Monday, December 21, 2009

Is it good enough?

As I've been posting my query letter on message boards around the internet, I have been told several times that 81k words is quite long for a book that has as little plot as I describe in my letter. As I read the letter, I definitely agree, and since the book actually has three complete plots that intertwine with each other, I've been looking for ways to make the query letter show larger parts of the plot to justify my word count.

That's not what this post is about, though. That's merely what started a train of thought in my head. So, if you're one of the FANTASTIC author's who looked over my query letter in the forums, first of all, THANK YOU :), and second, this is not at all a criticism of your critiques (since, as I stated earlier, I agree with what you've said). No, my friends, this post is about Young Adult fiction. And while comments on my letter are what sparked my brain into motion, this has been building as I have continued to comb the internet for knowledge on the writing industry. What I have found, from both agents and publishers (well, employees at publishing companies) is that Young Adult books are expected to be short.

Granted, the agent that I'm currently thinking of was talking about books that were 180k words long and should have been cut down to AT LEAST 120k, if not below 100k. And the agent has a great point: debut authors, especially in the YA category, are going to have a lot of difficulty selling that book to a publisher even after they finally land an agent. That's a lot of paper they're selling, which represents a much larger investment in narrative content. There's a lot of room for failure if your story is flat in any way, and because this isn't Vegas, publishers often go for more engaging narratives that may have LESS actual content. Your tome may be one of the best novels ever written, but unless it's a real page-turner (like Harry Potter), you're more likely to get a rejection, especially if your sales pitch makes the book sound like every other book on the editor's slush pile.

But what about the shorter books? The ones that squeak through the 60k word mark? Or even the ones that are only 40k or 50k words long? For a point of reference, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is 77k words; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is a mere 38k, The Lightning Thief is 87k, and Twilight comes in at a massive 119k. Now, I've only read two of these books (though The Lightning Thief is on my list of ones to write), and I'm not here to praise or insult any of them except to say that these books get people to READ!

At last! The reason I'm writing this!

It's come to my attention lately (and it may have been the case for years and years, but I'm only now seeing it) that Young Adult fiction is plagued with mediocre writing. Sure the books I mentioned are YA, and they're popular beyond belief, but what about the hundreds, if not thousands of books that publishers throw out at our children that we've never heard of? I'm sure the same could be said of all genres for all age groups, but in my experience, YA and even Middle Grade writing seems to be filled with books that contain improper sentence structure, passive verb usage, constant "-ing" words, and so many other writing faux pas that you wonder how an editor even let that book go to the copy-editors.

And don't get me wrong. I'm not here to bash anyone. I just want to know, "why?" Why do we insist that, when we write for young adults, it's good enough?

This is something that I'm passionate about! As writers to young adults, we are essentially teachers, whether we like it or not. While I think the content of a book should teach the reader to be morally upright, I'll always leave that decision to the author. But I do believe that as writers we have a moral obligation to, at the very least, avoid teaching bad grammar, sentence structure, and writing techniques to children who are already struggling with one of the most difficult languages in the world.

My wife teaches sixth grade. She's constantly looking for more good books to give to her students. Not just on their reading level, but books that will help them become better, smarter students. If she comes across a book that doesn't do that on its own, she'll tell her kids flat out, "You're better than that book, and here's why..."

This isn't a call to arms to overhaul and revolutionize Young Adult fiction. It's simply a challenge to all of us (myself included) to do the best we can to TEACH our children through the words that we write. Don't cop out and "stoop" to the child's level. They're WAY smarter than we give them credit for. Do the best you can, learn to do a better job, and they'll see it. They may even apply it to their own lives. But even if they don't, would you rather have my wife say of your book, "You're better than that," or, "Here, you should read THIS,"?


  1. Thoughtful & thought provoking! How grateful I am that you have a high standard of excellence. You must have had a really good teacher (or two?) when you were growing up! :-)

    BTW ~ Have I told you lately how very proud we are of you? And that we love you? We are & we do!!

  2. Anonymous9:51 AM

    Bravo. :)

  3. A fantastic post!

    On a regular basis I find myself really, really proud of Elthia as she works to find novels that she not only enjoys, but finds challenging. One of my favorite hobbies is picking up books I think she would enjoy and sending them to her or suggesting them for her to check out of the library.

    I also remember the difficulty I had finding novels that were age appropriate yet challenging for me when I was reading young adult books. I think one of the difficulties facing the industry are parents that want their books to be "safe" for their kids and would rather pick something that has been watered down in both content and difficulty, rather than risk that something more challenging will approach topics they don't consider "safe".