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YA/middle grade

Please note that I will be blaming any typos on my teeny tiny laptop keyboard, which I =hate.=  When, oh when, will they make an ergonomic portable?  That is all.

Now, at the Willamette Writers Conference, I heard more young adult and middle grade pitches than ever before.  I sincerely hope this is because these are the stories calling to the writers and not that they've decided to jump into the cool pool, because here's the reality: the YA/middle grade market is just as crowded and as difficult to break into as the adult market.  It's simply been getting a ton more press with the runaway success of Twilight, Harry Potter and all that jazz.  If you are writing for young people because you love it, here's some things to be aware of in the writing and in determining which market your work best fits:

1- Teens and pre-teens will read up but not down. 
This means that they'll pick up a book about a protagonist who is older than them, looking ahead to the next stage in their lives, but they won't read about someone younger.  If you're aiming for the teen market, (12-18)  you're best off having your hero or heroine 16, 17 or 18 to give yourself a decent sized readership.  If you're targeting middle-grade readers (8-12), you probably want your main character to be on the upper range of the readership as well.

2- Word counts:
Middle grade generally hovers around 50,000 words and thereabouts.  YA is generally more like 55,000 to 80,000 words, although we can all think of notable exceptions.  If you're just starting out, though, you're going to want to keep your novel trimmed to a reasonable word count, because publishers like to keep the cover price down so that readers will be more willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity.  In other words, the more the publisher has to spend on paper and printing, the more they have to charge.  Also, the bigger the book, the fewer the bookstores can shelve in the allotted space.

3- Relevance:
A YA or middle-grade novel does not simply have young characters dropped into an adult world, dealing with their issues.  My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult and Angel's Rest by Charles Davis are two examples of adult novels with young protagonists.  Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is another.  YA and MG have young people in situations and settings that are relevant to their current experience and what they're going through.  Because haven't we al lusted after the hot new vampire in school?  I know I have.  But, er, anyway, the characters are in a familiar setting, dealing with family and social issues that are universal to that period in a person's life.

4- Language:
Don't talk down or preach to kids...ever.  Remember that a lot of young adults read adult fiction (and a lot of adults are reading YA as well).  If you're completely in your characters' mindsets, natural dialogue and prose should not be a problem.  This goes for mid-grade as well.  If you're using the language and sentence structure fitting for your viewpoint character, you'll be doing right by your voice.  If not, the reader will not be able to suspend disbelief.  Self-concsious writing generally sounds that way to the reader.  I'm not saying that there won't be places where you'll go back and tweak or sections where you've forgotten yourself, but you'll smooth those out, of course.  (We all know there are times when the muse smiles on us and times when she forgets our names.) 

I'll be back in a bit with some links, but I want to make sure to post before I lose connectivity or anything like that.  If anyone has good articles or links to suggest, I'd love to hear about them.  Ditto with suggestions of great reads within the middle-grade and young adult genres that people can look to.

Great Reads:
The Morganville Vampires
series by Rachel Caine
Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil
series by Rosemary Clement-Moore

Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O'Dell
The Witch of Blackbird Pond
by Elizabeth George Speare
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
by E.L. Konigsburg
The Changeover
by Margaret Mahy
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Watcher in the Woods
by Florence Engell Randall

Young Adult Guidelines from Suite 101 (though I disagree on the lower end of the word count based on experience)
Writing the Middle Grade Novel by Kristi Holl

simple counter


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 12th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
These tips are always much appreciated. I plan to share this with the others who were in my work group at the UNF Writer's conference last weekend.
As for recommendations, I am reading "Eyes Like Stars" right now and it feels like a perfect high-concept YA novel. I love that Lisa is able to rework difficult reading like Shakespeare and draw YA readers to the characters. The writing is very easy to get into.
Aug. 12th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Great advice. Thanks for sharing :)
Aug. 12th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC)
My sister writes in another genre. Her agent has been urging her to cross over into YA for more money. I notice on writing message boards established adult authors announcing they're writing their first books in YA.

