Monday, November 06, 2017

current boundaries for language and topics in YA fantasy.

I'm wondering where the current boundaries for language and topics are in YA fantasy.

In my latest novel, a woman refers to having been raped as a teenager when she refused an offer of marriage by a powerful man. That's all that is said on the subject but it explains something about this woman's situation. One (and only one) of my beta readers suggested the word might be too much for YA. I know I have seen the topic referenced, but can't recall if I have seen the word itself in YA lately. (I know quite a few teens, and none of them would bat an eye at this.)

I'm not sussed about this use of the word but wondered if there is a place to go to get an idea of what the guidelines are these days.
It's clear your beta reader hasn't read much YA published in the last five years. Not only is the word rape used, so are other words that no one said aloud sixty years ago: lesbian, gay, bisexual, not to mention correct words for body parts rather than silly simpering euphemisms.

And some of you will remember when the word cancer was never said aloud, let alone on television. John Wayne played the hero in Westerns but he IS a real life hero cause he was one of the first celebrities who talked about cancer in a public forum.

Telling the truth about the world we see is one of the biggest jobs a novelist can take on. Shading that truth for some misbegotten sensibility leads to shame.

Use the right word. If the word is rape, use that.

As for guidelines, this is why you read widely and deeply in your category. You'd know that rape is not a word  stricken at the editorial stage by knowing what is published these days. Sadly, all too many YA writers and readers know it is the truth of this world.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"Sadly, all too many YA writers and readers know it is the truth of this world."

For all of us regarding the truth of this world, sad indeed.
Well said Janet.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kitty said...

some of you will remember when the word cancer was never said aloud, let alone on television, and Eugene Jerome has a theory why.

Adib Khorram said...

Thank you for this, Janet.

I find it strange that people who won't bat an eye to kids murdering kids (in THE HUNGER GAMES) blanch at references to sex and sexuality in YA.

Susan said...

"Telling the truth about the world we see is one of the biggest jobs a novelist can take on. Shading that truth for some misbegotten sensibility leads to shame."

I want to stitch this on a pillow and cuddle it. Sharing our truths is both the responsibility and the gift of the writer.

Julie Weathers said...


G.R.R. Martin commented on something similar once. He said something to the effect you can bury an axe in a man's head and no one will say a word, but when it comes to sex everyone gets up in arms.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

The trick is to NOT be considered YA these days. The category seems so broad that it has lost all meaning to me. If you write fantasy and the protagonist is young, it will be pigeon holed into YA based on first ten pages.

I had to age up my book to get it out of the YA world and the restrictive word count that seems attached. I write fantasy - epic fantasy. I have been much frustrated by this YA craze. Would David Eddings be considered YA if he was publishing the Belgariad today? I think he would have to be, but lucky for him his place on the fantasy shelf is well-assured. Trying to get my place is making blood shoot out of my eyes.

Sorry for rant. It’s Monday, my head aches, my day job is intruding and there’s no coffee. I am seriously thinking of turning around and going home as soon as rush hour is over.

Kathy Joyce said...

I checked out my books at the school library (in retrospect, such a small underbooked place) in fifth or sixth grade. The librarian reprimanded me for selecting a Hardy Boys book. "That's for younger kids, you shouldn't be reading that." I took it anyway. Finding a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew that I hadn't already read was a rare treat.

Many (many!) years later, I still remember the librarian's words. She was dead wrong. I think any categorizing of books by age level (I don't mean reading level/capability) is a disservice to readers.

Nathan Holland said...

E.M., I am wondering what you did to 'age up' your book. My fear is that my current novel has a young adult as the protagonist and that is the category it is going to be placed in.

RachelErin said...

I think rape can be harder to pull off in a story because it's been done so badly so often, not that it "doesn't belong there."

Off the top of my head, the most common criticisms or rape in YA are that a) it's an easy horrible thing to put in someone's past, b) it gets used as a way to establish a guy as a villain who later is 'redeemed,' and the girl's story is ignored, c) situations and actions by male characters are portrayed as good sexy that are actually non-consensual and dismissive of what the female character says she wants, d) it's used as a shallow device to show how gritty and evil the world/the villain is (for many, a lot of the rape in GRR Martin falls into this category).

