Tag Archives: writing advice

Messages In YA Literature

I’m reading several books at the moment, and, as astute blog readers may be able to surmise, one of them is message-driven.

Well, maybe not message-driven. Maybe message-personified is a better description. As in, that’s the entire purpose of the book. A message personified by characters representing the polarized sides of an argument. And from the very beginning of the story, we’re clear on which side we’re supposed to be on. One side is loving and tolerant, while the other is hateful and irrational, immune to reason. Granted, I’m only halfway through the book (a side effect of reading too many at once!) but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where this thing is going.

I hesitate to elaborate on the details, because I respect the author and what he’s accomplished in his particular area, and many of his points hold some serious water. The sad thing, though, is that the real world isn’t so clear-cut.

One of the beauties of children’s lit is its ability to help young people grow beyond the concrete, black-and-white morality of childhood. The development of moral reasoning, as put forth by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, starts with rule-based justification, which deals heavily with obedience and punishment. Most young children adhere to this thought process (and no small number of adults). Adolescents and adults develop more nuanced shades of reasoning involving social pressures and expectations, until finally, the last level (which some people never reach) acknowledges that rules are useful but not absolutes, and that any rule violating universal human rights should be discarded.

This developmental theory explains not what is right and wrong (leave that up to the philosophers and theologians if you feel you can’t trust your own conscience) but how people justify what they believe is right or wrong. According to Kohlberg, moral development is an ongoing process, and it’s my opinion that literature and stories play a big part in that development–not by shoving messages down kids’ throats, but by giving them the tools to figure out their stance for themselves.

The stories we tell young children usually have definite morals because that’s what children understand. By showing them how to put themselves into other people’s shoes (called perspective taking), stories help kids develop their moral reasoning skills. Not everyone is the same as you. People feel different things. People think different things. We have to live with them anyway.

Beyond early childhood, though, kids are able to handle more complex thoughts. As they advance through school, (hopefully) learning critical thinking skills, their stories need to keep up with their expanding views of the world, and they need to better reflect how that world actually works. Kids are going to form some definite opinions about things (have you ever met a teenager?) but their experiences can’t simply be summed up the way their picture books used to it, with the good side clearly presented in opposition to the bad and the obvious consequences played out. The bully gets what’s coming to him, and the hero, who sticks up for the underdog, gets the girl, saves the school, and wins the respect of everyone. (As Oscar Wilde satirized in the words of his silly Miss Prism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Besides, any self-respecting teenager can spot a message a mile away, and there’s no quicker way to turn them off than by telling them what to think.

Now, as a thinking human being, I have some definite opinions on things. I tend to think about them a lot, and, as a writer, they tend to pop up in my stories. My recently completed manuscript, Walls, deals with some heavy issues, not the least of which is capital punishment. I have definite opinions on capital punishment. You can probably guess what they are by reading my story, but I tried very very hard not to turn my work of fiction into a polemic against the inequities of the American justice system. That’s no fun to read. Besides, it’s pointless. That would appeal to very few people–in fact, probably only to me. And while I write for myself first and foremost, I want to share my stories with other people, teenagers in particular. I know they think about things, and they come to every story with a preconceived set of notions concerning those things, and no matter how much I beat them over the head with my views, they’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. I’ll have better luck if I present the facts and let them form their own conclusions.

My aim as a storyteller isn’t to get people on my side of any particular issue. My aim is to illuminate that issue within the very specific context of these characters and how it relates to them. I don’t presume to know what’s right and wrong–I’m not even convinced those things can be defined by absolutes. Reading fiction isn’t about absolutes, it’s about people and what they do when confronted by those issues. How a character reacts to finding out her father is on Death Row (for instance) should not be presented as a Worst Case Scenario Handbook, what to do should you find yourself in such a situation. Literature with that purpose is very ineffective and, honestly, embarrassing. It puts me off as a reader, even if I happen to agree with what the author’s saying. 

Now, the passions of an author can be a fine engine for getting a story written. You’re supposed to attack what terrifies you, after all, face the white-hot center of your fear, and find the universal truths buried within. However, once the story lands in the hands of a reader, it’s not about the author anymore. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, especially when you really care about what you’re writing.

What’s helped me to avoid the tendency to send messages can be boiled down to that old writing adage: everyone’s the hero of their own story. In the words of Tom Ripley, “You never meet anyone that thinks they’re a bad person.”

That bully, or critical parent, or judgmental teacher–whoever is represented by your antagonistic force–has just as much moral justification going on in their heads as your protagonists. Avoid turning your story into a polemic by searching for those antagonists’ redeeming qualities. What makes them worthwhile people? Very few humans are incapable of being identified with (even the most morally reprehensible had mothers at one point), and a story that presents people that way will come off flat and one-sided.

Even if your goal is to present an argument–go ahead, I’m not stopping you–please, make your characters real. Present your argument through the eyes of the characters, fully realized, possessing qualities both good and bad. Make your readers work to find the answers, don’t just hand them to them in black and white. The world just doesn’t work that way. We want kids to learn to think, not nod and agree with every well-formed argument.

Just some thoughts. Back to writing!

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That Part of the Book

I reached an important and stomach-churning milestone over the weekend, what Neil Gaiman’s agent affectionately refers to as “that part of the book.” Since August 4th I have written 50k words–a little over halfway by my estimates, although, if you take the word of the lovely folks at NaNoWriMo, enough to qualify as an entire book!

Even if all you NaNoWriMo participants haven’t reached this milestone yet, you probably know what I mean about stomach-churning. Every couple thousand words feels like I’m hitting “that part of the book.” Usually it’s after a big event, a major revelation, or anything else I’ve been building up to for a long time. I put a lot of effort into making these tentpoles just right, hit all the major points, end the chapter with a killer line, and. . . .