Is this a phenomenon you've been noticing on the agenting end? If so, how long do you think this will persist?
Aug. 12th, 2009 07:45 pm (UTC)
Re: question
Yes, I'm seeing this. Authors with a young voice are being asked to write YA as well. Writers are as voracious as readers, so many have ideas already floating around just waiting for someone to ask, "Hey, have you ever thought of writing-"

Edited at 2009-08-12 07:46 pm (UTC)
Aug. 12th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
Hi, Nancy Holder, here, author of YA novel series WICKED and POSSESSIONS, among others. YA readers are SMART and AWARE. No reason to fret about literacy, as far as I am concerned.
Aug. 12th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
Middle grade story characters
In terms of saleability, is it even possible to break in with female characters? I've been told publishers are looking for boy heroes. We have a finished early middle grade with eleven year old girls and can't get any interest.

Heather Hiestand
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Middle grade story characters
It’s true that editors are looking for boy books, but they have to appeal to girls as well, since they’re still far and away the bigger book-buying audience. It doesn’t mean that you can’t sell books with a female protagonist, just that there are more of them already out there, thus more competition.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 13th, 2009 03:51 am (UTC)
Re: YA word count - Different for SF/fantasy?
Yup, I think the early Morganville books were around 75,000 words, part of why I mentioned 80,000 as an upper limit. Although, once you're successful or established, it's easier to bend the word count guidelines.
Aug. 12th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the tips.

I love YA books which is why I've written two of them.

I think all of the markets are crowded these days.

I am a little sad as I made my boy adventurer 13 and I think I might have been able to do a little better in the market if I had made him 15 to 16. Alas, it wouldnt work for the story.
Aug. 12th, 2009 08:39 pm (UTC)
My YA editor told me that she loves that I write "kickass" stories under 50,000 words. She said librarians and booksellers are crying out for books to be shorter. (I write thrillers.)

Interestingly enough, our adult publisher wants my joint books to be longer, so that people feel they are getting value for their money.
Aug. 12th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
I think length for YA depends more on pacing. Each of the books in my "Amor" series is 75,000 words. Didn't hear a single peep from an editor or reviewer about the length. Now, my WIP is even longer (by a lot). I was worried about it, but still no one's mentioned length. I think as long as the pacing is quick enough to keep a teen's attention, you're good.
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:13 pm (UTC)
Great tips!
An excellent blog - especially with regard to word count. I was also at the WW Conference this past weekend and heard a lot of writers talking about the agents/editors telling them to get their YA into that range. No one quite understood why (with all the dinosaur-sized novels populating the YA shelves these days), but your explanation makes perfect sense. I'll be passing the info on.

With regard to teens reading up, I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts about a 21 year-old main male character involved with a 18-year-old female protagonist. Would he be too old for YA? Where exactly is the age line drawn in this genre?

Again, thanks for the useful info! - Heather
Aug. 13th, 2009 03:53 am (UTC)
Re: Great tips!
Yeah, there's a good chance editors will tell you a 21-year-old main character is too old for YA. It depends, of course. If the 21-year-old and the 18-year-old share the story and the themes and storyline are YA.... There's =almost= nothing that can't be done if it's done amazingly well.
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
YA fiction
I definitely came through the back door to writing YA and I owe it all to a rejection I received on an adult book I'd written. The editor told me I had a natural voice for YA. I'd never in my wildest dreams considered writing for teens but thought, what the heck, she knows more than me. Turned out she was right since it led to publication and a YA series. On the boy/girl protagonist issue, my librarian friends tell me they would love to see more books with boy protagonists. Might have to give it a try!
Aug. 13th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
Great post! My first novel (Solace & Grief, due out in March 2010) is YA urban fantasy with a 17 y/o female vampire protagonist - the book, however, is NOT a paranormal romance. While it's nice to be publishing at a time when there's a lot of public interest in the genre, it also means I have to explain to people that, no, I'm not jumping on the Twilight/Mortal Instruments bandwagon - I started writing the book before either series was published. I've always loved YA, and the thought that I get to contribute something to the genre is pretty damned awesome. I just hope other people agree!
Aug. 13th, 2009 03:56 am (UTC)
Oh, I know exactly what you mean! I spoke at a school in Celebration (the Disney town) earlier this year about Vamped and the question, "Were you inspired by Twilight?" came up in every single class!

