Saturday, March 05, 2011

Standing in Be’tween: Writing for a Younger Market

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.


  1. You've done it again, Janice. You've been on fire this week. Good job!

    I struggled with the exact opposite of your experience in that I feel most of what I write is MG, but people often (Especially a few published writers like you who I've swapped work with) feel the writing itself is more apt for YA, and since most of my fiction has talking animals, which folks constantly assume it must be for preschoolers, and as such, no one over 5 would read it unless to a younger child or sibling, and since most of my characters are under 13, this is problematic.

    Because simplicity in the vein of Dick and Jane, Amelia Bedeilia, and most everything by James Marshall, is not my strength.

    Just because some of my fiction isn't accessible to the dyslexic or severely autistic, doesn't mean every kid under 13 can't read and enjoy my writing.

    I mean, there are kids who can read and enjoy Dickens and Hemingway as early as 9, there are readers my age or a bit older who find it no easier to read Dickens or Shakespeare, but it doesn't mean we're weak readers either.

    I so hope I'm not the only one who feels this way. I know I'm not, but I haven't met many.

  2. I read once that Madelaine L'Engle said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

    It seems that some kids' lit tackles subjects that are too difficult for adults to bear, with our accumulated damage.

    TK Kenyon

  3. My first novel, The Well of Sacrifice, included human sacrifice and bloodletting ceremonies. I was surprised when the publisher listed it as "for ages nine and up." Yet it has been used in many schools in fourth or fifth grade when they teach about the Maya (sometimes after heated discussions between teachers and the school board). I think it helps that the violence is portrayed in context and not glamorized. Plus, "boys like the gory stuff," according to the teachers, so maybe they are more willing to read historical fiction with a female lead.

  4. The issues you worried about (how to show the horrors of war and budding romance) reminded me of the Harry Potter series. A ton of tweens read the books and they progressively get more dark and violent. There's also more romance in the later books. I feel like Harry Potter readers grow with the books. I can see the same happening for your books.

  5. Thanks for tackling this subject. So much of what is age appropriate depends on how a subject is handled.

  6. Yet another great post. I'm sure that all children's book authors wrestle with some form of this. I write YA and had to continually remind myself to use the appropriate language for the group (13-17 year olds). My daughter would read something and say 'Mom, I wouldn't say that like that. What you wrote was funny but for a middle schooler.'

    I cheated a lot and went to her facebook page and just read what kids were talking about and how they used their words (confusing with the text language saturating it) but I found this useful. I also people watch...and TV watch.

  7. Taurean: Thanks! You're not. There's a reader for pretty much everything out there and everyone has their likes and dislikes. Even in MG there's a wide range from younger readers to older tweens and teens.

    TK: That's one of my favorite quotes, and it's so true. :)

    Chris: That's great! The historical aspect no doubt helped that. Boys do like the gory, and about half my readership for The Shifter is actually boys. They WILL read a female lead if the story grabs them.

    Ghenet: That's what I hope. There's two years real time between Shifter and Darkfall. And I think they'll be ready for it after the first two books (crosses fingers)

    Chicory: It really does. YA has proven anything can work if done right.

    Dawn: That's so awesome you have her as a resource. I've heard a few authors say they use Facebook as research. It's a great idea.

  8. I love upper middle grade books and am glad yours is one because it's so awesome and there is so much YA out there. And middle grade kids can read some of the darker parts of your story. Though it sounds like you figured out how to balance it right. Thanks for explaining it to the rest of us.

  9. Chris: I'm male, and I didn't handle gory stuff well as a kid. I was the coward who covered his eyes during the really gruesome parts. I'm better now, but NEVER invite me to a SAW movie marathon.

    I'm better with that now, but I don't like bloodbath battles, and I don't have to be less of a man to feel that way.

    I'm sorry if I'm treading on toes here, but I really think we have to be careful about what we say when talking about gender-specifics that aren't biological, and even then, there are always exceptions.

    If those movies came out in the 80s they'd definitely be scandalized, I'm sure of it. Yeah, I know they're so not for kids, or teens either in my opinion, but not everyone is or will ever be ready for some things in life, and that's OKAY. We tell kids that, but we "Grown-ups" don't always follow the same advice. Though I'm sure it's not always on purpose.

    Janice: I'm glad to hear boys now don't always run away from female leads if the story interest them. that was so a problem when I was a kid.

    I actually liked a lot of the shows aimed at girls because most of the ones aimed at boys were either too graphic, gross, or frankly not my taste. None of the boys felt like me, I wasn't a sports fanatic, I wasn't the class clown in school, and as much as I liked computers and still do, I'm no IT whiz.

    That said, no I did not watch Barbie movies (Okay, one, but I was 10) but things that had female leads or clearly had a stronger female demographics.

    I don't even know how to build a custom website using HTML code, though I will learn to do that one day.

  10. TK: What does L'Engle's quote say to us adults who can't read, enjoy, or understand Dickens and War and Peace before we're 30?

  11. TK: I understand what L'Engle was getting at, but I honestly believe that can be as much an insult to those of us trying to "Grow up" as much as it is a comfort kids happy where they are in life right now.

  12. Sorry, I went all "Barbra Walters" again.

    If I wasn't deathly shy in person, among other things, maybe I'd get into journalism, but the deadlines in the news world are even worse than in publishing. No way can I hack that.

    Journalists in general have my eternal respect for that reason alone.

  13. Taurean: It's interesting to hear you say that.

    My background in writing comes from two angles, first from an ancient literature major (who later changed to a Comp. Sci. major) and as a guy who spent some years working for a newspaper as a writer photographer.

