Children’s Book Manuscript Chapter Length

Hi, this is Mary Kole and kidlit.com, and you are watching a video response to a question that I received on the blog from Tom. Tom recently asked a wonderful question about read aloud potential in picture books, which I was happy to answer. He had another great question in the same comment. So he was just coming up with good stuff. I am more than happy to answer in this video format. I think it’s so much fun. Tom’s question, actually the answer to Tom’s question is hidden inside of Tom’s question, but the gist of it is, Tom says, “When I’m reading with my kids, I notice that the manuscripts,” or the books in his case, “that have consistent chapter length flow more smoothly. They are more of a joy to read. Can you comment on that?” You know, and as I am reading this, I’m thinking, “You just answered your own question, buddy.” But whatever, I’ll speak to it because I think it’s a very important point.

So chapter length is a big question that I received many times about all sorts of children’s books that have chapters. So that usually includes everything from chapter books, to middle grade, to young adult novels. And in that case, people always ask, you know, “How long should my chapters be?” That’s the most common question. Nobody really talks about consistency. So I think this is a really great point to drill into. Now, I am less concerned with how long your chapter needs to be. I’m not a big fan of handing out absolute dictums and saying, you know, “For middle grade, your chapters need to be 2,000 words max and always longer than 1,200 words, and…” you know.

Yeah sure, if pressed, I could come up with some harder numbers, but I don’t like to do that because I believe that every book sort of has its own style. Now, I will say that yeah, a chapter that’s 10,000 words for any category of children’s book is probably crazy. It’s gonna be tedious to read. It’s a lot. So there definitely are ways to answer that question in a more specific way, but I’ll keep being cagey, and I will say consistency, as Tom identified in his comment, is key in any category that you’re writing, middle grade, chapter book, YA. Consistency is what sort of keeps the engine of your pacing going. And when I’m reading, I definitely notice, you know, with my editorial clients, I have manuscripts in front of me all the time. I definitely notice when a chapter is a lot shorter or a lot longer than sort of what has been established. And one of my favorite things to say to people is a book teaches us how to read it, which is true. So if you start out writing really short chapters which is a great way to sort of keep pacing lively, you’ve sort of set a standard for yourself. And so if you really start in the middle maybe, writing really long chapters, whoa, your pacing is gonna tank and readers are gonna wonder…they may not be able to put their finger on what’s going on, but they may start to wonder why your chapters suddenly feel longer, or slower, or bulkier. So chapter length can definitely be used to affect pacing and the reader’s perception of how quickly the story is moving which is the definition of pacing.

If you have a lot of long chapters, you really wanna make sure that action flows freely inside those chapters because otherwise they’re just gonna big blocks of information one after the other, and that’s gonna have an exhausting effect on the reader. But the key is that whatever you start doing, keep doing it. You’ve sort of gotten yourself into that place, and if you notice that all of your chapters are really long, you’re gonna have more of a job ahead of you, maybe chopping some of those chapters in half or reorganizing information. Another thing that I see a lot is that a person will basically have chapter consistency down for the most part, but then they will have a few outliers. And the more consistent your chapters are, of course, the more those outliers are going to call attention to themselves. So when you’re revising, one very easy thing to look for, especially if you use a software like Scrivener where each chapter is an individual file, which I highly recommend, is seeing, “Okay, which chapters are abnormally short or abnormally long compared to kinda where I come in.” You know, if I’m coming at 1,500 words for a YA novel chapter and I have a chapter that’s 2,500 words, and then another one that follows it that’s 500, I might wanna think about combining them and then chopping that resulting chapter kind of in half, for example. So what’s…what are your outliers? That would be a great place to start in terms of kinda restructuring your chapters.

Another thing to do is to make sure that each chapter earns its keep. This is a huge note that I give to a lotta my editorial clients. This chapter doesn’t earn its keep. And for me, for a chapter to earn its place in a novel, you have to do one of several things. Ideally you’re doing many of these things all at once. The chapter has to pull its weight. Now, it should introduce character, or introduce something about character, or change something about character relationship, so you’re moving something forward in the character department or…ideally. And a chapter has to move plot forward. So something has to happen.

Now this brings us back to the definition of action in a plot sense. If two characters just bicker for a whole chapter, yeah there’s conflict technically, but nothing has actually happened if two characters just sit there going like this. So something needs to happen to move the plot forward. There needs to be action, there needs to be forward momentum in terms of things happening in the physical world that ideally drag your story forward. So we should learn something about character, something should happen in terms of plot, character relationship can change. There’s gotta be meat in each chapter. And a lotta the time, I see short chapters that are just transitions, for example, you have two big scenes and then a little valley in between that’s like 500 words. That’s something I see a lot. Or a chapter where it’s just characters talking, talking heads. Sometimes those really seem to tank pacing. So yeah, I would say that chapter consistency above all is key. Make sure your chapters are a consistent length, look for outliers, so chapters that are too long or too short based on the length that you set for yourself where you fall most of the time when you’re writing. And then you need to do a test of each chapter to see, does this really have a reason to be in this manuscript? And that’s kind of the trickier revision tactic to do because you’ve written it, of course you don’t wanna kill your babies. Each chapter absolutely belongs in there. But when you really get down to it, is there enough forward momentum in that chapter on the character front, on the plot front to really keep it in there? And if not, you may wanna do away with the chapter or you may want to shorten the chapter and tack it on to one of the two chapters either before it or after it. That’s one way to handle kind of a shorter chapter where you wanna keep some of the information but maybe not make it its standalone chapter. Or is it something that can be expanded into a full-fledged chapter in its own right, maybe with some character development or some plot development?

So, hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for why consistency is important when it comes to chapter length, and then if you do have chapters that are inconsistent with your novel and kind of your goals for each chapter in your novel, what to do with those. So I love this question. Thank you so much, Tom, for asking, and thank you for watching.

Politics in Children’s Books

How do you include politics in children’s books? I received an interesting inquiry today from a potential editorial client. (Just as I was casting around for blog ideas! Hooray!) The writer has written a book for young children and, before sending me the manuscript, warned me that it had a specific political bent about Donald Trump. This writer wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended. While this is considerate of the client, it’s not my job, as an editor, to bring my own political biases into the editorial process.

politics in children's books, politics in fiction, politics in ya, politics in picture books, politics in middle grade
Something we can all get behind, right? Maybe that and “Snacks are awesome!”

But the question did get me thinking: What place, if any, does politics have in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.

The Role of Politics in Children’s Books

When I come across books that have any kind of bias, whether it’s political, religious, philosophical, etc. it’s never my job to comment on the actual content.

My concerns, instead, are the following:

  1. Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
  2. Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
  3. How might this political element affect pitch and marketability?

This is the same way in which I would treat an “issue book.” For example, if there is a book where the character happens to be a certain sexual orientation, I’m always asking, “Is there more to the story than this element, or is this the central focus?” I ask this because I doubt that a book where politics is at the very center, or sexual orientation is at the very center, and nothing else is going on, is going to be very marketable. Readers expect multiple layers from a story, so if it’s just “a political book” or just “an LGBT book” with no other significant plot or character arcs, then I worry that it’ll fall flat. A story cannot stand on one element alone.

Another way of thinking about it is this: If I remove the political element, what’s left? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may have written a rant or an opinion piece or a manifesto. But a story? Maybe not.

Depending on what role the element plays, and the writer’s execution in including it, a political element in fiction could be either an asset or a liability.

The Marketability of Politics in Children’s Fiction

The other issue to consider is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:

  1. The audience
  2. The publisher

In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider. Sometimes, politics plays well in children’s fiction. Consider dystopian YA novels. All of those authoritarian governments have a political message, and most of those stories have something to say about ideas of human rights and individual freedom. Plus, the YA audience is going to be more aware of current events, and more receptive to themes that lend themselves to the dystopian genre.

But a picture book about federal regulation shutting down a lemonade stand, bolstered by a discussion of big government? I just don’t know if a typical picture book reader (3-5 years old) would find that very relevant. You might be speaking to the adult reading the book, but that disenfranchises the core audience (the kid) and I doubt you’ll get very far.

You also have to think about the potential publisher. Most major houses like to make money. If they publish polarizing fiction, they may alienate potential customers. Sure, there are a lot of left- or right-leaning houses, editors, or imprints, but you should at least recognize that your opportunities to place the manuscript are going to be limited if it has an overt stance.

So How Do You Include Politics Successfully?

All this being said, you still have a message for young readers. These are, after all, political days, and your idea probably feels very relevant and timely to you.

Go ahead and include your political message. Just don’t preach it outright. You might want to go Wizard of Oz with allegory, or disguise the political force (an oppressive student government at school, for example). Make sure there’s more to the story than the message. There should be a compelling character and a high-stakes plot.

Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant to your audience. Is a three-year-old really going to be fired up about Grandpa Joe’s long discussion of tax reform? Will a nine-year-old understand the intricacies of your Cold War references?

In the same vein, search for like-minded or at least politics-friendly agents, editors, and imprints. An agent who has a few books about social justice on their list might be much more willing to “go there” with you, for example.

Finally, check your motives. Story must come first. If your main interest is in preaching or converting or soapboxing, you’re likely not coming to the page with the right intentions. No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, save the grandstanding for your Twitter. Political element aside, you still need to practice the storytelling craft.

Getting Agented in Multiple Categories

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.

Writing Adaptations

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.

New Adult and College-Aged YA Protagonists

If you’re interested in writing new adult or fiction with college-aged young adult protagonists, read on. This question 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?

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Thinking of writing new adult or YA with a college-aged protagonist?

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.

Is New Adult a Real Category?

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.

The Problem With College-Aged Young Adult Protagonists

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.

Wondering where your novel idea fits in the marketplace? Market analysis is part of many of my editorial services.

High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

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?

Story of a Sale: THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth

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!

WILDEFIRE Teaser: NYC Shenanigans

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?

Am I Writing Middle Grade or Young Adult?

“Am I writing middle grade or young adult?” This is a question I get ALL THE TIME from writers.

middle grade or young adult, middle grade novel, young adult novel, writing for children, children's novels, writing children's fiction
Who is your audience? You have to pick one. Perhaps the dog?

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.

The Difference Between Middle Grade and Young Adult

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+.

Middle Grade or Young Adult: You Must Decide

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 middle grade or young adult, 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.

Tailor Your Theme to Your Audience

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.

The Gray Area Doesn’t Exist

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.

Pick a Category and Commit

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. 🙂

Having trouble deciding whether you’re writing middle grade or young adult? I can help you pick a category and tailor your novel to the right audience as your children’s book editor.

Is Contemporary YA a Difficult Market?

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.