Guest Post: “Juggling YA and Adult Fantasy Writing” by David Hair

HairD-AuthorPicI read a bit of everything (except romance), but fantasy has always been my big love. I blame that on my introduction to Tolkien at an impressionable (teen-)age. Since then, I’ve been through all of the usual suspects as I explored this amazing genre. I knew I wanted to write a genre novel, but it took a while to overcome a lack of confidence, and a lack of time.

What excited me most were epic fantasies: big juicy stories with apocalyptic plot-lines, huge casts and many complex threads, and a whole imagined world to explore. When I did find time to write however, my best idea happened to be better suited to a teenage/YA audience. Growing up in New Zealand, the son of a truck driver who thought nothing of driving his family for hours to visit friends and relatives, I saw a lot of the countryside. Being enamoured of mythology and history, as I stared out of the windows, I began to populate the landscape with historical places and mythic creatures. The result was The Bone Tiki, which won Best First Book at the New Zealand Children’s Book awards in 2009, and had some commercial success. That opened up the opportunity for me to write sequels, the sum of which (six books) collectively became known as The Aotearoa Series. I wrote most of those books while living in New Delhi, India. My wife works for Immigration New Zealand, and was posted to India for four years. Whilst there, I also wrote The Return of Ravana, a four book YA series set in India.

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My ambition was still to write epic fantasy, so, taking advantage of finally having the time to write, I commenced work on what became Mage’s Blood, book one of The Moontide Quartet. I worked in my spare time and continued writing my contracted YA books. I didn’t submit Mage’s Blood for publication until I was back in New Zealand in 2011, and through the good work of my UK-based agent, Heather Adams, it was picked up by JFB/Quercus. I’ve now completed the remaining four books of that series, three of which have been released; the final one is going through its editing stages now. Book Three – Unholy War – was recently longlisted for the David Gemmell Awards for both Best Novel, and Best Cover Art.

I’ve now completed ten YA novels and four adult ones, so I’m fairly familiar with the difficulties of jumping from one to the other. When deciding whether an idea is better suited to YA or adult, I usually look at the ideal age of the lead characters. If I need them all to have a sense of wonder, or to be young and/or naive, I’ll go for YA; if I need them to have some life experience, or face adult choices, then it’s an adult story.

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From there, the differences and challenges, most of which are fairly obvious, derive from the required length of the novel . . .

Length

For better or for worse, YA is aimed at a group for whom a shorter story is deemed more suitable by publishers. Generally (but not always) they want them to be relatively short and fast-moving, to hold a teenager’s attention in a busy world full of distractions.

My YA books are all somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 words which is at the longer end of YA, by the way – often they’re only about 50,000 words. I’m not sure what that is in page count, sorry; I don’t really think in those terms. Depending upon how much world-building, plot complexity and character growth you’ve got to wedge into your story, those world counts can feel pretty restrictive. My YA first drafts are often too long, and need to be pared back.

By comparison, each Moontide book is around 250,000 words. That’s a lot – they really are epics! I guess an average non-epic adult book is in the region of 120,000 to 180,000 words, but then, I’m yet to write one!

A shorter novel means fewer characters, fewer scenes, fewer locations to describe, less back-story, and that all feeds into a crisper, faster-moving, less complex experience for the reader. It also means you tailor your language a little . . .

Language

I use simpler words and expression in YA; not because I think YA-readers don’t do big words, but because the more economically I can express myself, the easier it is to get inside the required word count. I also like to think of my YA books being read aloud, and simple phrases suit that mode of delivery better.

By contrast, with Moontide, my editor likes longer sentences, and often joins up my shorter ones to make bigger, more complex ones. Her goal is to slow things down a little when I get a bit too breathless in my delivery. I’m inclined to write even scenery descriptions as if they were action scenes, but she reels me in!

Plot and Character Complexity

I think a shorter story demands concessions in terms of both plot and character complexity. So with YA I’m more inclined to keep the back story simpler. This suits most teen characters, who generally have less life experience, so don’t need massive histories.

This doesn’t mean a YA character can’t have a very complex back story, but in that case, other elements, like the world-building, or the amount of incidents in the plot, might have to be pared back, to allow the character’s story time to come through.

Intensity

Fairly obviously, adult writing has more license for bad language, and graphic sex and violence. Whether one agrees or disagrees about where to draw the line, YA is more toned down, and that’s fine: often more impact can be achieved with suggestion and implication anyway, so I’m perfectly cool with it.

Apart from those considerations, in my experience, writing YA or adult is fairly similar. We take an idea about a place, person or event, turn it into a sequence of events and scenes, populate it, flesh it out and then write it, scene by scene (though not always in order). I write in a more stripped-down disciplined fashion.

Quick disclaimer: I should mention that when it comes to writing, I’m pretty much self-taught. I’ve done night classes on short-story writing (which was focused on language and writing skills) and also one on how to structure a novel, but otherwise everything I’ve learned about writing has been done ‘on the job’. I’m not sure if that makes me better or worse qualified to talk about it than someone with a more formal grounding!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you found it interesting!

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David Hair‘s The Pyre is due to be published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books, on June 4th, 2015. Here’s the synopsis:

Mandore, Rajasthan, 769 AD: Ravindra-Raj, the evil sorcerer-king, devises a deadly secret ritual, where he and his seven queens will burn on his pyre, and he will rise again with the powers of Ravana, demon-king of the epic Ramayana. But things go wrong when one queen, the beautiful, spirited Darya, escapes with the help of Aram Dhoop, the court poet. 

Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 2010: At the site of ancient Mandore, teenagers Vikram, Amanjit, Deepika and Rasita meet and realize that the deathless king and his ghostly brides are hunting them down. As vicious forces from the past come alive, they need to unlock truths that have been hidden for centuries, and fight an ancient battle . . . one more time.

Moontide Quartet is published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books: Mage’s Blood, Scarlet Tides, Unholy War, Ascendant’s Right (October 2015). The series is also published in the US by Quercus.

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