November 14, 2019
Throughout my career, I've written for children and for adults. My magazine work covers both. And I have books for kids and books for adults. For me, writing is about freedom. I could never be an athlete no matter how hard I try. I will never be a great artist, even though I love to draw and paint. There are so many boundaries that I can’t cross, even if I wanted to. But I can write, so in this area, I'm not interested in creating boundaries for myself. I go where the journey takes me and I never allow anyone to tell me that I can't try something new. I'm not a "stay in my lane" person.
There are some possible arguments for writing only for kids or only for adults. If your books are primarily trade, it can help sales if fans associate you with a specific sort of writing and know they can always get that from you. But I'm not sure I believe it helps so much that limiting myself is a good idea. After all, Stephen King's books are all over the place in terms of genre, and he's done just fine. And adult writers including James Patterson and John Grisham have written for kids as well as adults. So why should we limit ourselves if we want to try something new? And what are some things to keep in mind if you want to move from writing for kids to writing for adults?
The Issue of the Following Fan
Some writers have asked me if I think they should use a different name for their adult books than they do for their children's books. And I know some writers who have used different names. The argument in favor of using a different name is three-fold. First, it's easier to build platform if the author's name is associated with one thing. Thus the authors simply use a different name when they write something wildly different. Stephen King did this with his Richard Bachman novels (though I never really understood why those novels were considered wildly different, but okay, you do you, SK.) The second element in name change can be appropriate content. If you're a picture book writer and you have always wanted to write racy romance, you might worry that your picture book fans (or more specifically your picture-book-buying parents) will be offended by your foray into erotica. And if you're a children's author who does school visits, it can result in cancellations if the "powers that be" discover you also write erotica. So for authors in that situation, building a wall between kid books and adults books makes sense. The third leg of this argument has to do with sales. If your kids’ books have had only mediocre sales, it might actually be difficult to get your adult book sold, because the albatross of poor sales hangs around your neck. So writing in a new name sometimes helps lift that stigma of being an author whose books sell okay, but not great. All of these reasons for using a different name have merit, but there are also reasons for keeping your same name.
Remember that writing different books under different names will mean your name recognition is going to be diluted every time. Where you once only had one name to try to build platform for, you now have two or three or however many names you use as you hop from audience to audience. This can complicate your life considerably. Also, it's hard for an author's "secret identity" to last very well in these information-rich times. So there's every chance your cover will be blown and whatever you were trying to do with your new name will be moot. One answer, of course, is not to write picture books and erotica. But if you decide you don't want that restriction, know that pseudonyms are not a hugely successful answer these days.
What's the Difference Anyway?
Suppose you write middle-grade spooky novels and you want to write some adult spooky novels (as R.L.Stine did). Since you’re staying in the same genre, more or less, is there much difference between writing the books? Well, yes and no. I've written mysteries for kids and I've written mysteries for adults. Since I write cozy mysteries, I don't have content in the adult books that would offend the parents of the kids who read my children’s books. But there are differences. The big one, of course, is that my cozy mysteries have adult main characters and my kids’ books have kid main characters. That means my adults characters have considerably more power over their lives. They come and go as they like (within the confines of their responsibilities), they drive, they have their own money. These do make some of the mechanics of the story a bit easier. But with it come some hard bits. It's harder to come up with a logical reason why adults don't just call the police, or use their cell phones to get help, or leave the dangerous situation. Because adults do have more life experience and more power, it's harder to avoid making them TSTL (too stupid to live), which is a serious flaw in a mystery novel.
Another thing that may differ with adult novels is the lack of a "coming of age" element. Many kid and young adult novels are basically about growing up. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. It's about coming to see the world with more mature eyes. But often my adult cozy mysteries have an element that is very "coming of age." I write about women who are making changes in their lives. Going on after the death of a spouse. Making a career change. Moving to a new place. So some of the very things that are true of "coming of age" narratives are also true in the books I write. The main characters are seeing the world from a different perspective and accepting new complexities in their lives. They are dealing with responsibility and with family. They are doing many of the things my kid characters are doing. It's different because it's different circumstances, but the roots grow in the same soil.
Now, one thing that is absolutely different is length. When I wrote my first adult cozy mystery of 50,000 words (which is quite short for an adult book), I'd never written anything nearly that long. And creating a plot that could have a decent pacing while still stretching so long was a definite learning experience. Many of the early reviews of those novels talk about pacing, and that was a direct result of my learning to write such a long book. It's a challenge, no doubt about it. But it's one I've seen novelists struggle with all my reading life. I've read many novels where the writer wanders off on side trips that don't serve the plot at all, but certainly increase the word count. Adult writing is often very indulgent, simply because there's all this room to be indulgent in. You can chase rabbits or have characters launch into philosophical discussions unrelated to anything in the book. Those things definitely weaken the book (and could make it harder to sell since you don't have name recognition to help you sell a weak book), but they happen in adult novels published every season.
Children's Writer Strengths
There are things children's writers bring to novels that are definite strengths. Most of us have learned to plot tightly (either by design or through trial and error as we work through the editorial process with publishers). If you have a number of kid's books in print, you probably know the value of paying attention to your words and making them purposeful. You've learned not to pad sentences. You've learned to write directly. You've learned to be clear. You’ve learned to make lively word choices. All those qualities are absolutely vital to being published in kids’ books.
So you're going to carry those things into adult books. Your writing is going to be cleaner. You aren't going to confuse or bore the reader. You're going to push forward so your book shouldn't stall along the way. Those are incredible strengths to take into writing an adult novel. When I wrote my first cozy, I already knew the value of creating a chapter arc that would pull the reader into the next chapter eagerly, because I'd been writing for reluctant readers. I knew how easily a reader can grow bored or want to go do something else. I knew the value of writing that put you clearly in a setting and made use of the senses of the reader, but did it in a way that never slowed down that forward momentum. And I knew the value of humor, because it was so valuable in writing for kids. All the things you've learned as a kids’ writer shouldn't be thrown out the window. They are incredible strengths in writing for adults.
Well, with the exception of some genre publishers, most writing for adults really demands an agent. So if you're wanting to cross over and you don't plan to self-publish, you'll probably need an agent. I don't have one, because the adult writing I do (like the kid writing I do) is work for hire. I write adult novels because a publisher asked me to try one for them. But writing work for hire in adult books pays far, far less than writing for normal trade publishers. Thus, you may want to find an agent. Since you're also a children's writer, you'll need to decide if you want to look for an agent who can handle both your kid books and your adult books, or if you only just want to get an agent to handle your adult books. There are agents who do both, but not nearly as many. Agents tend to specialize because it's easier to build a strong pool of contacts if you specialize.
So if you're thinking of writing for adults as well as kids, I say, "Go for it." There are challenges, sure, but I'm always in favor of facing challenges and clambering over them. It's part of what keeps this job fresh forever.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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