How I figured out my writing doesn’t constitute YA

This is based on my own experience and perspective, and is decidedly NOT meant as any sort of bash against either YA books in general or YA writers in particular. Writers in other genres, or historical writers outside the U.S., probably will have much different experiences and perspectives.

Since I began writing when I was a young person myself, it was just natural for me to write about other young people. Even when my original characters have aged several decades, I still can’t help picturing them in my mind as their youthful first incarnations, and I really enjoy writing the stories of their children and grandchildren.

I always thought, thus, that I was writing books for a primarily teen audience, based on my characters’ ages. When I finally took my lifelong dream of publication off the back burner in early 2011, however, I gradually came to discover that probably most of what I’ve written, and have continued writing, doesn’t seem to fit very well in the current U.S. YA market.

These reasons include:

1. Length. While my Atlantic City books to date (except Cinnimin, my 12-volume handwritten magnum opus in progress) have tended to be under 70,000 words, my more serious-minded books are much, much, much longer. When I entered Jakob’s story as YA in a few contests and even got a few behind the scenes partial requests from agents, I got a number of comments about how the writing and concept were great, but it was “too long,” at a mere 120,000 words (actually 128,000, as I recently discovered).

The story covers five and a half years, October 1940-May 1946, and takes place during some very dramatic, intense events. Of course it’s going to be long. I expect my other European books will be about the same length. It’s honest to the plot trajectory and longer timeline, but doesn’t fit with current word count policing, particularly in YA.

2. Ensemble casts and adult characters. By and large, I tend to work with ensemble casts, not just one or two protagonists. It’s what I’m used to reading. I also have fairly important adult characters in many of my books, who feature as more than just parents or friends’ parents in the sidelines.

3. Third-person omniscient. This is just how I write, the voice that comes most naturally to me. Once in awhile, I’ll write something that’s a lot closer to third-person limited, if the story is focused on just one character, but it’s still for all intents and purposes third-person omniscient. Outside of short interludes within a book, like a letter, newspaper op-ed, or love note, I haven’t written first-person in about 20 years. I doubt I could sustain that voice for more than just a few pages every so often, as much as I love writing these short interludes.

4. Timespan. My longer books are set over long time periods, and thus the characters age more than just a little. Most American YA these days is set over just a short period, maybe a year at most, not three, five, ten, or fifteen years. And with an ensemble cast, that means that not all the characters will be the same age at the same time, and that some will become adults midway through the book while others go through the full journey from childhood to adolescence or early twenties.

5. Mood, theme, language, introspection, focus. A lot of what I’ve written reads more like adult literature that just happens to focus on younger characters.

6. Slower-paced, character-driven. I tend towards writing about the overall journey of growing up and coming of age during historical times. Of course there are plotlines, but they’re more peripheral to the overall story of going through life and becoming an adult. They take slower to unfold and develop. I prefer stories about growth, change, and development.

7. Historical is a much different beast from other genres. The typical teenager of 50+ years ago was more like a twentysomething of today. Experiences like marriage, engagement, parenthood, living on one’s own, working, and assuming very adult responsibilities at home were commonplace. Could the average modern teen really relate to a Shoah survivor who’s engaged at 15-16 and married while still in his or her teens, or my four parentless Ryan siblings, Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, who grew up squatting and fending for themselves by begging and doing odd jobs?

This is why I roll my eyes so much at a lot of what passes for historical YA in the U.S. these days. They seem more like Gossip Girl in period clothes, fluffy, silly soap operas that just happen to be set in the past, giving historical teens very modern interests, language, actions, and lives. Others can’t seem to figure out if they’re telling an adult story, about people who would’ve been considered adults in their era, or YA.

Overall, I like to write stories that are history-focused and just happen to involve young people, not teen-focused stories that just happen to be set in the past.


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