In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,
Bookstores have an MG area and a YA area. They’re not sharpening their saws to build a special hybrid shelf just for your project. These guidelines will help you make an educated decision [of which market you’re writing for].
It’s important as a writer to learn the difference between middle grade and young adult.
Don’t ever think you can lump them together, as Mary Kole says.
Sure, there’s the rare instance like the Harry Potter series, where the first three books are middle grade and then the rest of the books veer more into YA territory, with Harry aging and the themes growing darker.
But in pretty much all cases, MG and YA are separate things. Yes, they’re both kidlit. Yes, many literary agents will represent authors who write both MG and YA, and many editors will be on the lookout to buy both MG and YA. And many authors write both successfully!
But when it comes to your novel, it should never be a little of both. It should be either MG or YA. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. It honestly wasn’t until I picked up Mary Kole’s book in 2014 that I finally began to understand the major and minor differences between MG and YA.
Let’s take a look at the essentials of young adult fiction!
Young Adult Essentials
Here are some rules you should try at all times to stick to when writing YA books…
- Your main character or characters should be fifteen to seventeen years old. Sixteen is typically ideal.
Of the twenty books I’ve written, fourteen of them are young adult. This is the market I love to write for the most. I’ve written all kinds of YA. Realistic YA, fantasy YA, horror YA, thriller YA, LGBTQ YA. I’ve tried so many different kinds of stories for the young adult market.
And one thing I have found over the years that has brought me the most success is writing main characters that are sixteen years old. This age seems to be the sweet spot. Seventeen works, too. And fifteen as well, although I’ve never actually written a YA to date about a fifteen year old.
Keep in mind that most YA readers are younger than the age of your protagonist. Like eleven, twelve, thirteen. These readers want to read up, so sixteen or seventeen is typically ideal for your character’s age.
One thing I’d recommend? Try not to write about an eighteen year old. A literary agent once told me to my face, “I can’t sell YA with an eighteen-year-old protagonist.” I was told this five years ago. Maybe things have changed.
But if you can, try to make your protagonist sixteen unless there’s a really strong and specific reason why the character needs to be older or younger.
- The length of your young adult novel can go as short as 50,000 words, but unless you’re writing fantasy, try not to go over 90,000 words.
I’ve tried all sorts of lengths in my YA books. The longest one I ever queried was 82,000 words. The shortest one was 58,000 words. I didn’t have success with either one.
You want to know the lengths of the YA novels I did have success querying? Between 65,000 and 70,000 words. That seems to be the sweet spot for YA word counts because it’s long enough to tell a complete story but not too long to overwhelm any of the agents who might request your book. 75,000 is fine, too, of course. 80,000 probably won’t raise any eyebrows.
But I’d think long and hard about querying a novel that was longer than 90,000 words unless you have a really good reason for it. If you’re writing hard science fiction or fantasy, then maybe. But as soon as you hit 100,000 words and up, you’re going to have lots of agents click over to the next query letter in a heartbeat, remember that.
- You can go edgier in your subject matter in YA than you can in MG.
Honestly this is a big reason why I often choose to write books for the YA market than the MG market. I don’t like to feel restricted about what I can and cannot do in my storytelling, and what’s so exciting about YA is that you can basically write any story you want, without restrictions, without too many rules or guidelines.
The truth is that librarians and parents are much stricter toward what MG books kids might read, but there’s not as harsh a strictness for YA books kids might read. In YA, for the most part, almost anything goes.
A few more rules to keep in mind…
- Teens have a sensitive, built-in BS-o-meter, so for the YA market especially, authenticity is super important.
- Realistic, contemporary stories do really well in YA.
- There are fewer opportunities to target boy audiences in YA than there are in MG. You’re taking a gamble if you target your YA to a solely male audience.
- Conflicts in YA tend to be bigger and all-consuming and are resolved in a more bittersweet note than MG.
Pay close attention to that first one. It’s critical that you bring authenticity and reality to your YA novels. Even if you’re no longer a teenager and aren’t around a lot of teenagers, you need to find that authenticity through any means necessary!
At the end of the day, feel free to do what you want in your YA writing.
Follow that story you love, that compels you. It’s important to take chances in YA and offer something new and exciting we’ve never seen before.
At the same time, be sure to keep at least most of these rules in the back of your mind, especially as you begin the process of writing your latest novel.
Once you’ve master the essentials of young adult fiction, there’s no telling the kind of incredible stories you’ll be able to create!