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Young Adult

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This is a question that I get asked at conferences all the time and I am, frankly, shocked that I haven’t responded to it on the blog yet. This version of it comes from Wendy, and that’s what reminded me to finally address it:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

First of all, it depends on the agency. A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post on the topic). Now at Movable Type, I also expect to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I am the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

The reasons for this are many, but the biggest one boils down to ownership. Suppose you have a picture book agent, a chapter book agent, and a middle grade agent for your work and you write well in all three categories. (This is a pie in the sky scenario, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!”

Who gets the credit (read: compensation)? Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

My rule of thumb is that, if you write for multiple audiences, you need to seek a representative from the get-go who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

The only time when I think it’s okay to have multiple agents is if, for example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits you to have other representation, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

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A quick question with a quick answer about writing any kind of adaptation, whether you’re doing a PB or a YA novel inspired by a classic tale (folklore, Shakespeare, etc.). This comes from Randi:

Do you think the re-writing of a classic picture book with a different protagonist and different word choice, but with the same setting could be marketable or are the classics hands-off?

Every time you do an adaptation, you have to add value to it. Changing a few details around (this includes wording, names, location, time period) but keeping most of the story intact is just you letting the original do most of the work, so I don’t see the benefit. Anybody could do that, and publishers are looking to publish a creator and a voice that are unique. The best adaptations are INSPIRED by a classic but then go off in their own completely fresh directions.

My favorite curve-ball example to give when people are talking about adapting classics is CINDER by Marissa Meyer. The original tale is, obviously, Cinderella, but this is a futuristic book where Cinderella is a cyborg working in a scrap heap in New Beijing and there’s an entire civilization of Lunar people. At least that’s what it was back when I read it as a manuscript. That is certainly much more impressive and imaginative than changing a few names and locations.

Let’s put it this way: If Marissa Meyer had not brought the core concept of CINDER to the Cinderella story, there would be no book. She didn’t just tinker with the original, she took the entire thing apart, repainted it, and put it back together her own way. An adaptation in today’s market takes nothing less.

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This comes from Christina Marie:

Should YA only be centered on high school aged characters or can a novel expand into the college years, mainly the freshman year, and still be considered a YA novel? Is it hard to sell a book that has the setting on a college campus instead of a private or high school setting? Personally, do you stray away from novels set for that age group and setting or do you wish you could see more of it in your inbox?

The whole “New Adult” “trend” that we all heard about on Twitter a year ago is the work of one imprint (St. Martin’s) at one publishing house (Macmillan). It has failed to take off. A few other publishers have tried to publish books with college-age protagonists, THE IVY out from Greenwillow comes to mind, but they’ve failed, in my opinion, to get traction.

Just because we heard a lot about New Adult, it’s wishful thinking. There is a Middle Grade (sometimes called Independent Reader) shelf and a Young Adult shelf at most bookstores. There is no New Adult shelf, and they’re not sharpening their saws to build one anytime soon.

Imagine the difference between going to middle school and going to high school. Your world completely changes once you cross this threshold. Now imagine what a huge shift it is to go from high school to college. In high school, you’re worried about taking SATs or passing your driver’s test or making out with your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you fail a class, you are going to get grounded, because you still live at home. In college, you are on your own for likely the first time. The stakes are much higher, you don’t care about the SATs anymore, and you can drop a class without telling anyone. The choices you make don’t determine which college you’ll get into, they determine your career and the rest of your life as a real adult.

If I’m sixteen, I’m not going to be able to relate to the problems of a college-age kid, just because the frame of reference is so drastically different. It’s all about relatability. And that’s why I don’t think New Adult holds any water in this marketplace. I’m open to changing my mind but so far the evidence isn’t convincing. If I had my druthers, nobody would ever mention New Adult to me again until it was a real phenomenon, and I’m almost always skeptical of writers who simply have to set their YA novel during the college years.

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A very interesting conversation happened in one of my workshop groups during this past weekend’s Big Sur conference. One participant had painted a character very vividly in his particular high school environment, to the point where everyone in the group knew exactly where this character belonged on the social ladder. But that wasn’t the unique part.

The refreshing thing was that this character never lamented his nerd status, he never described his clothes in a way that hinted to us that he was (let’s face it) a loser, he didn’t go into any detail about how out-of-reach the popular kids were. He just went about his business, thought his thoughts, and through the author’s scenework and his interactions with others, we got perfect context for where he lived in the high school hierarchy. But never once (in my recollection) did he come out and tell us exactly where he did or didn’t fit in.

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But teenage social order  is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores (for an example of how this reaches well into adulthood, check out one element of the whole #YAMafia kerfuffle (before anyone flames me for the joke, I am aware that this wasn’t the only issue at play)). The fact is: it’s true. So how do we reflect it in our YA fiction in a way that’s believable?

One thing I see in most manuscripts is a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

the Goths, with their black eyeliner, the emo kids sulking into their genderless thrift store cardigans, the cheerleaders puffing out their push-up bra-enhanced chests at the jocks, who are crushing soda cans on their foreheads and emitting caveman grunts…

Etc. Etc. Etc. I have read this list in probably every well-meaning YA manuscript and many published books. The thing is, most YA readers will know the high school archetypes. They don’t need some thirtysomething (and, lest anyone get offended, let me repeat, again, well-meaning) writer describing their daily reality in such detail. Most writers include this obligatory run-down for their own sake, to get the lay of their land and to put themselves back into the high school mindset as they write.

But how do we convey this atmosphere more organically? How do we sublimate it without the usual telling, without the list of the school’s cliques? I’d love to hear some examples in the comments of books that you think paint a social picture without being too obvious about it. One great exception to the tried-and-true high school hierarchy descriptions, fresh in my mind because I recently reread it, is BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver.

The main character, Sam Kingston, is a popular girl, and a bitchy one, at that, but Oliver describes Sam’s unique take on the social hierarchy in a fresh and very voice-driven way. There’s also a lot of tension inherent in the story premise, so whenever Sam describes her peer group, there’s something working beneath the surface, also. So Oliver doesn’t necessarily get away without any telling, but this is one instance where it worked for me.

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on books that avoid talking about the social structure altogether and yet manage to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

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These last few weeks have been very hectic for me for a wonderful reason! I just sold a really exciting deal for my debut author client Emily Hainsworth. As announced in Publisher’s Weekly a week ago, and in PM this week, THROUGH TO YOU and a second, untitled book, sold to Alessandra Balzer of Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, in a good deal, at auction.

(Photo credit: Matthew Lowery Photography)

Emily and I first made contact last summer, when she queried me with a YA. I read it twice, really loved her voice, but it wasn’t quite there yet. It had some issues and I didn’t know if I wanted to take Emily on without seeing some revision skills first. So I told her to go back into her writerly hidey-hole and return with her next project. She did. It was THROUGH TO YOU. A brilliant, high-concept premise paired perfectly with her strong, literary writing voice. Dreamboat! I fell out of my chair, read it the same day (a busy November Saturday in Chicago when I kept sneaking away from an event to read my Kindle in a locked bathroom stall…true story!), offered representation, and won the opportunity to work on this awesome book.

I gave Emily revision notes, she worked on it for about a month, sent it back, and then we were ready to go out in January. I drummed up some excitement by pitching to editors in person at ALA, then sent it out on Friday, January 14th. Here’s an excerpt from my pitch letter, where I positioned THROUGH TO YOU as a cross between BEFORE I FALL and THIRTEEN REASONS WHY:

The day grief-stricken high school senior Camden Pike sees a ghost is the day he assumes he’s finally lost it. For the last two months, he’s been torturing himself after walking away from the car accident that killed his girlfriend, Viv. She was the last good thing in his life: helping him rebuild his identity after an injury ended his football career, picking up the pieces when his home life shattered, healing his pain long after the drugs wore off. He’d give anything for one glimpse of her again. But now there’s a ghost at the accident site…and it isn’t Viv.

Cam quickly realizes the apparition, Nina, isn’t a ghost at all. She’s a girl from a parallel world, and in this world, Cam is the one who died, and Viv is alive and well. Cam’s wildest prayers have been answered and now all he can focus on is getting his girlfriend back, no matter the cost. But the accident isn’t the only new thing about this other world: Viv and Cam both made very different choices here that changed things between them. For all Cam’s love and longing, Viv isn’t exactly the same girl he remembers. Nina is keeping some dangerous secrets, too, and the window between the worlds is shrinking every day. As Cam comes to terms with who this Viv has become, and the part Nina played in his parallel story, he’s forced to choose–stay with Viv, or let her go–before the window closes between them once and for all.

I still get chills reading this synopsis, because the story really is that good. Luckily, I’m not the only one who thought so. One week after submission, we had our first offer. The next week, we went to auction. The same day I sent out auction rules, my hard-working foreign rights co-agent Taryn Fagerness closed a huge pre-empt from German publisher Goldmann. She sold Italy later that week. The next week we closed the auction and THROUGH TO YOU officially went to its home at Balzer + Bray.

