“It’s by the same author who wrote that book you read to me while I had a migraine?”
“I don’t remember,” my mother said, fixing the knots in my crochet “scarf.”
“And you went to continue reading it until Chester admonished you, claiming it was a book for kids?”
She looked up and frowned. “I can’t believe I would let him shame me like that.”
Well, she did. And many of us do.
The one successful method I’ve used to pitch my work to friends and coworkers, something that intrigues them beyond the morbid interest of the possible shit show that is my writing career, is to say, “It’s like young adult fiction, but less watered down.” Gaining their interest was not my intent, but it was successful nonetheless.
When making decisions on my work, I often consider what I’m looking for when I go into a bookstore, what I really hope to find. I struggle each and every time, no matter how often I do it. Do I go for the fantasy section first, or the young adult?
Even when I was a teenage girl—which I have only just recently accepted I am not—and devoured those books within my demographic, there was always a part of me that craved more. Some, certainly, had meat to them, but by far the majority, even the ones I loved passionately, felt comfortable, safe, and naively optimistic. Many were condescending.
And, as I grew older, some of the themes and tropes started to grate on me. I was sick of the pseudo-high school (or sometimes actual) setting in which the characters were imprisoned by authorities training them for some big battle. The young, naïve lust often wasn’t developed enough for me. The writers clearly felt as though I couldn’t understand certain words or appreciate a good turn-a-phrase. Sometimes they forced a younger age on a character to better mold to the expected audience, hurting the storyline’s believability.
But in the fantasy section, I was hard put to find what I wanted either. While I enjoy a good adult book from time to time, and they certainly proved more challenging reads, they also tended to take themselves very seriously. You’d get a good, funny character here or there, but the problems are often epic, external, graphic, and political.
Young adult fiction focuses on emotional, personal problems. Books for children are more oriented around character and relationships while books for adults tend to be more about plot, conflict, and concept.
It became clear to me the difference when I was talking to my brother—the aforementioned Chester—about literature. I complained because the young adult book I’d read had been told from the point of view of a mind reader and yet the author obviously had no comprehension on how people think. She had a scene in which she describes the nice girl as nice, someone who never had any negative thoughts and was perfectly loving and selfless. She was good because she lacked basic human urges.
Why tell the story about thoughts if you aren’t going to critically analyze them?
My brother took it in a different direction. While I wanted to know the effect mind reading would have on someone—Would you be more confident? More insecure? More forgiving of faults? More hate-filled of humanity?—my brother said that a good book was not about how mind reading affected the mind reader, but how the existence of mind reading affected the world.
My overall conclusion was two-fold: One, subjectivity and why people read is very real, and two, a good book usually develops both.
I have two lists, and on the first list I wrote out all of the stories I loved—books, movies, plays, and T.V. shows that were fun and exciting to read (watch), ones that made me feel things and love the characters—but not necessarily respected. Some of my favorite novels I don’t believe are well-written or tried hard. On the other list was books that I admired—stories that impressed me with their ability, I felt proud and accomplished for finishing—but perhaps not actually liked. I have a high respect for Samuel Beckett, but I do not read him because I enjoy it. Titles going on both lists, what I liked and admired, I paid extra attention to.
This list helps me understand what I want to be doing and why I made the choices I did. I’ve had, in the past, people tell me, “No one likes that,” in reference to a stylistic (or even just unusual to them) decision. Sometimes it can be hard to say if you’re not protecting your ineffective darlings, if it’s a matter of tastes, or even if they are initially rejecting the atypical.
If I look at the books on my lists and what they do, I can usually see if the critique is right—none of my favorite authors do it, so I probably don’t like it either, aware of it or not—or I know at least if it appeals to me—all of my favorites do some version of it, so someone enjoys the choice. The issue may be that I didn’t do it well, but it helps to be sure that it’s a reasonable effect to try and achieve.
Of course I often find that a choice is congruent with one of the lists and not the other, but what I do then is another blog onto itself.
When my brother said this, I realized something; the items of my “love” list were based on interpersonal conflicts, but my “admiration” list was comprised of more epic focus, predominately when examining the sci-fi and fantasy titles.
I can be a shallow person at times, easily influenced by the opinions around me—but better able to empathize for it and come to more fleshed out truth—and it begged the question of why I, at least subconsciously, had higher respect for works that focused on world domination than love. Seems obvious that I would, but logistically I couldn’t pinpoint why other than societal pressure.
While it brought me to an epiphany about the meat I felt my manuscripts were lacking, I acknowledged that many of the stories I loved focus on one or the other. I don’t think it’s necessary, in fact, to have a story influence both world and character for it to be good. Not only that but, at times, I’ll actively seek out those that didn’t do both. It can be exhausting.
