Crafting exceptional middle grade and young adult fiction for tweens and teens takes unforgettable character, one-of-a-kind voice and supreme writing confidence. The first two are necessary to make the third happen. After you have all three pieces in place, you are ready to tackle this vibrant market.
Too often in my work as a literary agent, I see weak characterization, sterile voice and unsteady writing craft. These flaws will prevent any project from getting published, for any audience, but they’re particularly fatal when a writer aspires to speak to the tween (called “middle grade,” for readers 8+) and teen (called “young adult,” for readers 12+) audiences. These age groups experience life in a very specific way: It’s life processed in Photoshop to add brightness, saturation, color and light. Young adults live a lot of emotional firsts in a very short amount of time. Their life is electric.
The best books written for tweens and teens possess that same brilliant, exciting, innovative quality. Bland writing, weak character, flat dialogue and a slow plot are cardinal sins in teen fiction. So how do you do it right? Let’s tackle character first.
CHARACTERS WITH CHARACTER
In my experience—this is true for me as an agent, as a reader and as a human being—character is the portal to a story. Without a great character, we don’t care about the plot, we’re not breathless about the stakes, and we lack the motivation to keep turning those pages.
There is a lot of advice out there on making your characters likable and realistic, on making them relatable or universal or putting them on a hero’s journey. And a lot of writers read a lot of books on writing character and still turn out forgettable people who lie flat on the page.
What’s the secret?
The first thing miring writers is character backstory. How do you give a character’s fascinating history without slowing down pacing with a dreaded “info-dump”? In Louis Sachar’s Newbury Award-winning middle grade novel Holes (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), we learn about Stanley Yelnats’ unlucky lineage in a way that also keeps the story’s forward momentum going:
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