Posted On November 11, 2011 by Print This Post

Leanna Renee Hieber on Writing Adult vs. Young Adult Fiction

Good morning, RU Readers! Let’s take a moment to salute our veterans on this day of remembrance.

Thanks! Now on with today’s program…I’m really pleased  to introduce you to today’s visiting professor. I first met Leanna Renee Hieber in New York, while attending a reading at Lady Jane’s Salon and then again at our Sourcebooks author dinner.  Leanna’s enthusiasm for writing is infectious, and I can’t wait for you to meet her.

Welcome Leanna!!

Writing Adult Vs. YA Titles, one author’s experience

Since the beginning of time, authors have crossed between genres, and all of them have done so differently. There are no rules in storytelling besides telling a damn good story. There are, however, genre expectations each genre expects of the author, and YA is no different. Here are some of my choices and thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, I should say that more than most other authors who’ve crossed between these two aisles, I’ve kept things similar. I’m still a Gothic novelist in style. Still Historical Paranormal. I’ve kept my name. I’ve kept my “PG-13” rating to my books. I’ve even kept my decade: 1880. I’ve kept many themes: disenfranchised, “unfortunate” heroines finding a beloved community of people where their strengths are recognized and valued. I layer my paranormal setting delicately onto ‘realistic’ Victorian lives. So thusly, I don’t really look at my Strangely Beautiful and my upcoming Magic Most Foul series as being all that different in mood or intent. The differences are what shelf they’ll sit upon in the bookstore and the rest is semantics: London vs. New York City. 1888 vs. 1880. A large cast of characters vs. a smaller one. Third person sweeping narrative for my adult books versus intimate, epistolary (diary entry) first person narratives for my YA books.

The two most obvious differences between my series are the age and life experience of the characters and their peer group, and 3rd person to 1st person. A YA world doesn’t have to be populated only with teens, but the reason my Strangely Beautiful series ended up as adult rather than YA is that Miss Percy was the main teen in a world of adult people and situations, so the tone skewed adult event though it’s “rated” PG-13. Alexi, the hero, is much older than Percy and that fact alone steers it onto the adult rather than YA shelf. For a book to be shelved as YA, there has to be a teen/young adult peer group. But even though my third Strangely Beautiful book is filled entirely with teenagers, it sits next to the first books in the series, where they are all already shelved in adult genre fiction, (it also has so many different POVs that the style is more adult than YA).

Key needs of YA: A teen peer group, relatable teen characters, a youthful driving voice. You don’t have to use a first person narrative but the bulk of YA novels are. Generally POV needs to stay in the main character’s head, or hero/heroine’s heads at most. The world of the teen is everything, the world is all-consuming and yet based entirely from within their own perspective, thusly that perspective and world-view is intimate to the main character. There must be something inherently youthful about the narrative, even if, as in my case, there was no such thing as a ‘teenager’ in the 19th century. Don’t just take an adult novel and change the ages of the characters. That doesn’t work. But don’t talk down to teen readers either.

A few things my YA heroine Natalie taught me when I sat back and let her drive the carriage: Mean girls translate to any time period. Struggling to find one’s voice, figuratively or in Natalie’s case, literally, is something every human, not just teen girl, can relate to. The desire for beautiful things is universal. Falling in love for the first time is an act of bravery and insanity. The impulsivity of youth can create the most rich, conflict-laden and nerve-wracking stories; just dream up an interesting young character and let them run around, they will take you to incredible and unexpected places if you let them.

What’s the core of YA? The Rite of Passage.

I recently said in an interview that Young Adult literature presents “life at it’s most critical”. And the most critical moments of life are by far the most compelling. The rite of passage is one of the most if not the most important journeys in a person’s life. The Coming of Age story is a beautiful, often fraught, and timeless one. It is a tale we will all go through and have been through. That relatable core is why YA fiction is read by young adults and adults alike. The rite of passage inherently hold the key to good drama and storytelling: a journey, a conflict, a change resulting in growth. We must as storytellers tap into this beautifully precarious point of raw power for all our characters. We learn the most about characters as to how they each individually approach this journey and rite. And we, the readers, always learn something of ourselves along the way. Because the Hero’s Journey parallels a coming of age and rite of passage story, a staple of classic storytelling is already at the heart of YA literature, and I look to that journey as my compass.


