the time. But it’s important to understand that for many teenagers, swearing is an easy way of defying parental authority, establishing themselves amongst others and is often something done with little thought. It’s fine if you don’t want your protagonist to swear. It’s also not unusual for a number of teenagers to decide that swearing is either tacky, impinges on their religious beliefs or is not a way they like talking. But if nobody in your novel swears – out of all their friends and acquaintances and people they know – that’s probably not realistic for a contemporary novel.

And if your seventeen year olds aren’t even talking or bragging about sex then it starts to border on curiously naive. Whilst more widely available sex education and increased awareness means teens seem to be having sex later than their predecessors, two thirds of people lose their virginity in their teens. That still means that twelve and thirteen year olds are having sex. Drinking is pretty prevalent as is at least discussion on drugs. It’s not that you have to turn your novel into a PSA for clean living or the ills of peer pressure. Just remember what it’s like to have it there. Your protagonist can do none of these things or want to do none of these things – and they can hang out with like-minded friends. It’s not doing these things that’s important but the what they mean to teenagers – who those teens want to be, whether they’re good at decision-making, or comfortable with their identity. These things are powerful with teenagers for a reason – because they’re apart of teens forming independent identities, pushing away the childish aspects of themselves, rebelling against their parents not only to assert themselves, but because being a teenager sucks.

2. You forget what teenage life is like

A lot of teenagers in Young Adult novels have absent parents. They drive everywhere, go where they like, stay up until all hours of the night and rarely fight with their parents.

For one, remember that teens only freshly have their license. Why are these teens never unsure on the road or having any anxiety about driving? Or the novel treats driving as a given. For many teens, learning to drive and getting their car is a huge deal. And who got a car, or who crashed or who still wants one is also a big part of life. Try to remember the frustration of always having to bum a lift of your reluctant parents (“I’m not a taxi service, young lady!”) or their friends (“Can you fit one more in Billy’s car? Well, can Janiene borrow her mom’s?”).

Then there’s simply the fact that a lot of teenage life is boring. Especially when the allowance is gone and there’s nobody to give you a ride. Should they play Xbox at Sally’s house? Scrimp together their change to share a McNugget meal? God, teens here hang out at the parking lot at McDonalds on a Friday night because there really isn’t that much to do. If nobody has a party on, where do they go? What do they do?

A lot of novels tend to have teenagers who don’t care about brands either. Their characters are too cool and edgy to care about what they dress like. That’s fine. There’s plenty of teens that don’t. But even more that do. Material possessions, especially clothes, tend to be how teenagers immediately classify themselves in their social structure. Many of them want to shop where it’s cool for them to shop – even if that’s welfare stores for something fashionably retro and different. It’s the most easily visual way of building their identities – something that adults take for granted. We’ve learned how to be ourselves, to be mostly comfortable in our own skin. For the most part we know what we like, how we like and where we want to go. This is because we were teenagers – something that many teenagers are still sorting out for themselves.

This goes for music and body art. Hobbies and interests and, most of all, some really poor decision making. Because teenagers are still learning about themselves, and because their frontal cortex is still developing, many teens lash out and make bad choices. Especially when it comes to fighting with parents which, for many kids, is a normal part of their every day activity. Parents are the placers of boundaries and rules. Their job is to keep the teenagers close so that said teens can survive into adulthood. This is anathema to what many teenagers want. Try to remember what it felt like to need to test boundaries. To prove to yourself if you could do it or not, what you could get away with. Most of all, to show your parents that you weren’t some little kid. Try to remember the senseless rage at not being allowed to buy that $80 sweater, or go to that party that you absolutely have to go to or your whole world comes to an end. Teenagers are a bundle or outrageous hormones and emotions. Even the most collected, mature teens still have there moments! Which is why:

3. Your characters are too cool

So many Young Adult characters have it all down and sussed. Which is just crazy when one considers the cocktail of insanity that is the life of a teenager. Even the coolest kids in school have serious issues. Because teenagers are still learning about the world, and life and people in general, and because we force them to do that with more than a hundred other random kids the same age, teenage years tend to be hectic. They’re often a hogepodge of embarrassing, mortifying, humiliating situations. Not just which lunch table to sit at, but romantic interactions, who gets paired with who in science class. Moments that make you wish you could be home schooled forever, that time you dreaded going to school on Monday because you would never live THIS one down. That test you’re probably going to fail or the pimple that you can feel coming up with the dance is in two days. You bled through you jeans or you asked a boy/girl out, got rejected and everyone laughed at you. Fighting with friends, losing friends, having to negotiate psychos that are other teenagers.

