In the exciting week that I’ve been accepted on the Golden Egg Academy’s latest writer’s course (Golden Egg is run by children’s publisher Chicken House…the company run by Mr Barry Cunningham, the man who discovered JK Rowling), I’m faced with a bit of a writerly quandry.
(Apologies to those of you who read this blog who aren’t writers, but this particular blog post is – pretty much – all about writing. If you’re not in to this, feel free to pop over and read my All for the Love of Flapjacks post as it’ll make you drool with delight and give you a lovely, sugary, cake-y Christmas feeling instead.)
If you’re a writer, I’m assuming you’re still here. And, most probably you’re someone who likes to write for children too. So then. Hi. Good to see you. Grab your tea and let’s talk for a moment.
Now, you might be a children’s writer who is totally focused on writing picture books for the wee young ‘uns and that is it. You have absolutely zero interest in writing fairytales for children or cutting-edge, emotionally-laced thrillers for teenagers (or Young Adults as the publishing industry calls them).
If you are that type of writer, then brilliant. Huge congratulations. You’re focused, driven, creative and know what you want. So go away. Go on, on your merry way you sickeningly sorted person.
Alright, actually, don’t go away. Bear with me and my quandry will you please, you may be able to help.
My quandry is a very big, important one. At least, I think it is because it might mean the difference between successful book signings and regularly published work and, well, not getting those things whatsoever. Why? Well, because I’m deciding – right here, right now – whether I am a “middle grade” or “young adult” author.
Some of you might think: oh well, that’s a silly conundrum, you overly arty-farty git, what does it matter? Or, perhaps, you might say “that’s an easy one!” Your answer to me might be: if your writing feels more adult – has adult-ish content such as exploring themes on relationships, sex, drugs and it has genuinely disturbing criminal characters in it – then you’re obviously a young adult writer.
Or, if it feels slightly more light-hearted, fun and yet still has elements of emotional punch, a journey for the characters to go on and with a theme/message running through it, then you’re a middle-grade writer.
But, what if you think your writing is somewhere in between? And you enjoy writing in both age ranges? What if you think there should be a mixture of adult-ish themes in middle-grade books, like there are in young adult books? And what if you simply don’t know if your own writing fits one or the other category?
Well, I’d say – if you have all those questions, then you’re pretty much screwed until you get them answered.
Oh, hang on. Those ARE my questions. Damn, I’m screwed.
Okay, so let’s break this down.
Firstly, do I have to be a writer for either middle-grade or young adult age ranges? According to some of the agents and publishers I’ve spoken to recently, yes. Although no one likes putting people in a box, it’s a damn sight easier to sell you and your work if you are in a box that people recognise. And those people are children and their parents. They need to recognise who you are – quite immediately, for commercial purposes and their impatient nature – so that a choice can be made on the spot about whether to buy your book: is it a safe, light-hearted middle-grade story or a more challenging, disturbing young adult novel?
So, yes, for a publisher, you as a writer need to be in one camp or the other. At least appear to be, especially at the beginning of your author career. Later on you can just play around with everything (at least, I’m hoping/guessing you can, a bit like amazing authors such as Neil Gaiman do with different genres, age ranges and mediums).
How far can you push it with the dark, disturbing-ness of a middle-grade story before the writing moves into young adult land? This is a difficult one to answer. But, I think it’s fair to say that – if you’re crossing a “dirty line” into themes of sordid sex, rape, paedophilia, cult killings and abuse – then you’re probably writing a young adult or, actually, an adult novel. However, all of the above things can be hinted at as terrifyingly, horrible, monstrous possibilities that could happen in life in middle-grade books, it is just not described or talked about directly. It usually comes across as a metaphor, a generic “evil” or a human embodiment of foulness somehow.
Which, funnily enough, can be equally as scary an approach if done right. For instance: how many of us remember from our childhoods being completely scared out of our wits by Roald Dahl’s Childcatcher? He looked horrible, sounded nail-bitingly nasty, but it was the unspoken promise of what he would do with the kids that made him so terrifying. It left our innocent little imaginations clamouring with the anxious horror of what might be. And so, the fact is, children are more often than not subjected to nasty, disturbing, scary stuff every day of their lives – whether in reality, on TV, in games or in books.
So then, what is the difference between middle-grade and young adult really?
I think the answer to this is depth and meaning behind the writer’s story (and what he/she is trying to accomplish with it). What I mean by that is: what is the psychological depth of the story itself, what occurs in it, what happens to the protagonist and how does he/she resolve it? What potential depth level of scariness is in a book? Where does it appear to be pitched, i.e. is it scary and horrible yet retains an underlying river of playfulness underneath? Or is it scary and horrible with the kind of deep, dark, unnerving depth to it that suggests the author really does want to disturb the hell out of the reader?
Are you with me on this? Are we getting any closer to the answer? Am I getting any closer to resolving my quandry? Almost.
Another factor here is sales. I could look into which type of books sell the most – middle-grade or young adult and make my decision that way – but 1) publishers have clearly told me that middle-grade is the winner here and 2) what kind of person would that make me? An idiot, that’s what kind.
Because I have a genuine need to be true to myself in my writing, otherwise what I write will be crap and fake. I understand why middle-grade books sell more – they are easier to market to children and parents. Perhaps it would be easier to not have a conscience and be the sort of person who could just go “oh, what middle-grade sells more? well, then, that’s who I’ll write for…more money, more money!”. But, sadly, I do have a conscience. Damn. Bugger. Blast. (and other British-sounding curses.) Which makes the decision harder.
One more consideration is: why make this decision at all? Am I doing it just to be put in a nicely wrapped-up, recognisable box so I can get published? Partly, yes. But, also, because I think this sort of decision will help focus my writing massively. I can get up in the morning and know who I’m writing for and get on with it. I’m not giving my imagination too much opportunity to ass about; I’m taming it in a useful way, I suppose you could say, giving it more of a laser-beam focus.
Okay so the reality here is I think I am a middle-grade writer, but enjoy writing genuinely scary, disturbing stuff. And let me tell you, some of it really is terrifying (just ask some of the people who have read my books and said: “oh my god, you can’t do that!”).
And so, if I knew exactly what the difference is between middle-grade and young adult (as you can see above, it’s not easy to define), then I would instinctively know when to stop crossing the deep, scary line. Wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I?
So let’s consider the fun aspect here. Why? Beause personally, I think it would be much more fun being a middle-grade writer, especially when you get to meet that age group of children who are still believing in magical, cool, fantastical things as a possibility in the real world (before the rush of hormones confuses their brains with new horizons, problems, relationships and choices).
So, which is it to be?
Well, I’m hoping the Golden Egg Academy course this weekend will help me answer this question more definitively. But the answer lies within the kind of writer I want to be. And the kind of writer you want to be, if you’re going through a similar decision. What do you feel is the age group you’re writing for? What feels true to you? And, when you know what is, just bloody well stick to it. Alright.
Okay, then. I’m a middle-grade writer. Happy writing everyone.