There have been even more top secret developments for this book since then, but I figure this is great news for now. Emily (website, Twitter) has her own write-up of the experience here. And here’s what Alessandra Balzer, Emily’s new editor, has to say about reading THROUGH TO YOU for the first time:

When I read Mary’s description of THROUGH TO YOU, I thought — OK, this sounds very intriguing. A parallel reality is a hard thing to pull off in a convincing way, though, so I stayed a little wary. I started the manuscript and from the first page I immediately liked Cam’s voice and felt drawn in. But still, I wondered — how will this play out? Then, when Cam sees the girl by the site of the accident — I expected it to be his dead girlfriend. When it wasn’t — when it was actually a new character with secrets to reveal to Cam about his own life — that’s when I knew I was hooked. Emily has created so many great and unexpected twists and turns in this plot — you really don’t see what’s coming next. I also love the idea of choices in this novel — and how one bad turn can lead you down a path that you were never meant to be on.

We’re all thrilled with the success of THROUGH TO YOU so far, and hope you will pick it up and discover the twists, turns, thrills, and secrets for yourselves when the novel hits stores in Fall 2012!

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Yesterday was a wonderful day spent in NYC with my debut YA client Karsten Knight, whose novel, WILDEFIRE comes out on July 26th from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. We started the day off early with a breakfast sales and marketing meeting at S&S, walked around, introduced Karsten to the editorial and design staff, did a really cool promotion thing, went to lunch with Karsten’s editor and her fabulous assistant, then caught a movie (True Grit…awesome) to wrap-up the perfect day, before Karsten went off on yet another exciting meeting. I can’t share too much more about it, but here are some pictures to tide you over:

Karsten looking stoic in front of the S&S building.

Deep inside the S&S offices lurks a green, hand-eating tiger. Watch out!

What a truly satisfying day in the life of a literary agent, getting to accompany a client to a publisher that is doing such great things for a truly phenomenal book. Are there enough biased adjectives in that last sentence or what?

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Whether you buy these books for others or for yourself, here are my favorites from the last four or five months in picture books, middle grade, and young adult. I’ll also recommend my favorite writing resources! Happy holidays, and make sure to support your local independent bookstore with these purchases. By voting for indies with your book-buying dollar, you’re supporting the industry that you want to be a part of. You’re also supporting those hard-working booksellers who could one day be hand selling and building buzz for your work. It’s never too early to start making smart buying choices!

Picture Books

CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS
by Peter Brown
Picture book (40 pages), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0316015486

This delightful author/illustrator book is so cute that I want to squeeze the hell out of it and make it go “Squeak!” (You’ll get it if you read the book.) The premise is frightfully clever and Brown really comes into his sense of humor with a cohesive, delightful idea. The bear works perfectly with the woodsy textures and colors of the art and, well, basically, I’m in love with the whole thing. So whether you buy this for some kid (I guess) or yourself, it’s a treat that will have you smiling from ear to ear!

THE BOSS BABY
by Marla Frazee
Picture book (40 pages), Beach Lane Books, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1442401679

Now, I don’t know if y’all have heard, but I am obsessed with this book. It takes a universal experience — new baby — and puts an irresistible spin on it. With gentle humor, this will get an appreciative nod from all new parents (or maybe that’s just them nodding off to sleep from getting pushed around by their brand new boss, er, baby). Do you have any pregnant or new parent friends or relatives? Bam! I just did your holiday/shower/congratulations present shopping for you.

SWIM! SWIM!
by Lerch
Picture book (32 pages), Scholastic Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0545094191

This one is a bit of an oddball choice and it’s from the summer but I first heard about it this fall so, whatever, it’s going in my holiday guide. Because this is my holiday guide and I do what I want. :) Just looking at this, you may not imagine that this fish’s cartoony mug would inspire unexpected sympathy and love. That’s where you’re wrong. Lerch (alias for author/illustrator James Proimos) weaves a fishy tale of loneliness, despair, a hungry cat, and, finally, friendship. It is lovely and much deeper than you’d think by looking at the goofy, simple art style (which, by the way, is fantastic).

BINK AND GOLLIE
by Kate DiCamillo and Allison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile
Early reader (96 pages), Candlewick Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0763632663

Kidlit heavyweights DiCamillo and McGhee team up with Fucile (LET’S DO NOTHING) to create, I think, the most refreshing, surprising, and downright hilarious book of the year for younger readers (and me!). Bink and Gollie are characters that you get immediately, from your gut to your heart. They star in three vignettes that echo one another and are about sisters, love, and those quirks that we can’t help but adore (sometimes begrudgingly) in those closest to us. This type of voice — and you’ll see what I mean when you read it — isn’t for beginning writers. It’s something to aspire to and dream about. In fact, this whole book seems deceptively simple. But there is brilliance at work here. I won’t say any more, lest I deprive you of the sheer joy of reading BINK AND GOLLIE for the first time.

GUYKU: A YEAR OF HAIKU FOR BOYS
by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Picture book (48 pages), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0547240039

This book is haiku:
Seemingly simple and then…
An epiphany.

