I was talking to a new friend at Epic ConFusion about YA and the difficulties that many newcomers to the genre (especially those writers who started in adult markets) have in identifying it. This may be the reason why we keep getting these awful panels at sf/f cons that devolve into an hour-long discussion trying to differentiate between Middle Grade and YA (even though that is not the topic) or complaining about Twilight (which has gotten to be quite old hat). In an amazing recent SF Signal roundtable (which I hope to blog about more extensively soon-ish), Malinda Lo said, “Perhaps I’m the odd one out, but I guess I don’t think the definition of YA is that hard to pin down. I feel that publishers and the YA community have a pretty clear idea of what it is, and it’s folks who are new to YA who don’t understand and often make assumptions about what it is and who reads it.” Which is exactly the problem: the YA community knows exactly what YA is, but writers from other communities? Maybe not so much.
I’ve spent the last three years reading YA (and a bit of MG on the side) voraciously, and so yes, I have a pretty clear idea of what YA is. I told my friend that many times, the place where writers go wrong when trying to write YA is the voice of their novel. When trying to quantify that more for him, I could only say, “I know it when I see it.”
While it’s nice for me to be able to know it when I see it, that assertion is problematic on a few levels. It means I can say, “No, this isn’t really a YA voice,” but then draw a blank when I have to explain why that is so (not so helpful for other writers, is it?). It also means that I can’t work as concretely on improving my own YA voice. So obviously working to analyze what YA fiction really is and breaking down the different components that contribute to a YA voice is very useful. I’ve always wanted to attend a panel titled “The Differences Between Adult and YA Fiction,” but I haven’t seen it yet. So consider this that panel, and hopefully I can encourage others who know YA well to contribute to the conversation in the comments.
So what makes YA different than adult fiction?
1. The age of the protagonist: In YA, the protagonist is almost always a teenager, theoretically 14-18 years old. In practice, I haven’t seen that many 14-year-old protags–they indicate borderline Middle Grade (which is for readers age 8-12, and these kids tend to read up) and tends to read on the youngest side of YA at best. So practically speaking, 15-18. In a novel set in the modern world or its equivalent, the protagonist is always a high schooler. The summer after high school is fair game, but anything beyond that (read: college) is usually not done (which is another post of its own).
2. POV and tense: Arguably the most trendy POV and tense in YA right now is first person present tense (although I’m seeing something of a move away from it recently). First person past tense and limited/close third person past tense are also okay. Omniscient is out of fashion just like it is in adult fiction. Most novels limit themselves to one or two POV characters. If there are two POV characters, they often (but not always) change in alternate chapters. A trend right now is to have one female and one male POV that alternate chapters.
3. Tone: YA fiction can run the gamut between very light and very dark. It’s hard to go too dark, and there are very few taboo subjects.
4. Theme: YA fiction covers many themes, but very often feature some kind of coming-of-age plot. The teenage protagonist vs. society is also very popular (hence the dystopia, for example), as are issues of identity, peer relationships, and romance.
5. Genre: The most popular genres right now are paranormal and dystopian. The dystopias are beginning to show more sf-nal elements (yay for YA in space!), but dystopias and post-apocalypses are still the most common. There are also the high fantasies and the historicals (historicals w/ fantasy elements are probably more popular than the straight ones). In contemporary, we have the “issue” books, the romances, the thrillers, and the just plain contemporary books.
6. Boy books vs. girl books: I hate that this divide exists, but it does. Boy books usually have a male protagonist, and get readers of both genders. Girl books are more likely to have a mostly female audience. Boy books tend to be more externally focused, plot focused, and full of action. They often read a bit younger to me than girl books. Girl books tend to be more internally focused and usually include a romantic element. Some books lie somewhere in the middle and are particularly awesome. For example, John Green tends to write contemporary novels with male protags who are more internally focused, and The Hunger Games has a female protag and is full of action; there is a love triangle, but it’s not the primary focus of the story. (This is also its own blog post, and a super touchy subject, so keep in mind I’m doing a fast and dirty summary, and there are many exceptions. That being said, people in the industry do talk about “boy” books, so it’s a reality in the marketplace right now.)
7. Narrative Voice
We can see from looking at the above list how critical narrative voice actually is. YA is basically a teenage character reflected in the narrative voice of the novel who is embroiled in a plot that is relevant to them. Krista Marino says, “An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.” It follows, then, that a YA novel is filtered through the immediate viewpoint of a teenager. And so much of how that viewpoint is expressed is through voice.
Next time, I’m going to break down voice into various aspects so we can hopefully gain a better understanding of what it is and how it contributes to that YA feel of “I know it when I see it.” In the meantime, please feel free to comment below and tell me your opinion: what I missed, what I got wrong, examples in current YA novels, questions, etc.