Tips for writing in the Young Adult voice - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
March 1, 2021

Each fiction genre comes with its own personality and themes, and Young Adult can be a tough genre to figure out. As Young Adult author Morgan Baden recently pointed out to me, some YA authors don’t even consider YA to be a genre. Their opinion is that it is more a subsection of other genres — for example, YA Romance or YA Fantasy.

Whether or not Young Adult should be labeled a genre, there is no doubt that it’s a powerful storytelling approach, one that sells millions of books per year. And it’s not just for kids. It’s estimated that over 70 percent of Young Adult readers are adults.

To learn more, I brought Morgan Baden onto the First Draft Friday stage. Below is our full video chat, which was a fun and interesting half hour. Morgan, a YA author and ghostwriter, shared what makes a book a Young Adult read (hint: it’s not just the age of the characters!), and the three different types of Young Adult novels. She also gave some helpful do’s and don’ts for writing Young Adult, along with buying habits of YA readers.

Here’s the video, followed by the full chat transcript.

Alessandra Torre and Morgan Baden discuss the craft of Young Adult fiction writing.


Listen to the podcast

Full chat transcript

Alessandra Torre: Hi everyone. This is another episode of First Draft Friday. I’m your host, Alessandra Torre. First Draft Friday is brought to you by Authors AI, and I’m so excited today to have Morgan Baden here. We’re going to be talking all about writing in the YA voice, which is the young adult voice. And this is going to be a fantastic episode. If you’re watching us live on YouTube or Facebook, please don’t be shy; pop questions and comments into the comments box. We will be taking your questions live as we go. And if you’re watching after the fact or during the fact, please subscribe to our channels so that you can catch more awesome First Draft Friday content. So without further ado, Morgan, do you want to introduce yourself to everyone and let them know kind of a little bit about your writing background and what you write?

Morgan Baden: Sure. Hi everyone. And thank you so much for having me. I’m Morgan Baden, and I’m a YA author and ghost writer. I actually got my start ghost writing in best-selling YA fiction, which is a whole separate topic, but as a real master class in mastering voice and in matching author voice and in figuring out how to tell a story quickly. And then along the way, I ended up publishing my own books as well. So my debut novel, The Hive, which I co-wrote with my husband, Barry Lyga, came out in September, 2019. And that fall, it was actually named a best book of the fall by People Magazine, which was really exciting. And then I also write the Daphne and Velma trilogy for Scholastic, which is a YA reboot of Daphne and Velma the iconic characters from Scooby doo, so that’s super fun as well. The first one came out in July, 2020, the next one comes up this summer. And then, I have a short story coming out in a YA anthology next year as well, which hasn’t been announced yet so I won’t reveal the title. And outside of writing, I’m actually, I have a day job as a corporate communications executive. So I’ve spent the last 12 plus years actually working in communications for Scholastic, where I am surrounded by YA and children’s books all the time. So, it’s really my life at this point and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alessandra: I love that. I love working with books, writing, books, everything. I love everything about our industry. Today we’re going to be talking about young adults, which you obviously have a fantastic background in. I write romance novels. I’m not familiar with young adult. Can you share with the audience what makes a book considered young adult, and then, what makes a book, not young adult because I know it’s not just the ages that come into play?

Morgan: Right? So I think the biggest misconception is that if a book has a teenage protagonist, it is automatically YA, and that is actually incorrect. So, what really identifies a book as YA is the concerns and priorities, the characters and the way the story is told. So, one of my favorite books of all time is Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, that has a teenage protagonist, but it is not classified as YA or marketed as YA. And that’s primarily because even though the bulk of the story takes place during the main character’s teen years, it also jumps forward to the future and flashes back to her past. So, it has this sort of separate perspective about those teen years, about that teen story she’s telling us. YA on the other hand has a very sort of immediacy to the story; you are right there with the characters experiencing what they’re experiencing at the same time. So, there’s this real sort of emotional urgency there in a YA novel that doesn’t necessarily exist in books, in which there is a broader longer-term perspective of the teen characters.

