Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Protag's Age (or When College Ain't Cool)

Tip of the Day: If you live up north and rent property, go for the apartments where rent includes electricity -- and then run your space heater 1-foot from your winter-frozen body so your fingers don't freeze as you type.


It's a rampant problem.

Especially in YA literature.

Dun dun DUN!

What do you do with a novel that has a college-aged protagonist? Instinct would tell me to sell it to a YA publisher. After all, kids read "up," so in theory high school kids would want to read about teens in college. Right?

But then we hear that YA publishers don't want to put out books with kids out of high school -- or at least that they are a "hard sell." Is this because they don't think that HS teens can relate to the lives of college teens? Or does the "reading up" theory stop applying at a certain age, say 18? And is it assumed that college kids don't have time for leisure reading so they won't read about teens their own age either?

Suppose we come to terms with the fact that our college-aged protag won't come out in YA form -- would the adult lit world be ready for her? Apparently the answer is similar to the YA answer: sometimes.

Diana Peterfreund's IVY LEAGUE series that follows a college junior came out with the adult publisher Dell. Lauren Barnholdt's REALITY CHICK about a college freshman came out with the YA imprint Simon Pulse. Caridad Ferrer's IT'S NOT ABOUT THE ACCENT features an MC who goes from HS senior to college freshman and is published by the YA imprint MTV Books -- or is it a crossover imprint? I'm still not sure.

So it IS possibly to sell books about this age group, but I know and have heard of many writers who were asked to change the age of their MCs from 18-19 to 16-17 -- just bc they were told by agents/editors that the younger age would be an easier sell.

Gah! It's enough to make my head spin! The benefit of having an agent is that you can run these questions by her to get her professional opinion -- but what do YOU all think? Would you even bother writing a novel that takes place in college, or skip it to make it an "easier sell?"

Deena, Miss Recently Repped


Emily Marshall said...

This is a tough one. I get why they don't publish many of them for YA itself, since seeing the readers that look at YA in bookstores and in the library, I find they are younger and the older teens look in adult books for their books they want to "read up to." I do think many of them would love to read books about people in college, just starting in college. But it's a matter of finding a place easily for teens this age to find them (which probably isn't in the adult books), since many other adults don't want to read them. It's tough. It's almost like someone needs to come up with an in-between imprint for that age and market it as such. Because if they are published as adult books, they probably have to have much larger appeal as the books you mentioned.

Until, the publishers get behind it and think of a solution, I think it's probably easier to switch the age. Frustrating as it may be. Just my thoughts. I'd love to see more of these books, though, and know several others would too.

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

You know, thing is, most of the situations I put my characters in, I wouldn't feel completely comfortable putting them in if they were 15-16. One of my pet peeves in YA literature is a fifteen year-old protag who sounds like 35 year-old divorcee. Ali (in Adiós) was a "young" 17, in that she had led a somewhat sheltered life and I wrote her that way. Caroline from Accent is 18 and also somewhat sheltered, but her experiences wouldn't have played out the same way if they weren't within the context of college.

With the Carmen story, the character, again, came to me as an 18 year-old, because she's a little more worldly, a little more sexually secure, and again, I wouldn't have felt as if her experiences would ring as true if she'd been fifteen or sixteen. Personally, I find myself drawn to those "cusp" stories—where a character is deciding what she's going to be doing with her future, the choices that she makes that begin defining that line between girl and woman. It's fascinating to me.

As far as what kind of imprint MTV Books is, I think "crossover" is probably as good a term as any. Ostensibly, they're a YA imprint, however, as a division of Pocket Books, they're technically considered an arm of the adult publishing division of S&S. They're also shelving some of what they consider to be some of the more intense titles in the General Fiction section as opposed to Teen. Whether this is good or not, I'm not sure.

dping said...

Maybe you could write about the college years in a sequel. It worked on TV for 90210, right? Oh yeah, maybe that didn't work out so well.

Emily Marshall said...

