Monday, August 30, 2010

Adults vs. teens: What it’s like to write for two audiences

Hi, my name’s April Henry, and I have a split personality.  On the one hand, I have written seven books for adults, with five more under contract. (My latest, co-written with Lis Wiehl, is Hand of Fate.)  On the other hand, I have written three books for teens (also known as young adults, or YAs), with two more coming down the pike. (My latest, Girl, Stolen, comes out September 28).  

So what’s it like to write for two completely different audiences?  And are they really so different?  

  • POV (point of view) characters must almost always be kids.
  • There usually can only be one POV character, and it must be clear who it is. 
  • Parents cannot save the day – teens must. Which is why you will so often find kids who are orphans or who have non-functioning or generally absent parents. 
  • YAs are usually more focused on character and voice than plot. YA literature deals with developmental and emotional issues that are unique to the experience of being a teen.
  • YA lit has great built-in obstacles: falling in love for the first time, coming of age, prom, homecoming, cliques, finding out who you are, peer pressure, family dynamics, dealing with parents’ divorce, etc.
  • If a YA book isn’t in first person, there had better be a really good reason.  
  • Books usually cover a shorter time frame – no longer than a year. 
  • Books are typically much shorter- 50,000 words is common, vs. say, 80,000 to 90,000 for adults
  • It’s okay to have sex, but it may limit how much schools support you or the age group you can appeal to in hardcover (when kids don’t usually buy their own books).
  • Graphic violence may even be a harder sell. 
  • Usually, for a YA book to be successful the author can't get carried away with poetic writing, lengthy descriptions, etc. that adults might actually enjoy.
  • An “issue-oriented” book, like a book about being a teen-aged father or having leukemia, may garner a lot of librarian support. And librarian support is key to success in the YA world.

  • Pretty much anything goes.

  • Your readership changes every few years as the readers grow up. They often read your books only for a brief time period, say middle school, then move on to adult books.  That makes it harder to develop a following.  (Of course, some authors, like JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins, have attracted both adult and teen fans).  
  • At the same time, if you have a lot of books out there, kids will devour them and not care if they were published this year or five years ago.  
  • Teens have big emotions about everything, and writers are no exception.  They will pour out their stories to you, friend you on Facebook (and think you are really friends), ask you to sign their hands, and nervously hand you poems they wrote and ask what you think.
  • Kids will ask what adults secretly want to know “How much do you make?”

  • When you write for adults, each book can increase your readership.  If readers like your work, they will buy all future your books and it builds on itself. A fan may stick with you for thirty years. 
  • When adults show up at a signing, a certain percentage only want your signature, because they see your book as collectible.  
  • Adults are often cool and dispassionate.

Measuring success

  • There are many more professional review publications, like VOYA and Hornbook (and many fewer consumer outlets).
  • Reviews trickle in for up to six months after the book is published.
  • There are so many more opportunities for promotion in kidlit/YA - libraries, schools, conferences, etc - opportunities that aren't necessarily available to writers of adult books.
  • You may be given a much longer timer time to make an impact on the market.  
  • It’s not unheard of for a picture book to be in print for 15 or more years.
  • Your book might get bought for a bookclub or bookfair.
  • Your book might be named to one of the important library lists a year after publication (such as any YALSA list like Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, or New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age).
  • And it might be named to a state list even years later (resulting in sales to most of the state's school libraries).  
  • Adults might still ask you, "So when are you going to write a real [ie, for adults] book?"
  • Reviews usually come in right away for adult books.
  • You have 6-8 weeks to show success in hardcover.
  • Then your books are often returned by bookstores for credit and the new hard covers take their place.  
I love writing for both audiences.  And in truth, my writing style does not vary much, whether I am writing for adults or teens.  


  1. This is fascinating. I think I read an interview with Scott Westerfield that said the quality of fan mail that you get as a YA author is way deeper. Thanks for the post!

  2. Great information, April! Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge!

  3. This is a really informative article, April. I've never seen it broken down like that before. Looks like there are some real advantages to writing a YA.

  4. Hi April! This is so interesting, and very useful as I consider a foray into the YA realm.

    Why/how did you decide to write for both the teen and adult markets?

  5. April, this was fascinating! I too have considered making the YA leap. I have to second Therese's question: how and why did you decide to write for both audiences?? Thanks, April!

  6. I've been playing around with a YA project for a while now, so this post was really informative for me.

    I was so interested to know that you shouldn't go third person. I love writing in first person, but I was thinking that if my book described a bunch of high schoolers, third person might work better. Glad to know that I should stick with what I love to do best!

  7. Hi, April! It's so cool to read about everything you're doing since I last saw you at a mystery convention many moons ago! Wowza! Interesting breakdown between YA and adult. I know when I stepped into YA between my mysteries and THE COUGAR CLUB, it was like entering a whole new world (one I'm still learning about!). And presenting to high school audiences was very different than speaking to adults. But it's a lot of fun stretching those literary muscles and writing in different genres and markets. I love it, and I can see you do, too! Beautiful cover for GIRL, STOLEN, btw. So perfect. My best to you on all you do!

  8. This is so illuminating! Thank you, April. I'm going to share this link around. I think people will (and should!) bookmark it.

  9. This is the best analysis I've ever seen on the differences between writing for adults and writing YA. Thanks so much for posting it! I have a book coming out in January as YA, so it's interesting to see the "fans" and "measuring success" parts!

  10. Great list April! thanks for breaking it down for all of us. I have a teenage character in the book I'm writing and sort of wondered if it might crossover to a YA audience. Now I'm thinking probably not...

  11. I read about GIRL, STOLEN on Goodreads a few week ago and immediately entered the contest to win--sounds SO intensely must-read!

    I've written two YAs, and when I set out to write the first, I thought: "it'll be just like writing my adult books, but set in high school." WRONG. What a learning experience it's been. The worlds, from the writing of, to the publishing of, are completely different. Loved your breakdown!

    Can't wait for your book, April. Really sounds amazing.

  12. Hi April, I love yoru adult books but have yet to read your YA books. This was a wonderful post, very informative. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Great information. I'm going to save it.

  14. For those who asked how I got into YAs - it was an accident! I wrote a book with a 16 yo main character (it was about an overseas bootcamp, so she had to be young) and my agent told it was a YA. That book became Shock Point.

    Now I really like having both audiences. One of the big shocks to me was that schools usually pay to have authors visit. Adult authors usually don't get paid to do events. But after I did a few school visits, I could see why. Kids demand much more attention (both positive and negative), you usually have to do it four or five times in one day, and you are also expected to talk about something that relates to what they are learning.

  15. Third person or multiple POV:

    You can do write books in third person or with multiple POVs. Shock Point was third person limited. Torched was sold based on a partial written in third, but when he got the whole manuscript my editor asked me to rewrite in first person. Girl, Stolen is told in third person from two points of view: the girl who is kidnapped and the kidnapper.

    My next book, The Girl in the Mini Cooper, is told from four first-person POVs.

    However, as a rule, many YAs are written in first person, probably so the teen reader can relate even more strongly.

    And check out You by Charles Benoit - it's written in second person.

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