The digital age has already come to music, and now publishing is in the same awkward adolescent phase. Record labels didn’t handle it well–think acne, voice squeaks, and a truly disastrous first date with the prom king
As soon as a product goes digital, people figure out how to steal it. It used to be just songs and movies that were pirated, but now ebooks are beset by the same want-it-for-free crowd
Everybody’s heard of show don’t tell, right? That’s so 90s. I say, stop abusing your readers. Let them eat cake!
There’s an annoying thing that happens to writers, artists, and other creative types. Namely, that ideas rarely come at convenient times. They don’t like to show up for their appointment at 7:15 am when your freshly-scrubbed hands are poised on your keyboard, your coffee is still warm at your elbow, and your schedule for the day has not yet been hopelessly derailed. No, ideas like to show up just when you’ve laid down to go to sleep, or when you’re in the shower with no way to jot them down, or twenty minutes into a yoga class (far past the time when you could slink off to make a note without girls with OM tattoos giving you the stink eye).
The reason for the terrible timing of epiphanies seems pretty clear, and I’m reminded of it every time I go into my favorite brewery. It’s my favorite because they make a delectable brown ale, a swoonworthy stout, and they print targets on their cans so you can shoot them when you’re done with your beverage (a must for an Idaho microbrewery). But they also have a terribly apt quote at the top of the mirror in their ladies room:
In other words, relax and the muse shows up.
Which sounds perfectly intuitive, until you remember roughly 600,000 other motivational posters you’ve seen in your life about how hard work is the only path to success.
After all, few people quote the mirrors of pubs in their lifetime achievement award speeches. So which should you be? Working hard to get your book done, or taking a more winding, zen path to finding your muse? Working hard or hardly working?
The answer to the conundrum, I have decided, lies in watching how people kill zombies.
No spoilers for the greatest show on television (because you should all get to enjoy the modern wonder of storytelling prowess that is The Walking Dead) but I happened to notice that the stars of TWD got a lot better at killing zombies in Season 7 than in Season 1. Part of that was because they obtained a lot more machetes (another key to happiness in life, but that’s a topic for another blog post). In Season 1, a single zombie fight would leave them breathless and staggering, trembling and blood-spattered.
But in later seasons, they’d take on an entire herd with a casual swagger and possibly a joke or two.
Why? Because they were using a lot less energy fussing about it.
Instead of being scared of the outcome or tensed against failure, they relaxed and only spent energy on the actual motions required for the task. Which freed them up to be far more effective against the rotting hordes of enemies.
Writing is the same way. The more time you spend checking your email or tweeting about your writer’s block, the less time you have to spend honing your craft. The more emotional energy you spend worrying that you’re a hack and a fraud, the less emotional energy you will have to fill out the highs and lows of your own characters.
So give yourself permission to relax about it. Yes, still sit down to your computer at 7:15 am, but release that iron hold on your own brain and let it meander, the way it does when you’re trying to sleep and instead you’re madly scribbling notes and annoying your significant other by having the light on.
By letting go of what’s not important, you can conserve your energy for what is. And maybe, just maybe, finally get that pesky muse to show up at a more convenient time of day.
What are your chances of getting signed if you get an R&R?
An R&R is one of the terms in the publishing industry that frequently has writers drawing a blank…or devolving into sheer panic.
Simply put, an R&R stands for Revise and Resubmit. It means that instead of rejecting or offering representation, an agent thinks you’re close but not quite there yet, so they send feedback, and invite you to resubmit if you choose to revise to their feedback.
They can be exciting (hey, it’s not a no!) but they can also be a lot of hard work. My husband repeatedly pointed out the irony of the acronym when I was working 15-hour, eye-bleeding days on an editorial R&R of my own. No, folks, it does not stand for rest and relaxation.
It also isn’t a guarantee of an offer, even if you follow their feedback to the best of your ability. I did a quick poll on Twitter about agent R&R’s, and this is what I found:
93 people completed R&Rs.
68 were rejected -73%
25 accepted- 27%
*Disclaimer. I am not a scientist. Well, I am a tortoise biologist, but that’s not quite statistician credentials. This is a Twitter poll, not a peer reviewed double-blind study, and the results should be read accordingly.
Dan Koboldt did an excellent blog on this same topic, only on the editorial end (R&Rs from publishing houses rather than agents). You can read it here. He found about a 80% rejected, 20% accepted rate, which is comparable to agents, if a little more discouraging.
