Seth Fishman's new YA novel, The Well's End, picks up with a mysterious sickness sweeping through 17-year-old Mia Kish's school--and she might be the cause of it. Secret labs and cliffhangers ensue. Fishman gives us his tips for how to write YA.

Most of the time, teenagers aren’t the ones getting book deals. It’s us old men and women who are, and we’re forced to research our children or our younger cousins or the teens we see on Modern Family and Parenthood (which are written by other old people). Sure, there’s a random bestselling teenage author like Christopher Paolini now and again, but for the most part, the people writing the YA you know and love are at best teaching high school, not attending.

That’s not to say we’re clueless. We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to have an uncombable cowlick. But how do adult writers, so far away from the source, successfully manage to create believable teen characters? Frankly, I don’t know. Everyone’s got their tricks. But I’ve written a couple YA novels now and have a few handy hints for those aspiring writers who want to give it a go.

Confront Your Failures

If you write a character exactly the way you remember yourself or a friend in high school, you’re doing it wrong. You were not cool and therefore, if your character’s based on you and is trying to hit on a classmate (girl or boy), your reader won’t pick it up. This literally happened to me: my editor kept telling me that the male ‘love’ interest in my book, The Well’s End, was totally disinterested in the book’s protagonist, and that was a problem. The thing is, I wrote him acting like me: every smooth move he did was a direct copy of a smooth move I attempted back at Midland High. Suddenly I remembered that I didn’t have any girlfriends in high school. That everything I thought was smooth and confident was really just confusing and impossible to read. No wonder I failed then, and no wonder I was failing now. I had to confront the reality that my memories could not fulfill the characters I was creating. Which leads directly to…

Don't Write Down

‘Young Adult’ does not mean stupid. It doesn’t mean ignorant. The major constrictions on YA are age of protagonist and cursing and violent/sexual content. Depending on the book, the latter two constraints are already becoming commonplace. So basically, YA really just means a teen protagonist. Oftentimes we see first person, or settings based on ‘reality’ (high school, death match arenas) but just as often we see abnormal (high school with vampires, death match arenas with vampires). In other words, just like adult books. When you write for teens, don’t patronize or condescend. If you really want to test this out, pick a generic topic (bomb on a subway) and write a short story about it, using the same character, and writing one for ‘teens’ and one for ‘adults.’ What you’ll find is that the difference is about you, and not the reader. It’s about how you want to be perceived and how you want your pages to be read. Most every ‘teen’ novel can be categorized into an adult genre, and if you take away any notions of writing down, your readers will respect you more and your book will have a larger inherent audience (the bestselling YA books are purchased way more by adults than teens).

Be Timeless When Timeless Is Called For

This is a recommendation that’s meant to be broken. I, myself, demanded that Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong bracelet be in The Well’s End and look where it got me. But you don’t need to go to 20 Justin Bieber concerts and watch MTV for a weekend and hang out in a mall all night to get the correct knowledge for the world you’re writing (unless it’s set at a Bieber concert, of course). When you write, you shouldn’t be referencing the things you remember/do now, and you shouldn’t be forcing the things you don’t know and can’t fully grasp. It makes you look like a fraud. If you do want to reference something topical, that’s fine, just be authentic. Otherwise, write a book about something more than the specifics. That way, when the specifics come up, they’re slotted into an already complete and believable puzzle. For me, I did research on swimming because my character was a nationally ranked swimmer and I wanted to have her use the lessons she’s gained while swimming to create her life. And you know what, go ahead and learn what type of swimsuit is in style right now at the junior Olympics. But by the time comes out, those will be old, out of place, and won’t make a difference. What matters is the things that build your character and informs the world she lives in.

Remember What You Felt, Not What You Remember

I’ve spoken about expanding your writing beyond your sad (or happy) memories of teenage angst, but there’s no reason to ignore firsthand accounts of your high school years completely. When trying to dust off the attic of your recollection, what’s most important is that you convey the emotion behind your memory when writing a character or scene, and less the specifics. For instance, in high school I had very, very curly long hair that could fro for any social occasion (see line about no girlfriends above). I could easily write that fact into a character of mine, but that doesn’t mean anything. What’s valuable is the feeling of disturbed and painful delight at the attention I’d receive when people pulled my hair thinking it was a wig. Why did I purposefully grow my hair out for attention? Why did people love it (they didn’t, did they?)? Remember the smell of school, the sound of the lockers, the feel of a new outfit, the nervousness over a grade, the way your teacher praised you, the jokes you made, the calls you waited for and take those memories and distill them into something more. Not every kid uses lockers or cares about grades – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use those flashes of physical memory when creating scene and character, but remember you can put anything there and it will work if the emotion you felt at the time, the fear, excitement, hormones, fun all come through. That’s why YA also works in outer space and in dystopian settings.

Be Confident

It’s becoming less of a problem now, but people can often look down on anyone not writing adult literary fiction. Or, at least, there’s a part of you that might wonder if this is a ‘respected’ bit of writing. Damn you for thinking that! If someone asked you what your favorite books of all time were, of course something you read as a teenager will hit that mark (even if it wasn’t YA). You’re writing for young humans, people who are the most in need of answers, people who are the most curious. You have the best chance for making a real difference in this world and it’s a disgrace to think otherwise at all ever. And that’s not even an excuse! You should write the story you want to write, and if it is for teens (or younger), so be it.

Have a Teenager Help You Edit

Have a teenager help you edit.

Good luck, writers, looking forward.