YA Horror - How Scary Can You Go?

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Psychoclown

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My daughter and young horror enthusiast (age 7) has taken a big interest in me picking up writing on a serious level again. I've always told her stories and even helped her craft a few. One time she made her own little comic featuring her and some of her favorite toys/characters as a superhero squad. Anyway, she's been asking to write a story with me and she definitely wants it to be a scary story and she also wants it to be something for kids. So how scary is YA horror typically? I never read it as a kid, so I'm kind of going in blind. I was thinking of picking up an old Goosebumps book or two to get a feel, but some of those are pretty old.

I don't think I can use my daughter as a gauge, because she loves scary stuff. I've been careful not to expose her to anything I feel she can't handle, but she would eagerly watch scarier things if I would let her. She read a comic book version of Tell Tale Heart with me and thought it was the greatest thing ever. So I don't think she's a good representation of the typical second grader's tolerance for spooky things.

We have a general idea of what we want to write about and who our protagonists are going to be. I'm not really concerned about this being publishable. Its really more for the two of us and any friends of hers she might share it with. But if she's going to share it with her friends, I'd like to keep it roughly on their level. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
 

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It all depends on how spooky or dark you want to go since it's just the two of you. But in my experience, YA horror shouldn't be super dark. I had a dark YA horror, think YOU on Netflix and it was rejected by my publisher because, and I quote "It gave them pause." Is what my editor told me. At that point, I realized it was way too dark and creepy.

So IF you are thinking of publishing it, I wouldn't go super dark and creepy, axe and gore stuff and graphic things. I wouldn't recommend it, especially since she's young. BUT you asked for feedback. I think I would let her take the wheel and see how far she wants to take it. Talk things over and all that. I think this is an awesome idea. I wish I could do this with my daughter! And she's 24! I'm jealous! Good luck with it.
 
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Psychoclown

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It all depends on how spooky or dark you want to go since it's just the two of you. But in my experience, YA horror shouldn't be super dark. I had a dark YA horror, think YOU on Netflix and it was rejected by my publisher because, and I quote "It gave them pause." Is what my editor told me. At that point, I realized it was way too dark and creepy.

So IF you are thinking of publishing it, I wouldn't go super dark and creepy, axe and gore stuff and graphic things. I wouldn't recommend it, especially since she's young. BUT you asked for feedback. I think I would let her take the wheel and see how far she wants to take it. Talk things over and all that. I think this is an awesome idea. I wish I could do this with my daughter! And she's 24! I'm jealous! Good luck with it.

I'm not familiar with YOU so unfortunately that doesn't help guide me. If you wouldn't mind sharing some aspects of your work that you felt went "too far" that might help shed some light.

Graphic gore and such isn't really my style anyway. My regular stories can have violence and blood in them, but I'm much more interested in establishing mood and atmosphere. I've never been one to paint the pages red with blood and gore. Now I can say, there will be blood in this story. We've already talked about our monster and what she looks like and blood does play a role in her appearance. I have in my own mind settled on a no killing, no maiming rule. There will be some close calls, but everyone will escape this story alive and in tact for sure.

As for publishing, my main goal is to have a fun project for my daughter and I. But anytime you write something there is always a voice in the back of your head saying "maybe this can get published somewhere." I'm certainly not opposed trying to publish it if I feel its strong enough, either as YA fiction or sharpening some of the horror elements on my own and putting it out there as straight horror.

As for letting my daughter take the wheel, that would fine if I knew it was just for us. But she wants to share it with her little friends and I'm afraid my girl's idea of scary might get a little intense for her friends. I don't want to give anyone nightmares (odd thing to say for a horror author, right?) and I don't want angry calls from anyone's parents.
 
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It was multi POV and I had one of the characters as the killer, and his viewpoint, which I guess I went too dark as far as his thoughts go? I don't know exactly to be honest. I know you can get away with killing someone, that isn't a problem. But apparently if you think like a killer, that doesn't go over well with YA horror, or YA publishers. As far as I know. There might be publishers out there that prefer darker stuff.

I hope that helps.
 

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There was a time our young kids devoured what little juvenile/YA horror existed. As I recall it, William Sleator (House of Stairs) and Ouita Sebastian (The Girl in the Box) wrote kids' horror right. They did not have maniacal killers on the loose, or hungry monsters, or ghosts who mean their characters harm. There was no gore, no violence on the page. (I can't remember if there were bloody handprints or unexplained bruises implying it off the page.) Instead, they had young people the kids could identify with in impossible situations they did not understand, situations that might end in their deaths, but nothing beyond helplessness and strong foreboding on the page. What my kids imagined was scarier than anything they could have written.

See if your library has those two for a How-To from some masters.

Be aware that sharing scary stories is going to disturb some parents even if you vet it for not being age-inappropriate. And schools, some of them anyway, absolutely freak out if it's shared or talked about there. Older Kid watched her daddy play Oregon Trail and wrote a story about a wagon train in which many characters died as they did in the game. The school was quite concerned and urged us to get her professional help.