Alessandra: So, does that mean that it’s also then typically in first person, or what person?

Morgan: It doesn’t have to be, but it is absolutely a trend that a ton of books are in first-person present. I think probably the most famous example is The Hunger Games trilogy. That of course works really well because it’s a super-fast paced adventure story. So the reader is right there with Katniss, first-person present, feeling everything she’s feeling. And that way there’s not a separation, you’re not able to step back and get Katniss’ adult perspective of what happened. There are absolutely books in the YA age range that are past, present, third person, first person, et cetera. But it’s definitely… it feels like the majority are first person present for sure.

Alessandra: First-person present.

Morgan: Yeah.

Alessandra: Present definitely makes sense. As soon as you said present, I was like, oh, I should have asked about tense, not time necessarily, yeah. OK, perfect.

Morgan: So you want to be right there with the character, again, so that you’re sort of fully immersed in everything they’re going through at the same time.

Alessandra: So, there’s that immediacy, and then, is there anything else that would make something not YA like content or…?

Morgan: Yeah, so there’s a few main buckets I think when we’re talking about what makes the book YA and how to write a YA voice. The first one is certainly that tone that we talked about. So you know, is it a super sophisticated 15 year old girl? Then it’s probably not going to feel really YA, right? So you want to make sure that you’re feeling that your characters feel like they are legitimate teenagers. So with the same kinds of concerns and voice, including vocabulary and pop culture references that a teenager would have. You also want to make sure and I’ve seen this in certain places. You want to make sure that the vocabulary feels modern — that’s if you’re writing a book that takes place in contemporary times, of course. But I think it’s very easy for people who aren’t teenagers to quickly fall out of understanding the lexicon of today’s teenagers.

So, there are words that I use that a teenager would absolutely roll their eyes at, so I always have to be conscious of the slang that I’m using or the insults that I’m using or something like that. So, that’s something to keep an eye out on. And I also think pop culture references are really going to make or break a YA authentic voice as well. So you know, again, unless you’re writing your book set in a very specific time period, I just finished The Mall by Megan McCafferty, which is takes place in 1991. One of my favorite books of last year, it was amazing, but of course it takes place in ’91, so there are very specific pop culture references that made me laugh and made me nostalgic and it was wonderful, but it dated the book, which was an intentional choice on her part, of course. But if you’re not trying to date your book to a specific time and place, then you want to make sure that your pop culture references are evergreen and can resonate with a whole bunch of audiences over the years.

Alessandra: See, that would be my concern because even now, I read a review of one of my books recently, and I wrote it five years ago and I made a reference to periscope, like the girl periscoping something, which periscope, I don’t even know if it’s around anymore. It was like a social media thing, and then it went away or got bought by someone. But she was like, ha ha, I can’t believe, you know, this character is like, and she made reference to dating it. And I remember, and I’ve read books before where the character bought a brand new, obviously, it was supposed to be a luxury fancy car for $32,000, and this is a book that was written in like the nineties, probably. So ever since then, I’ve been super conscious not to put something in that would date the book, but I guess you can’t really get around that with YA, right.

Morgan: Yeah, really hard. I think particularly because social media is so infused into everything we do, including teenagers, you have to be really careful when you’re talking about social media in a YA novel. In The Hive, which was my debut, we ended up creating a brand new social channel.

Alessandra: That’s a good idea.

Morgan: And so, we ended up we sort of referenced some of the existing popular current platforms. By making up a new one allowed us to sort of step outside of that date which was really helpful. And I also find texting is a big thing too. So in my Daphne and Velma books, they text a lot, and I feel like that’s an easy way too, to make sure that you’re talking to teenagers without dating yourself because texting has been around for a long time.

Alessandra: I don’t see it going anywhere.