Thanks, Leanna! RU Readers, tell us about your favorite YA novel. Do you read both adult and YA? If not, why? If so, tell us what you love about both worlds. To read an excerpt from DARKER STILL, please visit

On Monday, Christina Hollis discusses…From Idea to Acceptance: Five Things to Smooth Your Path to Publication. Great information!


Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber graduated with a BFA in Theatre, a focus in the Victorian Era and a scholarship to study in London. Having adapted works of 19th Century literature for the stage, her one-act plays have been produced around the country.  THE STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL TALE OF MISS PERCY PARKER, first in the Strangely Beautiful saga of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels, hit Barnes & Noble’s bestseller lists, won two 2010 Prism Awards (Best Fantasy Romance, Best First Book) and has been optioned for adaptation into a musical theatre production currently in development. DARKER STILL, first in the Magic Most Foul series of Gothic Paranormal YA novels set in 1880s New York City begins 11/11 from Sourcebooks Fire and has been chosen as an “Indie Next” recommended title by the American Book Association.

A member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Romance Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, she was named RWA NYC’s 2010 Author of the Year. A member of actors unions AEA, SAG and AFTRA, Leanna works often in film and television. When not writing or on set, she’s a devotee of ghost stories and Goth clubs, adventuring about NYC, where she resides with her real-life hero and beloved rescued lab rabbit Persebunny. Visit her at and on Twitter @LeannaRenee

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11 Responses to “Leanna Renee Hieber on Writing Adult vs. Young Adult Fiction”

  1. Hi Leanna,

    Thanks so much for chatting with us at RU! What do you find the most gratifying about writing YA?

    Also, what do you have coming up next?


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | November 11, 2011, 6:40 am
  2. Leanna – I love to read YA but I can’t write it. I don’t think I can get the “voice” of a teenager. How do you keep in tune with the youthful sound? What kind of research did you do for that side of your book.

    Posted by Robin Covington | November 11, 2011, 6:59 am
  3. Leanna, thanks for explaining so clearly the differences between writing for adults and for young adults. I do both as well (my adult stuff is under a different name), and it really isn’t easy sometimes!

    Posted by Jo Ramsey | November 11, 2011, 7:37 am
  4. I’ve dabbled in YA but I think I’ve passed the age where I can write it realistically. I’m not around teenagers as much as I used to be.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if my daughter writes a YA one of these days. She’s an excellent writer but she prefers editing. And didn’t go into either field when she got out of college.

    She reads a ton of YA and, mainly because of that, I read a fair amount. When she reads a really good one, she lets me know and I read it, too.

    Sometimes it works the other way around – I was the first to read Leanna’s books. Jessica, my daughter, was so excited to meet Leanna at Lori Foster’s event last year, she bought copies of Leanna’s books at the event. (I’m pretty sure you autographed them for her, Leanna!) She’s hooked now!

    This is a great blog, Leanna. I love this line:

    “A few things my YA heroine Natalie taught me when I sat back and let her drive the carriage…”

    I was having trouble with a scene recently, and couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I finally had an epiphany: stop trying so hard and let the heroine steer the story.

    (Almost the same wording as you used – weird!)

    I have to kind of get in the zone for this to work, but I do think my heroine is doing a better job with the story than I was! 😉

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | November 11, 2011, 8:25 am
  5. Morning Leanna…

    I’m currently trying my hand at YA…was hoping to finish it during Nano, but ….yeah, not so much happening this year! I’m going off the beaten path a bit in the question department, but tell me about your rescued lab rabbit Persebunny. =)

    Thanks for the post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 11, 2011, 8:33 am
  6. Hi Leanna,

    I have teenagers so my life feels like I have travelled back to high school. Still a bumpy ride. I’ve started writing a YA based on watching my kids and their friends. Some things and people never change. I’m so glad we didn’t have constant cameras back then. Some fashion choices are better forgotten.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 11, 2011, 8:55 am
  7. Leanna,
    I love YA! It’s fresh, usually upbeat and gives a different perspective on things. I love the way YA authors really get the reader inside their characters’ head. I’ve read The Harry Potter series, Twilight series, The Percy Jackson series, and The Sons of Neptune series.
    I’ve also started the Chronicles of Vladimir Todd.

