On switching genres

At the cons I’ve attended this year, I think I’ve had a record number of conversations with adult SF/fantasy writers interested in writing YA. (It’s been fascinating watching YA fantasy to go from a genre that was considered a hard sell even within the YA field to one that’s publishing in more interesting books that I can keep up with every month.) As I was flying home from WFC, I found myself thinking about what it is I really want to say–but don’t always have time to say, or don’t always think to say until later–when adult writers ask about the YA genre.

So … keeping in mind that I’m only one writer–and that writers rarely agree on much of anything–here are some of the things I find myself wanting to say to adult SF/fantasy writers who are thinking about writing YA:

– When you’re writing a young adult novel, don’t think about the fact that you’re writing YA overmuch. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, just as you always have. Focus on that. Everything else is secondary. Everything.

– YA books are, by definition, about subjects of interest to teens. That means mid-life crises are probably out, but sex and violence probably aren’t — very little content is off the table, if it’s in the service of a good story. Teen readers, like adult ones, are always seeking good stories.

– If you find yourself thinking “but I don’t want eight-year-olds reading about sex and violence!” you’re confusing middle grade books with YA books. Middle grade books are aimed at (roughly) 7-12 year olds; YA books are aimed at (roughly) ages 12 and up. These sometimes seem trivial distinctions among adult writers, but they’re very real distinctions to those who write these books, those who read them, and those who sell them. (If you find yourself thinking, “but I don’t want teens reading about sex and violence!” well, there’s no rule that says your YA has to have these things in it, any more than your adult book does. YA literature is a wide and varied field.)

– Speaking of which: Read YA. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Read a lot of YA. Go into the teen section of your local library or bookstore and load up on the relatively recent stuff. Don’t depend on your memories of what you read as a teen (YA has changed enormously in the past decade), and don’t depend on the handful of YA books your fellow adult writers are talking about. Too many adult SF/fantasy readers only know the YA books that are published as an offshoot of adult genre publishing. There are as many YA genre books being published today as adult ones, and many are published by publishers and imprints not associated with adult SF/fantasy. You’re contemplating breaking into a new field. Get to know it. Find out which parts of it you love, and which parts you hate, and whether you in fact want to be here.

– To put it another way: You know how you hate it when romance or mystery or mainstream writers make pronouncements about what SF/fantasy is, even though they clearly haven’t read it and don’t really know the genre? If you talk about YA without having read much of it, you’re doing the exact same thing, and the results aren’t any prettier.

– Think about pacing. When I read YA, I expect a reason to care about the story by the end of the first page. I expect something to be happening within the first chapter or two, if not sooner. YA readers won’t hesitate to walk away from a story that doesn’t engage them, and in a YA, nearly every word has to count. (As opposed to in picture books, where every word has to count, literally.)

– If you sell your YA, you’ll probably be deeply edited. When I describe my editorial process to adult/SF fantasy writers, they sometimes offer sympathies, or tell me that maybe I’ll get it right the next time around. When I describe this process to other YA and middle grade writers, they just shrug and say it sounds about right. (I suspect that picture book writers would say I get off easy.) If you write and sell a YA, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to revisit your story on multiple levels, and to revise more extensively than you have in the past. It’s one of the reasons I love writing YA and middle grade books, actually. I come out of every revision a better writer.

– Please, please, please don’t write YA because you want to teach a lesson or preach a set of values. Teens read for the same reason you do — because they want a compelling story. Respect them enough to give them that. If your values come through in your writing — as they do for writers for all ages — that’s fine. But reading isn’t like taking medicine. Don’t expect teens to read because it’s good for them. Don’t expect them to read for any reason you wouldn’t want to read yourself. (Related to this: also don’t write for teens because you think they need more books “just like” the Heinlein juveniles. If teens wanted to read Heinlein, they’d read him.)

– What all of this amounts to, really, is: Your readers are your equals. If you can’t meet them on the page as such, they’re not the right audience for you. If you can, you’ll find some of the most thoughtful and engaged readers out there. They won’t hesitate to tell you why they love your story. They also won’t hesitate to tell you why they hate it. And they’ll remind you, in countless ways, how much wonderful stories are and how much they matter.

So, other YA writers reading this–anything to add? (Or elaborate on, argue with, etc?)

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