Let’s say you have the germ of a story about a young person. How do you know if you’re writing a young adult, a new adult, or an “adult” novel? Do the labels matter?
In any creative endeavor, you don’t want to be boxed in. This is true of writing. Mark Twain didn’t sit down to write a Middle Grade book when he penned Huckleberry Finn. So, on one hand, you need to write the book you want to write. On the other hand, however, if you want that book to be read by a large audience, it helps to know how the publishing world categorizes these stories. After all, knowledge is power, and these definitions might help you narrow the focus on your manuscript. Or, you might throw labels to the proverbial wind, which is okay too!
Age Sets and the Protagonist
The age of the intended reader often matches the age of the protagonist. Specifically, YA books usually feature main characters who are between 15-19 years old, but even more commonly, between 16-18. New Adult is for that post high school into early career time, so think 20-25ish. Adult books are usually about, you got it: adults.
Are you thinking: aren’t 20-year-olds adults, and therefore, they don’t need a category of their own? You’re right and New Adult, or NA books, are a recent and ephemeral category. It’s a little hard to nail down how NA differs from the Adult label, but it has more to do with content, as I’ll discuss further below. Specifically, NA is about the experience of being a new adult: living on your own, getting that first job, navigating a love life where you might start playing for keeps.
These age sets are not hard and fast. Just because your novel features someone who is twenty-one doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be categorized as a NA book. It depends on the way you tell the story and what the focus is. Just the same, an adult book could feature a child or teenaged protagonist. Think of John Grisham’s blockbuster, The Client. That book features 11-year-old Mark Sway, but it is by no means a MG story.
Keep in mind that the age of the protagonist is a shorthand for category, but it’s also content that differentiates these books.
Content is King
Beyond age, what the story is about and how it’s told is what distinguishes YA from NA from Adult. In young adult, the narration of the story is usually very personal. It’s often told in first-person or close third-person point of view, and it’s frequently in the present tense. Whatever is going on is going on right now. The reader hears the “real time” reaction of the protagonist to all the plot turns. This makes for emotional and personal stories.
The scope of the YA story is often narrower because it’s often written from the perspective of just one or two of the characters. This doesn’t mean YA can’t be “big” in the sense of world-building or plot lines. Some of the most successful YA is in fantasy or sci-fi. However, the reader is usually navigating those realms from the perspective of one main character. The onus is on the writer to create a highly compelling lead since the reader is with for her all three-hundred pages. There’s also an expectation that the main character will change in some way through the book, since the coming-of-age element is a big part of YA fiction.
NA, in my opinion, is basically “chick lit” under a different name. Some might disagree, but it has a lot of similar characteristics. These are also often first-person narratives that occur in the present. There’s still that coming-of-age arc you see in YA. There’s no doubt that people in their early 20s have a steep learning curve. These are also more personal stories. They’re about what happens in the life or one, or maybe two, people. Content-wise, there can be more graphic violence and there is absolutely more graphic sex. Unofficially, NA is expected to be pretty sexy.
Adult books often feature adult protagonists, but anything is fair game. There can be brutal murders, detailed sex scenes, and themes of any sort. I wouldn’t say YA books are censored by any means, but often publishers think about how much explicit violence, sex, and language is in there. With adult books, the sky is the limit. Also, these stories are usually told in third-person or even from the omniscient POV. Characters can be young, or even children, but if they are, the story around them is nonetheless meant for adults – like The Client.
Although there is certainly crossover between YA, NA, and Adult novels, hopefully this helps you refine you focus. Even if you don’t want to be tied to labels, showing awareness that they exist will help your book reach the right audience.