Writing Adult Fantasy vs. YA Fantasy: Writer Q&A
In the wake of my last post on YA Fantasy and the original internet backlash prompted by one blogger’s scorn for YA, I thought it would be interesting to have some writers (two of whom currently have their books on the market) weigh in on several questions regarding writing Adult or YA Fantasy. My guests today are W. M. Beck Jr., Sophronia Belle Lyon, and A. D. Poole.
Why do you write Adult/YA Fantasy?
Beck: There is something in us that longs for the fantastic, the epic, the transcendent; we inherently feel that there is more to life than just what our five senses tell us. Writing fantasy allows me the artistic luxury of blurring the lines between the world I cannot see and the one I can. It is a space where I can make concrete that which is abstract.
In 2 Corinthians 10:5 Paul wrote: “We take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” For many years I thought of that scripture within the context of my own thoughts. Then one day, God showed me the larger context of what Paul was writing about there; he was talking about the thoughts of others. I asked the Lord to show me how I could possibly take other people’s thoughts captive, especially since I had such a difficult time taking my own captive. He took me to Matthew 13, where Jesus tells the parable of the sower. When the disciples asked Jesus why he was always telling stories, he answered by quoting a passage from Isaiah, saying, “For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes–so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.”
When I put all of that together I came away with: “People’s hearts are hard, they cannot receive the truth outright. But if you capture their imagination you can soften their hearts and, in that moment, you can sow seed.”
That is why I write YA Fantasy. To sow seeds of truth.
Lyon: I write fantasy because I like to speculate on what might happen if things are a little different from reality. I write for adults because I deal with issues such as sexual slavery, human trafficking, and the upset of the moral order in society, which are not always suitable for younger readers.
Poole: I’ve been writing since I was a teenager but I had decided to write for adults by the time I was in college. Back then I hoped that mature kids could read my books, too (I read harder fiction such as classics as a teen), but more recent story concepts I’ve had I would recommend only for adult readers. I believe this goal of writing for adults is related to my goal to write for the secular market. As a kid and an adult, I’ve been frustrated at how hard it is to find adult fiction that isn’t filled with sex and profanity. I decided that as a writer, I would write that secular adult story that wasn’t full of sex and profanity to show that good action/adventure stories don’t require a roll in the mud. I wanted to be a light in a very dark market.
What appeals to you most about writing fantasy for your audience?
Beck: The YA age group has a much broader appetite for potential, I find. One of the basics of storytelling is to have relatable characters, and while older adults have many, and varied, experiences to draw upon, young adults view their lives much more through the lens of what might be, of who they wish to become. I like trading in potential. I like to dream.
The other side of that coin, however, is also the need for guidance in the lives of young adults as they walk that journey. In a society so saturated with media content, I think it is important to have an active presence in the ongoing cultural dialogue of our times. There needs to be a voice that shows a better way, that points to God, that presents choices and consequences in a way that is consistent with biblical truth. Inasmuch as I enjoy flights of fancy and wild imagination, the opportunity to impact the next generation is even more appealing.
When an adult tells me they liked the message of my books, despite the setting being a little “further out there” than they usually care for, that’s just gravy on top.
Lyon: I like a medieval type of setting because it minimizes the problems of more complex technology, the use of brand names, colloquial language, and other changeable things that might go out of date.
Poole: My love of writing fantasy used to have a lot to do with a love of creating my own civilizations, like playing Age of Empires only with far greater customization, hah! My interest in writing fantasy has shifted, though, as I most often write fantasy stories within historical real-world settings. One of the fascinating things about the main era I write, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people all over the world believed in a wide variety of fantastical creatures—they still retained sense of wonder and mystery in their Cosmos, even amidst the dawning of the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of the modern nation-state system. Historical fantasy lets me explore what the world might have been like back then if such creatures really did exist.
What do you think the main difference is between writing Adult Fantasy vs YA Fantasy?
Beck: The main differences are the characters and the themes. I didn’t set out to write YA; I set out to write books that I would want to read. Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that the themes and characters I was working with were most applicable to the YA age group. That isn’t to say that adults don’t enjoy my work as well, but themes such as discovering your identity, or learning the value of relationships are life challenges more relevant to a young adult audience.
From a character standpoint, there are a few identifying traits that make characters relatable. Two of the most obvious are age and gender. Young Adults can generally relate to a character older than they are, since they can view the character as who they would like to become, but there should still be at least one main character that is the same relative age as they are. This enables them to experience the story from that character’s perspective, and thus have a more immersive experience.
Ultimately, a message is only as good as the people it reaches. While there is the part of me that dislikes over-categorizing and qualifying art, I also recognize the pragmatism of targeting a specific group with a specific message. Better to reach a few through being focused, than none through being indiscriminate.
Lyon: As I said in the first question, writing for adults allows more leeway in subject matter. It’s not the freedom to write porn or lurid violence or to use lots of bad language, but to explore topics that are best not presented to younger readers.
