Am I Writing Middle-Grade Fiction or Young Adult?

“Am I writing middle-grade fiction or young adult?” This MG vs YA question is something I get ALL THE TIME from writers. So have you written middle grade or young adult? Let’s find out!

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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 middle grade? Lower YA? I’ve heard so many different opinions on the matter!

Ah, yes. The great “MG vs 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 middle grade or young adult line.

The Difference Between Middle-Grade Fiction and Young Adult

My advice? Get out of that gray area! If you read a lot of middle grade or young adult books (and you should be reading both), 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 middle-grade fiction 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 vs 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. This is a very big part of the MG vs YA conversation.

The Middle Grade or Young Adult 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 middle-grade fiction 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 vs 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 about contemporary YA novels 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?

contemporary ya, ya novels
Romance is a huge hook in contemporary YA.

I know that I got into YA and into reading and into writing and into agenting because of contemporary young adult fiction. 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 were a lot of contemporary YA novels on shelves and doing well.

Current Trends in Young Adult Fiction

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 YA tastes — all seem to be going. Even if there’s no outright fantasy, magic, or paranormal element, YA 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 YA novel 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.

What Makes Contemporary YA More Appealing to Agents and Editors?

So what can writers of contemporary YA novels 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.

Examples of Contemporary YA Novels

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.

Contemporary YA 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.

The Defining Element Is…

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 YA novel…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.

Are you working on contemporary YA novel? YA is my favorite category to edit, and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

Sex in Young Adult Fiction

The topic of sex in young adult fiction is going to be controversial, so buckle up! I must be a glutton for punishment. Ever since I tackled the topics of swear words in young adult 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. But writers have questions, and I have answers, so here we go!

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First base or home run? Your comfort level with sex in young adult fiction will dictate your approach.

A Sane Discussion of Sex in Young Adult Fiction

Why are topics like sex in young adult fiction 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 anything that approaches edgy YA. 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.”

Writing About Reality for Teen Readers

But reader Rhay asked about sex in young adult fiction, 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 with regard to edgy YA.

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. Some absolutely don’t, but 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 not 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 young adult fiction. We are talking about the simple fact that teenagers sometimes have sex.

The Decision to Include Sex in Young Adult Fiction

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 edgy YA. 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.

Find a Publisher That Matches Your Sensibility

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 young adult fiction — 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 support edgy YA. 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.

How Much Input Editors Have

In terms of Rhay wondering whether or not editors will add or subtract sex in young adult fiction, 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 the edgy YA aspect 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 decision 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.

Young adult is my absolute favorite category to edit. I would be honored to work as your young adult editor, so let’s talk!

Sarcastic Voice in Young Adult Fiction

Here’s a question about sarcastic voice in young adult fiction from reader Kathryn. It’s one I’ve actually thought a lot about and addressed in many manuscripts:

I wanted your opinion on using the same voice throughout a MS. I have noticed with the latest two books I’ve read (by two different authors) that they use the same witty, sarcastic, always-joke-cracking voice. Even in tense parts of the story. What is your opinion of that? For me it broke character and when I am writing the harsher scenes in my book, and I feel like I am going to lose my reader.

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Talking about creative writing is sooooo cool.

Is Sarcastic Voice in Young Adult Fiction a Requirement?

As you readers know, there is a lot of room on shelves for sarcastic voice in young adult fiction. (Check out my previous post on writing teenage characters.) But you can’t just give readers a sarcastic, quippy voice and a character who is biting and caustic and call it a day. That’s not all there is to teen voice or teen characters. In fact, writers who think that they’ve made an instant teenager by adding one part extra sarcasm are a big pet peeve of mine.

Another pet peeve of mine is when the sarcasm comes out in inappropriate times or doesn’t feel genuine in a situation or for a character, as with the situation Kathryn is describing. I feel that voice does have to be consistent. And, yes, humor and sarcasm can come together to create a voice. But not all situations do well with humor, quips, or sarcasm.