My personal interest in young adult books ties into several things: they are more able to bend and mix genres, their “genre” actually being a demographic; sex is more sensual and feeling-centric, less graphic and/or hardcore than most adult fiction; stakes can be emotional and not just physical; and the mixture of comedy and severity and normalcy works better for me.
“You like campy,” my brother told me once.
I thought about it, and it’s true. I like televisions shows Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost Girl—paranormal situations with a wide range of severity of situation, self-deprecating humor, and emotional stakes carrying the “end of the word” scenarios that you know are going to turn out fine.
You’d think this would be easy to find in literature, but grabbing a random book from the shelves usually doesn’t yield successful results. Speculative fiction is still very much a boy’s club in many ways, most genre books fitting squarely into the epic struggle you’d expect. They rather focus on impactful and active problem solving over conflict in relationships. The good ones, of course, have great characters and an underlying tone of intergroup conflict, but the main focus is death, destruction, and pain from external forces. Sure the characters experience a great deal of loss and hurt from the people in their lives, but it is often to extremes—left to die—and many times the characters are isolated from each other for the majority of the story.
You see something like Harry Potter in which Ron, Hermione, and Harry have each other’s backs throughout the series versus A Game of Thrones in which the characters are constantly torn out of the relationships they’ve developed, either by literal space, death, or betrayal. I’m halfway through The Name of the Wind (a fantastic) fantasy novel, and while the storyline does not follow a whole slew of different characters, the protagonist is a lonely person whose friends come and go, often within a few chapters. It starts with his self-imposed exile and features one apprentice living with him, so you know, at the very least, no one will remain in his life long-term.
There are exceptions, many exceptions even. I know fully well there is a wide variety in fantasy novels. It is just that the expectation of traditional fantasy usually rings true, and the fact is I am more likely to grab a random young adult book and like it than a regular sci-fi one.
But for whatever reason, I feel young adult books are not only allowed to be sloppier in their writing (I mean, I do certainly remember that I judged stories much less than I do today, so teens’ eager willing suspension of disbelief factors in), but are encouraged to limit themselves.
When I started writing at twelve, I wrote for myself without concern for genre. I wrote and wrote and didn’t bother with editing, criticism, or submissions. At eighteen, I decided to start attempting to publish and the question of my genre became very important. Was I young adult? If I truly wrote for me, probably yes.
Over the four years in college, whenever I brought in my work it became apparent people believed it was. Was it because I had female characters set in fantasy elements? Was it their age? My biggest complaint against this assumption was that people told me I needed to dumb the writing down because people (my age) wouldn’t understand it.
Genre works are never taken seriously, but young adult seemed to be worse. I struggled to identify where my books fit, and wanted the respect that came with writing “real” speculative fiction rather than for young people. More importantly, I hated being told my audience was stupid and felt restricted to have appropriate language, themes, and role models.
Nowadays, I realize just how graphic young adult can get and feel significantly less inhibited by it. However, you still have to be careful about “promoting” the wrong ideas, and there will always be complaints that the books must be watered down, easy reads.
I started writing the book I’m editing three years ago. Just at 23, I had decided this one would be an adult and had to analyze what that actually meant. More violence? More sex? That’s what it felt like at least.
For a time, I thought the choices I made couldn’t be acceptable as a young adult novel, but now maybe so. Due to the character’s age—though it is never specifically discussed—but mostly the tone of the beginning, many people presumed that’s what it was supposed to be. In my mind, first it was romance, but then it was science-fiction.
So what do I pitch it as?
Most of my beta-readers perked up interest when I described as what I wanted it to be. It was young adult intensified, really.
I think I’ve said this before. I know there’s a market out there, but I can’t think of a way to spin it, because, let’s face it, no one really wants to admit they read it. It’s look down upon. “Children’s books” as some say. Claiming, “It’s young adult for adults,” on a cover doesn’t ring right for me.
It is sci-fi, but maybe it would do better as Y.A. The book I’ve just finished and plan to edit next is definitely young adult, no question. The book I’m writing now is not.
It may not matter much in the end, but I rather stick with a brand, all the novels in one section, readers knowing what they’re getting.
I’m collecting the names of agents who represent both regular sci-fi and young adult and see what they have to say, calling it science-fiction until they correct me. I know I’m going to need to make a choice eventually, but I really rather we open up to the fact that there are adults who want to read young adult and learn how to tell everyone about it instead of being pigeon-holed.
But I suppose that’s what genres do in general.