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SF novel--YA or MG?

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I’m “getting close to being somewhat near ready to put the finishing touches” on a science-fiction novel, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s MG or YA.

The protagonist is fourteen years old. He lives in a domed colony on Mars that’s a lot like a small town/city on Earth. He’s in eighth grade, looking ahead to being a freshman in high school in the fall. His parents have just separated and his dad has gone to live a few hundred miles away. His parents tell him that he can’t go stay with his dad, so he decides to steal a rover and drive there himself, along with his best friend. The story is about that trip, both as an adventure (solar flares, dust storms, avalanches) and a more metaphorical quest to bridge the distance to his father.

Obviously the age of the MC is the starting point for the MG/YA discussion. Fourteen is old for most MG, but it’s young for a lot of YA. I could bump it up or down a bit, but fourteen feels ‘right’ to me. Since the story is about how his father is leaving him, and it’s told in the third-person, I’ve been considering it MG. But almost all advice I’ve read says that twelve is the oldest that a MG protagonist can be. Personally I’d call it “early young-adult.” I don’t think of it as being MG in the 8-10 age range, but it’s also not 16+ YA.

My main question is: how much do I have to worry about this? If in the end, smart agents and editors (who know a lot more about marketing than I do) tell me that I have to push it age-wise and theme-wise into one category or the other, then I’ll do that. I mainly just don’t want an agent to read my query letter and say “wow, this guys has no idea what genre he’s writing for.”

Any suggestions for what I should do? How much do I need to worry about this right now?
#1 - June 18, 2015, 07:25 AM

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My main question is: how much do I have to worry about this?

My answer is "medium-much."

14 is a tough age to market. You're likely to get fair numbers who tell you to age it up or down. When deciding whether/how to do that, whether it's now in more of a MG or YA VOICE will be important.

Books with a protagonist this age can sell. It's just that it's kind of one more hurdle, you know? I'd suggest finding and reading some novels with a 14yo or 8th grade protagonist. How is each one marketed, and can you figure out why? EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO comes immediately to mind. 
#2 - June 18, 2015, 08:42 AM
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I agree with mrh. An editor is going to tell you to decide. But if you've been thinking of it as MG, I'd try putting the mc in 7th grade and making him a late twelve.

I had a similar issue! It's not an easy decision, but if you want to be traditionally published it's the only way into the book stores. MG or YA. They don't have a place for 'tween, unfortunately! And your story sounds well-suited for MG!

That said, there is a very big difference between younger MG and older MG. But you don't have to say a word about that. Your ms will speak for itself.

 :goodluck
#3 - June 18, 2015, 08:52 AM
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I'd call it upper MG and leave the MC as written when querying, and maybe not mention his age in the query. You may get told by an agent or editor to change it, but I don't think they'll reject it on that if your premise and execution are good.

Here's an interesting blog post and discussion from Project Mayhem about age 14 in publishing:
http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2014/09/age-14-no-mans-land-between-mg-and-ya.html
#4 - June 18, 2015, 09:19 AM
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The theme of the story seems like a definite MG for me. (MG themes are often around "where do I fit in my family?" and YA tends to be more "where do I fit in the world?") I like Kell's suggestion of not mentioning the protagonist's age as you query and to age down only if needed.
#5 - June 18, 2015, 11:00 AM

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Thirding Kell! I have a similar situation (mine is squarely MG though) and if need be I'd make MC in 7th grade rather than 8th (as much as 8th fits better).
#6 - June 18, 2015, 01:04 PM

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From the description of your story, it sounds MG to me. There is a sort an expectation of more mature themes in YA. (For instance, Harry Potter is usually considered MG while Hunger Games is considered YA, even though Harry Potter is the same age as Katniss in the later books.)

I agree that you may end up needing to age him down. You could experiment with writing some scenes with him as a 12 year old, and see how they feel.

I'd go so far as to say that if you start rewriting some scenes with your character as a 12 year old, and the ONLY things you end up needing to change are factual logistics (i.e. he refers to 6th or 7th grade instead of high school), but you can leave dialogue, the plot, and the character's reactions the same with it still feeling authentic, then this character needs to be 12.
#7 - June 18, 2015, 01:37 PM

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It has a very MG feel to it the way you describe it and I love the way Kell puts it.
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#8 - June 18, 2015, 01:49 PM
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Kell is smart. ;) Also, it sounds very cool. Good luck!!
#9 - June 18, 2015, 01:52 PM
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Thanks for sharing that middle-grade-mayhem link----great discussion. In my upper MG books, Amy is 13 and probably turns 14 soon after the end of book 2 (she's in 8th, then starts 9th grade). And although B&N did stock the second book (in Teen) despite her being a troublesome age, I've noticed librarians are all over the place, half in J and half in YA. So now, for my WIP (new character) I'm strongly considering changing his age from 14 to 12. As much as I love tween books, I think they sometimes get overlooked when it comes to category lists.
#10 - June 18, 2015, 04:35 PM
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Thanks everyone! I think I can age the MC down to 12 or 13 without too much trouble. The other helpful thing is to hear everyone agree that the story is upper MG, not lower YA.

Greatly appreciate the feedback!
#11 - June 18, 2015, 06:06 PM

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Christopher, here's a link to an agent addressing this (briefly). Hope it helps. http://newleafliterary.tumblr.com/post/121885569669/i-am-trying-to-find-good-comps-for-my-younger-ya
#12 - June 18, 2015, 07:37 PM
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Glad you got the feedback you needed, Christopher! Your story sounds like a lot of fun and we need great boy reads for this age group. You have a nicely articulated vision.
#13 - June 18, 2015, 08:12 PM

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Thank you all for the advice! I'm experiencing the same situation myself with a novel I'm about to write. I'll switch the MC's age to 12.  :thankyou
#14 - August 14, 2015, 07:55 AM

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