Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Switching from Adult to Young Adult

By Gail Carriger, @gailcarriger

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Writers are readers too, and most of us enjoy reading in multiple genres and markets. It's no surprise that many of us also like to write in multiple genres and markets. Please help me welcome Gail Carriger to the lecture hall today, to share some insights on making the switch from writing for adults to writing for young adults.

Gail Carriger writes comedic steampunk mixed with urbane fantasy. Her Parasol Protectorate books, their manga adaptations, and the first two books in her YA Finishing School series about Victorian girl spies were all NYT bestsellers. She also successfully kickstarted and produced a full cast audio adaptation of her YA sci-fi Crudrat. Her newest book, Waistcoats & Weaponry is out November 4th. She was once a professional archaeologist and is overly fond of tea. She also has a ridiculously silly newsletter, The Monthly Chirrup. You can find out more about Gail's books at GailCarriger.com

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Take it away Gail...

I adore young adult literature. Since a librarian passed me Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce I've been hooked. To this day it's my favorite genre to read. There's something breezy and tidy about the best YA novels. I find them comfortably immersive and I can finish one in a single afternoon.

However, my first published book, Soulless, was an adult steampunk novel. (Confession time, I use a lot of YA techniques in that book.) It did well enough for me to write four more, but YA always tempted me.

Consequently, it was a genuine pleasure when Soulless won an Alex Award (through which librarians recognize adult books likely to appeal to teens). Although, I also felt that the librarians had found me out. (Librarians are like that, they winkle out all your authorial secrets.) When I got a hesitant email from a children's book editor asking if I would consider writing a YA series, I jumped at the chance.

I wasn't ready for how different writing and publishing young adult literature is from adult genre fiction.

(But before I get on to the meat of the matter, I must say that every author has a different perspective on the writing life. I can only offer up my limited experience. As such all of the following should be taken as horribly biased opinion. You are reading a girl who likes to eat her vegetables, run in stilettos, and prefers baths over showers – be suspicious, be very very suspicious.)

Four Differences Between Writing YA and Adult

Yes "Young Adult" is mostly a marketing term and concept. There are certainly books where I cock my head and think, "Why did they shop this as YA?" But for me there were four directives to keep in mind when writing YA (all of which have been disregarded by some very famous YA authors indeed). These were the guidelines I needed to remind me to stay YA, after writing adult for so long.

1. Keep it under 80,000 words

This was my way of tricking myself into staying concise. For me, YA means sharp, focused, and less convoluted than adult. I wanted my pace fast, my humor direct, and my characters assessable.

2. However, never mistake short for simple

Most teenagers I know are smarter than their adult counterparts. They will always notice if you are dumbing down. It should be harder, not easier, to write YA. I think of this aspect as: adult without frills. You know what that means? Every mistake is more obvious.

3. Keep the writing light

My least favorite YA books are the ones that feel overworked with writing made clunky through message. Story and character must come first – too much concept will drag.

4. Your protagonist has a different perspective

I thought a lot about how I was in high school – not how I behaved, how I was. I was almost the same person then as I am now. I was an academically minded nerd who read too much. I knew how the world worked. I engaged in philosophical debate with my geeky friends. I was self aware but I was selfish. In fact, a lot of high school, for me, was about transitioning from that selfishness towards a wider acceptance of the world and my place in it – moving from black and white to shades of grey. And yes, this included learning that my patents were fallible; figuring out my sexuality; formulating peer-to-peer friendships; and determining what I valued ethically. Try sticking all of that in a YA book. Do you see why it's so much fun?

Four Differences Between Publishing YA and Adult

Once my first YA book was finished and turned in, the differences continued. For me, the world if children's literature was as unlike adult to publish in, as it was to write in.

1. So Many Edits

I'm finding my YA books require more edit passes than my adult books. This meant learning how to schedule extra time for copy edits and proofs. I don't know if this is because my editors simply have different personalities, or if this is a common difference between YA and adult editors.

2. Marketing

It's no secret that, for New York big pub, agents take on books that they think will sell to editors, and that publishers buy books that they think their sales force can sell to vendors. Yes there are exceptions, but knowing this fact always helped me at first. As I collected yet another rejection, I'd remind myself the following: it wasn't that my story wasn't good or that readers wouldn't like it, it was that the industry thought it wouldn't sell well enough for their bottom line. However, in children's literature there are two additional targets: schools and libraries. If an editor doesn’t think librarians and school teachers will like your book, they probably won't buy it. For an indy author it is a different story, but it's still worth remembering schools and libraries.

3. Foreign Sales

Foreign territories that wouldn't even consider translating my adult stuff snapped up my YA series. With the exception of France, Japan, Germany and a few others, there is little translation cross over, despite my books sharing a tone, style, and setting.

4. Selling

Another surprise: suddenly my book launch was less about SF/F conventions, and more about library associations and school visits. Teachers approached me for a reading guide or an educator's guide. Libraries wanted posters. I am one of those authors fortunate enough to be sent on tour by my publisher (I show well, I guess), but if you're a hybrid or indy author, please don't discount libraries and schools. They are often eager to have a writer visit. And the kids are fantastic! I was scared witless by the very idea of my first school visit. Me up in front of 300 sixth graders? The horror, the horror.

It was awesome. They were thrilled to meet a real live author (and not be in class). They asked some of the most unique questions I've ever had ­– bizarre and insightful. One young lady wanted to know why I wrote in third person POV. I'd never asked myself that question!

Make the switch?

I'm privileged to get emails from readers of all ages but nothing beats a letter from a young girl buoyed by the enthusiasm of having discovered a new book to love. That is the heart of why I adore writing YA. I remember being that reader and she is who I write for. The exclamation-mark-typing superlative-touting me of the past. The kid at the front of the auditorium clutching her precious book and shooting her hand up to ask about POV. Because, who knows, she might just end up an author someday because of something I wrote. How cool is that?

About Waistcoats & Weaponry

Class is back in session...

Sophronia continues her second year at finishing school in style – with a steel-bladed fan secreted in the folds of her ball gown, of course. Such a fashionable choice of weapon comes in handy when Sophronia, her best friend Dimity, sweet sootie Soap, and the charming Lord Felix Mersey stowaway on a train to return their classmate Sidheag to her werewolf pack in Scotland. No one suspected what – or who – they would find aboard that suspiciously empty train. Sophronia uncovers a plot that threatens to throw all of London into chaos and she must decide where her loyalties lie, once and for all.

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  1. Thank you for the post, i'd never considered these differences between YA and Adult books. I just write adult due the the content of my story, but this might come in handy with a couple of other ideas i have tumbling through the recesses of my mind.

  2. Great post, Gail. Lots of good information here.

  3. A very timely post! I will be attempting a YA novel for my Nanowrimo. I too love this genre and count YA books among my favourites!