Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.33: Crossover Fiction, with Victoria Schwab

Victoria Schwab, who also writes as V.E. Schwab, joined us in Phoenix to talk about crossover fiction—in this context the term means books that target a given demographic but which have a much broader appeal, or books which straddle the line between age demographics.

We discuss some good crossover examples, and how some of the boundaries work, and then we cover some of the techniques we use when writing crossover works.

Credits: this episode was recorded live at Phoenix Comic Con by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write a story about a book that cannot be read until you are dead.

Thing of the week: Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal, and also narrated by Mary.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Crossover fiction is fiction that has a primary audience and a much larger appeal. E.g. young adult fiction being read by adults, or vice versa. Crossover authors often write multiple genres. Write for a specific person, perhaps in a border zone. Include things that will work for multiple audiences. Some breaks are larger than others, e.g. between middle grade and YA. Part of it is what the reader is interested in. What’s different? How much context or explanation is needed. What do the readers resonate with, usually emotional? Levels of reading intelligence and levels of subject material are independent. You can use different pen names for different genres. Diversify for safety. Try lots of different things. Watch for pivot points where you can move into a different arena.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 33.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Crossover Fiction, with Victoria Schwab.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Victoria Schwab.
[Victoria] Hey, there.
[Brandon] Thank you for being on the podcast with us, Victoria.
[Victoria] It’s my pleasure.
[Brandon] So. We also are live at Phoenix ComicCon.
[Brandon] Thank you guys so much.

[Brandon] Victoria, you pitched this concept to us, ghost talk… Or, not ghost. Sorry. I’m reading my…
[Howard] Well, now we know what the book of the week will be.
[Brandon] You pitched crossover fiction to us. What is crossover fiction?
[Victoria] Well, I’ve always thought of crossover fiction as fiction that has a primary audience and a much larger appeal. So we see it a lot in YA, young adult fiction, that has crossover into adult, adult fiction that has crossover into YA. Classic example of crossover fiction, one of the most classic, would be Harry Potter, which actually makes that transition from middle grade when he is 11 all the way up through the border of YA when he’s 17 or 18.
[Brandon] We also want to kind of talk about being a crossover author, meaning writing multiple different genres, genre defined as age groups or things like this.
[Victoria] Yeah. Exactly.
[Brandon] So let’s talk about this. How… Do you consciously approach writing your fiction so that it can cross between audiences?
[Victoria] No. I think that I write my books for a specific person that I am. Most of the time, I am writing for myself at a liminal age. So I’m either writing for weird 14-year-old me or I’m writing for weird 17-year-old me or I’m writing for weird 28-year-old me. So I try and make my stories accessible to the person that I was in that kind of border zone.
[Brandon] I… When looking at this, one of the things that most interesting to me are films like the Pixar films. Which are children’s films, quote unquote, but they obviously are trying hard to hit a crossover audience by specifically including things in their stories that will work for that audience, for different audiences. You can look at the humor and say, “Okay, the humor is working on multiple different levels,” and things like this. Humor’s an easy one, but also kind of relationship stories. If you look at Up, which is the Pixar film. It starts with the relationship between kids, then it turns into a relationship between adults, then it turns into a relationship story about an adult and a kid. This story has a very crossover appeal, because of that.

[Victoria] I will say I think when you’re looking at crossover boundaries, it’s really interesting. You’ll have middle grade which is like 9 to 12, that appeals to adults. You’ll have young adult that appeals to adults. You rarely have middle grade that appeals to YA.
[Mary] Interesting.
[Victoria] So there are interesting little boundaries in there. I don’t know if it’s because those kinds of classic narratives that we would now shelve as middle grade or children’s were often shelved as adult classic narratives.
[Brandon] I’ve noticed this as well, because someone asked me the other day, they said, “So how is it different…” It was an interview. “… Between writing middle grade, writing YA, and writing adult?” I said, “The big break is middle grade to YA.” The break between YA and adult is not nearly as vast a gulf, I think, as it is middle grade and YA.
[Victoria] Well, also the reading… Place you are as a reader. I mean, I have readers who are eight and very competently reading my adult novels. And I have readers who are 14 who are reading my 8 to 10-year-old. So it’s a very, very malleable space for the reader. What they’re looking for. So the place that I am most fascinated by is this transition between young adult and adult, specifically in fantasy. It’s what… I started writing in YA, and as I moved and divided myself between my YA presence and my adult presence, I was most interested in finding that point of fusion, where my readers on both sides of that proverbial fence would be happy with my books.

