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Middle Grade, Young Adult, Confused Gen Xer

Yesterday was a big day for me. I completed all the edits on my Untitled Steampunk (yes, I know) and considered it ready to shop to agents. It’s been about a year since I last shopped out my Blood of a Godkiller manuscript to agents and I’m ready to get back to actively trying to sell a book. The elation, the pride, the self-satisfaction. I had a solid, worthy manuscript on hand.

For about 10 minutes.

Some little brain worm burrowed itself into my grey matter within moments of giving myself an internalized huzzah. The completed manuscript is 43,504 words. Prior to really getting involved in writing this story, I reread some of the books I read growing up. I needed a little experiential instruction on the YA format, so I read these familiar stories with a different eye. I looked more closely at character development, pacing, and content. I even looked at word counts. I felt confident. So where had this insatiable brainworm come from and why was it siphoning off this newfound confidence with such gusto?

Careful dissection of the nefarious beast revealed two things. First, is this manuscript intended to be YA (Young Adult) or MG (Middle Grade)? Second, does the admittedly sparse word count greatly affect which category this manuscript can be considered for? See, I’m not overly familiar with the MG classification as I had intended this story to fall into YA. Now that I wasn’t so certain, I had to do a little research.

According to Colleen Lindsay at the swivet, my manuscript falls just shy of expectations at the lowest end of YA (45k) and just over the highest end for MG (40k). Okay, that isn’t entirely disconcerting. It is acceptable to have some variation, I’m sure.
Well, then I read at www.fromthemixedupfiles.com that  YA generally starts around 55k words. Even so, they still classify MG as topping out around 40k, so there must be some shady grey area where anything between the two resides.

Naturally word count is hardly the defining factor in classifying a book. The writer at The Mixed-Up Files and Michelle Schusterman at YA Highway take a closer look at content as the dividing factor. Subject matter, naturally tops the list. The overarching theme in my Untitled Steampunk manuscript is self-discovery which, in both cases, seems to best fit into the MG category. However, being an American Steampunk tale, there are issues of ethnicity, class, and politics that are largely linked to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Someone dies. So, unfortunately, I fear that this particular designation is a bit murky as well.
Romance is quite disparate in MG and YA. In MG it would typically involve hand-holding and maybe a first kiss. In YA it can go so far as intercourse and could potentially deal with such subjects as rape and abandonment. Well, I’m not much for romance as a reader or, really, as a writer. Even so, I did include an unspoken adoration between two of the three protagonists. As it is neither central to the theme nor important to the story, it never progresses beyond furtive glances, lingering touches, and the like. So, does this mean it falls squarely within MG?

Finally, and most easily adjusted to suit my needs, is intended readership. While an 8 year-old would not be put off reading about a 13 year-old, it might be less likely that a 13 year-old would read about an 8 year-old protagonist. At present, my protagonists are 11, 11, and 12. Technically, that would place the book into the MG category. If I (or an agent or publisher) felt more keenly that the book should fall into the YA category, I could probably push the characters into the 13 and 14 range, but not much further. I wrote them to be independent and worldly and they are self-sufficient with little interaction with their parents. If I push the 1878 setting to 1880, I may have to change some of the historically accurate names and realign the timeline in reference to events, but I don’t think the characters would be forced to change much. It had always been my intention to give them more responsibility, freedom, and capability than might be expected of children.

So, yeah. I am somewhat deflated in comparison to my brief joy at having completed edits because it seems more work may need to be done. “More work” could include adding another 30-40k words if I decide the manuscript does not easily fit into the YA category.

I think I’ll go ahead and put together a query letter and let the responses I receive determine how much more work I may need to put into it, if any.

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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The Birds and the Dead Bees

When I read YA books, and I do this pretty frequently, I very rarely find the violence or deaths to be over the top for children. Instead, I keep wondering how all of these stories about kids anywhere from 13 to 18 never seem to involve anything more than the occasional cheek peck.

I was raised on Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera, so I’m pretty certain that any excessive exposure to imaginary violence would have already reared its ugly head and forced me into a life of cannibalism and human trafficking if it was going to happen. Moreover, the books I read as a child were almost exclusively within the fantasy genre, so I read about gruesome deaths inflicted on all forms of both the living and undead without growing up to be a skin-wearing serial killer.

 

And yet, not surprisingly, very rarely did I happen upon books that dealt with the very real likelihood of sexual attraction among the characters. Don’t get me wrong, I was gifted Then Again Maybe I Won’t and it did wonders at answering some few questions I didn’t have the guts to ask. Even so, books specifically aimed at young adults very rarely broached the subject of sexuality by any real measure. Having grown up a young boy, I cannot begin to illustrate how woefully uninformed I was and how the occasional pilfered porno mag or overheard locker room braggart did little to provide real information. Even worse, my attempts at furthering my book-based knowledge with other Judy Blume titles did less to help. I never got my period, so I must have skimmed over something vital.

Harry Potter got a kiss, Whatshername and the sparkling vampire waited until they were married and anyone not terminally romantic had stopped reading before anything progressed beyond the weird watching-her-sleep thing. Despite the excessive use of ‘puss’ as ‘face’ in the Xanth books, nobody ever actually saw one. Maybe if just one character that I grew up with had dared to have a thought about sex, I wouldn’t have considered myself unreasonably preoccupied with it. I’m not suggesting that Wind in the Willows should have culminated in an explicit contrivance between species, but Ron and Hermione could have gotten as far as a little under the shirt, over the bra without turning everyone into perverts.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Age of Content

One of the difficulties I’ve had in writing a young adult manuscript was determining age appropriate content. As I don’t have children of my own and play Bad Uncle to my nephews and nieces, I’m not able to use much of our interactions as a basis for determining story lines. I have a soft spot for reading young adult fiction, but that includes generally benign content like Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted to the much more intense Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

Given that my (still) untitled Steampunk story takes place in 1878, there were very delicate subjects to either deal with or neglect as possibly unnecessary to the plot. The Civil War is still a fresh memory and the Reconstruction Era has barely passed. Add to that the inclusion of an African American girl as one of the three protagonists and I knew I had to determine how much or how little I wanted to deal with the cultural atmosphere of Saint Louis in 1878. Moreover, I needed to decide what segment of the extensive range of ‘young adults’ I was writing to and what amount of historical accuracy they expected in a novel.

The three main characters (Oscar Tumblety, William ‘Billy’ Lemp Jr., and Constance Scott) are ages 11 and 12. I decided to look at the young adult fiction released in 1986, when I was 11, as well as some more contemporary young adult books. 1986 included Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold by Terry Brooks, and Her Majesty’s Wizard by Christopher Stasheff. I have a pretty strong memory of each and don’t recall any of them touching on anything too dark or disturbing. In comparison, today’s holy grail of young adult fiction, the Harry Potter series, is practically built around death and abandonment as concerns central to the main character. Current Steampunk authors that, I think, are feeding the same age group I’m aiming for include Cherie Priest and Shelley Adina and they deal quite differently with the problems on different continents.

All in all, I didn’t get anything solid to go on because as would be expected, book content is as variable as the authors that write them and the readers that read them. For my own purposes, I decided that I wouldn’t completely ignore the bigotry and politics that come with writing in the period, but I also didn’t dwell on it as central to the plot. It isn’t. Constance is referred to as a Negro at one point, and the kids give an interesting bit of commentary on the difference between Hasidic and Reform Jews, but in general the story is about adventure, exploration, and discovering internal strengths rather than adjusting to a new world in the wake of a war. I’ll just have to see if my beta readers feel that I handled it appropriately.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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