Whether it’s from an agent or an editor, an R&R is not a requirement. You don’t have to use their feedback. And even if you use some of it, you don’t have to use all of it. Take the time to digest and decide if it’s good for your book and if it matches your vision for your piece. Or, try it out and if you hate the final result, throw it out. But do remember that an R&R is also an audition of your ability to take criticism, so remember to be professional and gracious. Don’t change two commas and send it back because then you’re just being a jerk and wasting everyone’s time.
However, when you compare these numbers (73% rejection rate) to the normal querying rejection rate (around 99% rejection rate), you can see that an R&R is definitely worth your time. The feedback won’t always fit with your vision, but if a seasoned publishing professional wants to take the time to tell you how they think you can improve your book, it’s always worth at least considering.
Today, I’m writing about neurology because I’m a NERD! And I’m writing about tropes because I just got back from a romance novel conference (RT16 FTW!) where cowboys and Navy SEALS were roaming the hallways and gracing the covers of the books stacked on the tables. On one of my nights off, I hit an erm…adult entertainment show involving dancing and oh my! Turns out cowboys and Navy SEALS and firefighters were all over the stage there, too. This got me thinking about tropes.
What’s a trope?
A lot of people think a trope=stereotype, and that’s not true.
A trope is something universal that always appeals. A Cinderella story. A daring rescue. A wounded but tough hero healed by love. These are things that have been appearing in stories since they were told by the light of a campfire flickering on the cave walls.
Tropes also include person types as well as story types: the athlete, the meek heroine who finds her strength, the firefighter.
Where does neurology come in? Well, first you have to understand how the brain communicates. It’s basically like a forest with a lot of pathways beaten into it that converge and split apart again. Our neural pathways MAKE our brain.
Now, humans like novelty. We all know that. The people who made the Ashley Madison website (Match.com for marital affairs) know that. The men who buy a doctor’s coat to role-play with their wives know that. The people who lease a new car every year know that.
We also like the familiar. The smell of our mother’s kitchen. The Princess Bride movie, played for the thousandth time. That one MOVE that only your husband knows that works every time. More importantly, brains know how to process the familiar, and so you avoid confusion and anxiety.
What tropes know is that if you take something familiar, and give it a novel twist, that’s the best of both worlds. In terms of brain chemistry, we’re taking those familiar paths and forging new ones in between. We’re not bushwhacking through the wilderness the whole way, making an entirely new trail. No, we’re taking advantage of the reward circuits that are tied to familiarity by using the paths that are already there, and we are taking advantage of the reward circuits that like novelty by taking thrilling new shortcuts in between the established paths.
Pop songs know this, which is why every song is made up of verses (new) that return to the refrain (familiar).
What does this mean for writers (and readers)?
It means you want to take a familiar trope and twist it in a new way. Take somebody’s catnip (Spec Ops warriors!) and give it a personality. Make it a real person, and then give it a twist (Spec Ops warriors who are also all members of a band and working out of a tattoo parlor where they specialize in covering scars for burn victims).
If you’d like to read more about how to do that, author Katie Golding has a brilliant post on twisting tropes here.
Here’s a great example of my point in a single picture:
Hopefully Tia Louise won’t mind me using her book cover, because I saw it in a Facebook ad and loved it. Why did I love it? Because it takes the cowboy (a trope I love!) and makes it REAL. One look at this image and you can tell that guy is a real person with a story. He’s strong, and he’s got ranch roots, but at some point he went urban enough to get those tattoos, and he’s got a look on his face like a few things in life haven’t turned out the way he planned. I want to have a conversation with him.
Now, what if the book cover had something I’d never seen before on it?
In that case, it might grab my eye, but I might not have as immediate or as positive of a reaction, because my brain doesn’t know how to PROCESS that. That’s why, in books, it’s best to start with something universal and find a way to make it new, not try to reinvent the wheel so it looks something like this:
My PitchWars mentee said something really smart the other day, in passing. Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to be teaching her things, but if you do it right, it always goes both ways. The thing she said was about always leaving little moments open in her writing like fanfiction prompts. Because “the key to inspiring fanfic writers is leave them wanting more.”
This reminded me of that old saying about “Leave room for the Holy Ghost” at church dances, so the boys and girls don’t get too close to one another. Presumably because boy/girl friction calls up the devil, though in practice we all know that space for the Holy Ghost might as well be magnetized because all it does is make the people on both sides wish really hard that it weren’t there.
