I don’t think there is any conscious process for differentiating between a teen novel and adult. Clearly in one the young adult must be forefront and in the other, adults. Obviously adults can figure in both, but as my editor and the writer Beverley Birch says, one must give prominence to the young adult – never lose sight that it is about them.
I know from my own teaching I had one particular student who insisted upon populating her children’s novels with many, many adults. I used to say constantly who is the story focused on? Whose story is this? The kid or the adults? Never allow that confusion to arise.
I learned this the hard way. I have a novel out there called Mean Tide, written under a pseudonym, which concerns a child who has had chemo and is sent to live with his psychic grandma by the river in Greenwich. He meets another kid there, who is silent because of various traumas. The book is populated with adults, all with incredibly rich lives and opinions. To be honest this book straddles adult/children’s fiction and falls between two stools. I couldn’t see it when I was writing it, as logic would dictate that when a kid goes to live with adults you have to show the adults and bring them to life. Perhaps I added too much colour. If your main protagonist is only twelve – there is only so much you can do with a young kid before it becomes unbelievable. Nevertheless as a writer you learn. (One hopes)
Writing for teens you can concentrate on their lives and reduce the impact adults have on their day-to-day existence. Adults usually act as a restraint on the excesses of teens so the less they are around, the more that can happen. S F Hinton’s The Outsiders featured this. This was about teens getting into mischief without constraint and led by a semi-adult teen who did not have anyone’s best interests at heart. Stephen King’s Stand By Me totally had this focus. Not just about the kids but also about their perspective on life, the world around them and the risks they take. It’s important to remember that these novels are written for teens and not adults (even though adults will and can enjoy them). Kids know by the time they’re 12 that there is no justice in this world. Bullies get away with murder,, people lie, you lie, you haven’t yet formed your own opinions about things and you have doubts about everything. Somehow you get up and carry on. The whole world is a critic. You most likely suck at sport or math, and no one but Alice likes you and you don’t like Alice. This is the teen world.
My approach to adult fiction is to have the plot or situation down first. If based on a true-life story then it’s about fleshing out the characters, thinking not just about who they are but about their weaknesses and strengths. I like it when a readers connects enough with the character that they start to consider what they wear, eat or say on their own (until that starts to happen organically for me as a reader, I’m not truly in the zone).
With teen fiction, it’s the same process but with the added spice of knowing that kids won’t always take the logical step that may seem more obvious to an adult. A boy or girl won’t instinctively know that the one they love is bad for them – even if others are saying so. They have no experience to go on. This is fresh to them. All their mistakes are first time mistakes. As a teacher I used to see girls suffering heartbreak, yet it was clear to me their affections were misplaced. Now I see break-ups dealt with by text or on Facebook and how cold and heartless all that seems. You are left to cry on your own I guess without the confrontation. It can go the other way – irrational hysterical behaviour in the classroom when one girl discovers another is seeing her bloke and all three are in the class before you seething…
Adults generally don’t seethe. They might want to get revenge but the older you are the more numb you usually feel about things. Kids are NEVER numb. They can be unfeeling however.
Take Natalie Portman’s character in the movie Leon. She is entranced by the slightly simple hitman who protects her from Gary Oldman’s evil cop. She is excited by the idea of becoming a hitwoman. She isn’t thinking about moral considerations here. She’s thinking about revenge, and Leon is simply showing her his one and only skill. It’s not a kid’s movie but has a kid very much at the forefront. She is what I remember. Her pain and heartache and her loyalty. This would be teen fiction now I think. Capture that intensity and bottle it.
Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Teen Novels