If you think it belongs there, I would do a lot research, even though it sounds like it's mostly for backstory, because the topic does seem to get a higher level of scrutiny from readers. I read in an interview that Leigh Bardugo interviewed several women who were forced into prostitution when it was backstory for one of her characters, so if you need an excuse to read Six of Crows....

Good luck!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Nathan I had exactly the same difficulty with my book, a young protagonist. Although I never said his age, his voice sounded young. I do not want to be YA because of the implied word count restriction that comes with the genre.

I am now at 135,000 words after cutting to 95K and nearly destroying my story because of reading so many agents saying they will not, absolutely refuse to even look at anything with a word count over 100K. I revised and the story is much stronger, but it well over 100k. I may cut some of that on this post beta-read revision although not one beta-reader thought the book too long and I asked for them to tell me.

In order to avoid the YA stigma, first I slightly aged up my secondary protagonist. I also worked on the overall language of the book, explaining less and showing more giving more credit to my audience to work out the subtleties. This is super tricky.

I reread some Robin Hobb (In The Farseer Trilogy, in book one, her protagonist is 6 at the beginning of the book. The story is told in 1st person too, but in retrospect, which is how she accomplishes the age up process). I also reread Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn trilogy where the female protagonist is around 15. However, Ven is surrounded by adults. This is the case in my book as well. I observed the language and world-building seem to move both these series into the fantasy world more than the young adult world.

Then there is George RR Martin. In his Song of Fire and Ice, he has multiple child-age narrators, some quite young (eight). No one would mistake him for YA. His varied narrators with language and content accomplish this. I employ some of the same tactic by varying my narrators between young Husk (17 year old male of gifted intelligence), ageless Phaedra (she is a demi-demon many thousands of years after her damnation), the Silver Swann (a woman of advanced years), and Cy Bagwell (a man of middle years).

All of this seemed to have done the trick with my beta-readers but none of the three are writers, editors, or agents. All of them do read fantasy. So I am not assured on how agents will react when I start querying. It is a battle when your fantasy has a young MC. I think this is because YA is so popular even if it is over-crowded. Also, fantasy is super competitive and I believe agents may feel it is harder to sell straight, non- YA fantasy in light of the typically longer word count. Of course, I could be wrong.

PAH said...

Flannery O'Connor wrote a lot about "truth in fiction" and, as a devout Catholic, the importance of writing the world as it is (i.e., as she sees it) and not depicting the world as she (and the Church or, more importantly, Catholic readers) would like it to be.

"It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life, and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost."

AYL said...

I know kids read up, but is there a new category of YA coming out that is geared only for say 16-21 year olds and not 10-13 year olds? It seems like a lot of YA nowadays is written for 18-25 year olds and not the middle school market of 10-13 year olds. Some people are calling this a crossover genre for lack of a better word. I am not talking New Adult, I am talking very YA but not Adult, New Adult, or YA as it currently exists. I hope this all makes sense.

There is a lot on Youtube about this as well. Here is one person talking about it:

BJ Muntain said...

Back in the 1970s, when Saskatchewan's first telethon started, the wonderful comedic actor Arte Johnson became involved. TeleMiracle accepted offers of grains from farmers, including rapeseed. Arte hated that word, and spoke around it as much as he could. He was much happier when a newer form called canola became more popular.

With all that goes on in YA, it's up to the author what they're comfortable including. A friend is writing YA, and while certain sexual things are allowed in YA, she's not comfortable writing such things involving young people. It's a valid choice to follow your own ideas of propriety. Me, I don't like a lot of gore in my reading or writing (violence is fine).

In the case of both sex and gore, there are ways to write around them and get the same - or even more - 'bang for the buck'.

Colin Smith said...

AYL: When I review YA books, I usually indicate whether I think the book is suited to all ages, or a more "mature" YA audience (16+). Sometimes it's the language, other times it's scenes depicting sex (though sex in YA is often implied, and not graphically depicted) or gruesome bloodshed that I would classify as for "mature" YA. More often, however, it's the subject matter. Some YA deals with issues that are better appreciated by an older audience. Some examples: Marissa Meyers' "Lunar Chronicles" are definitely good for all. Many of John Green's novels are, I would say, really aimed at older YA, both for content and the issues he's dealing with. CJ Lyons's WATCHED is an amazingly sensitive and well-written story where the antagonist is a pedophile/sexual predator. Perhaps better appreciated by an older teen than a younger. But worth reading. In the end, the villain is brought down by one of his victims and a friend, but it's not an easy path for the kids involved, and CJ explores all those feelings of guilt, fear, and shame that come with this. In the end, I'm sure her desire was to embolden kids to speak up.

