Fiction for Young Adults is as sophisticated and varied as fiction for adults. Generally, YA fiction targets 13 - 18 year olds, but of course many adults enjoy it too. The only notable difference is that language, sexual and violent content tends to be kept mild and to a minimum - more on that later. As YA fiction becomes more dominant in the market, it seems to be sub-dividing, much like film ratings have - think Middle Grade like 12A, Upper Middle Grade 12, Teen 15, Young Adult 18 - but as yet the umbrella genre is still YA (and Children for 12 and under). There is also an exciting new genre called New Adult which is aimed at 18 - 30 year olds.
YA fiction is in many ways more challenging to write than adult fiction. Unless you are an author under 20 years of age (which most aren't - me included!) the most important element to get right is the 'voice' of the age group you're writing for. Having been writing my debut novel (and redrafting and redrafting and redrafting) for over five years, I've discovered a number of ways to try to do this:
Firstly, read successful or highly praised YA fiction. Then read the less successful ones. If you're writing fantasy, immerse yourself in The Hunger Games, Twilight, His Dark Materials. If you're not, still read them. It's a good idea to dip into different YA genres to find patterns in the young adult 'voice'. The broader your understanding of YA fiction, I think the better your own writing will be. I don't enjoy reading horror (because I'm a scaredy-puss) but I made myself read 'The Enemy' series by Charlie Higson and was blown-away by the humour. For my YA recommendations, click on the tab or link below.
TALK TO A TEENAGER (OR TWO OR THREE)
Secondly, delve into your own memories of being a teenager. The emotions and fears don't change, even if the language does. I've found reading the book reviews on Amazon and Good Reads written by teenagers about YA fiction really enlightening. What do they rate? What drives them crazy? Quite often it's toe-curling dialogue or a main character who lacks believability. Worse still, is a main character who is not aged 14, 15 or 16 (for Teen readers) or 17, 18 (for Young Adult readers). It's not always true ('My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece' is a fine example of great YA fiction centred around a character who is 10) but generally, the main character of YA fiction should be a young adult themselves. If you know teenagers (which you really should do!) then ask them their book likes and dislikes.
DITCH THE PARENTS
The best advice I've had was from a teenager who told me to 'cut out the parents'. Well, I didn't dump them entirely but it definitely spun the novel I'd been writing on its head. Later I stumbled across this quote attributed to Philip Pullman:
“As Jane Austen might have put it: It is a truth universally acknowledged that young protagonists in search of adventure must ditch their parents.”
Of course, adults in YA fiction can provide great characters (think Dumbledor) but they are best shown through the eyes of a teenager. Your YA readers may well perceive a character very differently to you. Where you might have intended a restrained father they might only see an unlikeable, unloving man. In the same breath, don't underestimate how much children and young adults do perceive and understand. I don't think it's necessary to always spell out a character's intent or actions.
SWEARING AND SEX
Thirdly, language and sex. A hurdle to conveying a 'true' young adult voice is the limitation on bad language. Most teenagers I know swear. The problem with including too many 'f' words (or any at all) is adult censorship - from the purchasing parent to recommendations from librarians. Adult censorship may prevent a young adult getting hold of a great story so if you want your book to be read by as many young adults as possible, it may be wise to tone down the language.
Sex in YA can be difficult to get right too. It should always be done in keeping with the story. Rachel Ward's sex scene in Numbers is a good example, both necessary to the plot and well-handled. Remember, many readers will have little or no experience so it can't be unrealistic or romanticised or gratuitous. Recall your own 'first time' and focus on how you felt, rather than the mechanics too much.
To sum up, I suggest if you're thinking of writing YA fiction, be sure of your audience, their loves and loathes, and use a voice that is your own. Rediscover the teenager you were - which may be easier for some! And most of all, love reading YA fiction.