Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Question: my main character is a kid but is this YA?

I have a dilemma regarding Adult verse Young Adult. When I originally wrote my novel it was written as an Adult novel with possible cross-over to Young Adult. It was written more in the vein of Firestarter, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King as a thriller.

In 2012, I attended Thrillerfest in New York City, and while I was pitching agents at Agentfest, the agents informed me that it was considered Young Adult because my protagonist is a 15 year old. So, I switched midstream and started to query literary agents who represent Young Adult. However, the more I query the more I think it is adult thriller. My novel is not a paranormal romance. Plus, the novel jumps three years into the future making my main character 19 years old.

Make sure you get your mitts on RUNNER by Patrick Lee. One of his two principal characters is also a youngster but RUNNER is no more a YA novel than I'm a unicorn.

What can happen in those dreadful horrible pitchapaloozas is that agents get tired, hear one or two key words, make a snap decision and then, bam, you're left thinking you've got it all wrong.

Well you don't.

Your novel isn't a YA at all. If it's like Stephen King it belongs right there on the adult commercial shelf.

I've been as guilty of this kind of snap categorization just as much as everyone else, and it's one of the reasons I don't do pitch sessions of any kind any more.  It doesn't serve you well, and it doesn't help me find good juicy stuff to sell.

So, how to tackle this in your query: don't mention your protagonist's age if you can help it, and use adult books as comps.

And write to the people who organize AgentFest as part of ThrillerFest and tell them you were ill-served by the format and they should give serious attention to the alternative that I have been touting for two years. (And if anyone is interested in hearing more about that, let me know. Rant at the ready.)

20 comments: said...

It really is a conundrum... this placement of books into a particular genre when age of a main character comes into question. I've been in the same boat with my first book, a coming of age novel and the protag was eleven. I felt it was in the vein of ELLEN FOSTER, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, etc...both adult books. But there was the thought, at one point, it might fit YA or even MG. It didn't, but we had to give it every chance to live on a bookshelf - somewhere.

Bill Scott said...

The first YA book I read as an adult —The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party — left me wondering how adult young'uns had become. It was amazingly complex in both subject matter and language.

Unencumbered with data, I believe most YA is read by adults. My seventy-five-year-old mother certainly can't get enough of it.

Colin Smith said...

As anyone who's hung out in YA circles for any amount of time knows, YA is about more than a protagonist's age. And honestly, sometimes I think the YA classification is unfair, because a lot of adult readers miss out on some really great books simply because of what they assume those two letters mean.

I would love to hear your alternative to pitch sessions, Janet--if only to prepare myself for when you become Queen of the Known Universe, and such things become law. :)

Les Edgerton said...

Had this very problem years ago! My first novel, THE DEATH OF TARPONS, was turned down by 86 publishers. As this was in the days of snail mail, this represented quite a financial outlay. I was just about ready to give up on it, when the mss was accepted by agent Mary Evans in a workshop. On a break, she talked to me and said, "Les, this is one of the best novels I've ever read, but you're having trouble moving this, aren't you?" I admitted I had. She told me it faced the same problem as her client Michael Chabron's first novel had. (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) The protagonist was a teenaged boy. She advised me to do what she'd had Chabron do and simply make it a frame story. Add a chapter where it's an adult looking back and then come back to the adult at the end. She said my problem was that editors would just assume it was a YA because of the age of the character and that I would have had a chance if it had been a girl, but that teenaged boys were the single worst demographic in publishing. I did as she advised--added a new beginning and a new ending chapter, and the very next person I sent it to--the University of North Texas Press--took it and it ended up winning awards. It's not fair perhaps, but it is what it is.

Jane | @janelebak said...

I had an editor turn down a novel ONLY because the protagonist was 12 and therefore it was a midgrade novel. Except that it was quite definitely an adult SF novel.

He had asked about the category before rejecting, and I sent him a list of maybe thirty adult SF novels with young protagonists, but in the end he said he couldn't get past the age of the protagonist, and I lost the deal. He insisted people only read about a protagonist a couple years older than themselves.

I guess that makes Ender's Game a picture book?

jack welling said...

_Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha_ by Roddy Doyle.

Two words: Man Booker

Protagonist is ten year old boy. Not YA.

Kim Batchelor said...

