Monday 26 June 2023

Tracey Foster, "Deep Diving the YA Market: My Creative Writing Dissertation"

For my MA Creative Writing Dissertation last year I intended to write for the Young Adult market, classified as readers of twelve to eighteen years-old. This was a target market I knew a lot about after working as a secondary school teacher for over thirty years. This group of readers has seen an explosion in choice content over the last decade with a range of formats and new authors to choose from, names that now fill the shelves at Waterstones: Malorie Blackman, John Green, Suzanne Collins. This diverse content has covered a huge range of challenging and controversial issues, from genocide (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), racism (Ghost Boys), teen pregnancy (Boys Don’t Cry), transgender (The Art of Being Normal), and bereavement (Holding Up the Universe). The bar was set high for me to write a novel to sit along these ranks.

My first mission was to read all the classics, novels that were not always written with this market in mind but have since become a go-to for adolescents. The current top 100 list compiled by TIME magazine (see here) features Lord of the Flies, Little Women and The Catcher in the Rye, novels that we were encouraged to turn to as children and that formed our early understanding of the adult world. As I reread all the classics, I began to feel undercurrent themes of loss, hardship, and inevitability. This was understandable as many of these authors wrote in a period either between or after the wars, when there was an uncertainty about our future and a pervading sadness about the human condition. William Golding witnessed the horrors of the D-Day landings before writing Lord of the Flies, George Orwell served in the Spanish Civil war before penning Animal Farm, J.R.R. Tolkien had served in the trenches in the First World War before starting on the idea that would become Lord of The Rings. A melancholy that pervades these books stems from the experiences of the writers, but when read by the young it seems to resound with their yearnings to find a place in the world. 

Modern stories have moved more directly to tackle issues that are current and all-consuming. Many authors today often choose to shift the narrative away from third-person description to a first-person perspective, and this gives the tone an immediacy and intimacy that appeals to modern readers - a confidential tone that appeals to younger readers and is a quick let-in to the action. Some authors have chosen to employ alternative voices to narrate each chapter, showing the scene from different viewpoint and allowing the reader to choose their favourite. The YA audience likes this approach as it works on a few levels, moving the action along and showing prejudice and preferences. This has led to a series of online formats pushing similar novels written in the multiperspectival style (see some examples here). 

One of the biggest outputs in the YA market in recent years has been the multicultural novel. Like buses, you wait several decades for one and then you get a whole shelf full. This has been one of the most successful areas of writing as the market seems to lap up these newcomers with open arms. Read avidly by all YA readers, the multicultural novel has explored all aspects of multiculturalism in society from many different viewpoints (see some examples here). 

The Carnegie Medal, first established in 1936, sought to identify and celebrate the best in British children’s literature. Its aim is to publicise and reward those authors whose works stay in the imagination long after closing the cover, and while the content may be challenging for the audience, the readers must leave with a sense of closure and pleasure. These books are sometimes not written for the YA market but become championed by it. They are often a good starting point when beginning to dip into the field of YA material and are usually available in most libraries. (See Carnegie Medal Winners here).

After spending a long summer reading as much YA material as I could get my hands on, I wanted to consult the experts and, having the target market close to hand, I thought I could survey my pupils on their reading habits. This required a few careful steps before starting. I needed to approach the Ethics Committee at the University of Leicester and also seek permission from the principal of my school. Secondary education is already protected by many safeguarding measures, and students' information is secured within an IT safe wall. I was able to use these systems to create a survey that asked my pupils about their literature preferences and dislikes. The online nature of this survey meant that I had complete control over the collection of the data and could interact with it as needed but always keep the student’s data anonymous. The Ethics Committee had to check my questions and the school’s safeguarding measures before giving me the green light to go ahead. Working with the head of English, we selected the students according to their English sets, choosing the ones most likely to be avid readers and asked the pupils to complete the survey over the summer break. (The school already had a cluster of students that took part in shadowing the Carnegie medal every year and who read and reviewed the short list together). The survey was very informal and used a Loom video to introduce and to personalise the task. All the students knew me well and the questions embedded this approach as I asked, ‘tell me,’ rather than ‘tell the school.’ From this lengthy questionnaire I sought to determine a few things.

  • What they would recommend as their favourite reads, genre, format, author
  • What they had a dislike for, authors, genres, particular novels
  • What were the key themes, topics that they found engaging or a turnoff
  • What topics were controversial to them, how easily were they shocked

I had no preconceptions about the survey results as these were discussions we had never had, and, more importantly, neither had the English department. Given that curriculum syllabi have spoon-fed a diet of classics for years without asking the audience what they really want to read, I found it fascinating that nobody had talked to the students before. What I found was an articulate, vocal, perceptive audience who most definitely had something to say about what they really wanted. Responses included the following:

‘I think that in today’s generation, there are very little topics that can be classified as extremely controversial due to progress for LGTBQ+, black and female rights. YA is arguably one of the most controversial genres due to the varied ages of the readers, but this is simply the nature of YA.’ 

‘I think things are controversial when they aren’t spoken about correctly. If they are talked about in a way that highlights issues people go through, then I think it is important to speak about them.’ 

‘I do not mind "disturbing" content as in the right context, it’s interesting. If I’m reading murder mystery, I would obviously want more gruesome descriptions. As long as the author isn’t being offensive themselves, they are allowed to make their characters antagonistic.’

‘Women are still considered inferior and instead of reading books with misogyny and about patriarchal societies we should read books about matriarchal societies and support female authors.’

The students identified their biggest pet-hates in novels as misogyny, animal cruelty and racism and instead recommended stories that had spoken to them. Clustered with the obvious best sellers was a surprising gem, Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. The YA popularity of this novel about a young woman’s decent into mental breakdown, subsequent hospitalisation and suicide attempt has even sparked mimicry by other authors, like Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar. The students also suggested a few other novels not originally intended for the YA audience, showing that that are happy to browse the shop shelves and be discerning buyers. All of these novels showed a similar use of an informal first-person narrator, a clear voice, quick pace and the use of good metaphors. 

One of the best of the bunch was The Lie Tree by Francis Hardinge, winner of the Costa award. My original intention for my novel was to culminate with a horrendous accident in which the father is killed, so this book proved to be good research for both in technique and content. Teens are very adept at handling mortality and death is a topic often explored in YA fiction. The classics often set out with an orphan’s perspective to elicit empathy right from the start - e.g. Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations. This enables a confidential tone to the narration as we become their sole confidant in a lonely world.

I also set up a shadowing group at school and gave students the early drafts of my story to read. This process was invaluable, asking the readers what they think whist creating the plot. Hearing first-hand opinions on the scenario, pace and voice was really exciting. I can recommend this process to everyone as it was fascinating to hear what the readers inferred from my words and finding new perceptions that I hadn’t even intended. I was initially concerned about my opening paragraph as it stemmed from a real incident that had affected me as a child. The teenagers of my focus group were much less disturbed by the incident and even found the idea amusing. A viewing diet of TV and films means that the YA market is much more likely to have been exposed to death at a tender age. The survey had identified that young readers have a fast filter that enables them to quickly identify good and bad content and make their own decisions.

Concluding from this experience, I would recommend reading as much relevant material as you can get your hands on. Seek out your audience and, if possible, open a dialogue with them. Ask pertinent questions to determine what likes and dislikes your readers have and be open to criticism. Show them first drafts and allow them to find their own way through the plot you will be amazed what others perceive from your words. Listen to your readers to become a better writer.

Some useful links include:

About the author
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council. 

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