How to Create a Story Opening Line

Your story opening line is what pulls the reader in. Here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of novel opening lines from published works and why they work so well.

story opening line, novel opening lines
Your story opening line has the power to draw your reader in. Are you making the most of it?

Story Opening Line: Picture Book

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

Story Opening Line: Middle Grade

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test (follow the link for more tips on what makes a good novel first line), but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

Story Opening Line: Young Adult

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these novel opening lines have been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have it: an analysis of novel opening lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

Writing Young Adult Fiction: the High School Hierarchy

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

writing young adult fiction, writing about high school
Writing about high school: are you conveying the social climate without the usual telling?

Writing Young Adult Fiction: Show, Don’t Tell

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

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But writing young adult fiction that touches on the teenage social order is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores. The fact is: it’s true. So if we’re writing about high school, how do we reflect it in a way that’s believable?

The Tired Run-Down of the Social Scene

Most people who are writing young adult fiction include a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

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

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

Sublimate the Atmosphere

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

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

Examples, Anyone?

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on writing about high school that avoids talking about the social structure altogether. And here’s the kicker — it still manages to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

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

Beta Reader Opinions: Do They Matter to Agents?

This question about beta reader opinions comes from my Writers Digest webinar. The reader asks:

I recently conducted a focus group made up of 68 teenagers (male & female between the ages of 13-18). I had them read my manuscript and complete an anonymous survey at the end. I received many wonderful comments and scored an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10. Should I mention this in my query to agents or not?

beta reader, focus group
The average child or teen who reads maybe a few dozen books a year will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

An Agent’s First Customer Isn’t A Beta Reader

The writer has done a lot of work to gather beta reader opinions, which is always admirable. But does it matter? Will it sway my decision? Not really. Why? Because an agent’s first customers in publishing aren’t teenagers. In the trade process, my customers are publishers: the editors bringing my manuscripts to acquisitions, the sales and marketing people evaluating the work’s sales potential, the finance guys upstairs crunching numbers (in the form of a P&L, a “profit and loss” statement) to determine whether the project makes good business sense to bring to market.

While teens are the “end user” in the YA publishing business, they’re not my first buyer. They’re not even a publisher’s first buyer. After a house buys one of my manuscripts, they will edit it and then pitch it to booksellers and librarians. Those are my customer’s customers. And it’s booksellers and librarians who will then reach out to the teens: my customer’s customers’ customers. So before an actual reader gets their hands on a book, it will have gone through several layers of gatekeepers and decision-makers.

The Trade Publishing Landscape is Business to Business

Is a B2B system that ignores its end-user in favor of a customer with more capital a good one? There are people who say that this is one of the things wrong with the publishing business model. Most publishers simply don’t collect beta reader feedback like this writer did for their manuscript. But while these questions and issues are definitely valid, this post isn’t an attempt to address them. And for now, that’s the way things are in the trade publishing landscape.

With the above in mind, I say that I don’t really care what a focus group of teenagers said about a manuscript. Because I’m going to be pitching this project to editors, not teenagers. And most readers who don’t work in publishing and don’t read as much as the people who work in publishing may not have the discerning taste of those who work in publishing, so they’ll usually rate random things pretty highly.

It’s All A Matter of Context

Agents and editors, who read thousands of manuscripts a year, can be picky and choose the best of the best because they’ve also read the worst of the worst and the meh-est of the mediocre. An average focus group is comprised of teens or kids who read maybe a few dozen books a year, and will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

This is also why I’m not a fan of sites like Inkpop and Authonomy. Sure, they’re sponsored by HarperCollins, and, sure, highly rated manuscripts posted there get some official Harper eyeballs on them (having spoken to a few of the people who are on duty to vet these manuscripts, I can tell you it’s less glamorous than described), but your chances of getting a book deal out of posting there are still about the same as your chances of going through the slush or self-publishing something that becomes an international bestseller.

Writers often come to me with beta reader praise or high ratings on these online writing communities. But since most kid readers and most online community participants don’t have the kind of context and standards that I have — and since they’re not my immediate customers, publishers are — I don’t really weigh their opinions heavily when making my decision. I know that I have to impress publishers first, then impress the reading public with the products that publishers create on my client’s behalf.

When It Comes To What I Represent, My Opinion Gets Top Billing

I’m an agent. A tastemaker. A gatekeeper. My unique opinion and judgement, after all, is why people come to me in the first place. (And if they don’t like my judgment, they can go to another agent.) My personal list is what I shop around to editors. Who I rep and what projects I attach my name to are a matter of my opinion. When I’m considering a project, that’s the only opinion that matters to me; not the opinion of a beta reader.

The best thing you can present to an agent is a polished manuscript. My editing services will help you make your project the best it can be before you go out on submission.

Story of a Sale: THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth

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

(Photo credit: Matthew Lowery Photography)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILDEFIRE Teaser: NYC Shenanigans

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

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

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

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

Writing Young Adult Present Tense

Wondering about writing young adult present tense? This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.

young adult present tense, writing present tense, children's book present tense, present tense writing
Present tense lends immediacy to your YA manuscript, letting the reader feel like everything is happening now now now. But is this desirable?

For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have written about POV a few times before, like in this post about POV in writing. Tense? Not as much. So here we go.

Young Adult Present Tense Is So Hot Right Now

I’ll start with Lynne’s question about young adult present tense:

Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense writing. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian).

Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.

My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense writing (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?

In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?

Does The Tense Fit the Book? That’s The Only Consideration

To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of young adult present tense out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because of present tense writing? No.

Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about young adult present tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.

Long story short: I think young adult present tense is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)

Tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!

Voice is crucial to writing YA but a lot of writers take years to find it. Bring me on your team as a developmental editor for personal, intimate manuscript feedback geared toward the young adult market.

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!

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

It is some variety of the following, which came from Jesse:

How would you classify a sci-fi adventure novel with 14 year old boy protagonist? Would that be upper 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.