What NOT To Do When Writing YA Books (Advice From a Teen Writer)

Let’s face it: adults are not teens. They don’t talk like teens, act like teens, or think like teens. And that’s why the YA shelves are filled with books packed with clichés, annoying characters, and failed attempts to relate to teens.

“If you can’t convince your audience that you know how teens feel about the world today and express yourself the same way, you will never reach them,” says Regina Brooks, young adult literary agent. Ms. Brooks is founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency and author of Writing Great Books For Young Adults. Those are golden words for all YA writers.

jamie-Margolin-featuredThis guest post is by teenage writer Jamie S. Margolin. Margolin is  a writer who has written articles for Teen Ink. One of them, Rhinestones & Ribbons: The Truth about Rhythmic Gymnastics, earned an Editors Choice award and was voted #1 by readers. Margolin spends most of her life reading and writing. She plans to make a career out of it, along with environmental conservation. When she’s not at school or writing, she’s in the gym, training. She’s a serious, competitive rhythmic gymnast who has big dreams in the sport. Currently, she is completing her novel about the intricate, and highly competitive world of rhythmic gymnastics where talent is extraordinarily easy to find, but a true champion is one in a million. So if she can’t get a spot on the Olympic team, Margolin would be perfectly happy with a spot on the bestseller list. (Preferably somewhere near the top).

Because a lot of times, editors and publishers don’t catch these mistakes. But, do you know who does? Me. Well, us—the teenage readers. Not only do we notice these mistakes, we’re driven insane by them.

As an avid YA reader, I decided I needed to do something about this. So, I talked to practically every teen I know and came up with a list of the top mistakes writers are making. And trust me, from what I’m seeing on the shelves, you need it.

1.  OMG.

Awkward slang that’s LOL. OMG girl! That’s like, totally LOL!

Someone get me an oxygen tank. In attempts to “relate” to teens, countless writers have turned to using slang. And it’s driving us crazy! Why? Well first of all, teens don’t speak in slang. We might text a “LOL” here and there, but most of us don’t talk like that. The small handfuls who do are usually desperate outcasts.

Secondly, adults are clueless when it comes to teen-speak. When they try to use slang in their books, it ends up sounding forced, awkward, and just plain old wrong. And then publishers also have no clue that we don’t say, “It’s totally LOL”, so ends up in the book…. ready to drive teens up the wall.

2.  Love At First Sight.

This should be legally banned. Love at first sight is in 99.9% of all romance novels that have ever existed (I made this statistic up to make my point). It usually goes like this: Character #1 is walking down the hallway and bumps into Character #2.  They’re total strangers but when their eyes meet, they know they’ve found their “other half” and future soul mate….

This usually results in the reader chucking the book across the room.

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3. The Troubled Teen.

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against troubled characters. Everyone loves S. E. Hinton’s classic troubled kid, “Ponyboy”. He’s a 14-year-old boy in 1965 who’s addicted to tobacco, caught in between gang violence, and has a dysfunctional family. Yet he’s also caring and has passion for sunsets. Troubled, but lovable.

But nowadays, the whole “troubled” factor has been taken above and beyond. Writers are suddenly making it their mission to create exaggeratedly dark, haunted, and psychopathic characters that no one except psychopaths like. Half of the time, I find myself hating the protagonist and wanting them to fail and die. I don’t think that is what the author wants. Writers have to realize that there’s a fine line between a character who’s flawed but likable, and one who has no personality or
thoughts other than “I hate everyone, life sucks.”

4. Walking, Talking Stereotypes

Sorry to break it to you, but people don’t fit into neat little boxed categories. Characters shouldn’t either. But it happens all the time! So many minority characters in books do absolutely nothing but fit in their stereotype. If the character’s black, they spend most of their time “dealing with racism.” If a character’s gay, then he’s feminine, and obsessed with fashion.

Unless you want to face an army of ticked-off teens, I’d advise digging past the stereotypes.

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5. The “Strong” Female Protagonist

This character is your typical pretty girl. But don’t let that fool you, because she’s tough stuff, and can kick butt. Oh how I hate this protagonist. In attempts to make “strong” female characters, writers craft these exaggerated tough and emotionless protagonists that no one but the writer can stand.

I don’t understand why authors bother making such characters in the first place. Any female can be strong. Not just obnoxious, overly macho ones. And usually, this “strong” female character becomes a damsel in distress as soon as Mr. Six-pack comes along.

6. And They Lived Happily Ever After….

I couldn’t resist this perfect quote from my friend Ben.

“I’d like to see a more mediocre ending in books. It’d be nice to see a book where everything doesn’t work out perfectly in the end. Where the protagonist fails, and the world doesn’t get saved and everyone dies happily ever after.”

Now I’m in no way suggesting that every author should always craft the most devastating, horrific ending ever. I’m fine with books ending badly or happily, just not so  perfectly. The thing is, I’m never worried for protagonists anymore, because I already know that at the very last moment everything’s going to work out in the most convenient way. So why even bother reading the book?

Well, there you have it. If you’re planning on writing a YA book, and you actually want me to read it, I’d advise taking what you’ve just learned seriously because you don’t just have to impress agents and publishers. You’ve also got a whole audience of snotty, phone and texting addicted teens to captivate.


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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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8 thoughts on “What NOT To Do When Writing YA Books (Advice From a Teen Writer)

  1. andresoeiro.author

    Great article! As a total newbie, I have seen some comments on this book I am writing, stating that I am “too wordy” and that my language is not adequate for YA Romance. Then, I am here to try to understand how I should write. I liked the tone and the details explained here!

  2. cabbagepatch

    Is there anyway to get in touch with Jamie via online? I’m an aspiring teenage author and I’ve written about five chapters of a book that I think could have potential but is falling flat.
    I would love to be able to talk to and ask an already pretty accomplished article writer questions that’s actually my age group. After all, that’s the intended audience for the book I want to write!

  3. MikeyTaz

    Brilliant. Can I add… the overused stereotypes for geeky genius characters who just invent something to solve the problem. I am a teen guy and similary think YA authors must get the teen voice right. I have been a beta reader for YA manuscripts and If interested, my site is: gogetmikey.weebly.com

    1. FuturePOTUS

      Wow, thanks! And your welcome! That means so much to me! (I’m Jamie) I’m actually working on another article that will hopefully also go on Brian’s blog.

  4. NolanDean27

    I couldn’t help but smile at this article. It’s incredibly true.

    In relevance to the part about “strong” female characters, many people misunderstand what this means. Then they end up writing a character with absolutely no flaws, nothing to make us want to root for them, and that’s what considered strong? Yeesh.

    One of the characters I’ve written is a female lead, not only does she have flaws, her character represents vulnerability. She suffers from ankle instability, but is strong in the sense she powers through it, despite it clearly affecting her confidence. That to me, is a strong character. Not someone with no weaknesses.

  5. Spinners

    While these are guidelines, one must remember there are no hard and fast rules. Especially if an author can put a new spin on an old idea. Should an aspiring author hear echoes of their own hard work in the advice above, I would advice them to keep pushing forward! Raise the bar on your plot by intensifying conflict, or try reversing the POV to that of the main character’s significant other (if teen romance is brewing). You may find your story shed in a whole new light. But, most importantly…keep writing!


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