You Don’t Grow Out of YA: 5 Reasons I Write (& Edit) YA

I originally wrote this post for Writer’s Digest as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes!

When I first started writing fiction, I never expected to end up writing YA. But once I discovered what a vibrant, challenging category it was, I was hooked. I love young adult fiction, and I love the authors working in the category. Explaining to my friends and family, though, what YA is and why I was taking my career in a new direction was a bit of a challenge. Here are a few reasons YA has grabbed me:

1) A wide audience. By writing YA, we’re not crossing out adult readers. YA isn’t a reading level, it’s a category of story about a particular stage in life. Many of my adult friends thought if I started writing “teen fiction” it wouldn’t be a story they’d enjoy. But about half of YA readers are over 18, and a huge portion of the adult readers of YA are over 30. I didn’t find YA and start reading it myself until I was in college—and I’m so glad I did find it, because it reminded me how honest and surprising and deeply human fiction can be.

When you write YA, you’re writing to a wide, diverse audience. Adults buy and read YA all the time. Of course, it’s important to write with teen readers in mind, too, since they’re a significant portion of the audience, and no one can sense preachy messages or condescending stories like a teen.

2) A point of change. YA explores the teenage years of a person’s life, and those years are a significant point of change for most of us. Teens are tackling adult issues for the first time—serious relationships, jobs, shifting authority structures, new limits and opportunities—but they’re doing it without the experience and often without the resources that adults may have. It’s a vulnerable, heady, thrilling stage in someone’s life. Teens are also adjusting to greater independence and more authority in their own lives, but might still be dealing with limitations at odds with those things, like curfews, not having a car, house rules, and the structures of school. I didn’t start reading YA until I reached my twenties, and I wish I’d found it earlier—seeing so closely into the lives of other teens who are wrestling with the same changes and struggles I was would have been so helpful as a teen. I still find myself identifying with the characters in these stories, because people never stop struggling with change. You don’t grow out of YA.

The experiences we have in our teenage years are formative ones, and the mistakes and choices we make can follow us into adulthood. There’s great opportunity, uncertainty, and passion in those years, and they leave a mark on us.

3) Trying new things. Experimenting with craft is another reason I love YA. It’s a brave category. Novels in second person and novels in verse. Unreliable narrators. Thick, several-hundred-page stories. Companion short stories or novellas. Genre-blending, and epistolary-style novels with texts, blog posts, letters, and graphics. So much can be done in YA, and no story is off-limits. I love being challenged as a writer, seeing a tough story and figuring out how I can tell it, and YA is a great place to be doing that. Don’t let yourself be limited by what has or hasn’t been done before—explore new devices, new ideas, and new ways of telling these stories. Like teens themselves, YA is known for being brave and taking risks.

4) Exploring tough issues. One of the main reasons I love reading and writing YA is that the category tackles such tough issues. Along with all the new independence, vulnerability, and vibrancy of teen life come problems—things we’d like to think teens don’t have to deal with, but are so often a part of their lives. Our ideas about adolescence are often at odds with the struggles of it. The weighty, bitter truths of growing up sometimes get painted over when we think about childhood. Like adults, teens have to deal with bullying, neglect, abuse, physical and mental illness, assault, discrimination, addiction, broken relationships, loss, regret, and personal failures. YA fiction is a great place to explore what those teen years really look like, and how we can adjust, heal, and reinvent ourselves. And sometimes those harsh truths take over, and YA can give us those stories, too. Sometimes the biggest struggles are crushes and cliques at school, but that’s not usually the case. The best YA is genuine and honest about what it means to be a teen.

5) Why not? A final reason I love YA is that there’s no reason not to. Teens are every bit as complex as adults, and they can think as deeply, too. Of course they can. Teens aren’t a more simplistic or less demanding audience, and their stories aren’t any simpler or less worthy. When I came to YA as an adult, what drew me in was the depth of these stories, and that’s what I’ve stayed for, too.