I love YA as well. When I started in the business, I'd read my old favorite YAs as sorbet between all the manuscripts and submissions I had to read, because they were such fast and satisfying reads that I could enjoy them without taking too much time away from my commitments.
Sep. 6th, 2009 10:05 pm (UTC)
Apologies for barging into this thread,** but I wondered how you responded to the "Were you inspired by Twilight?!" questions. Did you start writing it after Twilight was released? I've just finished a YA vampire novel (my first, & hopefully the first of a series! :)) & I had my ideas brewing by the time Ms Meyer's book was released...however, when I mention what I'm trying to sell to publishers/agents, acquaintances & co-workers assume I'm jumping on the Twilight bandwagon. While I appreciate Ms Meyer opening the door for authors of a similar ilk, the comparison bugs me because I've never read the Twilight books--I've only read summaries of the plot so I didn't make mine too similar by accident.

My uncle (who, ironically, is also a YA author--though of nonfiction science books) sent me a newspaper clipping that said publishers were still looking for vampire novels, despite the boom of YA urban fantasy into faeries, were-creatures, etc...& I guess your new novel is proof of that. I'm glad (& somewhat relieved) because vamps are my first love. The first time I read Dracula it literally took my breath away. *wistful sigh*


**Yes, barging in a month late, but I just saw your blog today. :)
Sep. 7th, 2009 02:58 am (UTC)
I haven't read them either. We must be a few of the last people in America who can say that! I tell people the same thing, "I started writing it before Twilight." I don't think most folks have any idea how long before publication a book sells; in YA the lag between acquisition and publication can be as much as two years, since the lines are fairly well booked. Publishers are already buying for 2011 at this point. All their slots in 2010 are spoken for! (Unless, of course, a bestseller wants to come write for them.)
Sep. 7th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)
We must be a rare breed indeed. It's comforting to know there's at least one other person who hasn't read them--& a professional to boot. *grin* Her success is inspiring & intimidating at the same time.
Aug. 13th, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)
Forgot to say in my last reply - CONGRATULATIONS on your first novel sale!!!
Aug. 13th, 2009 11:25 pm (UTC)
Because I'm a big re-reader, particularly of my fave YA and fantasy, I set myself a goal for the year of reading only new stuff. It's meant I've discovered a whole host of new writers I might not otherwise have branched out to, but I'm also looking forward to next year, when I can go back and indulge with some familiar faces. And thanks for the congrats! :)
Aug. 14th, 2009 01:43 am (UTC)
Great post and great tips!!
I'm reading Rumer & Qix (http://www.rumerandqix.com/), by Kathleen Wilson. It's a visually imaginative, adventurous, whimsical at times, often defies the laws of physics and a fun, quick read. It assumes that kids are really smart and enjoy the challenge of stretching their minds.

Aug. 15th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC)
I'll have to look it up! The Government Manual for New Wizards is really cute and clever. My son is also in love with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants books. He and I both devoured all the Harry Potter books, of course. He's moved on now to Phillip Pullman. (Yup, I know best right now the books I read along with my son.)
Aug. 17th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
The tip on word count is fascinating! I never would have thought about shelving issues, but that makes perfect sense. Also, yes, I've heard about (and have had direct experience with) the added costs with pages issue. These are really great tips. Great post!
Aug. 23rd, 2009 05:21 am (UTC)
This post just convinced me to rethink the target audience of a novel I'm writing, which I'd previously pegged as YA. Not that I'm complaining--you've been a great help!
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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