Writing for Young Adults (with Sarah Lotz, Sally Partridge and Cat Hellison)

As part of Open Book 2013, Cape Town’s YA author-contingent (Sally Partridge, Sarah Lotz and Cat Hellison) hosted a YA writer’s masterclass. They shared their tips on general ass-kickery and gave a basic intro to writing YA, covering:

1. Characters
2. Dialogue
3. Plot
4. Pace
5. Setting, and
6. Point of View


YA Characters are usually between 12 and 18 years old. They are conflicted and emotional, they are usually exceptional in some way, they are real and horny and angry, they are secretive, they are self-consciousness. In short, they are believable, true-to-life teenagers.

There are three aspects to a believable character:
1. What they are on the outside: Be they son, daughter, nephew, rich or poor, whether they are dating someone, and what they look like, it’s important that they suit your setting.
2. What they are in the inside: As Chuck Wendig says “Teenagers aren’t fully cooked yet”. They are still working out their shit. What’s their emotional condition? Are they shy? Agressive? Get inside their head, and answer their questions as you go.
3. Their backstory: What happened in the 15 years before the story started — bring this in, but don’t get lost in it.

But, when you use these aspects you need to show and not tell. Say less. You can be quite subtle, and still actually tell your reader a lot. Don’t describe your character in detail, and don’t have them look in the mirror.
“Oh please don’t have them look into the mirror”, Cat says.
“Why?”, someone asks.
“It’s lazy.”
The same goes for dreams, or waking up to an alarm. The writer is looking for a place to start, so they start where it’s easy. It’s boring.

At this point Sally shows us her book of characters. It looks like a 10 year old’s cut and paste journal, with pictures and descriptions of her characters. Cat says that she keeps a private wiki (on zimwiki) of all her characters and their secrets.

You need to think of your characters as heroes, they say. A lot of IRL teenagers are passive. But your characters should not be passive (mostly). They are the heroes of their story. Let them face adversity and find their bravery. They need to be aspirational. Twilight breaks these rules. Bella is a very passive character, she’s mousey, she runs away from her problems, and the action happens to her — she never saves herself. But this makes her a character that teenagers can relate to, and the wish fulfilment angle of her meeting her soulmate is what makes it work.

Often in YA the storyline is not about saving the world. It’s closer to home. The stakes are personal. it’s about the character’s friends and family.

When it comes to secondary characters, you need to think about the backstories of each characters, but not put it all on the page. “Unless you’re Steven King, you probably can’t pull it off”, Cat says.

Adults are a tricky subject in YA. They exist on the peripheries, but they are mostly absent. If they were there, your characters wouldn’t be able to do what they want to do. So you make them go away. If you know what I mean.


It should be conversational and natural. Keep contractions in mind, and read it out loud to test it out on the tongue. Don’t always use the correct grammar.


“Where do you get your ideas?” Sarah asks us. Everywhere. Newspapers, songs, other books, TV. You need to absorb the world. Sometimes you can start with a social issue, or theme, that you want to target. You get an idea. Now you need a story.

What’s the difference between plot and story? Plot is the step-by-step of what’s happening to the character. It’s their physical journey. Plot is action. And if you feel like your story is dragging, add more of it. “And when I say action, I mean action”, Sarah says.

“But zombies and lesbian-ninjas does not a story make”, Sarah says.
“Well…”, says Cat, “It does in some places on the internet.”

The story is their emotional development. Focus on the character arc and the character’s motivation. What is in her way? What are the stakes? What if she does this? What if it backfires?
What does your character want and why can’t she get it? Put this in your first chapter. If you do, New York editors will look at your work. If not: slush pile.

Then, you have the big romance angle. Usually because this is the time in their lives when your characters are discovering what’s in their pants. But you don’t have to add a romance.

Getting down to the actual plotting: Sarah uses a synopsis. A step-by-step of the entire plot. She starts with a short one, much like a blurb on the back. Writing a synopsis helps you figure out the plot holes. “Why can’t the people underground just use their phones to say ‘GET US OUT OF HERE’? I never thought of that!”, Sarah says.


When commenting on reading other peoples’ manuscripts, shara says that “the number one problem I find is complete wanky writing”. Pages of description in huge chunks should be left out. “Whole pages of ego wank writing”: Cut it, cut it, cut it.

Cat suggests that a great idea is to get someone you are not sleeping with to tell you
a) if they want to read on, and
b) where they got bored.

Other advice from Sarah included:
1. If its sagging, add more conflict or action.
2. The grabby-grabby needs to happen in the beginning, the middle, and the end. Narrative tension is important. Your first three chapters need to be the best ones.
3. Cliffhangers. Don’t do it.
4. Use dialogue. Break up the blocks of text.
5. You can cut from scene to scene. You don’t need pages of exposition inbetween.
6. try to avoid short chapters. “I get shat on a lot for that”, she says.


“I like to treat my setting as a character, and the character has a goal. It needs to be more than set-dressing”, says Cat. There is a difference between setting and worldbuilding. But both require research. Ask someone in the area to tell you what it’s really like. Bring all your senses into your book. Use details.

Don’t put too many references in the book. Especially in YA, because it dates your book. Similarly, don’t explain mechanics: “no one cares, just get to the story”.

Point of View

This last aspect is about narrative style. Most YA novels are written in the first person, present tense. That’s because it’s the style that most easily allows the reader to escape into the story. You can choose second or third person, past tense, present tense, or future tense.

We also chatted about length. 70-90 thousand words is usual. Local publishers look for 50 thousand and below.

I also learnt some new words! YAY!
Prognostications: the action of foretelling or prophesying future events (they noted that this was not a great idea, by the way).
Mary Sue: A passive character that the reader can project themselves on, in order to insert themselves into the story.
McGuffen: Object that helps the character achieve its goal. A horcrux, essentially.

Illustration by Kelly Lasserre.