Tense situations, scary situations, poignant situations, and some scenes actually don’t fit well with sarcasm. Why? Well, think of what sarcasm is and where it comes from.

Sarcasm Has a Place In Fiction

As a teen, I was definitely sarcastic, biting, and witty. But when I think of those times when I was most sarcastic, most mean, or most joke-cracking…what was going on inside my head? I was actually using sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism, as a wall. If I was uncomfortable or feeling challenged or otherwise feeling the need to put my shields up, I’d be more sarcastic or try harder to be funny than in situations where I was comfortable (unless I was riffing with a bunch of friends and getting all riled up, of course).

For important moments in your plot, I would stay away from too much sarcastic writing. Sarcasm drives a wedge into high stakes and deflates tension. It puts up a wall between your character and your readers. Sometimes, that’s okay. In other moments, though, you want your character to have a genuine, shields-down reaction to events. This way, those events will seem genuinely significant. If your character cracks jokes or shrugs off important stuff, your reader won’t care much about it, either.

Why Sarcasm Can Be a Problem

For example, here’s some bad use of sarcastic writing:

My dad tells me that everyone in my family discovers some big and important power on their sixteenth birthday. It happened to Grandma and it happened to Dad. And then we’re expected to use it for good and all that junk. I’ll believe it when I see it, and so far, all I see is the great pair of Prada pumps that’s going to be my birthday present tomorrow.

As always, this is hyperbole. But you can see the problems here, right? This character is, more likely than not, about to encounter something life-changing that members of her family are concerned about. Is she scared? Probably. Should she be scared? Probably. But do we know about her fear? No, because the sarcasm is standing in the way of that, and doing a rather shallow job of showing us her true feelings. So this is an instance of sarcastic voice in young adult obscuring something important about the protagonist that the reader should be aware of.

Sarcasm Puts a Wall Between the Character and the Reader

There are high stakes in the situation, or there should be, but they don’t come across in the way it’s described. She seems like she doesn’t care, or she’s making light and fun of it. That doesn’t invite us to take it seriously, either.

In important moments — moments when the reader is supposed to care — make the character care, as well. And as every teenager will tell you, sarcasm and humor, especially at tense moments, is a self-defense system designed to scream “I don’t care!” Sarcastic writing has its uses, but it should be used judiciously, with thought to the psychology of how real teen sarcasm works.

Finally, one last pet peeve (I know, I’m full of them today). I am cautious about too much sarcastic voice in young adult or biting humor because I feel like, often, it’s the writer saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me, and how funny I am and how funny my characters are!” This post has dealt with authenticity and when to use sarcasm, but also when to cut back for the sake of being genuine. In the same vein, the sarcasm or humor has to be real to the character, and can’t just be the writer showing off.

Voice is one of the trickiest fiction concepts to nail. But it’s critical when writing YA. Hire me to be your young adult editor and we’ll hone in on a voice that’s both true to the category and to you.

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.

Writing Teenage Characters: Mature Voice for the YA Market

Heather asked this question about writing teenage characters 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”.

writing teenage characters, young adult book
When you’re writing a young adult book, you can’t slap a sarcastic voice on your teen character and call it a day. They can be sarcastic and biting, but there needs to be a reason for it.

From a personal standpoint, I totally relate to the older, jaded, witty, dry, sarcastic voice in young adult fiction. 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?

More to Writing Teen Characters Than Sarcasm

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’re writing teenage characters with more mature voice, the story needs to match up, and so do the ages of the characters. 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 young adult book. 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.

Be Wary of Stereotypes

I say this all because one of the biggest mistakes people make when writing teenage characters 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 a young adult book with sarcastic, mean, horrible characters who actually manage to win the reader over, try BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver or REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly.)

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.

Sarcasm Can Have Depth, Too

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 when you’re writing teenage characters, 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 in your young adult book, then sure, I’ll read it. I guess. Whatever. 🙂

Voice is one of the trickiest fiction concepts to nail. But it’s critical when writing your young adult book. Hire me to be your young adult editor and we’ll hone in on a voice that’s both true to the category and to you.