Nobody knows it all or has it down pat. Sure there are highly intelligent, focused teenagers who have it more together than most. However, there’s still an abundance of social situations and experiences that they have to navigate before even thinking of dealing with 6-8 teachers, their family and their friends.

4. You don’t know what high school is like anymore

So Hollywood still makes movies and TV shows where the jocks rule and nerds drool, princesses primp and wallflowers…wear glasses, a pony tail and dress in baggy clothes? Sure, maybe they’ll throw in one or a few weird asocial goth kids to get picked on, but that’s all there is to high school, right?

If you haven’t seen 21 Jump Street with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in it then you may want to give it a watch. It’s not every high school or even most high schools. What it is, is an eye opener. Yes. You still have jocks, cheerleaders and nerds. However high school is so much more than this now. Goths, emos, punks, skaters, stoners, free spirits, academics, loners, nerds, geeks, gamers, the “bad” crowd, the cool kids (these don’t necessarily have to be jocks these days! They can even be nerds! Nerds, geeks, gamers – depending on who they are, are no longer necessarily the horror of high school existence), rural kids, surfer crowd, TEEN WEREWOLVES (totally a thing, and not just a MTV Show about Teenagers who turn into werewolves), scene girls, scene boys, theater crowd, band geeks, sports freaks (different from jocks), the art kids, dancers – high school is a veritable plethora or cliques and groups. Some schools tend to be a lot more inclusive than movies would make high school out to be.

And with all this differentiation comes cultural aspects. If you’re still making gross generalizations based on race then your novel is going to lack a lot of the real substance of every day life for teens. Just because your character’s ancestry comes from somewhere that makes it easy to generalize them as straight-laced, unpopular academics, doesn’t make it an accurate reflection on many schools. Maybe instead of making them math geniuses who talk with a funny accent – you give them bleached blond hair, a crazy awesome fashion sense and a passion for playing the treble base?

If computers, phones and consoles are barely even mentioned in your story then you might want to rethink what they mean to teens. School socializing no longer ends when you go home and do your homework. Most teens are texting with each other, chatting on line, using social media and blogs to keep up with each other. Cyber socializing and bullying has become a massive issue for teens to navigate. Where social structure means everything and their whole world is both so chaotic and tightly controlled. It’s easy to forget what being just older than a child and not yet an adult is like. They tend to make their characters too mature, too responsible – to adult-like.

5. Your characters are too responsible

How many times have you read a YA novel where the protagonist cooks dinner, does the groceries or the washing or is saving up their money for something. Do they ever mention how dirty their room is or have to kick teddy bears under the bed when others visit. It’s easy as adults to imagine teenagers doing all this on a regular basis because that is part of our life. There are, I should add, some incredibly responsible teens out there. But the point is that many teens do their homework on the rug, have filthy rooms, never cook and never, ever do the groceries. Because they’re children. Then there’s the whinging about having to do things around the house that is suspiciously missing from most novels. No, “But moooooom!” or “I’ll do it in a minute!” or “This is so unfair! *Sibling* never does ANYTHING!” They’re children. Most children are spoiled. They don’t understand why they have to work when they want to play games or talk on the phone. Most don’t just get on and do the work because it’s done for them by adults. It also means feeling entitled until the world teaches you otherwise. It’s great to see reasonable, responsible teenagers represented in young adult literature – but it sometimes misses some of the most authentic moments of being a person in progress.

;

Mostly, there’s going to be so many factors that determine whether your book is good or not – but it’s worth keeping in mind that life for teens has changed since you were a teenager. It’s worth investigating, thinking, remembering what made the experience so powerful and evocative. Maybe try writing different characters that your audience can easily relate to , that shows the complexity and considerable intensity of their every day life. Mostly, just let your teenage characters be teenagers. There’s plenty of time for that maturity when they’re older!

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy

Co-blogger at Cuddlebuggery
Kat Kennedy is a book reviewer and aspiring author in the Young Adult genre. She reviews critically but humorously and get super excited about great books. Find her on GoodReads.
Kat Kennedy
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36 Responses to “5 Reasons Your Young Adult Novel Might Suck”

    • KatKennedy

      My high school experience certainly was nothing like Hollywood makes it out to be!  That’s for sure!

  1. RinnReads

    Great article! It does frustrate me that most YA protagonists are either ridiculously plain, or very very different. And why do so many have some sort of traumatic background or hidden past?
    Another thing that particularly frustrates me in YA novels is when the (older) author tries to compensate for their lack of knowledge about the right age group by just chucking in far too much slang and pop cultures references, a la the ‘House of Night’ series.
    Rinn

    • KatKennedy

      @RinnReads Oh god that was a nightmare!  Absolutely the worst case of out of touch author/s trying to sound genuine.  It was very painful.

  2. Katie
    Twitter:

    Oh my yes! I completely agree with everything you said here. It also annoys me that every YA protag seems to be either beautiful, popular, great friends, great boyfriend, and skinny; or plain with one best friend (who tends to be a boy that secretly has a crush on them), a bad home life, worried about college (yeah, I am, being a senior, but when I was a freshman, I had MAYBE one friend thinking about life beyond high school), and super protective of younger siblings. I have younger siblings, but though I am protective I don’t go to the lengths that so many protags do. Not all teenagers participate in sports, and not all of them are in National Honor Society. Some go through high school without ever having a boyfriend! 
    It just makes me itch. Authors need to hang out with teenagers for a while, look at both sides of the argument.

    • KatKennedy

      You’re right.  Sometimes I think it’s a disconnect between the author and their teenage audience that fuels this.

  3. ZabetReading

    A massive pet peeve of mine, as a teacher, is the way in which school and teacher-student relationships are portrayed.  Teachers who get too close or cross the line (Glee and Pretty Little Liars) skeeve me out and admin who ignore the rampant (and obvious) bullying that goes on in their schools (Beautiful Creatures for one) piss me off.  No, teachers do not see everything but I find it hard to believe that every teacher and principal in any school would turn a blind eye to the offenses that we see in a plethora of YA books.

    • KatKennedy

      @ZabetReading I agree.  Sometimes I think teachers get a really bad rap in a lot of YA novels.

  4. AnimeGirlAlex

    This post was quite cool.
    I don’t agree with everything 100% percent but it sounds like it has really good pointers in general. 
    And I did see the new Jump Street – my sister loved it and I had to admit it was pretty funny – and yeah, it gives a nice reality check 😀

    • KatKennedy

      @AnimeGirlAlex Well, that’s the beauty of the human experience, isn’t it?  We all have such different stories to share!  Loved Jump street!  Great movie!

  5. jadie

    as a teenager i agree with a lot  of this post , high school is extremely different now: the clique are no longer clear cut and personally my group of friends are a mix of all of them  and my social life is no were as near as exciting as teenager life is portrayed on tv. also were are a pretty mature these days as we are exposed to a lot more adult issues but we are not adults and do screw up were just kids trying to become adults.

  6. Kevlaroxy

    Some good points made here. Watch the UK version of Skins for a look at teenage life today… not the fluffy US remake. I think the writers did an awesome job with that.

  7. KathrynEvans

    Really great summary- I’ve had a bit of a problem with my teen novel because it touches on sex/drugs/drinking and people are very sensitive about it BUT I know that kids 13 and sometimes younger are experimenting all the time with these things – it’s very naive to think otherwise.  That doesn’t mean it needs to be thrust down peoples throats but I like a story to at lest skim the shoulders of reality.

  8. elwoodcock
    Twitter:

    Good post, lots of interesting, valid points
    BUT what is the most important aspect of any novel? Telling a story. Stories aren’t always progressed very well by mopy kids sitting around playing xbox all day. And whiny, ingrate kids are just annoying – in real life and in fiction. Remember how everyone bitched about what an arrogant arse the guy was in Anna Dressed in Blood? (though, also he clearly fell foul of your point three, and was way too cool, competant, and accomplished).
    Yes, these are all good points to bear in mind – but the flipside is: imagine how excruciating it would be to read a novel full of realistic teens doing realistic teen stuff and talking in realistic teen voices?? Gak!

    • Kara_M
      Twitter:

      @elwoodcock You know, I agree. But you have to keep some realism in your characters’ actions and keep in mind the audience you are writing for. If your readers can’t relate to your characters, you aren’t doing it right. There are plenty of other ways to keep it real besides having them whine and play X-box. 
       
      As for Anna Dressed in Blood? I didn’t much care for Chase. It was Anna I cared about.

  9. Fangs4Fantasy

    To me the first thing that always derails me and I see it more than any other is their NAMES Honestly, please give the characters a nice mundane name for their time, place and culture. It seems so little – but the minute I come across a Vampirella Ravenfaetrix, I’m gone. And, by all that is holy, please stop using the ZOMG AWFUL TRAGIC PAST as a replacement for character development. I’m so innured now to tragic, painful pasts that i am SHOCKED when I find a protagonist who hasn’t been horribly tortured by demons and whose mother hasn’t been eaten when she was a small child.