Which brings me to fanfiction. Fanfiction is born of dissatisfaction. It is a love child created specifically BY that space between dancers. By that longing for them to close that space, to finally declare their feelings, to KISS ALREADY for the love of puppies. (I won’t even tell you how many thousands of words of fanfic were inspired by the above near-touch dance scene. Several thousand were written by me). That’s why TV shows spawn such great fanfiction. With no end in sight, every romance is a slow burn. Every potential kiss is interrupted to keep the tension up.
Fanfic is frequently about providing that satisfaction, whereas tension is created in original fiction by dissatisfaction. AKA leaving room for the holy ghost. There’s something nice about seeing two characters kiss, yes, but it’s all the more mouthwatering to see their lips hover so close but NOT QUITE THERE!
As a fanfic writer who has since transitioned to original fiction, it’s a constant struggle for me to remember I need to keep conflict and tension high by not allowing reader satisfaction…just yet. My PitchWars mentee’s comment was a perfect reminder to me, because by thinking of writing in near touch moments as a prompt for fanfiction writers to later expound on, it changed my focus.
It helped me to feel positive about not writing what I wanted (KIIIIIIISSSSSS!), it stroked my ego a little (look, maybe someday people will write fanfic of my books! I should be so lucky) and it reminded me to leave room for the Holy Ghost. To leave a gap between their hero and the goal, whether it’s the girl, a magic sword, or their own self-respect. Because leaving that space is what keeps people flipping the pages, hoping for more.
Writers have a real problem with “just,” and I don’t mean in the filler word sense. I mean more in the way we treat our dearest accomplishments as filler words.
I’m not a real writer, this is just my first book.
I write, but just children’s books.
I’m published, but just small press.
I’m a bestseller, kind of, but just USA Today, not NYT.
Of course, writers aren’t the only artists guilty of this.
I’m not an artist, I just like to take pictures.
I scupt, but just in plain old clay, not marble or anything.
Most of us have done it, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I weren’t one of the worst offenders. It’s a defense mechanism, this self-protective way we downplay our attachment to the things we actually care about the most. And okay, humility has its place because nobody likes a swaggering assclown. But this constant downplaying contributes to a society-wide attitude toward art that is incredibly destructive.
For instance, politicians are always trying to cut fine arts in schools in favor of science. Science builds cities, they say. Science saves lives. Not entirely true.
Emotion saves lives.
Without emotion, nobody would have cared about anything enough to invent science. And art, even more directly than science, is made of emotion.
It would be difficult to find a part of the literary world less respected than romance novels. But I keep writing about love because it’s the most powerful thing there is. People will kill other people for hate, but they’ll kill everything including themselves for love.
That’s why I don’t believe in “just” a zombie show. “Just” a kid’s book. I don’t think a 10-foot painting of geometric, razor-edged penises is more or less valid than a Play Doh elephant.
Literally thousands of lives were changed by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It doesn’t matter what you think of that book, or that genre, or her writing. What matters is that book mattered. Measurably. To the people who worked on the movies and the YA publishing industry that flourished as a result. To every person it spurred into fanfiction who then moved on to a writing career. To every person who met a lifelong friend through a fan site. Stephenie Meyer can afford a private freaking plane because the way she wrote sparkly bloodsuckers mattered to a whole damn lot of people.
Evoking emotion isn’t petty, or frivolous, or just for entertainment. Emotion is the energy that drives the entire earth. It, not fossil fuel, is what powers the creation of literally everything. And art keeps that that moving, like the water in the turbines of a giant power plant.
Which is why I want to pause here to tell a story about a concert.
Concerts are my church. In the synergy of movement and sound and the upswelling of pure emotion generated by a crowd, I can experience transcendence brought by connection to other beings. And, rather unfortunately, smell their beer breath.
This particular concert was from a band that’s one of my go-to writing playlists. They’re just a mid-level band, popular enough in the Northwest to headline their own venues but not stadiums. I’ve written thousands of words while immersed in their music. Watching them perform those same songs, I saw that they were playing with such absolute passion and heart… The lead singer had to set his microphone higher because every line of lyrics kept drawing him weightlessly up onto his toes like he was straining a little closer to something above us all.
I could see on all the band member’s faces that they were getting caught up in the flow of it, the same flow I had found while listening to their music and creating art made of words instead of sounds.
And snagged by that crazy connection between strangers, I thought, “You know, for everything that’s wrong right now, we’re still doing a few things really right with each other, with our time here on earth.”
Their band name, Blind Pilot, is a two-word metaphor for faith.
Some days, I see a little more clearly than others how all the pieces of art in the world can intersect, ricocheting off each other in arcs of inspiration that create new things of ever-increasing beauty and truth.
