Maybe you’ve written a novel about a thirteen or fourteen-year-old and you’ve been sending it out and getting responses from editors that your story “falls between genres.” What does that mean, and what can you do?
That happened to me, and here’s that story.
I enjoy writing for tweens, or thirteen or fourteen-year-olds, because this is the age when we wear our hearts on our sleeves, when every emotion feels so vivid. It’s a time when many young people are first navigating experiences on their own without the watchful eyes of their parents. Because of the intensity of the emotions, I’ve always loved writing about this age.
In marketing my books, though, I’ve found that this age is a tricky one in the publishing world. Middle grade books, aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds, can focus on the family and might feature friendships. YA books, aimed at fifteen-to-eighteen-year-olds, focus more on friendships, the world outside the family, and may include romances. Plus, characters can drive. What happens to the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds? What do they read?
Well, my books, I say.
But not so fast. I had received some interest in one of my manuscripts, about an eighth grader’s first crush, but received no offers. One editor at a Big 4 publisher really liked it and asked for an R and R (revise and resubmit), but asked me to age up my character. One of the reasons she gave was that that Lizzy, my main character, dissected a fetal pig in eighth grade and she thought of that as high school curriculum. Other editors had some similar kinds of comments. I had the feeling that I was getting close but something was missing and I didn’t know what it was. I tried my hand at the R and R, but in the end, she still rejected the manuscript.
I finally figured out that there are pretty definitive divisions in the publishing world between “upper middle-grade” or “tween” and “YA,” and that my book was in a no-man’s-land between them. My book had some pretty mature themes, such as serious pranks played by some of the students during April Fool’s week, and themes around carrying flour babies, which was a unit in health class to encourage students to think hard about sexual exploration. Even though young people (in my opinion) are thinking about crushes and other more adult things at that time, the gatekeepers – the parents, librarians, and teachers – don’t want those topics in books for an upper middle-grade or tween audience that an eight or nine-year old (in the eight to twelve-year-old category for middle-grade) might be reading.
I get that.
Eventually, I did sell that book and it became One Week of You. I thought, “Aha! I’ve beaten the ‘falling between genres’ problem.” But no, I hadn’t. One of the first things my editors asked me to do was to make Lizzy, my main character, older. In their offer letter, they said, “We’d like her to be sixteen.” The reason they gave was simple – YA books sell better than tween books.
I was overwhelmed. I was quite tied to reality–Lizzy has to carry a flour baby for her health class and the model for my story had been my daughters’ eighth grade health classes. Both daughters had to carry five-pound bags of flour everywhere they went for a week during their health classes, to simulate what it might be like to have to care for a baby, and they had been thirteen and in middle school at the time. (The guys had to carry them, too, just in case you think the curriculum was sexist in addition to being kind of silly). At first I didn’t think I could do this. I felt that the maturity level of a sixteen-year-old is quite different from the maturity level of a thirteen-year-old.
But I agreed to try it. So, to do this revision, what did I do?
I had a pretty long talk with my editors. I compromised with them and we decided Lizzy would be fifteen, turning sixteen over the summer. (The book takes place in April). I found out this age is what’s called “young YA.” We decided she would be in ninth grade, but that she was fifteen because she had been held back before kindergarten because she had been a preemie and was very small for her age. I knew two girls who had been friends of my daughters who were a year older than their peers, so this felt authentic. And Lizzy feels self-conscious about this, about being small and being a preemie and being thought to be immature by many of her peers.
I left the science and health class scenes as they were, because they were now both believable curriculum for the ninth grade, freshman year of high school.
Transportation was an issue. In the original draft, I had Lizzy’s big brother taking her to school, picking her up and generally driving her around. Those driving scenes were key to their relationship and my story. I had to figure out a reason he’d still be doing this, if she was fifteen and should at least have taken drivers’ ed, so decided that she had been so busy with cheerleading and other extracurricular activities that she hadn’t had time to take it. I have a friend who corroborated that this has happened to quite a few of her daughter’s busy friends these days, so this felt authentic as well.
Then I went over the entire manuscript, page by page, mentally thinking of Lizzy as fifteen rather than thirteen. Sometimes I read the scenes out loud. A fifteen-year old would interact with her parents differently than a younger character, and also her friends. She would have more independence to use a cell phone, post on social media, and to go places with just her friends. Maturity levels run the gamut in high school, and, because Lizzy was small for her age, it felt all right to me for her to be on the “immature” side of fifteen.
In the end, over a period of several months, I transformed my manuscript from tween to YA. Because of the fairly mature subject matter in my book, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.
And so now Lizzy is fifteen, a freshman in high school, rather than an eighth grader. But she’s still Lizzy, the anxious and forgetful goody-two-shoes character I had originally imagined. I think of her as a “young” freshman, fairly protected by her family life.
And the truth is, the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds often “read up.” Thirteen and fourteen-year-olds will still see themselves in the reading experience and get to imagine themselves as somewhere slightly further along their journey than they are. So Lizzy’s story is still one that they will enjoy, and my editors are happy that the audience for the book has been expanded.(To learn more about the differences between genres, read this comprehensive article by an agent I respect named Marie Lamba called “The Key Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult.”https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult)
Lisa Williams Kline wanted to become a writer ever since second grade, when she wrote and illustrated "The Adventures of Little Horse and Little Lamb," on large-lined paper. A graduate of Duke University, she is now the author of ten books for young people, including Eleanor Hill, winner of the North Carolina Juvenile Literature Award, Princesses of Atlantis, Write Before Your Eyes, One Week of You, the novella One Week of the Heart, and the five-book Sisters in All Seasons series. Lisa lives with her veterinarian husband and a spoiled dog and a talented cat who can open doors (but doesn't close them behind him). Their daughters visit frequently with their dogs and as can be imagined they have a howling good time.
For fifteen-year-old Lizzy Winston, summer is the time to do what she loves most: hang with the people who know her best. But this year, summer science camp with her best friend Kelly turns out to bring more drama than she bargained for.
Kelly and Lizzy made a pact years before: they will never act like fools because of boys. They want to become doctors after all, and they don't have time to flirt. But this summer, Lizzy has her first crush and learns that your brain can’t always control your heart—and sometimes choosing one love means losing another.
Old friendships are put to the test as new ones bloom in this sweet novella that reminds us of how much one heart can grow in only a week.
“In One Week of You, Lisa Williams Kline perfectly channels the inner workings of the young adult mind, complete with every quivering ounce of angst, fear, and self-doubt.” -Frank Morelli, author of No Sad Songs