Tag: genre

Generic Observations

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently.

One of my aims this year is to read a more varied mix of genres and categories than last year. In particularly, I’m aiming to read more nonfiction, although I keep screwing myself over on that front by choosing Extremely Large History Books as my nonfiction choices, which then take me months to get through and require a great deal of concentration. Devil-Land looks like a fascinating take on 17th century England, for example, a period I’ve been hoping to learn more about… but it’s also more than 700 pages of tiny print, and, well, I’m very tired, all the time. I can see it taking me a while.

(By comparison: I raced through Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly in an evening, and had a great time. It’s a memoir that, as the marketing info says, is a lot funnier than the title makes it sounded. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some pretty poignant observations about grief — but it also made me cackle aloud repeatedly. I need more nonfiction like that in my life.)

Even on the fiction front, which is always going to dominate for me, I wanted to aim for more variety. Last year was very dominated by fantasy and romance, and I was hoping I could shake things up a bit. I’m aiming to read more thrillers now that I’m not so deeply mired in edits for The Butterfly Assassin, and I’ve got a few on my Kindle waiting for me, including a couple by my fellow 2022 debuts. I already read a lot of SFF, and I know from past experience that I don’t do well with creepy books, which largely rules out Horror, so I’m not sure how much I can branch out there. But as I read for comfort rather than heart-pumping excitement most of the time, I’m wondering if I should try and get into cozy mysteries or something. (Recs and genre suggestions welcome!)

Anyway, January was a strong month for reading, mainly because I’m under-employed and still recovering from the absolute wall of fatigue that hit me in December after finishing my MA, moving back to the UK, adjusting to no longer living alone, and dealing with Christmas etc. One of the things about spending large portions of every day in bed and being the kind of person who finds TV gives them photosensitive migraines is that you end up reading a lot.

On the face of it, though, the twenty-eight books I read in January look like they’re not too far off conforming to last year’s pattern. I did reread the entire Alex Rider series for various reasons, and since those are classified as “Action/Adventure”, that threw the genre balance off somewhat, but the rest were predominantly Adult Romance, YA SFF, and one or two Contemporary YAs thrown in for good luck.

But the thing about my reading statistics is that they’re based solely on how I input a book into my spreadsheet. If I’m not sure how it’s classified, I’ll google it to double check, but if it gives me a range of genres, I have to pick one, and I’ll go for whichever seems like a better catch-all term. I decided early on I wasn’t going to go for giving things mixed genres because it would make things too confusing, nor was I going to get into the nitty-gritty of subgenres (not even easy things like distinguishing between “historical” romance and “contemporary” romance), because it would complicate the process of collecting stats.

And that means that the simple one-genre answers can conceal a lot about what a book is actually like. I know that sounds obvious: “not all books within a genre are the same or even similar”. Well, duh. But I read a bunch of KJ Charles books this month, as I often do when I need comfort reading, and I was really struck by how, although they’re primarily historical romance novels and they’re listed in my spreadsheet as Romance, they have other, completely different genres going on in the background.

For example, Think of England and Proper English exist in the same universe, and have overlapping characters. But Proper English is partially a murder mystery novel, with all the tropes that entails: an isolated country house, a body, a houseful of suspects who can’t be allowed to leave, and a heroine intent on solving the murder before the police arrive (in part, to conceal the non-murdery secrets of those in the house). Think of England, on the other hand, isn’t a murder mystery, but it does have espionage and blackmail, giving it a tinge of a thriller’s tension alongside the romance.

And then I read A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is listed in my spreadsheet as Fantasy. I had a great time with it — but what it reminded me most strongly of was KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, which would show up in my spreadsheet as Romance. Both contain magic, gay romance, curses, and perhaps most noticeably, a magical bureaucrat dealing with a nonmagical aristocrat who is nevertheless unwillingly connected to the world of magic, set against a backdrop of historical England. So what’s the difference between them? Why is one listed as Romance and one as Fantasy?

