Note from Jane: In today’s guest post, editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman (@rfaitheditorial) discusses myths surrounding appealing fiction, YA novels, and readership.
Authors are storytellers—everyone knows that. But authors are also voracious consumers of stories, since language is our medium for the discovery of meaning. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful, capable of framing how we see ourselves and the world.
Lately, I’ve noticed what I consider a dangerous story beginning to take root in the author community, concentrated in but not exclusive to young, first-time novelists. I’ve not yet heard the myth given a name, in part because it’s too new to have emerged fully in our industry’s consciousness, but I’ve come to think of the insidious tale as the Myth of the Everyreader.
To understand what the Everyreader is, and why the idea of it is so detrimental to author success, I want first to tell you about how I became aware of this myth’s growing power and pervasiveness.
Just last week I received a query from an author seeking editorial services for his first manuscript. When I asked him to identify his book’s audience, he told me: “Readers between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, and basically anyone who has ever experienced heartache.”
What struck me wasn’t this author’s grand designs, but rather that they aren’t unique. That same week, I heard from an author whose market is “readers age fourteen to twenty-five,” and another who just wants to write “for boys.”
Perhaps it’s time to state an obvious truth: “Everyone” is not a target audience. In fact, “everyone” is not a target anything. A piece of common writing wisdom teaches that first drafts are for the author, and all subsequent drafts are for the reader; authors who believe in the existence of an ageless, genderless Everyreader are all but ignoring the vital presence on the other side of the page. Who exactly is reading your book? If you think the answer is “everyone,” you’re setting yourself up for frustration and failure.
Rise of the Myth
I’d venture a guess that most authors writing for the Everyreader have been raised on a steady diet of contemporary, upper-YA crossover successes—books intended for readers age twelve to seventeen that have seen major play from adult readers too. Titles from authors like John Green, Rainbow Rowell, J.K. Rowling, Jandy Nelson, and Suzanne Collins qualify as YA crossover, since their readerships have transcended the books’ intended audience of young readers.
Conditions are ripe for the world to tell itself a story—a myth—about these crossover successes, in an effort to both explain and replicate them. After all, every author mentioned in the previous paragraph has optioned at least one novel for film; Warner Bros. bought the option for Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun before the book was even released.
So now we have young authors whose heads are filled with great YA literature, fantasies about movie premieres, and the strong Millennial conviction that anything is possible. To them, it appears that everyone is reading YA—so why shouldn’t they write books designed for everyone?
What most of these authors fail to realize is that the crossover successes they’re trying to emulate were written for a distinctive audience. Who we write for has so much to do with what and how we write, which is why authors can’t afford to believe in an audience that doesn’t truly exist.
Myth vs. Reality
Though YA crossover successes seem to be read by everyone, the books themselves are aimed at a narrow sliver of the market. Many of the young authors I hear from are concerned about being pigeonholed as YA authors, due to yet another (far more ridiculous) myth: that writing YA is easier, or otherwise “less than” writing adult fiction. These authors seem to fear that writing YA will make them the child sitcom stars of the literary world, destined for spectacular failure as they grow up to write books meant for adults.
Let’s put this myth to bed once and for all, okay? Writing YA is not easy, nor is it easier than writing for adults. One doesn’t “graduate” from writing YA; it is not a remedial practice.
In a 2014 interview with NPR about her YA novel Belzhar, Meg Wolitzer—an author whose previous releases were aimed at adults—cited the “immediacy” of YA as a defining factor of the prose, in contrast to more “language-focused” adult fiction. What I like about this distinction is that it doesn’t privilege one over the other; evoking immediacy is not better or worse than teasing out nuances of language, and of course these features of good writing are not mutually exclusive.
For whatever reason, I’m finding that authors who believe in the Everyreader also believe they must show the world what serious, adult writers they are—even when the stories they want to tell are YA stories. The common approach is to introduce a main character slightly older than the typical YA protagonist’s sixteen years, but transpose all the same motifs of first love, rebelling against authority, and discovering identity into the plot. Prose in these manuscripts is still marked by the immediacy Wolitzer cites, and characters demonstrate the same emotional volatility we find from their younger counterparts. This is a problem. Sixteen-year-olds can be forgiven for acting on pure emotion, and some might even be endearing for it (Katniss Everdeen, anyone?). But eighteen-year-olds? Characters in their twenties? Like the rest of us, these figures must acquiesce to the passage of time and demonstrate at least some of the maturity commensurate with ages beyond adolescence.
I believe an author’s aversion to declaring herself for YA, or her insistence on denying the youthfulness of her characters, ironically stems from her own immaturity. If I write for adults, she tells herself, they might just think I am one. But this once again misidentifies why a book comes to address the audience it does.
Just like authors can’t write for an ambiguous Everyreader, they likewise can’t write exclusively for themselves. The real magic of a book happens when an author’s words and a reader’s mind make something new: page as telepathic intermediary. How can authors accomplish this delicious symbiosis if we’re hung up on self-consciousness? We have to bypass our fears of being judged or ridiculed and embrace the audience who will love us just as we are. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounds like the core plot of more than one YA novel.
Identifying and writing to a specific audience will help authors write authentic, compelling prose. But there’s a far more pragmatic reason to know your audience. “When I take a project on,” says agent Emma Patterson of Brandt & Hochman, “it’s crucial that I can see who the audience will be. I have to determine which editors at houses tend to work on books for that audience, and convince those editors the audience is fully apparent. If I can’t see that audience or the voice is inauthentic in some way, there’s no way I’m going to be able to convince an editor to see things differently.”
When authors write to “everyone,” they are leaving an ambiguous gap at the core of their texts that could and should be filled with intention and authenticity. The difference between throwing something away and playing catch is audience. Your words need to land somewhere—and you need to know where that is before you write.
I asked Laura Chasen, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, about what makes a great crossover. “It’s all about connecting at the gut level. Whether or not a story is peppered with Hogwarts, punk music, or cyborgs is really superfluous. A truly successful crossover is all about depth of character and nuanced portrayal of relationships—the innards of any good novel.”
It should come as no surprise that what makes YA spectacular is the same stuff that makes any book captivate an expansive audience. Authors who dream of blockbuster success would do well to remember that.
Happily Ever After
Joseph Campbell said that “Myths are the stories of our experience of life.” For an up-and-coming generation of authors, that experience includes a Golden Era of YA literature that has transcended the supposed confines of the form. While it’s tempting to mythologize this phenomenon, we can’t lose sight of the fact that YA’s success is just the happy convergence of immensely talented authors around a singular reading audience. Authors hoping to ride the gravy train of YA books with mass appeal should keep their audiences dear to mind, and focus on what hopeful authors in all genres have focused on since forever: writing great books.
Rebecca Faith Heyman is a freelance book editor whose no-nonsense, compassionate, creative critique and astute book coaching have been helping authors tell their stories for almost a decade. She also serves as an advisor to the board of Reedsy, a curated marketplace for book industry professionals. Connect with Rebecca on Twitter at @RFaithEditorial, or via the RF Editorial web site.