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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Do I Have to Stop at Every Stop Sign? Or: What Every Young Adult Writer Should Remember

By Cynthia Light Brown

If you are a YA writer, write or type out the title and pin it up where you write. Let it soak into your brain, because this is your reader. Let me explain.

My middle child is 16, which means we are doing the student driver lessons. Yikes. There are the – ahem – parking lessons, the how to change lanes without ramming into the other cars lessons, and the how not to drive over curbs lessons. The details are being withheld to protect the guilty.

I want her to go like this:

But she wants to go like this:

So we’re driving on some residential streets and she slows down while approaching a stop sign, but all she does is slow, until I start screaming – I mean calmly suggesting - that she should probably actually stop at the stop sign.

And that’s when it pops out: “Do I have to stop at every stop sign?” She says it with a world-weary sigh that only a teenage girl can summon. After I proceed to explain about the dangers of cars hitting us broadside, pint-sized human beings running out in front of us, and how if she gets a ticket from a member of the ever-present Mt. Lebanon police force she will be banned from driving for an undetermined period, she seems to accept the necessity of actually following the traffic rules.

But this is the brain of the young adult target audience. Of course they think that they will live forever, or at least that mortality is off in the very, very, very distant future – don’t you remember thinking that? But they also just simply don’t have the experience to know things. As every parent knows, it’s what makes them charming, original, and terrifying.

You reader doesn’t know things. But she wants to. How things work, how other people feel, why they feel certain ways, what makes them tick. And when something gets in his way, your main character should just run right over it, or at least around it, because that’s what your reader would do.  The rules don’t apply to them.

Later in our driving lesson, as we were in the parking lot of the Galleria on Rt. 19, my daughter approaches a stop sign in the parking lot, and out pops the question again: “Do I REALLY have to stop at every stop sign?”

If you're writing YA, it's a good idea to have a teenager handy to capture that no-slowing-down-the-rules-don't-apply-to-me-feeling. Just in case you don't have one handy, I've got three of 'em that I'm willing to rent out cheap. Real cheap.


  1. Cynthia, I'm so glad I don't have to deal with the driving thing for a while. Love how you parallel driving to YA writing - so true. Thanks for the insightful post!

  2. Such a timely and helpful reminder, Cynthia. In my own WIP, the MC tends to divide the world up between people who follow the rules (good) and people who don't (bad). The MC himself gets along by breaking many rules. But I suspect I've wasted a lot of words forcing him to justify his rule-breaking in advance.

    I'll bet these slack moments would be exactly the kind of thing a teen friend of yours warned us about in your post last August. Never let the story slow down, she advised. (Even reading, kids like to zip along.)