O, Brave New (Adult) World!

"Emergence" by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)
“Emergence” by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Today’s guest is Lorin Oberweger. Lorin has been an independent editor and story development coach for almost twenty years, and her company Free Expressions also offers some of the country’s most highly regarded writing workshops. Lorin and New York Times Bestselling Author Veronica Rossi—writing together as Noelle August—are launching their new adult trilogy this month, beginning with the novel Boomerang. Says Lorin, “Noelle August is an anagram for Veronica Rossi and Lorin Oberweger. Just kidding, it’s a pen name!”

I’m interested in the topic of genre inclusion and in pushing beyond the limitations supposedly prescribed by the marketplace.”

About her post today, Lorin says, “Though I don’t pretend to be an expert on the genre, I haven’t read much about it (the new adult genre) on Writer Unboxed, and I felt moved to explore it a bit for the WU readership. In addition, I’m interested in the topic of genre inclusion and in pushing beyond the limitations supposedly prescribed by the marketplace.”

See www.noelleaugust.com for more on both authors! You can also connect with Noelle August (and Lorin and Veronica) on Facebook and Twitter as well as on the Noelle August blog.

O, Brave New (Adult) World!

As a longtime publishing professional and a basic journeywoman writer, I’ve long held the mindset that any writing work is good work, that getting paid to do what I love, in any form, puts me at the tippy-top of the heap in terms of good fortune and career satisfaction.

So, I was over-the-top giddy when my friend, New York Times Bestselling Author Veronica Rossi and I sold a series of three books to Harper/William Morrow on the basis of a proposal, something that felt like the equivalent of sinking a basketball into a net one-hundred yards away.

And then came the comments:

“New Adult? Isn’t that just smutty YA?”

“Oh, it will come out in trade paperback? I’d never want to publish something that didn’t debut in hardcover.”

“But that’s not your genre. Why would you want to do this?”

Those remarks felt deflating, of course, but also curiously familiar.

In the olden days—1995—when I began my career as an independent editor, it was not uncommon for me to meet writers who, when they found out what I did, would basically sling bulbs of garlic at me and back away while making the sign of the cross.

Back then, far fewer reputable independent editors plied their trade than do now. Someone else controlled the conversation about the value of such professionals. That conversation has most definitely changed, and two decades later, I’m sought after and respected for the skills I’ve acquired and the work I do. But it took a climb to get here.

I get it. We writers live in a state that feels a little like building a house on quicksand. The ground is always shifting. Someone is always coming around to wring his or her hands and cry doom. It comforts us to feel like we understand our little patch of solid earth. We get the parameters and can tell each other how many paces it is to that shadowy part of the map where “there be monsters.”

And then suddenly, some new genre emerges. Out of nowhere. And it seems, at first glance, really preoccupied with s-e-x. Do we need that? Is it valid? Do we have to make room for it when publishing real estate is already at such a premium?

And then suddenly, some new genre emerges. Out of nowhere. And it seems, at first glance, really preoccupied with s-e-x. Do we need that? Is it valid? Do we have to make room for it when publishing real estate is already at such a premium?

I think we do.

First a quick definition. New Adult is a term coined about five years ago by editors at St. Martin’s Press to describe books that fall into crossover territory between young adult and adult fiction. The books are generally contemporary and usually feature a strong romantic element, with protagonists aged 18-25. They concern themselves with adult “firsts”—first experiences living apart from family; first real romantic loves (yes, sex, included); first forays into meaningful careers; and first deep heartaches.

They’re written, I think, for those readers who wanted to follow the romantic progression of relationships beyond the “fade to black” modesty of a lot of young adult fiction and who want to keep recognizing themselves in the struggles of the main characters. And they’re written for adults of all ages, who still see themselves reflected in the lives and loves of these characters, who remember the anxieties and the headiness of truly launching into adult life.

BOOMERANG COVERBut if—as has been covered beautifully on Writer Unboxed—women’s fiction and romance get little respect, is it any wonder that romantic fiction about younger people has such an uphill battle? If we have to struggle for women’s experiences to be honored, we have to double-time it for the experiences of younger people.

Every other day, there seems to be an op-ed about whether adults should be ashamed to read young adult fiction, whether women’s fiction deserves awards, whether little Billy should still be going to bed with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie or should have moved onto, say, Captain Underpants by now.

