How to write a best-selling supernatural YA novel

I’ve recently been inspired to start a series of “How to write _____” posts. We’re going to kick off today with “How to write a best-selling supernatural YA novel”.

Be warned: the advice presented below is terrible. Do not, for the love of sandwiches, follow this advice.

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How to write a best-selling supernatural YA novel

  1. Decide which dangerous supernatural creature from mythology you’re going to transform into an attractive, brooding teenage guy who acts dangerous but really just wants someone to “get” him.  Options include, but are not limited to, vampires, werewolves, mermen, demons, fallen angels, elves, dragon-people, and yetis.
  2. Set the story in a small town where everyone knows each other and nothing exciting or supernatural ever happens. Props if you can give the town a seemingly-ordinary name that is actually a metaphor for the female protagonist’s life journey.
  3.  Start the story off in the traditional “new kid comes to school, everyone loves/fears them” manner. Your “new kid” can be either the female protagonist or the love interest, depending on if you want your heroine to start off with friends and then gradually abandon them as she gets wrapped up in the love interest’s far more interesting life, or just make her a loner right off the bat to simplify the process.
  4. The plot should revolve entirely around the female protagonist being pursued by the supernatural love interest. If you really want, you can get all fancy and introduce an outside threat (or something that actually resembles a traditional plot), but it’s really best if you just stick to the “boy meets girl, boy scares girl, boy desires girl, boy gets girl after inflicting severe mental, emotional, and physical trauma on her” approach.
  5. The female protagonist needs a fatal flaw that frequently incapacitates her, allowing the supernatural love interest to swoop in and save the day (preferably in a mysterious and brooding manner). Extreme clumsiness is one of the most widely-used flaws, as it allows the female protagonist to remain lovely and intelligent while still forcing her into otherwise totally-avoidable situations.
  6. Introduce a love triangle, and make it as heart-wrenching for the female protagonist as possible. Remember, the secondary love interest is exactly that — secondary. He’s never going to get the girl, regardless of whatever evils befall the main love interest. Still, don’t let that stop you from character-developing the heck out of the secondary love interest — make sure he shows up everywhere, especially at awkward, totally inappropriate times, to mess things up. And remember the cardinal rule: never admit that he’s the secondary love interest. You know he’s never going to get the girl, and so do your readers, but it’s a huge faux pas to actually admit such a thing.
  7. The female protagonist needs a female friend, but they should only ever talk about the supernatural love interest. Since you’ve definitely set your story in high school (and if you haven’t, change it right now!), your characters might occasionally slip up and talk about school instead of boys. That’s okay. It happens. The most important part is to make sure the conversation gets back on track ASAP.
  8. The female protagonist’s single parent must be bumbling, well-meaning, and totally oblivious to what is going on with her life. Extra points if your single parent decides to “take an interest” in the heroine and ground her, thus preventing her from going out to meet her supernatural love interest at a key moment and nearly getting them all killed.
  9. Don’t be afraid to wax poetic about the supernatural love interest for a good three or four paragraphs per chapter. This handsome, brooding gentleman is, after all, the man of your heroine’s dreams. If she’s not obsessing over every detail of his physical makeup at all times, you’re not doing it right.
  10. Keep the ending melancholy, but hopeful. You definitely want to set up for future sequels — no YA novel worth its salt ends after just one book. Obviously you can’t resolve whatever is keeping the heroine and her supernatural love interest apart, but you can drop hints that they might just get around to working out how they can be together three or four books down the road. Whatever you do, do not give them a happy ending. Once your characters get a happy ending, that’s the end of the story — and you need to milk this series for all it’s worth!

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43 thoughts on “How to write a best-selling supernatural YA novel

  1. You’ve broken the code! I’m still waiting for minotaurs and centaurs to get their shot at paranormal romance. Is it a rule that the female protagonist gains some powers over the course of the series?

    • Good point! I did forget about that one. It’s definitely easiest if the love interest is a vampire, because then the female protagonist can just get turned into a vampiress. Failing that, there are all sorts of ways she can get some power of her own — witchcraft being a big one. And if she’s the chosen one, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

      Centaurs and minotaurs! You’re a “taur” fan, I see. I think part of the problem with those is that they have a lot of trouble passing as human — and the brooding love interest definitely has to be able to do that, otherwise how will he strut around the high school halls like he owns the place and make all the girls weak in the knees?

