QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wicked Truths of Edgy Young Adult Novels

The Query Tracker Blog team recently opened the floor to questions pertaining to writing and the publishing industry. Since I’m a huge fan of edgy YA, I naturally jumped at the chance to answer those ones. (Okay, I screamed, “Mine, mine, mine,” at the computer, but what the hey!)

1. I have written a YA novel that doesn't stop at a kiss. I have noticed all the young adult novels people keep telling me to check out don't seem to go as far as mine. So my question is: do you know of a YA published novel that take the characters further than just a kiss and actually write about it?

My bookshelf’s exploding with YA novels that fit what you’re looking for. The question you have to decide is how far you want to take things. If you’re writing younger YA (readers 12-15 years), the kissing tends be tamer. French kissing falls into this category (just don’t get too graphic with it). In older YA (readers 14 years and older), anything can happen, within reason. Remember, you’re not writing erotica, and each imprint has different guidelines as to what’s allowed. You might write the scene one way, and your editor may ask you to change it to fit the guidelines.

If sex happens in the book, make sure it’s organic to the story. Don’t write it because you’re hoping it’ll skyrocket your novel onto the bestselling list. In the examples listed below, the protagonists had their reasons for taking the relationship further than a kiss. For some it was the right thing to do; for others it was a mistake. The great thing about YA is that we can show both sides. The first kiss isn’t always perfect, neither is the first sexual experience. When I was a teen, I devoured historical romances. Talk about setting me up for unrealistic expectations.

Here’re some suggested books to study so you can see the different ways authors deal with kissing and sex.

Forever by Judy Blume

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

The Duff by Kody Keplinger

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

Swoon by Nina Malkin

Handcuffs by Bethany Griffin

Forget You by Jennifer Echols

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

Fade by Lisa McMann (sequel to Wake)

Shadow Kiss and Spirit Bound by Richelle Mead (these are books three and six of the Vampire Academy series)

Also, check out author Suzanne Young’s WriteOnCon Vlog: Sex in YA—the ABC’s of Hooking up,and agent Mary Kole’s post, Sex in YA.

2. My question is: is there a viable market for edgy YA fiction, and if so, why does it seem that most agents won't touch it?

First, what is edgy YA? It isn’t as easy to define like a romance or thriller. Nor is it considered a genre. Your novel might be YA paranormal, but it could have edgy elements to it (like sex, drugs, and swearing). These books deal with issues most relevant to teens, and are done with brutal honesty, which is why teens appreciate them. Wise editors know this. And like everything else in publishing, the term is highly subjective. What one person might consider edgy, another doesn’t.

Elements that might make a story edgy include drugs, abuse, sex, cutting, rape, bullying, etc. But remember, it’s not necessarily the issue that makes the book edgy, but the way it’s written. Ellen Hopkins, Jay Asher, Laurie Halse Anderson, Elizabeth Scott (Living Dead Girl), Courtney Summers (and some of the above authors) are just a few individuals who write edgy YA. Read their books. It’s the best way to understand the concept. And don’t worry. It’s still very much in demand.

Every agent has a preference as to what they want to represent. The trick is figuring out which ones are dying to receive your query. Check out the acknowledgment page of the edgy YA novels you enjoyed, read agent blogs and agency websites, stalk follow agents on Twitter to find out what YA books they’re gushing about. And if this still doesn’t give you the answers you’re looking for, then query them anyway. What’s the worst they can say? No? Seriously, no one has ever died from receiving a rejection.

3. I have substituted euphemisms for four letter words in dialogue, when the four letter word would have been more accurate. I just don't know what is acceptable in YA.

Mary Kole has also blogged about this topic here and here. Basically, swearing is allowed in YA, especially since it adds to characterization. But make sure it’s organic to the character. In The Naughty List and So Many Boys, Suzanne Young’s protagonist doesn’t swear. She uses phrases like strawberry smoothie instead. A complete contrast to Break by Hannah Moskowitz. Her main character uses the f-word, but it feels right coming from him.

