Friday, 10 June 2011

Reader Request: YA

I feel like a post about my genre is way overdue - and here's the perfect opportunity to talk about it! Back when I first asked for requests from blog readers, Jim Murdoch asked me the following

I’ve read a few YA novels recently and I’ve been struck by how diverse they are. One was basically an Enid Blyton Famous Five style mystery with mobile phones and, at the other end, we have a book that includes man committing suicide by banging his head against a wall and a cow being set on fire with a flamethrower. How do you balance keeping things simple, in terms of, say, language usage and at the same time not talking down to the kids? With Mills and Boon they used to, as far as I’m aware, provide a guide as to what was acceptable in the novels they would print; does something similar exist when it comes to YA books?

And to answer that last question, Jim, yes and no.

Yes, I suppose there are 'guidelines' about young adult fiction. These do exist. But I've also found that almost every one of the 'rules' on this list can be broken. Personally, I don't try to stick to any formula, pattern or rulebook. I know what feels authentic and/or right for my characters.

And I think this holds true across the board. As Jim points out, YA is so diverse. It can be completely, squeaky clean (the first Twilight book, for example, has some tingly and bloody moments but no swearing, drinking, drugs, sex or graphic violence). Or it can be filled with profanity and sex and violence all manner of debauched things (The Hunger Games is often noted for its violence). I think the key here is your audience. If the book is obviously being marketed for the younger YA bracket - 12 years old and not much older - a horribly violent, sexy, raunchy read will not go down particularly well. But there are few limits on what you can and can't write for the upper YA crowd. 

A couple of things that I used to fret about:

It's no secret that children's and teen books tend to be shorter than full-length adult fiction. But I've seen this rule broken a thousand times (Harry Potter, anyone?) so as long as you know you've edited and edited and cut out anything unnecessary and all those words are essential, it's not worth worrying about it. If your word count is under 40,000 or pushing 150,000+, agents and editors might balk at your query. But ultimately if your story and hook is engaging enough, I think people will request and/or read it anyway.

Note: some publishers might have specific word count guidelines/limits for submissions.

Graphic erotica is not going to fly. But that's just common sense. Would it feel right for a teen protagonist anyway? But you can have characters who have sex. Honestly. You can describe it (tastefully) or imply it but sidestep any long-winded descriptions (the nookie scene in Shiver is a particularly great example of making what's happening clear without going into it unnecessarily).

As for swearing, A TORRENT OF LIGHT has a lot of 'bloody's and a few 'shit's and one instance of a certain four-letter word beginning with F. I remember worrying a lot about that one when I first wrote it. It slipped out because it felt so natural. And later, when I tried to 'make it cleaner', it felt wrong. Like I was cutting out my much-loved character's tongue. So I've kept it and no harm done.

So what all this boils down to is: write what feels right for your story and your characters and worry about the 'grown up stuff' if your agent/editor suggests you do.

But then this begs another questions. If YA can be so diverse, if you can break all the rules, what is YA? What sets it apart from adult/children's fiction?

For a start, YA protagonists/main characters/narrators tend to be teens. Thirteen to eighteen, though often even thirteen is too young. But I don't think this is the most important thing at all. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is narrated by a fourteen-year-old but it isn't young adult fiction.

To me, what defines YA fiction is the feel of the story. The best YA novels out there are the ones people of all ages read, not just the teens. This is because of that feel, that sense we get when we read the book. Apart from very early childhood, your teen years tend to be a time of firsts. First dances, first kisses, first loves, first times. Everything you feel tends to be more acute, more dramatic, more life-changing, no matter how small or insignificant. This makes for great story potential. It also transforms the way the book feels.

No matter how bleak or dark a book is, YA is ultimately about growing up but still holding on to some innocence and good. It's about hope. Everything is still possible.

That's what sets it apart. That's what defines it.

What do you think? Do you read the genre? What defines it for you?


  1. I don't think I've read any young adult.
    I will say that I'm at an age that I consider anyone under the age of thirty a young adult!

  2. I read Twilight recently and rather enjoyed it although I wouldn't be tempted with the films, far too cheesy for the big screen.
    I didn't really do YA fiction as a kid, I leap from Enid Blyton to hard-edged 1960's kitchen sink fiction (L-Shaped Room, Up The Junction, Poor Cow and the like). xxx

  3. This is definitely true. There're no real rules that cannot be broken, except, perhaps, grammar and spelling. :)

  4. I read YA--and I agree, it's the feel of the book that seems to define the genre.

  5. My YA books tend to lean towards fantasy - Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones etc, but I also really adore Eva Ibbotson's YA books. They've got slightly older heroines and if I'm honest, I think the only reason they're marketed as YA fiction nowadays is because modern romance tends to be a lot more graphic. They're much more innocent in style.

  6. Aw, Alex (Cavanaugh), you're missing out! But then I'm obviously biased :-)

    Vix, I agree, Twilight did come off as rather cheesy on the big screen, though I loved the first book the first time I read it!

    So true about the grammar and spelling, Bethany. Sometimes semi-colons are the bane of my life!

    I'm glad someone else seems to sense that too, Eagle!

    Alex, I LOVE Eva Ibbotson and you're so right, they're not really YA but they tend to be marketed as such these days. But they do have a lovely sweet, funny, innocent feel to them that could suit the genre.

  7. I would think that anything being compared to Enid Blyton would be more of a mid grade novel than a ya. I would read Blyton books to 7 to 10 year olds.

    I read a lot of contemporary ya and recently, dystopian. But I read lots of mg and pb's too. :-)

  8. One of the things I love about YA is the fact that beyond the obvious age limits of the protags you can have pretty much free reign when it comes to tone and content. Yay for diversity and all that jazz.
    - Sophia.

  9. Well said, Sangu. I agree - there's something about the feel of it. I like your example of 'The Lovely Bones'.

  10. I'm 57 and I still enjoy YA and children's literature! Some have been favorites for years, some I read for the first time recently.

    It's hard to define where the line is. I have some YA books shelved with my adult fiction books, and others with my juvenile books. It's kind of just random.