Romance is a particular genre with its own conventions, a fact a lot of people seem to overlook when they’re classifying anything and everything with a love story as Romance. (For the last time, The Song of Achilles is not a romance novel, it’s a novel with romance.) I read another fantasy novel this month with a queer romance in it, and despite its happy ending, I wouldn’t have said that one felt like a romance novel. It didn’t have the same rhythm; I didn’t find myself anticipating the beats in the same way that I do when I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances in close succession.

When I say I anticipate the beats, I don’t mean that the books become predictable or that I know what’s going to happen, but there are certain emotional rises and falls that you begin to get used to, and if a book misses one of them — as can be done effectively when the author is deliberately trying to subvert your expectations — it can feel like you’ve missed a step going up the stairs. There are patterns, and there are tropes they have in common. (Queer historical romance novels, for example, will very often have a scene early on where one character recognises that the other one is also interested in their gender, something that has to be ascertained subtly in most time periods if nobody’s going to end up arrested. Later, there’s often a misunderstanding or mistake that leads to a temporary rupture in the relationship which feels irreparable (but won’t be). I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s a particular vibe that you start to recognise over time, if you read a lot of books in the genre in close succession.)

And those tropes and story beats, those narrative rhythms… A Marvellous Light has them, including the happy ending. Maybe they’re not foregrounded in the story the way they would be in one of KJ Charles’ fantasy romance novels, but A Charm of Magpies is still the closest comp I’ve got for it, and it’s what I’d recommend to someone who told me they’d read A Marvellous Light and wanted something else with a similar dynamic. Honestly, I think insofar as there’s a difference of genre at all, it’s simply a matter of marketing.

Again, I know, I’m coming up with all sorts of profound observations here: “genre/category is a marketing tactic, not an intrinsic fact of storytelling”. Wow, Finn, can you bottle this stuff and sell it? It’s not like everybody’s known that since, I don’t know, forever. But there are times when it’s a lot more noticeable than others — such as when you read two books back-to-back in the same genre and realise they have an entirely different vibe, or read two that are supposedly a different genre, and find they’re not so different after all.

Another thing that got me thinking about genre was that I participated in a panel discussion about YA thrillers over on the UK YA Instagram. I’m lucky that there seems to be a big appetite for thrillers and the like in YA at the moment — probably much more than there was in 2014 when I wrote The Butterfly Assassin, since we were still in more of a fantasy boom at that point. But I’m also profoundly ignorant of the genre, not least because there was a lot less of it around when I was a teen (my teenage years were dominated in publishing by post-Twilight paranormal romance, then post-Hunger Games dystopia, then edging into Big Fantasy again towards the end). Add to that the fact that I read almost no thrillers last year because I didn’t feel I could read them while working on The Butterfly Assassin without finding it either distracting or dispiriting — as I said, I hope to change that this year — and I find that currently, when asked for recommendations in my own genre, I have no idea what to suggest.

If I’m honest, I feel guilty about that ignorance! How dare I write a genre I rarely read? I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know I was writing a thriller when I started. If anything, I thought it was going to be a dystopian novel, and I guess there’s some overlap with that genre when it comes to the worldbuilding, but it wasn’t until I was trying to query and so on that I really had to figure out exactly how to classify it. I found myself particularly looking at people who said they were interested in genre-bending stories, because I wasn’t convinced I was doing a good job of sticking within the bounds of any specific category. It’s far from the only book where I’ve had that problem: I’m a “story first, genre later” kind of writer, and I think that’s probably the way it has to be, unless you’re the very commercially-focused type who can think in terms of marketing from day one. Because that’s what genre is. Marketing.

That marketing shapes titles, cover designs, graphics, advertisements, so to some extent, it must impact on a reader’s perspective of a book. But my book’s being pretty firmly marketed as a thriller, with that dystopian angle coming in from the visual similarities to some of the covers for The Hunger Games, and there are still people shelving it as “fantasy” on Goodreads. At this point, I don’t know what I can say to convince them otherwise. It has the word “assassin” in the title and it’s slightly speculative, and that seems to be enough. They’re going to be disappointed, though, if they’re expecting magic.