Teen Boy Books: Boy Protagonists in YA

Reader Melissa asked this question about teen boy books a few weeks ago and it’s one of my pet issues in YA. I talk to a few of my clients about this, and to anyone that asks, really, because it is a mystery, a frustration, a conundrum.

teen boy books, books for young men
Some houses usually do one or two books for young men per season and that’s it. Because that’s not where the readers are, unfortunately.

Teen Boy Books: The Question

I am hoping you can answer a question for me. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about boy MC’s (YA) being a hard sell, yet many agents request books for young men on their websites/blogs. Are boy MC’s a hard sell? My current involves a boy MC but with a romantic element to the story. Is this the same topic or are these two different types of books? To me, it would seem that boy MC books directed at boys alone are very different than boy MC books that have the romantic element so desirable to girls.

In YA, Boy Readers (and Protagonists) Are an Endangered Species

When people request “teen boy books,” I find that they’re more often talking about MG, where boy readers are still more active. In YA, boy readers are almost extinct. They have a) stopped reading or b) moved on to adult sci-fi/thriller/fantasy, etc. In MG, adventure and mystery and especially boy/girl teams of siblings or friends are doing well in the marketplace right now, so editors are looking to add those types of stories to their lists.

Not so much in YA. When I’ve gone on submission with teen boy books, I have literally heard from editors, “Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.” That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two books for young men books per season and that’s it. Because that’s not where the readers are, unfortunately. As much as editors would like to change the reality of older boys not reading, most have found that putting out more and more books for young men doesn’t necessarily move the needle.

The Work-Around

One way that teen boy books can be successful is if they take lots of girl appeal, as Melissa says, and apply liberally. John Green is a really successful test case. He writes boy MCs that girl readers want to date, simple as that. His boy protagonists are quirky, nerdy, in love with a girl, and chasing her with such passion that boys can relate, sure, but girl readers swoon.

Girl readers can easily see themselves in the role of that girl, and they want the geeky, cute, dedicated boyfriend type that populates John’s pages, even if he is a loner or flawed or otherwise damaged. Girls love a good fixer-upper in some cases, not just the blazing-hot romantic hero. Vulnerable boys, not just sparkly ones, really do appeal.

So I think Melissa’s on the right track with the young adult romance element. More than 80% of your readers, even with a male MC or a mixed-gender or gender-neutral tale, will be girls. Give them lots to dig into. And a guy they can dig. Give the boy readers good stuff, too, and a character to relate to who’s not a total girl-pleaser, but know that your core audience will most likely be girls. And if you’re planning a book that’s totally boy-centric, it will be a harder push to get it on publisher’s lists, unless it is just really appealing and awesome for teen boys and you nail the demographic well.

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

Writing About Family in MG or YA Fiction

A reader wrote in last week with a question regarding writing about family in realistic fiction. Mary said:

Can a manuscript be sold if the main character lives in a traditional nuclear family? Everything I’ve read has either a parent who left or disappeared, went to jail, or died–even in so-called humor novels. Being a single adoptive mother, I don’t object to a single parent household. But EVERY book?

writing about family, realistic fiction
When you’re writing about family, does there have to be a dysfunctional element to be competitive in today’s market?

This is a good point, and steals one of my jokes about MG or YA, which is: The parents (often mother) in a middle-grade or YA novel have the highest mortality rate in all of fiction.

Judging from the writing about family that’s on offer these days, you really do get a sense that it’s true. Parents are always dead or missing or in jail or abusive or otherwise highly dysfunctional. Almost too much so.

Fiction Thrives on Tension

Personally, I feel like there’s room for a more peaceful or normal family unit in MG or YA novels. However, fiction — even realistic fiction — thrives on tension and conflict (not melodrama, mind you, or hysterics, but real conflict). Fiction can never be static, or your readers will put the book down (if you even get as far as having a book in the first place).

