Monday, March 7, 2011

YA vs. Adult: what's so different, anyway?

One of my biggest pet peeves about submissions is reading queries from authors who are clearly trend-chasers.

Currently, the biggest offender: adult writers who call their novels YA.

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To start, let me quote Flux, the YA imprint of Lywellyn’s tagline: “Where young adult is a point of view, not a reading level.”

Obviously, I can’t speak on the actual definition from Flux, but for the purposes of the blog post: Just what does this mean?

Well, first, it means that AGE is not the determining factor of a YA.

Case in point:

Below are two passages. Both characters speaking are 17 years old:

I’m sitting in Grandma Meagram’s room, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle with her. It’s a bright cool April morning and I can see red tulips whipping in the wind in the garden. Mama is down there planting something small and white over by the forsythia. Her hat is almost blowing off and she keeps clapping her hand to her head and finally takes the hat off and set her work basket on it.

I haven’t seen Henry in almost two months; the next date on the List is three weeks away. We are approaching the time when I don’t see him for more than two years. I used to be so casual about Henry, when I was little; seeing Henry…


It was easy enough to sneak out of school. I knew that from experience. This time, all I had to do was wait until Mrs. Higgins had led everyone onto the outdoor track and then slip behind the bleachers and walk down to the other opening in the chain-link fence.
Sneaking back in, though…that would be a bitch. But I’d just have to deal with that when I got back. Like always.I shivered in the cool morning breeze. It was 7:00 a.m., or a little past, on the first day in May, and it wasn’t nearly warm enough to be out walking around in the stupid thin T-shirt and short shorts they made us wear for gym.

In case you didn’t guess, the first passage is adult, from The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the second is YA, from The Ghost and the Goth*. Clearly, the age of these characters did NOT determine if these were adult or YA books (though as a general rule, no, there aren’t any adult POVs in YA). Neither did the tense, or the point of view.

And that means: you CAN’T just find and replace all mentions of “twenty-three” with “seventeen” and slap YA on the cover page of your manuscript.

What determines YA is VOICE.
There a sophistication and maturity in adult books, no matter the age of the character, that shines through in the voice. To try and break down some elements of what this sophistication and maturity consists of:

1. The language (or word choice) is different.

2. The descriptive nature of the narrative is told in a different way.

Take how Clare tells us about the springtime: “It’s a bright cool April morning and I can see red tulips whipping in the wind in the garden.” Lovely. Gives us a wonderful sense of the world and a clear picture of this day. WE can feel it without her having to tell us how it feels to her; the I is barely present.

Now look at how Alona describes it: “I shivered in the cool morning breeze. It was 7:00 a.m., or a little past, on the first day in May, and it wasn’t nearly warm enough to be out walking around in the stupid thin T-shirt and short shorts they made us wear for gym.” This also gives us a very clear image of what this morning is like, but we experience it THROUGH HER eyes. We are COMPLETELY focused on HER world, HER experiences, how SHE is letting us see this.

In other words:

3. YA voices are very ego-centric.

Ok, ok, I’ll admit; these are definitely fine lines to walk on. More commercial genres of adult have voices that can sound very close to YA. Take Janet Evanovich; her writing is as sarcastic and “I” centered as any teen novel. What sets these apart are the mature situations -- not to say that YA books don’t, or can’t, deal with mature situations, but HOW the characters confront them is very different.

For example:

Mom starts on beer number six. It’s the one I call the Talking Beer….That’s why we’re here at the cemetery, after all. To mourn another lost boyfriend. To add another name to the Men Who Ditched Leona Fitch list.
“I thought he was going to be the one,” she continues. “He was so thoughtful.”
She’s right. Kyle was thoughtful. He gave me a brown bobble-head dog the first time Mom brought him home to meet me. And he earned bonus points for the fact that—in the six weeks he dated Mom—I never once caught him staring at my rolls of fat or my massive chest.

–Blue Plate Special* (YA)

This is sarcastic, but it’s also painful. A tough situation sparks sarcasm, but also injury to the teen soul. Stephanie Plum wouldn’t be so bitter about her mom’s drinking; it doesn’t have to affect her anymore. The character here, on the other hand, completely internalizes this situation, and when prompted to think of a moment of thoughtfulness in relation to her mother’s boyfriends, relates it back to herself to understand, for us to understand.

