If you're writing purely for the enjoyment you get out of it and have no plans to pursue publishing, today's post might not matter much. But, if you're here on Noveljutsu, chances are you're hoping to put your novel in front of readers. And that means knowing how to find the right readers.
There are a few ways to find the right readers, and today we're going to talk about targeting readers who are the right age for your novel. So, if you've ever found yourself struggling to identify the kind of reader who'd pick up your novel, here's an overview of age categories for novels.
Before I get into the different categories for your target audience, I wanted to make a quick note about the age of your main characters. When you're writing for adults, your characters can be any number of ages, but when you're writing for kids or teens, your characters should be approximately the same age as your intended readers, generally no more than two or three years older than your target audience. Kids like to read about other kids their age, so if you want to market your book to kids or teens, give them a main character they'll want to meet.
Books get marketed to people of all ages. Pretty much as soon as you're born, there are books looking to get your hands, or your parents’ hands, on them. Most episodes of Noveljutsu are going to be more valuable if you're writing at least for the middle grade age category, but I think it's important to acknowledge and remind people that reading doesn't begin in middle school.
If you're writing for very young readers, you've got a few options. For your youngest readers, you have picture books. (This is not the same thing as comic books or graphic novels, which can be marketed to any age category.) Different authors and editors use different age guidelines, I'm making an approximation here, but picture books are generally for newborns to kids about age five. There is usually little writing in itself, and the audience frequently relies on the illustrations as much or more than the words to fully appreciate the story.
For the next step up you have early readers. These books are for kids just learning to read and are basically picture books with more words. For example, instead of a sentence to accompany each illustration, you might get a short paragraph or two instead. So, you're looking at readers who are maybe five or six years old.
The next step up is what's called a chapter book. Chapter books are short books that, when I was a kid, took me about an hour or less to read, and, as the name suggests, they're divided into chapters that are easy for younger readers to digest. Readers of these books are going to be aged about seven to nine years old.
Whether you're making picture books or chapter books, stories for kids this young are going to have simpler stories and themes. Since you are helping kids learn how to read, your use of language needs to be simpler as well. More direct. The themes of your stories are going to be ones that help introduce the world and societal expectations to kids. (For better or worse.) Themes such as "share with others" and "listen to your parents" are going to be common in these age categories.
Once you're writing middle grade, or for kids aged approximately nine to twelve, your language, themes, and plots can start to get a little more complex, though you're still looking at pretty short novels. Your 200,000 word epic fantasy does not belong in this category.
Kids this age are getting out from under their parents' wings and starting to explore the world on their own for the first time, and middle grade novels often reflect that. You might see characters making some of the first friends their parents didn't choose for them. Now your main characters must learn to form solid, lasting friendships that are based on something deeper than whether or not that kid Jason who sits in the desk across the classroom also likes hamsters. Your characters are going to be exploring the world for the first time using their own eyes. They're likely curious and maybe a little uncertain about this world around them. They're starting to get comfortable and confident enough to explore this both familiar and new world on their own, but they probably aren't so experienced they've become jaded by it.
Themes about family and friendship are common in Middle Grade. Even though the way you explore such themes can start to get a little heavier for this age category, you still need to be careful of the content you include. Some common Middle Grade no-nos include: graphic language, violence, or sex.
Sex especially is hard to get away with in Middle Grade. For so many, very, very good, completely justified reasons I hope are obvious. When it comes to violence and language, you can sometimes include allusions to them, but it's generally considered inappropriate to drop F-bombs or give a detailed description of your antagonist disemboweling someone.
Another note on language content: even if you're inventing swear words for a fantasy or science fiction novel, you can turn away readers. A number of years ago I was at a writing convention where one author talked about the fantasy novel they'd published. Since the swear words in her novel were completely made up, she was surprised when she received a few negative reviews complaining about the language content in her book. I suspect these reviewers were probably a vocal minority. If you're hoping to be traditionally published, I'm not sure how much agents or publishers are against invented swear words in Middle Grade novels, but it's something to take into consideration.
The young adult age category is pretty high profile. There are lots of YA writers and readers, including many who are adults.
YA is the first age category where you can start to add some of that restricted content back in. YA can get pretty steamy and foul-mouthed. There can be drug use and violence depicted on the page. I have heard some people say that the biggest decider on whether a book with a teenaged protagonist will be placed in YA or Adult has more to do with the novel's themes than its content. Certainly, there isn't much that's outright banned in YA, but there are still a few useful guidelines to consider. For example, if your novel has extremely graphic violence, it should probably be an adult novel. The same is true if you've written sex scenes as explicit as those found in erotica novels.
What about themes in YA? If Middle Grade is often about kids who are getting to take their first few steps away from their parents, YA is more about cutting those apron strings altogether and gaining independence.