So when you’re writing about family, you can absolutely feature a close-knit, whole or loving group in your novel. And nobody has to die or go on a drug binge or murder anybody. However, you can’t have a whole manuscript of Pollyanna love and family moments. The conflict has to come from somewhere.

There’s one good reason that families usually explode in MG or YA novels, I think. It’s during your teen years that you start to look around and realize that your parents aren’t perfect, as you originally thought when you were a kid. You start to see them as flawed human beings instead of superheroes. You also start to get to know them in new and different ways. Family members are also especially high stakes because they’re people you’ve known the longest and are the closest to, for better or for worse. And since the best realistic fiction reflects universal truths of being alive, writers tend to hone in on family relationships as especially dramatic since…let’s face it…they often are.

Writing About Family Without Dysfunction: High Stakes and Tension Elsewhere in the Story

A successful novel manuscript has to have two sources of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict is the character’s struggle with being themselves and existing in the world around them. (Feeling alone, like a loser, feeling like they have no friends, wanting something really badly, etc.) External conflict is the conflict of a character and their relationships or with a situation in the outside world. (Parents divorcing, sibling rivalry, betrayal by a friend, an impending apocalypse, etc.)

So, even if you’re writing about family in a loving way, your character must have both external and internal conflict to be a compelling fictional person. Nobody wants to read a book that’s 300 pages of, “Everything is great and awesome!” But the conflict doesn’t 100% have to come from a dysfunctional family, either. In fact, in this market, having a functional family might actually set you apart, as long as there is enough tension and the stakes are high enough elsewhere in the story.

ETA: Of course, as is hinted at in the comments, having a family with missing members in it makes it easier for characters to break out of the house and get into shenanigans! One common complaint about MG and YA is: “How in the sam hill did these kids get into so much trouble? Who was watching them?” That’s easy to get around when you off mom and pop. Of course, murder most foul is not the only way to let your fictional kids have more room to roam.

Are you writing realistic fiction for MG? I’d love to be your middle grade editor and help you figure out the family dynamics in your story.

If You Write About an Issue Book, Do It Justice

A commenter on my post about premise vs plot got me to thinking about the issue book. In my post, I used some examples of life issues, one of which was a kid with a parent addicted to meth. In response, a reader named Alan wrote this:

Other than the gay issue, plot or not, it’s a story that can only be told by someone who is living the story. It’s not a one book or essay or short story, it’s a never ending saga and life style. Please do it justice if any of you pursue this issue (meth) and the destruction of the family.

issue book, writing about social justice
Do you have the “right” to pursue a story about a life experience that isn’t your own?

Writing An Issue Book: Do You Have the “Right”?

This raises the bigger question: do people who are not living a certain story have a “right” to pursue it in fiction? I personally happen to both agree and disagree with Alan’s comment, which is why I wanted to dig into it here. I agree with the fact that people who write about a certain issue need to roll up their sleeves, dig in and absolutely do it justice. (For this post, yesterday’s post and future posts, an “issue book” is one that deals with one of the many more serious problems or predicaments that a teen might face in their coming of age: drugs, sex, rape, discrimination, sexual orientation, abuse, divorce, alcoholism, death in the family, pregnancy, abortion, eating disorders, immigration, legal trouble, murder, crime, running away, etc. These issues will figure more heavily into a story and a plot than, say, a lying friend or a bad grade on a math test.)

What If I Could Only Write About My Experience?

However, I disagree with the idea that only people who have lived through something can write about it. For certain books — like memoir — this is very true, obviously. Also, it does happen that some of the most comprehensive and gripping issue books tend to be written by people who have lived certain experiences. Ellen Hopkins’ breakout, CRANK, came directly from family experience and I don’t know if she would’ve been inspired to write it or if she could speak with such authority if she didn’t have this front lines perspective on meth and drug addiction. Still, what if men only wrote books from the male POV? What if gay people only wrote gay characters, or straight people only wrote straight characters? What if writing about social justice issues was only available to people impacted by those issues? What if I could only write about white, middle class, female, Russian literary agents? I’m exaggerating to prove a point here but I think you get it.

