Reading for Writers: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULTS

screen-shot-2010-09-01-at-74143-amTo keep up with my other book review this week (and since book reviews are much easier to write when you’re trying to leave for vacation and make sure the blog is all stocked up with posts!), here is another book review, this time of WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR YOUNG ADULT by literary agent Regina Brooks.

This is, quite frankly, the book I wish I’d written. It covers everything from character to plotting to getting published.

The scope of this book is much larger, so there’s not as much deep focus on the writing craft itself, but you do gain really valuable insights from the publishing world, as Regina contacted editors all across the children’s books spectrum to contribute thoughts and mini-essays on the topics at hand. So not only do you get to hear her take on it, but you get to hear how editors talk and think on the subject, too.

I think Regina’s advice on plotting is definitely worth a read. Since she’s an agent, she takes a more commercial bent in giving writing tips. And this book is specifically geared to people writing for the young adult market, so all of her writing advice squares well with the quirks needs of teen readers and of YA publishing.

I’ve been meaning to crow from the rooftops about this book for a while, and I’m glad to finally be starting up my non-fiction reviews, as this one definitely deserves a shout out. It’s a quick read, with writing advice and even a few prompts to get you thinking. And it comes from an agent, so all of the tips are geared in a direction that will make your YA fiction more saleable. This is a solid resource, especially great if you’re diving into YA and want an overview, but meaty enough where YA veterans will also find depth and new perspectives.

If you’re planning on seeking it out, it was published by Sourcebooks in 2009. The ISBN # is: 978-1402226618.

Mature Voice for the YA Market

Heather asked this question in the comments a few days ago:

I’ve been thinking a lot about and practicing different YA voices. I know what my friends and I were like as teenagers (dry wit, sort of like Juno – “older than our years” due to divorce and other challenges) but I think the perception is that most teenage girls have a more young-sounding “voice”.

From a personal standpoint, I totally relate to the older, jaded, sarcastic, witty, dry, Juno voices in YA. That’s the kind of teen I was. I thought I had it all figured out and, even when I didn’t, I pretended I did. It was a defense mechanism, of course, but isn’t everything a defense mechanism during high school?

The thing is, this isn’t the only kind of teen voice. And that’s a good thing, because there are lots of publishers and lots of editors (and agents) out there with lots of different teen sensibilities. And sometimes, one agent or editor can fully appreciate both the younger and the older teen voices.

I would say that if you write the older type of teen voice, the story needs to match up, and so does the age of the character. Make your character 16-18 and give them a story that fits the voice in terms of depth and darkness. Part of the fun of Juno is that the story is really pedestrian, and Juno’s voice carries her through a pretty average, white bread, middle America teen experience. But I feel like this is hard to pull off in a novel. The voice, first of all, will have to be pitch perfect, and then it will have to completely carry the novel. (I can hear the editor in my head saying, “Yes, the voice is great, but what happens? Something needs to happen. What’s the hook?”)

When you want to use this voice, match it to a romance, a paranormal, an urban fantasy, or a really strong contemporary realistic coming of age, where the voice isn’t the only thing the manuscript has going for it (think Sara Zarr). My favorite recent example, which you haven’t read yet but will, and should, is WILDEFIRE by my client Karsten Knight, which is slated for release summer 2011 from Simon & Schuster. The voice is killer, dry, witty, sarcastic, and the plot is explosive and killer, too. It’s kick-ass urban fantasy.

I say this all because one of the biggest mistakes writers make in YA usually has to do with this type of voice. I know this is true for my own reading, and I’ve heard lots of editors say this, but biting sarcasm alone does not a story make. Neither is sarcasm appropriate for sarcasm’s sake. A lot of hopeful YA writers (perhaps those with snarky teenagers at home?) make their main characters so dry, so sarcastic, so acidic, so unbearable…that I don’t want to spend a book with them. And then there’s nothing else in the book that would play along with the sarcasm (like, for example, a kick-ass urban fantasy plot) and make the manuscript a cohesive story. Worse, the main character is so acerbic that it turns the reader off and you lose that connection. (To see pretty sarcastic, mean, horrible characters who actually manage to win the reader over, try BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver or the upcoming REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly, out in September from Delacorte/Random House.)

