The week’s blog is by author James Ryan Daley, whose YA murder mystery, Jesus Jackson, was published last week by the Poisoned Pencil. James gives his thoughts on his evolution toward the young adult genre, and why he feels it offers the greatest level of  freedom for a writer. A concept with which we at the Pencil heartily agree!

I have a confession to make: When I first started writing Jesus Jackson, I was not in any way planning on writing a Young Adult novel. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even think I knew that “Young Adult” was a type of novel that one could write. After all, this was back in 2007, and as far as I was aware, the only books that teenagers actually read were sexy vampire novels and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now don’t get me wrong: Jesus Jackson was then (as it is now) a story about a teenager. And certainly, I always wanted teenagers to read it. I just never imagined that a murder mystery about an atheist who spends more time questioning religion than suspects would ever be published specifically for teenagers. At least not unless I added some werewolves.

Cover of Jesus Jackson

Jesus Jackson by James Ryan Daley

Fast forward two years, and I find myself with a completed manuscript, attending a query workshop to learn all about how to pitch my novel and actually get it published. When it was my turn to share, I delivered the pitch I had prepared, which included some vague sentence about how the audience for the book would be fans of literary mysteries, or something like that. Well, as soon as I finished, there was an immediate consensus that Jesus Jackson should “definitely be pitched as YA,” because, among other reasons, YA is “so hot” right now, and the adult audience for a novel about a teenager is basically zero.

Needless to say, by the end that workshop I was fairly well convinced that if I ever wanted to see Jesus Jackson in print, I would have to rethink my pitch, and try to publish it as YA.

I was more than a little worried by this whole situation. After all, I wasn’t even 24 hours into the process of trying to get myself published, and I already had to choose between selling out to the sexy vampires, or never selling a book.

Thankfully, my wife had a far more rational take on the situation than I did. Her perspective was basically this: Who cares what shelf they put it on? The book was the book. It was a good book, and I was proud of what I had written. That was all that mattered.

She was right, of course (she usually is), and I decided to go for it. As it turned out, one of the workshop leaders was an agent who represented YA authors, and she was more than happy to consider my manuscript.  So I sent it to her, she read it, and while she genuinely seemed to like it, she had decided to turn it down.

Why? Well, she was hoping it that it would be “more YA.”

The agent suggested that I read some John Green and Jay Asher (neither of whom I had ever heard of before) and try revising Jesus Jackson with the YA market in mind. While the revisions she suggested were a bit more extensive than I was prepared to take on, I did take her advice about the reading. I went out the next day and bought John Green’s Paper Towns.

Paper Towns really turned my entire perspective around. First of all, here was a novel that was decidedly “young” and yet contained, by my count, zero sexy vampires. More than that: it was smart. Really smart.  I’ve never been the type of reader who can just breeze through a cozy mystery, carried along by a sufficiently suspenseful plot. If a book doesn’t at least try to make statement–if it doesn’t make me think about life or society or the human condition, or something, in a meaningful way, I won’t even finish it. Paper Towns showed me that books like this were being written and published for teenagers.

So I kept going. I read all of the smart, contemporary YA I could find, and reread all the books that I loved as a teenager (before they started calling them YA), and quickly realized that the only real difference between a great YA novel and a great novel of any other genre is the age of the protagonist. Sure, people will tell you that YA “needs to be” this or that, but for every rule you hear, you’ll find 10 great YA novels that break it with impunity.

So I began to revise. Not because I felt like I needed to make Jesus Jackson “more YA” or “less adult” but because reading the best of what YA had to offer inspired me to make it a better book. You see, while YA doesn’t require anything other than a teenaged protagonist, it does allow for a certain kind of freedom that I simply haven’t found in any other genre, at least as a writer. With YA, I feel like I can write a book that aims to be smart, intimate, thoughtful, and literary, without being afraid to incorporate the best aspects of Mystery, Thriller, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy. Sure, you can find great examples of meaty, interesting books in every genre, but for me, at least, Young Adult is the place where writers are pushing the boundaries and creating these types of exceptional books now.  And that’s very exciting.

So yeah: I’m not worried anymore. Bloggers can prattle on about what YA is or isn’t doing to the book world, agents can insist that manuscripts need this or that to make them “really” YA, and publishers can require their new titles to contain whatever quantity of sexy vampires they think will sell the most books. At the end of the day, it won’t change the fact that YA is getting people excited to read again. And I’m just excited to be writing YA.