Start With Character

Most issue books, in my opinion, need to start with character. And remember, every character is different. Some people who suffered rape think of themselves as victims. Others think of themselves as survivors. Every person reacts to an issue differently, so there’s not one way to approach writing about social justice or rape or meth addiction or being gay. So the character and their story should really be your starting point. Besides, a lot of people who really did live through an experience are emotionally invested in it. They may not be able to separate their experience from a fictional story with all the moving parts of other, wholly fictional novels on the shelves. As a result, they may only be able to think of a particular issue in one context. That’s not bad, but it is important to remember that there are many different experiences for every issue out there. How do you make sure you’re writing a valid character having a valid issue experience? There’s a fantastic thing called research, and more fiction writers need to use it.

Do Your Research

If you are writing about a person who has been adopted, go interview people who have had different adoption experiences. Interview people in closed and open adoptions, people whose parents raised them with the awareness that they were adopted and people whose parents did not, people who ended up with a great adoptive family and those who never quite bonded. Go interview mothers who gave up their children for adoption. Those who are grateful for their choice and those who regret it. Even if the birth mother is not a character in your story, you need to understand the issue from all sides. Interview an adoption counselor who matches families with birth mothers or a doctor who counsels or treats a lot of pregnant teens who are grappling with this choice. Sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah, but how are you going to understand this issue and these characters if you just make it all up?

Do the same level of research, with the same layers, for all the issues you choose to write about. If you really care about an issue, if you really want your book to be authentic, if you want people who have lived this issue to read your work (and they will) and respect it, do research. There’s so much to be said for having a fantastic imagination, sure. But there’s even more to be said for knowing the limits of your imagination and for reaching out to people who might give you information, details, scenes and experiences that are totally new to you. Sometimes, something made up by you is the perfect thought, image or turn of phrase for a certain moment. Sometimes, though, you will find something in your research that will change your story, change a scene, add just the perfect touch of authenticity to what you’re writing. A thought. An image. A bit of dialogue. A certain term that only “insiders” use. These details will only make your manuscript better.

A Good Writer Can Take On Any Subject

Good writers know that they are not an island. They can’t possibly — nor should they — be expected to fabricate absolutely everything. They need “authenticating details” and they need to really be invested, emotionally and intellectually, in the issues they write about. So Alan’s concern for doing the issue justice is very much at the front of my mind. However, I think that a fantastic writer can take on any subject and, by augmenting their imagination with really comprehensive research, write a compelling book that rings true. If we could only write what we’ve lived through, we’d be limiting ourselves and the book market. Plus, we wouldn’t have great stories from masterful storytellers like Laurie Halse Anderson, who has written about issues from rape to anorexia with absolute clarity and respect. And that’s what you need when tackling an issue book, I think. It’s definitely not the easy way to go but it is very important work.

Authenticity is Key

As one reader posted, in response to Alan’s comment:

Hmmm, Alan’s comment made me think. I have a experience with a number of subjects that could be touchy (being gay, living with an alcoholic sibling, suicide in the family). I’ve never had a problem with someone writing about these things who doesn’t have any experience. But I’ll tell you what…a lack of authenticity really sticks out to me. And it’s kept me from doing things like writing from a male perspective or a different race or about addiction.

I wonder how many people write from unfamiliar situations and how often that’s done well.

I think the point we’re coming back to is that — whether you’re writing about social justice or abuse or addiction or trauma — authenticity and the execution of the story are the bottom line.

(By the way, if anyone has a phenomenal issue book that’s been backed with lots of great research and where the issue isn’t the only plot point, I’d love to see it!)

When you bring me on as your novel editor, I’ll help you spot instances where authenticity is lacking in your story.

