For my first novel, the only people I had reading and critiquing it were friends and family. Which was awesome for my ego–not so awesome for my work.
For my second novel, I actually did what the internets have been advising me to do–I searched for critique partners. And I actually found two!
More on that process later, though–what I really want to talk about is something one of these wonderful critique partners pointed out to me: that my YA contemporary novel was not, in fact, YA contemporary.
You see, I set my story in the early ’00s. In my mind that wasn’t all that long ago–after all, it’s when I was still a teenager. But apparently this is a no-no, and my critique partner called me out on it.
My argument: I needed it to take place in a time before social media. One of the plot points is the protagonist unexpectedly running into someone from her childhood, and with social media, I feel like no one runs into anyone unexpectedly anymore because everyone knows what everyone else is up to.
Also, I know what being a teenager in the early ’00s is like. I don’t know what being a teenager today is like.
Then my critique partner directed me to these tweets from a literary agent:
Oh. Okay, then.
At first, I didn’t think there was any way to bring my story into the present. But the more I thought about it–and with help from my critique partner–the more I realized, it really wouldn’t be all that hard to change a few details and make my “contemporary” YA truly contemporary. My protagonist could have enough restraint not to look up people she’s trying to avoid. Her house could be in a dead zone, and her wifi down the night I need her to not be able to contact anyone. There are ways around this.
And in terms of making sure it sounds like today’s teenagers? I do hang around today’s teenagers (but not in a creepy way). I have teenage cousins I always talk to at family events. One of my critique partners is a teenager, which is immensely helpful. And most importantly, I read successful contemporary YA all the time.
I’m an unknown, unpublished writer. I don’t want to hurt my chances while querying, and I definitely don’t want to hurt my chances while publishing. And the people I’m writing for (teens) are teenagers now, not fifteen years ago.
So my advice if you’re writing YA: set your story to today. There will always be exceptions to this rule (like this lovely novel, set in the ’80s) but before you get big, it will generally help you to follow the rules.