    I look at the undertaking of a novel and I wince. Daily or weekly deadlines are comforting. You get pushed to do it, but you get it done(at 3am) and you send it in. You move on and you start on tomorrow's assignments.

    The fortitude to face the same story day after day, striving to make it all it can be, instead of “well done enough to meet the criteria” is more intimidating than I can express.

    I salute you, the folks that can work that hard and that long on a story to reach the razor's edge of perfection, instead of the stenographic pace of news articles.

  14. Thanks Tom, I think all us novelists appreciate you saying that. But I'm serious of what I said yesterday.

    I've known many people who can do so much in a short time, including rewrites, so much faster than me, and when you just work more slowly, it can be hard to stay motivated when you can't move as fast as others, and you know that every time you try to speed up, you produce worse results.

    Sometimes the time pressure hurts more than it helps. I think it depends a lot on both personal experience and your personality.

    Any time I've been pressured to do something by a short timeline, it drives me nuts, even if I can start a bit in advance, and often do, I either don't finish at all, or what I produce is nothing I feel much confidence in, or I'll just finish after a deadline has passed, and while I've missed my chance for whatever reason, the end result was just better, especially if I had to trim and improve in parts after the first pass.

    But I do appreciate the compliment all us novelists out there.

    Still, working in journalism, however tangentially, you must've seen some examples of people whose ability to hand in quality work on a consistent basis despite the time crunch is a skill few would look down on.

    My grandma's a lot like what you describe, she may fumble a bit at times with her job, but she's way more consistent working under tight deadlines than I am, and not just because she's been around so long, it's just part of her mindset and how she grew up.

  15. That said, Tom, she often tells me what you did, that she lacks the focus I have when I edit and rewrite, as I can work for hours when I'm not overwhelmed and find my rhythm, and I honestly enjoy being in that flow, even if I'm on my umpteenth rewrite/edit session, whereas she'd want to be done as soon as possible at all costs, so that might contribute to her fast performance.

    But as someone who despised timed tests in school, Tom, if I could produce faster results without poor quality, it would help me in some ways.

  16. Janice: Thanks for giving me some solace on the reader thing. It just burns me up that we still put readers in certain boxes for such arbitrary reasons.

    If I have to hear one more writer/agent/editor say things like, "Girls dominate publishing and only girls read without being forced to" or "Girls can do anything, but boys are only cut from one cloth" I'm going to go Simon Cowell/Bill Maher on them.

    But I'll keep it to myself, though if you ask me for my opinion, I will e-mail it to you.

    Sometimes you just have to speak your peace on the page, even if you don't share it with anyone, and I'm sure many people do that.


  17. Natalie: Thanks! I hope I got it right :) We'll know in seven months.

    Taurean: It is a fact that more women write for teens and younger than men, and that more girls read than boys. But more and more men are writing for teens now, and women are writing stories that appeal to both sides, and that'll draw in more boys.

    Readers are put into boxes for sales purposes. This is for the benefit of the reader as well as the store. Readers want to know where to find the books they like, and they go where they know it'll be. And it works both ways. Look at all the girls who have fought for sports because sports was "for boys." Publishing is a female dominated industry, but that doesn't mean boys don't read and men don't write. Both do, it's just a smaller percentage. And that seems to be changing.

  18. "Publishing is a female dominated industry, but that doesn't mean boys don't read and men don't write. Both do, it's just a smaller percentage. And that seems to be changing."

    Good. That worries me sometimes.

    But I never meant to imply girls and women dominating publishing is wrong in and of itself. I just think we overplay gender stereotyping way too much.

    What I'm trying to get at was that we need to be careful of falling into the trap of labeling a certain book, genre, or story's for girls only or boys only.

    Yes, those books and stories do exist, but you can have it both ways, which I know you're not arguing against, and you did acknowledge in your reply.

    But I know there are plenty of women and girls who don't like romance, despite the fact of it's long history of appealing most to women, and that it accounts for half of all fiction sold.

    Men are always slotted into only reading, or mostly reading nonfiction, but while I don't hate it, I read way more fiction. Both as a kid and now.

    Many of my favorite writers are women, and I've no issue with that, but of course there are many writers who are men whose books I enjoy just as much, but it can be hard to find male writers who I enjoy in the same way women and girls were hard pressed to find books that spoke to them and their tastes, before publishing got turbo charged with "Girl Power," if you know what I mean.

    My overall point was this-

    There are plenty of women and girls who don't read romance or what's dubbed chick-lit, but love many other kinds of books.

    So it stands to reason there are many boys and men who aren't into Goosebumps, Diary of A Wimpy Kid, or even Harry Potter, and still love books and reading fiction as much, or more, than nonfiction. Even if those particular series didn't do it for them.

    Though personally, I do love HP, though maybe not as intense as others do.

    I just feel sometimes we don't give boys and men enough credit for disproving stereotypes that while may not always be lies, aren't true for everyone.

    Yes, I know fitting things in categories helps stores and readers get what they want, but this often makes new writers crazy, because we don't always know where we fit.

    You even said in your post about your editor and agent saw Shifter for readers younger than you envisioned.

    You thought hardcore YA.

    They thought upper middle grade, despite the war torn violence moral ambiguity, and thus you were left with making your own tough choices as the writer, just as did Nya, wouldn't you say?

    But at least in your case, no one was going to psychically die because you misread the market a little, otherwise I'd have taken many lives at this point, and I'm not even published yet!

    LOL! I hope I didn't get too dark in my humor again. Do know I was kidding.

    I'm updating my blog later today, hope some of you get a chance to check it out.


  19. You pulled it off masterfully, Janice.

    I've often felt let down by the last book in a series, but Darkfall was a truly satisfying finish to a great adventure story.

  20. Paul, aw, thanks so much :) Means a lot to hear that.