I keep coming across this question lately, particularly on the NaNoWriMo forums. I’ve covered this topic with regard to sex and violence already, but the topic bears repeating. Besides, those two posts are more like rants than guides. God, my writing was terrible when I wrote them last year. Anyway, moving on to the actual post.
The first mistake people writing or answering these questions often make is the assumption that YA is very clearly split into “upper” and “lower”. While some YA is closer to “adult” than “young”, it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Think about it. The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer includes sex, violence, nudity, “risk-taking” behaviour, and a very bloody and difficult birth. Despite the subject matter, young teenage girls read it. I’d rather not have comments ranting about how inappropriate Twilight is for teenage girls, because I’ve heard all the arguments before. The fact of the matter is this book is YA, and the audience tends towards the younger side than older side of teenagers. If this doesn’t demonstrate how hard it is to split YA into further age categories, I have no idea what will.
Another mistake the people asking the question make is they’re thinking too hard about their audience before even writing a first draft. While I know people have different writing techniques, at this stage if you’re too worried about your audience, it’s going to make writing the first draft a chore. Write the story as it needs to be told and think about your audience later.
If you’re honestly unsure of what is appropriate for YA fiction and having people telling you “anything goes” is not enough, go to the library or bookstore and read some YA for yourself. Reading in the category you wish to write in is the best way of learning. Read widely within YA. Read paranormal romance, fantasy, contemporary, “issue” books, steampunk, sci-fi, Christian, anything. This will give you a good feel for where your book sits and how much sex, violence, profanity or other contentious topics you can include.
However, I’m going to share my own views as both a teenage reader and writer of YA. I am your target audience. Maybe slightly older than most, but I’m still a teenager and I still read YA. The secret to writing the right balance of difficult topics boils down to your story. Is it important to the plot or character development that your characters have sex, throw a few punches, swear, do drugs? If yes, write it in. If not, you’re probably better off leaving it out because consciously throwing these kinds of things in just for the hell of it can backfire. I believe I may said this before, and excuse my language, but teenagers have finely-tuned bullshit detectors. We know when we’re being talked down to and we know when a writer is trying too hard to get in our good graces by including “edgy” subject matter.
Another thing to keep in mind is moderation. If you’ve chosen to include the topics you were concerned about, make sure you’re not too heavy-handed. A few well-placed curses can have more impact than one curse word per page for the whole of the story. One emotionally-charged sex scene can mean more than seven of them. As a general rule, the more often something happens in your story, the more readers will become desensitized to it. Including more mature subject matter in your story is a balancing act between too little and too much. The balance will be different for every story. In fact, the “everything in moderation” rule can apply to adult fiction, too.
Ultimately, the answer to “What’s acceptable in YA” boils down to whatever the story calls for. Handle the topic tactfully and you’ll be fine.