Friday, September 22, 2017

Does a teen main character mean my novel is YA?

I have been following your blog and Query shark for a bit now. I have seen multiple posts on YA novels (of the fiction variety) and am wondering if it is true that one cannot have the protagonist be a young adult without the MS falling into that category. If this is the case would most agents give a form rejection to a YA novel that is over 100K words? 

Last time I looked The Lovely Bones was not YA but the main character was not an adult. That's the first example I thought of. There are lots of others.

YA is about age, sure, but it's more than that. It's about a kid navigating the increasing complex and bewildering world they're coming into.  Often it's about figuring out gender roles, and trying to not look like a dork to prospective romantic partners.

I don't know enough about YA to know if your word count is high, but my guess is that 100K for contemporary YA is right at the upper limit.  Dystopian, fantasy, historical all require more words than a contemporary but you still want to aim for 100K or so.

I've seen agents arbitrarily dismiss projects with word count that seems high to them.

I periodically send the lit team here into hysterics when I mention I've got a 176K novel here to read.  They shriek "too many words" while hiding under the table.

I'll read stuff that's probably too long if I love the writing. I read it with my scissors in hand of course, knowing that I can usually chop 5000 words per 100K without losing a single bit of story. (My super power involves a machete.)

To answer your question directly: no, and I don't know.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I just have to mention that the visual of a machete wielding shark shredding pages is a great way to start my TGIF.

Kitty said...

I can usually chop 5000 words per 100K without losing a single bit of story.

Janet's flash fiction contests are excellent training exercises for telling a story without unnecessary words. I've written so many 100-word stories that when I read any book, I'm mentally editing out all the unnecessary text.

Perfectlyaveragecakes said...

So as a YA writer and long time lurker - I wanted to jump in and say that the age of your MC is just a small part of what makes a book YA.

And sure, it's an important part since to be YA your protag HAS to be a teenager, but as Janet said, not all books featuring teens are YA.

YA is actually a combination of age of MC, themes and voice.

Now YA can be many things: sweet, whimsical, dark, gritty, violent... but at its heart, it's almost always an exploration of coming of age themes. Growing up, finding your place in the world, first love etc - issues real teens face everyday, basically.

And voice is perhaps the most important ingredient in YA. It has to feel authentic - it's what makes readers fall for your characters hard.

If you read a few YA titles you'll get a feel for what the YA voice looks like - it's often quite distinct and different to the kind of voice you'd find in an adult novel.

Timothy Lowe said...

Chomping words is fun. No, that is not a typo.

Here is a neat site I was on the other day regarding the word count topic:

(Sorry, peeps - I still don't have the magical linky powers you all have seemed to acquire. I'll chalk it up to overwork. Yeah. That's it...)

Lovely Bones (YA) comes in at about 90,000. Interesting that they have Catcher as YA, since I'd regard it adult. But what do I know?

And, I know Game of Thrones is epic fantasy and the genre is a bit more lax with word count, but the 292,000 word count really made my eyes pop regardless.

Amy Schaefer said...

I'm with Kitty. Cut, cut cut. When I'm editing a MS, I keep a second word file open, and dump anything I've cut in there along with a page reference. It makes it less painful to know I can retrieve those lovely words if I decide I need them back. (But I never do.)

kathy joyce said...

Kitty, me too (on both mental editing and flash fiction as skill building). I'm editing my MS now, and often think about my most useful writing class. Prof was a retired news editor. Homework after each class was to research and write # words on X topic. Next class, he'd say cut (or sometimes add) # words, during class, on a deadline. He'd collect the homework with the edits. Grade was based on making the wording changes without altering the meaning.

I challenge myself to cut a certain number of words from each MS section, just like I challenged myself to write them. Hoping to still have a novel, not a short story, when I'm finished. :)

Kitty said...

Here y'go, Timothy: keynote wordcounts
And thanks for that link!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Kitty is right. Janet's flash contests are excellent training for chomping away at word count. And I can think of dozens of examples in fantasy where protag is young but the book is not YA.