Teens are people, and people have fascinating stories. There’s no reason we shouldn’t write or read their stories, and there’s every reason to do exactly that. We read and write YA to remember that stage in life, to explore, to see someone else’s life, to empathize. To keep the teenage part of ourselves alive. For catharsis. For fun. To be challenged. To think. To create, and to participate. The stories in YA are first and foremost human stories, and that’s what makes them so wonderful.

Midwest Writers’ Workshop- Building A Platform

While at MWW, I attended a networking lunch with Jane Friedman, who spoke on developing an audience as a writer. As a former publisher with Writers Digest with a Twitter following of 181,000, Ms. Friedman knows what she’s talking about. I especially appreciated that her advice was simple, common sense, and almost entirely cost-free. So, since I love to pass on such things, here are Ms. Friedman’s recommendations for developing an online audience, with my own commentary:

1- Figure out your “kernel”– your specific area of expertise. I love it when this is also something useful for others and something you’re passionate about.

2- Establish a website that’s truly yours. Not your boss’s/organization’s site, not a group project (unless you specifically want to build a platform as part of a group.) This website should not be “under construction”, and it should have a place readers can read about you as well as see your content.

3- Start an e-mail newsletter and collect sign-ups on your website– or have a blog where readers subscribe to your posts. This can function as well as a newsletter, since whatever content you would send out in a newsletter can just be posted to the blog for readers.

4- Choose a social network to focus on- and enjoy interacting! Don’t spread yourself thin by working on every one of the top ten sites. Specialize, post useful & interesting content, and use it often– be consistent.

5- Pay attention to how your readers engage. Where does your traffic come from? What days and times? Adjust your promotions and activity according to how your readers access and connect. Being consistent is important to measuring all this.

6- Measure, adjust, and experiment. What topics do best? What unique thing can you launch? What service can you provide? Basically, pay attention to what works, and have fun with it.

Here are a few things Ms. Friedman very nicely but very firmly told us to NOT do:

1- Never email someone about your content/service/product who has not explicitly given you permission to do so.

2- Don’t be impatient with gaining followers and readers. It takes time.

3- Be polite. Don’t throw yourself at people and don’t pressure them. This will harm your platform.

4- Don’t expect growth to be instantaneous. It takes time. Just generate quality content that you love, and be patient.

I love advice like this, because it boils a whole system of ethics concerning online interaction into a few simple concepts I can remember and follow. What do you think? Have you been practicing any of these consistently? Are they working for you?

New Adult Round-up: Definition, Hurdles, and a Suggestion

If you’ve been following the blogs of agents and authors recently, you’ve probably seen the term “new adult” come up. It’s an interesting development in the world of books, and it’s generating some even more interesting discussion among writers, agents, and editors. The idea of new adult fiction is coming up against some tough obstacles, but it’s also developing a loyal following.

Since it’s such a new and intriguing development, I’ve been doing some research on the topic, and here’s what I’ve discovered, as well as an idea I think might actually solve some of the obstacles NA is encountering.

What is New Adult?

St. Martin’s Press coined the term “new adult” back in 2009 with the launch of a contest for manuscripts with protagonists slightly older than YA range with stories that could appeal to an adult audience.

The current idea is that NA is a category of fiction about a collection of experiences particular to “new adults”- moving out on their own, going to college, maintaining that first adult romantic relationship, buying a car and paying bills, landing and keeping a place in the professional workforce. Kristan Hoffman’s article for Writer’s Digest goes a bit more in-depth on what NA is and could be in the future, and author Sharon Bayliss wrote a great post on the what and why of new adult, so read those if you would like a bit deeper explanation.

Why do we want NA?

New adult currently revolves around the themes and situations common to YA fiction, but takes those ideas further. Becoming independent as a teenager in high school looks different than becoming independent as you move out of your parents’ home and begin your own life. This particular slice of life is rare in adult fiction, and the YA category doesn’t allow for those experiences, either (with a few rare exceptions). YA protagonists are almost always 18 or younger, and 18 can even be difficult to sell. Usually, if the protagonists aren’t teenagers/high school aged, it can’t be marketed as YA. Now this does look different for situations where no high school is involved (say, dystopian or fantasy genres), but the perspective of becoming an adult stays the same. See my post over at YA Stands for a discussion of the unique perspective of YA fiction and what elements make a work YA.