Just like a fondness for math does not make an Asian-American character more realistic (ask me how many times I see the annoying and insulting cliche about an Asian-American best friend with wicked math skills and “brown, almond-shaped eyes” or “straight black hair”), and a fondness for donuts doesn’t flesh out a fat kid character (puns all intended), the addition of biting sarcasm to your voice doesn’t give you “Instant Teen Protagonist” for your novel.

As I said in my first paragraph…there was something behind all my sarcasm, then and now. Sarcasm, just like voice, is a very multi-faceted thing. So sure, your teen main character can have the Juno voice. And they can be mature for their years. The market will, of course, bear it, like it will bear a younger YA protagonist with a sunnier voice. But all of the sarcasm and voice and maturity considerations have to be there for a reason: they have to have both depth and a thematic tie-in to the rest of the story.

And if you can pull all that off, then sure, I’ll read it. I guess. Whatever. 🙂

Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in young adult fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

swear words in young adult fiction, writing young adult fiction, ya fiction
This young adult is about to drop some swear words…or not…

The Considerations of Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading a book that has swearing or action or other content that makes them uncomfortable, that they can’t handle, or that they don’t want to handle, most readers will skip that part or put the book down. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

Everyone Has Their Swear Word Limits

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Superfluous Swear Words

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swear words in young adult fiction are necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too.

Swear Words in Young Adult Writing Are Totally Up to You

If, though, as mentioned above, the swear word is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — swearing, violence, drugs, drinking, sex — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

🙂

Come on. I had to.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult fiction editor.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!

Grand Prize Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest!

As promised, today is the big reveal of the Grand Prize winner for the Kidlit Novel Beginnings Contest! Without further ado, I present an entry by Mary Danielson, a (light) paranormal/mystery YA called THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. This entry embodies the voice, tension, and intrigue that I like to see at the beginning of a novel. While we haven’t gotten a scene yet — which I’ve always said is very important at the beginning of a novel — I think that one is coming, just by the set-up. Find out why this book sounds compelling enough to read “from beginning to end.”

The funny thing about Mary Danielson, today’s winner, is that she actually entered the contest twice. For my initial judging, I like to keep entries anonymous. Lots of my frequent readers — whose names I recognize from comments and the like — enter the contests, so I don’t want to be biased when reading their entries. Either way, I whittle down the entries to about the top 25 or so without looking at names. Then I start to really analyze the top choices. And, by some incredible stroke of either luck or genius, two entries from this selection of the top 25 (out of more than 400!) belonged to Mary Danielson! And both entries were so good that it was difficult to choose just one to place among the winners that I’ve posted here.

Read on to find out what caught my eye… twice!

***

Five weeks before his disappearance, Miles St. John pushed me up against a locker and kissed me. Hard.

I really enjoy the voice here. And we have a disappearance already in play. There’s a lot of action in this sentence, and that “Hard,” for emphasis, is a nice touch.

This didn’t exactly make it into the police report. A lot of things didn’t. Not that night, not our plan, and especially not this little fact: I could have saved him.

Lots and lots of mystery! And the danger element of lying to the police. And the high stakes idea of her being able to save him. There’s immediate tension!

Even the reporters, who descended on Verity with their news vans and power ties, didn’t discover our secret. They badgered witnesses and dug up rumors, but still not a single tabloid mentioned my name.

And this character has managed to fly under the radar. I want to know a whole lot more about that.

In a few hours, I could be away from it all. Suitcases and secrets in hand, I could get on that plane to Texas and never be caught. Those stories would stand and you people could go on guessing and wondering, your theories swirling around and around until pretty soon everyone loses interest. It would be yesterday’s headline.

It would all be a lie.

Now she’s running from it, “suitcases and secrets in hand.” But will she get away with it? Will it be a clean severing of ties? And what will the emotional ramifications of all this secrecy be? I’m already so invested in this character’s story and I’ve only read a few sentences.

And if there’s anything my time at Verity Prep taught me, it’s this: a lie, even one that no one suspects, will do more bad than good every time. So, this isn’t going to be like before. I’m telling the truth now.

Lots and lots of tension again. My question from my last comment — about the ramifications of her lie — still stand here. I find that when the reader thinks something, and then the author mentions it and picks up on it, that’s a really well-written manuscript. I was just thinking about how the lie would impact her, and then it turns out Mary has thought about it too, and mentioned it right as it bubbled up in my brain. There’s the risk here, also, of this character finally telling the truth. I’m guessing this is the “confessions” part of THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. What does this have to do with her impending escape? There’s also tension with the mention of “before” that piques my interest, and I want to know more about Verity Prep, where they’re apparently teaching whole lessons on lies and scandal instead of calculus and chemistry.

