where the writers are
Is it YA or not YA? That is the question.

Early on in my writing career, largely due to the influences of writers like Charles de Lint, Ursula Le Guin and Emma Bull, I really enjoyed writing coming-of-age stories with an urban fantasy angle  The late teenage years seems to me like a really good time to start a protagonist out, especially as they are just moving into a new and unfamiliar world that will ultimately shape and define them.  The first couple of novels I wrote largely dealt with a rat-pack of street kids in Seattle that are enabled with minor magics that help them fight off cultists, monsters and other similar kinds of troublesome antagonists.  A little bit of wish fulfillment, a little bit of cantrip-level super-hero mayhem and you have a book that works remarkably well in a Young Adult setting. 

But as I continued to write more novels, practice my craft, and send out more queries for all kinds of different books, I started to find that that some of my manuscripts were being rejected because they were too YA.  So, I wrote new queries for these books and sent them out to publishing houses and agencies that had a strong track record for publishing YA books.  Weirdly enough, I got back rejections from a few of these folks saying that the work wasn't YA enough. 

I worked on my writing style and tried to develop new voices.  I dabbled into steampunk and Arabian Nights fantasy and wrote a novel or two specifically targeted towards the YA market.  But it wasn't until late last year that I finally saw the light.  A novel that I sent out to a publisher in New York was well received, but was rejected in the end because it was too YA.  Taking the same novel and sending it to a YA publisher in the UK, it was ultimately rejected because it felt to them like more of an adult fantasy book.  

So, there I was stuck in the in-between.  While the style, voice, and presentation of a story certainly measures in as key factors in determining whether a piece is YA or not, the fact that my main characters were in their late teens seemed to be the most critical factor.  To test this, I immediately wrote another fantasy novel and queried it around, this one a magic-heavy epic fantasy without a single main character under the age of 35.  While I know from my research that the epic fantasy market is really hard to break into, this time around for all the queries I made and all the rejections I received, I had no notes about the book being either too YA or not YA enough.  Writing about older characters seemed to be the thing that moved the book up and out of YA into mainstream fantasy fiction. 

But what about an urban fantasy novel detailing a story about a young crow who has to become human to save his flock?  Or fairy tale damsels who have to work together in a time where a disastrous curse affects all the fairy-tale lands?  I get the sense that these stories may also be able to bridge the gap into standard fantasy because they don't have standard high-school aged protagonists.  While I probably won't know that answer until next year once I get the fairy tale novel into submission, I get the sense that I'm on the right track.  The simple answer is to stick with older characters and to let the tale tell itself.  But I'm also determined to find a way to get my teenage characters back into play, as to me those are the best characters that lets an author tell a tale that spans a lifetime rather than just a few months of trouble and havoc.  -Scott

Comments
1 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Too YA or not enough YA

You raise a fascinating question, one I hadn't heard of in the YA lit. world. It reminds me of when I interviewed for jobs and was told that I was either overqualified or not qualified enough. 

I wish you well with your pursuits and hope I'll be seeing your name on the YA bookshelf.