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5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing a YA Novel

SandraGulland [1]Please welcome today’s guest Sandra Gulland [2]—an internationally bestselling author of biographical historical fiction set in France. She is known for the depth and accuracy of her research, as well as for creating novels that bring history vividly to life. Published by Simon & Schuster and Doubleday in the US, and HarperCollins in Canada, she is now writing two Young Adult novels for Penguin in the US and Canada. The popular Josephine B. Trilogy about Napoleon’s wife Josephine has been published in over fifteen countries. Mistress of the Sun [3] and her latest novel The Shadow Queen [4] are set in the mid-17th century French Court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and are published internationally as well.

I am writing two YA novels about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense. Exploring this new genre after decades as a writer of adult historical fiction is enlightening and creatively invigorating. The explosive renaissance in YA fiction right now is both thrilling and inspiring.

Connect with Sandra on her blog [5], on Facebook [6], and on Twitter [7].

5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing a YA Novel

I have been writing adult historical fiction for over thirty years. After publishing The Shadow Queen, my fifth novel, I got an offer out of the blue from Penguin to write two Young Adult novels.

This was a serious swerve for me: I had never considered writing a YA novel.

[pullquote]Just because a novel is written for teens does not mean that it’s going to be easier to write. Writing YA is fun, but it certainly isn’t easy. I don’t believe it’s any different than writing an adult historical novel. The same standards apply.[/pullquote]

In retrospect, I don’t know why. I read and enjoyed YA. Before becoming a novelist, I had been a book editor—and the lion’s share of my work for over a decade had been editing a series of YA novels for reluctant readers. As an editor, I had explored the idea of developing a series of YA biographies. Researching this idea, I read a YA biography: it happened to be the story of Josephine Bonaparte.

Bingo! I got hooked on Josephine. Years later, I sent a book proposal to a publisher for a YA novel about Josephine. The publisher declined, but I persevered, and much—much!—later, my Josephine B. Trilogy was published. I wept finishing this amazing story. Josephine had been an important part of my life for over a decade. Sad and depleted, I plunged into the 17th century Court of the Sun King, selling my Napoleonic research books to make room for this new era. I was finished with Josephine’s world.

Or so I thought…

One of the YA novels, Penguin stipulated, was to be about Josephine’s daughter, Hortense.

I gave this offer a great deal of thought. Over the following months, I mapped out Hortense’s teen years, to see what her story might be. It was all there—enough for the two novels, in fact. I got excited.

Shadow-Queen-Anchor-US-ppbk-cover1-664x1024-2 [8]Furthermore, I recognized that YA really was very much in my blood. It wasn’t such a stretch. In fact, I would be coming full circle. And so I agreed to the proposal, and immersed myself in the teen world of a girl in 18th century France.

It has been an adventure. Here is what I have learned so far:

1. Just because a novel is written for teens does not mean that it’s going to be easier to write.

Writing YA is fun, but it certainly isn’t easy. I don’t believe it’s any different than writing an adult historical novel. The same standards apply.

2. The fact that YA is a bit shorter in length does not ensure that it’s going to come together faster.

Blaise Pascal is credited with writing: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Writing a short novel entails many, many revisions.

Tish Cohen [9], YA author of Little Black Lies [10], suggests: “It’s a good idea to make sure you have conflict and interest on every page, because teens are used to sophisticated stories that are intended for adults. And they love characters with great depth.”

Basically, you are writing more with less. That’s not easy.

3. Assume that your reader is super-smart.

Tish Cohen also says, “Teens these days are whip smart and highly sophisticated.”

The teen years are intense in every way: physically, spiritually as well as intellectually. There is nothing simple or straightforward about their world. They are trying to figure everything out, the meaning of life as well as their place in the world.

4. Treat your reader as an equal.

Even a hint of condescension turns any reader off.

At the same time, it’s important to respect differences. Katherine Howe [11], New York Times bestselling author of the YA novel Conversion [12], adds: “Teens have their own language and set of preoccupations, and as adults it’s important to remind ourselves of those preoccupations.” Too, a historical reference that would be understood by a 50-year-old may well be a mystery to a teen.

5. Aspire for the novel you are writing to be your best one yet.

Aim high? You bet.

Many authors are turning to YA today because it is one of the few genres that is growing—and at an astonishing rate—but that might well be because the quality of YA today is so very, very high.

Do you write YA novels? Have you written adult novels, too? What can you share about writing differences (and similarities) about writing for YA and adult audiences?