Poole: Ruth Graham’s recent article for Slate, “Against YA,” has triggered a heated debate in the blogosphere on the literary merits of YA and even groping to define what, exactly, YA is. Graham and those of her persuasion miss a timeless truth: good storytelling has no age limit. C.S. Lewis was an Oxford professor of Medieval literature but rather than donning the academic elitism currently in vogue, he stated in simple language that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Just what YA is has become a matter for debate, but it boils down to who the author’s target audience is. YA is naturally going to be about things that matter to young people, and young people are going to be drawn to characters their age. Yet many adults read YA unabashedly—once again, good storytelling has no age limit. Certain content may not be appropriate for younger readers, but the majority of adult fiction includes content that is not appropriate even for adults. Interestingly, while there’s both good and bad YA and adult fiction, it seems that the most creative fantasy ideas are found in YA while adult fantasy recycles safe archetypes.
Agents usually limit the fantasy submissions they are willing to represent to YA only. Would you explain, briefly, why you think this is so?
Beck: The publishing industry, like any other industry, is a commercial enterprise. Agents are in the business of selling stories and generating continued revenue off of them. Authors like Rowling and Myers have proven that what was once only marketed to a YA audience can also be voraciously consumed by an older one. Presenting a work in several markets is just good business as it gives the greatest exposure and thus greatest potential for sales.
While this may seem shallow, even offensive, to our artistic sensibilities, I feel it is actually a good thing. Commerce establishes the societal value of a thing, i.e. the value at which a thing is exchanged among a people group establishes its relative worth among them. By creating a high value for fiction, and thus art in general, we are thus creating the financial potential needed for artists to sustain themselves and continue to work on their art.
Lyon: Fantasy is more popular among younger readers. They often have more free time and more disposable income. Adults sometimes look at fantasy as childish or assume what is written will be too unrealistic to tempt them. Some fantasy writers have very low standards for writing and are unappealing to grownups.
Poole: I haven’t yet had any experience with agents, but the fact that YA books tend to be fantasy (and is thus a crowded market for competition) and that the literary police look down on YA as inherently inferior reading material may be contributing factors. This is only my speculation, however.
What is one thing you hope your readers will take away from your writing?
Beck: I want readers to know that our God is so much bigger and greater than our ability to perceive. There is a quote by H. P. Lovecraft that I am fond of where he talks about how we become “dull and prosaic from the poison of life.” He’s right in that our accumulated experiences, with all of the hurt and damage that come along with them, have a way of shaping us into a mode of banal self-preservation. When we only focus on what is directly around us we eventually stop dreaming; we begin to believe that this world we see really is the sum total of life.
But that is not the truth.
The truth is that we have a Father who created all things and sent his son to die for us so that we might live. The truth is that through a saving relationship with Jesus we are reconciled to the source of all things, an infinite God of infinite power and glory who fellowships with us and sends his spirit to abide in us. The truth is that for those of us who are his children, the best is yet to come and will remain eternally.
Lyon: The world is overwhelmed by secularism. God is not in all their thoughts. Satan has inroads everywhere. It’s past time to try to restore godly moral order and reverence for the Word.
Poole: When my readers reach those final words, “The End,” it is my wish that they had been taken on an adventure while having something to think about after the book is put back on the shelf. I hope, too, that God will use my stories to draw others to Christ.
I’d like to once again thank the writers for taking time out of their busy weeks to answer these questions. I think it’s clear that content has a very large role in what makes a fantasy YA or Adult, even more so than the age of the protagonists. As Christians, we have to hold our work up to a high standard – Does it honor God and does it point my readers in some way or form toward God? This shouldn’t vary whether our targeted audience is the adults (secular and Christian) or the pre-teens and teens.
Note: Writer Q&A Thursday is currently experimental and will occur once a month. If you have specific questions you’d like to see answered, please submit them in the comments below or via my contact page. Fantasy authors, if you would like to have your name added to the list for future contributors to Writer Q&A, please let me know via my contact page or in the comments below.
W. M. Beck, Jr. is a pastor, author, husband, father and nerd. He lives in Spring City, PA with his wife, six children, four cats and a dog. When he’s not tending to any of those things, he spends most of his time inside his imagination. He writes the Marlebonne Tales series, which chronicles the lives of Animals living in the post-apocalyptic, steampunk Kingdom of Marlebonne—a place where colorful characters abound, the fantastic is frequent, and anything is possible. Visit him at www.wmbeckjr.com
The first book in the series, A Light in the Dark, is available on Amazon.
As Sophronia Belle Lyon, I drink tea, create mechanicals, shoot when I can, travel widely, and write Steampunk Literary Tributes. My husband is the genius who inspires my never say die heroes and inventors. A Dodge, a Twist, and a Tobacconist is the first book in the Alexander Legacy series. Characters from classic 1800s novels band together to fight human trafficking and the rise of an empire of slaves and masters determined to turn the social order into a web of deceit, domination, and debauchery. They combine steam and gear technology with families, friendship, faith, and fortitude.
A. D. Poole – Scholar, swordsman, and scribe for the King of Kings. I write historical fantasy tales of courageous cavaliers and redeemed rogues. In the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), I study Italian rapier combat and portray a Renaissance German mercenary officer under the name Melchior von Wolfsburg. If you’re looking for an editor for your manuscript I’d be glad to help! Check out my editing page at http://www.illuminatedmarginalia.weebly.com for more details. You can also follow me on Twitter @writeradpoole or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/writeradpoole or contact me via email at IlluminatedMarginalia@yahoo.com