Why I Write YA

Erin Danehy pretty much rocks the hizzouse. We trade like 9 billion emails a day (no, really) and she’s always full of good advice, random but helpful information, and (in her words) cheeky optimism.

Even though we went to college and studied writing “together,” we didn’t really become friends until after graduating and moving to different cities. Now I can’t even imagine going through this process (of becoming an author) without her by my side.

Erin recently signed with agent Kate Testerman, and soon her amazing YA fantasy BOUND BETWEEN will be on submission to editors. Please leave her lots and lots of comments, since I won’t be around to clog up her inbox this week. :)

I was originally planning to dish on my experience with Kristan as a crit partner (because I know you all want to know all those juicy details! Um, yes…), but I’ll save that for a future guest post.

Without further ado, I present a list of the heartfelt, stupid, crazy, applicable, random, insensible, honest, nerdy, and deep-down emotional reasons why I write (and always have wanted to write) novels for young adults. (Replete with much parenthetical commentary.) These aren’t necessarily the same reasons for why I write fantasy (that’s a whole ‘nother list), but some are the same. I bet you won’t guess which ones!

I write YA because…

  1. I want to. (What, that’s not in and of itself a valid reason? I have to elaborate? Pfft.)
  2. When I was twelve years old, I decided to be a novelist and write novels for ME, me as defined as who I was then — and it’s still true for who I am now. I swore I’d never write a book I didn’t love. That I’d always strive to write a book I could call My Favorite Book of All Time. At the time that book didn’t exist — and it still doesn’t exist. That is my carrot-on-a-stick, my very pulse. I live to write the best book I’ve ever read. Over and over again, across my whole career.
  3. I’m obsessed with coming-of-age stories. Young Adult, as a genre, encompasses the age at which most people “come of age” — in a variety of legal and emotional senses.
  4. I had a relatively boring, normal teenage life in the suburbs, so I write about teens who don’t have boring teen years. (Whether or not they welcome the boredom, ha.) Escapism? Nope. I write for pure fun and imagination, for thrill, joy, love, and the “what if” just beyond every corner.
  5. I have absurdly vivid memories of my childhood and of my teen years, my “young adult” years, when I wanted so desperately to just “grow up” and be done with being a “kid.” Those memories are replete with the visceral emotions I felt at the time. I can still feel the searing pain and disappointment from my first college rejection letter at seventeen; the loneliness and abandonment I felt as a twelve-year-old who had no “best friend” the way novels told her she should; the swell of triumph and pride of hitting a home run on my high school softball team at fourteen. I feel them with such immediacy, it’s only natural I write about young adults.
  6. I’m a big kid. I routinely use slang, make up my own slang, and I get more excited about the latest PG Animated Movie release than the latest big Summer Blockbuster or Romantic Comedy. I play with toys. I make funny faces in the mirror. I hate the thought of being considered a “kid” but I also want so badly to be taken seriously as a “grown up.” Still. I’ve always been this way. This is who I am. I’ll change, I’m sure, but I’ll still always be this person, or I’ll always have been this person, this big kid.
  7. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe my high school experience, at least as far as I’ve learned so far. I’m willing to spend an entire career searching for and using all of those adjectives to write about high school and the experience of being 14-18, to write about being on the cusp of, in the middle of, and just beyond… everything.
  8. I naturally exaggerate about everything. So does the average teenager. I think because we have that in common, it makes sense I write for teenagers. (Also teens are the best audience EVER. EVERRRRR.)
  9. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a classroom of students reading a book I wrote since the third grade. (THIRD GRADE; that was before I was even certain I was going to be a novelist. This must mean I’m dedicated.)
  10. I LOVE the idea of going to a school or library and talking to kids, teachers, and librarians about reading and writing. About my books! They will have to kick me out of school/library events and book signings.
  11. Because teen (and all-around) literacy is important to me. Hugely important.
  12. Some teen readers use YA lit as a jumping off point into older “classics,” into adult genres of all sub-sorts, or into further YA lit discovery. I would love for my books to encourage a teen to pick up one of my classic favorites (Pride and Prejudice, Paradise Lost, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), some of my adult genre favorites (oh — there are too many), or a YA book (or “coming of age” as some pre-“YA-as-genre” books could be classed) from yesteryear they might not have yet discovered (again, too many to list). I would love my books to be that stepping stone.
  13. The English major in me sees the young adult / coming of age experience as a version of Joseph Campbell’s hero theory. (Extrapolate it; it works!) I’m obsessed with Joseph Campbell’s hero theory to something of an unhealthy degree. (Go read The Hero With a Thousand Faces now. NOW.) So why wouldn’t I write young adult / coming of age stories?
  14. As a teen I read voraciously, but when I was reading young adult fantasy for the first time, there weren’t more than a handful of female-hero-driven fantasy books I could fall in love with. I had to skip to adult, or hang around exhausting the kid’s (middle grade) section, or put up with (some rather excellent, I admit) male-hero-driven fantasy books. Since I was a teen, there’s been an explosion of the genre of young adult fantasy featuring strong female protagonists who’ve earned the title of “hero.” I couldn’t be happier. I want to be a part of that.
  15. I love reading YA. Love. I’ve always wanted to be a part of the genre I love, to participate in the game as well as cheer on the sidelines.
  16. Teens aren’t the only ones who read and love YA. I like the idea of writing for EVERYONE, for writing for the 12+, the 14+, the 16+ audience. YA doesn’t limit me. It’s one of the freest genres I can think of.
  17. I love YA, but I also recognize that I don’t have to limit a career to YA alone. If I ever want to write for adults, for middle-grade; a picture book, a non-fiction book (about Joseph Campbell’s hero theory? Yes? Yes?), a memoir… why not? I just might. I don’t know. But just because I’m loving and writing YA now doesn’t mean I have to limit myself to this genre forever.

