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The Nuance of New Adult Fiction: Mastering Genre When You Write

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How do you know your genre when your genre is still emerging? We talked to NY Books Editor Kiele Raymond who has expertise in learning a genre--fast. While at Simon & Schuster Raymond worked on a number of novels in the fast-emerging new adult category, including bestsellers by authors like A. Meredith Walters and J.M. Darhower. She explained why it's key for genre authors to trust their instincts as readers, and to work on crafting compelling backstories for their central characters.

New Adult is a very young sub genre.

It is. I would say that the label has existed for a little over five years now. It had just begun to gain traction when I started out at Simon & Schuster, and came up more and more in editorial discussions throughout my tenure there.

Kiele Raymond

Why do you think it came into being?

There are a few reasons. First off, the success of series like Twilight and the Hunger Games made it clear that protagonists on the brink of adulthood can draw a much broader readership than previously thought. Also, fiction often follows hot on the heels of real life. In the wake of the recession, there were more and more stories popping up of recent college graduates and young professionals facing crises of identity.

The term “adulting” entered the common parlance to acknowledge the fact that adulthood in many ways needs to be earned. More readers began to take solace in the narratives surrounding those difficult and complex rites of passage--leaving home, navigating college, first jobs, relationships (both romances and friendships).

How did you get into editing new adult novels?

I came up as a fiction editor at Gallery, an imprint at Simon & Schuster, where a lot of revolutionary publishing was going on, both in terms of seeking out talent in the self-publishing realm and identifying voices that explored new emotional territory like new adulthood. I worked alongside editors who acquired the likes of Katy Evans (a pioneer of the genre) and Babe Walker. I was also a new adult myself, reading a lot of J. Courtney Sullivan and Meg Wolitzer. It simply followed that I would want to immerse myself in more writing that lent nuance to the challenges that make up this period of life.

Are there persistent misconceptions about what new adult is? If so, what?

People often assume that the term refers to a set audience or target market. Sure, the protagonists tend to be 18-30 year old women, but that doesn’t mean the appeal is limited to that demographic. Young readers (especially those ready to leave behind adolescence) want to know what’s coming. Older readers want to remember their own misadventures and gain insight into their future “adulting” endeavors. Because who can say when it really ends?

Some people feel that lumping books into categories, and then sub-categories, can be reductive. But publishers feel genre and sub-genre tags are essential for marketing books. How aware do writers need to be about the definitions and rules of these genres ... especially if they're working in them?

There is an inherent paradox in the marketing of any book that in-house editors struggle with every day: how do you make a title instantly recognizable while also insisting on its uniqueness? Booksellers and readers need a point of reference in order to commit, but also want utterly fresh material.

My advice to authors is to write the book you want to write, and then trust a professional to spin it in a way that will catch readers’ eyes. Think about your own experiences as a reader. Have you ever loved a book that felt catered to a genre or target audience?

Write the book you want to write, then trust a professional to spin it in a way that will catch readers’ eyes

Given that the genre is so young, is it a disadvantage if a writer goes to pitch their novel to an agent as YA or straight up romance, even if it fits better into the new adult category?

I think any indication that a writer is in touch with the current publishing landscape will work in that writer’s favor. Agents know the term (in fact many explicitly seek out these kinds of submissions), and they know that like any genre, it comes with limitations. Again, trust the professionals. If you’re not sure whether your book would be more appealing as New Adult or YA, you can be honest about that. But show your work! Why do you feel conflicted? A good agent will talk it through with you and help you decide the best way to go.

Speaking of showing your work, as an editor your job is to essentially improve the work you are shown. Have you come across a manuscript that was strong, but lacking something specific you helped the author improve?

I recently worked on two fantastic new adult novels through NY Book Editors. Both manuscripts had all the makings for success, but I knew their authors were holding back on one crucial front: backstory. I find a lot of writers hesitate to catch the reader up on their protagonists, for fear of slowing the pace down with unwieldy tangents. But in order to understand how the main character changes and grows throughout the narrative, we need a clear sense of who they were at its start.

How did you help these authors with their lack of backstory?

It is a very fine line to walk. Readers only need the tip of the iceberg, but they want to trust that the whole iceberg is there. I asked both authors to sketch out a biographical timeline, then we discussed which aspects should rise to the surface, and how. The first book benefited from an entirely new scene in the beginning, where important details came to light through dialogue. The second needed scattered pieces of information revealed through interior monologue.

How did these authors react to your suggestions?

Both were excited to discuss it. I came to know their characters almost as intimately as they did, so they trusted my instincts. In fact, I rarely get much pushback from authors. It’s important to me to offer suggestions that are just the beginning of a conversation. Manuscripts benefit the most from changes that have been conceived by the editor and author together. It’s that in-house experience that I am always striving to replicate.

What advice would you give to other authors who are having issues developing their characters' backstory?

I would always encourage an author to commit a brief outline of their protagonist’s life to paper. It may have been circulating in your head for years, but new information will come to light when you write it down. Then relate that bigger picture to the character’s arc in the narrative. How does their backstory inform their triumphs and missteps? What should the reader predict in their behavior, and what should surprise them?

What have been some of the most successful aspects of the new adult titles you've worked on?

I am always deeply impressed by writing that introduces not only a complex protagonist, but a rich secondary cast of characters. Many of the recurring themes that make up the genre--an uncertain future, increased responsibilities, evolving friendships, feelings of isolation--rely heavily on relationships that double as sounding boards. Convincing new adult characters find many opportunities to opine but not many to listen, and that can make them unreliable narrators. Since they do not yet fully know themselves, it takes a nuanced support network to bring them the self-awareness necessary to grow...and grow up. Do not cut corners on this front!

In general, what do you like about new adult books, as opposed to other types of YA or women’s fiction?

I think the genre introduces important conversations about the evolution of personal identity and, let’s be honest, womanhood. Sure, there are male narratives in this vein, but they are usually considered literary. It’s an unfortunate truth that female authors are more likely to be categorized into sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. Still, the concept of “new adult” draws attention to independent women entering their twenties who are unattached and in pursuit of careers and equal partnerships. What does it look like when a young woman encounters the modern world with more life experience than an adolescent? How does she confront often hostile environments, and carve out a life outside those prescribed for her? We are just starting to tell these stories. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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