Writing Horror for Young Adults Part 2


Yesterday I wrote a bit about my forthcoming collection of short stories for ‘Young Adults’: a bit of background about how it came about and a little about my initial thoughts or lack thereof of what constitutes YA.

Today I thought I’d look at a few general questions I’m now starting to consider (or perhaps ‘worry about’ would be more accurate) having written 8 of the 13 stories…

In considering these questions, I’m aware there are a whole lot of websites out there where I could find something approaching definitive, or at least recommended, answers to some of these considerations and I’ll mention what I’ve found on cursory looks and whether I am or am not adhering to them: not because I’m a rebel. But because I’m an honest-to-goodness true original who just goes his own way: as a wise man once said:

There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about… Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand…You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner… A rebel.

That’s right: a true original that spends way too much time quoting the greats….

No, really the reason I’m ‘going my own way’ is the reason I write what and how I write generally: first and foremost, I write what I want and how I want to suit me: once it starts getting to the point where you’re writing to rules, where’s the fun in it? That doesn’t mean not taking editorial advice…it just means I’ve realised after forty years of writing that not everyone’s going to like all your stuff – and that goes all the way back to some of my early school writing assignments…damn you Mr Adams for not ‘getting me…

So five thought areas I’m currently thinking about…

What is Young Adult?

Back in my day, there wasn’t really a term YA. You went from Janet and John to set school texts (I never did get Stig of the Dump) to Roald Dahl to…well, anywhere or nowhere. By the age of around 12, I was reading the Pan Book of Horror collections, James Herbert and very shortly after that Stephen King… so I realise right of the bat I may not be the best judge for what is considered appropriate material for young readers. Young Adult is, the first website I went to tells me, literature for 12-18-year-olds.

So maybe my collection isn’t even for YAs…my nephews are younger than 12. Some of the stories are suitable for a younger age, some may be considered questionable (or outright unsuitable) for younger readers. The question is I suppose…WHY?

Subject Matter

What makes a subject a) of interest and b) appropriate to a younger reader? Well avoiding deep psychological discourse on themes and cognisance of fictional versus real-world issues – a good job because I’m eminently unqualified to discuss such matters, I took a route one basis for this: I asked my test subjects…um, I mean, nephews, what they wanted to read/ hear a story about. (I discuss this in the previous article a bit).

In a way that technique has served me well in my reading life – all the way back to bedtime stories my mother used to tell me about two brothers named Jeremy and Jonathan whose magic door took them off to adventures based on whatever subjects I decided at the start of the story (Bless her – my mother had to think pretty quick on the spot as to whatever interests were prevalent at the time requiring some bluff and audience participation on the nuances of football, Star Wars etc.…)

Other stories came about based on vague memories of stories I remember as a kid: so one, in particular, is a homage to a storyline I remember in the basic narrative if not detail from Eerie or Weird Tales or something like that. Now that may be bordering on copyright issues but re-reading 2000 AD’s Future Shock collection recently I was struck by how many ‘homages’ the writers/ artists of those two/ three page little twist in the tales relied on: let’s just say they’d seen them a fair amount of Twilight Zones in their times. Personally? My favourite comic as a kid was Action… which took whatever movie premise was popular at the time and reworked it just enough to avoid being sued: so Jaws became Hook Jaw (because a giant killer shark isn’t scary enough so stick a hook through its mouth so it could spear as well as chomp in half hapless sea-farers), Rollerball became Spinball, Dirty Harry became Dredger…and so on – basically putting in violent comic book form all the stuff we were too young to go and see at the cinema.

So in my collection, there’ll be hoary old takes on some of my favourite ‘adult’ tales including a reworking of my favourite short story of all time (and I don’t feel bad about it because everyone and their dog as done a riff on it since its publication).

Some things are obviously out-of-bounds; either because they’re a ‘bit too much’ (so there’s no sex and no profanity beyond what I’ve heard my own nephews say within parents’ earshot),  or I just don’t think they’d be of interest to a ‘me’ of that age… but Serial Killers? Monsters? Death and destruction?  All fair game as far as I’m concerned…

If they were to be given a cinema rating I’m guessing they’d all come in around 12A: that’s that rating where kids of any age can see it, but it’s up to a ‘responsible adult’ to decide if they’re ‘capable’ of handling it.  Meaning I’ve seen kids as young as 5 watching stuff like The Others. (In the US there’s PG 13 – where in theory a child of any age can be taken to see The Sixth Sense, Drag Me To Hell, The Ring or The Last Exorcism…)

Personally, the films I remember really creeping me out as a young child were things like The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (now a PG rating in the UK) and Village of the Damned (back in the day given an ‘A – Advisory, parents cautioned that film may be unsuitable for young children’ meaning anyone could see it).