Morgan: Exactly. And when I do reference some kind of thought point that has to do with social media, like maybe Velma sees something on what I envision as Instagram, but I’m not going to write Instagram; I’ll say something like she saw it on her feed, or she saw it in her stories. I think there are ways around it for sure, to make sure though that you’re still accomplishing what you need to accomplish in terms of making sure the reader understands that this is a social media platform you’re talking about, but without dating yourself,

Alessandra: I think those are great tips. I love that.

Morgan: Great.

Alessandra: I love that. OK, so that helps me understand what’s YA versus non-YA. Now, when you’re writing in the YA voice and you referenced that, do you have any tips for us on that, on authentically writing in the YA voice?

Morgan: Yeah, definitely. So I think when you’re talking about writing in an authentic YA voice, you really need to make sure that the themes of the book resonate with teens today. And that’s another thing that differentiates a YA voice from an adult voice, right? So there’s the obvious thing, so a YA novel set in modern day America is probably not going to have teenagers focused on getting married or on having babies or something like that.

Alessandra: Becoming housewives, yeah.

Morgan: So there’s the real obvious stuff there. But I think if you dig deeper, you know, when you’re talking about teenagers today, the themes are the same. They’re exploring their selves and their identities. They are seeking out who they are and who their friends are. They’re most likely having their first forays into romantic relationships. There’s a real sort of focus on friendships and on families sometimes. And there’s really a sort of curiosity and concern about what lies ahead for them, right? So what does their future hold, what’s next after high school, and so those kinds of themes, I think, resonate across all kinds of teens, every generation. And that’s also part of what makes a book feel like a YA. So, does it have those themes that are classically young adults?

Alessandra: That’s interesting. And I think the appeal for a lot of adults because YA isn’t just young readers, right? Yeah. I know a lot that I speak to, at least in the romance genre, they love that first love and that butterflies, it really… you experience love, you approach love differently when you’re a teenager than you do, yeah. So a YA is normally what age range of characters?

Morgan: So the characters are usually 14 and up, I would say most, it feels like most YAs main characters are right around 15,16 because you want to make sure you’re not too close to the end of high school because then they really are sort of focused on college or what lies beyond high school and readers usually read up. The YA market is usually capturing readers 12 and up, and so a 12-year-old usually wants to read about a 14 or up. And it’s interesting too, because there’s within the YA age breakdown, there are sort of micro breakdowns as well, so there’s sort of upper YA, classic YA, and younger YA. The Daphne and Velma books are younger YA, which is really sort of 12 and up. They are light on romance, there’s certainly romance, but it’s very light they’re light on violence and things like that, so it’s a bit of a smoother read, whereas, The Hive is upper YA because there’s spoiler alert, death and aggression and lots of challenges there. So even within the YA, there are sort of different stratospheres there, but overall we’re looking at right around sort of 15, 16.

Alessandra: And am I correct? I wasn’t even aware of those so that’s nice to know there’s three levels. And then there’s sub-genres, really every sub-genre could be YA, right. You could have paranormal YA…

Morgan: Yeah. So there’s a common refrain amongst YA authors, which is YA is not a genre. It’s just an age range. The genres of YA are very similar if not identical to the genres of any other age range books. So there’s YA fantasy, YA thriller, YA mystery, YA romance, et cetera. So, you know, it’s really just an age designation and a way for bookstores to organize their bookshelves and for books to be marketed.

Alessandra: That’s interesting. I would have thought that YA authors would have been like strictly protective, like, “we all own our own genre,” so that’s interesting.

Morgan: Yeah. And you know what, what you said before is I think worth bringing up again, which is, even though YA is books technically about teens for teens, they actually have much broader appeal. And YA, I think romance is the fastest and most successful genre of book when it comes to sales and YA is right behind it. And it’s something like… I forget the exact statistic, but it’s a ridiculously large percentage of YA book buyers who are actually adults.