The more I read over that list, the more I realize that represents only a fraction of the impossible-to-articulate reasons why I write YA. Really, I like my first reason: Because I want to. It’s so much more succinct than having to list all the others and more.

So Kristan’s lovely readers, please tell me: why do you read what you read? Why do you write what you write? What inspires you? What motivates you?

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11 Comments

  1. 9 billion emails a day, Kristan? Really? Okay maybe. I miss you this week. Sniff.

  2. Your list could be my list. My reasons for writing *whispers* chick lit *looks around furtively* are the same–people still finding their way in the world are more interesting than those who already think they know it all.

    Congrats on snagging Kate–you’re in great hands.

    – Liz

  3. I think I like YA because I get to be way cooler the second time around.

  4. Hi Erin! I love your list and really I needed it this week. I’ve been having lots of circular arguments in my head as to why I write YA and what I want to do in the future. Number two on your list has inspired me to do the same…to keep writing the best book of all time. Thanks so much, you have no idea.

    I didn’t intend on writing YA when I started writing my book. It just sort of happened and I’ve been thinking lately that the books that inspire me to write are all YA–they make me think I can do it too. The typical books I read, literary adult, inspire me with language and ideas, but they make it seem impossible to write. Perhaps this is why it took me so long to take the plunge.

    Love, love, love your point about YA being a stepping stone into the classics. I just read The DUFF and the author references Wuthering Heights in such a compelling way that if I was a kid reading that book and hadn’t read any Bronte, I’d be out there looking for it.

    I’m writing YA because I want to, too. ;)

  5. I read and write a bunch of different genres, so it’s hard for me to answer your questions. There is definitely a style of writing that is more comfortable/easy for me to write, but it’s not so much that I chose to write that way for a specific reason. My writing just evolved that way and I went with it – happily, don’t get my wrong. However, while my natural inclination is to write character driven fiction, the MS I currently have out on submission is a PI novel. While I think I did a good job with it, and I do like it, it was definitely a struggle for me, and I have no desire to make that genre the focus of my future writing.

    The same thing goes for what I read. I like a lot of different things, usually depending on my mood. If I had to name my favorite authors right now, I’d say JK Rowling and John Irving. If I had to name my favorite novel, I think I’d still give the nod to “Like” by Ali Smith.

  6. I love you forever ever for this. It’s hard not to when you’re so exuberant and strange.

  7. Les

    “I want to” is an awesome reason :p YA isn’t for me but having passion for something is important!

  8. First of all I love the energy that you seems to come bounding off the computer from your writing. I write what I write because it’s what I write. Okay really it’s because I like to write things that will stick in your mind Things that will come knocking, crawling or slithering around when you are trying to sleep at night. I like to read paranormal, supernatural, thriller and romance. I’m getting back into reading some YA novels. I just always feel weird looking in the YA section as an adult. I know I just have to get over it. My inspiration to write is that it is my passion in life. It’s one of my passions in life. Sheesh… this is rambling day for me. I really enjoyed your post by the way if you couldn’t tell.

  9. I’m currently working on my first YA piece. It’s taken me a while to think of it that way. To me, it’s simply the story I’m excited to tell, which is how I approach all of my writing. It’s great that you can back up your reason for writing YA, but I almost wonder if this has been developed as a defense from years of people asking you “Why?” I mean, you have a LOT of answers! Kudos to you (and bonus points for the classic Star Wars shirt in the pic). Good luck with your writing! :)

  10. Liz — Exactly! And thank you :)

    Sonja — I admire you for having such breadth! I read more genres than I write, as you said, depending on my mood. Some genres I didn’t even know I liked until I felt like picking them up one day on a whim. I have a feeling one day I’ll start a MS in a genre I never thought I’d write and then it won’t feel strange at all. Maybe.

    Les — That’s my REAL reason. Shh.

    Joelle — Thanks! Don’t feel weird about YA! A story well-told transcends genre, I say, and I agree: my favorite stories are those that stay with you even when you close the book, the ones that won’t stop until I finish them, either when I’m reading or writing.

    Scott — Wow, what a thought: “It’s great that you can back up your reason for writing YA, but I almost wonder if this has been developed as a defense from years of people asking you “Why?” I mean, you have a LOT of answers!”

    You’re right. I started adding to this list (mentally) as a teenager when I was first writing. Back then my reason was “Write what you know — I know YA, so I’m writing it” but for my first writing workshop at 16, that reason wasn’t good enough. I was told that I was supposed to strive to write the Great American Novel, not write popular genre fiction for teens. (My teachers thought of “Harry Potter” as commercial garbage, having little to no redeeming literary quality, though I disagreed — not that teens care about ‘literary quality’! — but I digress.) So many of my writing teachers over the years have looked down on YA as a valid genre (fantasy, even MORE so!) and I’ve been forced to argue for it in every academic (aka, valid) sense I can, and a lot of those reasons are on the list as a result. In an academic, writing program context, I was always fighting to prove the worth of YA and fantasy. Out in the blogosphere, it’s different. There are many more lovers of EVERY genre who blog with adamant love here about every aspect of craft, the industry, and their genre(s).

    But what you said is ultimately the basic truth: “To me, it’s simply the story I’m excited to tell.” THAT is why I’m hooked by my manuscripts. That’s what’s always the heart of my work. I need to be in love with my manuscript. I’m not preoccupied with worrying over which shelf it’ll go on in the bookstore.

    Thank you all for the lovely comments so far!

  11. Erin-
    What, do you think I lowballed it? ;P

    Lindsey Renee Rose-
    LOL. FOR SERIOUS!

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