At the end of the day (as the shadows come in and the night approaches…bwah-hah-hah…) the individual, whatever age they are, will find different things ‘scary’: with books even more than movies, it is so often what is shown/ not shown, or said/ not said and how the reader’s mind will take that idea and run with it that’ll decide how ‘scary’ it is…


Apparently, from my vast research (two websites) – one of the key differences between YA and Adult fiction is that the former must have a protagonist who is a teenager, usually aged in the upper teens – between 15 and 19 years old. If the protagonist is the lower end of teens then it becomes middle-grade fiction which, at the point of reading, I closed the website: I really don’t need to open up that can of mutant worms…

Doing a quick scan of my contents page I think I fall into this category pretty much. That was by luck or instinct rather than any critical decision making. Again – a young me wasn’t too interested in reading about ‘old people’…although by the time I got to the books of James Herbert the characters in it were doing decidedly ‘old people’ things…

The characters in each of my stories happen to be of a younger age whether written from a 1st or a 3rd person perspective. Whether they all ACT in that way is another matter…

Language Level

Ah, language level…how ‘difficult’ to make it?

Having been involved in publishing, English Language Teaching and English as a Foreign Language for all my working life, I’m aware of at least some of the ‘level’ indicators which can be applied to texts to deem how ‘difficult’ they are.

There are plenty of online tools out there that’ll give you varying levels of accuracy in the analysis of the complexity of your text.

If I look at one at random: http://www.roadtogrammar.com/textanalysis/ and dump the first page or so of one of my stories in there (uncorrected and not final proofed at this point!), I can get an analysis showing me the different complexity of word choices. It looks like this:


I haven’t used that or any similar tool other than just now to try it.

I don’t intend to.

On the one hand, I’m lucky in that even my so-called ‘adult’ fiction isn’t ever going to be challenging for literary prizes and on the other…well, you just know what’s right – roughly, at least.

Will there be some words in there unfamiliar to the reader? Probably.

Will there be some expressions, phrasal verbs or idioms they’re not quite sure of? Undoubtedly.

But there won’t likely be either of enough to interrupt the story flow or end up being the ‘punch-line’ to the story that’ll render it incomprehensible. Kindle and other e-readers have some issues but one of the nicest features is the instant dictionary lookup and the ‘mark as note’ allowing the reader to come back to something later and check.

For the record – I don’t think any of my stories are higher than a mid B2 English language level according to the CEFR. And if that doesn’t mean anything to you (and why should it?) it translates into ‘a few long words but not exactly rocket science’…


As anyone who has read my stuff – either here with website articles or my fiction itself, you may be aware I do have a tendency to go on…to the point my short story submission for Burning: An Anthology of Short Thrillers (still available, still a fine collection) was aiming for 12k words maximum and ballooned in the writing to 23k resulting in some severe pruning back.

How long is too long for a book aimed at non-adults? (I’m adopting that phrase because I don’t even feel comfortable describing my collection as YA any more…)

I really don’t know.

There may be guidelines somewhere – I haven’t read them.

How long should any story be? As long as it needs to get the tale told.

At the moment, before final editing, the shortest runs to around 2,000 the longest somewhere around 8,000. Likely that’ll change in the pruning but it’ll be in that ballpark. I know reading the stories aloud to my nephews last Halloween it took around half an hour to read each story. With voices and exclamation…they didn’t seem bored, even reading one after another…

I like short-shorts. But even at the age of 12 or 13 I was reading long old things like Salem’s Lot…hell, I even read The Stand around that age and while there’s nothing in my short stories comparable in subject matter to either of Mr King’s works there, the point is their size in no way put me off.

So there you go. A few more thoughts on my current Work In Progress and some of the issues around it. If it’s made you interested in seeing what the final thing looks like, keep coming back: I’ll be teasing more stuff and then hopefully sometime around mid-October the thing will be ready to read…for kids and big kids alike.

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