(No, I have not yet learned to stay off Goodreads. Yes, I have been haunting the page that tells me what shelves people have added the book to, because it’s currently more or less the only metric by which I can measure how people are responding to the book. I’m also concerned that those adding it to shelves labelled “sapphic” and “wlw” are going to be profoundly disappointed by the total lack of romance — while the central relationship is two girls, it’s definitely presented as a platonic one. But I’ve made no secret of the lack of romance, either, so what else can I do? Absolutely nothing.)

I think the majority of readers think a lot less about genre than writers do. They know the kinds of books they like to read, but they wouldn’t necessarily slot them into a specific box. They’d recognise them unconsciously by those very same marketing decisions — the cover design, the title, the way the blurb is worded. Which works great, until you get a book where genre-dissonant cover choices were made, and suddenly all the reviews are people saying, “This wasn’t what I was expecting…”

I see that happening a lot too: readers judging a book on how closely it matches what they expected of it, rather than by how well it succeeded at doing whatever it was actually doing. I’ve done it myself, I’m sure. If I wanted a comforting low-stress romance novel, I won’t be thrilled if what I get is a dark, gritty story where I have to wade through a character grappling with transphobia and bigotry. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it at another time, if that’s what I was looking for — but when I pick something up expecting it to feel like a hug, it can be jarring when instead I get punched in the face.

And those darker themes don’t mean the book stops being a romance novel, which is an important point to note. A book can be the genre it’s marketed as, and still not be in the least bit what you’re expecting when you pick it up. Genre only goes so far to telling you what you’re holding in your hands, because as I oh-so-profoundly observed above, it’s almost like not every book in the same genre is the same and a book can fulfil the conventions without following the same template. Radical.

All of this to say: my spreadsheet tells me I read a bunch of romance novels last month, both historical and contemporary. I did. But one of them was also a murder mystery novel. One of them was about grappling with anxiety and depression. And one of them was marketed and classified as fantasy. Because genre’s… well, I was about to say it’s only half the story, but it’s a lot less than that. It’s only a fragment. Only the door we walk through to get to the book inside. And sometimes there’s more than one door leading to the same story, and sometimes we get lost on the way because we were actually looking for a totally different door, or they’ve re-labelled the floor plan without telling us.

Still. I hope this year my spreadsheet will have a wider variety of doors. But I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed about any of the ones that are already on there, because for the most part, they led me to places I very much wanted to go.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin, which is definitely not a fantasy novel, or support my book-buying habit by tipping me on Ko-Fi.

2021 In Books

A few months ago, I wrote about my discomfort with the impulse to gamify everything in life, making hobbies like reading into a competitive sport that had to be done every day or risk losing a “reading streak”. This remains: I still mislike how much information my Kindle collects about my reading habits, and I’m trying to curb the impulse to make number-based goals and lists of what to read in 2022.

I did, however, take the time to transfer my typed list of what I’d read this year into Excel and fiddle around making graphs. Not to find out what the longest book I’d read was, or the most popular, nor to compete with anybody about the total number at the end, but to get a sense of the breakdown of age categories and genres, so that I’d have a better understanding of what I’ve been reading.

This proved to be a useful tool. Although I had some vague ideas about what the results would be, it wasn’t until I actually saw the percentages laid out in pie charts that I was able to judge whether or not I was right. Some of them, my impressions were accurate; others, not so much. Seeing what had changed over the past year compared to the years that went before it was particularly interesting: living abroad, the pandemic, the need for comfort in a stressful world, the general process of growing up, and spending a lot of time editing my debut novel were all factors in my reading choices.

So I figured I’d share a few of those trends and changes with you. I’m interested to know if others have seen similar shifts in their reading, or if your year was completely different. I’m not going to be sharing specific numbers, just percentages; this is partly because once you start making it about how many books you’ve read, competitiveness can easily seep in, but also because I think they’re more useful for identifying those broader patterns.

I’ll start with a guess that was completely wrong: I thought that I’d been rereading a lot this year — there were a couple of books I reread even within the year, and counted twice. But I’d failed to take into account that being separated from the majority of my physical book collection until late November seriously curtailed my rereading, and that for most of the year I’d instead been reading anything I could get cheaply as an ebook, so that the end result was that only 22% of my reads this year were rereads.