Some writers take that to mean their main characters have to be fighting with a dysfunctional family for control of their own lives, but that doesn't have to be the case. There are a lot of industry professionals and readers out there looking to read more books featuring supportive families who get along, so don't feel like your main character has to be struggling to get out from under oppressive parental control.
Whatever your YA protagonist's relationship with their family, your YA novel is likely to be some form of "coming of age" tale. Your themes are probably going to be about firsts. That first time cutting those apron strings. A first realization that the responsibility for their actions truly rests on their own shoulders. A first love.
One more thing that is likely to place your novel in YA instead of Adult is your protagonist's voice. If the way your character sounds and acts feels authentically teenaged, teenaged readers are more likely to connect with your character and your book is more likely to end up in YA.
For a final note on the age range and content of YA, some people divide YA novels into younger and older categories: the younger end of YA—generally considered to be for ages 12 and up—and books for older teens—usually for ages 14 and up. The younger end of YA can act as a transitional category for kids coming off of Middle Grade novels who aren't quite ready for the deep, dark places older YA can go. For example, anything with drug use, violence, sex, or a lot of language may be too much for someone fresh off Middle Grade.
I'm not aware of any agents who make a distinction between younger and older YA when accepting queries. This seems to be something more-so for librarians and people recommending books for teens to worry about, but it's something you may want to be aware of as well, especially if you want to include any content warnings for your novels.
New Adult is a newer thing that's happening. New Adult is a category largely made for people who grew up reading YA books like The Hunger Games or The Mortal Instruments series who wanted a place for books like the ones they loved from YA but with more graphic adult content. They found a need for a transitional category between YA and Adult.
There's some debate in the publishing world around New Adult. Some writers and editors argue there's a need for it while others disagree. Alexa Donne made a YouTube video not too long ago about why New Adult isn't a real thing in traditional publishing. Since she knows more about that than I do, I recommend you check her video out if you’re curious. I will say that, while I don't write New Adult, as I've been researching agents for another novel of mine, I have run across several agents who state that they accept queries for New Adult novels. Though I feel I should also mention that I've seen some clarify that, while they accept those queries, they may ask you to change the ages of your characters. Just be aware.
New Adult novels might have a sort of YA feel to them, but the characters are likely to be college aged, so about 18 to 25, and the content of the novel will be more explicit than what's expected in YA.
Finally, we have our last category: Adult. This is easily the most versatile category. Your characters can be pretty much any age. You can include pretty much as much or as little graphic content as your story requires. If your main character is 45 years old, you're certainly writing a book for adults, but if they're seventeen, is that YA? Well, that depends. Here we come back to voice and theme once again.
If your character doesn't feel and sound like a real teenager, and that's a conscious choice on your part rather than a mistake you hope to fix in editing, then your book probably isn't YA.
Maybe your book is about a teen's first love. So that's YA, right? Well, not necessarily. If your character is recalling a first love—if the tone of your novel gives you a sense of nostalgia rather than one of discovery—that's an adult novel.
The same holds true for novels featuring middle grade-aged protagonists and so on. If your readers feel they are viewing your protagonist and their story through an adult’s eyes rather than through an authentic-feeling child’s eyes, the novel is probably for adults.
So, if you've already written your novel, take a look at the tone and themes. If you haven't written your novel yet, consider how you want your readers to feel when they read your book and what kind of relationship you want them to have with your main character. Let that help you determine whether your book is the right fit for an adult audience.
Since the plots I have planned for Project: Noveljutsu include major characters of all sorts of ages but all of my main characters—and all of the characters who get scenes written from their point of view—are teens, I had to think whether Project: Noveljutsu should be placed in YA or Adult.
My novel won't have any graphic sex because nobody, especially not me, ever wants to read an explicit sex scene I've written. Nobody. But Project: Noveljutsu will have violence that may, occasionally, be a tad on the graphic side of the spectrum. However, the real decider for me is that a number of my characters will be experiencing firsts.
There will be a first love for a few of the characters that will slowly develop over the series, but there will also be a character learning about what it really means to take responsibility for his actions. These teens will be figuring out how to interact with each other without devolving into a hot mess. There'll be themes of friendship, brotherhood, and betrayal from the eyes of characters who have less experience with these things.
And so Project: Noveljutsu is going to be a YA novel, or, more specifically, a novel for older teens.
For today’s challenge I want you to take a story you know well. If you don’t already know, figure out what age category it fits into, and then choose a memorable scene from the novel.
Now I want you to figure out how that scene would look differently if you put that book in a different age category. How would a novel like A Song of Ice and Fire read if it was a Middle Grade novel? Very, very differently, right? So pinpoint a few ways the chosen scene in whatever novel you’re examining would have to change.
If you feel like sharing your experiment, go ahead and comment with it below!