Spotlight on Writing YA with Carrie Firestone and Cindy Rodriguez

Young adult fiction has grown immensely in popularity over the past few decades, with media adaptations that include blockbuster movies and popular TV shows. But what exactly is this phenomenon called YA? Often referred to as ‘coming-of-age’ novels, YA books span a vast range of fiction genres and tend to focus on storylines pertinent to the age group of their teenage main characters.

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18. However, YA readers range from preteens to adults of all ages. Frequently fast-paced and urgent in tone, YA fiction brings the rollercoaster of teen emotions to bookshelves everywhere.

I’ve invited two talented authors to give us some insight on young adult fiction and help dig a little deeper into this fluid genre-crossing publishing segment with its age-bending appeal.

Cindy Rodriguez is the author of When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury, 2015), a hauntingly beautiful contemporary YA that deals with the thorny topics of teen depression and suicide, guided by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. A Crystal Kite finalist, Cindy is an active blogger at Latinxs in Kid Lit, which aims to explore the world of books for children and teens by and about Latinxs. She is also a member of We Need Diverse Books.

Carrie Firestone is the author of The Loose Ends List (Little, Brown, out on June 7th 2016), a tale of endings and beginnings. Following Maddie and her family as they travel the world on a cruise ship and come to terms with her grandmother’s terminal illness, this contemporary YA novel is a story of snow globe scenes of love, life and death, and is full of both laugh-out-loud and weep-your-eyes-out moments.

Juliana: Welcome Carrie and Cindy. Tell me, why choose to write YA? What do you find intriguing about writing for teen readers?

Cindy: I write YA because it’s such an important time of transition marked with joy, pain, and discovery. As a teacher, I’m able to watch my students struggle with and enjoy these transformative years. As a writer, I like to explore and represent their experiences with authenticity and respect.

Carrie: I think I write YA because I have a nineteen year old trapped inside me. I write books that I would have enjoyed when I was a teen.

Juliana: Having a young protagonist is not a prerogative of YA. Fantasy as a genre, for instance, is full of teen characters in books written for adults. So what, in your opinion, makes a book ‘YA’? What are those special ingredients?

Carrie: It seems that certain themes run through contemporary YA books. Many young adults are trying to figure out who they are, who they want to hang out with, who they want to fall in love with, and what their purpose is on this planet. Those are universal questions that can be approached in so many ways in YA fiction.

Cindy: I agree with Carrie. Also, I think the answer lies in your question. Other books with young protagonists are written for adults. Young adult fiction is written for teens. Even though it’s read a lot by adults, younger readers are our target audience, so as writers we have to be sure to make them act, look, and sound like teens.

Juliana: I’ve heard YA referred to as ‘first kiss fiction’. What’s the role of romance in YA and why does it seem to be so prevalent?

Carrie: That question made me laugh because I’ve just poured over my own diaries and romance was pretty prevalent on those pages! It’s developmentally appropriate for teens to explore sex and sexuality and whatever that means for them. My books include first kisses (and MORE) because I see YA fiction as a safe place to learn about sex and sexuality.  

Cindy: Right. A lot of firsts happen in the teen years since it’s such a time of exploration and discovery, so it should be represented in YA fiction. And romance has lots of levels, so some YA has tamer experiences dealing with crushes and first kisses, while others go all the way…see what I did there…but seriously, readers have a variety of experiences, which are represented in YA. Readers have choices depending on where they are in their own development.  

Juliana: Why do you think YA fiction appeals to such a broad range of ages?

Carrie: We were all teens once. We all remember those intense emotional peaks and valleys. Sometimes, as adults, we become cynical or tired or bored. It’s fun to relive the teen years, or to live vicariously through characters who are very different than we were.

Cindy: Yes, sometimes YA lets us remember because we see our young selves in the characters. Other times, we see different experiences which lets us learn and empathize. I also think a trademark of most YA is a sense of hope. No matter how dark or difficult the protagonist’s experiences are, most YA includes elements of hope and optimism as the characters grow and change. This isn’t always true in adult books, which can be a downer if that’s all you read.

Juliana: What do you begin with when starting a new novel – a mood, a setting, a character? What inspires you, and how do you maintain that inspiration while writing?

Carrie: I begin with a random flash that snowballs into a story. The Loose Ends List began with a vivid image of a person sitting in a wheelchair on the deck of a ship. I’m inspired by the energy of people and places I’ve encountered over the years. That energy spills out onto the page in weird manifestations. If I’m stuck, I go out and walk around and try to take in the energy around me. I know I’m saying “energy” a lot, but it’s how I process creative ideas.

Cindy: I also “see” flashes of scenes in my head. When Reason Breaks started with an image of the teacher running through the woods. I knew someone was out there and that the teacher was racing to help her. That’s all I knew at the time, but that was the beginning of my process. I’m inspired by people and places, too. I soak up images, phrases, moments wherever I am and eventually use them in my writing. I have limited time to write, so I’m usually focused and inspired when I get the time. I’m motivated by the clock during school vacations!

Juliana: What are some of the common errors you tend to notice in YA novels, the biggest pitfalls to avoid in writing stories for teens?

Cindy: I’ll go back to what I said earlier: teens should sound, look, and act like teens. Many writers who write for younger readers for the first time can fall into sounding like an adult delivering “messages.” I did this, too, at first. When I mentally shifted from writing as an adult to writing for young people, my writing changed. 

Carrie: I’m very careful not to be critical of other people’s novels. What might seem like a pitfall to me, is very powerful to somebody else. I try to stay true to the story in my head and respect the stories of other authors.

Juliana: A last one, just for fun. If you could be any YA character for a day, who would you choose, and why?

Carrie: Hmmmm. I just read Summer of Sloane by Erin Schneider. I would be Sloane because OMG her love interest is very adorable. (I told you I was nineteen).

Cindy: I loved Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee and would be either Sammy or Andy for a day. Both are smart, bold girls of color fighting for survival and falling in love on the Oregon Trail.

Juliana: Thank you very much Cindy and Carrie for joining me. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to decide which YA character I’d like to be for a day! 

Check out Cindy Rodriguez’s website – www.cindylrodriguez.com – for further information on her work, as well as blog posts, interviews, and news. You can find Cindy on Twitter @RodriguezCindyL and Facebook.

For more on Carrie Firestone, visit www.carriefirestoneauthor.com and check out her blog for sweet haikus of ‘snow globe moments’. Carrie tweets as @CLLFirestone and you can find her on Facebook. 

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone will be out soon, on June 7th 2016!

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out April’s Spotlight on SFF Forums with Brian Turner and Damaris Browne. Next up in June: Spotlight on Urban Fantasy.

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