[Brandon] So one of the most common questions I get relating to this… Because I write in all three fields as well. I’ve done middle grade, YA, and adult. I know, Dan, you have done YA and adult.
[Dan] This conversation is my entire [garbled] career. It’s kind of awesome.
[Brandon] The question I get a lot is how do you approach writing differently middle grade versus YA versus adult? It’s always a hard one for me to answer. I’m going to pitch it at you guys.
[Mary] So, I don’t write this, but I did perform in elementary schools with puppetry for years and years, and had live experience with the audience. The thing that I found with them is that they are wicked smart. But one of the differences, for me, one of the primary differences between a child audience and an adult audience is that an adult audience has context. A child audience, the elementary school and above, they are still learning about the world and so frequently you would have to explain things a little bit more. They can’t make the leaps, just because they don’t have the experience yet. Whereas if you do that kind of explanation for an adult audience, they feel like you’re hitting them over the head with something.
[Victoria] What’s interesting is the very first threshold that I figured out was actually humor. My adult novels tend to have a very dark sense of humor. That’s something I actually think we develop on our way out of our teen years instead of on our way in. Vicious, my first… It’s a super villain origin story, and it has very dark humor threaded through it. That’s not something I would have gotten as a 13-year-old, because of that world context and things like that. The other thing that I do is I shift very slightly the intensity of focus. I’m allowed to spend a little bit more time in my adult novels on world building. I spend a little bit more time in my YA novels on plot and pacing. There’s a sense of hierarchy that shifts ever so slightly, and it’s not things that are very broad and noticeable to me, that I am still telling the same kinds of stories to the same readers, but I have to shift my footing ever so slightly.

[Dan] With… When I first started doing YA, because the Serial Killer series, while many consider it YA, I never did. So when I started Partials, the advice I got from a lot of people was, “Oh, well, if you’re writing YA, make sure that they go to school in it.” I thought, “No, that’s terrible advice.” I didn’t, and that has never hurt it. I think what people were expecting is that there needed to be some kind of resonant experience that they could latch on to. I don’t think that has to be something as obvious as going to school. It can be, and should be, primarily emotional. If the problems that the characters are dealing with are problems that your audience can relate to, then it will work. My book that’s coming out this November, Extreme Makeover… That is the first book I’ve ever written that I consider primarily an adult novel, because the problems that the characters are dealing with really aren’t problems that I think a lot of kids are going to have any experience with. Because it is so corporate and so I’m an adult with a job kind of things that that is the crossover I expect will not happen. The other books, it’s never been an issue.

[Brandon] One of the things I’ve noticed… We always say, “Don’t write down to kids.” You really don’t. At the same time, you have to be able to divide what is writing down and what is focusing on what they’ll be interested in. I can share a story with… Of my eight-year-old. We’re reading a book together. It’s one that someone gave to him and he was very interested in. It’s called Rise of the Robots… Or, no, Winter of the Robots. It’s pretty good. But it is targeted at an older kid, because the main character is becoming interested in girls. He is… There’s this girl he is really interested in. The kid’s best friend is not. He’s like, “Whatever. We gotta build our robots for our robot fighting competition.” My son keeps saying, “I wish we didn’t have all this stuff about the girl. It’s just boring.”
[Mary] Is this a kissing book?
[Brandon] It’s not even that. It’s not even disgusting.
[Mary] No, no.
[Brandon] It’s just the this is boring. Can’t we get back to the robots? Because at eight years old, he’s just not interested at all. It’s not a level of intelligence thing. He can get all of the storytelling and all of that. He’s just completely… Completely bored by [those things].
[Howard] Uninterested by that.

[Dan] This is really worth pointing out. That levels of reading intelligence and levels of subject matter are totally unrelated. There’s actually a massive need for higher subject matter with lower reading levels. That’s a niche that is not being filled very well right now.
[Brandon] This book does a good job, because it also… It has that, but it also has the friend who’s not interested. So there is that dynamic. My son’s like, “Yeah. We’re going to build lots of robots. Yes, there will be these more boring sections, but…” So that book has some crossover in that it’s obviously targeted at young YA, but my pre-middle grade, eight-year-old, just right at the beginning of middle grade, is enjoying it. So…