  10. Laurens Literature

    You guys are so awesome and I must say I completely agree with you. The reason why, as a young adult, I didn’t like any young adult books is because what they represent was SO completely opposite to me. I didn’t go to a single “party”, I didn’t drive until I was at TAFE, and my weekends were spent working so I could save for holidays and buying a house. Shows like Gossip Girl and OC seemed so completely ridiculous and ludicrous to me. Even now, I’ll generally avoid contemporary YA because it seems so completely disconnected from my experiences.

  11. Kara_M
    Twitter:

    This is brilliant, Kat. I totally agree. Sometimes you  have to forgo a little of the realism to move the story along, but it is DEFINITELY important to keep your characters up to date and acting like teenagers normally do. After all, you have to look at the audience  you are writing for. You want them to be able to relate to your characters. They can’t do that if they don’t behave the way they do. I don’t know how many YA books I have tossed away for portraying characters in a ridiculous way.

  12. cynicalsapphire

    1. I think it is possible to write a believable, authentic YA book without those things actually in them, but I think there should be at least a reference to it. I never encountered drugs during my high school experience, nor did I have sex, but I knew those things were happening. Basically, if the MC has no clue, they’re hugely out of touch with reality. They’d probably hear swearing in the halls, though, so I’m not sure if you can leave that out. Authors sometimes do that annoying, “‘that person is a witch,’ only she didn’t say witch” thing to get around swearing, but I think that’s fucking stupid. Sometimes it fits the character, but everyone knows what you mean, so you might as well just go for it. And, if they didn’t know what you meant, I think that would be highly confusing.
     
    2. Agreed! There’s not enough reference to the mundanity of daily life. They’re either all hipsters and don’t care about brands or constantly name-dropping their fancy designer clothing. In real life, it’s more like everyone decides that Hollister or The Gap or whatever is cool, and it’s all about that label. The bit about the cars is so true. Especially since their parents mostly hate them or are dead. How did the orphan get a brand new car?
     
    3. I hate when I read YA books where the character has things together more than I do. Unfair!
     
    4. Social media – that’s a big one. I think that ought to be included more. There’s a lag on technology showing up because books take so long to publish, also because some authors might be afraid of the new things. It might also be difficult to know how kids use them these days. The young whippersnappers!
     
    5. Haha, in Dark Star, there was a scene where the heroine argued with her mom like that, and I loved it because it happens so rarely. “Moooom, I want to go to the party! Why do I have to be home so earlllllyyyyyy?” That is childhood right there. I totally was saving up money though, and not for anything in particular. I’ve always been oddly stingy though.

  13. riceball1759

    You’ve made many of the points my friends did when they stopped reading The House of Night series lol. They said the authors were out of touch with what it’s really like to be a teenager and the characters constantly set them off. I was dissuaded from reading them because of those reasons… I don’t know if you read and liked that series, but that seem to be the general consensus among the 4 of them by the time the 5th or 6th one came out. I’m a very picky person, so I’ll leave a book alone if I hear more bad than good about it.

  14. saldelmaz

    When I think about what being a teenager was like and how I experience high school, it gets confusing. Growing up does a lot to you in terms of memory and perception. While I was in high school/a teenager, I was sure that things were 100% grade-A serious and could ruin your life if you ordered the wrong lunch. But as you get older, you look back and think, why was I in such a hurry to grow up? Life as you get older becomes less stressful in the sense that little things don’t bother you as much, as much larger issues become present. But what high school was for us was the largest issue we had come across so far! You haven’t had endless summer/menial jobs, a few break ups under your belt, or bills to pay (if you were lucky). High school was the big issue staring you in the face and you had to do the best you could with little experience.
     
    When I think about teenagers now dealing with high school, I don’t think, “It’s not the end of the world, kid, wait until you’re older,” I am actually really scared for them. While we realize high school was not the end of the world, teenagers don’t have that tough skin we were able to grow (hopefully) having been through it and other experiences like college, jobs, relationships, and yes, bills. No, high school won’t kill you (unless you’re a character in a paranormal YA story, where your survival rate is significantly lowered), but it does kill you in a sense that your innocence is officially gone. Smoking, drinking, swearing, and sex are all things that most teenagers experience before the legal age that says its acceptable (behind closed doors, of course) and those experiences separate teenagers from their innocent youth from the beginning of their adult lives. Young adult novels are called as such because every character deals with adult issues at a young age. Being a young adult means you are not going to lead a perfect life, there are problems you have to face and in the face of those problems, you either have to chose the adult decision or make a mistake – sometimes one in the same. 
     
