Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Story Grid: Shawn Doesn't Know Youth Fiction

I've heard a lot about Shawn Coyne and  The Story Grid over the last year or so, and I've been aware of Shawn for longer thanks to his occasional appearances on Steven Pressfield's blog and their collaborations. I watched the video series where Shawn goes through Silence of the Lambs and uses it to explain the Story Grid. Impressive stuff all.

So when I finally got around to listening to The Story Grid podcast, I expected great things. And it really is a great podcast, particularly for newer writers who don't know the craft or the business and who are trying to find their writing legs in the first place.

But (you could hear that coming, right?) a couple of things Shawn insists on are flat-out wrong. Not about editing or story structure in and of themselves. The problem is that he's trying to teach someone to write youth fiction when he has zero experience in the youth fiction market. In fact, he took Tim's idea for a story and practically shoved it into being middle-grade.

Shawn has a ton of experience in thriller, suspense, mystery, and nonfiction. And you can tell. Much of what he knows can be applied to a ton of stories and genres. I listened to over a year's worth of weekly episodes in just over a month, and when I reached the point where Shawn's giving advice on the supposed youth fiction genre, I found myself yelling at Shawn in my car because he was getting some things wrong.

That's where this post came from. I'll probably do other posts about some other beefs I have, but let's start with this one:

How Shawn Coyne Is Wrong about Youth Fiction

This may seem odd coming from a professed women's fiction and romance writer, and at first glance, you might think I'm utterly unqualified to talk about youth fiction.

You'd be wrong.

Here's the deal: I live in the youth fiction capital of the planet. Seriously. Some of the biggest youth fiction authors of our time live near enough to me that we could do lunch. (And in many cases, we have!) We attend the same conferences, rub shoulders at other events, and more. I call many of them friends.

To make my point, below are a few of the bigger names of local writers. I could have gone on and on with other youth fiction writers I'm friends with who aren't quite as big as these ones (all but a couple of these are New York Times bestsellers, for starters), but the list isn't the point of this post:
  • James Dashner (The first chapters of The Maze Runner were read at a critique meeting around my kitchen table. We first met at a book signing in 2004.)
  • Jessica Day George (We've hung out in hotel rooms at conferences late into the night. I've dropped by her house and chatted for hours. We started a Scandinavian book club. She's a ginger, just like my three daughters, so she automatically rocks.)
  • Ally Condie (We shared a book signing, and a few years later were later on the same panel at a conference. Love her.)
  • Shannon Hale (I spoke at a conference she arranged.)
  • Brandon Sanderson (I got to be part of the anthology he edited and published to raise money for a family in need. We have tons of mutual friends, and we live minutes apart. Pretty sure he knows who I am but probably wouldn't consider me a friend.) (He's one of the massive superstars who doesn't primarily write youth fiction. He's an epic fantasy novelist, but yes, he does have some middle-grade fiction too.)
  • Chad Morris (He's won national awards for middle-grade science fiction. We've been part of the same events. And oh, I edited his first book.)
  • Dan Wells and Robison Wells (Brothers who are successful writers, and they're both friends.)
  • Sara B. Larson (We've been at the same write-ins late at night at a mutual friend's house and other writing events, including a big launch, where we both performed.)
  • Jennifer A. Nielsen (We've taught back-to-back at workshops and been part of the same promotional events. One of the sweetest people.)
  • Brandon Mull (We've been at many of the same events, even sitting at the same table at an awards gala, but he never remembers who I am. That's fine. I can go hang out with Jessica and talk about Vikings!)
Many theories float around as to why the Wasatch Front in Utah has such a huge concentration of rock-star-level youth fiction writers. I'm sure a big part of it is the fact that Utah has a lot of Mormons, Mormons have a lot of children, and Mormons read TO their children a lot. Ergo, many parents (and therefore prospective writers) here are more exposed to youth fiction than anywhere else.

The writing community here is also massive, with conferences and organizations everywhere. And writing community has become very much focused on youth fiction and speculative fiction (meaning science fiction, fantasy, etc.), to the point that if you don't write youth fiction, then you'd better write spec, or you aren't really part of the "in" club. (See Sanderson, above.)

I've lived and breathed so much about the youth fiction market from picture books to early chapter books to middle grade to young adult that I know a lot more than others in the industry. I've seen friends snag big-name agents. I've seen them sell. I've seen them not sell. I've celebrated with them at launch parties. I've heard them teach at conferences. I've heard them discuss issues about their market on panels.

And on and on and on.

Hopefully you see what I mean. I am surrounded by youth fiction on all sides, to the point that it's easy to feel like the weirdo who writes for grown-ups.

OKAY. All of that said, here's the biggest thing Shawn doesn't get:

YOUTH FICTION IS A MARKET, NOT A GENRE.


That may not seem like a big deal to someone who isn't deep in the industry, but trust me; it's a huge distinction.