Not only do I love that this is a picture book of haiku for the four seasons, I love that it’s for boys. The charming illustrations here — done with a unifying accent color for each of the four times of year — are full of boys playing and getting into trouble. And yet, in every verse, on every page, there is the wonder, the stillness, that only great haiku can capture. Some verses are really funny and down to earth. Others, downright poetic. Without giving too much away, here is one of my favorites, from summer:

With the ember end
Of my long marshmallow stick,
I draw on the dark.

IT’S A BOOK
by Lane Smith
Picture book (32 pages), Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1596436060

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve added a lot of concept books to my list. What’s a concept book? Well, like THE BOSS BABY and GUYKU, IT’S A BOOK isn’t really narrative-driven or character-driven. Instead, it takes an idea and runs with it to make a great statement or collection. Writers: this is a tough row to hoe. Marla Frazee and Lane Smith can do it. If you’re a debut writer, I wouldn’t follow the example of these books, I would just appreciate them for what they are. That said, I think IT’S A BOOK is a perfect comment on the digital revolution in publishing and the world at large! Get it for your blogger friends. (Ahem, ahem…)

BEAVER IS LOST
by Elisha Cooper
Picture book (40 pages), Schwartz & Wade, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0375857652

This one also came out over the summer, but I love it so much that I want you to buy it for everyone you know this holiday season. It is truly a treasure. While SWIM! SWIM!, above, reaches emotional heights with some rather funny art, this story achieves the same effect with gorgeous art and few words (four, in fact). As opposed to the concept books on this list, this is very much a narrative-driven picture book by a very talented visual storyteller.

Middle Grade

CLARA LEE AND THE APPLE PIE DREAM
by Jenny Han, illustrated by Julia Kuo
Chapter book (160 pages), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011.
ISBN: 978-0316070386

Okay, so this book comes out in a few weeks, and it’s not really middle grade, it’s more of a chapter book, but I sure did enjoy it! The art is charming and works really well with Jenny Han’s voice, which I became smitten with in MG books like SHUG and teen reads like THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY. If you’re new to chapter books or unsure of the genre, please do check this one out. It’s full of humor and heart and just right for this in-between age group!

SUGAR AND ICE
by Kate Messner
Middle grade (288 pages), Walker Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0802720818

Kate Messner is a MG rock star. She has a smart, literary voice that manages to blend emotional resonance and great, unique plots. Messner is a client of my colleague, Jenn Laughran, and has a long career ahead of her. For all of those writers aspiring to the MG shelves, this latest installment and her previous MG, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, should be at the top of your “To Read” list. SUGAR AND ICE has a frosty, seasonal setting, too, so it’s perfect for cozying up with, as long as you have a cup of cocoa on hand.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM
by Adam Gidwitz
Middle grade (192 pages), Dutton, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0525423348

This is an example of what’s possible with MG, and how dark and funny you can really get. Adam Gidwitz certainly knows his Brothers Grimm, and he’s not afraid to take unsuspecting readers on a twisty and, at times, hilarious-even-though-you’re-totally-grossed-out look at the “fairy tales” we all think we know. And the scenes of carnage are described with such…well…good cheer! Just perfect for the holidays! For all those writers who have very active narrative voices — where the narrator is part of the tale, a la Lemony Snicket — this should be an especially exciting read. I devoured this book in one sitting and loved the voice.

PLAIN KATE
by Erin Bow
Middle grade/YA (336 pages), Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0545166645

A lot of people say that PLAIN KATE is YA, but I think this skews more toward MG. Even though there are very dark elements to this story (and poignantly so, not like the rollicking darkness of GRIMM, above), I think this type of fantasy adventure is more at home on MG shelves. Either way, MG or YA, PLAIN KATE is one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous books I’ve read all year. As you may know, I, uh, read a lot in my line of work. With most books, I’m sad to say, I tend to skim and hurry, anxious to get on to the next book in my teetering “To Read” pile. With this one, I savored each page, anxious, again, but for a very different reason: I didn’t want it to end. Erin Bow’s prose is breathtaking. Sublime. There’s a word choice on every page that made me sit back and pause. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Young Adult

THE THINGS A BROTHER KNOWS
by Dana Reinhardt
Young adult (256 pages), Wendy Lamb Books, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0375844553

This book is, to sound like a cheap action movie reviewer, an “emotional tour de force.” While I can’t find the right words to describe Levi and Boaz’s fractured, fragile brotherly relationship after Boaz returns from war, we’re all lucky that Dana Reinhardt has fared a little better and written a whole book of not only words, but thoughts, images, and vitally important scenes on the subject. Reinhardt probes this relationship without once flinching…she portrays a sobering, lonely truth that could be happening in houses all across the country as veterans return to their families.

