Thursday, October 23, 2008

Writing for both adults and teens...some thoughts from Nick Hornby

When I was in Italy last month for the International Women's Fiction Festival, I had the opportunity to attend two excellent talks by worldwide bestselling author Nick Hornby (ABOUT A BOY, HIGH FIDELITY, FEVER PITCH...the list goes on and on).

He was there to promote his latest book, SLAM, which happens to be his first Young Adult novel. The first talk was open only to writers attending the conference. The other talk was open to the general public, and included some very interesting questions from the teenagers living in the town (who were practicing their English by asking him the questions in English).

(Oh, and it's neither here, nor there, but the kids had some really insightful questions about SLAM...for example, one girl asked what the skateboard was a metaphor, I read SLAM and I just thought it was, well, a skateboard.)

Anyway, during the closed session with the writers, I asked him what were the biggest differences for him in writing a YA book, since everything else he had written was for adults (even though they've been very popular with teens as well...probably because so many of his works have been made into movies). He said he saw 3 differences:

a) SLAM has less swearing than his previous books. And he said he actually found it difficult to write, because he actually had to be clever in coming up with ways to express his frustration or whatnot without relying on what has become a crutch.

b) He was appalled by the ghettoization of YA novels, even though he himself was guilty of it. Before deciding to write a YA, he'd never read a YA. So he decided he probably should, and picked up MT Anderson's FEED (which he said was "brilliant"). He wishes more adult readers would venture over into the YA section of the bookstore, because some of the most exciting fiction is coming out of that section. (But hey, we here at Fictionistas already knew that!)

His exact words were "Not reading young adult fiction because you're not a young adult is a bit like not reading crime fiction because you're neither a criminal nor policeman."

c) He felt free to include sci-fi/supernatural elements in SLAM, but he would never include those in a book written primarily for adults.

That got me to thinking. I'm kinda the same way. Both my last manuscript and my current work-in-progress (both of which are for teens) have had light paranormal elements, whereas I've only ever written straight-up contemporary stories for adults.

And my reading habits are the same way. I rarely, if ever, read adult paranormal (really only if it's something by one of my writer friends, and not always then), yet I'd venture to guess that roughly half of the YA books I read have paranormal elements in them. Maybe even more than half.

Why is that? Mr. Hornby said he feels that the willing suspension of disbelief is stronger for teenagers than it is for adults. He feels that adults are too jaded, and less likely to buy something like a character talking to his Tony Hawk poster for advice and Tony Hawk talking back to him and letting him see into the future. OK, maybe that's a bad example, since most adults wouldn't even know who Tony Hawk is, but he makes an interesting point.

I know that when I first came up with the idea of writing a time travel, I immediately knew it had to be a YA. Not because I'd decided I was going to be a YA writer or anything (although my critique partners would probably tell you that my voice is more suited for YA than it is for adult) but because something was telling me that it just had to be YA. Was my subconscious telling me that teens and preteens would probably be more willing to swallow the idea of time travel than adults would? Like I said, I rarely read any adult paranormal books, yet I read lots of teen paranormal books, so maybe there's something to that idea.

Of course, you're going to say, "Well, Amanda, maybe you don't read adult paranormal, but millions of other people do." Good point. It's definitely a popular genre. And my anecdotal evidence of myself and my friends here in DC probably aren't a good sample.

But what do you think? Are teens more likely to swallow the idea of paranormal elements in an otherwise non-paranormal story than adults are?


  1. I don't know if it's so much that teens are more willing to "swallow the idea" of paranormal events, as much as it is that maybe teens are more prone to wishing they could experience such events in their everyday lives. I know I used to spend a lot of time wishing for certain abilities, just to escape my humdrum, often miserable teen years...

    For example: time travel. I love that idea, and I always have. But, as a writer, if you put that in a story - as Mr. Hornby did (and I read the book this summer, it was a delightful read) - the average adult might resist it a bit. Maybe I wouldn't, maybe you wouldn't, but a lot of folks would.

    I confess, at first, I wasn't sure what to make of the time-travel concept in "Slam", but the more I read, the more I liked how he'd done it. Then again, I haven't disliked any of his work so far, so...?

    I'm rambling. I guess what I want to say, really, is that teens are more open to unusual concepts than most adult readers. They are probably more likely to just go with the flow of the story, as opposed to picking it to pieces to justify scenes, etc. They're more accepting than we adults often give them credit for, don't you think?


  2. I write paranormal for both. I think that I tend to see the paranormal elements as metaphors. And the elements heighten the experience of everyday life.

  3. Jennifer12:15 PM

    I have to say that I generally agree with Nick Hornby. I think, with younger readers, there is a greater open-mindedness. Often, it seems, they are more open to a wider variety of ideas and scenarios.

    Adult readers, by contrast, seem to be more practical. Books geared toward adults tend to focus less on fantasy-themed elements and more on "realistic" experiences. A number of the features generally associated with YA books (such as the supernatural, time travel, etc...) are not as prominent in adult novels. This may be due to the presumably more jaded mindset of many adults or it may simply just be a literary theme that has become the norm over time.

  4. Christina3:14 PM

    That makes sense to me.

  5. Great post. I think teens are willing to allow themselves to read things other than their 'tried and true' genre. I think as we get older and more set in our ways we're less likely to be open to new authors. Wish more people would take the teen view and sample new work.

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Amanda. Ghost stories are my gig, and an editor once told me NOT to count out writing for adults. Hmmm...

    But I am writing YA, and I a happy doing it. Who knows? I might dip a toe into older waters eventually.

  7. I love reading adult paranormal, and I'd love to write paranormals for adult AND YA if I ever get the chance. :D

  8. OMG Amanda this is fabulous info! I just jotted a bunch of notes down.

    You rock.