If you are going to include swearing, a few carefully placed swear words will take you much further than dousing your manuscript with them. Use too many and your reader will stop noticing them, and you’ll lose the effect you were going for.

Please let me know if you have any more questions regarding YA novels. Otherwise, make sure you read some of the above books. Consider them your homework assignment if you’re planning to write this genre. Trust me. It’s the best homework, ever.

Stina Lindenblatt writes contemporary and romantic suspense for young adults. In her spare time (LOL), she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.


Pam Harris said...

Great post! I read AND write "edgy" YA, so this was definitely helpful. :)

Laura Pauling said...

Great definitions of edgy YA. I love both edgy mg and YA and fun and rompy. But they are definitely different. Great post.

Written and Ready said...

Yay, I'm published!(OK my question) =P Thanks for posting the books I need to check out. I can't wait to get to the bookstore today!

Amparo Ortiz said...

Awesome post, Stina!! Love me some edge :D

Donea Lee said...

Stina - there's some really great information here. It's important to know where you can go in YA. And I've got LOTS and LOTS of homework to do. Thanks for some great book suggestions, too. :)

Nicole Zoltack said...

Awesome, awesome post. Loved it.

Samantha Vérant said...

Stina, this was a wonderful post. Really. All the examples you gave were spot on too. it's funny. I just beta read a book where the topic was serious (rape) and there was a really out of placed and detailed sex scene in it. Sometimes less is more and the scenes do have to be organic to the story.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Smart, useful post, and I love those recs.

Candyland said...

Fantastic post!!!

Susan R. Mills said...

Excellent post! Thanks, Stina!

Sherrie Petersen said...

Great homework assignment. That's why I love being a writer :)

lotusgirl said...

Great post. I appreciate how you laid everything out. I wasn't sure of the specific distinctions that made something "edgy" YA. I completely agree about the language thing. It's easy to become desensitized to the swear words and then they lose their impact.

Rachael Harrie said...

Great post, really helped clarify some things for me :)


G. B. Miller said...

Just curious, do you ever go beyond the YA fiction that everyone here seems to be writing and/or going absolutely ga-ga over?

I picked up on this blog because I heard a lot about it, but all it ever seems to do is concentrate on YA stuff.

I'm curious as to when you actually wrote about something that was geared towards people about the age of 25, instead of stuff geared towards the age of 11 to 16.

Lydia Kang said...

Great post Stina, and thanks for the helpful links. They are always great.

Shannon said...

Excellent post, Stina! I love learning more about the genres. You rock!

Stina said...

G--Great question. I write YA because that's what appeals to me the most. Just like you write what calls to you.

These questions was recently asked by several QT blog followers. In two weeks, I'll be answering questions that pertain to all fiction writers. If you look back through the posts since January 2009, you'll find most posts are not genre specific.

Najela said...

I enjoyed this post. Especially about it's the way a story is written that makes it edgy not necessarily what it's writing about.

Christina Lee said...

Fantastic job on this Stina! And great book selections you pointed out!

Bethany Wiggins said...

*Hi Stina!*

I have to say, I don't have a problem with sex in YA AS LONG AS there is a consequence. I think 13 Reasons Why is the perfect example of this. On the other hand, Perfect Chemestry... which I really enjoyed... bothered me a little bit. Female MC sleeps with hot bad boy and then bad boy has a sudden change of heart because she "gave herself to him"? Totally unrealistic. And it promotes the message that if you sleep with a bad boy, he'll turn good. Not the best message for teenage girls.

But that's all... my 2 cents.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Thanks for the list of books, Stina. Good, thought-provoking post. :) I'm right in the middle of Ellen Hopkin's FALLOUT. Definitely edgy. Whew.

