Friday, July 16, 2010

What's in an Age?

I mentioned yesterday that I don't yet know the age of my next protagonist. It seems peculiar even to me. I mean, how can I plot a novel without knowing how old my main character is going to be? The thing is, I thought she was going to be in her midtwenties. I planned the novel that way. It works. The journey works with her young but with some life experience under her belt. The only thing is that it works so much better if my character is younger. Like sixteen or seventeen.

Most writers wouldn't hesitated at the thought of writing a YA novel, because that's exactly what this would have to become if my character suddenly loses a decade. Sixteen-year-old protagonists don't exist in standard adult fiction.

So why am I hesitating? A bit of principle: I've had a hesitation—okay, an undeserved adversity—to even reading YA novels. I'm not a young adult. I went through that phase and read my share of YA novels during that time. In the last four years, I can count on one hand the number of YA novels I've condescended to read: Glass Houses by Rachel Caine, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, and White Cat by Holly Black. Caine's novel bored me, McKinley's was a reread of a novel I knew I loved in the seventh grade, and Black's novel wowed me. If I'm not reading the material, do I want to write it? On top of that, I just demonstrated that I don't know the market. The first rule any editor or agent will tell aspiring writers is to read, a lot, in their genre.

The market in general is another reason for my reluctance to make my novel a YA novel. YA has taken off in the last ten years. Specifically, YA fantasy has exploded. I've watched this from the sidelines, unsurprised. You merely have to look around our society, or your local TV programming, to see that teens run the show, especially teen girls. They make or break a thousand different markets. Why is Justin Bieber so popular? (Hint: it's not that ridiculous haircut.) Why do any boy bands survive? Because teen girls lusting after them. Why did American Idol last as long as it did in the prime slot? Look at all the similar spinoff shows: So You Think You Can Dance, America's Got Talent, etc. Teens eat these shows up. Other people watch them, yes, but teens drive the audience. I don't think I even need to mention Twilight, either. It's not a novel written for the thirtysomething audience (though it found a market there).

The YA market is hot, but is it at the end of its popularity streak? Would I be latching on to the end of a dwindling fad? Vampires were hot, but Twilight just about put the nail in that coffin. I could name at least five top-selling vampire series out there, but I guarantee you I'd not bother writing one right now. Agents don't want them. Editors aren't buying them. The public is drifting toward different markets. Is the same true for YA novels? Is that bubble about to burst?

There's also the fact that I'm not a teen any longer. I'm not very in touch with what makes a teen tick. Yet, here's the kicker: my main character is going to be dealing with some very traditional teen themes. Yes, they'd work on an adult audience, because we all need to learn who and how to trust and we all want some place to belong, but these themes resonate more with teens, who are facing their own struggles of finding where they fit in the world and who they can trust.

As much on the fence as I am, I'm still leaning toward writing this as a YA novel. It's what speaks to the story, or it's what the story speaks to me, and I know enough by this point to listen.


Shaida said...

I have to comment on this one, since at least 50% of what I read is considered YA, and I'm over 30. :-D

1. Why can't you write an "adult" novel with a teenage protagonist? There are plenty of novels out there that prove this can be done (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, to name a few...)

2. I think you should write what's best for your story. Let your agent decide how it should be marketed. There are plenty of books that work in both markets, and modern readers are very good at identifying them on their own.

3. "YA" as a genre is not like "Vampires" as a genre. In the US, the market trends will always be determined by teens/young adults. They have the most leisure time to consume media, and they have the disposable income with which to consume it. So even if "YA vampire romances" go out of style, a good classic YA novel will not. If your book does need to be written as a YA, you should write it that way without fear of the trends.

Anyway, good luck! You're great at solving these plotting puzzles, so I know you'll strike the right balance in the end. :-)

Rebecca Chastain said...

Shaida, it's like you're in my head! Like you say, I shouldn't worry about whether it's YA or adult and just write a kick-butt fantasy. If I still don't know which market is better for it by the time it gets to the agent stage, I'll put out feelers for YA and adult markets and see what I get. Or query agents who handle both.

Point 3 is exactly what my gut is telling me. Even if Twilight dies off and vampires go out of fashion and fantasy slumps a little in the YA market, it's not going away, and teens are still going to want good books just like the rest of us.

TikiBird said...

Totally what Shaida said. She said it better than I could!

I would add that I believe a well-written book, even targeted to a younger age group, will always hold appeal and its own levels of meaning for all ages.

You could take this for more serious-themed "YA" novels like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, but also for Twilight (reliving those first-love obsession feelings for a long-married woman ain't a bad thing).

So, I'm saying that young adults are certainly not the only ones who avidly read "young adult" books. (Nor are they the only ones lining up for Twilight, or supporting boy band sales, or any number of things that tween girls usually get credit for.)

Basically--what Shaida said. My non-published author advice but advice as a good friend is to write what's in your heart and figure out the business deals later. If you target your writing around the business, there might not be that same passion for writing to begin with.

Rebecca Chastain said...

TikiBird, I'd never thought about those American classics and YA novels before. Unfortunately, they're not a strong argument in favor of YA books, in my opinion. Depressing stories of boys growing up in a world that out to destroy all their hopes and dreams doesn't cry out to me to read them.

I agree with both you and Shaida that I should just write what is true for the novel and whatever will make me most excited to write the book, then worry about marketing and selling it later.

TikiBird said...

I feel like any coming-of-age story could be categorized as "young adult," so that's how I see them, although I suppose the main character in TKAM is still too young, perhaps.

OK, but now let's talk about To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books! I was so in love with this book in high school that I made my own mini-book of all the inspirational quotations from it (so I'm going to have to beg to differ that's it's depressing).

It deals with racism and violence in the South, but I always found its main character (a girl, Scout) to be a wonderful narrator, and for the book's messages to be uplifting.

I also think that her young age is an incredible asset to the book, because it's a great contrast to have a child narrating these complicated events and interactions that most adults don't even understand. This kind of technique could also help your book, perhaps.

Scout's father Atticus helps the transformation in his children as they grow up during the novel. By his own example (and his wonderful way of talking, of course) he teaches his kids that they can rebel from the society they're in when it's just wrong, and that a single person can make a difference in righting injustice.

I can't think of a better example or a more hopeful message for a YA book!