    Also – cool characters are crap in almost any genre, in my opinion. Flaws are what make people/characters worth while in your life. Flaws make us realistic and make us important. I’d rather be a freak than a cool person any day. 
     
    Thanks for sharing and sorry my comment was so long, I just really enjoyed your post!!

  15. lizzika

    Love your post!! And I so agree about alcohol and sex and swearing!! Teens drink. Teens swear a lot 😀 And I do miss this in novels. I don’t understand why drinking is always shown as a bad behaviour. This so isn’t true. Sometimes it makes me feel like I am a bad person just because I like to drink a beer. Novels shouldn’t do that. It feels wrong. 
     
    Amazing post!! I really really enjoyed reading it!!

  16. teen

    The highschool in 21 jumpstreet is not realistic. I am a teen and its nice you tried but this post is so far off.

  17. Seudo Nymm

    I mean, though high school has groups of students who join together, what authors fail to recognize is that these groups are not set in stone, but rather fluid, allowing people to diffuse by way of osmosis between cliques, and not just stuck with one group of friends. Athletes can choose to hang with another peer group, and not been seen as an exception. My experience was never one of heterogeneous mixing, with the like people sticking together, but one of homogeneity where people blended to form different groups that would fluctuate and grow in members depending on the day and time.

  18. Paula Stokes

    I loved this post, because I think you’re spot on, and also because my book doesn’t fall into most of these traps so it gave me the opportunity to keep petting myself 😉 My MC is middle-class but only has a car for the summer because her brother is doing study abroad so she’s driving his. She’s afraid to drive downtown because she can’t navigate the one-way streets or parallel park. She’s not a virgin. She swears sometimes. She drinks. She worries about zits. She is definitely not “too responsible.” Some of the “grownup readers” find her to be too flaky, but I feel like most teens will either relate to her personally by the end of the book or know someone like her.

    Okay, I’m finished being self-congratulatory 🙂 Best of luck with your own books. It sounds like you’ve got a really solid foundation in what makes an authentic YA novel.

  19. Brechin Frost

    This is an excellent read. I agree wholeheartedly with the first point regarding swearing, drinking, and sex. Of course it depends on the target audience but these things were a part of my teenage experience and it seems disingenuous to exclude their depiction altogether when writing my novel. I do believe that everything has its place, that the portrayal of these things necessitates temperance by the author, and that excess, which can only be defined by the particular circumstances of the individual novel, detracts from quality of the writing and thus affects the reading experience and diminishes the novel’s potential audience.

  20. Sarah Moreno

    I know this is probably going to ‘date’ me and make me sound like I was raised in an Amish community, but not every teenager drinks, experiments with drugs, smokes, or swears liberally in front of adults. I was raised in a very strict household run by a military father who ruled with an iron fist. No, I’m not 60 or 50 or even 40, but what I can say is not every youngster is a rebellious, mouthy, irresponsible twit, either. Not every YA character needs to be ‘that’ type of kid. Some purportedly ‘troubled’ kids require nothing more than a stable and supportive environment in which to thrive. Just sayin’….Sheesh.

  21. Anonymous

    #1-5 all young adult novels suck because young adults suck and if they don’t then they don’t read young adult novels because young adult novels suck

  22. Cat

    Sarah Moreno – She did say that many teens aren’t rebellious and don’t swear, drink, or use drugs. However, it’s unrealistic if the character goes to school and never hears a swear word or sees her classmates doing anything rebellious.

    I have a point to add – if your story is set in a large city, there should be some ethnic and religious diversity. My elementary school was mostly white, but there was still some diversity of religions and ethnic background. My high school was very diverse, and ethnic background played a big role in cliques, especially for the first-generation immigrants (the first generation preferred to hang out with people of the same background). These schools were in the same city, so there can be lots of variation by neighborhood. Think of immigration patterns and world events – my elementary school had a lot of kids from Bosnia because of the Bosnian war. The Polish and Italian kids were third-generation, because their grandparents had emigrated after World War II.

  23. Amber Rose

    Great article! I learned a lot from reading it and appreciate the insight.

    I find it interesting that so many people ask for realistic characters, but find tragedy in childhood annoying. A startling percentage of people are abused as children. I find it unrealistic to expect that your characters wouldn’t at least have a reasonable chance to have experienced that.

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