Alessandra: Yeah. I was curious about that. I didn’t know if it was like half or…

Morgan: It’s something like half, yeah, but it’s really significant. And that also plays out when you dive into the format of books that are sold in the YA age range, so is it ebook or is it print? And YA still has that nice print base because it’s teenagers and they don’t often have e-readers. And so, they’re buying the actual hard covers and paperbacks, whereas, a lot of the adults buying YA are sort of split between ebook format and print format.

Alessandra: And you think it’d be the opposite. You think like teenagers technology, they always have a phone in their hand, but I know my niece who was just a crazy reader. I mean, she would only, and she told me, she’s like, I just love having the feel of a book in my hand, which I also love it, but I’m an adult and I’m practical and I don’t have space for five books a week which is how much she was reading, you know? And they are also less price-conscious, which is interesting and good, great for authors.

Morgan: Scholastic issues every few years something called the kids and family reading report, which is a research paper that chronicles reading habits amongst kids. So, you know, babies up through age 18 and then their parents who are buying for the younger kids. And time after time, the data shows that children’s books are primarily physical and that kids never, they say their quotes are amazing. They just do not want to give up their print book. They find that print book really special.

Alessandra: Yeah. And that’s a great thing for any authors watching, who are thinking about getting into YA. I am a big advocate of self-publishing. I always encourage authors to self-publish, but the one genre that if I was going to go into, the one genre that I would really try to go traditional route first would be young adult because that print market is so big and getting into libraries at schools, and getting on those reading list is really powerful.

Morgan: I agree with that. The school channel is hugely important. So that’s things like book fairs and book clubs, and to do that, and you need to have a traditional imprint behind you.

Alessandra: Yeah. OK, great. So, is there anything else before we move on from tips for writing in the YA voice we should cover?

Morgan: I mean, in terms of general tips, is it helpful if I sort of give some dues and nods?

Alessandra: Yeah.

Morgan: OK, great.

Alessandra: I love do’s and don’ts, yeah.

Morgan: I got it. So let me start with things to watch out for. And I would say this is a biggie, and I think that you see this a lot with beginning writers, people who are just tackling YA for the first time, which is to watch out for those stereotypes of teens. So things like, oh, all teenagers are super sarcastic and then sort of amping up the snark and your novel. Or all teenagers are obsessed with social media or something like that. So, just really keep an eye on making sure that you’re building fully rounded characters here that are not stereotypes of what a typical teenager is. And then watch out, we briefly mentioned this before, but watch out for language, setting, things like that. So there can absolutely be cursing in YA; here are a lot of YA novels that have cruses that work really well, but it needs to fit into what, again, that authentic teenage experience. And it also truly depends on whether you’re aiming for that lower YA or mid-classic YA or upper YA. I don’t have any cursing in the Daphne and Velma books, partly because that’s not true to those characters. But also partly because those are aimed towards a younger YA audience, so we keep the language a little bit smoother. And then I would also say…

Alessandra: Wait, wait, sorry, I don’t want to interrupt you before you move on. I once tried to write a YA book. I have a really great idea for YA book, but one thing I really struggled with was language because the characters were three male like 16; they were 17 year old. They were high school seniors. They’re 17, 18 year olds. And I was trying to keep it super clean because in my mind I was thinking that, I don’t know, I was thinking that it was YA so it had to be super clean, but I could not create authentic conversations between these guys without having some profanity. I love what you just said, so it is OK to have some profanity. Does it mostly need to be in dialogue?

Morgan: I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about that. And I’m actually remembering the opening line of The Hive, which is sort of upper YA has the word “shit” in it. So it is not dialogue, it is actually in the narrative. But I think you’re right; I mean, again, that goes back to authentic teenage boys. They are likely going to have some curse words peppered throughout their dialogue. So yeah, that’s the right call.

Alessandra: I’m going to go to a question while I get my dogs to be quiet. Margaret says, “What are your views…?”

