Chris Wooding Header

YA Genre Fiction: Who Needs It?

So I was sifting through my documents folder on my Hyper Awesome iMac of Destiny (+1, +5 vs Books) and I came across an old article that I did for Sci-Fi Now magazine sometime last year. So I figured I’d stick it up here to keep you guys happy till I finish my book ;)

This may help to illustrate why I still write books for kids as well as adults…

PS, right at the end of Iron Jackal. Will be done in a couple of weeks, then I’ll edit the hell out of it, then it’ll go to my editor for some proper editing. But all the production machinery is geared up and ready to go, so we’re still looking good for August.

And now, for your edification:

Young Adult Genre Fiction: Who Needs It?

SF, fantasy and horror for young adults is notoriously tricky territory for publishers.

Many advanced readers have already progressed to adult books by the time they reach secondary school. Plenty of the most popular genre writers are well within the grasp of teenagers anyway. So is it actually necessary to have genre books that are specifically aimed at younger readers? Is there really any point in dividing our shrinking share of the bookshelves further, just for the sake of a small, rapidly shifting market that spans a few years at best?

Well, yes. Here’s why.

That thin sliver of years between childhood and late adolescence is fertile ground for the genre writer. Yes, you might have to forego your tendencies towards megaviolence and ultra-porn, and you’ll never be able to write an epic of Erikson-esque complexity. Yes, you’ll be forced to limit the age of your protagonists. But your reward will be freedom of a different kind.

A publisher of young adult books doesn’t have to deal with the genre prejudice of the adult market. Children’s books are divided on the bookshelves by age, not by subject. Genre works are mixed in with the others where the browsing public can see them. My own YA books – a jumble of SF, fantasy and horror – sit happily next to Jacqueline Wilson’s stories for pre-teen girls. In contrast, you’d have to visit the Fantasy/SF section to find my adult-market books, which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t already a genre fan.

There’s a similar lack of boundaries within the YA genre field. There’s no high fantasy or hard SF, no New Weird or urban fantasy. Genre definitions mean nothing. You want to write a steampunk post-apocalypse adventure full of cities that drive around eating each other? Or a book about a child passing through alternate realities in search of a weak and feeble God? Or a dystopian sci-fi about an underground city that’s running out of light? Go for it!

Such ideas would be risky prospects at best in the adult market. Books that don’t fit into easily recognisable pigeonholes traditionally struggle in comparison to those that do. Straight-out fantasy and SF are much safer bets than something genre-straddling and unfamiliar. Just look at the big sellers in the field if you need evidence.

Not so the YA market. Mortal Engines, Northern Lights and The City of Ember went on to sell bucketloads. And it’s books like these that prime our next generation of adult genre readers. If we’re ever going to break down the mentality of pigeonholing, if we’re ever going to tempt readers into that vast, scarcely explored territory between Tolkien and Asimov, then the YA market is the best place to start.

YA genre fiction isn’t interested in the rules and regulations of the adult world, which is exactly why we need it most. It’s innocent, unjaded, full of possibility and promise. And, just like the readers it represents, it might even have a thing or two to teach the grown-ups.

12 Comments

  1. Katya says:

    Decided to stalk your website today (because I haven’t done so for the past few months. Honest…) as one of my friends mentioned Dragon Age. And I remembered that you talked about it a while back. The post was a nice ending to the rather blant day.

    Anyway, on with rambling about writing. See, as an aspiring wirter since the age of 14, when my writing looked like it came out of a drunk’s mind because it was so bad, I found this article very satisfying in terms of…I don’t actualy know. Maybe all I’m trying to say is that it has opened my eyes a good deal to how to write and what. Or something like that.

    Also, a question *raises hand like a good little student*: If you’re going to edit the hell out of Iron Jackal, does that mean that it’s going to be heavenly, with angel singing praise and everyone will live forever after?

  2. ALL my books are like that ;)

    I do enjoy a good editorial axe-swinging though. I actually look forward to cutting out chapters and storylines these days. ‘Redundant, eh? Padding, are you? Begone!’

  3. Naomi says:

    MORE MORE MORE

    Chris you’re a legend.

  4. Zach says:

    I have to agree with Chris, all of his books are heavenly! Reading a book by you, Chris, is like listening to angels singing. :)

  5. Josh says:

    Awesome article, wish I’d seen it sooner. I believe that this is one of the reasons that YA and middle grade readers are getting more popular among older audiences. As for the vast gap between Asimov and Tolkien, Gene Wolfe has done an admirable job of trying to fill it. I think the root of the problem is that sci-fi writers (generally) have a disdain for fantasy, and most fantasy authors are traditionalist. Gene Wolfe doesn’t really belong to either category and is thus able to write a dying earth sci-fi complete with a claw that magically resurrects the dead.

  6. Serena says:

    Yeah, me again :p a lot of stuff dropped into place when reading this… like that in fact there’s an entire healthy demographic full of people like me, which is a nice thought :D and the fact that I should be way more grateful to the bunch of boundary pushing authors like you for giving me the guts to write something real :) by which i mean it reflected what i want to do not what i think people will like. And just maybe if i had never read Alaizabel i wouldn’t have realised that’s the best way to write. So thanks :)
    PS you have to come to the Hay Festival someday. Not cos i live there, I’m not a stalker, but it would be great to go see you, Chris :) Anyways, enough from me.

  7. @ Josh – As far as adult publishing goes, I think the root of the problem is that there isn’t any root :)

    Authors would write whatever if there were no other considerations, but the fact is that publishers tend to publish within narrow genre boundaries (because their job is to sell books), booksellers do the same (for the same reason) and the reason they both do that is that the majority of people like to buy books in genres they recognise, because they’re more likely to like that book. So the authors you get to read tend to conform to genre ’cause they’re the ones picked by the publishers to publish (of course there are lots of exceptions, usually ones who are too talented to ignore and because some editors actively try to break genre boundaries). They end up being the ones on the bookshelf, so they’re the ones we read, so we buy more of that kind of book and publishers buy more of that kind of author it all gets a bit chicken and egg…

    @ Serena – I’m not intentionally trying to push any boundaries. I just think they’re kind of stupid so I ignore them :P

  8. Serena says:

    Belated apologies, that last was a bit stalkerish + narcissistic, won’t be doing that again. And about the boundaries, well said. :)

  9. death by taco says:

    hi chris.just posting up to date.sorry to say but i didn’t understand half of what you said there. :( sorry! but we have to read The City of Ember in class and it’s all right i guess
    see ya!

  10. […] also quotes a great post by YA author Chris Wooding, in which he writes: There’s a similar lack of boundaries within the […]

  11. Pilly says:

    Valuable information. Fortunate me I found your site accidentally, and I’m surprised why this coincidence didn’t took place in advance! I bookmarked it.

  12. […] a recent blog post, YA author Chris Wooding discusses the freedom he gets from having permission to blend genres, […]

Leave a Reply