Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Few Young Adult Novel Guidelines

Tips For Writing for the YA/Teen Market

I recently went to a seminar on writing YA novels and thought I would share the information I gathered there with you. If you aspire to be a YA writer or have just delved into this popular genre of literature perhaps these few tips will be helpful. Over the next month I'll be sharing a few things I learned here on The Story Tree for you. Oh by the way, Mr. Story Tree is in his full Fall regalia right now and a new group of readers have gathered around him or climbed his branches to enjoy their novels.

Is the novel you're writing now or planning to write targeted for the middle-grade or young adults? Do you ever wonder what themes are appropriate? Can you use cuss words? What about sexual situations and how far can you go in writing these scenes?Here are some tips I learned to write for this age group.

Think about the Harry Potter series. These novels are about adventure, romance and mystery all taking place in a magical environment. On the other hand the Twilight series novels, just as popular, was also set in the same environment but geared for the older young adult. Even though both series are Young Adult novels with the same type of story lines, they are each as broad as a category can get with regard to maturity, sexual content, and violence. Here are some general guidelines I have been given for the YA ages, and I'll pass them on. Hopefully some of your questions will be answered.

Middle Grade Novels

  •  Written for ages 8-12. 
  •  Approximately 20,000-40,000 words, depending on publisher if you decide to go with one. 
  •  Any genre (mystery, adventure, humor, historical, contemporary, fantasy, etc.). 
  •  Most plot lines, characters, and settings are acceptable, but are geared to 10-12 year olds. Intense subjects     need to be handled skillfully, and may get bumped to an older category. 

Upper Middle Grade Novels
  • An emerging age category, picking up more serious middle grade books that aren’t quite YA. 
  • Written for ages 10-14. 
  •  Length can lean toward either Middle Grade or Young Adult word counts. 

Young Adult Novels
  •  Written for ages 12 and up. 
  •  Approximately 40,000 to 80,000 words, although there are exceptions on both ends. 
  •  Any genre (mystery, adventure, humor, historical, contemporary, fantasy, etc.). 
  •  Any subject matter, from light romance to high fantasy. 
  •  “Edgy YA” includes often taboo subjects such as sexuality, abuse, mental illness, etc. Some publishers actively look for these, some prohibit them. Indie writers can usually gage their own stories and release them at will. 
So as you can see, Young Adult reader ages are varied, but as time has gone by it seems the genre is enjoyed by those readers up to the age of 65 and above because the maturity level of writing in these books has changed. We must remember though as writers we are still setting the scenes primarily for the young adults. The younger portion of this age group, 8-12, often read novels that their parents will remember as teenage novels. But by the middle of the adolescent years, 12-14 and sometimes earlier, most teens are reading adult novels. They get pulled back to YA novels with stories that relate directly to their own concerns by stories that help them figure out their place in the world in a sensitive way, regardless of the environments within the novel itself, there are happenings that the younger age group can somehow relate to.

Young Adult Genres and Subjects 

 As a group, YA readers will devour any genre: adventure, romance, humor, mystery, historical, contemporary, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. These varied topics allow teens to explore unfamiliar aspects of their world and other cultures, bring bits of history to life, and allow them to experience things that they normally couldn’t. The underlying themes, regardless of genre or topic, allow teens to examine deeper issues in a safe way: for instance what their role in life is, the difference one person can make upon their life, the importance of relationships, coping with tragedies of any sort, etc. The younger set of YA readers can cope with scary subjects, but usually only at a distance—such as, the main character’s friend is doing drugs or has gotten pregnant, but not the main character. Thus allowing the younger teen to see how the main character handles their friends situation. For instance, I always looked at the novel White Oleander as a YA novel, but I don't believe a younger reader on the lower range of YA age scale can read it and relate to its story line. Whereas stories like Harry Potter and Twilight, because of their paranormal, magical content are realistically less confrontational to a young adult.

Edgy YA

 When formerly taboo subjects are handled with an intense perspective, it is considered Edgy YA. There are no forbidden subjects here, but they are written with sensitivity and care, not gratuitously. These novels are aimed at older teens. Instead of a friend or acquaintance having issues, the main character is the one being abused, cutting, considering suicide, etc., or it’s a family member or best friend of the main character. The viewpoint is very close, the bond and introspection and questioning are strong. Overall, teens can identify keenly with the character’s feelings, if not the situation.


The exact age of a YA character isn’t as important as the need for the age to fit the character. High school freshmen will act, think, and relate much differently than seniors. The most important requirement for your characters is that they are real. Their language, relationships, worries, hobbies, etc., must be exactly right for the person you have created. The second most important thing is that your story is written about the character and his or her experience and growth, not about the theme you have chosen. Just remember this, if you write the story well, the theme will come through.

Length and Style

YA novels generally run 40,000-85,000 words, but you’ll find novels on either side of that. Write the story in the length it takes to tell it, and then check submission guidelines if you are submitting the novel to a publisher. If you are an indie author it's up to you. Just remember the attention span of most young adults ends around 70,000 to 75,000 words. Thus the YA novel series has become popular. A little here, more there and voila you have a series whereby the young adult can follow at their leisure.

There are a few vocabulary restrictions for this age group but don't get too carried away. Keep the words fairly simple. The youth of today don't want to be running to the computer to look up a word or five every chapter. Watch out for stereotypes in your descriptive and narrative words. The acceptability of profanities and obscenities is determined by the age level and topic, whether it is necessary for the character to use them, and by the editor’s/publisher’s preference. One thing I can advise stay away from the 'F' word and a few other sexually offensive words that describe body parts. Those words are not necessary. Unfortunately the YA groups hear them in real life environments. If your novel is about a real life experience just use/find another term. Okay enough of the 'bad word' lecture.

YA stories are usually written in first or third person (I said or he said), but there are some successful novels written in second person present (you say). Again, it will depend on your style and the voice of your character.

This brings us to sexual content. Kissing is good, cuddling is good. Doing the actual deed (as kids now days call it) is not recommended. Once can allude to it, but never use graphic words to describe sexual scenes, and if possible stay away from the actual act itself if you can. The youth of today get enough exposure to sex on television, in movies and listening to everyday talk among some of their peers. Lovey dovey is good, Pokemon in the bed is not...


Before you begin writing a YA novel read a large number and wide variety of YA novels and analyze them. Second, write the best novel you can. Third, study publishers’ guidelines and novel catalogs, and submit to houses whose needs match your particular story. Also, look at the Kindle ratings on and read about the novel description. Many of the Indie Author novels range from $.99-2.99 in price and can give you a good idea or what YA novels are selling within the top 100 range.

So good luck on wiritng your YA novel and I hope this has answered a few questions for you. I'll be posting a few other things regarding the YA genre in the future. Right now I'm writing a YA series myself and I know the seminar and this information was helpful to me. Now go forth and Write ON!!


  1. This is incredibly important information for anyone who is writing or thinking about writing in this genre. You were very thorough! Thanks so much for sharing it so well.

  2. And thank you Louise for your kind comment and thoughts. I like to share what I've learned and applied to my own writing and you are most welcome. Have a beautiful day and as I always say Write ON! 8-) ♥

  3. Nicely organized info... If I find myself writing in this genre, I will take these tips to heart.


  4. You're welcome bluzteach, and thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog. Have a beautiful day and Write ON! 8-) ♥

  5. Khloe, great info. Thanks for putting this together.

  6. You're welcome Susan and thank you for reading the blog. I'm glad you like the info. Have a great evening. 8-) ♥