Maryn, pretty sure she's okay
 
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Age 7 wouldn't be the target audience YA. It would be Children's or MG (middle-grade). (Not that they can't or won't read outside the "target", of course.)

YA can definitely go darker and more graphic than either Children's or MG.

MG... as others have said, it's more about the psychology than the graphic gore. J. A. White's Nightbooks (also a Netflix movie, which I hear is pretty close to the book) is about a boy who loves writing horror stories (like Goosebumps/"Are You Afraid of the Dark?" level horror), but is worried that his interest means he's a bad person or somehow broken... until he finds himself kidnapped by a modern-day witch, who demands he write her a new scary story every night. No graphic horror, but unsettling and scary situations that could easily end in Very Unpleasant Things for him. Katherine Arden's Small Spaces deals with a girl who struggles to cope with her mother's death, hiding in books; mysterious circumstances end up with her getting a copy of an old spooky tale that has eerie echoes when her class takes a field trip to a local farm. Ghosts and scary imagery and ambulatory scarecrows and worse, but no graphic violence. Someone upthread mentioned William Sleator, who did great thriller/horror for younger audiences. Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes can be read by younger audiences (and is also a solid horror film; Bradbury worked on the script), relying more on unsettling situations and nightmarish imagery than outright violence, and his Halloween Tree is a classic, surreal childrens/MG exploration of death and other spooky concepts. Bruce Coville's Nina Tanleven books (starting with The Ghost in the Third Row) are spooky ghostbusting tales for children with minimal present-day death. Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co. series (starting with The Screaming Staircase) are great MG tales of an alternate London where children are forced onto the front lines in the fight against deadly ghosts and spirits, being more sensitive to their presence than the equally-vulnerable adults; some very scary imagery and kids in perilous situations, but not particularly gory.

A lot depends on the particular reader, though. As with adults, kids have different tolerances for scary things, and particular triggers unique to them.
 
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My daughter and young horror enthusiast (age 7) has taken a big interest in me picking up writing on a serious level again. I've always told her stories and even helped her craft a few. One time she made her own little comic featuring her and some of her favorite toys/characters as a superhero squad. Anyway, she's been asking to write a story with me and she definitely wants it to be a scary story and she also wants it to be something for kids. So how scary is YA horror typically? I never read it as a kid, so I'm kind of going in blind. I was thinking of picking up an old Goosebumps book or two to get a feel, but some of those are pretty old.

I don't think I can use my daughter as a gauge, because she loves scary stuff. I've been careful not to expose her to anything I feel she can't handle, but she would eagerly watch scarier things if I would let her. She read a comic book version of Tell Tale Heart with me and thought it was the greatest thing ever. So I don't think she's a good representation of the typical second grader's tolerance for spooky things.

We have a general idea of what we want to write about and who our protagonists are going to be. I'm not really concerned about this being publishable. Its really more for the two of us and any friends of hers she might share it with. But if she's going to share it with her friends, I'd like to keep it roughly on their level. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
What's acceptable for these age groups does change over time, so I think you'd need to look at some current children's and middle-grade offerings in the genre.

My vague understanding, and admittedly this is a few decades out of date, is that for kids it works better if there is a happy-ish ending rather than a bleak "everyone good dies and the bad guy wins" ending.

ETA: this children's market does accept horror, so their guidelines may explain the acceptable limitations, but honestly if you can read a damned word of their text you're a better person than me.
 

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Thank you all for the thoughtful replies. So after contemplating this and talking with my daughter, we've settled on writing a story just for us. What she wants to do might be a little too scary for her friends and she seemed to prefer having a free hand to go as scary as she wants over a creating a tamer, more restrained story to share.

So I will absolutely let her take the wheel when it comes to how scary things get in our story.
 
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Brightdreamer

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Sounds like the best solution!

Another note on kids and horror is the anecdote about Neil Gaiman's MG-targeted story Coraline (quote from an online conversation), the general point of which is that kids sometimes actually enjoy being scared, especially if there's a good story involved, even if grown-ups shy away from them being scared:

@neil-gaiman, is this true about the publisher’s daughter?
It was my literary agent, Merrilee Heifetz who read it and said “you can’t seriously expect this to be published as a children’s book.” So I suggested she read it to her daughters. And she called me back a week later and said “They love it and they weren’t scared at all. I’ll take it to Harper Children’s.”

A decade later, at the Opening Night of the Coraline musical, I was sitting next to Morgan, Merilee’s youngest daughter, and told her how her not being scared had made the book happen. And she said “I was terrified. But I needed to find out what happened next. So nobody knew.”

So, yes.

(via feyariel)
 

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Just to give an update. After spending some time brainstorming and planning, we actually sat down this afternoon and started to write. It was lots of fun and my daughter has taken a pretty active role. She even offered some thoughts on word choice - and her suggestions were better that I was had typed on the screen. :)