Of course, these are just my thoughts. But to the point, I think there is a line. It's amazing how just a couple of years can make a difference in a reader's maturity. But I see that with my own kids.

Gayle said...

E.M., have you been looking at agents who specialize in fantasy? I honestly can't give you any specific references, but I believe the consensus I've gleaned from the interwebs is up to 125k *might* be okay for fantasy (as long as it's good obviously). I think I've seen agents say they are open to longer lengths for that genre. And I'm sure I saw somewhere agents say that 80k (not YA), for example, seems too short for fantasy with all the world building needed.

So I hope that is helpful? I'm keeping fingers crossed for myself, as I think the WIP I'm writing now will be longer. The one I have in polishing stage (just letting it breathe a little before going back and doing one more pass/polish) is just a tiny bit over 100k and it could dip under after my final edit.

BJ Muntain said...

EM: Eek! No coffee? Can you call in sick?

Young protags can be adult category, but I think a lot of non-publishing folk think that young protag = YA. Publishing folk think that YA sells well, so there may be pressure there, too. If your voice was young, aging that will help, too. Voice is a big part of the difference between YA and adult.

And wordcount is an iffy indicator of quality. Generally, if an agent refuses to read a book longer than a certain amount, they're not going to be interested in your epic fantasy, anyway. Write your story, not an agent's idea of a story. It will show in the writing, and you'll find the right agent for you.

Gayle said...

I was a pretty sheltered child growing up so I appreciated the different categories of books geared toward younger audiences. I think I was in 6th grade and my reading level was higher than grade level so we switched my book club to a more advanced level. That didn't last long. I received books I wasn't really ready for with more adult themes, got really upset and had my mom switch me back to the lower level.

Back then in the early-90s there really wasn't such a thing as a young adult section if I remember correctly. Once I started reading fantasy almost exclusively I had to read from the adult section and got into some stuff I wasn't ready for. Sometimes I read the whole book anyway and it was fine other than possibly being a little shocking or going over my head, but I read something by Stephen R. Donalson (I think it was the first book in the Thomas Covenant series) where the MC rapes someone in the first few chapters and I couldn't continue reading it and never even tried to read anything else of his again, even though he was still a pretty big author back then.

I would guess most young adults now have been exposed to way more than I was at that age, but it is awesome that there is so much variety so they can find books that feel comfortable and fun to them and also books that might stretch them a little.

Miles O'Neal said...

This was my question, y'all. Thanks, Janet. Those were my assumptions as I read a lot of YA, but it did get me wondering what the guidelines are, if any.

I am surprised to hear people worrying about page count in YA. Consider the Divergent series, the Inheritance Cycle, the Twilight series, and best of all... the final four Harry Potter books. Mine are clocking in closer to the Hunger Games, but that's just how they work out.

Conversely, I am reading a YA paranormal semi-romance short novella. I'm not sure of the word count, but it's definitely under 25K, probably closer to 15K. Its sales are apparently decent.

Miles O'Neal said...

Also, having spent years as a youth pastor, and still being involved with lots of young people, I understand their reality. It's not the pretty little white-washed world so many adults think it is, whether in terms of violence, sex, or anything else.

I wish more adults would engage with, rather than dismiss, young people. The world would be a much better place, and the adults would get more out of it than they can possibly put in.

AYL said...

@Colin Smith: Do you know if that is a new thing for people to draw a line with young YA and older YA? Kind of how there is an MG and an upper MG? It seems like upper MG is turning into what YA used to be in a way (but of course with the protagonists aged accordingly). Just curious.

Colin Smith said...

Hey, Miles! Personally, when considering what may or may not be "problematic" for an agent/editor, I never look at an author's later works--especially a popular author. So, to use HP, I think book 1 is far more instructive on the realities of getting published than, say, book 5. Book 1 has 76,944 words. Book 2, 85,141. It's only when you get to book 3 that the count cracks the 100k mark ( Also, JKR made editing concessions for book 1 she might not have for later books (I'm sure of this given her willingness to allow the US version of Book 1 to be called "SORCERER'S STONE"). I'm certain no publisher would have allowed book 1 to be 190k words long!