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Which, by complete surprise, not mentioned earlier in the podcast, is Ghost Talkers.
[Mary] Yay! That’s by me. So Ghost Talkers is my first non- Glamorous Histories novel. It is set in 1916 during the Great War, World War I. The tagline we’ve been using is “The secret of the Great War is that the ghosts were on our side.” I have to give Margaret Dunlap credit for coming up with that one for me. But basically what I have is this is a world in which the British Intelligence Department gets together a group of mediums and they call it the Spirit Corps. The soldiers are all trained that when they die, they have to report in. So they’re getting instant troop updates, instant battle updates. The book begins right when the Germans have figured out what they’re doing and are trying to target the mediums. So there’s espionage and intrigue and spying and a lot of death.
[Howard] Now this episode airs on August 14 and the release date for this book is August…
[Mary] August 16.
[Howard] 16th.
[Mary] I should say that this book is actually coming out… It’s set during the Battle of the Somme, and it’s coming out during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
[Howard] Nice ending.
[Brandon] I would recommend that if there’s a listener that hasn’t tried one of Mary’s books… If there are any left that haven’t tried one of Mary’s books, this is a great entry point, because it’s a standalone novel…
[Mary] It is a standalone.
[Brandon] That does all the things Mary is really good at doing and introduces you to Mary’s writing.
[Mary] I will also say that it is available in all sorts of formats, including Audible and in print as well.
[Brandon] We got to hear some of the outtakes of you reading it earlier. That was fun.
[Mary] [Whaaha!]

[Brandon] All right. Let’s talk about being a crossover author. Meaning you’re an author that’s writing in multiple different genres. You use pen names for your different genres?
[Victoria] I do. I write three books a year, one in each, middle grade, YA, and adult. I go by Victoria Schwab for both my middle grade and my YA work, and then V. E. Schwab for my adult work.
[Brandon] Maybe if I would use those, people would stop saying, “Why do you… How do you write so much?”
[Victoria] Right. They’d just think you’re two people. Yeah. It’s a really interesting thing. It did take like an hour with my agent to figure out my schedule alone, because there’s so many game… Like you have to play with all the different publishers. I publish with three different publishers, as well. So I’m with Scholastic, Harper, and Tor.
[Brandon] Oh, that sounds like a headache.
[Victoria] It becomes a struggle. But I originally diversified because early on in my career, I hit a point where I really struggled with my YA publishing career. Rather than… I basically hit that point where I would either stop for a while and kind of maybe give up, maybe walk away from it. I was so afraid if I walked away, I wouldn’t have the heart to come back, because it’s a hard industry. So I instead decided to diversify. I split, and… I was doing YA at the time, I decided to write this adult book, Vicious, and at the same time, I got contracted by Scholastic to do a trilogy for them. I opened those doors and I’ve never really been interested in going back. I love being busy. It is a… I’m sure you know, Brandon, it’s a career that keeps you very busy when you start doing that.
[Brandon] It does.

[Howard] At risk of momentarily derailing, for a business discussion. This concept of diversification. Years and years ago, Robert Khoo of Penny Arcade, talking to a bunch of artists, self-pub types, said, “Never let more than 60% of your revenue come from the same source.”
[Victoria] I believe that, immensely.
[Howard] That was an accident, really. I had the choice to take my YA projects to Tor as well, and Tor is my home, and I love them, but I was very, very adamant about wanting to keep all of my different styles and projects at different houses.
[Brandon] I’ve told this story before, but early in my career, there are points where I vacillated between thinking my adult writing career was dead and my middle grade writing career being dead. Each point, where one of those was like I’m never going to publish in this again, the other one was doing really well. I had said, “But at least I have this to fall back on.” It turns out my middle grade career died. Right? The Alcatraz books crashed and burned. They were high, they were low, they were high, and then they crashed and burned. My adult career really took off. But if I hadn’t had both of those? Roll those dice, 50%, and you don’t have a career. That’s really scary.
[Mary] That’s what I say all the time, is thank heavens, I have puppetry to fall back on.
[Victoria] The way I look at publishing is like it’s thinly frozen ice. So having different places to put your footing when something starts tipping off balance and when something cracks is really, really helpful.

