Writing Great Books for Young Adults

A Q&A with author and agent Regina Brooks

By Marcela Landres
Published on LatinoLA: September 10, 2014

Writing Great Books for Young Adults

The ongoing success of blockbuster YA (young adult) fiction such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars has agents and editors scrambling to find new YA writers. If you write YA books--or aspire to--now is your time. Don't wait to begin, or finish, your manuscript. To help you get started, read the Q&A below with literary agent Regina Brooks, author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults: Everything You Need to Know, from Crafting the Idea to Getting Published.


Regina Brooks is the founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, which Writer's Digest magazine named as one of the top 25 literary agencies. She represents a diverse base of award-winning clients in adult and young adult fiction, nonfiction, and children's literature. Formerly, she held senior editorial positions at John Wiley and Sons and McGraw-Hill. She is the author of Essence Magazine's quick pick children's book, Never Finished, Never Done (Scholastic), Writing Great Books for Young Adults (Source Books), and You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell and Market Your Memoir (St. Martin's Press). She is always interested in new and emerging writers. For more information, visit http://www.serendipitylit.com

Q: What inspired you to write Writing Great Books for Young Adults?

A: I wrote the book Writing Great Books for Young Adults because there was no other book on the market at that time that separated children's from young adult. When I first envisioned the project, Twilight and Divergent didn't exist. Now there are hundreds of thousands of young adult books and thousands of new authors writing for the genre. It's very exciting.

I was having success selling YA projects and several agent friends were coming to me for advice. There had always been a separation between the children's book market and the adult market. And many agents who sold adult books didn't sell to children's book editors, so they didn't know the space. One agent in particular, Katharine Sands, kept urging me to write a book that would not only help writers but also agents who wanted to learn more about this audience and how to evaluate and sell the projects to editors.

In addition, the book was written to guide potential young adult authors towards crafting books designed to appeal to the market, while helping them understand the nuances of writing for this audience. There were at the time many adult authors who wanted to jump on the YA gravy train (editors were given huge advances) and did so successfully. So the book was also designed to help authors who wanted to make the transition.

Q: The second edition of Writing Great Books for Young Adults is coming out October 7, 2014. How has the young adult publishing landscape changed since the first edition was published in 2009?

A: When I wrote the first edition, I really wanted to focus on craft and was hopeful that it be an evergreen title for anyone wanting to learn the technical aspects of writing for this audience. And while the book still has that appeal--there are even several MFA programs that use the book for their courses--there are new issues to be discussed. Two in particular are New Adult and YA nonfiction.

The term New Adult was first coined in 2009 by St. Martin's Press when they held a special call for "fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult--a sort of an 'older YA' or 'new adult'." As YA readers aged out of the genre, publishers needed a way to maintain a connection to those readers. So New Adult was created to generate both books for those readers and a space on the bookshelf for those stories. The New Adult market has helped to retain the reading loyalty of adults of all ages who enjoy the expressive fervor of YA books.

Also, as schools have adopted the Common Core (educational standards designed to ensure all students in the nation have a comprehensive set of skills), great opportunities have opened up for editors to publish and sell books that incorporate core topics. Implementation of the Common Core means the school/library market has assumed greater importance in the publishing world.

In the film industry, the market for YA adaptations has exploded; ten adaptations alone were made in 2013. These cinematic successes mean that YA books are reaching broader audiences than ever, particularly parents and film executives. The numbers bear this idea out. According to New York magazine, the two biggest audiences for YA fiction are readers 18-29 who buy 35% of all YA purchases, and readers 30-44 who buy 27% of all YA purchases. In my new edition I discuss book to film.

Q: Which three mistakes should newbie young adult writers avoid?

A: 1. Avoid preaching to young adult readers, or being too heavy-handed in handling theme or teaching a lesson. No YA reader wants to feel like they are reading a verbose public service announcement.

2. Avoid trying to write to trends or to market instead of writing the material that fascinates or excites you. Especially, do not emulate a trendy "hot" YA book either in concept or in style. Editors want something they haven't seen before. Looking for commercial success will only limit your creativity, and ultimately block you from completing a successful YA novel. When it comes to YA fiction, limiting your creativity is the last thing you want to do! Just as you shouldn't write to trends, keep in mind that if you come to YA with an open mind and a fresh perspective, you could be starting a trend. As I go through submissions, I look for stories about people and situations that have not been well-tread before.

3. On the other hand, ignorance about what's currently out there is not going to be helpful, either. I get thousands of fantasy submission a month and there are certainly themes that are worn thin. How many times can the protagonist be given the task of having to make the decision to save their planet or to reside in a new galaxy? Newbie YA writers should expose themselves to the incredible, groundbreaking material that's already on the shelves, so they can get inspired and keep pushing those boundaries!

Q: Alternatively, what are some signs of a top-notch young adult writer?

A: A writer who brings a confident voice, freshness/uniqueness of setting and concept, and the presence of well-developed characters who leave the reader with a sense that they are real people with authentic emotion.

A writer who understands that patience is a huge part of being a successful author. There's a lot of stop and start during the lifecycle of getting a book published. Honor the process and allow each phase of the process its natural rhythm.

A writer who understands the importance of revision and who does not take critique as criticism. Revision is a key part of the writing process.

A writer who understands that he or she needs a team to experience ideal success. It takes a village (graphic designers, publicists, editors, web developer, photographer, copywriter, etc.) to make a book work. I encourage my authors to start developing a strong team as soon as possible.

Q: Aside from Writing Great Books for Young Readers, what resources would you recommend to aspiring writers of young adult books?

A: I encourage authors to participate in literary contests as they help build your confidence and provide great feedback to show whether or not you are on the right track. During the month of November I run a contest called the YA Discovery Contest where I ask writers to send in the first 250 words of their manuscripts. They get valuable feedback from a team of in house editors on their submissions. Many of the winners of my contest have gone on to get represented and published. Be sure to check my website http://www.serendipitylit.com/ for instructions on how to enter this year's contest. In addition, here are a few other resources:

1. The SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) hosts local and national conferences in every state and region of the U.S. and in several countries outside it. They offer a wealth of resources and networking opportunities. For more information, visit http://www.scbwi.org/

2. Literary Rambles, http://www.literaryrambles.com/, is a wonderful website for YA writers, featuring a compilation of agent interviews, author interviews, and giveaways. YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith has also put together a wealth of information for YA and children's writers on her site, http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com

3. The Institute of Children's Literature is a correspondence course especially geared toward writers for young people. It might be a good alternative for those who are not willing or able to enroll in a low residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, such as those at Vermont College of Fine Arts or Hamline University. The course's web site is http://www.childrenslit.com/

4. Other craft books that deal with plot and characterization include The Plot Whisperer series by Martha Alderson and Story by Robert McKee, a screenwriting guide by which many novelists swear.

Q: Do you have upcoming projects that my readers should have on their radar?

A: A few author projects include:

The Temple of Doubt by Anne Boles Levy
A Bright Coin Moon by Kirsten Lopresti
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
Travel Origami by Cindy Ng
Zorro: Steel & Steam--Book One The Conceit of Death by John Schulte and John Besmehn

Excerpted from Latinidad?« ?® 2003 by Marcela Landres

About Marcela Landres:
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster.
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