Janet can certainly correct me if I'm wrong, but success--especially, sustained critical and popular success--can affect how much an editor will let you get away with. Not to say popular authors get a completely free-hand to do what they want. But, understandably, I think editors are more trusting with the tested-and-proven.

Colin Smith said...

AYL: I know I'm not the only one to make such distinctions, but I don't know if it's an actual *thing* in publishing. Do agents/editors differentiate between younger/older YA? I'm not sure. Another question for Janet, or one of her colleagues. From a reader's perspective, I think the distinction is there. But maybe too much rests on the individual reader to make a rule. Like the movie ratings, there are 14-year-olds that can handle most R movies, and some adults who can't. It depends why the movie is rated R.

Barbara Etlin said...

AYL>, these are the main age categories:

Middle Grade: 8-12
Upper Middle Grade (sometimes called tween): 10-14
Young Adult: 12-18
New Adult: 18-early 20s

The protagonist will usually be at the high end of the age category. In fantasy and historical, the ages can differ from these guidelines. I have read that, if your protagonist is old enough to go to college, the book is NA or adult, not YA.

Of course, readers are individuals with different tastes and reading levels. The groupings are mainly used as a way for booksellers to decide where to shelve the books.

Casey Karp said...

WRT the upper/lower YA and/or MG question: While I think there's some distinction being drawn, as best I can tell, it's primarily by publishers. I've yet to see an agent who says "Only send me young YA." Not saying they're not out there, just that I haven't seen any.

So my assumption would be that if an agent handles YA, they'll take it for any age in the YA range, and then shape their pitches accordingly. One of those things I'd put on my list to ask as part of "The Discussion".

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Nathan, Elise The age of the protagonist doesn't define the category of your ms - the story does. Our own Donna's Dixie Dupree is only eleven, but her story certainly is not middle grade or young adult. Many, many titles feature young protags that are adult stories.

This was one of many good books on craft: WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT. The opening pages have info about word count (if it's okay to post, you'll have to do the linky thing Colin. Although, there's tons of info out there about industry word count:

Colin Smith said...

Barbara: That "college age" is a knotty one for me. My current NaNo project used to involve college students. For the actual writing part (which I'm doing now), I've aged them up and given them jobs, because a) I could do this without affecting the basic story (it would be harder to age them down and make it YA), and b) because as college students, the characters would be too old for YA, but the story doesn't fit what seems to me the pattern of a lot of NA (i.e., a lot more sexual/romance type stuff). Do you (or anyone else) know if NA has branched out beyond the "sexual/romance" rut that seemed for a while to be definitional of the category?

Colin Smith said...

Here ya go, Melanie:

The Sleepy One said...

It's worth noting: YA can be 12 and up, or 14 and up. Writers like Courtney Summers and Ellen Hopkins are usually listed as 14 and up due to the themes of their (amazing) books.

I heard Ellen Hopkins speak not long after she was disinvited to speak at a Texas event and she made a great point that her books aren't for every reader, but for some kids, they're desperately needed. They show teens they're not alone, no matter how dark their problems are.

Bridget Paulson said...

@Kathy Joyce I had a very similar library experience when I was a kid.

In fourth grade, I discovered "The Giver," by Lois Lowry. I was hooked and consumed everything Lowry wrote after that. The following school year, in fifth grade, I wanted to read "The Giver" again, but the new librarian told me I was not old enough to read it. She wouldn't even let me check it out!

Mind you, I had already read the book last year. I informed the librarian of that fact, and you know what happened? She actually scolded me for reading something above my reading level. She said, "the content was too mature for someone my age."

I went home and cried. Thankfully, my mother; a teacher herself, disagreed and told the librarian off. That feeling of shame though, that I had done something wrong, stuck with me. For a long time, I was nervous to check out books from her. I was afraid of being judged again.

To this day, I'm still angry about it...What kind of a librarian reprimands a child for advanced reading?

Kathy Joyce said...

Bridget, I sometimes wonder if that's exactly what we're doing by continuing to parse book categories by age. What about just roaming the shelves until you find what you like? It dismays me that so much of what has been pushed at my kids at their age-level literature is fantasy. Nothing against fantasy, but there's so much more! But "more" doesn't get pushed to kids because it's not YA. Am I just an old curmudgeon?

