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I have a confession: I don't read much YA fiction off the shelf.
My writing colleagues are surprised when I tell them that. They're convinced I've broken a cardinal rule of the business. I have to read the all new stuff every year, they say, or I won't know what agents are buying.
In most categories that's true – but YA is a very different animal, and the usual rules have less relevance.
Here are a few reasons why:
Fads in YA change faster than in any other category, particularly when it comes to the narrative voice. A "fresh, trendy voice" will be a stale voice by the end of the year. Today it's acceptable to italicize lots of words; three years from now, probably not. So unless you can write a whole novel in six months, you won't have time to use that information.
Today's readers are not tomorrow's readers. Assuming a turnaround of three years to write, polish, sell and print a new novel, those 16 year olds reading YA now will be in college by then. Kids are deeply impressionable, so the next wave of 16 year olds will be differently affected by world events and pop culture references.
Don't write a novel for the high school sophomores you meet right now. Write it for those who are in junior high now.
Cultural references have to be both more precise and more original. Thanks to the success of Nick and Norah, you will not be able to sell a title that mentions a playlist. Teens don't appreciate references their parents would get.
YA is more susceptible to fads and knockoffs. The fact that you see twenty new books about dystopian reality television does not mean that niche has as much staying power as you think. Teen readers are notorious for inhaling books they're excited about, but that also means they get burned out with something faster.
The bigger the fad, the more sharply it will be rejected in the future.
It's important to note that there is value in keeping up with what today's kids are reading, generally speaking. If you don't know about Nick and Norah, you won't be aware of the reason to avoid a reference to playlists.
The trick with using bookshelf material is to stay in the know about what's passé. Don't study the YA section to see what you should be doing. Use it to see what you should not be doing.
So what is an author to do? How can adults predict what will sell to fickle teenagers several years down the road?
Here are a few habits of effective YA authors:
Do what kids are doing. Talk to some kids around the age of 14. Find out the television shows they watch on a regular basis, the websites they have bookmarked, the electives they take in school, and the brand of humor they think is funny.
Learn the subtleties of their culture. Don't just Google the top-selling songs of 2011 and think you can plug them into a story. Don't assume Rihanna is exactly like Beyonce. Listen to modern music enough that you can tell the difference.
Use television to learn their speech and cadence. Find a good YA setting and marinate in it. The biggest complaint from new YA authors is that they can't absorb a good voice in big enough doses to really hear it. Find some good live-action role models and watch them.
Think about world events and social initiatives that influence them. Kids get a lot of exposure to environmentalism in public schools. They see a lot of material on bully prevention. They have class discussions about school shootings. Develop an eye for what kind of news items show up in their world.
Don't be afraid to coin your own references. A million authors are working on ways to mention Dr. Sheldon Cooper in a novel. Original authors are thinking up jokes like "Let's start a thread to discuss that plan at watchforthefail.org." A homespun reference is more valuable than an obvious one.
Develop a relationship with your local school. A lot of YA distribution happens through public school libraries, as well as teen support groups. Meet some teachers and ask what books they choose for reading assignments. If and when you publish a YA novel, they can help you get in the hands of real kids.
Be truly original. Don't think "well I can't do this because none of the YA out this year has done it." If you want to do a technique you don't see in use, that's all the more reason to go for it. Two or three years from now you will likely find an agent who loves it.
YA is a fun, dynamic and flexible market. If you want to write a novel for that audience, jump right in, be yourself, write directly to teens and blow them away with a voice they've never seen before.
Candance Moore is a freelance writer and author of the YA dark inspirational novel Look Past Lodebar. For more tips on writing, visit www.candancemoorebooks.com