Morgan: Yeah, sure. I can tackle this one for sure. So what are your views on the use of alcohol, drugs, and sex in YA novels? Again, I think it goes back to what kind of story are you trying to tell. It is not out of bounds to say that teens use alcohol, experiment with drugs, experiment with the sex, etc. So it all goes back to what kind of story are you trying to tell, and then how do you include those themes or those explorations in a way that feels true to today’s teen experience. So my views are, if you’re writing a story in which it makes sense for your characters to be exploring one or any of those things, then yeah, absolutely put it in there. I think particularly when you’re talking about sex, that is something that today’s teens and teens of every generation are always thinking about to be frank and are always probably talking about with their friends and thinking about as they go on dates and things like that. So from my mind, yeah, that stuff needs to be included, again, if it is true to the story, you’re trying to tell.

Alessandra: So with sex, I’m assuming any time a character has sex it needs to be fade to black.

Morgan: Correct. It’s not going to be a romance novel. It’s going to be a lot…

Alessandra: It’s got to be titillating, right?

Morgan: Exactly. Yeah, so, you know, there are a couple of writers, I think, who do this really well, Cody Caplinger, her YAs do this really well, I think in a way that makes it… it doesn’t feel like she’s closing the chapter just as the lights go dark or something like that. She does it in a very authentic way, in my opinion, so that’s a great example of a writer to look out for that.

Alessandra: I appreciate that. Yeah, the recommendations always help. So Margaret said, so no graphic sex scenes, but it is OK to have underage sex as long as it’s not, as long as it’s just something the character is encountering or experiencing, it’s not, yeah.

Morgan: And again, that’s also going to depend too on if you have a traditional book deal, the publisher will probably weigh in on that as well if there are concerns and that’s where your editor comes in and will talk about the publishers stands on things like that, but broadly speaking, yeah, it’s fine.

Alessandra: Perfect. All right, perfect. I interrupted you; you were going to give another tip or don’t do.

Morgan: I think the last sort of thing to watch out for is this idea that even though the sort of general sense of being a teenager is evergreen and every generation of teens has the sort of same broad perspective or curiosity about the world around them. I think if you’re writing about contemporary teens, you have to be aware that teenagers today are very different than they were when you were a teenager. And I include myself in that.

Alessandra: Very different.

Morgan: Yeah. And even from you know, gen Z is very different than millennial teens who are very different from gen X, teens, et cetera, the world changes faster now than it did before. And I think today’s teens have a few ingredients that really make them stand out from previous generations of teens. They’re more worldly. They’re obviously more digitally oriented, but I think they’re also broadly speaking, more accepting of things and of different ways people live and, and different perspectives. So I just think when you’re writing about contemporary teens, they’re going to be different from how you and your teenage friends were.

Alessandra: Yeah. Even just like from teens five years ago. I mean, when I talked to my nieces and nephews, they’re very much more interested in world affairs and stereotypes and this more culturally aware then when I was 16, all I cared about was like horseback riding. I mean, I wasn’t paying attention to political news or anything about it, you know, immigration or anything. And they’re very, yeah, so I can definitely see, and if they’re reading it.

Morgan: Yeah, exactly.

Alessandra: OK, we have a question from Ridgley Jackson. She said, “In adult romance, there’s a prohibition about a main character dying, but I feel like that,” I don’t know if I said prohibition right, “but may not exist in YA. Is that correct? Can you kill a main character? I mean, I know like Fault in our Stars, obviously, I mean, there are main characters that die and YA. Is it less taboo?

Morgan: Yeah, because they have never really encountered any kind of taboo about killing off YA characters, again, as long as it’s true to the story. My husband writes a lot of thrillers and his most famous trilogy is called I Hunt Killers. As you can imagine, there are victims in that book for sure, and they’re not the main character, but they are close to the main character. And so yeah, I think that’s absolutely fine to do.

Alessandra: Yeah, that’s a great question. I love that question. And there was a question it’s not showing up because it didn’t come in this live chat, but another author said; she’s in her 60s or 70s. And she said, “Can I write YA or is it going to be too much of a stretch for me with the age gap?”

