Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2013

What is YA?

People who are considering writing for young adults often are not aware of the difference between YA (pronounced like the letters) and adult. Young adult is considered writing "for children," though when the average person says "children's books," they mean picture books or possibly middle grade fiction or early readers (each distinct categories within the children's book umbrella). You need to be basically conversant in these categories if you are querying in the field for an agent, sending a book to an editor, or just going to talk to someone at a conference.

Picture books are obviously books with pictures. Early readers are books like Frog and Toad that have a simplistic vocabulary, and sometimes a list of words that you can use because kids this age know how to read those words. Early readers last a very short time for most kids. Chapter books are the next oldest books, like Magic Treehouse and Junie B. Jones. Again, most kids age out of these books in a year or less. Middle grade is the last category before young adult, and they run a huge gamut in terms of complexity, language, and length. You can theoretically have a 1,000 page long MG manuscript. But it will read very differently because for the most part, middle grade has a very black and white worldview and tends to focus on concerns that have to do with the protagonist's immediate close circle.

If you are planning to write YA, please read several hundred different YA books published in the last ten years before you start querying. The books that you read that were targeted for young adults in the 80s and 90s are not the kinds of books that are being published today. You may feel like you are writing books "for the family" or "for everyone" or "for the kid in everyone." You may think that your books are "eternal" and can't possibly sound dated to people reading them. Believe me, they do. The reality is that your books are going to be placed somewhere in the bookstore (and even if you're going the self-publishing route on Amazon, you're going to have to tag them in some way to sell them). You need to read to figure out where your book fits.

Now, for those of you who say that your book goes beyond the rules, that it can't be contained so easily, well and good. We writers all hope that we are doing something just a little different, something that makes us stand out, something that no one else has done before. We want to mix genres, surprise the reader, and create something absolutely new. And to this I say, well and good again. But your book still has to be catalogued somewhere. After some years in the business, listening to editors and agents and other authors talk, I think I have some expertise in what is YA and what isn't. There are certainly houses where edgier is better, and houses where they have a "PG" only kind of rule for certain lines, but I tend to think in more global terms than just whether you use the "F" word or not and if there is a sex scene.

The following are not hard and fast rules, but they are general rules of thumb.

1. YA has a YA protagonist (13-19).

2. YA is shorter than adult fiction (60-80k, though fantasy can be longer: 100k is too long).

3. YA is more quickly paced, with more dialog, less exposition, and fewer subplots.

4. YA is in first person or very close third, and it tends to have a single viewpoint character, sometimes two.

5. YA has plot. Adult fiction sometimes doesn't.

6. YA tends to have a more hopeful outlook on life, with an ending that is by some stretch "happy." (Despite what you hear about how dark and edgy YA can be, compare with Cormac McCarthy.)

7. YA has VOICE. This may be the single most important feature of YA. Adult novels may have narrators who are invisible. YA rarely does.

8. YA is about everything new. There is no ennui.

9. YA often has a first real love, and not a sweet love as in MG. Love in YA is physical, even if it is "clean." There is a sense of smell, taste, and touch when it comes to love. Everything is sexy, sweat dripping down the face, and the smallest touch.

10. YA is about finding power. Adults may have accepted that there is no real power for them in the world. Teens don't accept this, and largely, when you think you have power, you do.

12. YA often focuses on the re-creation of a family, especially with the broken families that are depicted as common in YA. But remember that even in a YA with a functional family, one of the tasks of adolescence is creating relationships outside of the family.

13. YA is about trying out adult roles. This means that many narratives have the main characters do things that you, as an adult writer, may think stretch the bounds of believability.

14. YA is often filled with a sense of uncertainty about the future, combined with a naivete about the past. Time itself is different for young adults, because they haven't lived as long. Which leads to . . .

15. YA can feel impatient, whiney, or insensitive. Never talk down to your readers, but if you can't make it feel natural to be whiney, you may have to work a little harder at your YA.

16. YA is immediate, and in your face. It is happening right now, and present tense can be used effectively here.

17. YA has plenty of politics, and not just in the locker room or the hallways of the school. Don't assume that your YA audience is clueless about politics, because a lot of them are not. On the other hand, they may have far more liberal politics than you think.

18. YA has humor. The darker the YA, the funnier it is. It's a wicked sense of humor, biting and sarcastic, and it takes no prisoners, but it's there.

19. YA has no compromise. Adult fiction is about compromise, giving up some of what you want in order to have a "realistic" ending. That's not the kind of realism that YA is much interested in. A compromise like this feels like failure to a young adult, so beware.

20. YA is always on the brink of becoming. The characters are just about to fall into adulthood, and the world itself is in the balance, for good or ill.

When writers assume that the only difference between YA and adult is the age of the protagonist, they are making a big mistake. YA readers may be perfectly willing to read adult fiction about a teen protagonist, which is what they have been reading for decades and what many of us adults who are writing for teens now did as teens ourselves. But that doesn't mean that all young adults are willing to do this.

On the other hand, you don't want to write "down" to teens. Don't feel like you have to use shorter sentences or a less complex vocabulary. I've seen this done by adult writers trying to write for the teen market and it stinks. I think young adult readers flee from it faster than just about anything else.

"YA" has been taken out of the children's section in many bookstores and libraries, because young adults don't like to be thought of as children. In some cases, completely different sections for YA have been created. But it is also true that about half of YA readers are actually adults. Publishers are aware of this, but I don't know how much they are actually targeting adult readers at this point. Most of the time, they are still targeting young adult readers and assuming that the adult readers will cross over for the best of the young adult fiction.

One last thing you should remember when writing for young adults is that young adult readers do not think of themselves as "fantasy" or "mystery" or "romance" readers in strict categories in the way that many adults do. This can be a wonderful thing. It means you can mix things up, and it also means that you can write something that won't be pigeonholed. The "rules" of the different genres are much less codified within YA and young adult readers are willing to be retold stories that may seem too clichéd for other audiences.

I'm not saying you can take out all your stale old stuff and get it published for young adult, though. I'm just saying that you may be misunderstanding the success of certain YA titles if all you see is that it sounds like the same-old, same-old. There is a very different sensibility in the telling of these stories that makes it sound and feel fresh. If you can get that, you will do very well.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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