Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 18, 2014

The Secret Weapon of YA/NA Writers

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Summer is the perfect setting for first time love. I’m pretty sure everyone, EVERYONE, had a summer love, fling, crush, or even just a sweet moment at some point in their lives. The unrequited variety counts too, because you did in fact feel that way for the first time. And for those with unrequited love, the first time that love was returned, I’m sure it tasted even sweeter. Like a long walk on a summer’s evening, feeling the sun lift from your skin as the sky makes that long transition into night. Mmmmm it is the perfect time to write a YA or NA novel.


cover the fault in our starsLet’s jump in with our clothes on, shall we? Heads up, there is a small spoiler alert for The Fault In Our Stars in this excerpt.

Idiotically, it occurred to me that my pink underwear didn’t match my purple bra, as if boys even notice such things. I crawled under the covers and kicked out of my jeans and socks and then watched the comforter dance as beneath it, Augustus removed first his jeans and then his leg.


The whole affair was the precise opposite of what I figured it would be: slow and patient and quiet and neither particularly painful nor particularly ecstatic. There were a lot of condomy problems that I did not get a particularly good look at. No headboards were broken. No screaming. Honestly, it was probably the longest time we’d ever spent together without talking.

The Fault In Our Stars, John Green

This excerpt is obviously showing us the couple’s first time. Where did you go when you were reading the above passage? Did you have any feelings taking you back to your first? Your emotional brain was either saying, “Oh how true!!” or, “Mine was so much worse!” or “OH wow mine was nothing like that!” And then you might have gotten a few mental flashes of your past.

Guess what, you just made an emotional connection to those characters. Even if your situation was not similar, you still made a connection. You went a little deeper into their world.  Notice that Green never went into huge emotional detail here. He didn’t try to force you to feel one way or another, he didn’t take you deep deep POV to reveal every quiver of their loins. But, you still felt something. Not all YA/NA authors choose to do this, and that is okay too. I’ll show you another example in a minute that might try and melt off your britches. Don’t worry, it’s still PG 13, and that is what is so darn great about it!

Why am I going on and on about first times? Well, breaking into our memories to create high emotional moments is one thing (I talk about breaking through the Emotional Barrier here) but reaching back to the first times you experienced pieces of life is quite another. Synapses never crossed before, neural pathways being created from the shiny new experiences you are having, those first time memories are the ones that really light emotions on fire when I write and when I read. First time memories are also the memories that are easily tapped into if a reader happens to stumble upon this type of raw moment. This makes people want to read more more more!

Using first time love and first time experience writing is a tool and this tool is an underused weapon in most genres. Although, there are two genres lucky enough to utilize this weapon throughout their every breath.

Young Adult Fiction and New Adult Fiction.

YA/NA authors don’t glaze over first time memories. Their genres demand that they dive to the bottom of their own memory pools and in turn show us every emotion and decision their protagonist makes during these precious moments of discovery. 

  • What memories are chosen?
  • When you flesh memories out of your life and into your story, do they move your story forward?
  • Are you using multiple layers of thought, body language, choreography, and physical emotion to create these first time moments?
  • Do you need to tweak them a little bit?
  • Do you need to borrow a friends memories, someone with more experience in the type of love you are writing about?
  • Do the memories help deepen characterization?
  • Is your voice unique enough?
  • Do you truly understand your POVs volcanic relationships?
  • How are you showing the sequence of events to the reader?
  • Does the sequence of events heighten the tension?
  • How much emotion does your protagonist show, and how much are you leaving for the reader to feel for themselves? (The difference between John Green and Tahereh Mafi)

Big questions to answer.  

And if you succeed answering them and finding the perfect emotional formula for your novel, there will be BIG REWARDS.    *cough, cough…Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, 13 Reasons Why, Shatter Me Series, Delirium Trilogy, Divergent, etc.



cover hunger gamesSpeaking of exquisite examples of writing craft, time to take a peek at an excerpt from Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games. This excerpt displays the young adult first time deep thought:

 I hear Peeta’s voice in my head. She has no idea. The effect she can have. Obviously meant to demean me. Right? But a tiny part of me wonders if this was a compliment.  That he meant I was appealing in some way. It’s weird, how much he’s noticed me. Like  the attention he’s paid to my hunting. And apparently, I have not been as oblivious to him as I imagined, either. The flour. The wrestling. I have kept track of the boy with the  bread.