Morgan: Yeah, I would say if you want to write YA, absolutely try it. Again, if you’re tapping into those classic experiences that every teenager has gone through, as long as you can find a way to bridge them to modern times, again, if you’re writing something set in modern day then you can be successful with that, absolutely. And I think too, I mean, if we look at some of the most iconic YA authors, none of them are 17, you know, they’re all adults ages. Yeah, so I say go for it.

Alessandra: I think it does help if you’re around young people or if you have teenage kids. I think that definitely, it does help and does help bridge that gap. I think a lot of YA authors are probably teachers too.

Morgan: Absolutely. And I think that that’s one of the final tips I would give too, again, just broadly speaking. If you’re interested in writing YA, you have to immerse yourself in teen culture. And that means in a non-creepy way, you know, one of my favorite things when I lived in New York City was to just sort of like keep an eye on the teenagers on the subway. Like, what are their backpacks look like? What are they talking to each other about? What kinds of sneakers are they wearing? You know, because trends vary, but I think just as important as that is, watch teen movies. First of all, you have to read YA, right? You can’t write without reading in the genre or the age range that you are trying to write in. And specifically with why novels, like mix up the genres; read why fantasy followed by a YA romance, see what speaks to you and what kinds of themes and things like that are really jumping off the page to you and how you can translate that into your own work. But also, you know, if you’re new to YA and you’re worried about voice or how it’s going to go; spend a weekend bingeing things like Riverdale, or any kind of teen focused television show or teen movies. Watch To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix and see what speaks to you about those stories and see if you can identify what makes them YA.

Alessandra: I love that. So is there normally like a word count length of a typical YA book? Are there any genre norms that we should be aware of in terms of that?

Morgan: Yeah, definitely. It’s going to vary a little bit by genre, of course, typically fantasy as in the adult sphere skews higher word count. I think if you’re looking at a classic YA contemporary, so just the sort of YA a story set in modern times, you want to aim for sort of 60,000 to 70,000.

Alessandra: OK.

Morgan: Thrillers will probably be a little bit more than that, maybe 75,000 to 80,000. I think the sweet spot for a YA fantasy is around 90,000 words. I would advise, try and stay under 100,000. There are obviously exceptions to that. My personal sweet spot, I always aim, when I’m starting a new manuscript, I always aim for between sort of 65,000 to 70,000. And I usually land at around like 55,000 with my first draft, which is perfect because then you sort of go through and kind of…

Alessandra: You have plenty of room to flesh out.

Morgan: Exactly. Yeah,

Alessandra: That is fantastic. And we are wrapping up so if anyone has any final questions now is the time to shout them out, but we’ll wrap us up because we are out of time. So, thank you so much for joining us today, Morgan. How can they find out more about your books and what book would you recommend that they start reading?

Morgan: Oh, well, thank you for having me. I’m at, Instagram at Morgan Baden and Twitter at Morgan Baden, follow me anywhere. And I would say it depends, if you like a really fast paced story, go with The Hive. But if you are a fan of Scooby-Doo or have sort of Veronica Mars, like mysteries, go with my Daphne and Velma books, which are also super fun. And please feel free to reach out with questions or comments or anything like that; I’m always happy to talk more.

Alessandra: I appreciate that so much. And for those of you, if this is your first First Draft Friday, welcome, this is brought to you by Authors AI. We have a really cool artificial intelligence called Marlowe who loves to read any type of fiction. She can read your novel and provide incredible detailed feedback within just a few minutes in a gorgeous 25 page report that talks about plot and characters, so be sure to visit and check it out. We have both free and paid plans available. And we’re here every other Friday at First Draft Friday, so please join us in a future First Draft Friday. And if you’re listening to this on a podcast, please review the podcast. We’d love to see your feedback there. So, thank you again. Thank you, Morgan. And we’ll see you guys in two weeks.


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