A genre refers to the type of story you're telling. Here are a couple of massively oversimplified descriptions two common genres:
  • Romance: A couple gets together, falls apart, and somehow get back together. 
  • Mystery: A detective (or some other individual, such as a PI, journalist, or doctor) solves a murder, figures out who did it, and the bad guy gets captured.
Both of those genres have a lot more to them than that, but essentially, that's what those genres are about, right? Other genres include adventures, quests, thrillers, suspense, love stories (which differ from romance), and so forth.

One classic story type/genre is the coming-of-age story, where the main character's growth arc moves from innocence to maturity, to having their eyes opened to the realities of life. That often means realizing that not everyone is good or trustworthy, having to grow up faster than expected, and so on, so they become a bit jaded.

Coming-of-age is a legitimate genre. Absolutely. Many classics fall into this category, including Great Expectations, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and more. 

Now, notice that the books I just listed were never intended to be read by ten-year-olds. In fact, many high schools today still require parent permission for a student to read Rye because of content and profanity concerns. I'm quite sure that J. D. Salinger didn't imagine his audience as a bunch of 16-year-olds. 

Yet Shawn says that any story with a young protagonist must, by its very nature, have a coming-of-age story as its global genre. 

NOT SO. 

Plenty of youth fiction has nothing do with coming-of-age as the core arc. Some level of growing up and losing innocence might happen along the way (as, frankly, happens in almost any novel, even for adults). 

But I can guarantee that developing a coming-of-age arc was the thing farthest from James Dashner's mind when he wrote The Maze Runner. I've talked to him about how he wrote the book and what his inspiration was. His focus was on making the coolest, most exciting story he could come up with. 

He wrote a thriller. 

Any other story type that happened to show up is secondary (it can arguably be called dystopian). Or tirtiary (science fiction, maybe). Or even farther down the list.

If you go by Shawn's statements, then all publishers of youth fiction put out one coming-of-age story after another, and that's all they do. The books may look a little different, but at their core, ALL of their books are coming-of-age stories. Again, if you go by Shawn's definition.

But that's not true at all. Remember, youth fiction is a MARKET, not a genre. 

Market vs. Genre

Plenty of publishers specialize in a specific genre. Harlequin is probably the best-known romance publisher, for example. No matter the content (language, amount of sex, etc.), no matter the age of the protagonists, all of their books are romances. They have specific imprints for various types of romance, but the publisher is, at its core, a publisher of the romance genre.

Similarly, St. Martin's Press is one of the most famous publishers of mysteries. 

Both of those publishers serve the adult MARKET while publishing in a specific GENRE. 

Youth fiction is the same in that it specializes in a variety of genres for a youth audience, or market

They know what younger readers enjoy reading. They know how to sell to those readers (and to their parents, who are often the ones buying the books). 

Within a youth publisher, specific imprints (and even more often, specific editors) focus on different GENRES. One may focus on science fiction (such as Dan Wells' Bluescreen), while others focus fantasy (including popular fairy tale re-tellings, like Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball), and still others are currently booming with the resurgence of contemporary youth fiction, like Amy Finnegan's Not in the Script.

Youth Readers Read UP

Industry experts know that kids read UP in age, meaning that a 12-year-old doesn't want to read stories about a fellow 12-year-old. They'd prefer to read about characters who are older, say 14 or so. Kids wants to be older, more grown up, and reading puts readers into a position of putting on the persona of the main character. Kids don't want to escape into their same situation. They want to experience being older vicariously.

So middle-grade books tend to have main characters who are a bit older than the target readership of 9 to 12 years. 

Likewise, a 14-year-old protagonist won't appeal to 14-year-old readers, who are instead looking for stories about 16- or 17-year-old characters. So novels targeted at the YA market tend to be about older high schoolers, even though the majority of kids reading them are finishing junior high or just starting high school.

I can confirm this after watching my own kids reading. My four children range from age 14 to 21. I've been watching them read, reading to them, and tracking youth fiction trends along with my colleagues for a LONG time. Frankly, about as long as Shawn's been an editor, I've been a writer. And did I mention I'm also an editor with about 15 years of experience? Yeah.

Trends in Youth Fiction

Industry trends are incredibly influential. Insiders know that the stuff flying off shelves now is not what will be flying off shelves two years from now. In fact, youth publishers in New York have already pegged the next big thing, and alas, dystopian fiction has already had its heyday. 

For a few years now, I've been hearing many agents (and editors) say as much, that no matter how good the story is, they just can't sell a dystopian because that ship has sailed. (That ship may also return at some point; trends often resurface eventually. But for the moment, any dystopian attempt will be dead in the water.)