Collins, Suzanne ,The Hunger Games

Collins lets us watch her protagonist waffle between thoughts about the possible love/like interest.  We get to know more of the POVs personality through these segments. What if she had just said, “I think that boy likes me, and, gosh, maybe I like him too!”  BORING.

Gale’s eyes fastened on the bow. “Can I see that?” I handed it over. “Just remember, stealing’s punishable by death.” That was the first time I ever saw him smile. It transformed him from someone menacing to someone you wished you knew. But it took several months before I returned that smile. Collins, Suzanne The Hunger Games

She sure knows how to present the base of a relationship.  A snarky – could be friend-flirty remark. In return a fresh description of a smile that takes us a step deeper into who Gale is. Then she tells us something HUGE about her character. Even at 14, this girl was cautious and stubborn.  And as a bonus, Collins raises the question, what will those traits do for her POVs future? Thank you Suzanne Collins for also raising the YA emotional bar.

The most common first memory found in YA novels is that of LOVE.   I’m not sure if it’s because when we are young we are able to feel love more? Or, that love itself makes us feel young again. Whatever it is, YA authors find themselves heart deep in first loves, first glances, first worry, first kisses, first lovers quarrel, first jealousy, first betrayal, and the biggest of all – first heart break.

Readers are attracted to the rawness that “First Love” brings to the story. The reader has only experienced “First Love” once, as we all have, and it is such a strong emotional event in everyone’s life, who wouldn’t want to experience that again? The depth to which the author goes to show deep inside a “First Loves” POV is like we are being thrown into our own youth to relive these cognitive adventures.  Our brains start shooting endorphins.  Poof!


cover unravel me“Can you see me?”

“No,” I lie, and I’m trying to ignore the immediate tension, the electricity humming in the air between us.

I take a step back.

I feel his hands on my arms, I feel his skin against my skin and I’m holding my breath. I don’t move an inch. I don’t say a word as his hands drop to my waist, to the thin material making a poor attempt to cover my body. His fingers graze the soft skin of my lower back, right underneath the hem of my shirt and I’m losing count of the number of times my heart skips a beat.

I’m struggling to get oxygen in my lungs.

“Is it even possible,” he whispers, “that you can’t feel this fire between us?” His hands are traveling up my arms again, his touch so light, his fingers slipping under the straps of my shirt and it’s ripping me apart, it’s aching in my core, it’s a pulse beating in every inch of my body and I’m trying to convince myself not to lose my head with I feel the straps fall down and everything stops.

The air is still.

My skin is scared.

Even my thoughts are whispering.



6 seconds I forget to breathe.

Then I feel his lips against my shoulder, soft and scorching and tender, so gentle I could almost believe It’s the kiss of a breeze and not a boy.

Unravel Me, Tahereh Mafi

Do I even need to tell you that, that excerpt was displaying first time lovers heat? Didn’t think so. Kudos to Mafi for creating such steamy lyrical scenes with such emotional passion, I’m pretty sure she pushed the genre envelope by writing this poetic series.


cover uninvitedAnother incredible YA author that knows how to write active passion is Sophie Jordon. Uninvited will kick your breath away. Here is a teeny snippet, because I just can’t help myself.

He grabs my arm and whirls me around, smacking me right against him. I strain to get away, arching my body. His eyes hold me again. It’s always his eyes. The gray-blue so seductive, like smoke weaving its spell on me.

One of his hands cups the back of my head, fingers weaving into the wet strands. Everything inside me stills, locks tight as his palm curves around the back of my skull. I can only look into those eyes. Watch him watching me. Stare helplessly when his gaze drops to my mouth.

His head moves down swiftly, stopping just a half inch from my lips. Our breaths merge, mingle His hand flexes in my hair, as if testing the wet texture.

Then he closes the space between us. Kisses me finally. Sensation explodes inside me when his lips touch mine. It’s not tentative or shy like most first kisses. The ones I’ve had anyway.

Sophie Jordon. Uninvited

The imagined reality of this teenage world is intoxicating.  Who wouldn’t want to read YA/NA fiction?


But don’t let “First Love” and “First Time” memories limit you to the high school or college setting. Not all YA/NAs have to be like the high school Summer Nights of Grease. In Grease, the only thing getting in the way of the lover’s love is which side of the “tracks” they lived on and if you were a prep or a greaser. Authors today are placing their stories in wonderfully distorted dystopian locations, in the past, in the west, in the sky, and underground. It is truly astonishing to see the plethora of adventures we can write and read about today. The sky isn’t the limit anymore.