We are only capable of feeling her pain through her view of the world, no matter what the situation, or how sarcastic her voice.

I suppose you can think of it like a maturity thing; not that all adults are mature, but rather, YA voice vs. adult voice is certainly going to be less self-assured, less reflective of the world/life, less put into perspective. An adult may not have thought, above, that her mother's boyfriend was thoughtful because he wasn't caught staring at her fat rolls, but rather because he was kind to her mother, remembered her mother's birthday once when no one else did.

This is part of the reason YA novels can be so much more drama-tastic and angsty; the reader experiences the young adult perspective (ego-centric and not quite "worldly" just yet).

4. YA novels are experienced more than watched

What I mean by this is that YA voice is directly relatable; the reader feels like he or she is in the character's shoes. An adult novel, on the other hand, is enjoyed like one enjoys a movie - just as swept up and emotional as YA, but more in the style of watching the characters playing out the scenes, rather than feeling that emotional tug as if YOU are the character, playing out the scene. A virtual reality game (YA) vs. watching a movie (adult).

It's part of the reason, I think, that first person is so popular in YA; it's more directly relatable, and offers less distance to a reader. It allows the reader to directly put him or herself in the character's shoes more easily.

It makes sense, in terms of demographic; don't quote me on this, but 47% of 18-24 year olds read YA, whereas only 25% of 25 and up do. Maybe this is because the younger readers can remember and tap into the young adult emotions more readily, and so more easily put on the YA voice helmet and step into the YA characters' shoes?

(sometimes) 5. Sentence structure is different

YA tends to be shorter, snapier, less complex; less of my favorite little ; and more .

In all of this, I'm not trying to say that there is only ONE YA voice; there are a myriad of voices, just as there are people. But, the voices have elements of what I mentioned above; voice is defined by experience, by perspective, and so how COULD a YA voice EVER sound like an adult? It wouldn't be true, or realistic, to the age group.

I know my examples probably aren’t the most brilliant, but hopefully it at least clears up a few things on YA vs. adult – and why ADULT authors can’t just “become” YA.

And for reference: here is some further reading, on MG vs. YA
Is it MG or YA? on
The Difference between MG and YA by Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider


  1. I have heard this classified several times and I think yours was the most in depth I've heard yet. Thanks for the post. This was very helpful.

  2. Excellent post. The way you broke down the various excerpts was fantastic and really highlighted the differences between YA and Adult voice.

  3. Thank you so much for this post. As the previous comments have said it was really in-depth and helpful! :D

  4. I think you are a genius. I was on a panel this weekend and was trying to explain this. Next time I'm just going to point them in your direction.

  5. I've heard people say the themes are different often times in YA and Adult novels, but you make a very good point. I hadn't thought about ti but I have book 1 in both a YA and Adult series that both deal with genetic mutation. Yet they don't sound the same. The characters are different and the voices are very important in both.

    I wonder about some authors who suddenly write a YA novel when they haven't before. I know some do it because that's just the novel that comes to them but I imagine a couple are doing it because YA is the "it" category right now. I didn't plan to write YA in the beginning but then the stories came so I keep writing them even though I like my adult novels too.

  6. Thank you thank you thank you!!!

  7. This is really interesting. I've never actually thought about this in so much detail. I would be interested in some examples in 3rd person, although I assume that these follow a similar pattern as ones in 1st person.

  8. Well said, thanks for this post. It's nice to get a few things clarified :)

  9. Love your analysis of excerpts. Really clear! I haven't read Janet Evanovich's books before (but my mom loves them) -- it would be great to see an excerpt from one of those, too, to compare to Blue Plate Special!