Fan art always reminds me the most loudly of that, whether it is paintings, stories, songs…even a really epic cosplay costume. The most beautiful line I’ve written in my entire life is in a piece of fanfiction: inspired by someone else’s art.
Art is seeing the butterfly effect in action. Creation begets creation. Creation begets emotion. Emotion begets everything.
There was no “just” in that sentence.
Hi everybody! In honor of today’s #CPMatch (thanks, Megan Lally!), and all the people polishing their ms for upcoming #PitchWars, it seems like a good time to talk about how to work with beta readers or critique partners. Really anybody reading your writing and giving you feedback. For my definition of CP vs beta reader, see ** at the bottom.
At the bottom of this post, I included a cheat sheet of potential questions to send to your betas/CPs with your manuscript. If you’ve worked with betas before and don’t need tips, feel free to scroll down to that. I’ve found that talking to beta readers is sort of like running a therapy session as a counselor: You get a lot out of what people volunteer, but you get more out of them if you ask the right questions. So look forward to that. In the meantime, let’s talk the Five Commandments of what you should do for your betas. Not ten, because ten is a lot and I don’t like rules that much.
1. Thou shalt not Lie
Find a way to be positive. But if you didn’t like their ‘Jeremy rides a giant squid’ scene, DON’T say you did. This will help no one.
2. Thou shalt be specific
Don’t just say, “You know, Darla’s reaction just didn’t read true to me.” Where? FOR THE LOVE OF CHIPMUNKS, WHERE? It is a 450 page book and Darla has at least 350 different reactions to things in this book. Also, don’t say: “Your grammar sucks. Your punctuation needs work.” Say where or how, or something they can grab onto like a lifeboat in a storm. Make sure they know what to fix, and how to start.
3. Thou shalt not be a d*ck.
Find something nice to say. Did you like that one funny line of dialogue in Ch 5? Did you like the way they had an aunt character because nobody remembers that fictional people have aunts until the parents are killed in a horrible accident? Did you like that their grammar was strong and consistent? Find SOMETHING to compliment. In any piece of writing, no matter how rough, there’s something good, and if you tell the writer what that is, they will find something even better to show you. And folks? Stick around for that moment because it feels reeeeal good. Don’t you like making people happy?
Also, amount of positive feedback: this is different for every writer, but take whatever amount of positive feedback you THINK they need, and double to quadruple it. They know what they did right, you think. I don’t need to say it, do I? You do. In fact, most writers don’t know their strengths and even if they do, they’re probably afraid that they’re wrong and are in fact a fraud and a sham and should probably burn their laptop and take up knitting or perhaps sitting very still in the corner of a dark closet. You need to mention more positives than you think you do in order to convince them they’re wrong.
4. Thou shalt not take everyone
Seriously, don’t sign on with everyone who wants to beta read or CP for you. Try them out first. Trade a chapter or two. See their writing, see how helpful their comments are to you. It’s okay to shake hands, say, this is fun but let’s just be friends. You know? Because first, you want somebody that’s close to your level of skill or better. If they’ve just written their first Post-It note and you’re on your fourteenth epic fantasy cycle, you’re not going to benefit much from the relationship. Which is fine. There is a time and a place for helping out writers and it can be super rewarding and fun and help you organize the knowledge you didn’t even know you had.
BUT. For a really quality beta relationship, you want somebody close to your skill level who writes in a moderately similar style to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t go outside your genre (I have one CP who is a romance writer, and another who writes fantasy. They have different strengths and I need them both to make me whole.) but it does mean just because another writer is good doesn’t mean that their style will be close enough to yours for you to help each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Stephenie Meyer would not be great beta partners for one another, even though they’re both seen as fairly successful authors. Similarly, John Green and Tolkien might not be a superb pair. Also, some people are great writers but they suck at giving feedback. They’re snooty or they tear you down to feel good about themselves or they just don’t know how to articulate how you need to fix your book. There, I said it, so you don’t have to.
5. Thou shalt remember thy purpose.
Sweet, you think. My purpose is to make them better and I told them all the stuff that’s wrong with their book. They’ll thank me later.
WRONG. Your first purpose as a beta is to make sure that writer doesn’t quit. They will be a better writer tomorrow than they are today. In ten years, you won’t even BELIEVE the stuff they’re pulling off. And if you discourage them so much today that they quit, the world will never see any of that. Trust me, you don’t want that kind of karma hanging over your head. Also, I will find you, and I WILL kick you in the shins. I have literally nothing better to do than find people who discourage writers and give their shins a good kicking.
