When YA is Actually MG

Several weeks ago, I posted about how I accidentally ended up in Pitch Wars. Today, I'm going to talk about one of the biggest edits my book is going through as a result.

Three weeks after I sent my mentor (the wonderful Laurie Dennison) the full manuscript of my YA fantasy, she got back to me with her edit letter, which included lots of structural changes, plot tweaks, and one very big question.

How would you feel about aging The Dreamon down to Middle Grade?

My knee-jerk response was "No way!" But knee-jerk responses are rarely the right thing to listen to, so I emailed back and forth with Laurie a few times about what my options were, and what my edits would look like if I stayed with YA or changed to MG. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of changing categories.

Almost three months later, I've revised The Dreamon down to MG, and it was way easier than I thought it would be. Really, the only thing I needed to do was change the characters' ages and remove the heavier profanity. It's almost like The Dreamon was MG all along, and I just didn't realize it.

So what were the key elements which made The Dreamon more MG than YA? There were four main things Laurie mentioned:

1. Voice

Voice is notoriously hard to define, but you can usually guess at the age and maturity level of a character by how they talk. In my case, The Dreamon's protagonist, Lucy, has a voice that sounds imaginative and quirky, but carries a certain level of vulnerability that most older teenagers have already grown out of. In other words, she sounds much more like a thirteen-year-old than a fifteen-year-old.

2. Word count

The Dreamon's word count has always been low, but when Laurie first got my manuscript, I'd managed to coax it up to 65,000 words -- on the low end of acceptable for YA fantasy. However, there were several scenes that dragged and needed to be pared down. This meant that to make the story better, I'd have to reduce the word count below the industry standard for YA fantasy. With MG fantasy, I don't have this problem -- I could even go as low as 45,000 words without raising any eyebrows.

3. Introspection

Many of Laurie's comments were along the lines of "What is Lucy thinking? What is she feeling?" In YA, characters tend to be a lot more introspective, whereas in MG they tend to be more active. Of course, I've been working on making sure Lucy's important thoughts end up on the page, but if The Dreamon were YA I'd have to add whole paragraphs of thought instead of just a few sentences.

4. Sympathy for the protagonist

This one surprised me, but it turns out there are differences in how you can make readers care for the main character between MG and YA. In MG, you can make people care for your character because something bad is happening to them -- in my case, people care for Lucy because she's trapped in a nightmare with seemingly no way out. However, that technique rarely works in YA. Readers usually care about YA characters because they like their personality. That's not to say that MG characters don't have to be likeable, or that YA characters never elicit sympathy, but there is a difference that has to be noted when writing for either age group.

BONUS: Romance

This actually wasn't something that Laurie mentioned, but something my critique partner mentioned when I ran Laurie's idea past her. Most YA books have a strong romantic component, but MG romance is much more toned down, and often completely absent. The Dreamon has no overt romance whatsoever, though it could be implied if you read it a certain way. Of course, there are many YA books without romance, and many MG books which revolve around it, but there's definitely a difference in the way it's handled.

In general, MG has a more childlike tone than YA

Have you ever had to change your book's category? Are you considering it? Share in the comments!

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