Not just about Miles, but about everything – the robberies, the fire, the curse.

And there’s a CURSE! *swoon* I want to know about all these things, but especially the curse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Uncle Dash says that the best quality in a good journalist is that she gives all the facts – from the very beginning, when things first get fishy, all the way until the villain’s confession.

I also like that she’s a journalist. If I hadn’t know this, I would still have noticed the way she talks about reporters and the news, abov,e and guessed that it was one of her interests. It’s cool to see a character’s narrative through the lens of their passion, and her interest in journalism is clear even before she says it outright. Good voice here, too.

So, here it is – from my beginning to his end — the confessions of Evie Archer: amateur sleuth, freak of nature, and criminal mastermind.

Great button for this excerpt. I want to know about all three of these roles that she’s taken on for herself.

***

So there you have it, folks! Congratulations to all the winners and the entrants… it takes a lot of guts to share your writing and put it out there into the world. I’ll do a bit of a “deconstruction” post for this contest on Friday, with some of my lingering thoughts on novel beginnings. Thank you all for playing along with this great exercise!

Second Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

Our Second Place winner is a paranormal YA romance, HALO & WINGS, by J.R. Hochman. This is a funny voice, which is one of the things that I think are key for paranormal these days, and gets us into the “inciting incident” right away. We’re plunged into conflict and carried along into the rest of the story without pause. Check it out!

***

I died an extremely dumb death.

There is a whole lot of “I died and now here’s my screwed up afterlife” YA books hitting the market these days, but I was pulled in by the voice and humor here right away. It’s also in-your-face and a bit confrontational. Sometimes this irks me, here, I want to read on.

Picture this: On the Riverville High tennis court, I stared at the sky, thinking my opponent’s shot was going long, but the wind whipped up and the tennis ball hung in the air, blowing into play. So I leaned back on my heels, brought my arm out and wham! I fell . . . my big ass hitting first, then my head just as hard, my brain bouncing inside my skull. Darkness swept over me. Not sudden darkness, mind you, but a curtain slowly coming down.

Confrontational again with the “picture this” but, you know what? I do! And the author uses vivid imagery. From the wind whipping up to the ball hanging in the air, to “my brain bouncing inside my skull” and “a curtain slowly coming down.” The language is also very economical — the writer gets a lot of impact, a lot of different description, with few words here. There’s also the humor of “my big ass” and lots of action. And, in the second paragraph, the character’s dumb death begins. There’s no way the writer could’ve known, but I spent all four years in high school playing varsity singles tennis.

I didn’t die straight away, and I vaguely recall opening my eyes for a moment. Girls from the tennis team stood over me and said, “Sarah, are you okay?”

“Hrrrrppphh mrrrukkee,” I gurgled. Translation: help me.

Really like the quirky sound effects here. Conveys what’s going on with her and how poorly she’s doing without her telling us.

No one could. A vicious pull tore me inside out. My body remained on the ground while my soul–another self hidden inside me, as if I were a Russian nesting doll–came tumbling free. I tried to crawl back inside my body, slipping it on like an ill-fitting coat. The arms were too long, the legs too short, and the eye holes no longer lined up. Terrified, I rolled over on my side and screamed until my voice was drowned out by the arriving ambulance.

I don’t know about the soul being “another self hidden inside me,” as I don’t know whether she’s defining what a soul is — a bit unnecessary — or defining how souls “work” in this particular book and its world — separate selves that can come clean from the body. What I really love are the images here. In her effort to “crawl back inside my body,” she tries to slip “it on like an ill-fitting coat” but “the eye holes no longer lined up.” That’s an image I have NEVER heard used before, and it goes to show — after reading thousands of manuscripts, I can still be surprised by good writing! Love the quick pace again… we have the ambulance’s arrival already.

“She’s not breathing.” A paramedic checked my pulse, pounded my chest, and tried to breathe life into my lungs. It didn’t matter. Nobody was home.

The only thing I want to know here is where her soul is relative to her body in this moment, since “nobody was home” in her corpse.

Only one month into my junior year of high school, with so much unaccomplished–finding a steady boyfriend, winning a tennis scholarship, getting a driver’s license–life was over.

