This is something I get asked a lot: what’s the difference between YA and adult fiction? So rather than continuing to reinvent this wheel, I’ll just write a blog and direct people to it from now on. Sneaky, eh?
To begin with it is important to have a protagonist firmly within the standard age–typically younger than 18, but simply making your protagonist 17 isn’t sufficient. Many adult books feature younger characters, but the way the story is told varies.
And, keep in mind, a story’s content will vary between YA and adult. Lots of graphic sex might fly in an adult book, but will usually be considered too much for YA. However, you can include a lot of mature situations in YA as long as you handle it well.
So that said, I think the biggest differences between YA and adult boil down to:
- the voice
- the length (though that is changing these days)
- how the MC views him/herself in the world and reacts to his/her surroundings
- the depth of the POV
First of all, voice is critical. My editor and agents both say the number one reason for rejecting YA is that the voice feels inauthentic. You aren’t talking down to teenagers, and you aren’t trying to imitate a teenager. You are simply telling your story as if you were a teenager. That said:
- Don’t try to learn slang (it’ll be out of date by the time your book comes out anyway)
- Don’t use “lower-grade” vocabulary
- Just imagine you’re 16, and tell your story that way (see #3 for more explanation)
Secondly, the word count matters, especially if this is your debut novel. While “times are changing” and YA books are certainly getting longer, the standard rule is 50-90K. 50K would be a short contemporary, 90K would be a standard paranormal/fantasy. Something Strange and Deadly was originally 93K when I sold it, but I had to cut it down to 87K. Then again, the fabulous Sarah J. Maas has a YA fantasy (Queen of Glass, Bloomsbury 2012) that is >120K–but she is the exception, not the rule.
“Word count” is more than just the number of words, though. It’s the scope and complexity of the story. You simply cannot tell a story with twelve POVs and twenty interwoven subplots in a YA novel–at least not in a single book (note: you could pull it off in a series!). Basically, you can’t make George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones into a YA novel. However, in theory, you could expand and complicate a YA novel to transform it into an adult book.
Thirdly, think of how you viewed your life when you were a teen. Teenagers (and adults!) are uncertain, they’re starting to find their places in the world, and they are very wrapped up in their emotions (aren’t we all, though?). As such, YA often moves from a point of self-doubt to surety/autonomy, a point of selfish emotional concern to more selfless.
I’m not saying you need a character who cowers and “doesn’t fit in”, but someone who questions if he/she made the right choice and who sometimes hesitates before decisions. I can’t emphasize enough how a single line of self-doubt can really hype up the YA feel to your novel.
Also, I don’t think every emotion the MC feels should be a Big Deal, but little things ultimately matter more when you’re young. Heck, when I was 15, simply making eye contact with my crush was enough to induce a cyclone inside my chest. Romance matters when you’re a teen, and it is (whether or not you agree) an important part of modern YA storytelling.
These days, a lot of YA is considered “cross-over”, meaning it sells to adults as well. Thanks to Twilight and Harry Potter, a huge number of adults are into teen books. Maybe because, despite being older, we’re still uncertain and emotionally dramatic at heart? I think it actually has a lot to do with the POV, which leads me to the final YA requirement: the average modern YA novel will have a very close first or third person.
We live the story as if we’re in the MC’s head, so filter words are limited and introspection is tightly woven into the action. This is very different from the YA I grew up with (Tamora Pierce, Lloyd Alexander, Anne McCaffrey, Lois Duncan, Jane Yolen, etc.) which featured more omniscient POVs and distant thirds.
You certainly can write more distant POV, and it’s certainly around (an example that springs to mind is Lauren DeStefano’s Wither which is first person present, but very distant). Again: the usual YA will have a tight POV.
If you want to really get a handle on YA versus adult, grab some from the same genre–like take a popular YA fantasy and compare it to a popular adult fantasy. For example, compare Graceling by Kristen Cashore to Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Both feature strong female protagonists pitted against a world of political intrigue and danger, but both one is without-a-doubt YA and the other is without-a-doubt adult. Or take Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries and compare it to her Queen of Babble–same thing! (See my awesome Venn diagram.)
What have I missed–what else do you think defines a novel as YA? Do you agree or disagree with my own points?
Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.