Jeyn Roberts is a best-selling YA author who hails from Canada. Her writing is fun and dark and quirky and realistic all at once, and even though it’s labeled as YA, adults can enjoy it just as well.
So You Wanna Write A YA Horror
By Jeyn Roberts
If you haven’t been living under a rock lately, you’ll know that YA is a popular market. And teenagers like to be scared. Although I’m going to be talking about YA horror specifically, with the exception of a few things, these rules actually do apply across the board.
Any author, editor, or agent will agree: horror is a tough sale. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that good horror is hard to write. And anyone who subscribes to Netflix will agree that there’s a lot of bad, not even remotely scary stuff out there.
So here are what I consider to be some of the do’s and don’ts of writing YA.
11. Dumbing it down. No. Just no. There’s a common misconception with adults who haven’t read a lot of YA. They seem to believe that YA is still stuck in the days of Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High. Absolute rubbish. Do not be afraid to use big words, tough subjects, and harsh situations that could turn big tough adults into sludgy messes.
22. Stories that have a moral compass. Another no. If your book has a lot of sex, starved teenagers that are dropping like flies, while your heroine is surviving only because she’s the virgin—the eighties called, they want their plot back. No one wants a preachy story, especially one that focuses on purity, virtue, and all those things that existed back in the fifties.
3. Sex. Now this one is a bit tricky. There is nothing wrong with sex in YA. In fact, there are plenty of books that focus primarily on the subject. At the same time, sex isn’t something that always sells. Ask yourself this. Does your sex scene pull the plot forward or is it just unnecessary filler? If you’re doing it for the cheap thrill (and you just want an excuse to use plenty of bad adjectives to describe a penis) then it’s probably best leaving it out.
4. Gore and violence. Another tough one. Do not be afraid to pack punches. If your character needs to come across someone with his or her intestines spilling onto the floor, so be it! But at the same time, two pages of intense description might be a little over the top. Remember, it’s the suspense that sells, not the blood.
5. Write the novel everyone wants to read, not just horror fans. Seriously, a good book isn’t just about the genre. It’s about the characters and the story. There aren’t a lot of YA editors out there who specifically ask for horror. Don’t fall into the trap of back-to-back death and destruction. Create a story with characters that people will fall in love with. Make the reader care.
6. Avoid clichés and tired worn out subjects. Vampires. Werewolves. The market is full of them. Avoid like the plague. Dystopian, apocalypse (and yes, that includes my book), and zombies are so done, they’re burnt out. Try to find a new monster. There are lots of them out there. Now I’m not saying that an editor is going to automatically turn down every single vampire book that comes across their desk. But unless you’re coming up with a very unique story, it’s best to avoid. Love triangles are no longer cool either, btw.
7. Build your suspense. There is nothing scarier than a book that leaves you on the edge of your seat. The serial killer is stalking the high school girl, leaving her bits of body parts along the way. He’s killing her friends (not the vodka loving, sex crazed friends, but the really good BFF’s that make you want to cry when they bite the blade), and she’s got to do whatever it takes to try and stay alive. Make the reader care. Make them bite their nails and be afraid to turn of the lights.
8. Read. Yeah, I know that’s the one that every author advises and everyone is tired of hearing about it. But it’s true. Go the library or bookstore and read as many YA horror and mystery novels you can get your mitts on. Understand your audience. Teenagers have a language onto their own (Netflix and chill, anyone?) They have their likes and dislikes. I’m not saying you need to download Justin Beiber’s greatest hits and listen to it, but you should be aware of what’s popular and not. Words and expressions that worked for you as a teenager are probably outdated.
So there are some of my tips. Feel free to agree or disagree or add some of your own in the comments section.
Jeyn Roberts grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and started writing at an early age, having her first story published when she was 16 in a middle-grade anthology called LET ME TELL YOU.
When she was 21, she moved to Vancouver with dreams of being a rock star, graduating from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Writing and Psychology. For the next few years she played in an alternative/punk band called Missing Mile before moving to England where she received her MA from the prestigious Creative Writing graduate course at Bath Spa University. Jeyn is a former singer, songwriter, actress, bicycle courier and tree planter.
An avid traveler, she’s been around the world, most recently, teaching high school in South Korea.
A lover of animals, Jeyn volunteers regularly with helping abandoned and abused animals, especially cats.