But as writers, do we need to add to that conversation? Doesn’t it help us, really, if a new genre emerges that helps us to identify a reading audience in need? Aren’t there benefits in a publishing landscape that still does shift on its plates from time-to-time, rather than being so fixed and impenetrable that we’re all expected to color in the lines—always?

Just as with any genre, it’s dangerous to paint new adult with one sweeping stroke. Some can be dramatic, swoony, and dark. Other stories, like Boomerang—which I like to say is a cross between The Hangover and a romantic comedy—are lighter, even (if I do say so) funny. Sometimes the sex is front and center, and sometimes, as in our book, it’s treated pretty subtly. While the two protagonists are most definitely hot for each other, they’re equally hot for their dream job—a situation that creates conflict between them. And they’re involved in their communities, in their families, in their friendships.

Just like any genre, we’re allowed more than one note, and we embrace the entire symphony. As others come aboard, the genre will continue to flourish as an offshoot of the desires of its readership. To me, that’s so exciting! Not just for authors working in this genre but for all authors, who may yet find themselves on the cusp of a brave new era of publishing.

The next genre may be a new type of thriller or a new form of literary novel. Whatever it is, I’m going to welcome it for providing new challenges and new opportunities. It may not be a genre that speaks to me, but somewhere a writer will kick out the sides of the box and create something new. And in that new space will be room for more writers and more successes—always, in my mind, the best of all possible worlds.

Do you (or have you thought about) writing new adult fiction? How about another new genre? What genres do you see as emerging in today’s changing publishing landscape?

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Comments

  1. says

    Lorin,
    So nice to see you here! As someone who has grappled with the genre issue, I love what you say here about an expansion of opportunities. When we have a story to tell, it doesn’t come nearly packaged to fit into a slot. The pressure to make it fit can produce anxiety, or even do damage to a story line. So I’m all for expansion of the boundaries. And to the notion that a good story, well told, will always find its way.
    Thanks for an upbeat post!

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  2. Lisa says

    Thank you for pushing this new writing category outside of our attempts to box it. I have read only a little about new adult and automatically slotted it into a genre I probably won’t write. Your article pushes me to think beyond automatic response, to remain inquisitive, to question assumptions.

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  3. says

    As always, Lorin, you are so insightful and wise. No one better to carry the banner for New Anything! You are the proof that good writing carries the day.

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  4. says

    I’m starting to think everyone is too concerned about genres. Sure, they help marketing people, but, as writers, isn’t it fun to branch out and create something that blends many elements? From the writing standpoint, stories are just stories, right?

    I agree with you, Lori. You are definitely allowed to follow more than one note. Best of luck with your work

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  5. says

    “Every other day, there seems to be an op-ed about whether adults should be ashamed to read young adult fiction…”

    These kind of opinions have really been bothering me. I don’t like categories in general in life and especially when it’s passing judgment on what I (or anyone) can/should read or write. I haven’t tried NA but I’ve thought about it. And I love your description of publishing that shifts on its plates from time to time… to me that’s what keeps writing (and reading) exciting.

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  6. says

    I have written a new adult novel. And I agree, first relationships are an important plot point. But it is the focus of my novel. Instead, I focus on the search for identity–a mentally challenged new adult in a “normal” world.

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  7. Jeanne Lombardo says

    Thanks for the post on NA Lorin. Happy to see someone address the definition of this emerging genre, though it is clearly a form that has been around forever. (Seems I read a lot of books back in my teens and twenties that fell smack into this category…and that was a while back). While I agree with Susan’s comment above about the dangers of packaging a story to fit neatly into to a generic slot, I see so many editors these days soliciting manuscripts in this genre that it is very helpful to get an informed perspective on it.

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  8. says

    I write for children and have watched with curiosity as the NA genre has become one in its own right. Editors have said that my novels have crossover appeal so this is something I’ve thought about, and whether some of the stories that I’ve thought of as strictly grown-up aren’t really about folks navigating the world on their own.

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  9. says

    I’ve generally seen New Adult as romance. When you research agents who rep NA, all the titles are romance or slight variations of it. I actually have a science fictoon book on submission right now and for a while had been promoting it as Young Adult. Even though there arent heavy romantic elements, one agent turned it down, stating that the age of the protagonist was New Adult and not Young Adult. (She repped YA not NA thats why she mentioned it).

