So About that YA Voice….

In YA (Young Adult), VOICE is ½ of the story.

The impression I’ve gotten from several books, interviews with agents, editors, authors, etc. is that for the YA audience, the story’s VOICE is just as important as everything else combined (plot, characters, themes, etc.).

What does that mean?

Well, a cynical way of looking at it is that even if your novel is structured perfectly, has fascinatingly complex yet relatable characters, and has something interesting to show us about the world or human condition, you’re still only half way to publication.

On a brighter note, if you have a Voice that teenagers will love, you’re half way to publication before you even have a conflict or character! So that’s awesome!

I find it easier to gauge the quality of my story/character development than my voice. I hope that “How I say it” (my narration/voice) is fun and enjoyable, but how can I know if a teenager will be captivated? How can I know if my YA VOICE resonates in perfect pitch with a teenager’s metaphorical ears?

Looking into advice on Voice helps, but it can be frustrating because answers are often vague or subjective. After all, “great voice & style” is, by nature, quite subjective even though we can agree on some general writing guidelines.

But don’t despair! Understanding WHY the Voice is so important in YA provides some answers. What most teenage readers want is INTIMACY and CONNECTION. I don’t mean “sex or kissy stuff,” (Oh wait. Yes, actually that is what most teenagers want) but rather, teenagers must immediately know and understand the protagonist. They must relate to her, feel for her, and get to know her so that her concerns become the reader’s concerns. This requires psychological and emotional intimacy. This means honesty: we have to see some vulnerability along with some strength in the protagonist because we all understand vulnerability. And readers must feel this intimacy/connection ASAP.

Teens read to find a friend. They want to care and form a bond. That connection is made through the use of details, the protagonist’s perspective and experiences, etc. The more specific yet universal, the better. Okay, now THAT was vague. What I mean is: the descriptive details need must be specific (for showing setting, her life, her emotions, her concerns, etc. — these should be particular) and yet the feelings evoked by those specific details need to be universal and therefore relatable to the audience at large.

This is probably why so many YA books are told in First Person—because the character is “talking” to the reader, letting him in on her thoughts, feelings, history, and everything else. The connection is made more quickly that way. It’s like the new friend is revealing intimate secrets and taking us into her confidence.

However, I’m sick of First Person YA and want to write in Third Person because it seems a natural fit for me. So how can this work in Third?

That’s what I’m trying to figure out . . . but I think narrating from over the main character’s shoulder is a good approach. By doing so, I can occasionally peaking inside her head to get at memory, history, and emotion. More subtly, all the imagery/sensory details, similes, metaphors, etc., will be filtered through her experience and voice – these are the things she would notice or the way she would describe them. So although I’m not having her narrate the story, the narrator is soaking in my protagonist’s experience, attitude, and perspective.

Before I go back and fine-tune that YA Voice, I’m reading what others have to say about Voice and studying some examples of popular YA told in the 3rd person. And after all that, I’ll have a huge job on my hands. Thankfully, it’s a job I love. I can’t wait!

Here’s a list of some helpful books.

Books about Writing for YA + Voice:

Writing Irresistible Kid Lit: The Ultimate Guide for Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers – by Mary Kole.

Second Sight: An Editor’s talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults – by Cheryl B. Klein

Great YA told in the 3rd Person Point of View:

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Crafting Great Sentences

Professor Brooks Landon offers a college level course called “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft” at The University of Iowa, but this entire course is available on CD or DVD through The Great Courses website (

Actually, I found the CD set at my local library.

Predicting that a 12 hour lecture series on writing sentences could only be excruciating, I checked out the series merely to satisfy my skepticism. Not only was I wrong, but the series became a paradigm shifting inspiration that has forever changed the way I write and think about crafting my sentences.

I should mention that, although a literature teacher, I hate studying grammar which, in my opinion, takes all the life out of that which I love. Studying The Great Gatsby’s grammar kills Gatsby more completely than any deranged husband ever could. Thankfully, Landon’s lectures avoid grammar jargon while his passion for excellent writing and his fabulous literary examples are omnipresent.

If you are serious about improving your own writing—no matter the genre— check out this series (at your library or at the website. *Sometimes the website will offer this course at a substantial discount! Check back if it is too pricey right now!).

I’ll give one example of how this course changed the way I write: Landon discusses the concept that we should think about sentences in terms of their suspensiveness: the degree to which the sentence is suspenseful. While some sentences should be short and pack sudden punch, Landon has convinced me that long sentences that unfold, phrase by phrase, word after word, can be the most powerful, descriptive, compelling, and interesting.

Consider this example: “He emerged from the study as one breaking through the frozen lake’s ice, gasping for air, struggling for survival, for the conversation had done more than take his breath, it had hit him in his soul, his mind and sense of identity reeling with that surprising and most fortunate revelation.”

Note that until that last word we have no idea what the sentence is really going to say or where it will take us. The last word truly is a “revelation” because the sentence only comes together once it is divulged. This attribute is what gives the sentence its suspensiveness and keeps us interested in it up until the last word.

Now, for added fun, try substituting out that last word for another and see how it makes us reconsider the entire sentence.

  • Replace “revelation” with “freedom,” for example, and we have to interpret the entire sentence differently because while we don’t know what the conversation was about, we get that the news is good in the sense that it opens things up for him.
  • Replace “revelation” with “humiliation” and we have some idea what the conversation was about.

Some of the very best suspensive sentences make the reader do a kind of whiplash double-take; we are lead in one direction only to have the carpet ripped out from under our feet by the very last word which changes everything that came before.

Unless you are a grammarian, you must still be skeptical about the value of this course. I can’t blame you. After all, I was sure it was something I’d find boring and would never finish . . . until I pressed play and gave it a shot.