When I was trying to find a literary agent, there was one number I obsessed with: word count. Blogs, writers’ conferences, online message boards, everyone said the same thing—if your word count is too high, you’re book will not sell. So I cut and cut and shifted my book around until I got it…well, still substantially longer than the recommended word count for a debut fantasy novel, but close enough that I hoped I’d have a chance.
Turns out the whole time, I was worrying about the wrong number.
I got an agent, and from there submitted by book to publishers. Turns out, agents and editors are actually willing to work with you on a lot of things I thought were set in stone—including word count—if they think the “writing is strong.” But there is (or so I was told) one thing that is set in stone.
The feedback I got from the Big 6 was basically—can you do the same book, except make all your main characters one age the whole time?
I was a little perplexed. After all, the first book I wrote was supposed to be about growing up and the loss of childhood innocence. It was styled after Slumdog Millionaire, the Kite Runner, Ender’s Game, Game of Thrones—works with protagonists who are, at least at some point in the text, children. The second was about a father-daughter relationship, and the respective ages of the two protagonists were…kind of the point.
But my agent’s premise was simple: people only want to read about people their own age. Adults read about adults. Children read about children. Teenagers read YA.
To which I say—bullshit. I mean, at least I hope it’s bullshit. I suppose it’s possible we entered some dystopian future where the generational divide is much, much more serious than I thought and I just didn’t realize it.
When I was a teenager, my personal hero was a 90-year-old dark elf. When I was a kid, I was enamored of Bartimaeus, a snarky, very worldly, 1,000-year-old djinn. Now that I’m an adult, I recently finished Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life (an excellent, nostalgic look at childhood) and Song of Achilles (the protagonist is a teenager for most of the book, but it’s hard to argue it’s not targeted at adults—and targeted successfully, considering it’s a New York Times bestseller).
It’s possible that I’m just a deviant weirdo, or it’s possible that fantasy publishing companies vastly underestimate their readers’ powers of empathy. Yes, I say fantasy publishing companies, specifically, because in what’s known in the industry as “literary” fiction (or even, come to think of it, in historical fiction) adult-marketed books feature child or teenage protagonists all the time.
Isn’t the very point of reading a book to see the perspective of people who aren’t like us? Doesn’t the smashing success of Game of Thrones (Arya: child protagonist, fan-favorite; Jon and Danaerys (or however you spell it), teenage protagonists; Sansa, child and teenage protagonist) kind of undercut the whole idea that that an adult reader will pick up a book, see a child and think to themselves: oh, well, this book of warfare and political intrigue and such must not be for me cause, y’know—there’s icky cheeeldren involved?
I get it. It’s a scary time for the book publishing industry. Money is tight, risk is terrifying, and selling books about teens to teens, children to children—it feels cozy. It feels safe. But I protest the notion that fantasy, as a genre, has to be constrained in this way, while lit fic and historical fic do not. Fantasy, in an ideal world, is about imagination, about the freedom to dream of other worlds, of heroes and villains and conflicts that are larger than life.
Just, you know…leave those darned children out of it.
Then again, I just remembered Mark Lawrence’s recently-published book Red Sister, an adult fantasy novel featuring a child protagonist…and now I’m just confused. It’s quite possible my agent was just plain wrong. I certainly hope so. If not, then I hope this is just a passing trend—like those days when all the big movie studios were so sure that action or superhero movies about women and black people would never sell (spoiler: they would, if you do them right). I hope that some day, the wall will be torn down and the line between “genre” and “literary” fiction will be erased and what’s good for one will be just as good in the other. ‘Cause I’m a sucker for these sorts of coming-of-age stories and I want more of them, please.
Anyway, if this long rambling rant has one take-away, I suppose it’s this: if an advance from a Big 6 Publisher is your dream, worry less about the length of your book and more about the age of your hero.