Because of the expansion of these stories, the audience of YA fiction is now surpassing anything publishers would have dreamed of 10 years ago.  Literary agents are widening their submission guidelines to include YA/NA fiction and it’s multitude of sub-genres.  Authors like Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, and Candace Bushnell, etc. are now pushing out YA/NA series by the handful.

I refuse to let them have all of the fun.

So I ask you, “Are you ready to dive into the pool?”   Because readers are out there. Out there waiting for their next emotional ride.

You have the super weapon of first time experiences in your hearts pocket. If you don’t write it, someone else will!

Thank you so much for visiting the new WITS site today. I hope your summer is creating wonderful memories for your future novels. In the comments: Without going into extreme detail, what are some of the first time memories you have nabbed for your writing? Did you enjoy writing them?


tiffanyTiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.



27 comments on “The Secret Weapon of YA/NA Writers”

  1. What a great post, Tiffany. Thank you! There are many "firsts" in my debut series, but the biggest one, which consumes my MC in book 1, is the death of her parents. She had an extrememly difficult time dealing with it, and it caused her to do things she spends most of the book seeking forgiveness for. So it was a painful "first" to write, I'd have to say.

    1. Tiffany, it's going well. Thanks. I'm pitching my story next month in San Antonio. So fingers crossed. It's the one I used during your workshop. The one with the little girl.

  2. Crossing the emotional barriers was so hard for me, since I'm emotionally closed off to almost everyone. But I crossed it to better my writng. This post was helpful 🙂

  3. Great post, as usual, Tiffany, and a great reminder. You helped me SO much with my fight scene.... This is a great reminder to slow down and fully explain the important moments!

  4. Great post Tiffany. Just last week I was reading a book that talked about the power of firsts in your writing. I plan to use some firsts in my current WIP. Thanks for the great examples.

  5. I've never considered writing YA because well, lets face it, I'm not a spring chick any more. BUT I do remember when I was young and I do keep up with kids now days. I think the emotions of kids growing up don't change much, just the circumstances. Thanks for this reminder.

  6. Great post as always Tiffany! I am working on those emotional barriers, too as Carol mentioned. And really really diving deep into pov so this post is very timely for me. But you know me, I always love your stuff! Hope you're doing well!

    1. Merry, and I love YOUR stuff. When are you going to get a contemporary out there? I can think of one or two sentences of that one exercise I had you guys do in my Madness to Method workshop and immediately have an emotional reaction. You know the one , I'm talking about. ...Bambi! If you expanded that into a novel I would bet my pinkie toes that you would be pubbed within 5 months after completion. Keep writing and publication will come. 🙂

  7. I enjoyed your post. I never really thought about using the "firsts" experiences. Something to think about. Thanks so much.

    1. Bonnie, Thank you for reading today! If you don't have any firsts that fit with your WIP, don't get too down on yourself. I seem to recall you write with a VERY fresh perspective on really interesting situations. teehee!

  8. I write YA so I draw on first memories quite a bit. Like sitting next to the boy you like in class, and that space between you, which is no more than an inch or two, thrills with electricity and you daren't look at him in case he guesses how you feel. But it's the best moment in your whole day...and the worst is when you see him walking through the school yard hand in hand with his girlfriend. You can never get those feelings again and it's what makes the (horrible) journey of adolescence exciting and worth while.

    1. little miss W - ooooh yeah! I have been there! I'm actually mad that I didn't keep a diary in high school because just reading snippets like that can zooooooooooom in my brain straight back to those moments. It's a blessing and a curse.

      Thank you for popping over to the new site today. see you next time.

    1. Lisa, thank you! Even the wild genres and subgenres of YA and NA are a thrill for me to read, every single time - because of all the emo first time drama. If it's written well, those moments give me warm n fuzzies.

  9. I adore YA and NA! It's a time of intense emotion and the choices we make then influence the rest of our adult lives. I've learned so much from your class and edits... Many thanks!

  10. Fascinating stuff. I actually have a manuscript (which I really need to dust off!) all about a teen girl's first times -- in this, that, and the other. Thanks for honing in on what works with this, Tiffany!

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