My Novel: Would You Rather Go to College or Boarding School?

Neither, right? Actually, I had to ask my character that question. My current WIP (work in progress) was about a teen’s first year in college. I thought it would fit into the YA market because my character is 18. But when I pitched at the 2011 ACFW conference it didn’t fly. Why? Because teens don’t want to read about college life. And college students don’t have time to read fiction. At least that’s what one agent and one editor said.

What One Editor Suggested

When an editor from Thomas Nelson suggested I switch my setting from college to a boarding school, I cringed. It would make my story more teenage-friendly. But who would rather read about boarding school than college? College seems like more fun. In my mind I associate boarding school with a harsh regime, like a reform school. Who knows. Maybe I could make my boarding school as cool as Hogwart’s.

So I took a step back and did some research. There actually are Christian boarding schools in New York. Only a few, but they cater to hundreds of students. It’s a different twist on the ordinary high school drama. But is it interesting enough to relate to?

Will an Agent Get It?

The agent I spoke with at the ACFW conference agreed with the editor. I was devastated. But she said one thing that stuck with me, “Your writing is strong.” And she handed me her card. I was so disappointed by the news that I needed to change my novel’s setting. I only remembered the bad part for a month or two afterward.

As the Genesis contest approached, I suddenly remembered the agent’s praise. And her card. So I updated my story to the boarding school version and sent it off to Genesis to test out the new version. When it semi-finaled (yay!) I sent an updated query to the agent. Last week she sent me another rejection letter. This time with pointed advice. She had a lot of contemporary YA novels on her plate, and my story didn’t wow her. Back to the drawing board.  I’m still looking for the right agent, one who will get it.

A New Market

In the market where paranormal teen romance is a section in Barnes & Noble bookstores, my contemporary YA romantic comedy needs some extra punch. I’m not quite willing to add a paranormal punch. That wouldn’t be true to my story.

But I could change parts of my story. Maybe a prep school in New York City would be a better setting. Or my heroine could be a country girl who has to adjust to the big city. Time to spice it up. 🙂

Brainstorm With Me

Q4U: Would you rather read about a character in college, boarding school, or prep school? What other plot, character, or setting developments do you think might spice up a ho-hum YA romantic comedy about a girl running away from a heartbreak only to have to face it again? Don’t worry, there’s no bad ideas here.



  1. What about the opposite? What about a city girl getting sent to a rural boarding school?

    I went to St. Andrew’s Sewanee School (, an Episcopal day/boarding school on top of Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee. It’s associated with the University of the South at Sewanee (although it is a separately-operating entity in its own right).

    I think SAS was a wonderful school (it was good enough for James Agee, too), but I grew up in the rural South (I was a day student; I commuted a half hour each way every day). For people from the city, “The Mountain” can be terribly boring because it’s half an hour from a city with a Wal-Mart (and when I was there, there weren’t even any fast food restaurants closer than half an hour) and an hour from a city with an actual shopping mall. Frou-frou girls or preppy guys might also find the outdoorsy, tree-hugging atmosphere a bit of a culture shock. I mean, gardening is part of the biology and environmental science curriculum now, and students help grow some of the food that ends up in the cafeteria.

    Ah, for those days, 15 years ago, when we could sit out in the gazebo and listen to Mr. Dalton practice his bagpipes; when we’d make ourselves a sandwich and hike out to Piney Point on our hour-and-a-half lunches and eat and talk and look out at the valley below the mountainside; when the acolyte didn’t put out the censer properly and we had to open the windows in the chapel because the frankincense smoked the place up like a bar; when we huddled in the computer lab as seniors, tasked with writing a 10-page paper on “Hamlet,” and tried to figure out which 12-point font was the largest.

    Good times. And, oddly enough, rather like college. My high school schedule was not much different than my college schedule, and we read a lot and wrote more. I transitioned smoothly into college without a bump. Which is why SAS prides itself on being a college-preparatory school.


    • Wow Keri! I love this idea. A country girl moving to the big city has been overdone, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. This sounds like a great direction to research.

      I had a fabulous scene with a bag-piper that I’d hate to cut. But it sounds like even that would work at this school. I’ll definitely be thinking about this one.

      Did you have any city-girls that boarded there? Sounds like that kind of move would be frought with tension. My mind is going in all different directions just thinking about it. Thanks for this! 🙂


      • I seem to recall there was one girl in my class that was a bit snotty and was always complaining, but I tried to ignore her–as did everyone else. She was only there one or two years.

        I know when I was accepted to SAS, my mother and I went shopping for me nice clothes–so I’d be preppy. I mean, there I was, a middle-class girl from a rural, public school, going to a *private* school affiliated with Sewanee. Surely everyone there would be rich.

        Then, on the first day, when my carpool showed up, the girl that was driving was wearing a tie-dyed gauze skirt, Doc Martin boots, an old, Vietnam-era army coat, and had a nose ring and wild, uncombed hair. (Feel free to rip that off for your story, LOL.)

        She was not terribly out of place–maybe a bit to one end of the spectrum. I downgraded to something more like business casual and still outdressed many people… despite the fact that we had a dress code. The ability of teenagers to find loopholes is limitless.

        On campus, the most revered car was William’s blue, station wagon (circa 1988) with the original faux paneling. And the worst crime ever committed in the parking lot was when one guy’s dad (a radiologist) landed his helicopter on the football field to pick him up after school. Everyone who was sitting outside the gym, waiting for rides, stared at him as he–red-faced and looking at his shoes–took the walk of shame to the field and got in. As soon as he was out of ear shot, you could hear the hiss of disapproval rise over the sound of the copter taking off. I don’t know if that kid ever lived that down. Nobody liked people who were pretentious–even if most of them were the kids of professors, doctors, and dentists.


  2. As a college student, I agree with those two- we really don’t have time to read fiction. Sometimes, not even in summer because of jobs, internships, volunteering, resume building, etc. But then again as a college student, I think it would be fascinating to actually read a novel set in college. Looks like that isn’t a market though. I’m also not too positive about farm girl/big city or city girl/countryside. I feel like both concepts have been done, most of the time not too successfully in my opinion. It would be more refreshing I think, for the story to not go that route.


    • Thanks for your advice. I love hearing from college students!

      I love the New York City aspect of my story, because I can draw on personal experiences from the trip I took there. But even that’s been overdone.

      It’s super hard to think of a fresh, compelling angle. I’m still working on it. What do you think of a boarding school? I added an Ivy League Prep Program, but not sure if that’s enough of a draw.


    • Thank you, LJ. It’s hard, and frustrating, to find the line between flexible and pushover. I love some of the changes I’ve made. But I’m not willing to compromise on certain things.

      One of the good things about this whole process has been learning to be humble. Some days it’s easier than others. But I tell myself I don’t know everything, and I shouldn’t burn any bridges. That’s all I can do on my own. 🙂


  3. Pingback: Lighting up the Dark Side: My Switch to Paranormal Teen Fiction | Barbara Hartzler

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