There’s no question that YA is the genre du jour. Literary agents and editors all seem to be seeking the next big thing in young adult, especially the “crossover” novel that can hit both the teenage and adult markets.
So when I started writing my novel “Skin of Tattoos,” it seemed to me a no-brainer to make it a YA book. The book is a thriller pivoting on the rivalry between two street gang members in Los Angeles. Since gangs are primarily composed of young men, many of them teenagers, it seemed to be a natural fit for YA. Great, I thought, I can jump on the YA bandwagon. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, either writing the book or selling it.
First, in writing YA, authors must keep in mind the limitations on a teenager’s life, namely they generally live with their families and have to answer to parents. The author must account for these family characters in some way and establish their relationships with the main teen character. Specifically, the author must invent excuses for the parents not noticing the behavior of the teen that generally makes the conflict of the plot.
I notice a lot of YA books have the teen (girl, more often than not) alone with a divorced or widowed parent, which makes the mom or dad conveniently more distracted or absent-minded, leaving the teenager to get on with the plot. A lot of teen protagonists are also only children, another handy mechanism that eliminates the need for the author to deal with sibling relationships. Although these scenarios certainly occur in real life, it’s probably not quite as often as in YA fiction. Authors must also keep in mind that friends are hugely important in adolescence so friends must play a major role and those relationships must be established. Likewise, teens are not adults. They are subject to school rules and a different set of laws, which may affect the plot.
Elements such as profanity, obscenity, drug use and sex must be considered. The author can include those things but she must consider her goals for the book. If she wants to sell into school libraries and cast a wide net for readers, which would include adults who buy books to give to teens, she may not want to include the racy stuff. On the other hand, teens themselves may actually be drawn by the edgier, grittier and more realistic content.
YA books also have a more uniform style. They are overwhelmingly told in first person, mostly present tense, in a day-to-day fashion so the reader feels a part of the protagonist’s life. The voice must also be right. A certain tone of snarkiness in interior monologue and side comments seems to be what agents and editors like although in reality teens don’t talk like that as often as books stipulate.
YA is overwhelming a girls’ genre. Visit a bookstore’s YA section, you’ll see most titles are romance-oriented or otherwise female oriented with girls on the cover. I didn’t initially view this as a hindrance. After all, my teenage son had often complained to me that he didn’t like reading books because he couldn’t find any action/adventure books more suited to boys. I figured there must be a market for boy YA.
But the truth is not really. Agents and editors are looking for what sells, and that’s by and large girl YA. Nevertheless, when I sent out my manuscript, I got nibbles and a few bites, and eventually I landed an agent. (That’s the subject of another blog post.) The book, however, didn’t move. To make a long story short, I parted ways with that agent and then I saw what I needed to do: make “Skin of Tattoos” an adult novel. I upped the age of my protagonist, Mags, by a couple years, to twenty, and suddenly he was freed of the constraints and limited world view of a minor, yet still young enough to have issues with his family and make the boneheaded mistakes that youths make as they enter adulthood. As a writer, it was like shedding shackles.
Mags instantly became old enough to have a level of awareness about himself and the world. He could come to terms with his family problems with the emotional depth that a teen likely wouldn’t have. It made his character, the main plot and the family-issue subplot that much richer.
After much revision, I got a deal with a small publisher, and “Skin of Tattoos” was finally released to the world last August, earning praise from Kirkus Reviews as “a well crafted debut” from a “a talented writer.” Reading that made the exceptionally long journey and the heartache that accompanied it all worth it.
Christina Hoag won a prize for writing interesting stories when she was six years old and that’s what she’s been doing ever since as a journalist and novelist. She’s a former reporter for the Miami Herald and Associated Press and reported from Latin America for nearly a decade for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the author of novels "Girl on the Brink," a YA romantic thriller (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, 2016), named by Suspense Magazine as one of the best YA books of 2016, and "Skin of Tattoos," a gangland thriller. She is also the co-author of "Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence "(Turner Publishing, 2014), a book on gang intervention that is being used in several universities. For more information, see www.christinahoag.com.