  10. This is a fantastic post. Thank YOU!

  11. Awesome post, Natalie. Great examples! I see now why you were feeling so frustrated with the trend-chasing. ;)

  12. Love this! You did a great job illustrating what makes good YA voice so compelling--and voice is something writers (and agents, I think) struggle to define. Thanks. :)

  13. Natalie this was a great post. Loved the examples and I think they illustrated the point beautifully. It also made me add two books to my TBR pile, so thanks for that, too :-)

  14. ahh--thanks for this handy post, Natalie! I've been asked this question before and you shoulda seen me floundering around for the right answer. :D Have a great week~

    (P.S. like the new Alice look! cute~ :o)

  15. Great blog post, Natalie. I hadn't really put my finger on the differences between YA and adult before, but I think you nailed it.


  16. Thank you for this post! I've been trying to explain this to some people in my critique group. Some of them seem to think that if a character is under 18, it's automatically YA.

    Anyway, I think that's why I've decided to write for adults, even though my characters are 17-20 years old. I have a hard time getting into that ego-centric mindset that's often needed for a YA.

    YA seems to be the "IT" thing to write now, and while I love many YA books and authors that are out there, I've decided not to follow that trend :)

  17. I think your examples are brilliant and spot on. Maybe because I realize I'm doing it right in my current

    But that's also because I am not trying to rein in my voice any longer. My inner angry teen wants to be heard.

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Hello! I'm a new follower. Thank you for such an interesting post. I really appreciate your thoughts.

    I have always looked at the difference between YA and adult as simply a matter of intended audience. I struggle with the idea of defining a YA voice so specifically because it is so limiting. Yes, some traits (egocentric, certain diction) may appeal to young adults more than others, but do we really want to limit YA literature in this manner? Are young adults really so limited in what they want to read? As a high school English teacher, I found that many teen readers are looking outside of YA because they wanted to read new and different fiction.

    Perhaps i am being naive or not understanding the points made in the post, and I certainly don't want to offend--just interested in your thoughts!

  20. Hi Heidi,

    Excellent point; I wasn't trying to say that teens should be limited to YA voices/novels, or that these are the only parameters - there are ALWAYS exceptions - but rather that these are a few of the main reasons agents and editors market/pitch certain titles a certain way, and that an adult book can't just "become" YA to be "hot."

    MANY adult books will appeal to teen readers as well, but they aren't going to be placed in the "teen" section of the library because yes, although personally I agree that we shouldn't have to limit the definition of YA or what can and can't go into YA novels, there ARE limits in YA regardless - for example, explicit romance-novel sex just won't make the cut, no matter if a teen is mature enough to read it. THAT is a matter of what library boards, educators, and booksellers have deemed appropriate.

    In fact, I find that things are a little more defined now than they used to be, as the children's genres have expanded and grown. Many classic novels are taught as YA, though today, they may not have made it to that section.

    But this, of course, seems to be diving into a whole new blog topic... :)


  21. Such a great post, Natalie. You've explained the differences so clearly it's like a oh-yeah-now-I-get-it moment. Thanks! :D

  22. Natalie-

    Thank you so much for your response. I certainly see your point, and I do agree.

    It just has to with point of view. As writers, I believe it is our job to be creative and push the lines and not always think about what is saleable. Agents come from a different point of view--not that agents aren't interested in creativity--but they are more constrained by the bounds of the market. Or perhaps this point of view is why I'm still unpublished :D

    Thank you for your thoughts and for investing your time into this blog!

  23. (Sorry if you're getting this twice... the window just closed on me!)

    This explains it so clearly - thank you!

    Now can I ask... what is the major difference between a YA voice and a New Adult voice? New Adult being the category (so I'm told) where main characters are college-age.

  24. Great post. Lots of helpful information. I always think I write YA 'cuz I never totally grew up ;)

  25. Excellent post. My WIP split in two when I started writing a young side character (SC) and it just didn't fit. The SC became very strong (story-wise and I couldn't drop it.) The main WIP is definitely adult. The SC WIP was definitely YA, but I couldn't figure out why. Now I understand what happened.

    Thanks Mucho,

  26. Well said, Natalie! I have found (and correct me if I'm wrong) that perhaps the most essential task of a YA writer is to get the reader to live the story through the main character.

    I think this can sometimes be the case with adult literature as well, but with YA readers get to experience so many "first time" things--adventures, falling in love, etc. and feel the accompanying excitement, anxiety, wonderment, disillusionment, and so on.

    I consider it more immersive than egocentric. And it applies to third person just as much as first or second.