This is probably still more than most people, but I’ve always loved rereading, and my poor memory means I can get a lot out of it: having read a book doesn’t mean I’ll remember any of the plot, and even if I do, there are always details to notice. I’m very much a character-motivated reader (and writer), so coming back to a familiar book is like meeting up with old friends — the point is the people I’m with, not where we’re going. Sure, I’ll have more fun if we’re going somewhere I like, but it’s not the destination that makes the outing.

I’d suspected that I was reading more Adult than YA fiction, and that was true: my fiction reads were 56% Adult, 36% YA, 7% Children’s and 1% NA. That last 1% is another result of the dominance of ebooks, since NA is a rare category to find in trad publishing, and although I’m not sure, I’d suspect both of those books were self-published or by small presses. If NA were a properly established category, I think that YA percentage would be smaller: many of these were upper YA books, with 18-year-old protagonists, and there were a fair few that I felt belonged as much in Adult, their inclusion in YA solely a matter of marketing. It was also noticeable that a lot of my YA reads were rereads, though my Excel know-how is not sufficient to enable me to break down the charts by more than one category, so I can’t be exactly sure of how that compared.

There are a few reasons why my reading has skewed older this year. Partly, it’s that I’m fast approaching 26: I’m aware that YA is not written for me, and with every year that goes by, I find it harder to relate to. It’s a natural part of growing older, and while I can still enjoy great YA books and will continue to read them (I write them, after all), they’re not going to be as dominant anymore. It’s also a matter of practicalities — as I mentioned, I read a lot of ebooks, and many of my choices were the result of browsing sales and deals for discounts, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep up with my reading speed otherwise. I’ve noticed that YA books are often weirdly expensive on Kindle (the ebook market isn’t as strong for kidlit, so maybe that’s why?) and have fewer deals, which is partly why I’ve always been a library reader for YA. Pandemic restrictions have made that challenging, and that’s influenced my choices.

Finally, it’s a matter of genre. This is an area where the percentages really surprised me. Admittedly, these numbers are super approximate, because they’re based solely on what I inputted as the genre of a book when I put it into a spreadsheet, and for each book I only gave it one genre, and some of them were slightly nebulous. There were a fair few adult books that I would call “contemporary” if they were YA, but I’m not sure that’s a term that’s really used in Adult books; they’re not quite “literary”, but possibly they’re “uplit”, which is one of these terms I don’t really understand and am not convinced means anything concrete. Usually they get shelved simply in “Fiction”, which is fundamentally unhelpful.

Approximate or not, I was pretty sure I was reading less fantasy these days, but my pie charts inform me that 46% of this year’s fiction was fantasy, vastly outweighing any other genre. True, that includes everything from urban fantasy and paranormal to epic fantasy — and I read way more of the former than the latter — and true, a few years ago that percentage would have been way higher, but it still surprised me. I’ve been particularly struggling to vibe with YA fantasies recently, and I had begun to wonder if the category was no longer for me, but when I look at the stats, the proportion of YA fantasies is so skewed compared to other genres that I can’t help but feel I’ve probably just read more mediocre ones because I’ve read more overall.

The surprise runner-up is romance, at 25%. Okay, so this isn’t a surprise to me — I knew full well that I read or reread most of KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian’s entire backlist this year — but it’s a surprise to anyone who has seen my previous years’ reading habits. I’d dabbled in queer romance in the past, particularly when I used to review a lot of small press books, but it was during last year’s lockdowns that I really discovered the comforting nature of queer historical romance novels, and this year I reached for that comfort repeatedly. No wonder, then, that it makes up almost a quarter of my total reading. There were a few contemporary romances in there too, and even one or two books that weren’t queer (though I found that Relentlessly Heterosexual Romance Novels were not to my taste) but for the most part, queer historical romance stole the show.

