Tag Archives: Adult Fiction

Writing YA Versus Adult Fiction: what’s the difference?

1 Jun

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:

  1. the voice
  2. the length (though that is changing these days)
  3. how the MC views him/herself in the world and reacts to his/her surroundings
  4. 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  • Don’t try to learn slang (it’ll be out of date by the time your book comes out anyway)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.

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Book Recommendation: Room

5 Dec

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
~~~

“Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.”

Room is all that 5-year old Jack has ever known. His entire world measures 11×11 feet. But to Jack, that is all he needs.

I can’t stress enough just how much I loved this book. Emma Donoghue has written something that is all at once haunting, dark, beautiful, and hopeful. And long before I turned the last page, I was completely blown away. Told entirely from the P.O.V. of little Jack, this novel has one of the most endearing, lovable narrators ever. I was worried that it might be gimmicky; that a dark story told from the P.O.V. of a child would sound contrived, but Jack’s voice is completely believable – and wonderfully compelling.

Here’s a longer summary about what Room is about:

 

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

[Description from Goodreads]

~

Think it sounds dark? It is an incredibly chilling story. And told from the P.O.V. of innocent Jack, it can be at times even creepier – especially when we learn of the dismal and horrifying things from Jack’s innocent perspective. His innocence highlights the ugly, and made me cringe in disgust even more. But somehow this book ends up being one of the most uplifting books – the love between Jack and his Ma is one of the most profound relationships I’ve ever come across. And one of the most genuine.

Inspired by horrifying cases of imprisonment like that of the Josef Fritzl case, the story centers around a very dark theme. And yet somehow this book manages to highlight the wonderful relationship between Jack and his Ma – and their extraordinary love – despite all the disturbing threads underlying the story. Their love is what redeems the story – what keeps it from being melodramatic and miserable.

Emma Donoghue’s characters are wonderfully flawed; even little Jack throws ugly tantrums, and his Ma has a number of dark moments. I don’t want to spoil the story by saying too much, but I guarantee that once you start reading, you won’t be able to put the book down. Though at times I found it to be a bit on the slower side, Jack’s voice kept me turning the pages. All the little details make his narration so utterly irresistible; his unawareness of the outside world, his inability to understand that things like grass and ice cream and other people are real, and his lack of social interaction with anyone else but his mother is what makes the book an absolute wonder to read. And halfway through, you’ll find your heart pounding as the suspense builds. There are also some moments that are incredibly terrifying.

Ultimately, this is a book about recovery – about pulling through the hard times, no matter how terrible they are – and how love and compassion can keep you going. This book isn’t typically about good triumphing over evil and justice prevailing, but about conquering your fears, and moving on, and loving so fiercely that you can overcome unimaginable pain and sorrow.

And now that you’ve read that, I need you to watch this book trailer. It is quite possibly one of the best book trailers I’ve ever seen – as soon as I saw it, I ran out to buy the book. So watch it. And then read it. It is absolutely wonderful.

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.