I have noticed some agents will want the book to be YA just because of a young MC even if that character is not so young at the end. Maybe because YA is in their wheelhouse. I have learned a lot about genre in last few years. Read widely to get a feel for what is YA and what is not. Especially in fantasy. It will help you present your book correctly to agents.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Tim and Kit Thanks for the Reidteam effort.
Great link.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Haha! The Shark sends the lit team into hysterics! Vivid images come to mind.

Kitty: I'm right there with you doing the same as I read...editing out words that seem superfluous.

Hi Perfectlyaveragecakes and welcome out of lurkdom. Thank you for adding the other bits about what makes YA. And...inquisitive Reiders like to know...are you also a cake baker?

Perfectlyaveragecakes said...

Hey Lisa and thanks for the welcome!
I do bake but not professionally. Mostly, I like making cakes look pretty (or weird) and cramming them full of strange ingredients like jelly or gummy bears ;)

Barbara said...

YA's generally run about 65k. What determines if it's YA or not (this is just based on my experience as a reader and YA writer) is who your world is populated by - teens or adults.

For instance, historicals may have a 16 yo main character doing adult things and interacting with other adults through the whole story because 16 yo's were considered adults at the time. That wouldn't be YA.

Take the same story, make it contemporary, and populate it with teens, and it becomes YA.

My suggestion: You know who your intended audience is. Submit to agents of the same ilk. You never know what will happen until you try.

K White said...

Regarding the link to the word count post, the fantasy and science fiction (the only genres I can speak to with any intelligence) are out-of-whack with current standards based on feedback from agents selling in those genres and editors buying in them.

Fantasy: instead of 197,898, it's more around 120,000 max (even George R. R. Martin was told for years his books were too long - at least until they started selling like proverbial hotcakes, then no one cared about the length).

Science Fiction: instead of 96,879, it's more around 110,000 - 120,000 max (SF typically needs just as much world building as fantasy does. Heck, explaining the science often takes more words than explaining the magic).

I also noted the examples given were for authors who had an established sales record / fan base. Those folks get leeway. It's us newbies who have to adhere to the shorter word count to get our toes in the door (Patrick Rothfuss not withstanding. His debut was the exception, not the rule).

Finally, the word count for mystery (128,576) seemed too long to me. I know I never buy mysteries that could be used as a doorstop.

Colin Smith said...

Yes, YA has to have teens as the primary characters, but it's more than your protag's age as has been said. I've tried writing a couple of YA novels, and it's not as easy as some might think. If you want to get the feel/voice for YA, read some John Green. There are many good YA writers out there, but in my estimation, he's the master of Contemporary YA.

Hey there PerfectlyAverageCakes! I hope you feel welcome. Have a cookie. :)

I've been doing a lot of shameless self-promotion this week, so here's some more just for Timothy: How to Hyperlink

On word count: Stick to the basic guidelines, knowing that if you become as successful as Stephen King or George R R Martin, you will be able to get away with just about anything as long as it sells. ;)

Donnaeve said...

Actually...Timothy I think the point the Queen made was THE LOVELY BONES is not YA, although my mind is a little muddy this morning.

Welcome PefectlyAverageCakes to this perfectly insane little cluster of woodland critters. :)

BJ Muntain said...

In the linked document, the first number is an average, not a maximum. Reading through the SF examples, some of them are pretty darn short, bringing the average down. And some of those fantasy novels are overhigh, bringing the average artificially high. And K.White is right - these aren't all contemporary, either.

It comes down to making the wordcount the RIGHT count for YOUR story. A story should be as long as it needs to be, but the trick is to find that right length. Is the story good but the writing too stingy - or overwritten? Fitting the writing to the story is what makes a length work, not writing to wordcount.

Colin Smith said...

I would agree with but modify BJ's comment above (if I dare, if I might?). Yes, your story needs to be as long as it needs to be, which isn't license for verbosity (says he whose first novel was 300k words long--when it comes out of the draw, I will be taking scissors to it, trust me!). However, for your FIRST novel, the one where you are trying to convince people you can write and your stuff is worth buying, it's a good idea to stick to guidelines. Once you have a few NYT Best Sellers under your belt and can guarantee sales, it's my understanding that publishers are more likely to give you some flexibility on word count. But prove yourself first. Bear in mind, CARRIE, Stephen King's first novel, originally ran around 40-50K words. He added the faux newspaper and magazine articles to puff up the word count! These days, they plant entire forests to keep up with him... ;)

(And, yes, there are exceptions to this, but, as we've said before, the exceptions usually didn't set out to be exceptions. More often than not, they were just kids who didn't know better. We know better.)

BJ Muntain said...

Ah, but Colin: Generally, the right length for the story *does* fall within guidelines! I'm sure there's a proper scientific formula: it takes a certain number of words to write a good main plot, one or more good subplots, and good worldbuilding. If a story flows well, isn't bogged down by too much exposition or unnecessary subplots, is written well for the style... it will generally come out within proper guidelines. Maybe that's the purpose behind guidelines - they're a guide to when your story is working properly. If your story is too far outside the guidelines, that may be a cue that something's wrong.

Ashes said...

I think BJ is on the right track with the idea that the word count needs to be right for your story.

I find it helpful to think about what justifies a longer word count.

For example, in SF and Fantasy the worldbuilding generally justifies the longer wordcount. But if you're setting your speculative piece in a world very similar to our own, then 120k becomes harder to justify.

I would also expect a book with a large cast of character and prominent B and C stories to push word count.

I would expect a book featuring a small cast who stay in the same setting, to be shorter.

Megan V said...

Welcome PefectlyAverageCakes! As a fellow YAer I think your advice is spot on.

I have some things to add, but I've got to run. If it isn't said by the end of the day, I'll poke my head in again and add to the discussion.

Timothy Lowe said...

Divergent was listed at over 100,000 words - a debut YA. If I remember reading about the history of that novel (never an assurance these days), the first draft was much shorter, then Roth's agent coaxed more out of her.

I am finding that writing MS after MS is an interesting way to develop your ability to winnow the story toward a peak while keeping a beady eye on the word count. Another reason to be prolific and not let your trunk novels bring you down.

Love the discussion here.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Timothy Our Queen could tell us all about Roth. She is a New Leaf client after all. Of course, that is exception rather than rule. But most of this publishing is. Write a great story. The rest will sort itself out.

Ashes said...

Roth can tell you about Roth, right here:

Divergent was a debut, but from her blog post it sounds like Roth already had an agent when she wrote it. It doesn't sound like she queried agents with Divergent. The first draft was 56,000 words and the finished draft 105,000. Almost double!

Colin Smith said...

Ashes's link:

Good point and general principle: Don't assume an author's first published book is the book that got them their agent.

Joseph Snoe said...

My "Escape from Brazil" manuscript is 99,600 words. I will aim for a much shorter manuscript (Closer to 80,000 words) for my next work (once I settle on my main story line).

I've won a few YA books (and younger) on Goodreads Giveaways to pass along to my sister's grandchildren. I read them first. I had expected a more basic vocabulary but there is nothing elementary about the vocabulary that distinguishes them from 'grown-up' books. The ones I've read are in the fantasy camp ("Agent Steve and Ninja Darcy" and "The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Wizards" the latest two). In many ways the stories are more creative and fun to read.

Melanie Savransky said...

I think genre conventions can determine category, too. The protagonists of Stephen King's "It" are ~12, but shelving it in Middle Grade would make librarians scream. Alan Bradley's fabulous Flavia de Luce series has an 11-year old protagonist telling the story but is Mystery, not Middle Grade (guess it's all those corpses). And even Middle Grade can have teenage protagonists if it's a fairy tale (see: Patricia C. Wrede's "Dealing with Dragons.")