    I’ve been promoting it as NA scifi ever since and been getting more requests , so that must’ve been the problem.

    So I guess what I’m trying to do is break into the unexplored, not-so-popular yet genre of NA scifi. The Cooke Agency is reading the full MS right now so hopefully theyll come back positive :) I’d love to be on the forefront of NA scifi.

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  10. says

    Wonderful post.

    I’m thrilled with the thoughtful way you’ve addressed this topic.
    My debut (Please, Pretty Lights – Booktrope) is being marketed as contemporary women’s/gritty literary fiction even though the protag is 21. Why? The concern was that there wasn’t enough sex to satisfy the New Adult distinction.

    I love writing about characters in their early 20s. I hope to carve out a place for my work in the months and years ahead. No doubt, the readers are there.

    I appreciate your post and look forward to reading boomerang.

    Ina Zajac
    Seattle

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    • says

      I’m having similar issues with my debut. I wrote it because I love what’s going on with NA now, but I also thought the genre had some room to expand. For example, mine has speculative elements. I’m hoping that the fact that it’s a little different is a good thing (and my agent and editor seem to think that), but there is also a set expectation that NA readers come in with. Will they be OK with my limited sex scenes? Will they go along with the sci-fi stuff? Will they like my sometimes odd sense of humor?

      Who knows? But it will be exciting, both as a reader and a writer, to see what the future holds for new adult books.

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  11. says

    When you look at the books that defined the New Adult genre, you can see how it earned its reputation as “smutty YA.” The heroines tend to be pretty college coeds damaged by traumatic pasts who, instead of growing up and learning to stand on their own two feet, are “healed” by falling into the strong arms of an equally pretty and damaged young man. Basically, New Adult emerged as a sub-genre of romance about people in extended adolescence, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.

    Genres are only labels meant to match a book with the right readers. If readers think New Adult is smutty YA, then that’s what it is–if you write something that isn’t smutty YA and label it New Adult, people who like smutty YA will be disappointed and people who hate smutty YA won’t give it a chance. Instead of trying to redefine New Adult to mean what we wish it meant, it’s more sensible to find a different category that better fits our work.

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    • says

      Tamara–
      I’m with you in all you say. I especially like your tactful use of “extended adolescence” to describe the characters in New Adult fiction. I read recently that 40% of the market for Young Adult novels (and no doubt for New Adult) is made up of adult adults. If we’re inclined (as you are) to think in tactful terms, this is just another change in the ever-shifting tastes of readers. If we’re not all that concerned with tact, we might describe it in terms of arrested development. But this is a moot point. Publishers have latched on to a good thing, and Lorin Oberweger and Veronica Rossi have perfect timing. Lorin titles her post “Oh brave new (adult) world.” Given the nature of the world Aldus Huxley created in his novel, her choice couldn’t have been better.

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    • says

      I don’t see Colleeen Hoover, one of the pinnacle writers in the genre, as anything like this. I think there is a lot of variety. I just read Flat Out Love, Jessica Park, and it’s a sweet story with very little sex. Also a widely popular book.

      There is a ton of variety. I think we as writers have to be careful of perpetuating the stereotype.

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    • says

      I have to weigh in on this because like all genres, there is a wide range of New Adult and to label them all “Smutty YA” isn’t really accurate. A good story is a good story and it’s that simple. New Adult novels are about adults . . . some are about characters who aren’t in extended adolescence. They are about people new to the world, struggling to find themselves and they also aren’t all pretty damaged college coeds. Again, I feel you’re creating a stereotype.

      When it boils down to it, a great story is a great story. It’s about the characters and the world and what their goals are . . . and it’s not always to be SAVED. There are great NA books out there about strong, intelligent women.

      Is there “SMUTTY YA” out there? Hell, yes, but there’s smart stuff out there too. That’s like saying there are dragons and evil queens in every fantasy novel. Just not so. :)

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  12. says

    This is one contribution of self-publishing, IMHO–writers have the freedom to invent or explore new genres without worrying about earning out or meeting pundits’ expectations. Fortunately, it seems readers are willing to follow authors out of the box.

