Writing for Young Adults


Young Adult (YA) fiction is limitless. It possesses a unique fluidity that is often absent in the world of adult fiction. Adult fiction restricts you to writing within a genre: crime, women’s fiction, literary etc. ‘Cross-genre’, though increasingly popular, is dubbed a ‘hard sell’. The writer of YA fiction, however, is free from these constraints. Genre suddenly becomes a much more fluid term. YA fiction still has genres, of course: fantasy, historical, magical realism; but anything falling in between is welcomed and celebrated in equal measure. YA fiction writers have the creative freedom to mix, say, a little bit of magic with a little bit of history and produce something entirely new. YA fiction is about setting trends, not following a well-trodden path. It is about exploration and expression.

It is, perhaps, because of all of this that YA fiction has transposed any concept of age and is read widely by adults, as well as teenagers. A quick glance around the ever-popular Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) – hosted in conjunction with London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) – shows both parents and their children bustling around for signatures, carrying tote bags, and adorned with badges. YA fiction has become a movement, a community – it has developed a life of its own.

And why not? After all, YA is at the forefront of political and social thought. It allows the writer to introduce and tackle adult themes in a dynamic and accessible manner. Holly Bourne artfully tackles OCD, feminism, and friendship in The Spinster Club series. Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It questions society’s reactions to rape in Ireland, whilst Non Pratt addresses disability in Truth or Dare. Each of these authors have one thing in common: they devote themselves to the themes in their books beyond the written word. Non recently shaved her head after raising money for the Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disability. In her novel, her protagonist is dared to do the same. YA fiction is vocal, personal, challenging and tough.

YA fiction is all about invoking real change. Admittedly, it still has work to do regarding diversity and representation but, as a fledgling mixed-race author, I’ve been welcomed with open arms and I am wonderfully optimistic about the future of YA. Young adults are a remarkably forgiving, progressive and open-minded audience, and thus they pave the way for the consumption of progressive and open-minded literature.

So, what actually makes a book YA? It often features an adolescent protagonist who faces some sort of crisis. Alwyn Hamilton (bestselling author of Rebel of the Sands) summed it up perfectly when she spoke at the Heroines panel at 2017’s YALC. “If you put the same character in the same situation at different points, hopefully they react differently.” At its core, YA is about change, personal progression, and growth.

My experience as a reader, a writer, and through my work with literary agencies has allowed me to immerse myself in the world of YA fiction, from page to publisher. As a result I understand what it is that can help an author succeed, from searching for an agent, right through to securing a publishing deal.

A great hook: If you can pitch your novel in a sentence, chances are both editors and agents will pay attention to your story early on. You need to follow through with the quality of the writing and storytelling, but it’s important to try and stand out amongst the many submissions in the dreaded ‘slush pile’. YA fiction has the ability to offer new, bold and exciting genres and themes to agents and publishers; make sure your pitch expresses this.

Knowing your agent: It’s more important to spend your time trying to find the right agent than it is to search for any agent. Whilst, of course, you want to give yourself the best chance at representation, it’s worth considering your long-term career prospects, instead of just focusing on the current book you’re querying. I would recommend researching a select group of agents you admire, over sending dozens of blanket emails in the hope that one will request your full manuscript.  Find an agent who works primarily with YA fiction. An agent who specialises in, say, adult literary fiction is less likely to pay attention to your submission and you risk your manuscript being needlessly overlooked. Agents who work with YA fiction are primed to venture into new and exciting territory and are more likely to take a risk and read your work! You want the agent reading your book to have appreciation for the medium, and YA fiction agents are among some of the most passionate and enthusiastic agents out there!

Understanding the difference between a covering letter and a synopsis: A covering letter should contain details about what attracted you to the agent and their agency, along with your personal accolades. It should also present a blurb-style paragraph about the novel – something enticing that advertises the atmosphere, key themes and protagonist of your book. This should be no more than three lines in length. The synopsis, on the other hand, should really be no longer than a page and contain the novel’s main events including spoilers. This last point is especially important as it can be frustrating, from an agent’s perspective, when a writer hasn’t told your how their book will end.

Editing: Once you’ve queried and secured an agent you’ll likely have already spent a lot of time, and occasionally money, editing your novel. However, this is simply the beginning of your book’s journey. Your agent may want to work on major edits with you which can involve some significant structural changes. It’s understandable that you might want to rush to submit to publishers, but just remember that editors have very few slots to fill and a lot of manuscripts to read. Often they are looking for something polished, even if it means they want to do edits themselves. Dedicating yourself to edits with your agent can be the make or break of your book deal, so consider the changes carefully and always try and be patient – a writing career is the ultimate slow burn.

YA is an appealing age category to write for in many ways, but don’t fret if you don’t secure yourself an agent or a book deal with your first novel. A lot of published writers have a novel or two hidden away somewhere. For some, you just need to get the first one out of the way to feel your way through the process, to learn your style and figure out the best way to edit. Then, the real fun can begin.

About Aisha Bushby

Aisha Bushby was born in the Middle East. After spending some time in Kuwait, Lincolnshire, Birmingham, Vancouver and Cheltenham, she now lives in Cambridgeshire and is editing a YA novel. Her short story, Marionette Girl, is featured in A Change is Gonna Come, a BAME anthology published by Stripes Publishing. Aisha is represented by YA literary agent Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge and White.
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