It’s a classic editorial question and it contains a classic trap for the would-be author, halfway through a high-pressure pitch that might result in a book deal. There are many possible answers, but only one is entirely wrong. You may wish to reach as many potential readers as possible (who doesn’t?) but don’t reply, ‘Everyone!’
You might think that writing is writing and you’d do it the same way no matter what, but that hasn’t been my experience. You need to know who you’re writing for because it changes how you handle your story. Your writing style, the protagonist, the eventual outcome of the plot, even the extent – all of these might be different depending on which readership you’re targeting. Although I’ve written five crime novels for adults, my first novel for teenagers, How to Fall, is published this February 2013. Before I became a writer I was a children’s books editor and worked on fantastic YA fiction by writers such as Meg Cabot, Jaclyn Moriarty and Alyson Noel. With that background, plus my novel-writing experience, I thought I’d know exactly what I was doing. However, writing it proved to be an education. Here are the mistakes I avoided (and one or two I made!).
- Don’t be patronising. Just because a crime novel for teens is typically two-thirds the length of a ‘real’ crime novel, that doesn’t mean you can cut corners with the plot. It needs to be just as twisty, just as surprising and just as catch-your-breath scary in places. Most of your readers will read adult crime novels too, so the YA version has to stand comparison with the best crime novels around.
- Don’t try to be down with the kids – because you won’t be. Forget about using slang, even if you have access to a real, live teenager, and can force them to dictate your dialogue while you do the typing. Just don’t. The readers won’t notice the slang isn’t there. They will notice when you get it wrong.
- Don’t swear – at least, not too much. This is a real problem for me, because my Maeve Kerrigan series features some spectacularly foul-mouthed detectives. Also, some of the villains in How to Fall are truly nasty, and in real life I think they would turn the air blue. You can have swearing, but it’s better to keep it for an emergency so it has a real impact on the reader, and doesn’t put off teachers, librarians and parents. They pay for the books, after all.
- Don’t try to gloss over adult themes. Teenagers are dealing with real, serious issues all the time, so don’t pretend they’re not there. In How to Fall, my heroine investigates a murder, copes with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce and deals with some unpleasant bullies. She gets herself into situations where she feels genuinely threatened. This is fiction, but it’s not easy to be a teenager in real life. When you write for them, your book needs to reflect that.
- Don’t lecture. I am the worst for trying to sneak in good advice around the plotting. My first draft had all sorts of Important Lessons in it that I hoped the readers would absorb, but I managed to get my Agony Aunt persona under control eventually. It’s a novel, not a lectern. Stop it.
- Don’t go on too long. Teenagers have a finite attention span and they are not likely to be drawn to your writing because of the lyrical descriptions. Make things happen.
Remember, just because you’re writing for a specific readership, you’re not limiting yourself to those readers alone. The cover and promotion might be geared towards teens, but there is such a thing as the crossover book – one that appeals to the widest possible range of readers, such as Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series, or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. You can’t set out to write a crossover success, but you can try to write the best book you possibly can. And once you’ve done that, you’ve done your bit.