    Posted by Juliette Springs | November 11, 2011, 9:07 am
  8. Good morning, Leanna –

    Thanks so much for being at RU today!

    Although I like to read YA (I think my last one was one of Julie Karawa’s books), I still read much more adult fiction. I’m with some of the other writers here in that I’m not sure my voice translates. Plus, I tend to write hotter contemp and paranormal romance, too hot for the younger teen population for sure.

    That being said, my son is in the tween stage so YA might become more natural in my writing journey as he gets older. Maybe Adrienne and I will write one together–about mean girls, nice boys and baseball. That would be right up our alleys – LOL.

    Can you tell us anything about your research into Victorian era “teens?”


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 11, 2011, 10:09 am
  9. Hi Leanne!

    I haven’t read any YA since I was a kid. I think the last YA book I read was a Judy Blume novel.

    It’s fascinating that your stories take place during the 1880’s. I’ve read a few books about the “Gilded Age”. It was such a great period of social and economic change in the US and the UK.

    What kind of research did you do for the period?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 11, 2011, 3:00 pm
  10. Hi everyone! Sorry for the late reply but this morning I flew out on the first leg of my Midwestern book tour so I just now got back from a big signing and it’s my first moment at a computer!

    @Tracey – Thanks for having me here!! The most gratifying thing for me in writing YA, particularly in this series, is sharing my excitement for history and the Victorian era with another generation. I fell in love with 19th century style stories when I was a teen, so I love being the connective tissue between teens and an era I’m so passionate about!

    @Robin – Re: maintaining a “youthful” sound. Well, I’m writing a story with a Victorian setting and so the “youthful” sound of today wouldn’t work. My setting means it’s already going to be a more elevated language, and I’m grateful for that because I adore it. For me it’s about finding the middle ground between it being too dense and/or flowery, too Dickensian, and too modern, the reality of what’s good for both modern adult and teen readers is somewhere between actual Victorian style and our modern vernacular.

    @Becke – Thanks for sharing about your process and giving us a window into what worked for you!! Hug Jessica for me!

    @Carrie – Persebunny, Queen of the Undereverything is the kindest, most adorable creature on the planet. She was rescued from a testing lab, so having her has made me VERY conscious of only having cruelty free products in my life! Bunnies make great apartment pets, loving yet independent, she’s potty trained, comes when she’s called, and as long as you keep all the wires out of the way, she’s pretty safe to have running around outside of a cage. Oh, but the baseboards will probably get a chomp or two taken out of them. 

    @Mary Jo – Yes, having teens in your life is a great asset to writing YA. I agree about the cameras, many of my exploits would have gone straight to YouTube, thank goodness that wasn’t around when I was a teen. 

    @Juliette – great list of YA faves!

    @Kelsey – I have a background in Victorian literature and culture from my college days, and all my Strangely Beautiful books are set in the 1880s, so I’ve had full book immersion in the era for a while. There was no such thing as a “teenager” until the mid 1900s, so I just think a lot about the young adults in classic literature and take my cues off of them. I also think I’m a reincarnate Victorian so that helps.

    @Jennifer – to further that question, about research, I have a bunch of Victorian Era research books in my personal library, and whatever isn’t covered, I spend some awesome hours in the gorgeous, Victorian-styled New York Public Library in Bryant Park! (The Map room is particularly delicious). 

    Here’s my tour schedule in case DARKER STILL is coming to a town near you!

    And you can get a signed copy of DARKER STILL via WORD in Brooklyn, a fabulous, woman-run independent bookstore!

    Posted by Leanna Renee Hieber | November 11, 2011, 11:32 pm
  11. A huge thanks to Leanna and everyone who commented. YA is a fascinating area and crazy-popular right now.


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | November 12, 2011, 10:16 am

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