    As for the NA niche, since it’s only a few years old, I find it hard to believe its boundaries are cast in stone. Will we need a new vocabulary or tags to communicate books with protagonists of a particular age in stories which aren’t focused on the first sexual relationship? Perhaps. But how exciting!

    In regards to your book, the premise sounds engaging. Congrats on selling on proposal. Looking forward to reading it.

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  13. Bronwen Jones says

    Thank you for the interesting – and helpful – insights, Lorin dear.

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  14. says

    Thanks for the insightful comments, one and all!

    I think it’s important to both understand the origins of a genre, the needs of the readership that drive its inception (or reemergence), AND to give oneself permission to think outside of the genre box, to push at the sides a bit, as mentioned. Or to kick them flat, entirely.

    The books that were produced in the early days of science fiction are very different than the books produced in that genre now. Not just because times have changed but because people kept pushing at those walls.

    The romance novels that were known as “bodice rippers” have expanded to include an incredibly wide range of stories and sensibilities. Literary fiction now encompasses a great many more elements from commercial genres than used to be the case.

    Publishing shifts and changes, expands and contracts. My hope is that instead of viewing any genre or book in monolithic terms, we might ask ourselves WHY that book or genre might be on a current ascent. What need does it suggest on the part of a readership?

    If that’s a readership we have no interest in engaging, then we’re under no obligation, at all, to try to reach it. If it is a readership that interests us, if the popularity of a book or genre says something to US, compels us in our own work, then I hope we’ll feel emboldened enough to try it for ourselves, even if we do it in a way that’s slightly (or very) different from what’s out there already.

    Assuming a genre’s readership has only one driving interest undersells that readership and makes for, I think, a lot of missed opportunities. Readers, because they’re people, are not a giant hive mind–at least not in my view of humanity!

    I’m encouraged to see people in the comments section who are working on all kinds of projects to reach this readership. And I love when people do that in any genre.

    I don’t pretend that genre, as a way to encapsulate a story and reach a ready-built audience, is important. But I see example after example of hard-to-classify books or books that defy genre expectations but are still embraced by readers of that genre.

    Personally, I’m happy for all of it, and I celebrate the success of any writer in gaining an enthusiastic following as a success for all writers. In my couple of decades in the industry, I’ve seen that borne out time and again, and I think that’s still the case today.

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  15. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Lorin! I am a new adult writer, and I agree with all you’ve said.

    Only I’d like to add one thing: NA isn’t a genre. NA is an age group, a target market. Just as MG targets middle grade kids and YA targets young adults ages 13-18, NA focuses on the period of change 18-28.

    New adult books can and do fall within many genres: thriller, romance, suspense, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. It’s just that, right now, marketing to this target market is quite new, and we’re seeing an influx of limited genres. Give it time – it’s barely blooming.

    It wasn’t that long ago the average person would say, “what the heck is YA?”

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  16. says

    Nice post, Lorin.

    Seems to me that any genre either grows and evolves in a healthy way, or falls quickly into a pattern of imitation and over publishing, which kills it.

    Murder mysteries, espionage thrillers, romance, romantic suspense, fantasy and others all have evolved, changing with changing times. They find new readers because they find new relevance and are refreshed by innovative new authors.

    Cyberpunk, supernatural horror (Eighties style), time-travel romance, chiclit and others have not achieved a similar durability. So many piled on the bandwagon that it broke down, except perhaps for a few authors (e.g., William Gibson, Diana Gabaldon) who generally started the story format in the first place and bring to their work more than most.

    The difference to me, then, is not the genre but the authors who write it. Write to fulfill market expectations, cleave to genre rules or just to get contracts and, sure, any form of fiction will quickly grow stale. That’s what worries me a little about New Adult. As Tamara said above…

    “The heroines tend to be pretty college coeds damaged by traumatic pasts who, instead of growing up and learning to stand on their own two feet, are “healed” by falling into the strong arms of an equally pretty and damaged young man.”

    Yeah, I’ve read that story. Too. Many. Times. And, count on it, in the same “voice”, or rather alternating chapter first-person voices.

    The challenge, as with all types of fiction, is to find the ways to make a story format uniquely one’s own, to say something different and do so in ways that are satisfying while not safe, compelling while not complacent.

    But I think that’s what you’re saying above, Lorin. You and I like to disagree, I sometimes think, and someday we may actually find something we disagree about!

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