Other trends: Five years ago, contemporary youth fiction was almost nonexistent. Now it's flourishing. Middle-grade fiction has exploded too. The effects are clear in the Whitney Awards, where I've been a committee member several times and recently served as president: contemporary YA used to be a very small category, but it's been growing bigger every year, and so has middle-grade. YA spec is still huge, but it's not quite as big as it used to be.

Note that the Whitney Awards are split into two market segments (adult fiction and youth fiction), which are then split into eight genre categories (five for adult fiction and three for youth fiction). Market and genre are not the same thing.

If I had to peg the coming-of-age global genre, I'd probably put it into the adult market, where it shows up primarily in literary, upmarket, and book-club titles. Not usually ones aimed at youth.

Targeting Your Audience

It should go without saying that industry insiders are very aware that adults also read youth fiction, but that's a relatively new phenomenon, and it's almost entirely thanks to the crossover readership of Harry Potter, which was then followed by the crossover readership of Twilight, and then The Hunger Games.

But the point stands: 

***Adults are not the primary audience of youth fiction.*** 

Just as Shawn wisely told Tim to remember that more than half of adult readers are women, he should also remember the demographics of who primarily reads youth fiction.

That would be YOUTH. 

And remember how young readers read UP in age? 

Let's talk about the book Tim's writing that Shawn is mentoring him with. The 12-year-old protagonist is simply too young for teen readers to care about. She's too young even for many middle-grade readers. The typical age of a reader picking up a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist will be around ten. 

Content is another big issue here. Tim's story so far (based on the discussion on the podcast; I haven't read any of it) is far too mature for a kid that age. It's a way cool story but NOT something kids who are ten or so will enjoy, fully understand, or appreciate. Yet that's the age he's writing to by picking a twelve-year-old protagonist.

That's aside from whether the story would be appropriate for that age, which I can guarantee it won't be. Tim's said outright that he wants to write the kind of book he enjoys reading (wise decision, of course!), and that includes having pretty intense violence, gore, swearing, etc. All well and good, but NOT in a middle-grade novel, which is the kind of book tucked into students' backpacks on book orders.

The age the publisher decides to market the book toward determines the content that can be in the book. 

One of my rock-star writer friends (listed above, but I won't name them directly) had their first book deemed MG instead of YA by the publisher, and therefore some content had to be changed. Nothing like violence, language, or gore, however. Oh, no. The author had to remove references to alcohol and a buxom woman's chest because those things don't belong in a MG book, only in a YA. I'm not kidding.

Other things that make a book YA: if a character faces a possible marriage situation, it's automatically YA. I've had this told to me directly by agents. It often applies to stories like fairy tales, where a marriage on the horizon is very common. Graphic violence automatically makes a book YA rather than MG. So does language. So does romance of any kind beyond maybe a boy or girl having a tiny minor beginning of a crush in a MG book. Any actual kissing (or more), and it's not MG.

The Harry Potter series began as MG. The fact that he was only eleven in the first book could very well be a big reason why it was rejected out of hand by many publishers at first. (And no, don't think you're the Rowling exception to the rule.) 

As Harry aged, so did the thematic content, moving the series from MG into YA territory. The Dumbledore we see in book one, making silly puns on the first gathering at Hogwarts, isn't the same strong, serious wizard battling evil that we see in the later books.

Kids Want Many Genres

Then there's the very obvious fact that kids and teens don't want to read coming-of-age stories and nothing else. They want thrillers, adventures, mysteries, and (for YA readers) romance. Occasionally, a book may have a coming-of-age theme in the background, but most youth fiction doesn't. 

Really.

And that's because youth fiction isn't a genre. It's a market.

Publishers of youth fiction aren't filling their lines with one type of story. Their readers would get ridiculously sick and tired of it if that were the case. That would be like every publisher of adult fiction putting out one genre only.

(I mentioned the idea of all YA books being coming-of-age stories to my 14-year-old, and she about gagged.)

Industry Shifts in the Definition of YA and MG

The way the industry views and defines youth fiction has changed dramatically over the last twenty or thirty years. There was a time when a young protagonist could show up in a book intended for adults, and no one thought anything of it. Case in point: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. 

Fast forward to today, in a post-Harry, post-Bella, post-Katniss publishing world, and publishers eager to buy and market youth fiction now see any story with a younger cast as automatically being youth fiction. 

One of my closest friends has several good friends of her own who work at the top of New York publishing. When she asked for suggestions on who to submit her adult paranormal thriller to, they all shrugged and gave her the bad news: even though her novel wasn't written for teenagers, the main characters were older teens, and in the current publishing climate, the book would automatically be seen as a YA title. 

Yet it read like an adult book. Which it was. Except for the ages of the main characters. 

Rock. Hard place.

The pendulum will likely swing the other direction at some point, but for now, here's the prevailing belief: 
  • Young characters = youth fiction
  • The dystopian ship has sailed (So sorry, Tim!) 
  • The only place you'll find a twelve-year-old protagonist is in middle-grade fiction (Not gonna work, Tim.)
  • Middle-grade fiction cannot have intense violence (Sorry again!)
  • Middle-grade fiction needs a protagonist who is older than the target audience (Twelve is just too young . . .)
If Tim were writing his story in the mid-80s, right around the time Ender's Game came out, it would be a totally different situation. 

As I'm sure you know, Ender's Game is not intended for eight-year-old readers, even if Ender is a little kid for a good chunk of the book. He's what, only six or so when it opens? By today's industry standards, that would make Ender's Game an early reader book for kindergartners. 

Yeah, no.

Differences in Markets by Country

An interesting thing to note is that the industry shift in viewing age as defining the market is largely an American one. Take Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer series. It's horror, and the protagonist is sixteen. But it's not intended to be a kids' book. 

See the challenge? 

Yup.

In the U.S. it's largely marketed as a YA series.

But in the UK and elsewhere, it's marketed as an adult novel, which Dan always intended it to be. No surprise, it sells like hotcakes in markets outside the U.S. For whatever reason, American publishers and readers have a narrower view of what youth fiction is.

I'd still caution Tim away from having a twelve-year-old protagonist even if he's counting on international markets to eat up the story as one intended for adults. Dan Wells wouldn't have had his sociopathic protagonist, John, be as young as twelve. That wouldn't have worked even outside the U.S.

Why? A character on the cusp of adulthood is much easier to sell to a broader scope of readers. That's one of several reasons why Twilight and The Hunger Games had such a big crossover readership. Remember that Harry Potter didn't explode in crossover readership until the the fourth book, when Harry was fifteen and closer to adulthood.

(Side note: Contrary to what Shawn said in one episode of the podcast, Twilight isn't horror. It's YA paranormal romance.)

All of this supports the main point of this whole post, which I'll repeat: 

Youth fiction is a market, not a genre.

So What's My  Advice for Tim?

In Tim's shoes, I'd age the protagonist so she's more of a Katniss figure in her upper teens. Or make her an adult and have the story be a full-blown adult novel as he originally imagined.

That would make the most sense, seeing as Tim is clearly more familiar with the adult market anyway, and Shawn is completely unfamiliar with the youth market. I think Shawn would do a better job mentoring Tim's project as an adult book. 

Tim may well be self-publishing this novel when it's ready. If so, he won't need an agent or a New York editor currently working in the youth fiction market, so some of the industry expectations won't necessarily apply. 

Except that reader expectations have largely formed industry expectations, and that will make marketing and selling the book trickier if we have a twelve-year-old main character in an adult-themed book. And in the self-publishing e-book world, adults do most of the buying. Kids don't have as many e-readers (yet), so selling youth fiction in e-book format is harder than adult fiction.

In addition, readers tire of trends, and currently, they're dystopian-ed out. I'd suggest that Tim make sure the story feels more futuristic so it reads like science fiction rather than dystopian.

Most of all, I'd insist he learn that youth fiction with a primary/global genre of coming-of-age is in the minority. Youth fiction readers expect so much more than coming-of-age stories. I'd tell him to read lots of speculative youth fiction to get a feel for what's out there and especially what's new in the market so he's aware of what the current trends are. Heck, I could suggest a bunch.

I can guarantee that if you do read a lot of youth speculative fiction, you won't find a ton of global coming-of-age stories. Look for the other GENRES within the youth fiction MARKET!

(Am I beating a dead horse yet?)

More Advice for Tim: Content Issues

Readers of youth fiction (and their parents) expect a certain kind of content to NOT be in youth fiction. On one hand, YA has more flexibility on content than the younger markets. You'll find YA novels dealing with sex, drugs, and many other more mature issues, and YA books can also have some language, etc. Middle-grade, though, is still pretty conservative, and a twelve-year-old protagonist screams MG or even early chapter reader. Not YA or adult. 

A book with content not in line with a MG market will be really tough to sell to readers who typically pick up a book with that age of a protagonist. And older readers probably won't pick it up because they'll think it's a little kid book. That is, unless the marketing power of the podcast gets an adult readership behind him from the get go, which I suppose is possible. But in his shoes, I wouldn't bank on it.

Why Tim Should Listen to Me
I've laid out some strong opinions and beliefs about youth fiction from a women's fiction and romance writer who happens to be intimately connected with a ton of youth fiction industry insiders. Not just writers, either. Did I mention I know several editors of youth fiction and agents who rep it? And that I've edited many novels of youth fiction? I've also read more youth fiction than most fellow middle-aged people, and I've been in the writing industry for twenty-two years.

And I've been an editor for about for about half that time. 

Oh, and here's a fun post with Dan Wells and James Dashner from a little over a year ago. Because they're hilarious and awesome. 

(And because in case you're wondering, yes, I really do know them both personally.) 


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