(At one point, I even considered writing my own, but it quickly became apparent that the amount of research required to write any historical period other than “dubiously historical mythological Ireland” with any accuracy would be too much for me, since that is the only era I know anything much about. And while I think a tropey queer romance novel set in the Ireland of the Ulster Cycle would be a delight, I suspect the audience for that is about three people. Maybe one day…)

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown of genres — it’s the broader trends that I find interesting. I will note that I read very few thrillers (1%), which is possibly surprising considering I have one coming out in May. Partly, though, it’s because I have one coming out in May. I spent most of the year editing The Butterfly Assassin, and so I avoided anything too similar to it. I figured if a YA thriller was too good, it would put me off and make me paranoid about my own work; plus, after reading my own book at least once a month all year, the last thing I wanted was something that felt too similar. I gravitated instead towards books that were nothing like any of my current projects, as a way of giving my brain a break.

I’d like to change that in 2022: I have a few YA thrillers on my Kindle that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read. But I still think I’ll be reading for comfort more than for excitement (the pandemic is not over, it’s my debut year, and I have a bunch of other life uncertainty and big decisions going on: I don’t need any more stress), so high-tension books probably aren’t going to be my first choice. There’s a reason I got so into romance novels, and it’s because there’s something immensely comforting about knowing that no matter what else happens, the characters will wind up together and safe and okay.

I’m imagining teen me reading that sentence. I think they’d be disgusted by how much I’ve mellowed. I’m not, though: I’m proud of it, because it means I’m actually trying to seek out things that make me happy instead of wallowing.

Probably, if I had more time and Excel skills, I could see how many different authors I’d read, and figure out how many of them were new to me. I suspect that’s an area where this year would be different, because of my ebook browsing and willingness to try new things so long as they don’t cost me more than 1.99. (My book budget was still my third-highest cost this year, after rent and food, which is exactly why those sales were so important, but hey, it’s not like I was going out or spending any money on anything else.)

But with the info I’ve got, I think I have a pretty good picture of my reading year, and as 2021 provided very few opportunities to enjoy my other hobbies, like dance (thanks, pandemic + injuries), that represents a fairly large chunk of how I spent my time this year when I wasn’t studying or editing. Granted, these stats don’t reflect how many times I read The Butterfly Assassin (probably at least 15, if I’m honest) or any of my other books. Nor do they say anything about my fanfic consumption, which still remains strongly skewed in favour of very long fics about Bucky Barnes slowly learning how to be a person again, sometimes with a detour to have feelings about Natasha Romanoff.

(My type is traumatised ex-assassins trying to learn how to be a normal person in a world that seems determined to make a monster of them, and I will not apologise for this. If this is also your type, may I humbly suggest adding The Butterfly Assassin to your TBR?)

I’ve enjoyed keeping the exact details of my reading to myself. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to read and reread whatever I like. I’ve enjoyed not needing to rate books on an arbitrary star scale that always had me overthinking the difference between “quality” and “enjoyment” (sometimes a book is good but I didn’t like it; how do I rate that?). No, I probably couldn’t tell you what my “favourite” book was, nor can I tell you what the “best” book was (not necessarily the same thing), but I’m okay with that. Life without Goodreads? Honestly, pretty chill. Yes, so I had to compile all my stats manually, but that meant I could focus it on information that was useful to me, not what Amazon decided I needed to know and compare with others.

2022 will be quite a different reading year in general. It’s my debut year, and I’ll be making an effort to read books by my fellow debuts. I can’t possibly read all of them, and some are in genres I don’t vibe with or about topics that stress me out: no matter how much I want to support somebody, it’s not worth making myself miserable. (I’ll focus on recommending them to others who might like them more, instead.) But that’ll mean buying more new books, rather than waiting for a convenient sale, and probably branching out in directions I might not have tried otherwise. Perhaps next year, my genre breakdown will be a lot more varied.

I also want to read more books by other marginalised authors, especially those whose experiences are similar to my own. Ocean @ Beyond The Binary compiled this great list of 2022 releases by trans and nonbinary authors: there are so many of us that it had to be split into two, one for each half of the year. Some of these are already on my radar, but I look forward to discovering more of them. It’s fantastic to see how many of us there are, especially in a very trans-hostile world… strength in numbers, right? And while not all of the books on the list have trans characters (The Butterfly Assassin is there, and doesn’t have canon trans rep in book 1), lots do.