Profanity in Books for Teens 2.0

Judging by the response to my last post about swear words in young adult fiction, and thanks to all of the wonderful issues and perspectives that my readers brought up, I wanted to tackle profanity in books again. I’m serious when I say that posts about controversial issues always force me to delve deeper into my own understanding, thanks in no small part to the feedback I receive. Swearing in books was such a post and such an issue.

profanity in books, swearing in books
Profanity in books for teens: Does the word choice fit your story and characters?

Profanity in Books: A Perceived Divide

It seems to me that there’s a perceived divide in more conservative thinking about the People Who Work With Kids and the People Who Write For Kids. Let me explain. The People Who Work With Kids — parents, teachers, librarians, administrators, PTA boards — think of it as their sacred duty to protect kids from harm and to usher them into the real world. That’s great. There’s no more important duty. But sometimes, some groups of People Who Work With Kids are in friction with another group of people… the People Who Write For Kids. It’s usually over content in a book, whether it’s language, sex, drugs, a religious idea, or whatever.

But if you really think about it, the People Who Write For Kids aren’t very different from the People Who Work With Kids (a lot of People Who Write For Kids also happen to be People Who Work With Kids). Children’s book pioneer and genius editor Ursula Nordsrom (who edited RUNAWAY BUNNY, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and most of what we think of today as “the classics”) once said that:

“The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

Same Concerns, Different Methods

I would argue that the People Who Write For Kids are doing just this when they tell their stories. They are telling the truth about their own experiences of being a kid (or their characters’ experiences) and they are doing it with the intention of giving other kid readers something to relate to, something to resonate with, something to help them prepare for their own moments of joy and tragedy as they enter the real world.

In my line of work, I have met thousands of people who write books for kids, published and not. All of the published authors I talk to want to tell kids stories that are true, authentic, that reflect the real world as the author sees it. None of these authors have bad intentions. None of them want to scandalize kids, corrupt them or turn them to “the dark side,” whatever that might be. Getting published in children’s books is hard enough for people with good intentions. I’d be very surprised if anybody managed to succeed with rotten intentions at their core. So what’s the disconnect?

It seems like People Who Work With Kids and People Who Write For Kids have the same concerns at heart (kids), but their methods disagree. For example, for some People Who Write For Kids, swearing is a daily part of life as a teenager, and therefore fits under the category of “telling the truth.” For some others, both People Who Write For Kids and People Who Work With Kids, profanity in books is gratuitous and unnecessary. Still… both groups care about the exact same thing, in the end. That’s worth thinking about.

It’s Not a Black and White Issue

Now, back to my perspective. I still stand by what I said. As a literary agent, all I care about is the manuscript and the writing. If a swear word is in character, in voice, and if it is a choice, I’m just fine with it.

The frustrating thing about this debate is that one side (pro-swearing in books) says: It’s okay to have swearing in a book, if it fits. That side isn’t saying that every book must absolutely have swearing in it. This side is just saying that sometimes swearing happens and it’s okay for the author to choose those words.

The other side (anti-swearing in books) says: There shall be no swearing in any of the books I buy/publish/stock/teach/show my kids/support, not ever.

I happen to disagree with people who are close-minded about profanity in books, but that is my opinion and I don’t expect everyone to agree all the time. I do not believe, personally, that one swear word makes a book wholly bad for that reason, nor that a person who swears is wholly bad. Nor is a book devoid of swear words wholly good for that reason, or a person who abstains from swearing wholly good. This black-and-white view on the issue makes me uncomfortable.

If the Choice Fits…

But it’s obviously a powerful and contentious issue for many, and one I’m REALLY glad I dove into with this blog. I realize that my last few lines of the previous post may have offended some readers. I do not apologize for my use of that particular word, but I do apologize for the offense it may have caused to some of my readers. Know that it was nothing personal. Still, that’s the word I used and it was a choice. I think it’s important to draw this distinction. If you read through my archives, you’ll see that the word has never appeared in one of my articles before, nor will it appear again unless I have very good reason to use it. (I’m looking at YOU, Bane.)

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