THE MOCKINGBIRDS
by Daisy Whitney
Young adult (352 pages), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0316090537

Daisy Whitney tackles the difficult subject of date rape and its aftermath with courage and an intellectual rigor that is refreshing to see on the YA shelves. What I loved about this book is that Whitney, as a writer, didn’t take the easy way out. What would’ve been the easy plot? Girl wakes up bleary-eyed and realizes that she’s been raped. For MOCKINGBIRDS, that’s just the first chapter. Then Whitney takes off to explore a whole other story that’s there. What happens to Alex is only the beginning to a story that explores justice, truth, and empowerment in a very interesting way. A well-written, meaty read, and an inspiration for YA writers to think past the obvious plot.

GIRL, STOLEN
by April Henry
Young adult (224 pages), Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0805090055

I’m a huge fan of April Henry’s writing. In this gripping, thrilling YA, she takes on a challenge that most writers would easily shy away from: her narrator is a blind girl. What does that mean? It means that there’s some masterful, unexpected description in this book. What else? It’s really easy to ratchet up the stakes and tension. What happens to our dear blind girl? Does she enjoy a nice sit, safe on a couch somewhere? Bad news: she’s kidnapped. Worse yet: she’s sick. And did I mention she’s blind? Reading GIRL, STOLEN is like a three-hour-long anxiety attack, and I loved every minute of it. Read this for a very elegant lesson in pacing and tension…and to see how a writer fares when her powers of visual description are taken away.

THE REPLACEMENT
by Brenna Yovanoff
Young adult (352 pages), Razorbill, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1595143372

When you pick up THE REPLACEMENT, you won’t get the usual faerie/changeling story that you’ve gotten used to elsewhere on YA shelves. What I especially loved about this well-written, dark debut is its atmospheric quality. Can’t you tell from the Edward Scissorhands/Tim Burton-inspired cover? From word choice to descriptions to imagery and plot, Yovanoff weaves a cohesive, eerie, engrossing read. This has the whiff of dystopian about it, but not in the way that’s already becoming boring in the marketplace. This is a unique, fresh take, and I will remember certain twisted, macabre scenes from this book for a very long time to come. Plus, the cover rocks. :) (I’m easily amused by shiny objects…)

Books that I also loved but that are buzzed about enough elsewhere: THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger, CONFESSIONS OF THE SULLIVAN SISTERS by Natalie Standiford (I adore her voice, as always!), and ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins (Yes, it is as delightful and smart and romantic as everyone says it is, go read it right now!).

Writing Resources

Earlier this year I wrote up reviews for SPILLING INK and WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULTS. If you haven’t given yourself the gift of both of these, what are you waiting for?! I’ll also recommend two writing books that are a must for every writer’s shelf. These two are not new, by any means. But they are the books I’ve been recommending for years. If you don’t have these, you owe it to yourself this holiday season to correct that mistake

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL
by Donald Maass
Writer’s Digest Books, 2002.
ISBN: 978-1582971827

Hands down, one of the best fiction craft books I’ve ever read. In fact, I read and reread this about every six months to make sure I’m being as comprehensive as possible in my revision notes to clients. Each time I read it, I am reminded of important novel-writing elements, and I never fail to learn something new or see something in a new way. If you haven’t read this yet, that’s okay. I forgive you, and I hope you can forgive yourself. Don’t just buy this for yourself, buy it for everyone in your critique group or writing workshop. Then use it to guide revision or shape your thinking about any new projects in your pipeline. You’re welcome!

BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE
by Anne Lamott
Anchor Books, 1995.
ISBN: 978-0385480017

I know I won’t be blowing anyone’s mind when I say that writers sometimes have issues. Jealousy, insecurity, blocks, procrastination, rejection angst…it can get pretty ugly at the keyboard sometimes. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or like I’ve lost perspective, I like to sit with BIRD BY BIRD for a while. Anne Lamott has a nearly hypnotic writing style — warm, wise, filled with gentle faith that never preaches or hits you over the head (Much like a good picture book text! I digress…). These personal essays, musings, and reflections, as the tag line says, “on writing and life” are a joy to read, especially after you’ve pushed yourself too hard or gone through a particularly difficult period in your writing journey. While, on a craft level, there’s nothing revolutionary here, it’s still worth a read. And it’s highly inspirational. A great gift for any aspiring writer.

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Whew! I hope you like these recommendations, as this is probably the longest and most time-consuming article I’ve ever written for the blog. What can I say, though? There’s a lot to love out there! For the purposes of this post, I’ve either purchased all of these books or received advance review copies for free from the publishers. Happy holidays, dear readers, and happy shopping!

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This is a question I get ALL THE TIME from writers. It is some variety of the following, which came from Jesse:

How would you classify a sci-fi adventure novel with 14 year old boy protagonist? Would that be upper MG? Lower YA? I’ve heard so many different opinions on the matter!

