When I was first approached about writing a guest post for PubCrawl, I was both flattered and alarmed. I was delighted to join the ranks of accomplished writers and publishing professionals who write here regularly, but I was uncertain about what new insights I could add to the mix. Then I remembered a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately: the fluid and sometimes nebulous nature of category in fiction.
I recently read a submission that showed a lot of promise, a novel that the author had pitched as a young adult western with fantasy elements. After reading halfway through the manuscript, I came to the seemingly bizarre conclusion that this project was not YA at all, and that it was instead either middle grade or straight-up adult fiction.
That the author had classified this project as YA was understandable: the main character was a 15-year-old boy, and the general consensus these days is that teen protagonist = young adult novel. But the voice lacked the close perspective and self-awareness that I’ve come to expect in young adult fiction—it focused more on the immediacy of the adventure at hand, which works well in middle grade fiction (for readers ages 8-12, on average). At the same time, the graphic and violent plot twists had more of an adult feel to them. Ultimately, my response to the author was that this story showed promise, but that I disagreed with the contention that this was YA—I suggested that he either commit to the narrative style and make this a middle grade adventure novel (and perhaps make the main character younger), or further emphasize the darker tone to make the story solidly adult.
In the current publishing climate, the need to fit your story into one category can feel daunting, even arbitrary. It might seem like novels are divided up firmly into age-defined categories: middle grade, young adult, adult…and now the burgeoning category of new adult (or is it a genre? This question is worthy of an entirely separate post!). But keep in mind that these categories are not defined by the age of your characters so much as the style or manner in which your story is told. An excellent example of this is Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles (Random House, 2012), in which the main character is a 12-year-old girl. At first glance, the age of the protagonist would suggest that this is a tale for middle grade readers; the story is solidly adult, however, which becomes evident once you consider the story’s narrative voice and tone.
Look, I’m not suggesting that age or setting has nothing to do with category, or that whether your story is YA or adult shouldn’t be something you consider while you’re writing it. What I am suggesting is that you keep an open mind about where your book might best fit on bookshelves—for marketing purposes, certainly, but also so your story finds its ideal audience. You can write with a category in mind, but don’t write to that category.
So, prioritize: suspect your category, but know your story!
BROOKS SHERMAN is a literary agent with FinePrint Literary Management. He is on the lookout for adult fiction that runs the gamut from literary and upmarket to speculative (particularly urban/contemporary fantasy rooted in realistic settings, horror/dark fantasy, and magical realism), as well as historical and crime fiction. On the children’s side, he is seeking middle grade novels of all genres (but particularly fantasy adventure and contemporary), and is open to YA fiction of all types except paranormal romance. He would especially love to get his hands on a dark and/or funny contemporary YA project.
On a more personal note: Brooks is thrilled to be living once more in Brooklyn, after a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in bucolic West Africa and a one-year stint in the savage jungles of Hollywood. As befitting his chosen career in publishing, he subsists on a diet of breadcrumbs and bourbon. You can find him on Twitter at @byobrooks.