AYL said...

@Barbara Etlin and @Colin Smith, thank you so much for your comments on my question. ^_^

Nathan Holland said...

ALL THE FISH IN THIS SHARK POND: Here is my situation. Protagonist is 17. Supporting characters range from 6 to a few millennia old. Fantasy book around the 120K length. There story line is fighting to save a world that he doesn't belong in and shouldn't be in, but at the same time face 17 y/o problems with a broken family (trying to figure out who he is).

It feels I have elements of both. Do certain elements of one preclude it being another? What do you market it as?

E.M. Thank you for that thorough answer. It was more than I was hoping for. Blessings on your novel.

Bridget Paulson said...

@Kathy Joyce - not at all!

Another Lois Lowry favorite of mine was Number the Stars. I also vividly remember reading a book who's protagonist was a 12-year old boy, dying of leukemia. Can't remember the name of that one, but both stories opened my eyes to part of the real world that I hadn't realized existed. Added bonus: I learned about things that weren't being taught to me in school yet.

If kids are primarily pushed fantasy, they're missing gems like those. Then again, if the key is to get kids excited about reading...fantasy certainly seems to have achieved that goal...

Colin Smith said...

Nathan: If the voice is YA, and/or it's told from the protagonist's first-person POV, then I'd say write and shop it as YA Fantasy. If you read enough YA, you should get a feel for the voice. If you're still not sure, make sure you have some beta readers who are well versed and attuned to YA.

Nathan Holland said...

Colin: It is told in third-person POV. I have read quite a bit of MG and YA fantasy, and honestly, the voice does not seem to be congruent with those. Even the action scenes to be of a caliber a bit more then what I am used to in YA fantasy. If I do end up realizing that it is more fitting of a YA, does the word count then become and issue?

P.S. How do you get the bold lettering in the address of a post?

Colin Smith said...

Nathan: I'm not an agent, so take this for what it's worth. As your debut, I would pare that word count as low as you can. But if 120K is as low as you can go without killing the voice and the story, then query it at 120K. Most agents I've read are savvy to the fact that Fantasy usually requires a higher word count. Just be sure if you get requests, the agent reads a story that's all muscle and no fat. :)

To bold: Use the "b" tags around the text you want to bold. < b > (without the spaces) before the text, and < /b > (again, without the spaces) after the text.

Nathan Holland said...

Colin: Thanks for the helpful comments. I will cut all the fat I can. My fear is that, even looking through the rough draft (minus the last chapter), I will be adding in more character development, essentially lengthening the MS.

Also I think you should be allowed to count all your posts in your NaNo word count.

John Davis Frain said...

Whoa, Nathan. Colin already has 2,000 words today (give or take 65), so he doesn't need the help of his comment posts.

With the opposing viewpoint? Me, with 0 words today. Alas, I have eight handwritten pages, but they don't count until I've tapped the keys.

Today's Nano idea: In the early part of your manuscript, give your heroine (or hero, I'm equal opportunity) something extra to juggle. Sure, the inciting incident just launched her into the story. Now, force her to take on an additional obstacle. And voila, you've just created a subplot.

Before you decide what that additional obstacle is, come up with eleven other ideas to throw out. Don't go with your first idea, even if you're a pantser.

You know what I'm doing here, right--PROCRASTINATING! Kick me out, please. Okay, okay, I'm leaving on my own...

AJ Blythe said...

Adib, I had a similar conversation with friends recently. We decided kids grow up reading/watching gradually increasing violence from Wile E Coyote unsuccessfully blowing up Roadrunner, to book 1 Harry Potter, to Book 7 Harry Potter, to Thor and so on. Obviously there isn't a gradual introduction to sex.

Combined this with the fact parents don't think their kids will machete someone to death, while they are pretty sure sex is on the minds of their teenagers, and I think that explains the hesitation for parents wanting their kids reading sex in YA.

Miles O'Neal said...

Colin! Great points, and I mainly agree. I think 190K would probably be an even tougher than normal first sale, but 120K probably wouldn't make an agent bat an eye if your query wowed them. That's what editing is for.

My point was simply that word count for YA is not as restrictive as some authors fear.