Ah, yes. The great “Is it MG or YA?” debate. It rages on in many writer’s minds, critique groups, query letters, and even submission rounds with editors. It seems like there are always books that ride the MG/YA line.

My advice? Get out of that gray area! If you read a lot of MG and YA books, you can easily isolate the difference. MG books are shorter than YA, deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself), have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers, are sophisticated but still accessible for reluctant readers, are more open to curriculum tie-ins and educational content, and are written to appeal to 10-12 year-old readers, at their heart.

YA books are longer, darker, edgier, less about education and more about a riveting story (though MG should have one, too, of course), and written to appeal to readers 14+.

There are, obviously, gray areas and gray-area readers, say, ten year-olds who are really advanced and sophisticated, and teen readers who are still reading MIX books (a really fun line of girl-centric MG from Simon & Schuster). Or teens who don’t want to read about edgy, risque content*. Sure. There are always exceptions.

But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication), I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG or YA*. Especially in this case.

When you’re just starting to write either MG or YA, you have to start out knowing which one you want to target. Middle school (where MG readers dwell) and high school (where YA readers live) are as different as night and day. Think about your daily cares and worries in middle school. Now think about high school. You were preoccupied with completely different things, and your world, your body, your psyche, your emotions, your relationships with friends, family, and romantic others…all of it was very different from one to the next.

In middle school, kids care mostly about friends and family. They feel the pull to stay and be a kid, and also the need to grow up. They want to fit in and be accepted, but they’re also forging their own identities. It’s a very turbulent time. Plus, they’re going through puberty, so hormones and enticing people of the opposite (or same) sex are just starting to cause major havoc. As for the future, most middle school kids just want to survive until high school.

In high school, kids are really individuating themselves. But now some* also drive, drink, have sex, bully on a really grand scale, and have to make decisions about college (and decide the rest of their lives, as they see it). They’re facing enormous pressures from the social world, their families, themselves. Almost all of their childhood selves are gone, and they’re trying on adulthood for size. That’s havoc in and of itself, but a very unique type.

These audiences are vastly different. Their worlds are different. Their mindsets, cares, hopes, and dreams shift perspectives when you cross from MG into YA. Sure, many things about the childhood/teen experience and many things about the human experience remain the same, but, in terms of relatability — which you really have to think about when writing for pre-teens, tweens, and teens — you are dealing with two different beasts.

In Jesse’s case, I gave the following advice:

I would make your protagonist either 13 and call it MG or 15 and call it YA. There are two shelves at the bookstore: MG and YA. You don’t see a shelf in the middle. Sure, there can be MG for slightly younger and slightly older readers (ditto YA), but you really do have to pick a side. Don’t just go by the age of the character, either (though I would avoid 14, since it’s such a cusp age between middle and high school). Go by level of sophistication, length of manuscript (MG is about 35k, YA more like 50k and up), and darkness (is there a lot of content, ie: sex, violence, etc., or a mature feel, ie: the last HARRY POTTER vs. the first one?). Use all those guidelines to help you pick one or the other.

And I stand by these words. Sure, you can say it’s “upper MG” or “lower YA” or even the (detestable) term “tween,” but the truth is, there are only two shelves at most bookstores: MG and YA. They’re not going to build a special shelf just for your upper-MG/tween/lower-YA opus.

There is a diversity of lengths and age levels and levels of sophistication on the MG and YA shelves, from really young MG to really old YA, but each of those books had to pick a side initially. You have to pick a side, too.

Only you can choose which audience your work is written for, but there is a fundamental difference between MG readers and YA readers, and that’s where your thinking needs to start. That’s the thought process I hope I’ve sparked with this post. Think of your ideal audience, then build a character and a story that they will relate to.

When I think of stories and of pitches, the ideal reader (and their ideal age group) are never far from my mind. And I do often try to tweak a character/manuscript to the right age when working with a writer. But it still needs to come to me knowing, at its heart, who it is written for…MG or YA.

* ETA: To over-clarify, I’m saying that you should give yourself a strong chance of success by deciding whether your book is MG or YA, and not hanging it in a gray area.

I’m not saying that you need to have edgy teen elements in your fiction. Even though I felt I was very clear, someone brought up an issue in the comments, and I want to address things like that, not just leave them dangling out there, unanswered. Just so we’re all on the same — ahem, bad publishing joke alert — page. :)

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Reader Rachel asked in the comments a few weeks ago:

In our writing group, we have been talking about whether or not it is harder to find an agent and/or sell our YA manuscripts if they are contemporary romance/realistic vs. paranormal or fantasy. What are your thoughts on this? If it is more difficult, is there anything that does happen to work particularly well or would make a manuscript more saleable within the contemporary genre?

