March 27, 2013

Breaking Into YA Fiction: A Conversation with Ruth Witteried

Does a new writer trying to break into YA need to have a finished novel or can they submit a proposal?

If you’re new to YA and thinking about pitching a book proposal; think again. Typically, publishers of fiction want a finished product, and as a new writer your book is the best representation of your ability. Very few, if any, agents will shop a fiction proposal, YA or otherwise, from an unknown author. If you are established in a different genre, or have an amazing, interactive website for the YA audience you might stand a better chance, but any agent will want to make sure you can write fiction. Better just to write the book and get it to a reputable agent.

What are the recommended specs for a YA novel—page length, word count, language censored in any way?

There is still some separation in the expected word count of adult fiction versus young adult fiction. Adult fiction typically falls somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words (300-400 pages).  Writer’s Digest suggests a 55,000 – 70,000 word count for YA (220-280 pages); cautioning against going much higher, although they admit this is a very fluid category. If you are writing fantasy/sci-fi, you will probably go well into the 70,000 range, as world building uses a lot of ink. There are always exceptions of course, just check out these YA bestsellers: The Hunger Games (384), The Night Circus (528), Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (352), The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation (351), and Delirium (441).

Most of the restrictions we associate with YA—profanity, sexual situations, extreme violence—have fallen away. Profanity makes regular appearances in nearly all bestselling YA fiction; and appropriately so as it has become ubiquitous in our society. That’s not to say you should be careless with its use, but to ignore it completely may have your dialogue sounding inauthentic.

Most YA books are still fairly restrained when dealing with sexual situations. That is to say, they focus more on the yearning and the lead up to sex than actual sex scenes. Make no mistake, many characters are sexually active and speak openly about it, a lot about it, but the actual ‘going all the way’ scene in a book like Shiver, for example, leads you to the door and shuts it (nobody really considers 50 Shades of Grey to be YA, in spite of the young protagonist!).

And as far as extreme violence goes, you need only look at the success of The Hunger Games to realize how loose the restrictions on violence have become. It is listed on Amazon for readers “12 and up.”  When you look at the level of violence on television, in movies and video games, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Fortunately, Torture Porn (think The Saw movie franchise) is still relegated to adult fiction.

Which agents are the most easily accessible to a new YA writer?

Many agents, who five years ago wouldn’t consider YA, are now actively pursuing writers of the genre. When I managed a Waldenbooks in the eighties, books for teens fell under one banner: Young Adult, and it occupied two linear feet of shelf space. Judy Blume was its most provocative author, Forever causing uproars in school boards across the country for daring to deal with her protagonist’s loss of virginity. Today, YA easily occupy 15-20 linear feet, even in modest sized Barnes & Nobles, with subcategories for: Romance, Paranormal Romance, Fantasy & Adventure, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Historical, Dystopian, Steampunk, Humor, Anime and Graphic Novels. Agents are looking for the next hot voice in YA and are more receptive to a great pitch or query letter. Andrea Brown, Full Circle, Victoria Sanders & Associates, Andrea Hurst, Wendy Lamb, are agencies I see consistently at conferences, soliciting YA material. Laurie McLean of Foreword Literacy (The Iron Fey series) regularly attends the Willamette Writers Conference and signed Portland author, Marni Bates as a result of a pitch. Marni now has four YA titles in print and a film option.

Do you have to have an agent to get read?

It certainly helps, but like the music industry before it, everything is changing in publishing (and in film). Agents used to be the gateway to writing success. That is less and less true. Many publishing houses have laid off their in-house editing staff, formerly assigned to new writers to get their books in shape. Now, many of those editors are working freelance and often act as a conduit to agents and publishers.

Another way to get read is to pitch to a film manager, producer or agent. We’re seeing a lot of cross over at our conference; film people looking for completed, published and unpublished manuscripts, blogs, life rights, even Twitter feeds. Sh*t My Dad Says, was a book before it was a sitcom, and a Twitter feed before it was a book. So there are ways to get your book read outside of the traditional query.

Are there any conferences a new writer can attend that are actually helpful?

