The anatomy of the explosive YA Genre

Young Adult (YA) fiction has enjoyed a resounding surge in popularity over the past two decades. Pinpointing exactly why YA fiction has become so popular is no simple or clear task, but there are a number of factors that contributed to the growth of the YA genre.

If you’re a writing in the YA genre, understanding the nuances that propelled YA books can give you the edge to stand out from the crowd. Today, we’re going to examine the facets of YA fiction that make it so popular and the elements you should be thinking about as you craft your book.

Young Adult fiction doesn’t mean Young Adult readers

Simple as that.

A 2012 study commissioned by Bowker and funded by a range of traditional publishers found that 55% of YA readers are over the age of 18. The 30 to 44 age group alone accounted for 28% of sales.

These figures could initially be misleading, as an adult purchasing the newest Harry Potter book doesn’t mean they are reading the book. Gifting or simply buying for their children are both very real possibilities. But the study did find that 78% of adult aged respondents indicated they purchased with the intent to read the book themselves.

We can infer from this that around half of YA sales are to adults (anyone over 18 years old) with the intent to read the book themselves. So, with around half of the readers not actually in the age group the genre targets, what exactly makes a YA book “Young Adult?”

Defining the YA Genre

The historical definition of Young Adult literature is fiction published for young readers. The age range is generally defined as 12 to 18 years old, with anything targeted at readers under 12 being Children’s literature.

Age ranges are a poor descriptor of genres in any art form. This alone may be one of the reasons YA struggles to be defined clearly—despite targeting an age range, we can identify what about YA fiction differs from other works.

Most important for drawing distinctions is the state of the protagonist and the consistent direction of the plot. Among a range of lesser factors, these two elements most clearly define the YA genre.

Protagonist

In a YA book, the lead character is generally 12-18 years of age. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is nearly universal. Think about the most popular YA books in recent memory; Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games—all of these protagonists fit into the 12-18 age range.

A young protagonist is the closest thing to a rule for YA fiction as there is. Part of this is due to the relatability of a young hero and a young reader. But that is hardly the only reason. A younger protagonist places restrictions and expectations on the plot. This creates the broad framework of YA protagonist.

I’ll hazard an assumption—all of us where teenagers at some point. The emotional impact and weight of everything was just so much greater then. This emotional state is what YA fiction is built around.

Plot

We have the 12-18-year-old protagonist, now we see them within the architecture of the plot—the world and actions that propel the story.

This is where the emotional weight of a teen will warp the story and give us the clearest difference between YA fiction and other genres. The plot is going to move quickly, twist abruptly, and always run on the edge of turmoil.

The genre isn’t defined by the age of the reader or the protagonist: it is defined by the emotional state the plot instills; in YA fiction, the state of a teen.

The defining characteristic of a YA story could be called emotional truth and intensity. We’ll see this emotion in our characters and the plot will be informed by the emotional state of those characters.

Writing for the YA genre

Here’s another point to consider: when you write, it is common advice to keep your audience in mind, but when you write YA fiction, it is arguably more important to be aware of the genre than the audience.

Why? Because the audience is broad and diverse. I am not saying to eschew audience considerations. Of course, if you’re writing a dystopian Sci-Fi, you’ll want to consider the audience of Hunger Games or Divergent to inform and guide how you develop your story. But more importantly, you need to think about how these successful YA books capture the emotional intensity of their characters within the structures of the non-standard world the story inhabits.

I’ve got three tips for capturing and amplifying that intensity that is the hallmark of YA fiction.

  1. Get in your protagonist’s head

Now that we’ve identified the key to YA fiction is emotional intensity, we need to understand that emotion and what makes it so intense. To do that, we first need to thoroughly understand our protagonist.

Ernest Hemingway famously said “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” While his writing style did not match the pace of YA fiction and his characters certainly were not in the 12-18 age range, Hemingway captured the design of a protagonist for YA fiction perfectly. He knew that deeply emotional characters made for memorable and interesting characters, and he used this knowledge to craft moving stories about the human condition.

Great writing includes strong and relatable characters. YA fiction is no different. If anything, this need is amplified. To capture the emotional intensity so critical for YA fiction, the protagonist must be deep, multi-faceted, complex, and capable of making mistakes.

  1. Keep it Real

But Paul, my story is about a young cyborg trapped by dangerous werewolves! That’s so far from real…

Look, “real” and “reality” are not synonymous. Your characters and your world may be a far cry from the real world or real people. But the struggles your protagonist faces and the emotions they deal with should be real.

When your protagonist struggles with very real problems, readers can relate. And when readers relate, they connect to the story. A connected reader is a happy reader! What more could you hope for than forging a connection with your readers?

The Harry Potter series is a perfect example of an author capturing readers with a relatable character in fantastic circumstances. Harry is growing up, trying to understand who he is and what his role in the world should be. I’m not sure if there has ever been a teenager who didn’t struggle with that very thing. Sure, Harry has dragons and wizards and dementors to contend with that (most) teens don’t.

