The demographic dilemma

Being shortlisted for the Ampersand Prize is a big stepping stone for me. The winner signs a deal with Hardie Grant Egmont, but even runners-up are sometimes taken on by HGE as well. Others usually get picked up by agents or publishers as a result of the shortlisting, since it’s a professional endorsement. The people at HGE, in shortlisting a writer, basically give her a ticket out of the slush pile.

So, following this momentous event, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to streamline my rather hefty manuscript, as I was advised to do at my interview with the publishing team. Anomalies, in the latest draft, is about 96,000 words, or 400 pages depending on typesetting.

To put that in perspective, most books for teenagers don’t exceed 70,000. Those for preteens rarely top 60,000. You get a little leeway for fantasy, to allow for worldbuilding and grander storylines, or if you’re very famous, in which case people will buy anything you put your name to.

What does this mean for me, though?

Well, Anomalies is in kind of a weird category. The heroes are fourteen years old; teenagers. Teenagers read about teenagers, right? The layperson would probably conclude that books about thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds are for that age bracket. That would make it teen fiction/young adult, typically shortened to the cryptic YA, probably because there’s still a stigma attached to writing for young people.

The truth is a little more complicated.

See, a lot of young readers read aspirationally – that is, they read about characters a little older than themselves. They’ll probably read about characters their own age, too, but it’s pretty rare that they’ll read about anyone younger. (Adults reading kids’ books is another story.)

I’d guess this is for two reasons. The first is escapism: looking up to or imagining oneself as the hero. Young readers tend to identify strongly with fictional characters, which is where that wonderful passion that drives fandom often comes from.

The second, for some readers, is probably about the individual’s reading level. When I was about twelve, I preferred the writing style of fiction aimed at teenagers and adults. With a few exceptions (such as His Dark Materials trilogy, which I had started when I was nine), most books with twelve-year-old heroes were a bit too easy. Hell, sometimes I’d read adult literary fiction if I couldn’t get my hands on anything else. I remember reading Q&A (the source material for Slumdog Millionaire) and thinking, ‘”Mother****er”? What a disgustingly creative insult. I wonder if it’s a literal translation from Hindi.’

This means that Anomalies could actually fall in a recently-invented and vaguely-defined bracket called ‘middle grade’ fiction. It’s distinct from children’s novels in that these are books designed not for an early reader or an adult to read to a child, but for independent readers. Everybody seems to have a different opinion on where MG starts, but let’s say it’s about Grade Three or Four – so, age nine or ten. MG ends where YA begins… except there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on where that line falls, either.

The major hallmarks are less about numbers and more about content, so here’s a quick chart of some typical differences between MG and YA:

Middle grade fiction:

  • Heroes 10-13 years old
  • Length: 40,000 to 60,000 words (publisher dependent)
  • No sexual content; crush or first kiss is as far as it goes, but tends to focus more on friendship and family anyway
  • Violence mild; death usually relayed second-hand
  • Adults are still in control of the world
  • No profanity
  • Popular examples: A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Adventure of Hugo Cabret, Artemis Fowl series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid


Young adult fiction:

  • Heroes 14-18
  • 50,000 to 75,000 words (publisher dependent)
  • Swearing, violence, sexuality and romance all permitted (although sex scenes are usually pretty vague and focus on emotions, with limited physical detail)
  • The adults are no longer completely in control
  • More likely to make social/political commentary
  • Popular examples: The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, Uglies series, The Maze Runner


Anomalies straddles the line a bit.

Rik and Phaedra live in a fairly dark world; brutal poverty, torture, slavery, battlefield carnage and giant spider robots are all out there in the open, and worse things are implied. Rik swears all the time, although I stuck to words that are, in Australia at least, pretty mild and/or antiquated such as ‘bloody’, ‘damn’ and ‘bastard’ (somehow, in steampunk, ‘shit’ seems as anachronistic as ‘dude’). And according to the criteria above, their age alone would place the book at the younger end of YA.

On the other hand, I get bored by lovey fluff, particularly when used as an obligatory reward or a gratuitous source of reader wish fulfillment. I only want to see characters pairing up if they’re both likable, and if they’ve earned it. From the first incarnation of this book, Rik and Phaedra’s friendship has always been the emotional focus of the story and the thing many test-readers enjoy the most – which is more of a middle-grade thing. Teenage readers tend to be more interested in romantic subplots, as they’re starting to navigate their own relationships (or at least fantasising about them).

So, MG or YA?

I wouldn’t recommend this book for an eight-year-old. It’s too dark, particularly the scuttling robotic Wardens. I mean, when I was eight, I thought the Basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets lived in my laundry. Going way down the cold dark corridor was a daily test of my nerves; I was legitimately convinced a giant, shimmering emerald viper could explode from the washing machine to kill me with its glare. I know some lovely eight-year-olds; I’d hate for any of them to have to brace themselves like I did every time I had to go to the laundry to rummage for clean underpants. (Harry Potter, by the way, switches from MG to YA at Book Four, when romance and violence appear more prominently.)

At the same time, my youngest sibling and cousins are too old for Anomalies. Sure, they might read it to support me, and I’d appreciate that, but I wouldn’t expect their school friends to like it. They’re digging deeper into the dark crannies of the world than my book’s torch-beam reaches. The other day, these kids were all crowded around an iPad reading about the murder of a local child twenty-five years ago, and how a distant relative of ours was involved in the case. That’s not to say that they’re morbid; just that the curiosity and fortitude of a fifteen-year-old is probably more suited to fiction that satisfies that curiosity and tests that fortitude.

So the ideal age to read Anomalies is probably twelve or thirteen; early YA, by most people’s reckoning, and summed up as such by the HGE team. The lack of a clear category could make it tricky to market, I suppose, but strange things can happen once a book is out on the world. Marcus Zuzak never foresaw that The Book Thief would be so popular with teenagers. Over half of all YA readers are actually adults, and I’m sure few YA writers saw that trend coming, either.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, I’ve got a lot of editing to do.

Thoughts? Questions? Tell me in the comments!


3 thoughts on “The demographic dilemma

  1. Mohammed says:

    Dear Amelia,

    This post has summed up the exact kind of trouble I’m going through with my unnamed fantasy manuscript. I have a 12-year old protagonist with a knack for pulling pranks and befriending magical creatures. There’s a lot of humor in the story as well. Sounds firmly MG, doesn’t it? But this character is hated by his stepmother, and here things are nowhere near as light as Roald Dahl-esque mean parents. There are plenty of scenes where she tries to inflict harm upon him, and there’s also some violence.

    I tried making him into a 14 or 15-year old, but the impact of having an evil woman corner a frail, skinny 12-year old is far more powerful. There’s also the aforementioned part about the humorous pranks he pulls on others and the weird creatures he could talk to. YA readers would call it childish.


    • Amelia says:

      Sounds firmly MG to me. I don’t think it sounds too dark for 10-11. Roald Dahl lies on the younger end of the range. Depending on how it’s treated, you can probably sell it as MG. YA does sound out of the question.
      If I were you, I think I’d bite the bullet and either scale your evil stepmother up to a ridiculous degree, or dial her back. Either can work for MG. Parents make for poor villains in YA unless they’re also powerful in some other way, like being a monarch or a CEO; ie, they have a realm of control that extends beyond the character’s life as a child stuck in their home. In the end, I make the decision by asking myself what I value more: the chance of publication, or the current iteration of the story.


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