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.
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