On ‘Nuts and Bolts: Editing YA Spec Fic’

The Windup GirlFallenMaximum Ride: Max (Maximum Ride)Halt's Peril (Ranger's Apprentice S.)The Short Second Life of Bree TannerThe WhispererMoment of Truth (Laws of Magic)The Knife of Never Letting Go

This article is based on panel discussion between editors on the second day of AussieCon 4.

Editing can involve a wide range of considerations about a book and this panel discussion covered many different aspects of editorial concern for young adult speculative fiction. The panelists each brought up a range of different points on editing speculative fiction for young adults but there was fairly unanimous agreement (or at least no notable disagreement) on the points raised, so I will go over a range of points without worrying about which panelist brought up which points.

Character Arc

Keep the character growing throughout a book and throughout a series.

YA fiction: about a period in a character’s life

YA fiction is usually about a specific time of life around the transition from childhood to adulthood and about key decisions which get made at that time of life. There was a little debate over this issue, regarding whether YA fiction is always about a period of life at the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, since some YA fiction can be concerned with adults or younger children, it is not always about this period of life – which could also be considered as a stage of development not necessarily linked to age.

An editor’s selection of books is their statement

That is, they build their brand on the track record of choosing good books or books which consistently appeal to people with particular interests and preferences in their fiction.

Get into the head of your target audience

Bella, in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, is a 15 year old girl. So are many of the readers of Twilight – though there are also many who are not. Part of an editor’s job is to try to understand both the character and the readers, or potential readers, in order to make informed decisions about a story.

It can be easy for an editor to think “not another book about…” (vampires, dragons, or whatever else that editor has read hundreds of). But that could be a young reader’s first experience of that kind of book. So even a particular type of book which has been done many times can be worthwhile to publish if the story is told well. Young readers will also often read a story and then seek similar stories, making it attractive for a publisher to have a range of books of any particular type.

Don’t talk down to readers

Young readers can have more sophisticated understanding of a story than some writers think and many young readers will often read books recommended for readers older than them. Many teens will also read books intended for adults, so when they read something intended for young readers, they don’t want to be talked down to.

Young readers will contact authors now, making it easier to find out what  think and want

There is often convenient access to authors now through an email address on their website, through Facebook, Twitter, etc. Many young readers use the internet and sites like Facebook and Twitter regularly, and contact with a particular author can be just a short message away.

This applies not just to contacting authors but also to young readers joining fan clubs, starting their own fan groups, discussion groups or blogs and generally sharing their opinions online where they can be read by authors, editors and other relevant people.

Maintain a reader and their passion

Once a publisher, and other relevant people, manages to get a reader interested and reading a book it is also important to continue to provide satisfying experiences for that reader.

The story is the key

One panelist told of how she watched the movie Final Fantasy and was so distracted by the implausible power generation in the story that it impacted her ability to enjoy the movie. However, technical inconsistencies like this are best overlooked if they are not of central importance to the story.

Often, multiple people at a publisher will read a submission, looking for different things

Publishers, particularly publishers with a sizable staff, will have multiple people read a submitted manuscript and discuss whether they should publish it, how it could be marketed, what might make it better, and so on.

Zoe Walton from Random House mentioned that a submitted manuscript may be read by a person focusing on characterisation, by another focusing on content level (how appropriate the content is for the main intended audience), and another focusing on reader level (how appropriate it is for young readers of a particular level of reading ability and sophistication).

Is it YA or is it adult?

It is not always immediately clear whether a book is more suitable for young adult readers or for adult readers. Editors at publishers often decide whether a particular novel would appeal most and be most appropriate for one or the other age range. Sometimes the same book is released in a a YA and in an adult version, which are identical except for the cover, so each version can appeal strongly to people of one age range without putting off people of the other age range.

The issue of age suitability, can also be complicated when young readers of the first book in a series grow olderwith the characters in the series (as with the Harry Potter series), while other readers will come to the books later and read them in quick succession. So later books of a series in which the characters grow older as the initial readers of the first book do can be in a situation of balancing content appropriate for and which appeals strongly to 12 year olds and 18 year olds.

Also, young readers often want to read about characters a little older than themself.


Sometimes books are re-released with a new cover to more appropriately match the age range of people most likely to read the book now, as this can vary over time. Looking at bookcovers can give a rough indication of which readers a publisher considers to be those most likely to read particular books.

Gatekeepers for children’s books

Children’s books are often designed with appealing to people like parents and school librarians in mind, as they often have a strong influence on which books are purchased , provided or allowed for children to read.

Teens buy for themselves

Teenagers typically have their own money to spend and will spend it on whatever books they want rather than on books their parents or librarians want.

Dialogue is a construct; not a transcript

Writing in fiction should generally be more concise, purposeful and grammatically simple than everyday sppech. However, many beginners fail in dialogue by making it too structural. So don’t include an um, ah, er, hmm etc every time that someone might do this in everyday speech, and don’t continually jump between different lines of thought mid-sentence like people can often do. With being accompanied by facial expressions, body movements, vocal inflections etc to put spoken words in context in real time, transcribing this kind of realistic speech can be confusing to a reader.

Swearing in YA fiction will stand out. Even though many teenagers swear, they are probably not so used to reading it in fiction as a teenager. Unless a swear word is there for a specific and strong reason, it is probably best left out of YA fiction.

‘Info dumping’

Beware dumping a lot of info an a reader in an uninteresting way just because it is needed to understand the story. If a novel reads like textbook, a young reader will likely lose interest quickly. You should always find an interesting way to tell a reader everything they need to know to understand the story.

One panelist gave the following example of an effective info dump without getting bogged down in detail: “The vampire went in the sun.” This establishes quickly that there is a character who is a vampire which does not burn in sunlight. An author could give a detailed explanation of vampire biology and how this vampire is able to withstand sunlight. However, the vampire simply going out in the sunlight demonstrates that this vampire can withstand sunlight. This in turn implies that this vampire’s biology is such that it can go out in sun light.

How much do you tell and how much should you let a reader work out themself?

The panelists discussed the question of how much to assume a reader will know:

–          How much do you show and what level of explanation do you provide?

–          How much do you hide and let a reader work out or imagine for themself?

Kids used to ask adults for advice; now adults often ask kids for advice on a range of issues, from details of popular entertainment to how to use recent technology.

Trends in YA fiction

Angels are the new vampires.

Dystopias have some recent popularity – for example, the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson and the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness.

Teens won’t put up with a book they find boring

So books for teens are usually fast paced. Books for teens can be still be slow paced but they may need different marketing to manage the expectations of a reader.

Kid’s books can still be long

Some of the Harry Potter books have reminded children’s book editors of this.

NEXT: On ‘Keeping Pace: Maintaining momentum in fiction’

The Windup GirlFallenMaximum Ride: Max (Maximum Ride)Halt's Peril (Ranger's Apprentice S.)The Short Second Life of Bree TannerThe WhispererMoment of Truth (Laws of Magic)The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Australian Literature Review

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2 Responses to On ‘Nuts and Bolts: Editing YA Spec Fic’

  1. Pingback: On ‘Destroying the Future to Save the Planet’ | The Australian Literature Review

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