An Editor”s Advice on Writing for Teen Literary Magazines

Teenagers are bugged by many aspects of the transitional period in life known as “young adulthood.” With new privileges come responsibilities that carry even more restrictions. They juggle part-time jobs with schoolwork and relationships, while pop culture bombards them with messages persuading them to buy CDs, facial creams, the right clothes; anything and everything to fit in the right scene.

For the teenager interested in reading, this may become a frustrating time because literature, the subject that once encouraged their imagination and challenged them to learn and read more, becomes “required reading” for term papers and exams. Carus Publications, creator of Babybug, Ladybug, Muse, Spider and Cricket, has created a new species that promises to keep young adults interested in literature with Cicada, a literary magazine for the young adult.

Deborah Vetter, editor of Cicada, explains that the publication is unique because it”s about literature with a genuine teen sensibility. “Unlike many other magazines for teens, it does not contain dating and makeup tips or interviews with movie stars. What it does have is a variety of witty, thought-provoking, well-written short stories, poems and essays both by adult authors and by teenagers themselves.”

Cicada features fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews and short stories “presented in a sophisticated cartoon format.” Vetter notes, “as with our younger bug” magazines, we hope to cover nearly all genres, from contemporary coming-of-age stories to historical fiction, mystery and detective stories, adventure, science fiction and fantasy, humor, personal experiences and so on.”

Vetter suggests authors approach writing for young adults “from inside the teen psyche” in order to create protagonists that readers can sympathize with. “To have a teenager railing bitterly against the unfairness of life because he or she can”t go to the prom or can”t borrow the car seems very trite. The teen comes across as a selfish, shallow person that nobody could possibly like,” she explains. “There has to be a certain logic to a protagonist”s behavior so the reader can be on that character”s side and understand what”s going on underneath the surface.”

Another recommendation Vetter offers is that authors “think in terms of writing for adults, but about experiences and situations that are relevant or interesting to teenagers.” She points out that teenagers are interested in adult novels and want to be challenged by literary style and treatment of subject matter. “Another problem I”m seeing deals with clichs, most specifically the handsome brawny jock and the blond with the perfect bod and no brain. Avoid them.”

Understanding that Cicada is literature for young adults brings up the concern of what is “appropriate” subject matter. An author may wonder what”s too mature, or what”s not mature enough, and for that same reason there have been some “alarmed” parents and some “twelve-year-olds who”ve found they”re not quite ready for Cicada,” Vetter says.

An example of this conflict came in the responses Vetter received after Cicada reprinted “I Had Seen Castles,” a Cynthia Rylant story set during World War II. “We got letters from a handful of angry parents who called the story trash because of a few lines about a young, unmarried couple having sex before the boy went off to Europe to fight as a soldier in the war,” recalls Vetter. At the same time, she received a letter from a college student who, due to the eye-opening atrocities Rylant portrays in the story”s battle scenes, turned away from embracing violent images, saying she now understood that “people weren”t meant to be blown open.”

“So, I find myself wondering who got the point of Rylant”s story: the parents alarmed at a few lines about sex or the teenager who realized that war is a horrifying experience. Who is the more sophisticated reader?”

“We are presenting high-quality literature, but it”s going to be literature that often deals with some of the subjects we”ve considered ”taboo” in our younger magazines. These topics include war and violence, dating relationships, sex, drugs and domestic abuse.” However, she adds, ” The one topic we won”t be addressing is teen suicide—it seems much too dangerous an issue.”

While Cicada delves into some of the harsher realities of life, Vetter and her readers admit to a need for humor in their reading. “After reading the first few issues, one reader wrote, ”I think just maybe you are overestimating the angst of today”s teenagers,”” says Vetter. “As you can probably guess, we”re seeing a lot of angst-ridden stories, and we”d like to encourage authors to lighten up. Park death at the door, and explore human foibles. Snap your fingers at life”s absurdities. While doing this, however, avoid the trivial and the superficial.”

For sophisticated young adults with a literature bug, there is a Cicada out there, waiting for them to spread its pages and let it fly through their imaginations. For authors writing for young adults, there is a challenge to understand the buzz of a generation and be part of its song. Don”t put a pin through your readers, simplifying their traits and categorizing them—watch them in their complicated, confused, exhilarating, foolhardy, beautiful flight and respect them for getting off the ground.

This interview appeared in Children”s Writer”s & Illustrator”s Market. Check out the current edition.

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