In an interview (here) shortly after that St. Martin’s Press contest, S. Jae-Jones, an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s, talked with Georgia McBride about the gap between YA and adult fiction, and how NA can help fill that gap.  J.J says, “Just as YA is about discovering who you are as a person, I think NA is fiction about building your own life.” I agree; there is a gap between the experiences of adult and YA fiction. Writers who still want to explore the themes of becoming independent and taking on the world, but want to do so beyond high school experiences, might find themselves fighting the current. I haven’t yet heard of a great way to market that kind of work, and I do think there is a readership for it.

In fact, Dahlia Adler, a YA writer represented by Andrea Somberg, argues in her post “Whose ‘Failure’ is New Adult?” a market for NA  exists, and it’s a market authors will reach with or without the support of the publishing industry. She lists some great deals of NA works originally self-published and then bought by publishing houses–proof readers are willing to vote with their money for NA stories.

In September The Guardian asked readers what they thought about NA, and if they would be more likely to buy NA vs. YA works, and then posted some of the responses. Those responses are excellent for reading some new perspectives on the issue, so I definitely recommend taking a look.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s not all problems and obstacles. New adult IS enjoying some success, which is great. The word is spreading, the group blog NA Alley is gaining a wide readership, and NA works are occasionally being published.

Tammara Webber, a new adult author, discusses her recent deal here and PR Newswire has also reported Atria’s deal with Coleen Hoover for SLAMMED and POINT OF RETREAT, both NA titles.

Part of the difficulty NA fiction is encountering is that many people in the publishing world believe it’s not really a thing yet. A few agents represent NA, some NA works have been sold and are doing well, some small presses accept NA works, and involved readers are starting to recognize the term. But just barely. Most of my friends, even voracious readers, hadn’t heard of NA when I asked. Many agents and editors insist it isn’t a separate category. NA is still early in its development, and wide-spread recognition still has to be fought for.

One of the biggest problems NA is facing is where to put those books in stores. Currently, a NA section doesn’t exist on shelves. Publishers can’t convince booksellers to purchase books they don’t have a shelf for. Booksellers aren’t going to create a whole new space for something with only a few recognized works. Most agents and editors aren’t going to take on projects facing this kind of issue. NA simply lacks a defined place in the current market, though recognition is spreading little by little. Canadian actor and writer Adrienne Cress wrote a blog post, “Why New Adult Interests Me”, addressing this problem with NA.  She quite appropriately points out the cross-over appeal of upper YA, as some have called NA, but also discusses why it’s hard to sell.

Agent Kristin Nelson discusses another hurdle in her blog post on NA. She says the target audience wouldn’t know where to find these books, even if they were to go looking for them. Would they look for them in the teen section or in general fiction? Creating space for them in a book store would take a shift in process and marketing.

Some people in the publishing industry believe these divisions aren’t necessary. Michael Stearns, founder of Upstart Crow Literary, argues here that dividing fiction up this much may become a slippery slope. He points out that in his own early 20’s, specifically because he was becoming an adult and figuring out his own tastes, would have reacted against the idea of a category of books developed especially for people in his age group. He didn’t want to be told what he should be reading at that age.

Another problem is that some people argue NA isn’t different enough from YA. NA is about the perspective of transition. But YA is about that too- the transition between adolescence and adulthood. This is, I suspect, one of the biggest hurdles for NA. I can see how NA is a different point in that transition from adolescence to adulthood, but I’m not sure the difference is distinct enough to change the industry. Different experiences, yes- high school is very different from college. Dorms and apartments are distinctly different from living at home with your parents. But that’s not what categories in fiction really deal with.