I know that I got into YA and into reading and into writing and into agenting because of contemporary YA. I was always more of a Sara Zarr, John Green, Jenny Han, Laurie Halse Anderson reader than I was a fantasy or paranormal fan. And when I started looking at the market, there was a lot of contemporary realistic writing on shelves and doing well.

But today’s kidlit market, which got going in earnest over a decade ago with HARRY POTTER and has now been given another injection of money and attention by the TWILIGHT franchise, has always been anchored in fantasy and paranormal. And that’s where the trends — somewhat unfortunately for me and my contemporary/realistic tastes — all seem to be going. Even if there’s no outright fantasy, magic, or paranormal element, novels would rather be set in dystopian times than in the good old real world.

Not only do I know this from observation of bookstore shelves and publishers’ upcoming catalogues, but I’ve heard countless editors discussing how difficult it is to get a straight contemporary/realistic story through their acquisitions committees. Apparently, contemporary realism isn’t much of a sales hook these days, unless either the voice or the subject matter is simply irresistible. Some publishers are, obviously, more interested in this genre than others, but the going still seems to be much tougher now than it was a few years ago.

So what can writers of contemporary realism do in order to make their books more saleable? Well, romance is a huge hook. I think it’s the number one thing that girls (especially) and boys (in the John Green vein, not in the flowery sense) are interested in as teenagers. So every contemporary manuscript I look at should have, if not a flat-out romantic relationship, at least some romantic interest. The teenage years are a time when everything from friendships to family gets complicated, so you have to really play up on those themes and relationships.

And you do have to have a really strong hook. It’s not enough to just have a story of one girl’s senior year as she experiences different relationships and events at school. “Coming of age” is no longer a great sales hook, because every book for the kidlit market is, in one way or another, a coming of age story. Look at some of the most popular recent books that I would classify as contemporary/realistic:

SWEETHEARTS by Sara Zarr: The only boy a girl ever loved disappeared and she thought he was dead, until she gets a mysterious message.
13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher: After a classmate’s suicide, the boy who had a crush on her must put together what happened with thirteen cassette tapes that show up on his doorstep, tapes she sent before her death.
BACK WHEN YOU WERE EASIER TO LOVE by Emily Wing Smith (coming Spring 2011 from Dutton): A girl’s hipster boyfriend up and leaves their conservative Utah town, and she follows him, part of her still thinking they’ll pick up where they left off.
PAPER TOWNS by John Green: A boy follows a trail of mysterious clues left by the alluring neighborhood girl who disappeared one day.
LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott: A girl kidnapped and trapped by a monster of a man has to find hope and sanity and, finally, escape.
SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick: An upbeat, spiritual girl hides the fact that she’s homeless while helping everyone else with their problems, until her mother dies and she can’t hide anymore.
WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson: After anorexia killed her best friend, a girl has to struggle with whether or not she, too, will succumb to the disease that still has its hooks in her.

Two recent contemporary/realistic books with a fantasy element:

IF I STAY by Gayle Forman: A girl left in a coma after a horrendous accident that kills her family must decide between following them and living without them. (There’s also a huge romantic element here.)
BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver: A girl killed in a car accident gets the chance to relive her last day in order to try and change her fate.

What sets all of these books apart, in my mind, is character, voice, and one high-concept element in the plot that makes the premise a great read. I do think a romantic element, or at least an unrequited crush, is vital to a contemporary/realistic YA story…teens care more about friendships and the possibility of romance than they do about most other things in their lives. Other than that, character, voice, and a high-concept idea are what will really make the difference in this market.

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Sex in YA

I must be a glutton for punishment. Ever since I tackled the topics of swearing in YA and self-publishing, I’ve gotten a bit wary of making waves. Not because I don’t love a good, well-reasoned debate. Not because I want all of my readers to agree with me. But because a lot of responses on controversial topics are more annoying and inflammatory than anything else. One of the worst ways, I’ve discovered, to get a sensible discussion going is to open it up to comments from the blogosphere at large. This is not an insult to my readers, far from it! But every time I post on something racy, I get a bunch of trolls who are brand new to the blog (first comment) who come just to spew bile. I still get first comments from trolls on my self-publishing post, and it was months ago. They’re just Googlin’ for a bruisin’, it seems.

Why are these topics so frustrating to post about? Because readers a) always ascribe my post content to my private and personal beliefs, and they b) always let their private and personal beliefs dictate how they respond — and set the emotional pitch. Just because I have said, basically, that swearing in YA fiction is okay for the publishers and readers who choose to publish/read it, and that my biggest concern isn’t the swearing, it’s whether the swearing is genuine to the character and moment, one of my readers said that they lost personal respect for me. When I said that books set in America sometimes stood a stronger chance of being published in the American market than books set abroad, some readers assumed I was a self-centered xenophobe in my personal life. (Secrets secrets: I wasn’t even born in America!) Worse insults were hurled when I took on self-publishing.

