So one of the books I read recently made me pause and think about all the others like it. Yes, all the others. Because I often find that there is a specific type of YA book that will set itself apart while the rest mingle together in this one giant shelf of "meh." Maybe some of this isn't new to write, but I figured that it would be better to have my expectations of books out there, for you, at least, to see whether our tastes align.
To avoid the great shelf of "meh," do not include these elements.
Too much narration. You know what really gets me sometimes about YA? It's that sometimes the characters spell everything out for you in their thoughts as if you would not understand that a frown is sadness or that this information really hurts the protagonist or etc. etc. Yeah, most of the times the narration that is there is easy to read, but that's about it. I'm more for you cutting back on the narration and using that free space to give us more scenes with your characters. Think Kristin Cashore. (Of course the opposite is having way too little, so little I can't even sense your writing and character voices. Watch out for that.)
Villain tells all speech. I've posted about this before, but I was thinking recently about how much more satisfying in general it is to have the protagonist and other characters figure out what the villain is up to. Or think that they know. If you do that, it gives you so many more chances to make the plot more complex and also to make the villain more complex; if the characters were wrong about the motivations/what's being planned, well, hmm, does that not pique your interest already?
What comes with insta!love. I had a conversation about insta!love with my critique partner, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized my problem isn't completely with insta!love itself so much as what often comes with it. The dependence. This is not an effect isolated to high school; I am not as close with some friends because they are attached to their partners. So while maybe a part of me could understand the intensity that comes with having an all-consuming crush, the rest of me no longer sympathizes with any sort of ultra! dependent behavior.
Tragic past. We all have tragic pasts of sorts, even if some of ours are more tragic than those of others. But what gets me about this is that often I find that the tragic past is what supposedly differentiates the character's voice. It's not enough to say that the character is grieving so the character needs to control everything around her; is that a characteristic of our world, of our times? That could be applied to any time! Think of all your favorite protagonists... and I will provide some popular examples. I think Katniss is often used as the model nowadays, with people writing their protagonists with a skill like Katniss's skill in archery. But having a character who's good at kendo and thus can fight isn't on the same level as Katniss's archery. You see, her skill is more entwined in the world. It allows for her to provide for her family. It allows for her to break the law every day. It allows for her to win the Hunger Games etc. etc. You see how many layers are entwined in that one skill? It's the same with the tragic past and the character voice. Convince me that this character can ONLY live in your world, that your character is a PRODUCT of that world.
Information dump conversations. I'm not a huge fan of the info dump conversations which are sometimes used to build worlds. Certainly it makes it easier to read if it's all broken up into conversation, but I would much rather read about the world in gradual pulses... or if you need to do an info dump, do it in one paragraph. I often find my attention wanders when there's multiple pages of you telling me why your world is so fascinating. Of course this depends on the reader, whereas I think the other points are much more universal in applicability.
Predictable plots. Generally I don't dock a book for having a predictable plot, because I think most of YA books have predictable plots (and sometimes there is no way around that, i.e. contemp. romance, so they function on a level of anticipation). I think the trend for predictable plots could be a function of them mostly being about character growth and coming of age and hero(ine)'s journey etc. etc. etc. But what I will sometimes remember is when a book breaks my expectations, because even if I think the rest is crap, I will still remember that it took me along for a great ride.
Stereotypical characters. This is a total duh. But at any rate, you know why J.K. Rowling is so successful? It's because if you think of any character in the HP series, you can probably think of a few scenes that really define the person. Harry is the stereotypical special orphan, but he's also much more than that. Think of a few critical scenes that really highlight what you want your readers to know about your characters.
A lack of meaning. For me, it really isn't just symbolism or metaphors. Most of my favorite books have this underlying core that I can relate to. Shadow and Bone - the struggle for power and belonging. Divergent - the need to label ourselves. etc. etc. There are questions embedded into these narratives about how these characters act and whether that's justified. To what lengths would you go? I think my critique partner once put it as shining a mirror onto society, and that's true. Maybe not necessarily a criticism of society, but for me at least, my favorite books have something about what it means to be us. These are the kind of questions that will stick with me long after reading the book.
Romance that's executed poorly. This is worse than not having romance.
Of course, I doubt anyone sets off writing a book with these in mind, thinking that they will include a poorly executed romance... but hey, maybe there'll be greater levels of awareness, and with that fewer books in the slush pile of "meh." Who knows?
Do you agree/disagree with the qualities I've listed above? What makes a book "meh" for you?