Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult

Plenty is being said about Abbi Glines’s Uncut version of The Vincent Boys, so I’ll just briefly hop on the bandwagon here and add this: If all you did to this Young Adult genre book was slap in some juicy sex scenes, does that really make it New Adult? I mean, the characters don’t suddenly graduate, move out, get a job and pay their own bills, too, right? Isn’t that kind of what makes you an adult?

But let me back up. I am writing an epic fantasy novel. I am told that I also need to attach a few more letters for a subgenre: MG, YA, NA, or whatever. No problem, I think. The main characters are basically early-to-mid-twenties. So… New Adult. Obviously. Well, apparently not.

“What?” I cry. “That can’t be possible!” Nearly all the characters are adults, navigating an adult world. They’ve all been adults for some time. The main character starts a new job and has her first serious relationship, even getting engaged to the guy. None of this is sounding very Young Adult.

HOWEVER. The main character does move back in with her Dad for a good portion of the book (extenuating circumstances, I might add). She spends a lot of time pining and whining. But most important of all? No sex. That’s right, none. Except for some crazy dragon violence and whatnot, the whole thing is pretty PG. So. Where does that leave me?

I’ve been trawling the internet all morning on what started as a very simple quest. How long should this book be to be marketable? If it were YA, I’d have some idea, but NA is still pretty new and there’s not much out there by way of guidelines. But what started out as a hunt for an approximate word count quickly morphed into something else. What in blazes does New Adult even mean? Is my book NA at all?

Elizabeth Burns over at School Library Journal tried to tackle this question in an awesome listing of many other people trying to tackle this question. She dredged up answers varying as widely as “a sub-genre of Young Adult, with ‘slightly older’ characters and sexytimes” and “post-adolescent life” between ages 14-35. Hm.

Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times wrote about this, too, in “Beyond Wizards and Vampires, to Sex“. Sadly, she seems to equate coming of age with sex, which I don’t necessarily agree with. (Note: If you really need to have sex to feel like a grown-up… you’ve probably got a little more growing up to do. Your sexuality shouldn’t define you.) But she did have something to say about the subgenre’s definition that resonated with me:

“While publishers like the concept of creating a new-adult category, its hybrid nature has been problematic. The books fall into an undefined territory between adult and children’s literature… But while publishers hesitated, a crop of young authors began forcing the issue: they began self-publishing novels on the Internet about 19-to-25-year-olds who are leaving home for the first time for jobs or college or a first real relationship.”

This is what I want my book labeled with: that ambiguous time when you’re legally adult, but you certainly don’t have all your duckies in a row just yet. But not necessarily sex. Kaufman also mentions that industry pundits will admit to it being little more than letting people know to expect a bit more spice than Hunger Games. So maybe New Adult isn’t really a genre so much as a warning label: “Hey Grandma, maybe you don’t want to get this for little Jenny- head back over to YA where the steamy never quite comes to a boil!” Do I really want that label affixed on my book?

But I so want NA to mean more than that. As a new adult, I find this incredibly narrow definition to be a touch irritating. Even if I shelve my own problem as a writer, it’s still problematic as a reader. I don’t want to read about some 17 year old’s sextivities, I want to read about growing up. As a 20something myself, I’d like a story involving people my age, dealing with being an adult. I don’t want to get beat over the head with someone else’ sex life.

“Ms. Cabot [author of the Princess Diaries, now moving on to write NA] said that while she changed the settings and added some sex for good measure, the genre’s core was still about fantasy (Kaufman).” What? “[A]dded some sex for good measure”? Is it just me, or does that make it sound completely unnecessary?

I mean, am I the only one that gets REALLY TIRED of high schoolers breathing all over each other’s necks à la Twilight? I mean, I like a good YA story, but I can honestly do without reading up on teenagers hooking up every other chapter. I enjoyed the Harry Potter stories, but my least favorite part was reading about Harry and Ginny snogging in the halls and in the rec room and between classes and in the grass around the lake and everywhere else possible. Honestly. Maybe I’m being immature here, but come on. And they weren’t even really doing anything! You’re trying to tell me there will be more of that in NA? I’d probably have a cerebral aneurism.

It’s funny, but I gained the most hope from an article on Dear Author: A Romance Review Blog for Readers by Jane Little. “New Adult, however, is not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life.  The post high school / pre responsible time period.  Easy; Slammed; Point of Retreat; Sea of Tranquility are books with suggestive hints of intimacy but involve largely fade to black love scenes.” Ah. Thank you. That’s what I want.

“In New Adult books, readers aren’t responding to teens having sex… New Adult is a time period and a feel — a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others (Little).” Yes! I’d argue that they shouldn’t be teens at all, but still.

“What I would not like to see is the requirement of explicitness in all books.  In other words, if Abbi Glines wants to write explicit sex scenes in her books, great; but publishers shouldn’t force other writers like to do so if that isn’t what they want to include in their stories. In other words, I want New Adult books to focus on the characters and their emotional connections, not the physical ones (Little).” Thank you! Geez, I just want to paste the whole article over. There’s hope!

So… I think I’m going to keep labeling this as NA. I might be completely wrong, but it feels better there, despite some of its more voyeuristic neighbors. But I still haven’t solved my original question: how big is this thing supposed to be? Well, at any rate, probably not as big as it is. Ah, well, back to the chopping block.

But what’s your opinion? Is NA all about the spicey? What am I thinking writing a celibate book? What makes NA what it is, and is it actually a viable market now? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult

  1. Personally, I think that NA is trying to be a racy YA. But I also grew up in the age where YA meant 15-25 and not purely teen. I remember reading books about college and university students when I was a teen because they were all labeled YA.

    But, honestly, it is up to you how you label your book. I mean, if you think of your book as a person, would you call it a young adult or a new adult?

    • I totally agree w/ the racy YA analysis! But I feel like there’s a real niche for NA for the people trying to get away from the drama of adolescence. If it were just up to me, I’d go with NA in a heartbeat, but I just worry about how others define it. I feel trapped between getting shelved with vampiric high schoolers or with watered down erotica. AAAAH! I just wanna stab giants and ride unicorns and be done with it! :D

  2. I totally agree! I’ve been wrestling with the same stigma about NA. But because the category is so new, I’m hoping that more sub-genres under the NA umbrella will start to become more recognized. Personally I write things that are a little more literary but as that sub-category hasn’t been fleshed out yet, I figure I’ll just keep pressing forward in hopes that other writers will do the same until we can gain some traction and prove that there is more to New Adult books than meets the eye.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point. I’m sure all fledgling genres and subgenres have this same issue. I guess in the end, the folks who really shape it are going to be the authors that write in that genre and the readers who pick up their books. It’s just a tough transition phase, but that’s being felt all over the publishing world, apparently. What to do with this pretty little chimera? Let’s help ‘em figure it out!

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