Likewise, I want to read more books by disabled authors, though I haven’t yet identified a handy list (I’m sure there are many out there, I just haven’t gone looking). In both of these cases, there are probably any number of books that I won’t know about because those authors aren’t comfortable sharing these marginalised facets of their identities. And that’s fine, and I don’t think they should have to. By seeking out those experiences, I’m simply trying to find others who face some of the same systemic hurdles as me, to offer what little support I can as a reader. I can never find all of us, but I’m glad there are enough of us to make that true.

Another thing I’d like to do differently in 2022 is the fiction vs nonfiction balance. My reading this year was 91% fiction, despite the fact that I was doing an MA and a number of academic books made it onto the list. That’s partly because I was spending a lot of time reading academic articles, which don’t feature on my list, and I didn’t have the brainpower left for degree-irrelevant nonfiction. I don’t have that excuse anymore, and I want to read more “fun” nonfiction (I feel I’ve been saying this for years), and to learn things that aren’t only about medieval Irish literature.

Mostly, though, I want to read books that I enjoy and that make me happy. I want to read for fun. I want to share the books I love, and keep quiet about the ones I don’t, because the world has enough negative energy in it without adding more. I want to read the kind of books that inspire me to be a better writer, and reread the ones that set me on this path in the first place. And maybe when I come to compile some stats for myself at the end of next year, they’ll look completely different from this year’s, or maybe they’ll look almost the same, but that’s something that only time will tell.

My parents gave me a jumper for Christmas that says READ MORE BOOKS. I don’t think I need the instruction, but I’m sure I’ll be following it anyway.

So, now it’s your turn. Any surprises in your reading this year, any dramatic shifts in genre preference or age category, or have you found what you liked and stuck to it? Where do you hope 2022 will take you, in terms of books? Let me know in the comments — I’m always down to hear about other people’s reading.

(And if you’ve found you’ve read very little: that’s totally fine too. I read for comfort and distraction, but not everyone does, and the ongoing state of the world has made it very hard for some people to focus on that kind of thing. No judgment here! This is a judgment-free reading zone.)


If you don’t know what to read in 2022, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin. If you want to help fund my chronic book-buying problem, you can buy me a coffee instead :)

What is YA, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a book YA. I write both YA and adult: in June, I was editing a YA book; now, I’m editing an adult book. I also read both YA and adult, but although I’ve stopped tracking my reading in any great detail and therefore don’t have stats to hand, I would suspect that I’ve been leaning more towards adult books in recent months.

This makes sense: I’m 25. I’m an adult. I’m worried about things like finding a job and being able to afford rent and the fact that I’ve hit the age where a bunch of my school friends are getting married and some of them are having babies — on purpose. The further I get from school and teenage hormones and so on, the less relevant YA would be to me… or so you’d think, anyway.

But there have been a fair few conversations recently about how that’s not necessarily the case, since there’s a huge adult readership for YA books. And again, this makes sense: people like a particular type of story, they enjoy the pacing and themes, they keep reading it. One of the side effects, as has been pointed out over and over again, is that since those adult readers have more money and buying power than the teens the books are written for, they end up being the people the publishers market to, and YA starts skewing older and older…

There have been a lot of discussions about how to “fix” that phenomenon. Breaking down YA into more categories, for example — because realistically, 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds aren’t looking for the same thing from fiction. These lower/upper YA divides exist, but they’re rarely labelled or demarcated. Others think the problem is that NA (New Adult) didn’t take off as a category — books about and aimed at the 18-25-ish age range — so those readers are looking to YA to fill the gap.

I’m not here to suggest any solutions, or to point out more problems. But I have been pondering what this means for my own work.

Most of my YA has always sat slightly uneasily within the category. It’s upper YA, aimed at older teenagers, and some of it would fit firmly into the “crossover” category, where you would expect it to appeal to an adult audience too. While I have some projects that I think are more firmly YA, I also have others where I’m not sure where they fit, and it gets harder once they’re speculative. The age of protagonists is often a good indicator, but while a book about seventeen-year-olds in a contemporary school setting is probably going to fit neatly into YA, a book about seventeen-year-olds in a fantasy society where that’s considered to be an adult might not.