So your first purpose as a beta is to encourage the writer and make sure they know what they’re doing right and what their potential might be so they don’t quit. Your second purpose is to help them get better.
And now, because I hate rules and I’m sort of tired of them, let’s talk questionnaires. This isn’t a comprehensive questionnaire. It’s just one my CPs and I made up, to make sure your beta reader notes will cover all the bases. I encourage you to add questions for your specific concerns for each manuscript. Like, “Does Jeannie look like a bitch when she steals Tommy’s pet roll of toilet paper?” “Is it too slow when you watch Kent sort his coin collection or is it good character development to see his precision?” Whatever you’re worried might not be working but you want to make sure it’s not your self doubt talking. Also, I added some happy questions in there because you need to know the good stuff, not just the bad. One of my fave lessons from fanfic writing is that your readers’ favorite parts aren’t necessarily your favorite parts. It’s super fun to see what’s working for people.
-Does the ms have a strong hook at beginning? Does it start in the right place?
-Strengths/Weaknesses of the ms?
-How is the characterization? Was there any place where you felt you couldn’t follow the motivations, or didn’t buy them? Were there any places your reactions to the characters undermined your enjoyment in the story (not that they pissed you off so you turned pages faster- that’s positive)?
-How is the pacing? Were there any places where it slowed down?
-When did you feel the most/least engaged with the text? At what point did you start getting bored/distracted?
-Were there any scenes you didn’t get the point of, or felt that they didn’t serve the story as a whole?
-How was the imagery/description? Do we need more, less, just right?
-What did you think were the overall themes of the book? How would you strengthen them, if needed?
-Did anything in the book seem fake/unrealistic to you?
-What are issues you see agents/editors/other readers having with the book?
-Was there enough conflict? Did it feel natural to you? Were there any points where it felt contrived or forced?
-How was the romance? Did you like both characters? Did you care if they got together, and when they did, did it feel realistic and believable to you? (This should be genre specific. For fantasy: how was the worldbuilding, etc.)
-What was your favorite part/thing/scene of the book?
-What was your least favorite part/thing/scene of the book?
-What is the one problem with the book that you are hesitant to bring up, possibly because you’re not sure how to fix it?
That’s it, folks. So now go forth, get betas and CPs, and be very very nice to them, because your writing future depends on their wisdom.
**Definitions. Many people have different definitions of beta reader or CP. Whatever works for you is fine, just talk clearly to the other person about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. For me, a critique partner (CP) = somebody who gives you line by line feedback (Wouldn’t ‘dick’ work better here than ‘manroot’? Or ‘add a comma’. Or ‘You spelled schnitzel wrong again.’) and also big picture feedback on pacing, characterization, plot, conflict, whether your story is working, etc. A beta reader is someone who reads and JUST gives you big picture feedback, not line by line comments.
Writing dialogue is important. Unless you’re doing a novel on a mute Russian burlesque group, in which case, all the luck to you. For the rest of us, even if you have the best worldbuilding ideas or the hookiest of book hooks, unnatural dialogue will be enough to make someone put your book down.
Dialogue must do three things:
- Sound like a real person
- Convey information quickly and naturally
- Tell us something about your character (ie dialogue has to sound different for each character)
That’s a lot to ask of every line that comes out of your characters’ mouths, but lucky for you, I have a secret weapon.
No, not a chainsaw slingshot (I wish).
My secret dialogue weapon? Fanfiction.
Write fanfiction, preferably of TV shows, but books work, too. Every book and TV show out there already has a cast of characters with their own personalities, backgrounds and quirks. By watching closely, and then trying to emulate those patterns, you can learn a lot about what makes people’s speech sound different from each other. Now, grab a notepad and the remote control and get to work (you so love me right now, don’t you?)
As each character speaks, try to analyze HOW they sound different. Walter White from Breaking Bad doesn’t sound a bit like Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, but why not? Here are some potential things to watch for:
- Unique words that one character uses
- Regional inflections or wording. Like y’all (apostrophe between the y and a, not the a and l’s, my southern belle CP informs me)
- Sentence length (do they speak in long or short sentences)
- Speed of speech
- Patterns. Do they trail off a lot? Do they interrupt? Are they interrupted by others?
- What about a character’s speech tells you their age? Is it their formality? Word choice? Pop culture references?
Now take your list of character-distinctive-dialogue qualities and TRY THIS AT HOME! Because believe me, all the pattern-noticing in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t put what you’ve learned into practice (just ask Dr. Frankenstein).
Another thing you can learn from writing fanfiction of a TV show is how to convey information in dialogue. You don’t just want your characters running around, thinking bulleted lists of things you need your reader to know.