Quick biographical catch-up. Once again, it’s spare and gives us only the info we need.

Worse than the fear of dying were my thoughts about never seeing those I loved again. How could Mom, who’d never recovered from Dad divorcing her, manage alone? I knew she’d fall apart. What about Jason and Liz? Who would my friends tell their secrets to? Maybe a million people didn’t count on me, but the few who did really needed me.

And now we get the people in her life and her emotions about them. Look at how much we know from this one paragraph? This is a sly way to introduce backstory right at the beginning of a novel — oh, my life is flashing before my eyes! — but it totally works in the context of the plot so far, so it doesn’t seem cliche. Notice that the writer never has the character tell the reader: And then my life flashed before my eyes…

This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t. It had to be a mistake.

But it wasn’t. The paramedics loaded my body–just a shell, not the real me–into the ambulance on a stretcher. I watched them drive off in a cloud of exhaust.

Too pathetic to face my new reality, I relived the moments leading up to my death over and over like a YouTube clip. Each time, my life ended the same stupid way.

The only thing that’s missing here, for me, is what the “new reality” is like. Her soul is just left standing there… what is the rest of the world like? Different? Are people crying and freaking out? I’d love it if she came out of interiority for a bit and take in the scene. Internal conflict versus external conflict is a constant balance in writing.

I sniveled and sobbed until I was an empty vessel with nothing more to give. Then, I dry heaved. Sad. Sad. Sad. This was so not me. I was practically in a fetal position, about ready to suck my thumb, when a funny thing happened. Looking down at the puddle of tears on the ground, I saw my own pitiful reflection and a strength awoke within me.

Enough of this, Sarah. Enough. Get your shit together.

This is the only place where I think things aren’t clear. “An empty vessel with nothing more to give” is a bit vague. Also, the writer is ascribing a lot of visceral actions to a soul. A soul is crying and dry heaving and getting ready to suck her thumb but… those are all very physical things that a body might do. CAN she cry? Apparently she can issue tears, since there’s a puddle. Now I’m starting to wonder what the rules of this world are and how much physical effect/presence/feeling souls have. But I would still definitely read on.

***

I’ve tried to mix up my winners so that you get a little bit of everything. The Honorable Mention was more fantasy, the Third Place Winner was literary YA, this is paranormal romance YA and… here are clues for the next two winners… we have a contemporary YA mystery and a contemporary MG, in no particular order. Stay tuned!

Third Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

The Third Place winner in this terrific contest is Helen Robertson, whose YA novel opening for ALABAMA JONES AND THE UNSPOILED QUEEN has great interiority, characterization, and, also, tension and mystery elements. Check it out — with notes — below.

***

At least I didn’t have to wear a dress to my dad’s funeral.

I’m a sucker for opening lines and this is a great one. It tells me a lot about the character, her sense of humor, and, of course, the setting and the story.

He always told me to be grateful for the small things—especially when the big things looked bad. So I focused on the fact that I was wearing shorts, a tank top, my favorite necklace, and flip-flops. I tried to enjoy the feel of the boat beneath my feet, and reminded myself that I could add Alabama to my “been there” list. I’d just started the list this trip, because it was the first time I’d gone anywhere except to other islands in the Caribbean.

Here we get more of the setting and more of what’s important to this character. We also get a visceral detail with the movement of the boat and physical description of what she’s wearing.

Now I’d been to Georgia (the Atlanta airport, anyway), and Alabama. I was curious about Alabama because that’s my name, too. We’d never visited before because when we lived on Saba, everyone came to us. Still. I could think of better ways than my Dad’s funeral to be introduced to the place I was named after.

My interest is piqued with the “everyone came to us” comment… it makes me wonder about what her family does. We’ve got strong voice so far.

Not to mention that this was his second funeral. Dad had wanted to be cremated and scattered in two places: the waters above the Saba Bank, and Mobile Bay. So the first time was on Saba, and here we were, fulfilling part two of that wish. To me it meant just one thing: saying goodbye to my dad. Again.

And if we thought we were dealing with an ordinary family — and an ordinary funeral — this tosses those ideas on their ears.

Like on Saba, it was an informal service. People were in shorts and tee shirts, and they filled my granddad’s dive boat as we putt-putted out into the bay. My mom, her face stiff and tight, clutched the urn with the last of my dad’s ashes. I stood with my grandparents, holding my little sister’s hand. Asia (Dad liked to name us after places he loved) was ten. We never held hands anymore, but made an exception in this case.

