31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep: Day 3 – Is My Novel MG or YA?

Hello, and welcome back to day 3 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”! So far we’ve learned what NaNoWriMo is, and we’ve decided what stories we’re going to be writing in November (well, hopefully you’ve figured it out). If you haven’t read my previous two posts, you can check them out here, or you can check out the corresponding YouTube videos here.

So now it’s time to start working on the specifics of your novel. I know that in the last post I said that you didn’t have to work on a novel this November, and that’s still true. However, for the sake of clarity–and because I assume that most people participating in NaNoWriMo are actually writing full-fledged novels–I’m going to be using the term “novel” from now on.

That being said, let’s get started on today’s topic. So, to me, one of the most important things to figure out–and one of the first things you should figure out–is what age group your target audience is. Because believe it or not, that can change a lot about how you ultimately tell your story.

Now, whether you work your novel around your target audience or your target audience around your novel is up to you. Some people are hellbent on writing YA fiction, while some people are hellbent on telling their story the way they want to, and then their target audience is based on the final product. Either way, it’ll be helpful to know the general rules and guidelines to writing for each age group, no matter how you decide to go about picking your target audience. Knowing your target audience is important because that’s how you market your book to potential readers (and if you market it wrong, that’s a big mess that you’re not going to want to deal with).

The first thing you should know is what your options are when it comes to target audiences and age groups. There’s Children’s fiction, Middle Grade (MG) fiction, Young Adult (YA) fiction, New Adult (NA) fiction, and Adult fiction. This post is going to strictly focus on explaining what MG and YA are, and what the differences are between them. I’m not going to get into Children’s fiction at all, because that’s a completely different territory that I’m not really familiar with.

So, let’s start with what MG fiction is. When discussing each category, we’ll be going over a few things: The age group it encompasses, the general age of the protagonist, maturity level of the content, and word count.

MG fiction is generally targeted toward readers ages 8 – 12, though technically the category could be split into two separate categories: Middle Grade and Upper-Middle Grade. There’s no hard line between these two categories, but I think it’s safe to assume that Middle Grade is for ages 8 – 10 and Upper-Middle Grade is for ages 10 – 12. Even then, readers ages 10 – 12 could easily enjoy Middle Grade novels, and vice versa. Plus, readers 12+ could also enjoy MG. (Ever heard of the Percy Jackson series? Lots of older readers love those, even some adults!)

In general, MG protagonists tend to fall between the ages of 9 to 13 years old. A good thing to keep in mind when deciding on the age of your protagonist–and this pertains to MG through NA, not just MG–is that young readers tend to like to read about protagonists older than themselves. This is what I like to call the “Ariel Effect.” If you’ve seen the Disney movie The Little Mermaid, then you probably remember a point in your childhood where you thought she was totally right. Obviously her dad was crazy, keeping her from her true love! But then, there came a point in your life where things changed, and suddenly you found yourself on her father’s side. “But Daddy, I love him!” Girl, you haven’t even said two words to the guy! This is the same with protagonists. Young readers tend to trust the actions of older protagonists, which makes the story more enjoyable for them to read, whereas younger protagonists will most likely bother them because their choices will seem immature.

However, even if you choose to write about a protagonist on the older end of the spectrum, there’s still a certain maturity level that you need to be aware of. For MG, you should try to keep the content of your novel G or PG-rated, no higher. “Censorship!” I’m sure you shout, but hear me out. This isn’t a case of saying you can’t write about certain things because they’re inherently bad. But with MG especially, there’s just a line that you can’t cross. At that age, parents are most likely screening the books their children are reading and filtering out anything that covers topics they consider “too mature” for their child. Of course, Upper-Middle Grade novels can cover some heavier topics than regular Middle Grade, but even then, those topics can’t be as heavy or covered as graphically as they could be in a YA novel.

Length-wise, MG novels should range between 20,000 – 55,000 words, with word count increasing as target audience age increases. Although, I think it’s fair to point out that word counts in MG have been going up lately, especially thanks to series like Harry Potter that have proved kids can read and comprehend longer books than people had previously thought. Fantasy and Sci-Fi MG novels are probably the only genres that can justify going past 70,000 words, though (and you’d better have a captivating story in order to hold a ten-year-old’s attention for that long).

So what’s the difference between MG and YA? Well, for starters, YA is intended for readers aged 13 – 18. Just like MG, though, both older and younger readers can and do enjoy YA novels (Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent, just to name a few).

Protagonist-wise, 14 – 19 years old is a good range, though I’d err on the higher end of the spectrum in order to appeal to a larger audience. The Ariel Effect applies here, too, just like I mentioned earlier. However, if you were to make your protagonist 14 or 15, and you kept the maturity level of your book in the PG range, you could probably appeal to some Upper-Middle Grade readers as well. Really, the line between age groups is pliable.

Speaking of maturity level, you should probably shoot for PG to PG 13-rated content. If you make your content G-rated, odds are your readers will quickly become bored. They’re mostly going to be angsty teenagers, remember, so a clean, happy-go-lucky story without any grit to it probably won’t appeal to them at all. On the other hand, if you make the content too mature, they most likely won’t have a way to get their hands on your book. Most teens are living off of their parents’ cash, which means their parents have the final say in what books their kids buy with their cash, and there’s no way a school library is going to stock some teen erotica on their shelves. (Honestly, I don’t even know if it’s legal to publish teen erotica, so…)

And when it comes to word count, 55,000 – 80,000 is a good range for most genres. 47,000+ can work for some contemporaries, but it isn’t recommended that you drop below that, and 80,000+ is only recommended for genres like Fantasy or Sci-Fi. Even then, though, try not to go too far above 100,000, especially if this is the first novel in a series. You’ve got to keep in mind that YA readers are in school, with homework, extra curriculars, and social lives (probably). That means they won’t have as much time as most adults to sit down and read a gigantic book.

So that’s all I’ve got for you today! Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of this two-parter, where we’ll be discussing the differences between YA, NA, and Adult fiction.

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