- Emily is bisexual
- The coven of beaver-toothed witches lives two houses down
- My mother ruined my self esteem by criticizing my shoe choices.
Instead you want them to get what they need to know by watching your characters go about their normal business. This makes it seem natural and doesn’t remind the watcher/reader that HEY THIS ISN’T REAL I AM TELLING YOU A STORY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?
Some shows are better at information transfer than others. The Vampire Diaries, as much as I love them, are a great example of DON’T DO THIS verbal info-dumps. Info-avalanches. Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be good examples of subtle info transfer (sometimes too subtle), and shows like Better Call Saul are masters of using a prop or a conversation to show you what you need to know. Saul doesn’t say, “Well, parking lot attendant man, my law practice isn’t very successful.” Instead, you see an argument between him and the parking lot attendant over a few cents extra in un-validated parking time. A pointedly long argument. Saul doesn’t tell you he’s attracted to his friend, Kim. He just invites her over and then paints her toenails. In a self-deprecating, funny, totally manly way, of course.
Now that you’ve tried all this at home, test yourself (don’t worry, there will be cookies at the end). Call a friend who is also a fan of the book/TV show you wrote fanfiction for. Read them a couple lines of your dialogue out of context. Do you get a long pause, like, “Who would ever say that, Michelle? Seriously? I mean, when was the last time you used the word ‘pernicious’ when ordering Chinese takeout?”
Did you pass the “natural” test? Good.
Now can your friend name the character who is speaking without you having to tell them who it was? EVEN BETTER!
Congratulations, you can now graduate to trying your newfound fanfictiony brilliance in your original fiction, using your new tool box to make all your characters sound distinct, unique and (obviously) witty as hell.
And because I promised:
I love contests for writers. When I was in the query trenches, they were like an online party for those of us dying slowly while waiting for news. Once I stepped up into the mentor level of contests, I was shocked at how much was going on behind the scenes.
In my last post, I talked about how YA is overtaking the adult fiction market. Books for 13-17-year-olds are gaining ground even faster than adult books are losing it.
So what are we supposed to do when we love the immediate, beautiful voices in YA books, but we’re ready to get rid of the parents and head for edgier themes? What about twenty-somethings struggling through student debt, trying to find their place in a world and an economy that all of a sudden seems to have no place for them. Where are books for them? What if (God forbid) our stories are partially told through sex?
I’m absolutely one of this demographic: I moved to YA books because I was tired of gratuitous sex scenes in adult romance novels, and the stilted third person voice so prevalent in that genre. It never really sounded like a real person to me.
Let’s take a moment and compare a line from Pearl Moon by Katherine Stone (one of my old faves in the adult romance genre):
“For a wondrous moment, Eve’s haunted blue eyes bid adieu to all their ghosts and hope–and gratitude–fairly shimmered.”
With a line from Swap Out by Katie Golding, a great sample of the down-to-earth, colloquial style exemplified by New Adult.
“I am Home Depot’s bitch.
The purveyor of hardware and the wielder of hammers, the hauler of tables and builder of beds.
But mostly, I am a grunt.”
Can you see the difference? I–and many other people–are dying for books that actually sound like us! The way we really talk. And one day, POOF! The publishing Gods smiled upon me and created New Adult.
It’s for ages 18-24 and it deals with so many of the problems I’ve faced myself: the reality of how to turn your dreams into reality in a world where most people’s dreams are creative pursuits and most paying jobs are NOT in creative pursuits. NA also deals with heavier issues like disability, rape, college, leaving home, having to move back home, starting careers, etc.
It is categorized by the honest, immediate voices we all love in YA, and it can tell stories that sometimes take place through sex. It makes perfect sense that now is the time for NA. Books used to be categorized as for Children or Adults. YA came about when we realized that adolescence is its own time in life, with challenges specific to the age.
But the world, folks, it is a’changing, and the early twenties look very different now than they used to. More people are going to college and even more are finding that they need a master’s degree or even more to go after the careers they want. College is a very specific environment, with dorms and apartments, flexible class schedules and frat parties. Even after college, the changes in the economy are changing lives for people in their twenties. They’re overqualified for so many jobs, and underqualified for many more, and in most cases, end up underemployed. Many are finding it difficult to find jobs equal to their student loan payments, and some folks are being forced to move back home with their parents.
The early 20’s are an all-new adolescence, as validated by books like “The Quarter-Life Crisis.” and “Twenty-Something, Twenty-Everything: A Quarter-life Woman’s Guide to Balance and Direction.” We can no longer think that the experience of a 22-year-old and a 60-year-old are the same and should be categorized only as “adult.” Just as we once drew the line between fiction for nine-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds.