Take To Run With The Hound, for example. This retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge that I drafted in 2018 has a young protagonist — in fact, both main characters are children at the start, and one is only 17 by the end (the other is 21). But nothing about it feels YA. The characters are that young mainly because that’s (roughly) the age they are in the original stories/myths, but what those ages mean in context is wildly different from what they mean to us in modern society. While the book might appeal to some teen readers, it’s not written for teen readers, and YA’s dominant themes of identity formation, “first” experiences, growing independence, and so on aren’t present/important in the story.

More difficult is the YA book I was editing last month. I know it’s YA, but I also know it fits neatly into the crossover space, and sometimes I find myself second-guessing elements of the teen characters. It’s a fairly dark book, with a lot of trauma and violence, and sometimes I wonder if I’m contributing to the whole “YA books that are really for adults” issue. And yet… I wrote the first draft of that book when I was eighteen. I created that character when I was sixteen. She has been shaped and reshaped and drastically rewritten in the years that have passed, to the point where it’s hard to see how much of that original character is still there, but when I reread the first draft I’m always struck by how much the “vibes” have stayed the same, despite nearly every plot point changing. And those were distinctly teenage vibes, because I was a teenager.

A selfie of me at eighteen. I'm side-on to the camera, sitting with my knees up. I have a slightly messy pixie cut and glasses with a red and black plastic frame. I'm wearing a blue and red blanket poncho over a long-sleeved shirt and jeans; I'm hugging my knees with one arm.
Me at 18. Although I will acknowledge that (a) I haven’t aged much and (b) I still wear that blanket poncho daily.

But most YA is written by adults, and in any case that book is as much the product of 20-something me than of teen me, so that can’t be the standard I judge it by. How can I tell what’s YA and what isn’t? How do I know if my teenage characters are realistic, or if I’m writing mini adults and simply claiming they’re sixteen? I often read books and think absolutely nothing would change about the plot or characterisation if a character were aged up by 10 years, and in fact it would probably make it more believable. I don’t want to write those kinds of teen characters, but I also know very few actual teens, and having been a weirdo even when I was a teenager myself can make it harder to judge what teen behaviour looks like…

The themes and messages of the book are, I think, a huge factor in determining where it stands in terms of age category, but even there it can be tricky. The novel mentioned above deals strongly with wanting to have control over your own body/life, rather than having adults/parents make decisions for you, which I think is something that a lot of teenagers can relate to. It’s certainly something that was born of my own experiences as a seventeen-year-old grappling with chronic pain and mental illness. The adult book I’m editing now, a retelling of Bisclavret, is also about wanting control over your own body/life, but from a very different angle. Similar theme, different vibes, and I’ve never thought of this book as anything other than adult. Why? What makes one different to the other? Some nebulous, hard-to-pin-down vibe? It can’t be the sex scenes, because I’ve read YA way more graphic than my poetic fade-to-blacks…

A few days ago I stumbled upon an outline I wrote this time last year for a possible future project. Not a completely new book, but an attempt to ‘rescue’ a shelved one — a book called The Knight Shift that I put aside c. 2016 after realising it was fundamentally flawed in a way that couldn’t be fixed. This new outline didn’t attempt to patch up the original storyline, but it took elements of it and wove a new plot around them, in a way that both fixed the original problem and made a much more interesting and socially relevant book.

I looked at it and thought, Oh, that’s quite good, actually. I should write that.

A selfie of me, holding a practice longsword with a white nylon blade. I'm wearing a grey long-sleeved top and I have short dark hair.
The Knight Shift revolved around a secret society of modern-day knights, so my brief adventures with HEMA in 2016 would have come in handy for accuracy in the fight scenes.

The book is, once again, an upper YA book. The main character is a fresher at university, so she’s 18 and probably turns 19 during the book. Her closest friends are 17/18 and 19/20. The themes include independence, trying to forge your own identity away from your parents, and figuring out which of the principles and beliefs you’ve inherited are ones you want to keep (or even fight for). Arguably, it also uses the YA cliché of “no adults believe that something’s wrong, so the teenage protagonist has to fix it themselves”.

