Young Adult and Middle Grade
Book Country Guideposts for Writing YA Contemporary Fiction
wanted to let you all know that I started a little blog series called
Book Country Guideposts. The idea behind the Guideposts is that they'll
focus on a certain decision that writers face when they are writing in a
Lately on the site, we've been thinking a lot about YA fiction, what
with the inaugural #BCReadalong for THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER and
because a lot of Young Adult writers are workshopping their writing on
the site (like Rachel Anne Marks, who was on the Member Spotlight yesterday).
So, over the next two weeks, I’m going to be sharing some approaches to writing Young Adult Fiction, especially Young Adult Contemporary.
To go along with the Genre Map metaphor, I’m calling these suggestions
“guideposts.” They aren’t rules. Instead, I’m imagining myself coming
upon various crossroads in my Young Adult writing, and needing to make
choices about the path I want to take through this area of the Genre
Map. The guideposts are there to—you guessed it—guide those choices, with the ultimate goal of writing my best Young Adult Contemporary book.
The first Book Country Guidepost takes a look at what it means to be "contemporary" in your fiction. I am reposting it here:
Young Adult Contemporary Guidepost #1: How contemporary is contemporary?
Get Hip to the Times
notice that some Young Adult books try hard to “fit in” with their
audience. They name-check celebrities, use of-the-moment brand names,
and all the latest “lingo” in hopes of appealing to ultrahip teens. I
learned my lesson about this the hard way: The most glamorous character
in my own contemporary YA book
toted a BlackBerry with her everywhere. By the time the book hit
shelves, the iPhone had just been released, and “anyone who was anyone”
carried that instead of a BlackBerry (or so I’m told—I still don’t have
an iPhone). So that small detail aged the book to “not quite
I’ve noticed that some
writers avoid this problem by avoiding those super-specific cultural
markers. They simply say “phone” instead of “BlackBerry” or "iPhone."
When the books reference a band in a Contemporary YA book, they make up
the band and the names of the songs (this is what John Green does in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, for example).
The Nostalgia Effect
Another strategy is that you can write the story in a very, very distinct time and place: In THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER*,Stephen
Chbosky makes it clear from the first page that the novel is happening
during the 1991-1992 school year. That means his references to the
Smiths make sense, because to be a teen listening to the Smiths in 1991
tells us something about these characters that is important to
understanding who they are and how they see themselves. The references
to the Smiths take us to a particular point in the American cultural
history. It’s okay to take your reader to 2013, of course, and have your
book be a document of all that was cool right at this particular moment
in time, but keep in mind that your young readers might not read your
book until 2014, 2015, or 2016. And to try to encompass all that is
"cool" right now might just make it feel like the book is trying too
hard—something teen readers can smell a mile away. It’s sometimes a
better strategy to set a book even just a few years earlier than the
writer’s present so that the distance between “then” and the reader’s
“now” will feel intentional, and kind of vintage and hip.
Young Adult Contemporary novels have a certain timelessness to them,
and this always feels like an elegant strategy to me. Maggie
for example, evokes so beautifully a contemporary high school in remote
Northern Minnesota. Physical description is one of this author’s
greatest strengths: the landscape, the woods, the way things look,
smell, and feel. You know that it’s set in modern times (there are cell
phones, cars, etc.), but almost no material signifiers. Stiefvater’s
strategy here really helps to reinforce the haunting, timeless
paranormal romance that she develops in SHIVER.
Similarly, in YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS
by Meg Medina, Piddy, the main character, is being randomly bullied by a
hard-edged girl from a very specific neighborhood in Queens, NY. We can
see Yaqui so clearly: her hair, her eyebrows, and her clothes. But we
don’t hear about the music she listens to or the brand of her sneaker.
By avoiding a lot of pop culture references, Yaqui will never lose her
frightening qualities as a character, even if you read about her in ten
years, when tough, street-smart girls like Yaqui are listening to
completely different music and wearing a completely different look. This
strategy helps Medina keep Yaqui from becoming a caricature, and
instead she becomes representative of something even more universal.
*THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is also our inaugural #BCReadalong from August 18-31, 2013. Go here to find out more and join the discussion!
How do you all handle this in your writing? What do you think is the best approach?
--edited by Lucy Silag on 8/21/2013, 10:32 AM--