Sunday, January 12, 2014


So today’s YA has sex in it. Whether it is implied or thrown right out there, it’s there, and some character, main or secondary, is having it. That’s a huge change from about seven years ago when one of my novels was turned down by agents who said they loved my manuscript, but it was “too edgy and, therefore, too tough a sell.” So I should be thrilled now that my writing style is in vogue. Yet, ironically, my anxiety is building as I approach the end of the first draft of my latest contemporary YA realistic fiction novel and know I have to go back and edit it. I keep feeling a lot of pressure to ramp up my romance scenes with increased intimacy between my characters even though my M.O. is to let my characters dictate what my characters need – and they don’t necessarily need more sexual activity.

The pressure comes from that very fine line between Young Adult and New Adult books. Let me be clear that I’m a New Adult addict. I LOVE them, read more NA than YA, and couldn’t be more thrilled for the success of some of those indie and traditionally published ladies out there who have truly become pioneers in the New Adult market. Yet, as much as I read New Adult, I can’t write it. My voice is a sixteen year old’s, and my writing genre is definitely YA.

The industry has very clear definitions of what constitutes YA vs. NA. New Adult is based on characters between 18 and 24 and explores the tumultuous aspects of that age group, many of which are related to sex and intimacy. Still, my current anxiety springs from the fact that many sixteen year olds are grabbing up New Adult books like crazy, and some writers are even being classified as YA/New Adult in order to attract the younger market.

To relieve some of the pressure of having to add a dash more fondling and a pinch more nudity, I came across this awesomely thought-provoking article by librarian Kelly Jensen from Bookstacked. Kelly says:

Sex in YA is important, but sex in YA is not about being a steamy affair nor about being explicit and adult. It's about being awkward, about being confusing and scary, about being really huge experience that can be horrible or can be really amazing. There's an incredible range of experiences and exploring that within YA is perfectly acceptable and possible. But the key is it is about that exploration. Teen sexual situations are not, however, adult nor are they erotic.

As a YA writer, I find this viewpoint comforting because I still get to make my characters romantic, sexual beings without making any of them as over-the-top as Christian Grey. As a 42 year old reading New Adult, I understand what’s happening there. I like how fresh and new it feels because I remember that time in my life. But for a sixteen year old, reading this material could reinforce false precepts about what sex is and could create, for some girls, insecurities about how they should be acting sexually in the same way stick-thin models on the cover of fashion magazines have dictated to girls how they should look.

YA books exist to address the very embarrassing, mortifying, OMG-ing, first-kiss, first-love, frustrating, misunderstood, traumatic, rebellious, defining, BFF, mad-mad-world moments that occur during a teens life. New Adult books are by their very moniker adult books, and getting too graphic in YA books in order to come close to that NA line cheats teens out of stories specifically about them and for them.

On that note, I have a novel to finish. It is far from erotic but I have to believe, for the sake of my characters and for the teens I write for, that it is no less valuable in the market.


Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Heather! I'm reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell right now which takes place in college and therefore could have been considered NA, but it is very much YA because of everything you just explained.

Kurt Hampe said...

Well said. From a guy's perspective, I give props to fellow YA Fusion writer,Katie McGarry, for the condom buying scene in Dare You To.

Heather Smith Meloche said...

Agree, Kurt. I feel Katie does such a beautiful job of handling the sexual tension in her YA books. I know she is marketed sometimes at NA, but she doesn't venture into eroticism nor are her sex scenes gratuitous in any way. They are dictated by character without any unnecessary elaboration.

Lisa Tapp said...

Thanks for the post, Heather. I appreciate the definitions of YA and NA, and the struggle to separate yet blend the two genre.

Amber Hart said...

Very interesting explanation. I have a YA series and a NA series, so I write both. It's a fine line, just the right dose of sex in YA without going overboard. It's something teens want to see, the growth of the characters in their relationships, so I'm glad to see it in more books.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing, Heather. It's kind of sad there is pressure to up the sexual scenes in YA. And in some NA, like other genres than contemporary, sexual scenes should only take the place they need to in the story. Personally I'm not sure there should be the expectation that there will be steamier scenes in NA, though it is about an older age group. I think the story should govern how the romance in shown.

ShariRBecker said...

What a fabulous and thought provoking post. My YA voice tends to skew young, but I love the romantic elements of this genre. Sex is scary and exciting and new. After consulting with my agent and writing group, I ultimately decided to cut out most of my racy scenes in Stellow Project. Even though my character is 16, without the romantic story line, my novel could be read by a 7th grader - and boys. I decided it was worth getting those readers because the book is ultimately an adventure, not a romance. For me it's about finding that fine line, but also thinking about who might ultimately buy your book.

Colette Ballard said...

Great post, Heather! Well said! :)