Saturday, March 5
Standing in Be’tween: Writing for a Younger Market
When I first wrote The Shifter, I wasn’t sure what market it was going to be for. My protagonist, Nya, was 17, so it could have been an adult or a YA novel. By chapter three I knew it was YA. The voice, the tone, the story, all pointed in that direction. It was actually the story that made me realize this was my writing niche.
When my agent was submitting it, editors kept calling it a middle grade book. This surprised me, because in my mind, I’d written YA. After I sold it, it was called an upper middle grade novel, intended for ages 10 to 14. The ’tween years.
My editor’s reasons?
YA these days was darker, grittier, sexier. The Shifter was lighter (despite the dark themes) and more adventurous. They felt it would appeal to the slightly younger reader who was looking for adventure and not so much romance.
Of course, this did entail a few tweaks to the story. I lowered all the ages a few years. A more risqué occupation of one of the secondary characters had to be changed to something more G-rated. Most of the swear words came out. The sexual tension between Nya and the love interest had to be sweeter and more innocent.
In The Shifter, none of these changes affected the story at all, so I had no problem making them. But as I wrote book two, Blue Fire, and the story grew darker and the violence greater, it became more of a challenge to maintain that upper middle grade feel. This was even harder in book three, where the story gets darker still.
How do you show the horrors of war, when your younger readers are 8-10? When there are mom’s out there who read it to their kids before bed? My bad guys do some pretty despicable things, and even Nya’s powers aren’t all sweet and light (she shifts pain from person to person, and has even killed this way). How do you show a budding romance with older teens (15 and 17) that the 14 year old won’t think is “childish,” yet still keep it innocent for the 10 year old? How do you handle killing? How can you make the story entertaining for the 8 year old and the 16 year old at the same time?
Like I do with any writing quandary, I dove into point of view and let the characters decide. Nya is who she is, so I let her show me her world and her problems as she’d see them. That way, I’d be looking at what my 15-year-old protagonist could handle, which hopefully would translate to what the readers could handle. War had been a part of Nya’s life for so long that she saw it differently than just how violent it was. She could describe it in ways that showed the horror, but weren’t so graphic it would give younger readers nightmares. I let her tell her personal story, not just the war story.
This worked for the romance, too. I figured any girl who’s in as much trouble all the time as Nya is, probably doesn’t have a whole lot of time for romance. So her relationship with Danello is growing slowly, developing from mutual friendship and respect rather than that rush of teen passion. She just doesn’t have time for long, lingering looks and daydreaming. She’s too busy trying to save lives and stop a war. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their sigh-worthy moments, it’s just not the driving force behind the story.
As for Danello, well, he knows Nya well enough to know that any clingy boyfriend stuff is just going to tick her off. He’s there for her, but he knows his best bet is to wait until she’s ready for more. There’s too much for her to deal with already. It was actually fun to write a slow-burning romance. These are two people who really are good for each other, and if they both survive to the end of the trilogy, might actually get their happily ever after.
That leaves the killing. This was the hardest part to balance, because killing is something that you can’t do halfway. In war, people kill and people die. It’s something Nya struggles with the entire series, so I couldn’t skimp on it. But I also couldn’t turn her into a cold-blooded killer or make it seem like killing was the way to solve all her problems. Not only was that not her, but it might be too much for my younger readers.
I tried to treat it like is it in our world now. Killing happens, we hear about it, sometimes tragedy strikes and we’re part of it. Sometimes Nya has no choice, sometimes it’s self defense, and sometimes it’s an accident. It’s real, but not graphic.
Writing a story that crosses age markets can be tough, but it’s a great age with readers who love stories and can’t wait to devourer the next one. During my school visits, the students ask tons of questions about what could happen in the story, and really get into the world and characters.
And anyone who loves reading that much is worth overcoming a few difficulties to write for.
Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at YA Highway.