Fall flat on my face.

Truth is, after all the energy I put into these exciting parts, parts that come after, where characters react, can feel sort of anticlimactic. They tend to sit around thinking, feeling, and well. . . reacting. Pretty boring. If I don’t handle it right, it will be boring, and that means bye-bye readers.

Even more frightening, it’s these passages of reaction that put your skills as a writer and your understanding of the interior world of your character to the test. How characters react to big, life-changing events reveals them at their most vulnerable, before they’ve focused themselves and moved on to the next round of action. What they think and feel now supports what they do later. And if you, the writer, get this wrong, events further on down the line are going to feel flat.

I think that’s why a little over halfway through the book can be so crippling. Everything’s been set up. By now, we’re very aware of what the story problem is, and we should be actively involved in trying to fix it. Not all the pieces may be in place yet, but characters should be gathering strength, preparing themselves for the final push, the final crises, the final desperate acts. Things said and done now justify all those coming things, and messing up now puts them in jeopardy. Those moments are why you’re writing the book, after all. They are the great character-defining events that demonstrate change, the soul of any story. Storytelling is just a form of artistic chemistry, after all, and any deficiency on either side of the equation can result in disaster.

That’s a lot of pressure. And for me, that results in a lot of blockages.

Thankfully, we get do-overs. An infinite amount, or however many we need to get it right.

Go back and click on the link at the beginning of this post to read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful pep talk from a previous year of NaNo. I read it whenever I feel like giving up. Every writer feels like giving up, at one point or another. It happens to me every other chapter. The only solution is, as Neil says, to keep on keeping on. Put one word in front of another. It’s the only way to get it done.

Good luck all you NaNoWriMo participants and writers everywhere! Get something done.

(This song is good for whatever your challenge is, be it finishing a novel or finding your place in the universe.)

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Trust Your Readers, They Know What’s Up

“Reading Corner” by Greg Williams. This is where I grew up.

Recently I started reading a book (which I will not name, however I can tell you it’s a debut YA published this year). It had a very intriguing premise and wonderful opening but somehow felt. . . wrong. Tension was high, pacing snappy, it was peopled with interesting and sympathetic characters, but my reading experience felt distant, separate. I was more aware of the physical act of reading the book than I was of the story. It made me feel self-conscious, like I was reading my own work. Was I being too critical? Was I actively on the lookout for poor writing, and therefore vindicated when I found it?

So I put the book away and started another, from an author whose debut came out in the late 80s. Same ingredients: interesting premise, wonderful opening, great pace and characters. Except this time, I was immediately immersed in the story and lost several pleasant hours before I even stopped to take a breath.

What happened? Why was this book different from the first? I tried to chalk it up to personal preference, perhaps even my state of mind at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more concrete my thoughts became. It wasn’t until writing yesterday’s post that I realized exactly what the problem was.

The first author hadn’t trusted me enough to figure things out for myself.

Reading is an experience. What the reader experiences is completely separate from what the writer experiences–and not just because the writer has a backstage pass. Readers bring a lot of baggage into a story: preconceived notions, different upbringing, prejudices and preferences. For example: they can be told over and over that a beautiful woman has blond hair, but if they personally find blond hair displeasing, they’re going to cast her as a brunette. That’s part of the magic of reading. We’re not restricted to the vision of anyone, not even the writer.

However. That magic can be impeded. And when it is, it’s usually the writer’s fault.

It can be very tempting to spell everything out for a reader. After all, they don’t know, do they? They only have what you tell them, and hey–you’re the artist here, not them. How can you trust them to get it right? So you hold their hand, explaining everything they need to know to fully experience your world, your ideas, your. . . unmitigated genius.

Because of this tendency, a common piece of advice given to inexperienced writers is this: “Show, don’t tell.” Let the reader figure things out from well-placed evidence and concrete details instead of blatant explanations.

This is great advice. It allows readers to be more engaged in the magic of the story and avoids insulting their intelligence. Ultimately, I think that’s why I couldn’t get into that first author’s book. He didn’t trust me, didn’t leave me any room to figure things out for myself. He connected all the dots, covered every point, even told me how to feel about what was happening to his characters.

I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. And neither does anyone else.

Reading something like this pushes readers out of the story, effectively telling them, “You don’t know any better.” Most of the time it’s not overt; most readers won’t be able to pinpoint what’s wrong with the story. But the cumulative effect is strong enough to alienate them, and, worst-case scenario, kick them out of your story.

How do you know what to show and what to tell? Another piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: “Do not confuse what the writer needs to know with what the reader needs to know. They are not the same thing.” And this is where things start to get complicated. Because, as an inexperienced writer (heck, any writer), it’s hard to know the difference.

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts about what happens when writers take “Show, don’t tell” too far, swinging toward the opposite end of the spectrum and not telling readers anything. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one I’m just now starting to climb out of.

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Anton Chekhov on Description of Setting

Hillside in Wales, photo by me

“In my opinion a true description of Nature should be very brief and have a character of relevance. Commonplaces such as, ‘the setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.’ – ‘the swallows flying over the surface of the water twittered merrily, etc’ – such commonplaces one ought to abandon. In descriptions of Nature one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get a picture.

For instance, you will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the milldam a little glowing star-point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round black shadow of a dog, or a wolf, emerged and ran, etc. Nature becomes animated if you are not squeamish about employing comparisons of her phenomena with ordinary human activities, etc.”

–Letter to Alex P Chekhov, Babkin. May 10 1886.

(via Comma Press via The White Page)

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September 21, 2013 · 9:26 am