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Exploring genre: Young adult

Teresa Bassett, author of The Time Crystals and The Mystery of Acorn Academy, discusses the ins and outs of writing for young adults.

Why is genre important?

Some might view the idea of genre as restricting, but I find it helpful. It’s a kind of shortcut to

help readers identify the books they’ll most likely enjoy. It also means they can steer clear of

those they wouldn’t like, or, say, wouldn’t want their children to read. Most books have elements from different genres, anyway, and readers know that.

As a writer, it’s useful to be able to attach a label to a story (in my case, mostly, it’s ‘Young Adult’), especially when talking to people about my work. I’m proud of writing for younger readers—and older people say they enjoy my stories, too!

What conventions does your chosen genre have?

The main characters for my young adult stories are always young themselves. Most importantly, the narrative is written through their eyes. There should be conflict, as in most genres, and you need to let your characters make mistakes, (and not always think like an older person might). By and large, the young characters must solve the mystery and save the day through their own ingenuity, or whatever important qualities they might have.

There are no hard and fast rules about endings. Personally, I like happy endings, but if I can’t

provide an entirely happy one, I try to at least include something positive. However dark the

subject matter might be (and YA literature isn’t afraid of the dark!), it’s good for there to be a

glimmer of hope.

Some YA authors like to include cultural references and language which would resonate with

young readers, and if you can pull it off, it certainly adds authenticity (particularly if your story is set in the past). Personally, however, I’m wary of doing this. I’m not that good at keeping up with popular culture (for any age!). Also, I know how intensely people can disagree about what constitutes cool, and how quickly tastes can change.

What is the most exciting thing about writing this genre?

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The teenage years are a time of extremes and new discoveries. Life can seem by turns exciting, challenging, horrific, and wonderful. I have vivid memories of my own teenage years, which is a big part of what draws me to this genre. My main characters are often young people facing major challenges. I hope this enables readers to identify with them and maybe not feel so alone with their own doubts and worries.

I love the intensity of writing for young adults. My primary aim is always to write a compelling,

exciting story, but within that you can also explore profound ideas: the battle between good and evil, the future of the planet, what makes us happy, all the big questions in life.

The curious thing is that I never set out to write for young adults. It’s simply that many of the

stories I want to tell seem to fall into that genre.

How is genre conveyed in your own work?

This is hard to explain, but for me it’s about coming up with an adventure that has a good

pace and characters who are easy to relate to. This often means that, although the plotline

might be something no young person might face (my stories tend to be mystery adventures),

internally, the emotions need to fit.

In The Time Crystals, for example, Clara is plunged into a high-stakes time travel adventure, but internally, she faces struggles endured by young people the world over: how to find their way in the world, working out who they and what matters to them, navigating the tricky waters of friendships and family relationships.

I like a straightforward style. Not because I’m ‘dumbing-down’, quite the contrary—young

readers are some of the most intelligent and discerning. I just like the pace and immediacy of a YA story, where you can set up your premise, establish your characters and run with it.

What tips would you offer others wanting to write in this genre?

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I think you need to have a strong link, inside, with how it feels to be a teenager. To remember

the emotions, their strength and intensity, the highs and lows. If your own memories aren’t

particularly a driving force, you might have children of your own, or work with kids, and know

‘their world’ from that perspective.

Also, I think the pace needs to be brisk, with a fair amount of action and a strong story concept. Not too much description, maybe, but enough to set the scene. The first person narrative, or close third, seems to suit the genre well.

Take any chance you can to listen to young people and their concerns. If, like me, you don’t

have children yourself, it helps if you have someone to consult (a niece/nephew/neighbour

perhaps) who can weed out ‘oldisms’, as I call them: turns of phrase which come from me and which my characters wouldn’t use under pain of death.

On a similar note, beware the temptation to preach. Young people can be incredibly mature, of course, but people do change as they age. Try to remember that something an older person might be able to put into perspective, could be devastating to a teen.

How can authors make this genre come to life?

Heartfelt emotions and an authentic voice. A strong plotline, often involving conflict with

authority. An understanding of the importance and difficulties of friendships, and the frictions

between young people and the adults in their lives.

It can also help if you have some knowledge or experience of the kinds of issues young people might face, such as money worries, dysfunctional families, bullying, being unjustly blamed, working out who you are and how to be accepted. Struggles like these affect young people in different ways.

Which authors do you admire within this genre?

I love JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, and I’m a big fan of the fast-paced, exciting stories of Anthony Horowitz and Philip Reeve. Patrick Ness’s More Than This is a fantastic example of a YA book that has an intriguing and engrossing storyline, and also explores the big concepts of life and death in an amazing way.

With many thanks to Teresa Bassett for writing this article

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