It’s no news to anyone who wanders into a bookstore now and then that young adult fiction is in its prime. It claims more space on Barnes & Noble’s shelves—and on the bestseller lists—than ever before. The world has yet to recover from the phenomenon that was Twilight, The Hunger Games will be with us for years to come, and everyone is still looking for the next successor to a certain boy wizard whose adventures began in the middle grade category but ultimately landed in the land of YA.
The successes of those books and many others prompt longings among us humble mortals, longings of the most natural and human sort I can imagine. We long for a piece of the pie or even just a crumb. We long for publication, for recognition, for readers. We long for our fair share. And so we ask market-driven questions. What’s selling now; what’s the next big trend; how do I turn an agent’s head? Dystopian, romance, contemporary, historical? What’s my best shot at getting published and reaching as many readers as possible?
As strategic as it might be to position myself as an authority on these questions—and yes, I do know a few things about trends in YA literature—my conscience requires that I take a different approach. I think it’s tremendously important, for reasons I’ll address below, that as writers we immerse ourselves in the world of books. But trendwatching is, frankly, a terrible way to decide what sort of book to write or what subject to address.
For one thing, today’s bestseller list is exactly that—today’s. Editors acquire books about eighteen months prior to publication, often even longer. That means that agents are looking for manuscripts they expect to be publishable two years from now. Some trends do persist over many years, but it’s anyone’s guess which ones will endure and which will sputter. Do you really want to expend precious time on writing a book that at best may hop onto a rickety bandwagon lurching toward breakdown, and at worst could miss its moment entirely? You deserve better than that, and so does your writing.
An even more compelling reason to eschew trendwatching is that it almost never leads to strong novels. If we’re writing with speed in mind, few of us can manage our best work. We’re all capable of imitation, of writing rushed, sloppy manuscripts that lack originality and vitality. But it doesn’t matter that we’re hitting the market’s sweet spot if our work can’t capture and hold a reader’s attention.
Why watch the market at all, then, if not to guide us in deciding what to write? One answer is passion. Read YA books because you want a place at the authors’ table, yes, but read them mainly because you love them. Read them because they speak to you, to some place within you that remembers what it’s like to be fifteen and wretched in any of the infinite ways teenagers can be wretched. Read them because you care about young people and the culture they consume. Read them because the best YA writers fill you with awe and make you glad to be alive.
If you feel none of those things but still think you want to write YA, my advice is the same: read. Then read some more. And then, if you just don’t feel excited about YA books for their own sake—as opposed to what you hope they could do for your career—consider writing something else, something that does tap into your great literary loves. You can still find a place at the authors’ table; it just might be in a different banquet hall.
If we watch the market from a place of love of literature and young people, our reading and observations will enrich us deeply, on a level that will inform our writing. Studying the books our audience reads—including what sells and what doesn’t—will keep us connected to the young people we hope to reach. And it’s by writing with sincerity and passion, not from cynical, sales-focused motives, that we humble mortals have the best chance of finding our slice of that tasty authorial pie.