“Yes!” I can hear you all saying. “That’s what we want! Sign me up!” But before you run out to your local Barnes and Noble to raid the NA shelf, stop. It isn’t there. As a society, we’re there. We know the 20’s are their own special period of development, AND adults are buying the heck out of YA books, even the ones that are really adult in disguise. Or like Rainbow Rowell’s amazing “Fangirl” which takes place in college and is a perfect example of NA but is sold as YA. In 2013, we were starting to see articles from big papers like USA TODAY and The New York Times about how NA was the next big thing. More people are writing it: NA is showing up as a genre in many Twitter pitch contests, and some mid-level publishing houses, like the very successful Entangled, are snatching it up.
But even trendy independent bookstores like Powell’s Books don’t have a section for it yet, much less the giant bookseller Barnes and Noble. Worse, some publishing houses and agents are starting to turn NA away because they’re finding it a hard sell, such as Mandy Hubbard’s new agency, Emerald City Literary, who will now only accept NA if they can change it to third person and sell it as adult. The popular website, NA Alley even changed its name to Next Lit: Coming of Age Fiction for the New Generation, and began to encompass YA as well as NA.
So wait, you might ask. Is this blog just wrong? (Pshaw, the blog says in response). Is there truly no demand for the new age category of NA?
The one place that has a shelf for NA (you guessed it, Amazon.com) has hopeful news: NA is selling! The top-selling NA book on Amazon right this moment is #8 on Amazon’s bestseller list as a whole, nipping at the heels of the top-selling YA book, which is #7. However, most of the NA out there is self-published and a lot of it is…how shall we say this delicately? A quick peek at the covers in the top 20 reveals a lot of what my CP calls “Man Torso” books. A representative example from the top 10:
These sorts of books don’t deal with issues specific to NA so much as they’re just another facet of the growing erotica market. (No offense to my example book. I haven’t read it, but a whole lot of someone elses have). But hey, I guess at least we know that there are plenty of people looking for racier storylines than YA allows.
So is NA just YA with sex? Do we really need a category for that, when we already have one helpfully titled, Erotica?
To me, the truest answer of that can only come from the intended audience, and over the past year I’ve talked to many 18-24-year-olds about what they’re reading. I didn’t hear anyone say, “Ah, I tried NA but to be honest, I still like YA better.”
In fact, what I heard over and over and over again was, “What is NA?”
And to me, that’s the truest answer to the question of where the genre is at right this second. Is it the next big thing, or just the fad of the moment that will fade into the background? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for some amazing NA books to try out, I recommend the following:
Maybe, Someday by Colleen Hoover: a deaf musician learning the maturity to deal with disability, love and infidelity. Also, this book has its own soundtrack of the music “written” by the two main characters. If you don’t realize that that is the coolest innovation in publishing history, I don’t even know what’s wrong with you.
Easy by Tammara Webber: a college student dealing with rape on campus and how Greek culture, the police, and peer pressure only make things worse. This has one of my all time favorite book boyfriends, the tattooed artist/engineering student Lucas.
Lost in Oblivion series by Cari Quinn and Taryn Elliot: This is a story of a bunch of musicians trying to put a band together and make it in the competitive music industry, similar to my own work in progress. This has a bit too much sex for my taste, but it’s well-written sex and others might feel differently. I ADORE the camaraderie of the band members.
Trust the Focus by Megan Erickson: This is a superb, heart-tugging road-tripping M/M romance of a MC searching for his own identity and the courage to come out after college graduation.
Full Measures by Rebecca Yarros: This is a story of a college-aged girl suddenly responsible for most of her family after her father dies in combat. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a soldier and she wants nothing to do with the life of an army wife. Ouch.
Order Up by Katie Golding: This is the cute and funny story of a pizza delivery guy who falls in love with a dancer who is younger than him. They have to surmount disapproving parents, a long distance relationship when she goes to college, and he has to confront his own lack of ambition and feelings of being lost to finally find the career that’s right for him. Finally, a romance that’s not about a billionaire!
Hierarchy of Needs by Rebecca Grace Allen: This is a perfect example of New Adult. It’s a girl who wanted to be a fashion designer who ends up back in her parent’s basement and teaching swimming instead. Her love interest wanted to be a photographer and ended up running his parents’ mechanics shop instead. I love the unvarnished truth of this book, how she takes a hard look at economic realities and lost dreams, and gives her characters the hope and courage to go after a middle ground that still pays the bills but doesn’t taste so much like giving up.