      • Ah, the chosen one. None hold a candle to Neo even though he peaked far too early in the trilogy. I love how chosen one gets thrown around so much, but it’s rarely clear what they’re chosen for. In these stories, it seems to be the female protagonist was chosen as ‘adorable’ breeding stock. The guys were simply chosen to brood and forget their shirt. Not sure which is the more humiliating for the gender.

        With the ‘taur’, people use the human form and shapeshifting card a lot. It’s like every magical creature knows how to disguise itself as a human.

  2. Arrgh, why won’t WP let me reblog this? It’s too perfect.

    Off to Twitter, I guess…

  3. I sometimes find myself writing believable characters of the opposite sex. Do I need to get rid of this completely, or can I just offload the realism onto supporting characters?

    Obviously I cannot write about same sex relationships. However, I quite like the idea of a bumbling boy being stalked by a thousand-year old female demon; is reversing the roles icky?

    • All good questions, Mister Higgins. Let’s see …

      Well, you definitely want to avoid believable main characters — the whole point of supernatural YA is to create a blank shell that the reader can slip into in a sort of depressing-yet-addictive wish fulfillment. Offloading your realism into a supporting character is a great idea — one of the hallmarks of great supernatural YA is to have a secondary character who is significantly more interesting than the main characters. Thus, when the movie version is released, the secondary character can be played by a hot young upcoming actor who can use the quirky role as a launch off point for his/her future career.

      Same sex relationships are definitely a no-no for mainstream supernatural YA, although you can feel free to make light-hearted jokes about it — nothing is trendier these days than being “totally chill, yo” about homosexuality. Extra points if you can get your characters to discuss this topic whilst pretending to be gangsters.

      Hmm … role reversal isn’t necessarily icky, but it IS tricky. The draw of a good supernatural YA book is, of course, the handsome, powerful, brooding, mysterious male love interest. Take that away and you’re shifting into the parody genre.

      • It is good supernatural YA can contain gangsta (note the spelling to avoid future lack of trend possession) references, as I am myself quite gangsta.

        • Now, the thing to note here is that you can only utilize “gangsta” speech in supernatural YA novels if you’re doing so “ironically”. If your “gangsta” speak doesn’t provoke amused tittering, it’s too serious – tone it down!

          And may I note that you strike me as extremely gangsta. Do you refer to yourself as D-shizzle? Because if not, you really ought to.

          • Dat dope is whack, blood!

            If we are going for mild, but not to stimulating, amusement, I might change my moniker to D Man. As it sounds like demon but isn’t I feel it will encapsulate the entire “might be evil monster but isn’t, street without being edgy” vibe I am looking for.

            I have found your guidelines most helpful. Using them I was able to complete my first YA novel yesterday, and hope to have another ready for publication by the end of the week.

            However, you have not mentioned covers: I am considering taking a series of pictures of myself in gansta poses. Will taking my tie off make them too sexy for the genre? Or will I be fine if I do not also roll my sleeves up?

            • You’re actually going the wrong direction with the cover! Although a shirtless gentleman from the wrong side of the tracks *sounds* like a winning formula for millions of sales, it’s actually not your best bet. What you want to do is take a stock image of a girl wearing a ball gown and then Photoshop in a background appropriate to your supernatural theme — dark woods for vampires, a moon for werewolves, the Alps for yetis, etc. Try to pick a female model who looks extremely distressed — beautiful, but haunted. And remember — for your title, you want something short and vague. One word is best. For example,you could go with something like
              “Anguish” or “Obsessed”.

              • Shirtless? What sort of hussies do you think I am targetting, fo bizzle innit.

                I was considering calling it “Possible Hand Holding”; do you think that is too long? Not saving enough tension for the sequel?

                • Well, you definitely want to establish PASSION in the title — so if you’re going with a slightly longer title, you could try something like “Never Let Go” or “Embrace of Flesh” or something.

  4. I couldn’t hit the like button enough for this post. What a hilarious take on the tried and true formula

  5. I love all of this. I think you summed it up perfectly. 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on mishaburnett and commented:
    And here’s the formula:

  7. I’m going to do this as soon as I get home! Because, you know… I don’t like sandwiches. 🙂

    • You don’t like sandwiches??? GASP. I actually wasn’t a huge sandwich fan … until I worked at Quiznos for a few months and ate sandwiches every day, and by that point I had to either love them or starve.

