I often get queries that state plainly, "I'm writing to you because I know you enjoy crossover YA and I think my story is perfect for you." Yes, it is true I prefer my YA to be more enjoyed by more than just teens, but I noticed that many of the eager writers are missing the point when submitting their crossover manuscripts. Like with most things, there is no "one ultimate rule" when defining what makes crossover YA. There are, however, many traps writers set for themselves when trying to write in this style. As a fan of the genre when it's done right, I'm hoping to debunk the spiral of lies that writers often fall into so that the wide definition of Crossover becomes a little more narrow.
Crossover YA Means Older Teen/Younger Adult Characters:
Having a college-aged main character or a senior in high school who find him-or-herself in "adult situations" can mean that older readers will latch onto your story. Though, for the most part, having an older character, in my opinion, can do your YA a disservice. By focusing too much on having the age of the characters match that of your intended audience, you not only risk alienating a wider audience, but you could also lose focus on the story you want to tell vs. the story you think you should tell. Writing what you want should always take precedent. Worry about where characters' ages fall later.(This is also true in deciding on Middle Grade vs. Young Adult.)
But Adults Won't Read Books With Narrators/MCs Under 14:
Tell that to J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Orson Scott Card - to name a few. While J.K. is the only one on that list to have a "true YA premise," the others have proven that just because a character's voice hasn't yet changed doesn't mean it can't still resonate with the big kids.
OK, but back to this "true YA premise" - Won't that alienate adult readers?
Fair point. I'll return to the Harry Potter example from above. Tell the average grown-up that you're reading a book about eleven-year-old wizards who attend a magic school and regularly encounter giants, unicorns, and dragons, and they will probably say, "That's nice, Junior; now go run along and play." Tell the same person you're reading a book about three friends who work together to battle a force of evil responsible for the deaths of the main character's parents, and they might be more inclined to take you seriously. Adjust the general plot for the more fantasy-minded reader, and you have a book they won't want to put down, regardless of age. In other words, a great story is a great story. What a reader chooses to take from isn't always what the author writes intentionally.
My Main Characters Takes a Bunch of Illegal Drugs, Has Sex With Four Different People, and then Murders Someone Within the 1st Thirty Pages. Not exactly the stuff YA is made of.
How old is this drug-taking nympho murderer? Who was murdered and why? Does another teen have to solve the case? Is there a lengthy and potentially boring-for-teens trial? Will the main character learn something about him-or-herself by the end?
The answers to these questions will help you decide which age group this falls under, but never assume that something can't be YA just because of content. There are always contributing factors that make it go one way or another.
A Book Without an Target Reader in Mind Won't Sell
According to my query pile, writers seem very concerned about which section of a bookstore their work will be displayed. I completely understand why writers of crossover YA would be concerned about this. That said, it should in no way effect how you approach writing your novel. Sometimes you will find that given then story you created, the only logical age your characters can be is around nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one. Where they end up in a bookstore, in these cases, is dependent on the nature of the writing and the plot.
So that means I should, like, make my characters talk all YA, even though the plot is epic and totally more appealing and appropriate for people, like, way older?
No. Your characters need to make sense given the situations they are in and the tone you are trying to master. If a teenager is in an adult situation that can only be an adult situation, write their character accordingly.
Fine. But what if my freshman-in-college protagonist and her senior-in-college boyfriend go on a road trip in search of the mother she thought she lost in Katrina, but when they arrive in New Orleans, the only thing they find is... themselves.
Other than having an overly sentimental cliche on your hands, I'd say you have a perfect example of "either/or." In this case, use your instincts. I've given advice to make a character younger or older based on the plot and writing style. Likewise, I've had writers tweak their plot to better suit a younger audience. These minor changes are inevitable when you have this type of novel. But, for the most part, the minor changes are never deal-breakers.
So, what you're saying is I should just write my story and stop freaking out that it's not YA enough or too YA?
Right. Be mindful of a potential audience, keep your story in keeping with the characters, and let the characters adapt to the plot in a way their ages and life experiences would realistically allow. But don't get wrapped up in who's going to read it. Just focus on the story you want to tell.
This, of course, is all easier said than done. The best way to avoid the spiral is to remember to trust your reader while writing, and then trust your agent and editor while trying to publish. Mostly though - trust yourself as a writer to get across what you want to say to the people you want to say it without even trying :)