When a Young-Adult Novel Is Actually Middle-Grade
Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In the fourth post of our Publishing U series, agent Suzie Townsend dishes on the perils of mis-targeting your audience, and her client, MarcyKate Connolly, recalls the key insight that made all the difference in getting her debut novel published.
Suzie Townsend: Query letters are an essential part of the submission process, and they come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve gotten strange queries (the one that came through the mail in a Starbucks cup with a bag of flour that we all mistook for anthrax for a hot second…), ones I couldn’t read (I wish I knew Hungarian!), and even a few for an “idea” for a book (come back when that “idea” is a “novel”). But for the most part, I get a lot of good queries for good books.
However, the one common mistake that might keep me from requesting a manuscript—even if it has a great concept—is when the writer isn’t targeting the right age group. I’m not talking about the author who’s written a novel with thirtysomethings but is pitching it as YA because it’s a hot genre. That doesn’t happen (that often).
More often, it’s the rip-roaring adventure romance with 17-year-olds that should either be a rip-roaring adventure for middle-graders or a YA romantic thriller. Either way, with cases like this it can look like too much work to fix the confusion. And it will often keep an agent from requesting the manuscript—or offering representation.
I was blinded to the fact that she
was targeting the wrong age group.
This can happen to anyone, even writers who read extensively in the age group they’re writing for.
Sometimes agents can be fooled, too. When MarcyKate Connolly queried me with her debut novel, I knew I loved it. So much that I was blinded to the fact that she was targeting the wrong age group. Here’s how that worked out.
MarcyKate Connolly: When I queried agents with my debut novel, Monstrous (2015), I pitched it as a YA fantasy. I was extremely fortunate to sign with Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary & Media, who soon after submitted the novel to editors. Several of them were excited about the book and we got our first offer in only eight days—but the offer was to buy Monstrous as middle-grade, not young adult.
I’ll admit my first thought (after “We have an offer already?!”) was “Middle-grade? Really?” It never occurred to me the book might not actually be YA. Then two things convinced me I was mistaken about the right audience. First, while we had interest from other publishers, we began to get passes noting they couldn’t get enough support since the book straddled MG and YA. Second, I talked to the offering editor about her ideas for Monstrous and what making it MG would entail.
This book was meant to be middle-grade all along.
I just needed someone (brilliant!) to open my eyes.
That conversation was magical. Her favorite parts were my favorite parts. She didn’t want to change the ending, even though it was much more Grimm than Disney. I began to see how right she was—this book was meant to be middle-grade all along. I just needed someone (brilliant!) to open my eyes.
The most unexpected realization for me, though, was that my editor wasn’t the first person to raise the issue.
Before querying, I had turned to critique partners for help polishing the manuscript. Among a variety of feedback was a consistent note that at a certain point in the book (a.k.a. The Big Reveal) the main character grows up—fast—while she seems quite young at the beginning. It was a note I largely ignored. But after that conversation with my editor, I understood I’d been writing off something important. My main character needed to grow up more naturally instead of leaping from childhood to her teen years. And now I had an opportunity to fix that.
We accepted the offer. It took some work to make Monstrous more solidly MG, but it’s hands-down the best thing to ever happen to the story.
Suzie Townsend: This story has a happy ending, and speaks to the talent of MarcyKate. In addition to showing that writers need to clearly understand the age of their audience, it also illustrates how valuable it can be to have critique partners. Even when you don’t like their suggestions, if you’re getting a consistent note it’s wise to look at the underlying issue and see if there’s a way to address it.
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MarcyKate Connolly is an administrator at a literacy nonprofit and the author of Monstrous (HarperCollins Children’s Book, Feb. 2015). She lives in New England with her husband and pugs.
Suzie Townsend is a book lover, former teacher, science fiction and fantasy nerd, and a literary agent at New Leaf Literary & Media. She represents children’s and adult fiction. She lives in New York with two dogs who know that chewing on books is not okay.