Dark Cloud,

Interesting point, and it's funny how moving from high school to college seems to be the kiss of death for shows sometimes. Like that's why One Tree Hill just opted to skip college all together and magically go four years in future.

It's funny how that happens.

DeenaML said...

Very interesting comments. Despite Dark Cloud's gloomy name, he has a point. :) If the characters perhaps started at an age that was acceptable to "actual" YAs, then the readers could grow with the characters.

Barb, I love how you were able to break into this market with your books! I am also drawn to stories abt teens on the cusp of adulthood.

Em, I was talking to my manpanion last night abt what books he read in HS, and he said Stephen King and such. Then looking at the YA section of my lib today, I noticed that there are some SK books shelved there, which is kind of cool. Then again, moving books to different sections in a lib is not as difficult a stretch as doing it in a bookstore.

Kate Fall said...

I wonder if some of it doesn't have to do with genre too. Fantasy/SF seems more forgiving of younger protags in the adult shelves. And YA Romance seems to have older characters than other YA books. And historical fiction is like a whole other game. What if your 19-year-old lives in the year 1200? Adult or YA?

It is weird though that there aren't more college age characters in books aimed to high school readers.

DeenaML said...

Good point, Kate. In MISS SPITFIRE, which is an MG, the MC/narrator is Annie and she's like 20 or so, but the book reads so true to MG.

Kristina Springer said...

I agree with Dark Cloud-- I think it could work with sequels. Although, I have to say, as a teen I would have LOVED to read books with MCs in college! Too bad more pubs don't see it this way. (And I LOVED the college years of 90210 btw. :-) ). But yeah, I totally know what Deena is saying. I wrote my one book with the MC as a freshman in college and every agent who seriously liked it said to drop the age to at least 17 if not younger. Keep em' in high school was the consensus.

Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

One of my pet peeves in YA literature is a fifteen year-old protag who sounds like 35 year-old divorcee.

Amen, Barbara! A lot of good comments here. I have to say, when I was in high school, I read adult fiction, both for class and for pleasure.

The other side of this is similar to another comment Barbara made. There are situations that I wouldn't want to put a young MC into. They would handle it in such a different way or it might just be inappropriate or miss the point of what I'm trying to do with the story.

I think when the publishers started differentiating between "teen " lit and "YA" lit, there was an interesting shift. From what I've read, the teen lit is more "adult" in nature than the YA. The YA often seems more "literary"--for what that's worth.

Great questions, Deena!

Anonymous said...

There are so many rites of passages and changing-with-the-ages (pre-teen to teen, freshman to senior to graduate, first job, new school, etc...) and they all have stories to tell.

One of my favorite mystery series, BODY OF EVIDENCE by Christopher Golden, has a college-aged protagonist named Jenna Blake. Her adjustments to college life allow readers to get to know her as she gets to know herself better.


Diana Peterfreund said...

My protag is only a junior in the first book. She's a senior for the other three. When selling it, we got passes from YA houses for being "too adult", as well as offers from "crossover" houses, offers from adult houses, and offers from YA houses with the provision we rewrite the books to make her a teenager and college freshman.

In writing the series (and simultaneously writing a true YA with a 16 year old protag), it has become clear to me how very different it is to write a story about a twenty something (which Amy is, as she is 21 when the series starts, and 22 in the final two books) and a book about a teenager, whether she's in college or not.

Emily Marshall said...

Diana, that's a really good point. In that sometimes on a whole level a novel can't be fixed, just by changing the age. I'm glad your book got picked up, though, since I think there needs to be more college-aged protagonists! And it is good to hear some publishers were open to a college-aged freshman for a YA book.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

This has always puzzled me! How is it that the four years of high school are fascinating enough to spin off thousands and thousands of novels and the four years of college have only generated a whisper, relative to the books with high-school protags?

I finally asked my YA editor, Andrew Karre, about it, and he blogged about it this week on his blog.

It's frustrating because I do have a college UF sitting in one of my drawers but I'm probably going to keep shoving it to the end of the send-to-my-agent queue in favor of my younger protag stories.