Help, I'm going crazy! (AKA MG or YA?)

The Storyteller

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Greetings all,

So I’m facing a dilemma that I have faced (and thought I’d resolved) in the past, which is, is my novel middle grade or YA? Or other??

I am currently trying to query agents with my first manuscript (Yay! I finally finished a book!), and I’ve been writing that my book is upper middle grade, however, I know there are some red flags in my query that may cause agents to dismiss my project before even considering it, such as the length.

I've read many articles about the differences between YA and MG, but after much contemplating, I still don’t feel confident about where my book fits. It has some elements of both categories, and in some ways doesn’t seem to suit either.

So I’m turning to the wise and more experienced members of SFF for help! Here are some of the main factors:


-current length is 81,000. I think I could cut a few thousand more words off if I need to, but I’m not sure it would be enough to help it as for as MG goes.

-the main character’s age is never mentioned, but he is meant to be in his early twenties. He does act with the maturity level of a young teen or preteen, however, by the end of the book (and particularly in the following 2 books) his character matures a lot, bringing him closer to his actual age.

-Tone- the tone starts quite light, even a bit goofy, but as Mulgrin matures and faces some disquieting revelations, the tone does get a bit more serious. The second book maintains a greater sense of gravity throughout and the third book will definitely have some darker tones. There is mention of darker elements in all the books, and I don’t shy away from some deeper themes.

-Sentence structure/word choice- although the voice feels a bit younger at first, I don’t hold back a lot on word choice/sentence length. I’m not using language that’s impossible to follow by any means, but there are some bigger words and longer sentences.

-Content- the main character deals with things in both his outer and inner world. There is some self-reflection, but also some action. There is journeying, puzzle solving, some small fights with an antagonist, and a ‘disaster’ at the end of the book. The story line feels a bit more MG when I consider it, but I'm not entirely sure.

The second book has more technical stuff in terms of how the magic works (this plays a very important role in the trilogy), and also has bigger stakes, tougher and more dangerous situations, and a much larger disaster at the end. There are a lot of discussions between characters, delving deeper into their situation and relationships with each other, and also some heated arguments.

-Themes- there is a strong theme of friendship, identity, what it means to be a hero/do the right thing, not judging other based on looks (or stories), and the importance of doing the right thing for the right reason. Book 2 and 3 have additional themes of forgiveness, responsibility, and failure.


When I consider the second and third book, it seems like maybe YA, but the first book feels a little too young for YA, and I know that many MG series start lighter and develop a much darker tone as the series progresses, so maybe the future books don't matter that much.

Because it opens so light/humorous, it’s hard to imagine it anywhere but middle grade, but many of the other factors don’t seem to fit. I’ve thought about rewriting the first quarter of the story to make it less silly, but Mulgrin’s immaturity/foolishness and the lighter feeling at the beginning are important to how the story develops, and gives more weight to the changes Mulgrin goes through. The second half of the book is stronger because of how the story starts.

In a way, I feel like my story is targeted at adults who enjoy reading middle grade, but that isn't a real category. So what do you think? YA? MG? Or something else altogether? Any advice or feedback is welcome!

(Side Note: I know this book may be a tough sell for my first, but I love it and I do believe this story has something special, particularly the trilogy as a whole. So, even if I have to fall back on other projects (which I am also working on!), I still want to try my best to get this one published.)

(Other Side Note: I mention the second and third book a few times, and I know that even if I publish the first book there's no guarantee that the next two will also be published. However, I do want to keep in mind where the story would go in sequel books as I consider what category this trilogy best fits in.)

P.S. Sorry for such a long post, and thank you so much to anyone who takes the time to read/respond to it!
 

sknox

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This may sound like a dumb question, but I keep wondering about it, so it's time to ask. Why do you have to categorize it? Can't it just be a fantasy book that is how Hero faces Obstacle and the world hangs in the balance?