Great interiority here, and the rest of the family starts to fill in. The sister, the mom, grandpa, whose boat they’re using… We also get more of Alabama’s humor. She’s using some slight wit here in the voice but it establishes tension because she’s been talking about pretty much everything EXCEPT her dad, and the hand-holding moment tells me that “this case” has hurt her maybe more than she lets on.

Even though I was sad, it was good to be on a boat again. The farther out into the bay we went, the closer I felt to my dad. We’d spent a lot of time on boats, usually going scuba diving. Being on the water felt right. I was also glad to be surrounded by people like my dad. Divers, sailors, and surfers, all sun-bleached hair, brown skin, and faded clothes. Water people. My dad’s people, and my people too.

A lovely tribute to her dad here, that characterizes her… and him.

Only one person didn’t match. It wasn’t just that he was dressed up—a few people were, after all. But the clothes he was wearing were long—long sleeves, long pants, and a fancy dark jacket. Instead of flip flops, he actually had shoes on, black ones that shone in the sun. Tall and thin, he walked like a stork: stiff and deliberate, lifting his feet high with every step. Plus he was pale. But his red hair was pretty, and he had freckles. I have freckles too, so people with freckles are all right by me.

There was some joking going around on Twitter last week about how every character in a book has quirky red hair and hates their freckles. This has a redhead with freckles, but it is far from the usual fare. Also, this is a character who actually likes freckles. I also like the description of this character and his “otherness.” I also love that she distinctly notices that he’s NOT wearing flip flops. As a California girl, I have to say that I don’t trust a person who misses an opportunity to don a nice pair of ‘flops…

I didn’t realize he was a clue. Back then, I didn’t even know there was a mystery.

The mystery hook pretty much guarantees that I’ll want to keep reading!

***

I hope these winners continue to be helpful and interesting to you. This most recent winner is a great example of a literary YA novel (the quality of the writing, the bent toward interiority, the focus on family and realistic issues rather than paranormal or fantasy, the contemporary time frame) with an enticing (from the looks of it so far) mystery hook that looks like it might have a good balance of character-driven and plot-driven elements that’s so important in today’s market. I have three more to post — Second and First Place winners and the Grand Prize winner! — over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

how long should a children's book be, children's book manuscript length, manuscript word counts, picture book word count, middle grade word count, chapter book word count, early reader word count, young adult word count, literary agent word count
That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

Manuscripts That Are Too Long

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscripts

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Manuscript Length for Children’s Books

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 300 words max
  • Picture Book — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade or MG — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapter Books are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

YA Literature That Pushes Modern Boundaries

I recently read Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009) back to back. Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah — who revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without — so challenging and so delicious. In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Two such similar books — that question truth and reality and how easily these things can be manipulated in a reader’s experience of fiction — coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and YA is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for YA — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

Why I Write For Children and Young Adults

“Why do you write for children and young adults?”

This is a question I had to answer twice yesterday. Once for my MFA adviser, the other for an editor at Chronicle Books. It got me thinking that I should write down my answer and see if anyone agrees with me!

As most adults grow older, it seems that their world narrows. Doors and windows, possibilities and opportunities, that used to exist when they were kids seem to close or disappear. People make up their minds, stop learning, evolve more slowly or not at all. On the other hand, growing up is all about change. Ideas aren’t set in stone, minds change every day, people explore the world before forming their opinion of it.

Young adulthood is such an engaged, volatile, dynamic time in someone’s life. That’s why I write for the people who are living through it. I also know that if I keep my imagination there, my world will never narrow. I’ll never stop learning and growing, and that’s exactly the kind of life I want to live.

My young adulthood is a prime example of this. I immigrated to California from Moscow when I was seven, essentially leaving one childhood behind. To this day, I feel like the ten years afterward, from age seven to seventeen, were some of my most significant. Not only did I have to come into my own as a young adult, but I also forged an identity, juggling between my Russian heritage and my future as an American. Twice the growth, twice the change.

It was such a rich, painful, life-altering time and that’s why I write for children and young adults… to capture and share those moments. To keep their memory alive in my life because that’s one of the only links I have to my first childhood and the first girl I was, the one that’s still intact somewhere, flying on a rickety Aeroflot plane over Siberia, on her way to a new life.