Writing young-adult fiction: Better than going to the prom.

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June 22 2011 11:07 AM

Writing Young-Adult Fiction

It's better than going to the prom.

Still of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Click image to expand.
Why is young-adult fiction such as the Twilight series so popular?

Young-adult books are being sold to an audience that can't vote, yet they're being written by people commonly referred to on the Internet as "the olds." We should know. We're two of them. Both of us have made our living writing. One of us in journalism (Grady) and the other in literary fiction (Katie). But then Katie's publisher pitched her on doing a Y.A. series, mostly because she's somewhat immature and teenager-ish anyway, so why not turn that weakness into a strength?

And, besides, there's no shame in Y.A. these days. Since 1999, the market has grown by 25 percent, and all the big authors are doing it: Patterson, Grisham, Bushnell. At this point, the next likely candidate is a Y.A. book from Jonathan Franzen. It would be very meta: The Corruptions. By the time the kid finished it, he'd be 35.

Katie Crouch.
Katie Crouch

Writing Y.A. as an adult is a chance to rewrite being a teenager. Our series, The Magnolia League, is, in some ways, the high-school experience we never had, where everyone is witty and good-looking and their problems are more like, "My evil grandmother is torturing my dead mom's soul!" rather than, "I have a lot of zits." It's an opportunity to relive high school in a more perfect manner. Who doesn't want to be 16 and living in a mansion? And hooking up with the hot guy? And having super hoodoo powers? It's totally normal.

It would be creepy if we included explicit sex scenes with glistening young skin and heaving young bosoms, but we keep it on the clean side. This isn't Twilight. No slutty werewolves here. Mostly we pass the rare sex scenes in outline form back and forth between us like a ticking time bomb until one of us bites the bullet and puts it on paper. When it's completed, the other one innocently asks to make a pass "for editing" and then reads it aloud in a mocking voice and turns the most embarrassing lines into an email signature.

It's sort of weird how, at a time when a reliable scare story is, "Are internet predators coming for your children?" that we are being paid good money to be literary predators and come for people's children. Only we do it with a nice marketing campaign and books about Southern debutantes with occult powers, rather than an old van with the windows blacked out. At least we're locked up in our rooms with our laptops and not out there on the streets teaching creative writing or something.

Working in the Y.A. trenches has been eye-opening. First off, although Katie started out the series alone, toward the end of book one she was tired and pregnant, and so she reached out to Grady and dragged him in.

(Grady: Full disclosure, Katie and I went to high school together, and she was my first girlfriend. I actually regard her choosing to write these books together as a tacit admission that she made a huge mistake when she dumped me after six weeks.)

(Katie: Full disclosure, I do not regret my decision in the slightest.)

What neither of us was prepared for was the insane pace. There's a reason that so many Y.A. series are written by collaborators: The timetable is crazy. Katie, having come out of an M.F.A. background where the rule was that good writing requires rumination, pain, and the slow loss of your best years, fought the craziness at first. But readers in Y.A. don't care about rumination. They don't want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that evokes the exact color of the shag carpeting in your living room when your dad walked out on your mom one autumn afternoon in 1973. They want you to tell a story. In Y.A. you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight. When kids like one book, they want the next one. Now. You need to deliver.

But even with two old people typing like crazy, the deadlines are insane. We're literally rewriting the second draft of the second book in the series in four weeks. The average length of time you get to write a Y.A. book is six months. Compared with "literary" fiction, that's warp speed.

In many ways, Y.A. is the lookingglass world to literary fiction, where everyone's jockeying over who got the biggest advance,the ultimate dream is to be anointed by the New Yorker, and you're expected to take two years or more to turn in your next novel that very few people are waiting to buy. The direct relationship with teen readers actually comes as a relief since the literary fiction crowd can get a little full of itself. (No offense, New Yorker "Under Forty" judges. You guys are great! And so good-looking!) It's fun to have kids coming up to you and saying: "Hey, that was cool. When's the next book?"

It's hard to find the same reader gratification as a writer of literary fiction. You have to be thankful to get reviewed at all, even if they pan you. And literary fiction readers are tough. We've both had some really appreciative fans, and when they tell us nice things, we want to make out with them. But readers of literary fiction are also very excited to judge you. Like the woman who turned to Katie at a reading and said: "Your writing is really coming along! Your voice is not really developed yet, but keep at it!"

Y.A. is fast and loose, the readers will write excited messages about you on Facebook, the marketing is amazing, and it's a lot easier to communicate with fans. And, unlike a lot of literary fiction writers, we love teenagers. No one's forced them to sit through college lit courses yet, so they're still fresh and unjaded. Of course, we know that eventually they'll turn on us. But right now Y.A. is hot hot hot, and it's like the older you are, the cooler it is to watch teen movies and read Y.A. books.

The two of us were ahead of the curve in that respect. In college we were both dedicated viewers of 90210 (which dates us horribly), and in our late 20s we went to see Varsity Blues together on opening nightin the theater. At the time, people thought we were just old pedophiles, but who's smart and hip now?

Alas, we both know this cultural moment is much too good to last. Soon people will just be calling us creepers again. But for now, we're spending way too much time stealing the best lines from our old high-school diaries, both of us just a couple of years shy of 40, writing about first love, unrequited crushes, and Southern debutantes slathering their faces with rejuvenating wasp semen. It's way better than prom.

Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix are the authors of The Magnolia League, out now in finer bookstores.

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