Tell me more about your alternative to pitches. Thanks.

LynnRodz said...

@ Colin: It's true, my mentality was why read YA when there are so many good "adult" books to read and only so much time. Then Jim mentioned a manuscript he got out of the slush pile and was excited about. It became a NYT best-seller. Of course, he piqued my curiosity and I went to Amazon and began reading the first pages.

Not only did I love Carrie Ryan's The Forest Of Hands & Teeth, but I also bought her other two books in the trilogy. Believe me, weeks after I read the three books, I still couldn't stop thinking about them.

Okay, Janet, Colin's last sentence said it best! Are we going to hear that rant?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

A young protagonist frequently, in peoples' eyes, equals a younger categorizations, despite any number of books "for grown ups" with child/younger protagonists. It's really hard to sway opinions otherwise, both as a reader and a writer.

Of course, at my library, I still encounter adults who won't read genre, won't read young adult, won't read graphic novels...Like, wrinkle their nose absolutely will not, as if the bare suggestion will allow trash into their lives. And this is even if they're already familiar with the author (Grisham has a YA series, Koontz has some graphic novels)!

dylan said...

Dear Ms Reid,

I'll third the requests for the rant.


The Writer Librarian said...

I'll fourth it. Please rant.

SiSi said...

Fifthing it for the rant. I love a good rant.

Stephsco said...

To whomever wrote the question, I feel your pain! I ran around in circles with that question several years ago when I was first writing a story that involved a cast of multi-aged characters. Though at least be confident that there is enough good advice out there given how dedicated and diverse the YA lit blogging community is.

Lots of authors write teen characters in books that are not YA. Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One", Christopher Moore's "Bite Me", Jodi Piccoult's "The Tenth Circle" or "My Sister's Keeper" or "Salem Falls." The difference is that the books are not specifically written for a teen audience, and often delve into more mature themes in a way that caters more to adult reading styles and less on say, coming-of-age aspects and transitions into adulthood that teen readers expect. There are certainly mature themes explored in YA lit, but if you read a book like "Fault Line" or "Speak" you can tell a difference in the narration, the story structure, and the delivery of such themes.

Good luck to the OP! And I am also curious on the alternatives to traditional pitching, which I agree is extremely hit or miss. I've heard writers come back with one sentence from a pitch that derailed their writing for years. The sad part is, that's one person's opinion, and some case it might be misleading information.

BonnieShaljean said...

Holden Caulfield is 17. But all the grown-ups (who are the ones that decide these things) regard Catcher In The Rye not just as an adult book, but a classic.

I wanna hear the rant! Would love to know the Shark's alternative idea(s), especially if it doesn't involve having to physically travel somewhere far away. In an upcoming blog post, please... soooon...

Anita Joy said...

Yes, please, would love to hear the alternative :)

Dotti said...

It sounds to me like the book may be a YA with crossover appeal. Unless you're reading YA, it's hard to know for sure. It might be up to an editor or agent to determine this. If Carrie, Salem's Lot, and Christine were published today, they'd be YA. The category as we know it didn't exist back then.

Nowadays, YA is some of the best reading on the shelves. If the book is YA, it's something to be proud of.

nicoleroder said...

I want to hear about your alternative pitch sessions, Janet!

And yes, there are plenty of adult novels with young protagonists. Room's protagonist is only 5 and that book addresses very mature themes. Good luck with your book!

Keely Hutton said...

I would be very interested in hearing your rant on this topic and about your alternative pitch sessions ideas.

Thank you!

GM Kern said...

Ms Reid,

Thank you so much for your guidance. The lesson of the day, follow your instincts.

I survived being chum...

Wait, do I still have all my limbs?

G. Kern

John Doe said...

I'm having the same dilemma with my own novel which happens to have a teenage female protagonist. In addition to having to work against the preconceived notion that it's YA simply due to the Main Character's age, I've also run against accusations it's a Twilight knockoff. Despite sending in sample chapters, I've received rejections with the reply that I didn't bother reading the agent's website which clearly states he/she isn't interested in YA or paranormal romance. In my query, I referred to my novel as a dark urban fantasy with elements of paranormal and horror. No mention of romance, whatsoever. This situation begs the question as to whether or not said agents bothered reading my sample chapters, at all.