(For the purpose of this post, if you don’t have any readers yet, imagine you have them. A lot of then.)
Your readers are smart. When they’re searching for books to read outside of school, they want to read stories that are entertaining, intriguing and mentally stimulating. Every reader has different genre and style preferences, but when it comes to reading, everyone has one major thing in common: they do not want to be narrated down to, intellectually speaking.
If you want your YA readers to respect you and your work, you have to respect them, too. They’ll be quick to turn away from books written by authors who avoid storylines, themes and even language they don’t think a teenager can handle (think of Twilight or The Hunger Games, books a lot of people liked, but who many bashed for their over-simplicity in some areas).
Here’s how to write the stories you want, while simultaneously showing your readers you respect and value their intelligence.
Don’t give them straight answers
Readers don’t need all the answers to figure out what’s written between the lines. Not only do writers need to leave some questions unanswered (no matter how many might complain – you can’t please everyone), but writers also don’t need to answer all raised questions straightaway.
Smart readers, remember? They will either figure it out on their own – or, even better – they might actually start a discussion about it with other people who have read the same story to help fill in the gaps.
Make your story deep and complex
Subconsciously, writers sometimes shy away from certain story elements. This happens for a lot of reasons: sometimes it’s a personal thing, or a writer decides the particular theme or event is better suited for a different story. But sometimes, without realizing it, we put a certain idea to bed because we’re not sure if it’s right for our audience.
Of course you’re going to avoid going too deep if your story is geared toward younger readers, but here’s the thing about YA’s main audience – young teenagers: they are hungry for intellectual stimulation. (My brother is 16. The thing he hates most about school is not feeling like his teachers are challenging him enough – he does not want to sit there at his desk feeling dumb.) The best thing you can do for this audience is to go as deep and complex as you need to in order for the story to have its full effect. Don’t think your readers can’t handle it. They need to be given the chance to handle it before anyone should be able to decide to take it away from them.
Create smart, relatable characters
Not every character you create should be genius-smart, but don’t make them intellectually dull, either. Think realistically here. Not everyone has the same “intellectual gifts.” Someone who’s not great at math might be really good at figuring out how computers work regardless. Everyone expresses intelligence in their own way, whether it be through reading or science or pop culture (yes, it counts). Your characters should reflect that.
Readers need to believe the time they’re spending on a book has value, and if the characters they’re getting to know just don’t give them any personality to look up to or appreciate, it’s going to hurt a lot more than it helps.
Writing is about those reading the words just as much as it is about the person writing them. Treat your readers like the smart, innovative people they are. Make them feel represented and appreciated. Crush stereotypes. Give them the voice they feel they don’t have. That’s the kind of book, and author, they are looking for. We want people to read more. We have to pay attention to their needs first.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.