There are, as near as I can tell, only two situations where you have to figure this out yourself. One, if you are self-publishing you are going to need categories and keywords. Two, if you are trad and you are specifically targeting a particular publisher (or agent) who specializes in YA or MG. Even then, I'd be inclined just to pitch the story and let the agent or publisher tell you the category.

Is there a third scenario I'm missing?
 

The Storyteller

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Thanks for the responses!

Haven't you been reading examples from both genres, though? :)
Yes, though maybe not as much as I could be! Nothing I've read in either category has really made it clear to me where my book belongs though.


This may sound like a dumb question, but I keep wondering about it, so it's time to ask. Why do you have to categorize it? Can't it just be a fantasy book that is how Hero faces Obstacle and the world hangs in the balance?
The agents I've queried so far has asked that genre be included in the query, and most example query letters I've read specify if their work is YA or MG. I could just say fantasy, but I feel like that maybe isn't being specific enough? Regardless, I've heard many people say it's important to know who you're writing for, etc., and I think both publishers and agents usually expect you to know where your book belongs.

Who knows though. Maybe I've misunderstood and differentiating between MG, YA or Adult really isn't that big of a deal...? :unsure: I still feel I'd have a better shot at getting an agent if I knew though.
 

sknox

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I'm not a good person to ask this as I think the whole business is stuff and nonsense. Different kids read at different levels. Besides that, being a kid is all about having one's horizons expanding, not having them carefully delineated by grownups. Besides that, a specific reader will connect with a specific story in utterly unpredictable ways, so "knowing your audience" is a chimera.

I now retire to my harumphing spot. Hey, Pooh, you got your spot, I got mine.
 

The Storyteller

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I'm not a good person to ask this as I think the whole business is stuff and nonsense. Different kids read at different levels. Besides that, being a kid is all about having one's horizons expanding, not having them carefully delineated by grownups. Besides that, a specific reader will connect with a specific story in utterly unpredictable ways, so "knowing your audience" is a chimera.
I could not agree with you more! The more I looked at the 'rules' for MG, the more it bothered me. As a kid, I wouldn't have wanted to be held to those guidelines, or restricted to heroes who fell in exactly the right category or dealt with the right 'age-relevant' issues. I think people get too stuck in defining categories and holding them to certain expectations, instead of just letting a story be itself.

But, sadly, that's just the way it is. So I'll do my best to work with it, and hopefully not lose sight of the story I want to tell in the process of figuring out the right 'spot' for it!
 

Mouse

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Is it only the humour that's making you think MG? Because everything else says YA or even NA (given the age of the protag) to me. Humourous YA isn't a problem.
 

The Storyteller

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Is it only the humour that's making you think MG? Because everything else says YA or even NA (given the age of the protag) to me. Humourous YA isn't a problem.
I don't know... I feel like the story itself (especially the first half, but really the entire first book) has more of a middle grade feel to it, but I can't really put my finger on why. It just doesn't seem like something that would be appealing to older teenagers. I don't know if that's just because the YA I've been exposed to is all the more dour, nitty gritty, dystopian type, or if there is a valid reason I feel that way.

I think that's why I'm so stuck on this topic. I know the story doesn't match a lot of the MG qualifications, but I just struggle to see a teenager picking it up and saying, 'wow, what a great story!' (Nor do I see an agent or publisher reading it and classifying it as YA.)

I do feel like adults who enjoy the occasional MG book, (but want some deeper elements to the story), would enjoy it. Many of my test readers fit into this category, and they all really loved it. Though so far they have all agreed that it is MG, two of them being teachers who teach that age range of kids. But looking over the list I wrote, I agree that more categories seem to fit YA.
 

Juliana

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Congrats on finishing and on starting querying! That's a huge milestone. :)

For me, these are your main red flags:

-current length is 81,000. I think I could cut a few thousand more words off if I need to, but I’m not sure it would be enough to help it as for as MG goes.
This is way too long for MG. The sweet spot for MG fantasy is probably between 45k and 65k words. It would be fine for YA fantasy though.

