Is You Is or Is You Ain’t YA?

I’ve read a lot of genre fiction over the years, mysteries and science fiction/fantasy mostly. When I go to the bookstore, I’m looking for a book that dovetails with my reading expectations. If I buy a mystery and find that it’s mostly a romance or an episode in a soap opera, I’m peeved.

As a writer, however, I’m not comfortable being pigeonholed. I want to write the story in the way that the story needs to be written. I don’t want to be hemmed in by marketing considerations.

This month, if all goes well, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on the most ambitious creative project I’ve ever undertaken — a four-volume fantasy series. Really, it’s one long story spread across four separate books. And is it or isn’t it YA (young adult)?

I first conceived of the story twelve years ago. The version I wrote then was really pretty bad, and never even came close to being published. Somewhere along the way, though, someone read it (a PDF was briefly available on my website, and if you have a copy, please drag it to the trash right now). This reader emailed me to say, “Have you ever considered recasting the story as YA? You have three strong female characters here. How about if they were all teenagers instead of being in their early 20s?”

The proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. I pulled out the hacksaw and the pliers and started tearing the original version apart. In the version that is now nearing completion, possibly eight or ten pages (out of 600) of the original version remain. The rest is an entirely new story that happens to have the same plot premise and many of the same characters as the previous version.

The young ladies in the story are now 17. They face grave challenges. The dragons that like to eat people are not the worst of it. Somehow, eventually, they emerge triumphant, though not unscathed.

My literary agent is attempting to sell the series to a publisher. We’ve agreed that if it doesn’t fly as YA, she’ll try again with the adult fantasy market.

And that’s the nub of the problem. Is it YA, or isn’t it? Basically it’s an adventure story in which the lead characters happen to be teenagers. But because I’ve been thinking of it as YA, and because I have some rudimentary idea of how that market works, the three girls who are my lead characters all have boyfriends. The plot includes boy-loses-girl (or, in this case, girl-loses-boy). Things are not always rosy in the romance department. But it was clear from the start that I would need romance sub-plots, so I made sure to include them.

Let’s face it: I’m over 65, and I was never a teenage girl. I have very little idea how girls think or feel about boys. I did the best I could with the romance angle, and I think maybe it came out all right — but I was personally more involved in the adventure, intrigue, danger, and magic in the story.

So today I’m writing the big scene in the very final chapter of the final book, and it’s a wedding. Not just a wedding — a triple wedding. Not only do I have to write about gowns and shoes and flower girls, because it would be unforgivable to skip any of that — no, that’s not bad enough. As I’m writing it, I am personally getting all weepy-eyed.

I’ve never cried at a wedding in my life, and here I am, crying over a wedding I made up. So maybe in the end it’s YA after all.

The wedding scene is not exactly boilerplate, though. (Nothing I write seems to come out as boilerplate.) Kyura is being given away by her gruff old Uncle Dulan. Her friend Meery, who is an orphan, is being given away by a volunteer stand-in, the wizard Otano. And Alixia?

Alixia had decided to walk to the altar by herself. “I killed my father,” she reminded them when the topic first came up. “I don’t think I should ask anyone to stand in for him.”

Her father was a profoundly evil wizard, and she killed him in self-defense. Also, she’s kind of flighty at times — yet at this key moment in her life, she’s taking responsibility and standing up for herself.

If you kill your father but then you take responsibility for it, is that YA? I have no idea. All I know for sure is, this is what has to happen in the story.

The wonderful thing about being a writer is, I didn’t have the least idea how the scene would unfold until I sat down to write it. I didn’t know Alixia would look at it that way.

Would I change it in order to fit in with a publisher’s idea of what the YA market wants? Never say “never” — but the editor would have a damn steep hill to climb to convince me I needed to reconsider. When it’s right, you know it’s right.

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