By Mark Alpert
I love Young Adult novels. For many years I read the books aloud to my son and daughter, and when my kids got old enough to read the books on their own, I would sneak into their bedrooms late at night and swipe the novels from their desks so I could keep up with them. I longed to write a YA novel of my own, and a couple of years ago I had an idea for a science thriller that might appeal to teenagers, a story about robots and artificial intelligence and whether a person’s mind or soul can really outlive the death of the body. Titled The Six, the novel will be published in July, and it’s already received some advance praise from R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series (my son’s favorite bedtime read when he was a second-grader), and Michael Grant, author of the Gone series (which my kids also loved). Now I’d like to share some of the things I learned while writing the novel.
1) It’s all about The Voice. One could argue that the best YA novel of all time is The Catcher in the Rye. My daughter, now in eighth grade, read the book for her English class this year and was completely enthralled by the adventures of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. It was Holden’s voice that grabbed her, the vivacious, confused, sometimes angry, sometimes wise voice that ridiculed all the phonies at Pencey Prep and wondered what happened to Central Park’s ducks in the winter. For a few weeks she adopted Holden’s voice as her own and spoke exclusively in Holden-speak, complaining nonstop about her “goddamn homework” and declaring “That kills me!” every time she saw something interesting on the street.
Of course, the narrator’s voice is important in all novels, but I think it’s absolutely critical for YA books. Young adult readers are especially eager to identify with the protagonist. They want to see the world through his or her eyes and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.
2) YA can be more daring than adult fiction. Writing in first-person is a very effective tool for creating a compelling voice. The main character can quickly establish a wonderful sense of intimacy when he or she is speaking directly to the reader. The problem with writing in first-person is that it’s hard to do well. If J.D. Salinger had been less adept at it, Holden would’ve come across as a whiny snot-nose. One of the keys is balance: the narrator has to be forthright but not arrogant, courageous but not stupid, compassionate but not a sap.
Because first-person is so difficult to pull off, I think many writers shy away from it. I don’t have any definite numbers on this, but I feel confident that the overwhelming majority of thrillers are written in the more conventional way — that is, third-person, past tense. That’s the way I wrote all my thrillers for adults. But YA authors seem to take more chances. Suzanne Collins made a brilliant choice when she wrote The Hunger Games in first-person, present tense. If it had been written in third-person, I don’t think readers would’ve fallen so madly in love with an unusual character like Katniss Everdeen. And the use of present tense energized the book’s gladiatorial combat scenes.
I decided to write The Six in first-person, present tense, and I think it made a world of difference. The book’s narrator, Adam Armstrong, is a seventeen-year-old suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s been in a wheelchair since the age of twelve and his heart is starting to fail. He has less than six months left to live. And yet he’s also a bright, funny kid who writes virtual-reality programs and loves the New York Giants. I don’t think I could’ve successfully portrayed this character if I wasn’t inside his head, telling his story in real time and talking directly to readers.
3) YA is usually shorter than adult fiction. A hundred thousand words is LONG for a Young Adult novel. Cut as ruthlessly as you can.
4) It’s good to have both boys AND girls in the story. What’s Harry Potter without Hermione? What’s Katniss without Gale and Peeta? One of the things I really liked about Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is that it’s split almost evenly between female and male point-of-view characters.
My YA novel focuses on five teenagers besides Adam, three girls and two boys. They’re all terminally ill, which makes them eligible for an experimental procedure that scans their brains in such detail that the full contents of their minds — all their memories and emotions and virtues and flaws — can be digitally recorded and stored in advanced electronic circuits. I call the six teenagers the Pioneers because some futurists believe that all people will be able to make this leap from biological tissue to computer processors, perhaps by the year 2050.
5) Give the kids special abilities. Those abilities don’t have to be supernatural or futuristic powers. Maybe one of your characters can have a fantastic memory or an amazing pitching arm or a remarkable singing voice. Special talents are actually pretty common among teenagers. If a kid has a passion for something, he or she will practice constantly and get absurdly good at it in a relatively short amount of time.
Growing up is the subject of most, if not all, YA novels, even the most fantastical ones. I remember when my daughter was a toddler she had very poor balance and was always slipping off chairs and benches. One day we were sitting on a bench on a concrete patio, and she started tipping backwards. She would’ve hurt herself very badly if I hadn’t swooped my arm around her, grabbing her in midair just before her head hit the concrete. It was really no big deal, one of the routine things parents do everyday, but at the time the thought occurred to me: To her, I am Superman. I have powers of speed and strength and agility that are far beyond her poor childish abilities. But when she becomes a teenager, she too will gain those physical and mental powers, and she’ll have to learn how to use them. Then I understood why I enjoyed the Harry Potter series and all the other books about teenagers struggling to control and take advantage of their newfound abilities. They’re all metaphors for the primary challenge of growing up.
6) Give the kids someone to love. Teenagers fall in love all the time. When I was seventeen I fell in love with a different girl every week (and ninety-nine percent of them were blissfully unaware of my passions). That’s one of the charming things about teens: most of them haven’t been really hurt yet, so they’re still willing to open their hearts. And that’s why love triangles are so popular in YA novels. These kids don’t know what they want yet. They’re still experimenting.
This experimentation often involves sex, and the best YA books don’t shrink from describing sexual situations (I’m thinking of Holden Caulfield’s sad encounter with the prostitute in Catcher). In my YA novel the relationships are a little more unusual because the teenagers are transformed into giant clanking robots with bullet-shaped torsos. This is an advantage in some ways; the robots lack sexual equipment of any kind, so I don’t have to worry about disturbing younger readers (and their parents) with any graphic descriptions. But even though my teenagers are trapped inside machines, they still find ways to experiment. Adam figures out how to share circuits with one of the female Pioneers, and while they’re occupying the same machine each teenager has full access to the other’s memories and emotions. It’s a romantic connection that’s actually much more intimate than ordinary sex.
7) Don’t be afraid of the dark. Authors of YA novels no longer have to avoid the more upsetting aspects of adolescence. You can delve into heavy subjects like suicide and drug addiction without alienating your readers. Teenagers are talking about these things anyway and learning about them in their health classes. If a YA novel treats these subjects with the proper sensitivity, then reading the book might help kids make better decisions.
I was a somewhat morbid teen, appalled by the inevitability of death. It seemed ridiculously unfair. In The Six, I tackle these fears head-on by describing the death of Adam’s body. The teenager dies and is reborn as a machine. Then he and his fellow Pioneers must confront an even greater threat, an out-of-control artificial intelligence that’s seeking to exterminate the human race. If our species goes extinct, what was the point of all our struggles? Yes, it’s a dark thought, but teenage readers can handle it.
8) Above all, it has to be fun. Even the most serious YA novels have some humor in them. Kids are amused by the absurdities that adults have stopped noticing. The other day my son told me, “In a hundred years, people will be living to the age of 150. That means there are fifty-year-olds today who will still be alive a hundred years from now. So cheer up, Dad. You might be one of the lucky ones.”
It’s a funny quote, right? I’m going to try to fit it into another YA novel.