5 Common Problems in Your Young Adult Manuscript

05, Apr 2013 by KristiCook">KristiCook in Featured,Pacing,Writing Craft     , , ,   8 Comment

Girl reading book

Lately, I’ve been noticing a series of common problems popping up in a lot of young adult manuscripts (and even published YA novels!).  Does yours suffer from any of the following?  If so, these may be some areas that could use a little strengthening.

1.  An imbalance with your heroine/hero (or protagonist/love interest) —  It’s easy to see how this comes about:  a writer imagines this yummy book boyfriend, makes a Pinterest board of “inspiration” photos of some hot actor  they can envision playing the role, and spends hours daydreaming about this character’s oh-so-smooth-and-sexy dialogue.  He comes fully alive in the writer’s mind, a well-rounded, three-dimensional character.  And then…they develop the character who will fall for them.  The details about this character are a bit fuzzy–mostly, she’s just a stand-in for the author (one of those annoying “Mary Sue” characters).  Or…the author develops the protagonist first, this wonderful kick-ass heroine who is somehow vulnerable and uber-sympathetic, too.  The author does multiple character development exercises–character interviews and a collage–really getting inside the protagonist’s head.  And then she creates a love interest for this fabulous heroine, almost as an after thought.  In either case, what we get (as readers) is a serious imbalance.  The strongest, most universally beloved books are often ones with well-balanced protagonist/love interest combinations, where equal care went into developing both (or, all of the main characters).  The best example I can think of with a well-balanced pair is THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy –part of the reason it works so well as a series is because so many readers care for Peeta (or even Gale) as much as they care for Katniss.  I think Marie Lu’s LEGEND series also does a particularly good job of this–I find myself equally intrigued with both June and Day.  And how many readers love Ron and Hermione just as much as they love Harry Potter?

2.  Too much focus on the romance — I know, it seems strange that I should say this after talking about balancing your protagonist/love interest, but for most YA novels, the romance really shouldn’t be the book’s focus.  You should be able to remove the romance subplot and still have a strong, coherent plot.  Your protagonist should be on some sort of journey besides finding love.  Imagine how awful and meaningless HARRY POTTER would have been if the series’ primary focus was on Harry finding/falling in love with Ginny?

3.  Overwrought, “purple” prose — this is a hard one to describe, but readers know it when they see it.  Every time your character sighs, does a puff of air escape their lips, making their hair flutter like silk on a warm afternoon breeze?  When they bump into their love interest in the school cafeteria, does tension coil in their belly, radiating through every single nerve, every fiber of their being, making their vision narrow and their windpipe tighten as they struggle for a breath?  This kind of prose does have its place–used sparingly, it can be very effective.  But when every sigh is described in flowery detail, every reaction is drawn out and embellished, it can start seeming a bit overwrought (and the prose may seem overly wordy and convoluted).  For the most part, you should keep it simple.  Save your beautiful, overly descriptive prose for key moments in your story.

4.  Bogging down readers in too many details — Don’t get me wrong–details are important.  But I sometimes see new writers getting bogged down in too many details–they feel the need to describe every single motion/movement their character performs, or every single element of an object they encounter.  As a reader, I don’t really need to know exactly how your character places a book on a table; I just need to know that they did so.  When an author starts describing how their character turned, bent at the waist, leaned over the table and carefully placed the book in the middle of the wooden surface, then straightened and turned back toward the door, you’ve lost me.  I’m so busy trying to decode the details (wait, she bent at the waist?  Just how low was the table?) that I’ve been effectively pulled from the story.  Sometimes, less is more.  Include the right details in the right places–extraneous details add nothing to your story and can confuse readers in the process.

5. Insufficient world-building — world-building is important, even in realistic fiction (but especially so in paranormal/fantasy/dystopian novels).  You, the author, should be able to fully visualize the world you’ve placed your characters into, but you also need to be able to translate it to your readers.  Help us see the world through your characters’ eyes (but without bogging us down in extraneous details–see number 4!).  Help us understand how your characters’ world has shaped them, how it affects them and their story.  Part of what made HARRY POTTER  work so well was J.K. Rowling’s wonderfully vivid, seamless world-building.

Does your YA manuscript suffer from any of the above?  If so, consider working on these elements to strengthen your story and improve your prose.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://howtowriteshop.loridevoti.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/KristiColumn.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com. [/author_info] [/author]

8 thoughts on “5 Common Problems in Your Young Adult Manuscript”

  1. Rose says:

    Thanks, Kristi, this is really helpful to me as I take a critical look at my second draft. I’m definitely bookmarking this for my final pass through, too!

  2. Kristi Cook says:

    So glad you found it helpful, Rose!

  3. Judy Lawn says:

    Thanks Kristi – This is certainly an important point, and something for me to check within my YA manuscript before I send it out!
    Although I’m published in short stories, novels, children’s picture books and non fiction, this will be my first YA novel, and it can always be ‘improved’. I will check that I have the right balance between the two ‘romantic’ protagonists.
    Thank you
    Judy Lawn

  4. KristiCook says:

    So glad you found it helpful, Judy! Best of luck!

  5. Joanne says:

    Some excellent points, though I might take (friendly) issue with no.2. 🙂 Surely your degree of focus on the love-angle depends on what genre of YA you’re writing? If it’s YA Romance, then it’s entirely appropriate to have the focus squarely on the romance. If you’re writing YA Dystopian, say, or YA fantasy, then the romance is relegated to second place.

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