The extent to which the YA tone takes precedence over genre is a mystery to me, though.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Reid covered this in another post of hers back in 2014. She suggests getting your hands on "Runner" by Patrick Lee. Might still be relevant advice for this exact question.

Stephen King, the master of the horror genre, has written several books that feature young kids/teenagers as the MC and yet his writing falls into the HORROR genre ("Christine" is the one that comes to mind - definitely NOT YA!)

Ashes said...

Are you all familiar with Ellen Hopkins's Crank novels?

We shelve them at our library in the YA section. As far as YA novels go, they're dark, with very grown up situations and themes. To me they honestly felt more adult than The Lovely Bones.

But I adore 'adult' and YA. My current favourite YA novel is Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows. Curiously, the characters feel more like eary/mid-twenties than teens to me. But the books still seem to have that fun YA tone and world. Would recommend, for sure.

Kate Larkindale said...

I write contemporary YA and most of my books come in between 80K and 90K. Which is on the long side for YA, but that's how many words my characters need to complete their journeys. I always aim for 60K, but by the time I'm through multiple rounds of edits, hello 80K.

And it's the voice that makes a YA a YA, not the age of the characters. My books tend to deal with serious life situations, some of them fairly adult (the book being published in November is about sex and disability), but because the characters are teens, their perspectives and voices are not adult.

Lynne Main said...

Having written (and now querying) a YA Historical Fantasy (87,000 words), according to all the info I've encountered online, the word count isn't supposed to go over 90,000. Personally, I think that's crazy since I needed to world-build in the story--it's a fantasy for Pete's Sake. I'm still praying I have developed enough of a fantasy/historical world for everything to make sense.

As far as the overall book goes, it's definitely YA. The protagonist is seventeen, she's experiencing love for the first time and is facing some very difficult challenges transitioning to adulthood. And, oh yeah, take one listen (or is it read?) to her voice and you know she's a teen, albeit a very intelligent one.

Yes, she's interacting with a bunch of adults, and would be considered an adult in the time period she's in, I suppose. But everything is from her point of view--a modern teen girl dealing with completely different attitudes from her own.

Congrats Kate, on the November book release!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

To follow up on BJ's comment of whatever word count it ends up on is the right one, I recently had the opposite problem. My full-length Fantasy RegRom came in at 60k when i wanted it at 80. How to add 20k?

A fellow author suggested I throw in a subplot.

Perfect! That took me to over 80k.

"Now, trim some words."


Because when the language is tight, no one will care how long or short the novel is, only that it's a good read.

(Currently at 71k, am thinking I need another subplot and more trimming.)

Sam Hawke said...

K White - I feel the need to drop in on this one just cos I constantly, CONSTANTLY, hear that fantasy debuts can only be 120K max. It just isn't true. It's demonstrably untrue. YA aside, adult secondary world fantasy doesn't run that low on average, not even close. And it gives people massive anxiety thinking they'll never be able to sell their fantasy if it runs longer.

I queried my 160K debut, got multiple agent offers (no-one who read my full thought the word count was too high), then my agent sold the book to a big SFF publisher. Rewrites at the publisher ADDED 15-20K. I think it clocks in at 185K or thereabouts. 500ish pages. I just got my ARCs and they're not thick at all.

I know there are some unpublished fantasy writers among us Reiders and I just don't want people thinking they can't sell their books when they totally can. If the story is bloated, sure, cut it down, but that's universally true of any story.

Karen McCoy said...

Late to the party here (hectic work week), but I love that Ashes brought up CRANK. Word count isn't necessarily the issue--since the book is written in poems--but I agree there are a lot of adult themes. I've heard this referred to as "Edgy YA" but am unsure if this is an official term.

Rachel Neumeier said...

I can't answer your question about most agents, but I can say with assurance that three out of four of my own traditionally published YA fantasy novels were over 100,000 words. However, the debut novel was the exception, so it may be easier to break in with a novel under 100K. Also, fantasy might allow a higher word count than contemporary.