A ‘New Adult’ Dilemma

This past week, I dived into a new novel. I did my preliminary research, sketched a rough outline, sketched more detailed character outlines, and started writing. While at first my idea seemed great and my characters awesome, I hit a rather large snafu less than 15, 000 words in. So today I present myself as Exhibit A – the writer with a story dilemma.

When working on a new project I usually work on characters and plot concurrently. This way I can create characters that both serve and thwart the goals of the plot. Part of that character creation involves several key choices like gender, view of the world and age.

I was all for writing another upper YA story with my main characters just hanging onto teenagehood at the ages of 18 and 19. Given that my initial premise started out with something like:

A YA Jason Bourne! And aliens! And then, like, snow and Russia and super awesome secret spy stuff!!

I immediately ran into a few problems.

1) Super awesome secret spy stuff doesn’t usually happen when you’re a teenager – I checked the CIA recruitment procedures. From those, I gather there aren’t too many 18 year olds currently involved in covert ops.

2) I wanted my characters to have baggage, to have a history, to have physical and emotional scars, to be battle hardened – while teens can and do have all of this, the intensity required to satisfy me and my story just wasn’t happening for an 18 year old.

3) Whenever my main characters shared a scene they tended to resort to four letter words or wanting to tear each other’s clothes off. (I take no responsibility what-so-ever for this behaviour)

In short, the voice of my characters seemed better suited to someone older, someone more cynical, someone who’d lived a little and been around the proverbial block. A teen just wasn’t going to hack it. So I started reading more about ‘New Adult’ fiction. There is a fantastic site called NA Alley where you can read all about new adult, what it is and what it isn’t over here. “Yay!” I thought. “I can write my story with 20-30 somethings, let them swear and cavort, let them indulge their cynicism and nihilistic tendencies, slap on the New Adult tag and be golden.


The more I think about what it really means to be a 20something new adult the more I realise that a story written for this age group, regardless of genre, needs to include certain tropes the same way YA across genres includes certain archetypes and themes. The age of the protagonist is immaterial. What makes a story ‘new adult’ (and I speak from experience here being a 20something myself) would be:

1) Existential crisis mode – “This is not how I thought my life would turn out when I had everything planned perfectly at 16.” “This is not who I’m meant to be, want to be, need to be.” “Oh my god, I’m almost thirty, why I haven’t I done something more with my life?” “What the hell am I doing here?”

2) Relationships are vital. It’s a time when we tend to transition from teen romance to serious ‘forever’ type relationships via the random hook-up phase. (This is perhaps why romance seems to be the trendy genre for new adult at the moment)

3) The honour/mantle/burden/yoke/shackles of new found responsibility like paying tax and doing your own laundry and realising that unless you wash your own dishes they’re just going to stay there because Mom isn’t around to pick up after you any more.

I could go on but I’m going to leave the list at three because I consider these the defining characteristics of a ‘new adult.’ So why is my story failing at being new adult? Because despite them being of the right age, nothing else about them is ‘new adult,’ which brings me to a cross-roads of sorts while my story stagnates at 15k words.

  • Do I continue with the story as is and worry about categories later?
  • Do I tweak the current characters to fit the YA or NA paradigm?
  • Do I tweak the premise to allow for more teen angst or post-teen crises?
  • Do I ditch the project altogether and go back to the drawing board?

I don’t know how to solve my WIP problem just yet but what I do know is that just because you make a character a teen or 20something, doesn’t automatically guarantee the book being YA or NA. I’ve learned an important lesson this week as a writer, one I hadn’t fully grasped up until now, which is why dilemmas are good and why even us published writers shouldn’t be afraid to admit when we don’t know something or get something wrong, because how else are we meant to learn?

Have you read/written any NA? What are your thoughts on this age group?

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  • Just keep writing and don’t worry about labels until marketing (or at all). NA is still new enough that I really see it as somewhere in between teen and adult, literally, so the sky is almost the limit.

    Flight (my book out in April) was originally YA, but my characters were too mature, the situations too “adult”, the world a little too hard, so I changed their ages to where they really were in my head. An Ace agent in a future underground world really wouldn’t be only 17, after all. Add that all characters live on their own, drink, swear, etc, influenced this as well.

    When I was querying, I still queried this as YA (NA wasn’t a thing yet). Now I would call it NA. I think that the elements you’re having trouble with are due to a category, and that New Adult doesn’t mean they have to be fresh out of the nest.

    If you think about how drastically life changes each year in your 20s, the stress of real life becomes normal fairly quickly. A 23 year old character would realistically be used to taxes and laundry and less parental support, because it’s been 4 or so years since they were a teen (unless they were overly pampered).

    Having read the first chapter and loving it, I say keep writing. Write your characters how they want to come out, and worry about tropes later. NA is a category for experimenting, imo, and such a great market to write for, as you get the awesomeness of YA with a touch more maturity and badassery.

    Hope this helps, and if in doubt, just Keep Writing! <3

    • Suzanne_Writer

      Thank you for such an encouraging response. I am in doubt and I will keep writing but I think I might need to change a few things and that’s ok too.

      Wishing you all the best with your writerly endeavours! 🙂

  • T.L. Bodine

    Thanks for the insight about NA. Reading that list, it makes me think that I should make Adrian about 10 years younger and market Tagestraum as New Adult. Thematically, I think that fits just dandy.

    As for your dilemma: I say, just keep going and see what happens! Then again, that’s how I ended up in the dilemma of having books that are sitting weirdly outside of genre conventions and are impossible to market, so maybe that’s a bad idea.

    Second suggestion: Put it in space! Everything’s better in space. Or the future. Or some kind of alternate history wherein you CAN be a super spy as a teenager. Make up your own rules, you rebel you.

    • Suzanne_Writer

      Your second suggestion is currently where I’m at 😉 Thank you for the encouragement and all the best with your own novels.

  • Charley Daveler

    I am experiencing the same problem, except, for me, it has nothing to do with the age of the characters. (I write primarily in alternate, not-ours universes, so I can get away with only implying what age they are.) I write things that tend to have elements fitting to Young Adult. Makes sense, as that’s what I like to read. My problem is, however, that I also don’t like being limited to “appropriate” subjects, although I’ve come to find that many of the Young Adult books I read aren’t actually THAT limited. Mostly though, I am sick of being told my vocabulary is too hard, and I have too many questions for someone of the texting/emailing attention span.

    I need to clarify that “too many questions,” can mean not knowing why they’re doing something for ONE WHOLE page at the beginning of a book. When I start a criticism session with the explanation it’s not Young Adult, no one has a problem.

    I personally would like to see trends of Young Adult books filter more fully into adult books because I do like reading those concepts but I hate to be talked down to.

    I’ve never heard of New Adult before, and it seems that one of my books actually does fit into it, themes and all. So thanks for the post!

    • Suzanne_Writer

      My pleasure!

      I dislike YA books that talk down to their audience. I find that condescending and unnecessary. Too many people underestimate teen readers, what they can handle and the sort of prose they enjoy reading.

      Happy writing!