From Michelle Hazen's blog:
Right now, YA is the blonde cheerleader of the publishing world. We all hate her a little bit for being so popular, even though we don’t want to admit we love her just as much as everyone else.
The evidence is clear: The Young Adult shelves in our local bookstore growing from one stand, to two, to an entire aisle. The movie theaters are full of lovely 20-something actors pretending to be in the first acne-flush of puberty.
There are some incredible, standout stories in the category, but wait? Who decided that teens, who frequently communicate in language like: OMW, gr8, tfnt, u, and <3 would drive the literature market? We don’t think they’re mature enough to choose to drink, join the military, get married, get a tattoo, or pay their own bills, but we ABSOLUTELY think they have the right idea about what to read. How did that happen?
First, let’s look at the numbers. YA wasn’t always a thing.
In 1997, The Atlantic reported that only 3,000 YA books were published. By 2009, that had added an important zero to jump to 30,000. By 2014, that trend had only gained strength and started to eat into every other major category. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly reported that Adult fiction had lost 8% of its market share in the last year while Juvenile fiction had gained 12%. Adult is still selling more units overall, but YA is closing that gap fast, as is evidenced by what is being turned out by not-yet-published authors. The popular Twitter pitch contest #PitchWars was 47% YA entries in 2015, compared to only 23% adult entries.
What did I just say? Fiction for a single demographic of ages 13-17 might soon sell more than for all people aged 18 to 100? How on earth is that even numerically possible?
Turns out, what we thought looked like this:
Looks a whole lot more like this:
That’s right. 55% of YA books are bought by people older than 18, and the vast majority report they aren’t exactly buying for Junior.
Which brings me to my main question: what draws us about YA?
Are the kiddos just doing a lot more interesting things than those of us who have to fit laundry, diapers, or a 9 to 5 into our daily to-do list? Do we like the idea of stepping out of our responsibilities and into a simpler life, when we just had to worry about doing well on our history final and if Jimmy thought our training bra was attractively padded enough?
I would argue no, since the fastest growing segment of YA is sci-fi and fantasy. Hard-hitting, fast paced stories like Hunger Games, Divergent, and the brand new Illuminae, where responsibility for saving hundreds of lives or the entire world rests on some very young shoulders. Most argue that the YA trend started with some big names that attracted more attention to the genre, especially now that they’re all getting movie deals.
But now that YA is well-established, we’re stuck trying to decide between these two things:
Do we love YA on its own merit, or do we love YA because that’s where great authors are writing if they want to get publishing deals?
YA differs from adult in some major thematic ways: it tends toward fast-paced, immediate narratives, often told in first person present tense. It takes place in a time in life where EVERYTHING is new. The characters are just discovering romance, drugs, their own identities. That kind of novelty is fun to experience all over again through books, and everything is brighter the first time vs. the thirteenth.
However, I’ve also noticed that some of the incredible writing in YA isn’t YA at all. The lyrically written, epic-in-scope Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor is about an angel who fell in love with a devil, and how the fate of the entire world ended up hanging in the balance. Of course, the MC is 17 and going to a special art school that she never really has to attend. There’s not a parent in sight, she has her own chic apartment in Prague where she can have boys stay the night and throw other boys through the window with impunity.
Maggie Stiefvater’s superlative Raven Cycle has similar issues. The plot is so gripping I’d read it until I went blind, and the writing is so good I wish my Kindle had the ability to double-highlight. But it’s about a bunch of teenagers who live together in this gorgeous, hipster old Warehouse. One character has parents, it’s true, but they’re a bunch of psychics who don’t exactly give her a curfew. High school is mentioned, so I suppose there’s that. But they’re off looking for ley lines and a lost Welsh king’s grave, a plotline more suited to a paranormal researcher or an archaeologist than a motivation for a teenager.
Which begs the question: are we all reading YA now because publishers are aiming their best authors toward a category they already know will sell? I read a YA ms the other day where the chapter opened on the character drinking cynically in a dive bar. That’s not YA. I don’t care how many times you type the number 17. And this kind of fudging isn’t all the publisher’s fault: they’re just guessing at what might sell a year from now when they make their contracts. Nobody wants to see great writing lost in a category no one is going to look at.
So what are those of us supposed to do when we love the gorgeous, immediate, honest style of YA, but we want to get out of high school and deal with some of the bigger issues that we adults ACTUALLY face? Turns out, there might just be an answer. Stick around for my next post to find out more.