But, since the book is set at university and not school and many of the characters are legally adults, I found myself interrogating my gut feeling that it was YA. Did it need to be? Was that the most useful category for it to be in?

I found myself coming back to a comment I’d made to a friend upon rereading the outline: “the one flaw in this plot is the idea that exposing corruption and violence would ever actually stop it … I feel like for a YA novel, you kind of have to pretend that it would, but in reality, would it?

Because here’s the thing. We have all these YA books in which plucky teens stand up to corrupt governments and dystopian regimes… and it works. And yet if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years (and particularly the last 18 months), it’s that very often, exposing corruption and violence does absolutely nothing. “Plucky teens” stand up every day for gun control, climate action, clean water, justice, and so often nothing happens. Oh, the government’s selling weapons to regimes that enact human rights abuses? Nobody’s stopping them. Ministers are breaking the exact rules they themselves implement? They have a mildly embarrassing day on the internet and continue with their lives. It feels like there are no consequences.

But that would be a bleak book — and dare I say it, an adult book. A literary novel might say there is no hope. A military SF novel might say we can only hope to kill them before they kill us. A poignant historical novel might say, some tragedies are unavoidable.

A YA book… maybe a YA book should tell us that change is possible.

Tweet by Marcus Vance (@MarcusCVance) from July 4, 2021.

"Scifi books:

MG: My classmate is an alien!

YA: No adults believe this is an alien so I have to beat it alone

Hard SF: Let's learn from these dead aliens that aren't quite dead

Military SF: KILL ALL ALIENS

Dark SF: GET KILLED BY ALL ALIENS

Erotic SF: BANG ALL ALIENS"
This post was inspired at least partially by this breakdown of SF categories, and similar tweets.

I’m not saying that YA books should lie to their readers. Not everything in real life has a happy ending, and it would do teen readers a disservice to suggest that in a YA book, evil should always be defeated. When I was a teenager, patronising me was absolutely the way to make me put down a book and never pick it back up. There has to be nuance, and there is space on the YA shelves for sad endings, bittersweet endings, characters who don’t always succeed. And yet I also think YA fiction is about empowering younger readers and teaching them that the world can be changed — that they, through their actions and voices, can change the world.

The outline I wrote had a bold, brave, eighteen-year-old protagonist whose principles and love for her friends led to her changing the world for the better, because when nobody in authority seemed to be taking action, she did it herself. And that, I think, makes it a YA book. Because although I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a novel that Empowers Teens™,” that is a huge part of what the genre does, particularly the more dystopian/fantasy/thriller end of the spectrum.

I could age that protagonist up and change the setting slightly, but I don’t think it would make the book an adult novel, because the themes and tone of it are firmly part of that YA “coming of age and standing up to authority” kind of genre.

In the end, I don’t think there’s always a clear line between age categories. Of course there isn’t. People mature at different speeds, and have different life experiences and perspectives. What might seem “precocious” or, conversely, “immature” for one character could be somebody’s reality — some eighteen-year-olds are working full time and living fully independently, while some twenty-five-year-olds live with their parents and still have to be home by a certain time at night to avoid worrying them. But what makes or breaks which category a book most belongs to is rarely the protagonist’s birthday, or whether or not they’re at school — it’s the themes, and the character’s place in society, and the approach the book takes to grappling with those.

So I don’t know if I’ll ever write the book that outline was for, although I think it would be interesting. But if I did, it would be as a YA book. And the process of figuring that out has been useful to me in working out what it is that makes some of my books YA and some of them adult, even when the ideas at the heart of them overlap. I still don’t know exactly what the difference is, but I know that it’s there, and I guess for every new book I write, I’ll just have to make that decision all over again.

Or, alternatively, I’ll keep writing weird nonsense that doesn’t neatly fit into a box (“genrequeer”, as I like to call it), and let beta readers/my agent/future editors decide what genre and category it belongs to. Because I’ll be honest with you: I am bad at labels and boxes and categories, and I absolutely 100% overthink all of them.

Still. If I didn’t overthink things, this blog probably wouldn’t exist. So here we are. Sorry / you’re welcome (delete as appropriate).


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