-the main character’s age is never mentioned, but he is meant to be in his early twenties. He does act with the maturity level of a young teen or preteen, however, by the end of the book (and particularly in the following 2 books) his character matures a lot, bringing him closer to his actual age.
This is the key one.

If your MC is in his twenties, it's not going to sell as either MG or YA. There's a pretty strict rule about kid lit characters being relatable to their target demographics, which means it pretty much caps out at 18yo for character age at the upper end of YA. Then you move into adult/NA.

However, the good news is that there are popular titles that read like YA but are sold as adult, like Pierce Brown's Red Rising, and V.E. Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy (both of these examples have adult characters), so having a book that feels younger although it's actually adult is not a problem. There's clearly a market for it. You just need to adjust your query and pitch it to agents as adult, not kid lit.

EDIT: just to add, even books with characters that start out as children are often not aimed at the MG and YA market - take Jim Butcher's Codex Alera, for example. The MC is still a child in the first book, but it's clearly aimed at adults, not kids.

Good luck!!!! :)
 
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The Storyteller

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Congrats on finishing and on starting querying! That's a huge milestone. :)
Thank you! And thanks for replying. :giggle:

I knew the MCs age and the book length were my biggest hurdles. Because Mulgrin's age is never explicitly said, I thought maybe I'd be able to get away with it, but the length has had me worried.

One of the reasons I stuck with MG despite this was knowing that The Hobbit (which is 95,000 words and features a 50 year old main character) is available in pretty much any middle grade library. I know that a classic like The Hobbit should be considered an exception, not the rule, but I felt like it proved that kids can read and enjoy a book that is a longer read and features an older protagonist.

That said, you are probably right. I've been worried that the word count would disqualify me in an agent's eyes, even if there is an argument to be made for longer MG books. As an unpublished author, it probably is a bad move to try for it. :confused:

However, the good news is that there are popular titles that read like YA but are sold as adult, like Pierce Brown's Red Rising, and V.E. Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy (both of these examples have adult characters), so having a book that feels younger although it's actually adult is not a problem. There's clearly a market for it. You just need to adjust your query and pitch it to agents as adult, not kid lit.:)
I will consider this. I still feel like this book wouldn't fly being marketed as an adult book, but maybe I'm wrong. On one hand, I've had two middle grade teachers tell me emphatically this story is perfect for middle grade students, but on the other hand, the people who have read it and loved it are mostly all adults who enjoy a good MG story from time to time.

I'd like to look into the books you mentioned, to see if mine feels like something of a similar category. Maybe that will help me clear up this issue once and for all!

Again, thank you for your response. (Sorry it took me a while to reply to it!)
 

Juliana

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One of the reasons I stuck with MG despite this was knowing that The Hobbit (which is 95,000 words and features a 50 year old main character) is available in pretty much any middle grade library.
I think, in part, because the hobbits are not actually human? Maybe? But also, when it came out the marketing categories 'middle grade' and 'YA' hadn't been invented yet, so if it had been written nowadays, who knows where it would have ended up?

Querying kid lit is tricky. (I'm querying something at the moment that I wrote as YA but am requerying as adult to see if I have any more success — my MC is 18) It feels like there are so many boxes to tick right now, and that if something doesn't tick those boxes it's an automatic rejection. :(

Adding a couple of links that might be useful:
On wordcount and kid lit categories:
Jennifer Represents...: Wordcount Dracula

On age categories:
Writing for Kids - What Genre is my Children's Book?
 

The Storyteller

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I think, in part, because the hobbits are not actually human? Maybe? But also, when it came out the marketing categories 'middle grade' and 'YA' hadn't been invented yet, so if it had been written nowadays, who knows where it would have ended up?
Yes, I have a feeling that if it was written today it might have turned out differently. I do think it shows that kids could and would read things outside of the strict publishing guidelines, but since a book must be published in order to be read, it's the publishing guidelines that matter at this point!