  8. Reblogged this on S.K. Nicholls and commented:
    A clever post on formulaic YA fantasy! Much of it most likely works on other genre as well.

  9. How about a kraken? Kind of like the mermaids from “Just Add Water”, he seems perfectly human on dry land, but once’s he’s submerged in water he becomes a thousand pound mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. A small seaside town in North Carolina, a shy, bookish girl, and a mysterious new boy with a taste for sushi.

    I have to be careful, I could totally write that..

    • Um, yeah, and if you don’t write that, I absolutely will. As, I’m sure, would any other person who’s read this comment. You’d best go copyright the idea ASAP! Although if I may make a suggestion — set it in Scotland — then you can attempt the fabled Step #11, which is of course to have characters of foreign nationalities and absolutely butcher their accents as you try to transcribe them syllable by syllable.

      “Ach! Wha’ a strange laddy y’are! Wha’ are ya doin’ in wee ole Dublin town?”

      “Ach, lassy, I’ve jus’ joined yer class. Say, are there any good sushi joints ’round ‘ere?”


      • Someone already did kelpie romance, which is a little close to Scottish werekraken. Although thinking about it, too much innovation might reduce your market share.

  10. YES. My Supernatural novel has ALL of these things! Honestly, I was worried I was on the wrong track, but thank you for spelling things out for me. I just need to add a couple more paragraphs about the main guy’s superior abs… and done! This is like, guaranteed to make me a couple mil. I won’t forget you when I’m raking it in!

    • Oh, good! I worry about upcoming supernatural YA writers, because they may not have the insights I do into the industry and might therefore publish inferior products. Thank goodness you read this post in time. I would definitely add in those ruminations on the main guy’s abs … and you might also consider adding in some self-loathing on the part of the heroine. I know I didn’t mention that in the steps, but it’s really critical that the main character be absolutely disgusted with herself at all times.

      • Right. Self-loathing. Pronto. Because constantly wondering why a guy who is messed up would EVER be with a loser like you is, like, so totally hot. 😛

        • That’s one of the things that drove me crazy about Twilight — like, Edward literally almost died for her a couple of times, and her only response is “I love you way more than you love me because how could you ever actually love me you’re so perfect and I’m so dull wahhhhhh”

          • Right?? xDD Usually almost-dying for someone is a pretty obvious assurance of your affections. As long as they’re not doing it on purpose to be weird. And death means the same to them–like, they don’t know they will come back as a sexy-zombie or something.

  11. Excellent! I’ve bookmarked this and will use it as my guide for whatever paranormal YA book I may write. Hopefully, I wouldn’t dare go near any of these examples.

    • Well, this 10-step plan is only for expert supernatural YA writers, so it’s probably best you don’t fly too close to the sun 🙂 In all seriousness, these aren’t all *terrible* ideas — it’s just when you string them all together in a single book that they become cringy-worthy!

  12. Michelle wins the internet with this post. Excellent!

    • Huzzah! I’d like to thank the internet, and my wonderful readers, and WordPress, and my keyboard, and my slightly-scummy glass of water which I haven’t washed in three days, and my pajamas (for sticking by me well past when I should have been dressed!), and …

  13. This is hilarious and great–especially as a how NOT to. The unrelated media is brilliant, too, wish I would have met the little girl.

    • Thanks 🙂 I thought of doing an actually serious how-to list, and then I laughed at my own foolishness. Parodies are so much more fun to write than actual, usable advice!

      • I WOULD be interested in how to write one that doesn’t suck. Although Imminent Danger might be a good model…? 🙂 Parodies are always more fun though, I agree!

        • Hahaha, flattery will get you everywhere. I admit that Imminent Danger definitely falls into a few YA traps, but I’ve at least avoided the painful, drawn-out love triangle … so that’s a good thing … 😀

          • You did indeed! And I think to be YA some things just are–writing about that age group comes with certain stereotypes, no matter what. Plus a little Han Solo/Leia witty-hateful banter will get you everywhere. That was the love angle reminded me of, anyway!

  14. Excellent post. I now feel I know how to write the perfect YA novel. It’s all in the planning 🙂

    • It really is. You never want to leave anything to chance. Each flirtatious glance, each accidental glimpse of a shirtless man, each life-threatening encounter, each guilt-addled kiss … you must weave these elements together like threads in a tapestry. It’s a delicate art, the art of supernatural YA novel writing. But you are ready, my apprentice. I have faith. Now go forth and write!

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