    2 cent deposit, NO RETURNS.


  27. I clicked over to this post from the Adventures in Children's Publishing blog about voice (and 1st cpt critique) and it struck me again the importance of capturing the voice immediately. As soon as I started reading the section from Blue Plate Special, I knew what book it was from and that it was from the beginning of the book b/c the voices of all the girls stood out so much.

  28. Great post. Part I of my (adult literary fiction) novel is written in a girl/teen's POV, and a few people have said, "I guess this is YA" for that reason alone. That frustrates me and even made me second-guess myself once, but then I came back to my senses.

  29. Thank you for an enlightening post. I'm in the process of developing my own YA voice. Thanks for giving me a filter to use when working on it.

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  32. I really enjoyed your post. Thank you. Very helpful.

  33. No, really, those are GREAT examples! Important stuff to remember. Especially explains why some manuscripts "work" and some don't in YA. The ones that don't sound too adult.

  34. This makes it so clear. Great idea to put these examples side by side and I love the distinction with the degree of ego-centeredness. The feeling is more intense and immediate in YA. I would never have put my finger on this, but it is very, very true. I am dying to see how authors like Ellen Hopkins and Melissa de la Cruz translate to adult. (Beautifully, I am sure.) Because there are so many adult writers who try to do YA and I feel I can't connect to the voice at all.


  35. In the spirit of true YA....that post was SUPER COOL. Write on Natalie!


  36. Great post. I live for YA and write it, but recently I decided to give adult romantic suspense a try. Problem is, I had no idea how to write in an adult voice. Thanks to this post, I now have a better idea. Of course, I might in the end decide I'm much happier just sticking with YA.

  37. Great post and examples of the different voices. I was also really interested in your links. Do you agree that you should not write about a 14 year old character as they are too much between MG and YA? I'm really struggling with this because I want my new YA project to be about a 14 year old. Thanks.

  38. really excellent, thank you

  39. "What determines YA is VOICE. "


    Thank you for this post. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  40. Great explanation of the difference! I know you said "adult" authors can't just become "YA", but a lot of them seem to be doing it: Patterson, Kenyon, Keaton, Lee, a number of romance writers...they seem to be making the leap.

  41. Thanks, Natalie! Without limiting parameters, I think your advice is really just a great jumping off point. Voice and pov is something to consider when discovering your MC and his/her motivations and how he/she will see the world and deal with it. I know as a teen, I was super self-involved. There were a few key things I cared about - acceptance and boyfriends are two that spring to mind.

    The things you care about as an adult are vastly different! (usually...) You definitely see the world in a new way. Clearly, voice for YA and Adult need to differ. Appreciate the awesome breakdown you gave us!

  42. HI, Natalie! I'm dropping in from Rachel's post. Happy I did as I really enjoyed your clarifications. Thank you for taking the time to explain so much. I didn't realize a new genre had emerged, New Adult. BTW, I've tried to read Janet Evanovich's books but just can't. How she slams verbs around drives me nuts, ie, the sentence with the hat flapping. OY!

  43. THANK YOU! I have read so many mediocre books and lately that seem to be by established adult authors. They use their leverage as established authors to get published as YA authors (Magnolia League, C.C. Hunter's crap, P.C. Cast's crap. It really angers me. They're just chasing money, not writing anything of quality. The most cynical of all are the ones that copy the Twilight formula practically word for word (Obsidian, Sophie Jordan, etc.) I am glad an agent has noticed this, too.

  44. Thanks Natalie. This has actually reminded me how to tackle sequels for my series, I was blind to my beginnings I'll be honest. I've had unfortunate experiences with people I've admired, and it made me push onward like a titan, I forgot my conscious identity somewhere along the line which would have distorted the voice for future works. Natalie, you don't know how much this blog post has helped me. :) Thank you.

  45. Good and another post from you admin :)

  46. This helped me understand a lot. I'm a sixteen-year-old who wrote an adult fiction novel and I've been doubting like crazy, but this completely reaffirmed my belief in my book. Thanks so much!

  47. Can a YA book have a main character who is 16, but two other more minor pov characters that are adults, her father and a serial killer? The main part of the book is about her.

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