So it is with a certain dread that I take on sex in YA literature. Why? Because swearing in books is “bad,” according to a lot of parents, PTA groups, librarians, religious organizations, etc., but sex is a whole lot “worse.”

But reader Rhay asked, and so I will try to answer:

Having heard you say that in YA anything goes and that there are publishers that will publish the most overt sex scenes. I have to wonder, how are sex scenes really perceived in the YA market place? Are they cut in the editorial process because of the need to fit a particular market niche (schools, tweens, etc.)? Do editors actually ever ask for sex scenes to be written because of their market niche? In short, can you give any more information in regards to the perception of sex in young adult novels?

First of all, let me say that I am not a religious person, nor do I come to this answer with any kind of agenda. I don’t want to “corrupt” teens or to preach any kind of immorality, nor do I want to influence the moral compass of others. In light of all the stories that we heard during Banned Books Week, though, I have to take the stand that I believe is right.

Ursula Nordstrom, famous children’s book editor, once wrote: “The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.” And the truth is, teens have sex. Even if some don’t, most are at least curious about it. No matter what their parents, teachers, pastors, etc. think is “right” or “wrong,” I would wager that there isn’t a single teenager on the planet who hasn’t either wondered about sex or tried it.

Is this crass to think about? I guess. Is it hard for parents to accept that their kids are growing up? I would imagine so. Is it right to try and teach abstinence? People with certain belief systems believe it is right, yes. Is it right to make sure that realistic portrayals of real life exist on shelves so that kids can learn from the experience of characters and make informed choices for their own lives? Absolutely!

But that’s now what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about whether or not teens should be having sex. We’re not talking about whether or not I agree or disagree with sex in YA literature personally. We’re talking about the simple fact that teenagers sometimes have sex.

And therefore, fictional teenagers, who are meant to be relatable to real teenagers, sometimes have sex as well. And just as there are teens in the world who do and who do not have sex, there are publishers who do and who do not publish books about teenage sex. Not only does this choice vary from publisher to publisher, it also varies from editor to editor, book to book, and from one depiction of the act itself to another (ie: suggested sex to more explicit description).

Some books, like the last Twilight installment, BREAKING DAWN, fade out just as two characters are getting close to doing the hanky panky. Other books take a more subtle-yet-suggestive approach, like the close physical and intimate bond that the two main characters in SHIVER share. Other books go full-throttle. Two that come to mind from the last few years: SWOON by Nina Malkin and THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger (a real life teen when she wrote and sold it). These last two titles feature pretty explicit scenes of sexual activity.

So who is right and who is wrong about sex in YA? I don’t care, frankly. For every writer and every kind of sensibility, there is a publisher who will match your project in terms of sexual content. If you’ve got full-throttle sex in your book, I may not be able to sell it to Zondervan (a Christian imprint), but it might do well over at Simon Pulse. And for every kind of sex in YA — from no sex to lots of it — there are readers who will match themselves and their sensibilities to your book.

It is true that you limit your market by having sexual content in your book. There will be school, libraries, state lists, book clubs, book fairs and other organizations who will not stock it, support it, or make it available to readers. That is an undeniable fact. But it should not be cause for you to censor yourself, either, if you really do feel that your story demands sexual content.

In terms of Rhay wondering whether or not editors will add or subtract sex scenes from YA, that’s decided on a project-by-project basis. If you have gratuitous sex, editors may ask you to tone it down. If you fall short of the authenticity of a moment and you could actually do more, an editor might ask you to, ahem, flesh out the scene. And yes, sometimes an editor will say, “Hey, we could be really cutting ourselves out of the school and library market if we leave this sex scene in,” but that decision lies between writer and editor, and has to do with both the integrity of the story and the publisher’s marketing expectations. Either way, I wouldn’t worry about that now, when you’re just writing your manuscript.

Truth and authenticity are important in all children’s books, but in YA especially. No matter what you do, make sure it rings true to real life. The choice to include sex in your teen book is up to you. The choice to publish a book with teen sex is up to your potential editor. The choice to stock that book in bookstores and libraries and schools is up to the people involved in book buying for a business or institution.

But keep in mind, since we’re coming off of Banned Books Week, after all, the key word I’m using here is “choice.” Sex will always be a part of the teen experience (whether the sex is practiced, longed for, or forbidden), and it should be part of the YA shelves. If not on the reading list, it should at least be available to those readers who will relate to it. Who reads it, who teaches it, who recommends it…well, that’s the choice part. And as a writer, you’re free to make your own choices, too. Everything else is just a consideration for you to keep in mind.

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