[Mary] I think one of the things that we’re talking about here that a lot of people don’t think about when they’re writing is “Oh, I really want to write full time,” is that you’re going from having a full-time job with a regular paycheck to being a freelancer. Freelancers, that means that you have multiple bosses, you have multiple deadlines, and all of them think that they are the most important thing in the room.
[Victoria] And something will go wrong.
[Mary] And something will go wrong.
[Victoria] Somebody missed a deadline that is not you, and all of a sudden, you have that train car pile up where the train tries to screech to a halt and all of the various cars start spilling off the rails and…
[Brandon] You might be listening and saying, “Yeah, I would love to have that problem.” But this is applicable to newer writers as well, because we’ve talked about Dan’s experience as a writer trying something new.
[Dan] Yeah. I very specifically did not want to get pigeonholed as the Serial Killer supernatural guy. Although that’s a wonderful space to be in, and I’m planning a new series for it. But that’s why I did Partials next, is because it’s as different as I could make it. That has been confusing and it has been problematic. But that’s what I wanted my career to be. I get that question a lot, like, “How can I establish myself from the beginning as a multi-genre author, or a multi-audience author? A crossover?” You do it on purpose, and you do it deliberately, and you’re very up front with your editor and your agents and say, “This is how I want to do it.” If you’re at the stage where you don’t yet have editors and agents, make sure that you’re trying different things. That’s why I got published, is because I eventually said, “Fantasy’s fun, but I want to try writing a horror novel.” Try different things right now while you’re still [garbled].
[Brandon]… Your whole career.
[Howard] The day job that you quit was writing ad copy. Which is a form of fiction…
[Howard] For an impressionable young audience. While at this show, I have met, just in the course of casual conversation, three writers whose day job is writing and whose night job is writing. The point to drive home there is that if you want to write both middle grade and adult, if you want to do crossover stuff, the skill set of being able to write different kinds of things is something that you just need to practice. Being a good writer means writing and writing and writing.
[Victoria] I also just wanted to briefly point out, you talk about… There’s two different kinds of diversification, right? There’s the age group diversification, the audience diversifications you’re saying, and the genre diversification. One of the best things in retrospect that I ever did was very early on when I started writing, I finished… my first book was a standalone, and I made my second book completely different. So what happened was, by books three and four and five, publishers stopped trying to brand me as a specific kind of writer, and were just like, “Well, we’re just going to trust that people will buy a Victoria Schwab book.”
[Dan] Now, to be fair, that sometimes fails.
[Victoria] Oh, it does. It does. But it’s harder if you’ve done three or four or five books that are the same thing…
[Dan] Exactly.
[Victoria] To get your publishers to trust that you can do something completely different.
[Dan] In Germany, my Serial Killers, all five of those books, so far have been national bestsellers. Partials sold 2000 copies. Total. So they’re actually re-releasing Partials, which is young adult science-fiction, to make it look like a horror novel, in the hopes that…
[Brandon] That they’ll sell.
[Dan] They can pigeonhole me and people will buy it now because they think it’s a thriller.
[Mary] This was a career… A question that my agent and I talked about, because I had this giant list of novels that I wanted to write. It was did I want to do the pigeonhole thing or did I want to be the Tad Williams, which is every book is wildly different. We opted for the building of the audience, but with the… What I’m doing is a little sneaky, which is that I’ve got… Okay, Regency romance with magic. Then, the next book is historical, which is what people are expecting. It’s historical fantasy, but it’s a World War I novel. The book that comes after that is still a historical, but it’s a 1952 science-fiction novel.
[Victoria] It’s a pivot point. You…
[Mary] Define pivot point?
[Victoria] Find pivot points in your career. Sometimes you don’t get to jump all the way across the board, but you can find those pivot points that allow you to maneuver into different arenas.
[Brandon] This has been a fantastic discussion. I’m really glad we talked about this one. I really want to emphasize trying new things. Being the person that if a project comes your way that says, “Can you do this?” Your answer can be, “Yeah, I can do that because I’ve done this before,” can really help your career, particularly at the beginning. But we are out of time. I did want to mention we recorded another episode with Victoria, but I think this one’s airing first.
[Howard] This one’s first.
[Brandon] You will hear Victoria again, audience, and we’ll have more discussion of her books, but if you want to get ready for that, you can go read the Shades of Magic series, which she pitches to us in the episode we already recorded that you haven’t heard yet.
[Brandon] So then when she comes back, you will be able to be familiar with her writing.

[Howard] Is this a time travel writing prompt?
[Mary] I think it is now.
[Brandon] All right. I guess that’s our writing prompt. You gotta write a story about a book that can’t be read until you are dead.
[Wow… That’s bleak… Garbled]
[Brandon] Someone just did… Wrote a book to not be read until they die. I’m trying to remember. There… It was something in the news item.
[Mary] Well, Mark Twain’s memoirs. He… They couldn’t be read until 100 years after.
[Brandon] So either it’s a story that you’re going to write that someone can’t read until a certain date or you can write about somebody who’s dealing with that, if that’s too morbid for you.
[Mary] I thought you meant that they couldn’t read it… That the reader could not read it until the reader was dead.
[Howard] See, that’s what I was thinking. The reader cannot read this book until they have died.
[Dan] That’s how I interpreted it.
[Brandon] Okay. All right. All right.
[Mary] So what do you want to do, audience?
[Brandon] Whatever you want. We’ve got like seven in there for you. Thank you, Phoenix ComicCon audience.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.