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What Is New Adult Fiction?

Agents, reviewers, and readers alike tend to look for similar bits of information when deciding whether or not to pick up an author's work. This may include the elevator pitch (a brief overview of the story and its characters), length, genre, and category.

Genres and categories are often used interchangeably, but doing so is mishandling these terms. One is not a substitute for the other.

A book's genre pertains to the type of story it is, such as mystery or fantasy, whereas the category indicates the age of the intended reader, such as Young Adult or Adult. They are used concurrently, hence why you'll often encounter Young Adult Fantasy and Middle-Grade Sci-Fi. This tells us what kind of work it is and who it is most likely to be in the target audience.

And just as some books cannot fit into a single genre, some books may fall between categories.

Such is the case for New Adult fiction.

New Adult fiction is fairly new to the scene, coming into greater recognition over the past decade or so. The term itself was first coined by St. Martin's Press back in 2009.

New Adult helps bridge the gap between Young Adult written primarily for early-to-mid teens and more mature content. These books feature main characters in late adolescence to early adulthood confronted by difficulties and milestones faced often at that age.

I more or less consider my historical romances to be straddling the line between New Adult and Adult, but tend to just tell people I write Adult fiction because it can be challenging to explain the differences between the two without going into depth. Part of this has to do with New Adult being widely considered a subset of Adult fiction instead of being able to stand on its own like Young Adult.

What makes a book New Adult, not Young Adult or just plain old Adult?

Perhaps the first and greatest indication of a book's category is the age of its reader. When we include the category in queries or promotional material, we do so to give prospective audiences a sense of if the work would be suitable for their tastes.

Characters in Children's books, for example, experience the feelings and problems their readers likely face in their own lives, like the first day at a new school or becoming a big brother or sister. The lessons learned are essential to growing up.

They're also written with kids in mind, using simpler language and occasionally rhyme schemes.

These books are in the children's category because they are written with children in mind.

The same can be said for Young Adult fiction, which is generally geared towards readers in their early-to-mid teens. Here, adolescence is at the heart of the story. Themes dealt with can include your first romantic relationship, friendships being tested and changing, or starting to figure out who you are and what you want in life.

Adult fiction is where the dam bursts. Here, you're just as likely to find books about characters getting married and starting families as you are to see characters get divorced and have to fight for custody of their children. Darker themes might crop up. Sexual content may be far more explicit. Details can get more gritty and visceral. Characters might be experiencing a mid-life crisis or nearing the end of their lives. After all, adulthood is essentially considered ages 18 and beyond. That's quite a few decades to cover as opposed to the handful of years in the realm of YA!

But what about audiences who may no longer connect as strongly to 16-year-old protagonists but may feel daunted by conflicts a 30-something is facing? Those who are just getting their footing in the "real world" and are still figuring things out for themselves?

That's where New Adult comes in.

Readers of New Adult tend to be between the ages of 18 to their early or mid-twenties, and stories in this category reflect that. Characters may be college students facing everything that comes with that, starting their career or an internship, exploring their identity, experiencing a serious relationship, or coming into their own as newly-minted adults.

New Adult creates a bridge between adolescent themes and more mature ones. By delving into topics that readers between these categories are likely to experience, it allows them to see themselves in the work the way a five-year-old might see themselves in a character worried about the first day of kindergarten. It can assure them that whatever they are going through is normal and that they are not alone in it, something that often draws readers to books.

Representation is important in fiction, and age is no exception.

The age of a story's characters can also determine which category it fits into. Children's books tend to feature child protagonists, whereas adults grapple with more mature themes and Young Adult revolves around characters typically 16 or 17 years old.

Character ages are not as definitive of a book's category as the age of the intended reader is.

You can have Adult books in which the main cast or narrator are children, as is the case with It and Room. Both handle mature topics you wouldn't find in Children's books but are centered around or told from the POV of kids.

In other words, the age of a character tends to align with the ages of the category's anticipated readership but it's not a requirement.

That said, New Adult feels like a category in which age does matter.

The themes and conflicts explored in New Adult books are more frequently encountered by, well, new adults. People who are college aged and experiencing life as a college student or a recent college grad if they choose to pursue academic past high school, or going through things one might upon entering the workforce.

We've all heard of child prodegies taking college-level courses or older adults going back to the classroom later in life, but those stories are likely different when compared to those about 18-20 somethings. The New Adult experience is exactly that: the experience of people new to adulthood.

The main characters of a New Adult story, therefore, ought to be around that age.

New Adult addresses topics differently than Young Adult might. The tone might be darker. Deaths might play out on the page in more detail rather than be alluded to. Characters might swear more often than they would if their book were written for teenagers. Sexual content might be more explicit.

The fact that New Adult is something of a subcategory in Adult makes it tough to determine where a book falls. I think that's why it can be hard for me to explain where I think my own writing fits.

By saying I write historical romance, the assumption is that I write in the Adult category. It's understandable. For so long, the genre has been equated with Adult fiction, in part because New Adult has only been treated as its own category for a handful of years. The covers I dream of having for my own novels, the ones that look almost like portraits that features the love interests entangled in one another's arms in an almost-embrace (you know the ones) tend to be associated with an adult readership not specific to any certain age aside from 18+.

But my characters tend to be in their twenties; the eldest protagonist as of writing this is William from Against His Vows, who has just turned 30 in the opening chapter. Their conflicts and experiences, like first serious romances and determining where they fit into society, feel closer to being New Adult. They're still dealing with the expectations of their parents, careers, and making sense of the "real" world once the veil of adolescence has been pulled away.

They're still establishing themselves.

Frankly, the only thing that makes me call my WIPs staight-up Adult fiction rather than New Adult is the depiction of sex as opposed to fading to black or skimming over the majority of the steamy details.

New Adult fiction toes a blurred line between Adult and Young Adult. As the category continues to emerge and evolve, readers will have a better understanding of what it is.

And honestly? That's pretty fitting for New Adult fiction!



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