But at the core, Harry and his friends have the same struggles all teenagers do. School, relationships, finding himself, finding his role. These

  1. Keep the pace brisk

YA fiction thrives on young, emotional protagonists. The pace must keep up! Regular action beats, revealing dialogue, and active (rather than passive) voice all help make the story immediate and impactful.

Weave plenty of action beats into the story. For example, if your protagonist has just arrived at a new locale, rather than standing back and telling us what she sees, send her out into this place and reveal it to us through experiences. We don’t want to know what the haunted forest looks like, we want to experience it alongside our protagonist. Active story telling not only propels the plot more quickly (keeping the pace up) but it provides opportunities to further explore and reveal our protagonist.

Most stories work best when they move along actively. For YA Fiction is this doubly so, as we need to propel the plot and match the pace to the protagonist’s own hectic emotional state.

Cracking the YA Market

Now that we understand the pillars of YA Fiction, the next step is understanding the market.

Here it is important to add a caveat: write your first draft without thinking about how you’ll sell the book. Thinking in terms of protagonist, emotions, and plot will help you write a YA book, but don’t make changes or sacrifices to the story for the sake of marketing. Not yet anyway.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to just write your story for the first draft.

But let’s fast forward a little and assume you’ve done that. You have the draft done and you’re ready to revise and prepare for publishing. Now is the time to start thinking about how you’ll market the book.

Even if you’re a year (or more) from having a finished, print ready version of the book, you need to think about marketing at this stage. Don’t let this deter you though. Having a marketing plan during the editing and design stages will help you incorporate elements your audience wants.

Know the Genre

All writers should read. A lot. And particularly in their genre. If you write detective fiction, you should read detective fiction. If you write YA, read YA.

More than just reading your contemporaries, you should focus your reading in on the niche you plan to market your own book toward. Grab the most popular YA book in your genre and study it. Don’t just enjoy the story, but look at the book with the eyes of writer. How does the author portray their protagonist? What mechanisms are they using to keep the plot rolling along? What is the emotional conflict the protagonist is dealing with?

You don’t want to copy what this successful author has done, but you do want to learn from them.

Putting your Marketing plan into practice

You’re well into that second draft and you’ve read numerous other authors who’ve successfully marketed similar books. Now what?

How you market your book will vary in a ton of different ways. I don’t want to try to reinvent the wheel. Here’s some existing content about marketing:

Email Marketing for Authors

3 Step Book Marketing Plan

5 Basics for creating a marketing plan that doesn’t suck

Consider all that book marketing knowledge in light of your YA book. For the most part, this will entail knowing what’s popular and taking advantage of that. Imagine your story is a family drama about a young prince growing into his role through tragedy and adversity. Your story is set in a fantastical world, but the story centers more on the relatable challenges of family and expectations.

But the genre might be trending toward high fantasy—the kind of artistic tapestry of magic and intrigue and strange creatures that make up worlds like Uprooted. This doesn’t mean you need to change your book—though that is an option—but you can easily focus your marketing efforts to emphasize the fantasy elements.

The same goes for the cover. There is nothing wrong with drawing inspiration and design clues from successful books. More than any other element of your book, you can let genre trends and reader interests guide your cover design—the cover’s job is too sell your book, right?

Staying Adaptive

Be open to change. Adapt as the market shifts. I’m not saying you need to rewrite your book or change your cover because readers are shifting their preferences. What I am arguing for is changing (or even just adjusting) your marketing plan to keep the readers you want in focus.

Let’s say you’ve got a couple books out there and you do most of your marketing on Facebook because that’s the medium your readers frequent. But you’ve started to notice more and more interest through Twitter, and less excitement on Facebook. Don’t force your strategy, shift more of your energy to Twitter and capture readers where they hang out.

The challenge in doing this lies in understanding the medium. Posting on Facebook is different than posting on Twitter, so you’ll need to spend some time getting to know the flow of information on this new (to you) platform.

Keep the medium in mind when you make your marketing content too. Adapt to what people like. Video is really proving successful right now, so if you have the willingness and capability, you should consider doing Youtube videos or maybe Facebook Live.

Be versatile and adaptive. It’s the best way to get just a step (or two) ahead of the competition.

Making a splash in a saturated market

Bad pun (attempts) aside, you can make an impression and grab the attention your book deserves even though the YA market is incredibly popular and enjoying an abundance of interest right now. Remember that the number of books in the YA genre hitting the market right now is an indicator of reader interest. There are a huge number of readers out there who want this content—both young and old readers.

The trick is twofold – meeting the reader expectations of the genre and making your story compelling and exciting to read. The YA genre is full of books and characters, but that does not mean yours can’t shine. It takes a concerted effort on your part to build your story within the framework of other, successful, YA authors while also staying true to your story.

Know your characters, know your readers, and find the emotional intensity that will allow them to connect. Once you have your reader connecting with your protagonist, take them on a wild and shifting roller-coaster ride.

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