Tag: The Wolf and His King

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



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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This Year In Writing

For many people, 2020 hasn’t been a particularly productive year, which is entirely understandable. It’s hard to focus on anything when the world’s falling apart around you, and for those with kids suddenly at home 24/7… well, I’m not surprised to see a lot of writers tweeting about how many deadlines they’ve missed this year, and how difficult it’s been to get words on paper.

For me, it was a little different, and that’s not because I was having a great year (I wasn’t) — although I recognise that being furloughed with pay for several months and having no caring responsibilities did put me in a comparatively privileged position. For a few months there I had a taster of what it would be like to be a full-time writer, being paid to stay at home and work on books, and the result was that I wrote 236k in six weeks. But that wasn’t because I was lacking in anxiety — if anything, it’s because I was too anxious to stop. As long as I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t checking the news, wasn’t seeing the Covid figures tick higher and higher, and it became my best method of preventing myself from endlessly doomscrolling on Twitter. So I just… wrote obsessively.

My seemingly productive coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily better ways of dealing with anything — avoidance can only take you so far, and I had a couple of months of doing nothing except lying in bed being a depression slug. (Because it turns out, after you’ve attended the livestreamed funeral of somebody less than a year older than you, it becomes a lot harder to pretend reality doesn’t exist anymore.) But they do look, from the outside, like I’m managing okay. I think that’s why I’ve been finding myself a little reluctant to talk about what I’ve achieved this year, in case it makes others think I’ve been unaffected by the chaos in the world, or gives off the impression that I’m looking down on those for whom quarantine wasn’t a productive experience.

Because I’m not. I’m well aware that everyone copes in their own way, and barring my summer of lying in bed doing nothing except feeling kinda sad and exhausted, this happened to be how I dealt with things. It worked for me, it wouldn’t necessarily work for anyone else, it is what it is.

So, I figured as a kind of recap, I’d tell you what I’ve been working on this year.

April-May 2020: Bard, draft 3

Bard is a YA sci-fi Arthurian retelling that I first wrote in 2016 and rewrote in 2018, set on a former prison colony in space. This third draft was a last-ditch attempt to see if it was salvageable, but after some thought, I’ve concluded that it probably isn’t. It clocked in at 134k and by the end of it, I just wanted it to be over. Don’t get me wrong — this book has potential. It has some characters that I love and some ideas that mean a lot to me, and I particularly enjoyed how strongly the pacifist vibes came through in this draft. But it would need a complete plot overhaul to be a functional book, it requires a level of worldbuilding I don’t think I’m capable of (I do not science), and frankly… I’m not sure I’m invested in it enough to put that work in. There are a lot of YA Arthurian retellings out there. I’m not sure the world needs mine enough to go to the effort of dismantling it and make it something functional. But I might raid parts of it for another book one day.

It’s about friendship and peace and very gentle revolutions and I wish I loved the book itself as much as I love the ideas in it.

May 2020: Moth 2, draft 3

At the start of May, I received an offer of representation for the first book in the Moth Trilogy, Butterfly of Night. During the two weeks that followed, as I attempted to keep my anxiety at bay while I waited for other agents to respond and so on, I wrote a very hasty redraft of its sequel, which I originally wrote in 2014 and haven’t touched since early 2015. It’s not that I thought I would need this any time soon — more that I wanted something to work on that would get my brain back in the right mindset to potentially tackle revisions of BoN. Mostly, this rewrite was intended to bring this sequel in line with book one in terms of continuity and worldbuilding, since major edits to the first book in the last five years meant that the existing draft made no sense. It still needs a bunch of work on a plot level, especially since some of those changes undermined the character motivations and weakened the existing arc, but it’s a vaguely book-shaped thing, and if nothing else, it was a good distraction.

Plus I enjoy this book solely for the fact that we have a deadly assassin working as a library assistant.

June 2020: concerto for two idiots, draft 1 [incomplete]

This is not this book’s actual title, but since it doesn’t have one, I’m referring to it by the joke title I gave its playlist. This book was my first attempt at a proper YA contemporary — a retelling of the story of Lancelot and Galehaut, set in a secondary school orchestra. While I loved writing these gay disasters and it was delightful to dip back into the musical world I inhabited as a teen, this book suffered from poor timing — as my depression got worse throughout June and into July, I found I wasn’t capable of writing what would otherwise have been the happiest book I’ve written so far, and eventually I stopped being able to write at all and put the book indefinitely on hold. I hope I can come back to it at some point, because writing contemporary was a new direction for me and I wanted to see where it could go, but I haven’t been in the right headspace for it. I think it also suffered from lack of planning — I jumped into it without really thinking it through, having already been writing nonstop for a couple of months. So, for now it’s 58k of a messy first draft.

