Young at Heart

I suppose there are two ways to write a novel. You can write whatever you’re inspired to write, or you can write what you think people (publishers, agents, or readers) will want to buy. A lucky few writers are able to do both at once. Far more of us, I’m afraid, choose the first option and, while ignoring the dictates of the market, imagine that we’re doing both.

The new novel that I’ll be pitching to agents for the next few months is simultaneously a mystery, a fantasy, and directed (or so I told myself) at the young adult (YA) market.

More and more agents these days ask you to query using a web form; they don’t even want an email query letter. In the web form, you may be asked to list “comp titles,” that is, novels whose reader appeal is similar to yours.

Picture my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Comp titles? I don’t know of any. And of course that’s a bad thing to tell a prospective agent. If your book is not like other books that are currently selling, an agent is going to have to work harder, and may not be able to place your book at all. You really want to be able to rattle off the names of a few comp titles.

I read lots of mysteries, but I’ve never read any YA mysteries. Honestly, I didn’t even know there were any. I was inspired by the story I wanted to tell, so I wrote it. (Category 1, above.) So today I prowled around online, made a list of about 50 YA mysteries, and scooted down to my local Barnes & Noble, hoping to come home with a stack of paperbacks.

There’s a whole section of YA fiction that’s not fantasy, but the pickings proved to be slim. I found five of the 50 titles in stock and sat down to read a bit before I approached the cash register.

Alas — none of them bore any resemblance to my book. All five began with immersion in the world of teen socializing. One kicked off with some kids on Spring Break pounding back shots and talking about skinny-dipping. Another started in the high-school hallway and proceeded to the after-school detention room. Shades of Breakfast Club, except that one of the five kids is going to leave the room in a body bag.

The upshot is, I’m not really writing YA. I’ve written a novel with a 17-year-old girl as the lead character, and she does meet a boy along the way, you betcha, but it’s not YA. The same thing is true of my Leafstone story: The girls (Kyura, Meery, and Alixia) are all 17, and they will all meet boys along the way, you betcha, but they’re not really teenagers in any social sense. The challenges they face are not teen challenges. They’re just very inexperienced adults, that’s all.

And we haven’t even started talking about crossover mystery/fantasy YA. There just about isn’t any. Over on Amazon I took a quick look at Lily Anderson’s Undead Girl Gang. It opens at a funeral service, but it’s told solidly from a teenage viewpoint. Traci Chee’s The Reader is set in a fantasy world, but I didn’t detect any similarity to my own book, and her premise seems really quite shaky.

My book is primarily a mystery. It’s a whodunit with suspense. But it’s not gritty enough to qualify as an adult mystery in today’s market, even setting aside the use of magic in the plot, which would be bound to annoy or confuse a lot of dedicated mystery fans.

Maybe I should write a novel about a fish with legs that writes poetry and time-travels. I’d have just as good luck with that.

But let’s not be defeatist, Jim. Let’s think about how to finesse this. Maybe I need to take a closer look at the adult mystery market. Maybe what I have here could be marketed as a cozy. Hmm….

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