I’ve written a fantasy novel where the protagonist and supporting characters are in their teens. Some people have told me it’s adult and some have told me it’s YA. I’ve looked for a solid definition online, but haven’t really found one. What makes a book YA?
This is a hotly debated topic among people in the biz and in particular, writers, who tend to rebel against the need to box their work into a neatly branded package. I’ve read the commentary out there about what makes a book YA, and rather than give you a concrete definition, I’ll offer my viewpoint on what I believe are the conventions most YA books have in common:
- Stories written for and marketed at teenagers;
- Tight narrative that spans a shortish time period (1 day to 1 year);
- Teen protagonist who determines their own destiny through the choices they make (the teen is active rather than passive);
- Character arc where some growth is involved, whether it’s “coming of age” or otherwise;
- Limited sex and swearing (there are books who break this rule, but in YA there are several gatekeepers—teachers, librarians, parents—which often dictate what content is permissible.)
I feel compelled, also, to list some things that make YA awesome, if not uniquely YA:
- Any and all genres welcome (romance, horror, dystopia, etc.);
- Fast pacing with real conflict and stakes;
- Narrative styles that take risks;
- Stories that feel immediate and authentic;
- Books that push boundaries—societal, thematic, literary and otherwise.
With regard to your own novel, the main question to ask yourself is, did you write it with a YA reader in mind? That might help you determine whether or not your book is indeed, YA.
(Readers, do you have your own conventions or rules you live by when writing YA? Share them in your comments below!)
I’ve written my first book and I’m looking for an agent to represent me. Do you have any advice on how I go about it?
In a word, RESEARCH. Nowadays, most agencies have a website with their staff listed online. In most lit agent bio’s there is a section on what types of projects they are looking for and whether or not they are “open” to queries.
Most agencies/agents also have a standard query procedure explained on their website for what to include in your query, including details like subject line so that your query doesn’t go to spam. Some agents want a query letter only, some want your letter plus pages, and some want the whole manuscript. It’s IMPERATIVE that you read these guidelines and follow them to the letter.
Additionally, just as when embarking on a relationship in real life, it helps to research the agent you are querying to find out what deals they’ve brokered in the past and who they represent. PublishersMarketplace.com is an excellent resource for that.
Finally, and perhaps I should have started with this, make sure you have a standout query letter, which includes:
- Title of your project
- Word count and genre
- Your name
- A short and compelling pitch/synopsis of what your story is about
- Similar works, if applicable
- If relevant, professional background that qualifies you as the writer–keep it brief!
Have a few writer friends look over your query letter and give you feedback before sending. Make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors and DOUBLE CHECK that you’ve addressed the literary agent by the correct name.
Once your responses start coming in, log them in a spreadsheet so you can keep track of whom you’ve queried and what their response was. There are also a variety of online tools available, including QueryTracker.net, that can help with this process. Most replies fall into one of four categories:
- Flat-out rejections (usually by form email)
- Rejections with feedback
- Requests for more pages
- Request for a call to talk about representation
For those agents who reject your project but give constructive feedback, take careful notes and if the overall tone of their email is positive, ask them if they’d be open to you querying them again after you’ve revised.
Above all else, always be polite and professional because the publishing world is a very small world indeed. Remember, it is not you as a person or even you as a writer being rejected, it is a very specific project that does not appeal to a very specific agent, many times for reasons that are out of your control.
Rejections are a sign that you’re putting yourself out there, which is half the battle.
Laura Lascarso is the author of two YA novels, COUNTING BACKWARDS (2012) and RACING HEARTS (2015). If you have a burning YA question you’d like answered, tweet it to @lauralascarso with #DearLaura or include it in the comments below.