Querying kid lit is tricky. (I'm querying something at the moment that I wrote as YA but am requerying as adult to see if I have any more success — my MC is 18) It feels like there are so many boxes to tick right now, and that if something doesn't tick those boxes it's an automatic rejection. :(
I understand the feeling. :( Hopefully you have more luck with your new round of queries.

And thanks for the links; I've read the first one before, but the second one had some helpful stuff in it!

I feel like right now, I might need to take a short break from the project. Upon rereading the first half of the book, I felt kinda dissatisfied with the opening chapters. I had thought my story was done and I was ready to publish, but now I wonder if the first chapters maybe need more than surface-level editing and polishing, and doing more work on them might help me better identify where this book belongs. Regardless, I feel like I need a bit of time to think about it before I keep pushing out query letters.

Thanks for all the input, it is so helpful to hear opinions and thoughts from other writers!
 

K. Noel Moore

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I agree with Storyteller, a book with a 20+ character isn't going to be marketed as MG or YA, and especially not MG. My biggest piece of advice, though, would just be not to worry about it much at all. Age levels for books are pretty much only there to determine who the book is marketed to, and they are not a hard and fast thing at all. I've read books that are officially listed as adult but read like YA (Red Rising, The Bone Season); I've seen books listed as YA in some stores/reviews and adult in others (A Darker Shade of Magic, Lee Kelly's books), or YA in some and MG in others (most of Rick Riordan's books); and I've read YA books that are pretty much just MG books with slightly older characters and cusswords (Andrew Shvarts's Royal Bastards series). I know plenty of both young people and grown people, myself included, who will read at any age level if a specific book strikes their fantasy. Age level does not set your audience in stone, it's only a general guideline. Congrats on finishing your book!
 

Juliana

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Age level does not set your audience in stone, it's only a general guideline.
I agree, except Storyteller wants to query agents, and in this case it's important to know the age category it falls into. Some agents specialize in kid lit, others in adult fiction. Probably the ideal case here would be to query agents who handle both, but they're still going to expect to be told where the story fits in the market.

(Remembering that not having an agent isn't the end of everything; there are many small presses that take direct submissions, and many thriving authors who have no agent at all. But if Storyteller is aiming for a large publishing house, unfortunately an agent is still the way to go...)
 

The Storyteller

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My biggest piece of advice, though, would just be not to worry about it much at all. Age levels for books are pretty much only there to determine who the book is marketed to, and they are not a hard and fast thing at all. ... I know plenty of both young people and grown people, myself included, who will read at any age level if a specific book strikes their fantasy. Age level does not set your audience in stone, it's only a general guideline.
Thanks for the response! As Juliana said, the concern is more so on how to query agents. However, it is good to keep in mind that age categories aren't hard and fast rules, and that there is some crossover between them.

Congrats on finishing your book!
Thank you!

I agree, except Storyteller wants to query agents, and in this case it's important to know the age category it falls into. Some agents specialize in kid lit, others in adult fiction. Probably the ideal case here would be to query agents who handle both, but they're still going to expect to be told where the story fits in the market.

(Remembering that not having an agent isn't the end of everything; there are many small presses that take direct submissions, and many thriving authors who have no agent at all. But if Storyteller is aiming for a large publishing house, unfortunately an agent is still the way to go...)
Yes, exactly. Given my personality, I feel having an agent would be a good way for me to go, which is why I've been trying to find an agent instead of going directly to publishers. I just feel there are a lot of pros, and that it would be very beneficial to have one.

I'm thinking my best plan will be to find agents who are into kid lit and adult fiction as you said, then query it as 'a light-hearted fantasy'. If an agent is interested in representing me, it's possible they may decide it fits better in MG or YA, but it's something that can be discussed and decided after I have someone who wants to work with me. And that way I won't be automatically disqualified on the basis of word count.


Thanks again for the responses, it really helped me sort through my thoughts and figure out what direction to go moving forward. :)
 
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