An important idea here is that categories are different from genres. Many people mistakenly refer to NA or YA or MG as genres, but they aren’t. Genres are divisions like science fiction, contemporary, horror, romance, etc. Genres are primarily about experiences and structural elements that follow similar patterns- water rights disputes, lone wolf cowboys, and girls who refuse to ride side saddle are common elements of westerns, for example.

Categories are basic divisions that separate fiction (and even nonfiction) into works targeted for picture book, middle grade, young adult, and adult readers. Of course, young adult is enjoying tremendous crossover appeal, with as many adults reading the category as teens. So it’s not just the targeted audience that makes something YA, MG, or adult. It’s the perspective, the lens through which the protagonist(s) view the world. In MG, the protagonist has an experience that may teach them more about himself or the world, but in the end still views the world like a child- which is a great thing. That age was a distinct point in my life, and it’s wonderful to be able to go back and remember it through MG works. In YA, the protagonist meets a challenge that changes how they view the world- they go from viewing the world as an adolescent to viewing it more or less as an adult. S. Jae-Jones (JJ) develops the difference between adult and young adult perspective more here.

Do certain experiences tend to gather around these perspectives? Of course. Perspective influences the events of the story and certain experiences gather around the age category. But those experiences are a mark of genre, not a defining element of category.

So here is my own personal suggestion: NA might meet with fewer obstacles and solve some of the issues it’s facing if it were treated as a genre instead of a category. Many of the experiences and structure elements unique to NA could easily be seen as genre elements, and NA could gain its distinctness and place in the market just like other new genres- steampunk and the genre mashup. Many elements of NA stories aren’t currently marketable as YA, but could NA become a genre of adult fiction? That’s what I wonder.

Truthfully, it’s hard to say what NA is or isn’t, since it’s still developing. To book people who believe the difference in perspective is significant, keep advocating for NA as a category, and keep showing readers how different that perspective is. I’d like to see that more clearly, and I’ll cheer on any NA success I see.

My closing thought, however, is that NA might do well as a genre, instead of a category. Could this genre still have fun being part of a mashup- say, NA paranormal, NA thriller? Sure. But some of the objections I’m hearing from agents and editors to new adult as a category might be solved if it were shaped into a genre.

For those of you who write new adult, Vickie Motter, Lauren Hammond, and Sara Megibow all represent NA. In fact, Vickie Motter wrote some advice on querying NA works.

From NA Alley, here is a list of NA books and films (though some were marketed and sold as either YA or adult):

For those of you who don’t write and don’t work in the publishing industry, but still love books and are wondering why in the world I’m talking about this tiny difference, what you need to know is this: whether NA is a category or genre makes a huge difference in who writers can submit those manuscripts to, how their chances of selling that book sit, and what the future NA as a whole looks like. Those first-time-as-an-adult experiences are dear to a lot of people, so go check out a NA book. You might like it!

Querying Agents

Here’s a bonus post for your Sunday night, because I am so excited that I have to write about it.

I am finished with my novel! 110,000 words of literary fantasy. This moment has been two years coming, so I feel justified in posting about it.  But… now that I have it written, I want others to read it, so… the celebration can’t last long. On to finding an agent.

I have a draft of my query letter, about which I feel uncertain, so I clearly have to improve it.  I’m finding Query Shark to be immensely useful, as have been a number of other tools I plan on writing about later, but no one appears to be answering a few questions I have. For example: Do I mention that this book is the first of a series and can’t really stand alone? I know I shouldn’t query about multiple projects at once- but does that mean I shouldn’t mention that this is the first of a series? Would it help or hinder? If you know anything about this, please comment! I’d love the in-put.

Researching agents is turning out to be a complicated process, as Noah Lukeman‘s How to Land (and Keep) A Literary Agent warned me. Writer’s Digest, Publisher’s Lunch, Publisher’s Marketplace…again great tools. I can already tell it’s going to take me weeks, if not months, to compile the information I need, since I am also a full-time teacher.

Anyone have favorite tips, tools, or advice on finding agents, writing query letters, or researching agents themselves? I’d love to hear from you!