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.
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.
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 Kidlit.com
The Difference between MG and YA by Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider