Banner with part of the cover for the novel Justice Unending, by Elizabeth Spencer.First thing’s first! Want to enter a giveaway for Justice Unending? Just hop over to LibraryThing, change the “Media” drop-down to “Paper Only,” and scroll down until you find it. (I wish I could link directly to the thing. Sorry for all the extra steps!)

And with that out of the way, let’s get back to my favorite kind of post. I was reading stuff on the internet, and someone said something I didn’t agree with, guys! Let’s talk for 1,000 words about it!

So! The other day, I saw a post worrying about their YA science fiction. It was a story about teenagers. They had jobs, were concerned about their futures, and were looking forward to college. But it was otherwise a very innocent-sounding story, with no sex, no violence outside of a few bumps and scratches, and a lighthearted theme, and it had an unambiguously happy ending.

And he was nervous: is this not a young adult story? Did I actually write a middle grade story?

I was shocked at the number of people who were like “Oh, yeah! That’s not YA! Drop those ages!”

Huh.

Middle grade novels are not just sanitized young adult stories.

This happens a lot, actually! Many people don’t think there’s that much difference between YA and MG. Since they’re both books for children, many assume that the only difference is the subject matter: light violence, no sex, and no cussing is a PG movie. That’s MG! And if there’s anything PG-13 in there? BAM! Instant YA!

(Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with the acronyms, YA = young adult, or books for people loosely in the 13 to 18 year range, and MG = middle grade, or books for those loosely in the 8ish to 12 year range. But those aren’t hard numbers. There’s a lot of blurriness around the edges.)

And if all you care about is subject matter, then there’s a clear line: everything gritty and serious goes into YA and everything full of childhood adventure goes into MG.

And… that’s not entirely untrue? Middle grade novels are designed for a younger audience, so they do need to be age-appropriate in the way they handle violence, romance, and relationships. They don’t tend to have PG-13 content like sex and intense violence.

But this doesn’t mean that a YA automatically becomes a MG if it’s not violent enough, or that a MG becomes a YA because it’s dealing with something serious.

MG and YA novels are fundamentally designed for different periods of life.

Let’s start with something obvious: YA and MG books are, in fact, designed for children who are at entirely periods in their lives.

YA Novels Have YA Themes. In the most generic way, YA books deal with teenagers who are on the cusp of adulthood. They generally have themes like:

  • Being independent
  • Relying less on their parents and family
  • Being self-sufficient, and making your own decisions in life
  • Dealing with adult responsibilities, or preparing for them
  • Having to deal with adult problems, like housing, rent, jobs, or whatever the adult equivalent is in your genre.

YA novels may include a lot of adult content, but this may be the characters’ first experiences with them: these characters may have their first relationships, their first jobs, or the first situations where they’re really expected to go off, alone, with no one else, and survive by their own means. They are people being tested by adulthood.

None of these require sex and violence. It’s entirely possible to have characters–and a plot–that revolve around what it’s like to become a self-sufficient, independent adult that don’t require graphic violence or sexy times.

MG Novels have MG Themes. MG protagonists are, at most, maybe about 12 years old. They legally can’t support themselves, or live alone, or have a job. Consequently, their protagonists are:

  • More reliant on family.
  • More dependent on guardians and adult figures in their lives to provide the essentials of life and to take care of the big responsibilities.
  • Less interested in relationships, or only starting to think about them.
  • Trying to establish their identities, to form personalities and opinions separate of their family’s, and to create their own self-image, their own goals, and their own dreams.
  • Looking forward to growing up, and getting to do things that older kids do.

But adulthood and self-sufficiency are probably very far away for these kids–and if they aren’t, it’s much more of a tragedy. These are kids who are looking forward to the freedoms and independence of being a teenager.

These themes bleed into EVERYTHING in the story.

Is everything I said above a cliche? Oh, yeah. Are there exceptions? Constantly!

But let’s say you have, say, a YA science fiction that’s written about teenagers being teenagers. Can you just remove their jobs and say “Hey, we’re middle grade now?”

Probably not.

Because those themes I mentioned above? They affect everything. A 10 year old is not interested in the same things, and doesn’t have the same thought process, as a 17 year old. Their lives are different, their needs are different, their expectations for the future are different.

  • It affects your characterization and character interaction.
  • It affects the plot: what happens, why it happens, and what the consequences are may be totally different based on your character can do, how your character is likely to react, and what your character wants.
  • It affects the core themes in the story–the elements that you focus on, the underlying message of the events that occur, the significance of what happens.

The dynamics between two 10-year-old friends are different–they expect different things, have different ideas of what they’re responsible for, have different kinds of boundaries with each other, etc.

A MG story about a rough childhood might focus on regaining trust, finding adults who care, rediscovering stability in life. A YA story might focus on learning that a home situation isn’t safe, breaking free, and finding independence.

But even now, even with all this in mind, you still can’t say “MG = light themes, YA = heavy stuff.” MG novels can absolutely have serious, darker themes. Many books are designed to help its readers cope with the world around them–and there definitely are 10 year olds who deal with dysfunctional families, violence at home and in their communities, and other “adult” topics. They, too, can find comfort in stories about protagonists their age dealing with these very real problems. The way they deal with it will be different than a YA book, and these scary topics should be handled in an age-appropriate way, but just having a darker, heavier theme does not necessarily mean that a book can’t be MG.

Consequently, it’s very, very rare that you can take a book, change the protagonists’ ages, and change nothing else.

So, in conclusion… No. If you’ve written a book about teenagers being teenagers, I’m going to guess that turning it into a MG might require significant rewrites. (And this is all without mentioning the more obvious things: like how MG books are much shorter than YA and that MG science fiction is, I think, much harder to tell in than YA.)

But the most important thing is that YA and MG aren’t interchangeable. A fluffy YA isn’t “basically” a MG, and a darker MG isn’t a YA in disguise. Whether a story is MG or YA is a much more complicated decision.

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Logo for WriteOnCon.

WriteOnCon is coming up! This year, it’s running from February 9 to 11, Friday through Sunday.

Haven’t heard of it before? Check it out. WriteOnCon is a writing convention for children’s book authors, including everything from picture books to New Adult. It’s also completely online, which means you don’t have to go anywhere–just register, sign on, and watch the panels!

It’s only $5 to read all the blog posts, $10 to see all the content, or $15 to see all the content and also have access to it for a month after the conference. So it’s dirt cheap, it’s fun, and it has a lot of seriously good speakers and topics. And Susan Dennard (author of the Something Strange and Deadly and Truthwitch series) is doing the opening keynote! How cool is that?

My experience with WriteOnCon is limited, but it’s something!

I attended WriteOnCon half-assedly in… I’m going to say 2014? It’s hard to compare that experience to now, because the convention was managed by a different team, went down for a while, and now has apparently been revived by a different team.

But that’s not really relevant for this post, because this much is the same: in 2014, I literally only signed up for the forums. I paid no money and didn’t attend any panels. I specifically did the Query Feedback forums, which are exactly what they sound like:  you post your query and you get feedback from the tons and tons of attendees.

Better yet: since agents are participating in the event, they look at the forums, too! And if you get super-super-super-duper lucky, you might get a request!

But chances are you’ll just get a ton of feedback, which is still super useful. You do need to take it with a grain of salt, of course–the attendees range from brand-new writers to honed veterans, and since everyone wants to be fair (if you get feedback, you want to give feedback, too!) you get a lot of feedback. This means you’ll get a mix, some great and some decidedly iffy.

Back in 2014, I was querying Justice Unending, and I got an absolute bucketload of feedback. And while I definitely didn’t use all of it, WriteOnCon did help me forge the query letter I eventually queried with.

Buuuut, I admittedly don’t know what to expect.

That said, I’ve never attended the full event before, so I have no idea what to expect. I’m attending this year, though! I’ll be  listening to all three days of events and participating in the forums. And, hey, it’s $10 and a few days. This isn’t a massive investment.

So if you write kidlit, give WriteOnCon a look!

It’s 2018! You know what that means, right? It’s time for self-indulgent introspection!

Let’s start by checking my 2017 resolutions and seeing how I did!

My 2017 New Year’s Resolutions

I did okay! Okay-ish?

  • I did edit my new YA fantasy, the tentatively titled Garden in the Waves. It took WAY longer than I expected, and it’s still not quite ready to query. But I did finish my second draft. Garden was 115K at the start of 2017, and now it’s 90K–and almost all of that is completely new content.
  • I didn’t query Garden, but I do have a query letter drafted and (nearly) ready to go.
  • I didn’t write any short stories this year, unfortunately. I was hoping that the above-mentioned edits would take ~6 or so months, and… they took 10. Huh. And even when I was done, I still didn’t have time for short stories, because…
  • I did NaNoWriMo! I wrote about 70K of a novel that’s probably going to be 80K. That draft isn’t done, and it also needs to be completely rewritten, but it was nice to blow through something new after spending 5 months writing and 10 months editing Garden.

So I got a fair amount of work done. Let’s look at it in more detail!

Reading: I could have done more.

According to Goodreads, I read 30 books and approximately 10,000 pages. That’s about average. (It’s a little behind the 35 I did in 2016, though.)

The best book I read was–shock! surprise!–not a YA fantasy. It’s never a YA fantasy! I read boatloads of them, I swear! I really like them! But I always seem to run into something totally unexpected–and something totally not YA–that blows me out of the water.

This year, the best series I read was The Broken Earth series (the first of which is The Fifth Season), an exceptionally powerful adult fantasy series with some mindblowing worldbuilding. It’s hugely popular. There’s a TV series coming out. It’s definitely worth picking up. I don’t like morbid, dark, post-apocalyptic stuff, but this series absolutely devoured me.

Writing: I’m pretty inefficient!

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know I seriously love tracking how much I write. So I can tell you that I:

  • Wrote 251,078 words this year.
  • 229,534 were just brand new words in brand new chapters.
  • 8,673 of them were related to outlining.
  • …Leaving 8,082 related to editing. But that number’s wonky. I only count my words as “editing” if I’m keeping the majority of the content I’m working on. If I toss out content and rewrite it from scratch, I count it as “writing.” And lemme tell you: I did a lot of rewriting. A LOT a lot. So even though I edited a single novel for 10 months, most of that time wasn’t logged as editing.

This is huge. I wrote approximately 212,000 words last year. I wrote 139,000 words the year before. I am writing a ton of content, and I’m writing more every year!

But that doesn’t mean I used my writing time well. I spent this year editing a YA fantasy that–with any luck–I’ll query this year. I also rewrote the first half of it 3 times. I tossed out my first draft. I rewrote the first 14 chapters, then tossed them out. I wrote 15 new chapters to replace them, then tossed most of that out. Now I have 14 also mostly-new chapters, and they mostly, but they still need edits. Argh!

I essentially took a 115,000-word story and rewrote it. It is now 92,000 words. But I had to write 159,000 words to get there.

And then I wrote a new story, which is currently 70,000 words long. But it was a NaNoWriMo story, it was really quickly outlined, and I… really want to do all of it differently. So that’ll have to be rewritten, too!

So while I created a lot of content, it’s also really easy to feel like I’m running in place–creating and creating and creating, but inching toward the actual act of finishing something and getting it published. I’m close, sure! But it’s easy to feel like I didn’t actually do anything in 2017.

Other Writing-Related Goals!

I was busy, though!

  • I attended my first major writing convention!
  • I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time (and won!)
  • I actually left the house and made some local writing friends!

These are all really good things!

My Goals for 2018

So! 2017 was a… well, it was a year. I did some stuff. It might not have been the year I was hoping it’d be, but it certainly wasn’t a wash. So what do I plan to do in 2018?

  • I need to finish my third–and hopefully final–edit of The Garden in the Waves. I want this one to go much faster. I’m 90% of the way there!
  • And I’m definitely going to query it this year. Fingers crossed!
  • I need to rewrite the Justice Unending sequel from scratch. I got a lot of ideas down on paper, I wrote 70,000 words, and now I know a lot more about what I actually want to do.
  • I’d really like to write 1 or 2 short stories this year. I haven’t published any since 2015! I had a few out on submission in 2017, but I didn’t write any–I just kept a few old 2016 stories out on rotation. It’s time to put those to bed and focus on something new.

And that’s that!

It’s been a productive–if not slightly frustrating–year. I might not have accomplished everything I wanted to do, but I definitely did a lot.

I didn’t query, no. But, with any luck, I’ll be out in the query trenches in a month or two. And once I’m there, I promise: I’ll cover everything that I learn along the way here on the blog.

And for those folks who follow me: thank you for another year! I’ve loved chatting with all of you and hearing about your experiences. I hope you all have a wonderful new year!