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Defining YA

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#1 Eli Ashpence

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Posted 01 April 2011 - 09:14 PM

Ms. Kole,

This is a two-fold question and I'll apologize ahead of time if they seem like no-brainers, but a lot of people do seem to have problems defining whether their novel is YA or adult--especially since YA has grown so much in popularity in the past few years. I still remember when the only YA novels on the bookshelves were only ~200 pages. After the success of large volumes like Harry Potter, the definition of YA seems broader than it used to be.

Getting down to business:

1. Where are is the line drawn on intimacy in YA?
2. Is age really everything?

The reason I ask the first question is because some people say the line of YA intimacy is drawn at a kiss while others see no problem with non-graphic sex scenes as long as it's between teenagers. I'd really like to hear an official opinion about when YA becomes an adult novel in that respect.

As for the second question: I often hear 'you'll know it when you see it' when people try to define YA, but it's not quite so easy when you've got minors as characters in advanced situations. For example, a preteen mixed in a graphic murder conspiracy or an eighteen year old traveling to meet elves in a low-stakes plot. Does the age of the main character take precedence or does the content decide the genre of the novel?

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#2 P. C. Feather

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Posted 02 April 2011 - 01:29 PM

This is a question that I've been pondering myself.

In the novel I'm working on the protagonist is eighteen, but she is put into very adult situations. I've been categorizing my book as a murder mystery because that is the main thrust of the story. There is a murderess who is an adult and victims who are adults, but it is the eighteen year old heroine that foils the murderess' plans. I've also like to think of my story as an adult story because one of the sub plots has the protagonist beginning an adult romance with another character. The scenes are mildly graphic, but if I do a second or third book in this series, I'd like to have the relationship mature.

IMHO, and I hope the publishing industry agrees with me, it not as much about the characters' ages, as any rating/category should be based on content.

#3 kevinmont


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Posted 03 April 2011 - 11:56 AM

I have a problem with this, too. My main chacter is seventeen, but there's a lot of killing and drinking in here. What about "Crossover?" Is that really a genre?

#4 SLDuncan


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Posted 03 April 2011 - 12:38 PM

My MC was eighteen, but my agent (former thirteen year vet of S&S and GPP&Sons children's editor) made me drop his age to seventeen. It seemed trivial, but apparently crossing that threshold was one step too far towards adult commercial. Yes, he could still get away with adult situations, but that relatability factor was somehow diminished with him being eighteen. Crossover is more of an "event" than genre, defining who is buying the book - meaning usually you have a YA book that happens to have drawn an adult readership in addition to its target audience. Not that anyone asked me. :tongue:

I'd love to hear Ms. Kole's experience with older character age from the agent perspective. Do editors shy away or draw toward older characters?

#5 bkeats


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Posted 04 April 2011 - 09:43 AM

I share the same questions as my contemporaries. The protaganist of my manuscript is fourteen, and the antagonist is twelve. There are murders, and a number of adult situations. Nothing graphic, but still beyond what I've seen in many YA/Non-dystopia books.

Is there a specific "romance" threshold? A "violence" one?

#6 Amy


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Posted 05 April 2011 - 10:40 AM

Eli way to ask the greatest question ever! I too have this problem. My story contains intimacy. It isn't too terribly graphic but my MC is nineteen and her boyfriend is 21. I really feel the story is geared toward that age group (if that IS an age group.) I have catagorized my book as YA, but maybe I am wrong??? Great question. Looking forward to Ms. Kole's response!

#7 brendan_gannon


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Posted 11 April 2011 - 10:34 AM

I'm interested in your take on the line between MG/YA. I know kids "read up" but not down, and I've seen people describe the line as that between primarily external conflict (MG) and primarily internal (YA). My manuscript is probably MG by these measures, but deals with death and has a strong gothic supernatural atmosphere.

Basically, I don't know whether to pitch my manuscript as MG or YA. How important is it, in your opinion, for an author to get this distinction right?

#8 Mary Kole

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Posted 12 April 2011 - 08:37 AM

Okay. First you have to ask yourself about your audience: Who do you want reading your book? If you want teens to read it, aim to make it fit YA guidelines. If you want adults to read it, you can have a teen character (ie: THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz) in it, and that's fine, but it will be published as adult and not teen (like that murder mystery someone mentioned, above).

Here are some guidelines for YA (and as I said to someone on here earlier, you cannot manufacture a crossover hit. The publisher decides whether it will market to both YA and adult, not you, so don't count on pitching it as a crossover when you query agents. You can say "it has crossover potential" but, really, that's it. It's not your decision to make and it doesn't usually just happen spontaneously in the marketplace...THE BOOK THIEF is a great example of how it did, but it is not the rule...):

- Main character is 18 or less
- You are trying to reach teen readers
- You can have as much sex and content (drugs, drinking, swearing, whatever) as you want (ie: SWOON), or have it be a nice, chaste story, there are editors and publishers for both kinds of books
- Minimum age is 14/15

Your readers, if they are kids or teens, will want to relate to the character, so age is really important. A 16 y.o. wants to read about 17-18 year-olds, not 14 year-olds. But the divide between high school and college is a really strong one: the two are separate world. There have been a few books published with college age protagonists (THE IVY series) but they have not found their audience because, again, it is a question of relatability.

Speaking of relatability, there's the middle-grade question. For me, here are the MG guidelines:

- Main character is 13 or 14 MAX
- Minimum age is 9
- Readers WILL read up, so know that you are writing to a 10 y.o. when your protagonist is 12-13, because kids want to know what older "cooler" kids are doing, not "babies" who are their same age or younger
- NO content (swearing, sex, drug or alcohol use by the main character), though it is okay to introduce serious issues, but secondhand, like the mother can be an alcoholic, but not the protagonist

I'm all about writers giving themselves the best shot at success...especially debut writers. If you want to write MG or YA, FOLLOW THESE GUIDELINES. It'll make everything easier. Save your genre-busting, trans-category opus for later in your career (when you have an audience and, ahem, know more about what you're doing).

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