Indeed (cue blatant plug). I have been attending the Willamette Writers Conference every year since 2008 (I became the Film Coordinator in 2011). This is a very reputable conference that offers a high caliber curriculum over a three day weekend, but also offers an opportunity to meet and/or pitch to an agent, editor or publisher. We’re in Portland, but there are undoubtedly conferences close to you worth attending. But they can be expensive, so it’s important to set clear goals about what you want to accomplish. If you only want to pitch your book, then you need to study the roster of consultants available to pitch to. Every conference has a website with biographies from each consultant, including a wish list of what kinds of books they’re looking for.  Study it, and follow up with a search at or to see who’s on their client list. Most of them have a website with a blog, or a Twitter feed with links to articles they think are important. Follow them for a few weeks to see if they’re a good fit for you. At the very least you will be more informed when you query them or meet them in person to pitch. Writers are signed every year at conferences around the country. I personally see it happen every year in Portland.

Can you submit directly to a publisher and which publishers are the most open to new writers?

No. You can query a publisher, but as a general rule unsolicited manuscripts are thrown away. Check their website for submission requirements and follow them.

What is the biggest mistake a new writer makes when trying to break into the YA market?

The two mistakes I see the most often are lecturing and shielding the reader. Teenagers are highly attuned to changes in air pressure when a lecture approaches and will run for cover. Your message may be important, urgent even, but it requires a light touch if it is to reach this audience. Likewise, if you sugar coat your subject matter in an attempt to protect the reader, you’ll come off as phony. I have been guilty of this myself, going all the way to the edge and pulling back because I was afraid of offending someone (more often a parent or school board). Teen audiences are far more savvy than we give them credit for. Forget about playing it safe.

How can a writer improve their chance for success?

Read young adult. Read lots of young adult. Not only will you take comfort in the amount of flat out crap being sold (we all need hope!); it gives you a point from which to compare your own story and writing. Then when you find quality writing, (I’m a fan of Lauren Oliver’s) you have a second point of comparison and can begin to close the gap.

Know your market. For example, the paranormal romance genre is glutted. Don’t write that unless you’ve found something no one else has. (How do I know that? I read it in an agent’s wish list on a conference website).

Is platform as essential in YA as it is in adult trade?

Yes and no. You don’t have to build up your CV with publications, lectures or speaking engagements to be a credible YA writer. But you have to be findable, so at the very least you need an internet presence. My website,, was launched in advance of the completion of the book; a new trend in marketing that agents and publishers are looking for. And once your website is up, you can elect to bypass traditional publishing and e-publish a chapter at a time if you like, on your own site.

What is the smartest move you’ve ever seen a writer make when it comes to their career?

Kelly Williams Brown, not long out of college, realized there was a whole lot of stuff involved in living on your own that she didn’t know how to do or was too undisciplined to do.  This became the concept for a book proposal: Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, with topics like, “Make Your Fucking Bed!”
She started a blog two weeks before the Willamette Writers Conference with the intention of adding something new every day for a year, then pitched the non-fiction concept in a group pitch session. I think it was a Saturday (she only came one day expressly to pitch). By Monday night she had a book agent, who went on to sell the book at auction and FOX is producing a pilot. All based on the strength on her concept, presentation, and a self-made website.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Randall Jahnson, (Mask of Zorro, The Doors) a screenwriter transplant from L.A., told me I had an annoying habit of ‘pulling my punches’ (see above!). After reading two of my early scripts, he got frustrated and said, “This is good stuff, you set the scene and build the tension and then—you wuss out! Fucking say it, don’t sugar coat it!”

It’s damn good advice.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

I wish I had been more confident, more trusting of my story instincts. It’s a difficult thing to gage until you put yourself out there, be it a contest, a critique group, or submission; but it’s important to have that trust in yourself. Nobody else can write from your gut, so it’s pointless to second guess yourself, especially on a first draft when everything is fresh. Errors in execution can be fixed in the rewrite.

Any last words of encouragement or warnings?

Do something every day to further your writing goals or move your story forward. Set up a space and a routine and guard it with your life. We are told to write every day for good reason—it keeps us connected to our story and keeps our skills sharp. So give it a try. Something is better than nothing. And when you miss a day, or two or three; cultivate self-forgiveness.

Then get back in your chair and write.

Ruth Witteried has a M.A. from Pacific Lutheran University and teaches screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA. She took home the Columbine Award at the 2009 Moondance International Film Festival for her feature length script, A More Perfect Union, detailing the 1919 Centralia Massacre. She is currently writing the young adult book and screenplay, Zombie Noel under her pen name, RH Cohen. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown; Twitter @sityourassdown1, or