I’d like y’all to give a warm welcome to one of my favorite indie authors, Vicki Keire, author of the Angel’s Edge trilogy (third book forthcoming on Halloween, for which I am eagerly salivating). Welcome Vicki!
Finding the Line: New Adult’s Impact on Writers
One of the things I struggle with most as a paranormal young adult writer is what I call “finding the line.” YA has such an incredibly diverse audience with equally diverse subject matter. As a writer, this translates into a desire to make sure my work fits its genre. This isn’t a marketing issue, or a way to figure out which Kindle categories to check. It’s about one corner of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle: audience. If good writing is a balance of reader, writer, and text, then not knowing my audience can impact my writing in disastrous ways. But in such a sprawling genre as YA, I often struggle to figure out exactly who that is, hence the problematic “line.”
I’ve been reading young adult since my fifth grade librarian gave me Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. During a Hunger Games discussion panel two years ago, a forty-year old woman stood up and announced that she hadn’t read a grown-up book in over twenty years, and she didn’t plan to start anytime soon. The huge, all-ages audience erupted into cheers. Then an eleven-year old boy stood up to ask a question.
Clearly, there’s been an explosion in the genre since Mrs. Peterson gave me that book in fifth grade. People often cite Harry Potter as the catalyst. After all, given its phenomenal financial success, wouldn’t most of our talented writers be drawn to similar subject matter and audiences? The success of the Twilight series seemed further confirmation.
I think this is getting things backwards, though. Books are as much products of their times as they are catalysts. In other words, it is not so much that Harry Potter (and similar books) created a voracious appetite for books about magic and adolescence as it tapped into a need that was already there: a desire to restore our sense of wonder. When is that sense of wonder stronger than the whirlwind of possibilities that is young adulthood? And what is the definition of “wonder” if not that “anything is possible?” In other words, magic?
I really think it’s that simple: collectively, we desire a return to innocence and wonder. Possibility and magic. Or, in book parlance, YA paranormal.
Here’s where I return to that “line” I mentioned earlier, because one person’s sense of wonder can be another person’s snore session, and yet another’s R-rated movie. In a genre where fifth graders read as much and as often as their parents, how do writers navigate vastly different comfort and experience levels related to sex, alcohol, independence, and decision-making? And if this “line” isn’t tricky enough already, what happens when we take the paranormal element into account? Just what do you do with a love story between two teenagers, but one of them is a five hundred year old vampire? Here’s one that really had my head spinning: the protagonists were teenagers, but had been reincarnated hundreds of times. The fact that they had been married and already had sex literally thousands of times, but were technically seventeen, was unsettling.
One method has been for publishers to create increasingly specialized categories. Enter St. Martin’s Press, who, in 2009, held a contest to encourage submissions for a genre they were calling “New Adult:” “Since twenty-somethings are devouring YA, St. Martin’s Press is seeking fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult.’” But New Adult failed to catch on as a distinct marketing category; as Diana Peterfreund points out in a post on the subject, none of the St. Martin’s entries were accepted for publication, and no major retailer recognizes it. (Perhaps this will change in the future.)
It’s a useful distinction for me as a writer, though. Thinking of something I’m writing as New Adult helps clear away the whole “where’s the line” anxiety. The question’s been answered. Even if there isn’t a shelf for New Adult at my local bookstore, there’s clearly an audience for it. New Adult as a concept keeps me focused on the writing rather than the reception. It helps me serve that sense of wonder I first encountered in the fifth grade, when a kind librarian showed me that other people not only believed in magic, but created it between book covers. That doesn’t disappear when a reader turns eighteen.
Vicki Keire grew up in a 19th Century haunted house in the Deep South full of books, secret rooms, abandoned coal chutes, and plenty of places to get into trouble with her siblings. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English Literature, and is A.B.D. with specializations in Eighteenth Century British Literature, Romanticism, and Postcolonial Theory. She spent the last decade teaching writing and literature at the university level while slipping paranormal fiction in between the pages of her textbooks.
When not reading and writing about all things paranormal, she indulges in her eclectic musical tastes, enjoys other people’s cooking, keeps vampire hours, and adds to her massive stockpile of quirky t-shirts and designer notebooks. She’d rather burn the laundry than fold it. She believes that when an author wins the Newberry, he or she gets a secret lifetime pass to Neverland. She is fond of odd jewelry, bottle trees, and lost causes. She still lives in the Deep South with her husband, two children, and pets, but is pretty sure her house isn’t haunted. A person can’t be so lucky twice.
Interesting post. I think there really is a fine line that separates something from being YA vs. being adult (new or not). It’s fine, but it’s there. I recently read a book which was “checked” on Amazon as being YA. The characters were in college–not something you normally see in YA, but something I think teens and twenty-somethings would probably enjoy. The problem, though, was this book was written in such a way that made me categorize it in my head as an adult romance. And it wasn’t the sex or the drinking, but the voice of the story (and the wedding at the end). I know it’s kind of cliche to point to voice as “the line”. But to me, it really is. Though if the New Adult categorization deals with twenty-somethings in college, this book would probably fall into that category.
Great post. I’m also a young adult writer who wonders just where that line is. My best guess is that it’s subjective, and every parent will have their own opinion. Harry Potter wound up on a lot of banned lists, yet The Hunger Games didn’t seem to get as much controversy. I still think certain subjects are more ‘taboo’ than others, sex being one of them. Yet, I’m reading more and more books that contain it, along with heavier doses of certain words.
Great post! I really enjoyed it and very thoughtfully presented. I haven’t started my WIP yet but was definitely starting to lean towards YA – feels like a good fit. But just this weekend I was thinking very much about that “line”! What I noticed about YA is the lack of swearing that exists especially in dialogue between teens (in the high school age group). I get that it’s likely because the book is marketed towards a larger audience with pre-teens included and vast amounts of swearing could turn off readers/parents of that age group. But when thinking about myself as a teen from 14 onwards, my friends and I made swearing a new art form. So sometimes when I read YA (older teens), it sometimes falls flat because, to me, there’d normally be way more swearing etc. Sort of like the line you were talking about. Interesting. I like New Adult!
I love YA. There seems to be such a wide variety of subjects and genres.
There’s definitely a lot of elasticity in what used to be a fairly straight forward category. That’s part of what I find so fascinating- how we’ve gone from simple Children’s Lit, to Middle Grade and YA, and now to MG, YA, and New Adult? And all this in a relatively short time period. To me it signals seismic changes in the larger culture- at the very least that our children our growing up faster than ever, and that paradoxically adolescence sometimes bleeds over well into adulthood.
The best writing advice I ever got about this came from Holly Black, who patiently listened to me whine about how far to take a sex scene between an ageless Fallen angel and an eighteen year old college freshman. She just said, “Whatever your eighteen-year-old self would have done, said, felt- write that.” It’s really helped with navigating that over-the-line feeling.
New adult sounds like they came from factories. But I enjoy reading YA’s more so than adult novels. They have more fantasy elements in them.