By ‘messy’ I mean multiple characters are known only by initials and there’s a band called “Terrible Band Name”, but I had a lot of fun with it while it lasted.

September 2020: Butterfly of Night, draft 4096

Okay, it’s probably not draft 4096, it’s more like draft 8 (and 8×8 is 64 and 64×64 is 4096, so…). But after six years of working on this book, it feels like it! I revised Butterfly of Night during my 2-week quarantine after moving to Ireland, taking into account some feedback we’d received from editors as well as developing some ideas that would lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy. As I’ve said before, this book can stand alone and I’ve worked very hard to ensure that’s the case, but it’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the more I know about the later books, the more I can solidify the worldbuilding in book one to make sure the pieces are in place. These revisions involved changing the ending in a way that I haven’t done since I wrote the first draft in 2014, so that was wild, but now that I’ve done it, I can’t believe I let the old ending stand for so long. I did a subsequent round of line edits during October to smooth out some inconsistencies and tighten the prose, but the bulk of the writing happened in September.

Me attempting to plan my revisions: “Why does a book need a plot? Is it not enough for it to be about trauma recovery and friendship? And murder.”

November 2020: To A Candle Flame (Moth 3), draft 1

For NaNoWriMo this year, I wrote a draft of the final book in the Moth Trilogy. It’s a very self-indulgent project intended only for myself — it relies on the latest version of BoN, which only one person has read, and on a non-existent version of the second book, which I have yet to write and so exists only in my head. Which means I can’t ask anybody to read it through. Really, I just wanted to know how it ended, for the sake of my own curiosity. Having this on paper means I have a much clearer sense of the edits I need to do to make book 2 functional, though, and it was nice to write a first draft in this world for the first time since 2014. I did not, however, succeed in following through on this particular note from my planning, mostly because I forgot it existed:

So that’s a note for the next draft. Give Isabel a tiny cat.

(Also, I feel like the juxtaposition of moods in this screenshot really says a lot about how I plan books. It’s just a jumble of every thought and feeling I’ve had about the novel, and I talk to myself on paper until I figure out what I’m trying to say.)

November-December 2020: The Wolf and His King, draft 2

At the very end of November and going into December, I spontaneously decided to rewrite last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, a retelling of Bisclavret. This was in some ways a fairly superficial edit: I focused on prose, historical detail, and character development, and didn’t dig deep into plot or pacing. I’ve had some positive feedback from my beta readers and a couple of suggestions for improvements, and probably at some point there’ll be a third draft that involves pulling the book apart a bit more thoroughly, but mostly, I’m solidly proud of this one and it means a lot to me as a book because it feels very personal. It’s also a wildly different kind of book to the Moth Trilogy — it’s an adult literary novel with a strong romance element, so a sharp contrast to my YA thrillers with zero romance, but I like to keep things varied. I’m hoping 2021 will see this book taking a few steps further along the journey to publication, but we’ll have to see.

Beta reader feedback varied in style but I particularly enjoyed Charley’s approach of liveblogging her feelings at me.


I’ve also started writing poetry again. I used to write poems constantly and obsessively, but I’ve lost the knack of it these last few years. Most years I manage a small handful, separated by months, but I’ve written around 20 so far in 2020 and the majority of them since the end of October. I’ve started trying to write poems deliberately, following prompts, rather than just when I feel inspired, and I’ve entered a few into competitions, mainly to give me a reason to finish them. It’s been nice, re-learning how to write poems, and I’m enjoying playing around with language. I realised I was using a lot of the same imagery in my novels and I thought maybe if I practised with poems, I would learn to vary those descriptions a bit more.

There’s still some time left in 2020, but I’ve promised to take a break from creative writing for a while. In 2020 I wrote 564,336 words of fiction across those two projects, which doesn’t account for those scenes I wrote two or three times, all the planning and worldbuilding notes I wrote both on paper and in Word docs, or anything academic. (I also wrote the openings for various other projects, which I do quite often, but again, I don’t count those unless they develop into something.) I think I would be right in saying I haven’t done that since my wrist injury in 2013, and what’s even more remarkable is that almost all of those words were typed (not dictated) — a reminder that although during pain flare-ups it doesn’t feel like it, I have recovered a huge amount since then.

Shortest complete novel: 71k. Longest: 133k.

For the rest of the year, barring a couple of oneshots I told myself I’d write as Christmas gifts for friends, the only things I’ll be writing will be my assignments. But it’s nice to close out 2020 knowing that despite this terrible year, I made words. A somewhat alarming number of words. (If I broke down the exact number of days spent writing and tried to work out an average, I suspect it would be the kind of number that makes physiotherapists give me the “not mad, just disappointed” look.) And those words helped me to get through this.

And whether or not you made any words at all this year, I’m glad you, too, got through this, and I’d love to hear more about anything creative that might have come out of this for you.