I read Bethany's comment above and I think I agree. The most important thing when writing edgy is to remember the reprecussions to certain decisions. Not that we have to resign ourselves to the cliche, or write cautionary tales (ie. "She had sex with her boyfriend and now she's pregnant!" *gasp* -- although that's definitely a real-life scenerio). But there are emotional consequences, too, even if there's nothing physical, even if the protag doesn't come down with an STD or find herself hooked on the drugs she's just experimenting with or wind up an alcoholic -- there are still consequences. My plea to all edgy writers is KEEP IT REAL. (That's what you were saying about the historical novels you read as a teen. Um, entertaining, but not exactly realistic. LOL) It's *very* easy to glamorize things like sex, drugs, and alcohol ... fall into the Hollywood trap.

Just my 2 cents, too. :) Thanks again for the great post!


Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hi G --

I don't generally write anything geared ESPECIALLY towards people who write for the under-18 group, because I really can't write material that's appropriate for younger readers. (I'm adult all the way.) Some of my fiction would be considered edgy even for adult readers, but it has never occurred to me to write about that for the blog, because people don't worry about "edgy" being a problem with the adult age group.

The YA market is really hot right now, and since so many of our readers demonstrate interest in those areas (lots of comments on those posts, several questions when we recently invited them), we do try to cater to our readers' needs.

By all means, if you have specific questions pertaining to an older age group, or would like to see us address particular topics, feel free to email me or to send a note to the a s k q t b @ g m a i l . c o m email address. (You will need to remove the spaces -- sorry, I have to do that to try to get around the spambots.)

The nice thing about writing as a team -- lots of different expertise!

Patricia H. Aust said...

My agent's pitching my YA set in a domestic violence shelter and which includes dating violence. I used "freakin" instead of "F...ing" and hope it's tough enough. The emotion is there and that's the main thing IMO. Pat Aust

Janet Brinton said...

Can I set a book in a real high school or do I have to do the 'thinly-veiled' thing like Prep or Looking for Alaska? I've seen books set at real universities (Ivy at Harvard) but I can't think of any at the high school level.

Patricia H. Aust said...

Sure you can--I set my Benni & Victoria in my son's school, but don't identify anyone, etc.
Pat http://bit.ly/ruralwriter

Janet Brinton said...

Interesting Patwriter. Can you give me the names of any novels set in real US high schools? Mine has all fictional characters and is set in a Scottish boarding school (American studying abroad). I just met with an agent in the UK. She liked the pitch but says I to change school name and relocate it. Two US agents looked at it this summer and invited me to revise and resubmit--neither said anything about the real setting. Maybe it is the difference between US and UK defamation laws.

Stina, Can you weigh in on this? Can I set a book in a real high school or do I have to do the 'thinly-veiled' thing like Prep or Looking for Alaska? I've seen books set at real universities (Ivy at Harvard) but I can't think of any at the high school level.

Thanks. JMB

Stina said...

Janet--I don't live in the States, though the Canadian HS system is similar. However, there are still differences. My stories take place in a made up city, loosely based on a real one in Minnesota. In doing research online, I discovered even at the state level, there are differences among the school systems. The nice thing is this allows you flexibility when creating the high school in your book.

Many YA books take place in HS. To me, Prep schools are starting to become cliche. Elizabeth Scott, Sarah Dessen, Simone Elkeres, and Alyson Noel are just four YA authors who have set some of their scenes in a high school classroom.

Hope that helps. :)

Stina said...

Bethany and Amy,

I agree with you both. Having sex with a guy isn't going to solve a teenage girl's problems. As YA writers, we have to be careful about this. But in PC, Brit doesn't turn Alex into a good guy because she had sex with him. Yes, she was hoping that would change his mind for what he was about to do, but it didn't. The thing I like most about a lot of the books I listed is they don't glamorize sex or drugs or whatever. They show the dangerous or less desirable side.

Stina said...

Another thing I would like to point out is that not every teenager is having sex. And not every teenager wants to read books that have sex in it. I've heard some YA writers say you need it to sell your book. Wrong! You need to write what's believable and what touches on the essence of being a teen. That's what teens want to read about. Things they can relate to.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I myself am currently shopping out what could be considered an edgy YA novel to publishers and agents, although I think it would also have a strong appeal to adults. Most agents and publisher though seem a bit afraid to "go there", which is strange because the genre is hugely popular, likely because it's "real" and not preachy.