Tag Archives: young adult fiction

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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So This Is What It Feels Like

Alright, I’m coming clean. It’s been almost two weeks since I finished my manuscript.

The moment I finally typed “The End” at the bottom of chapter 23, rounding out 105k words of my first ever completed novel, I sat back and tried to analyze what I was feeling.

Truth is, though, I didn’t feel a whole lot of anything. What I’d done was certainly an accomplishment–not very many people finish a novel, let alone one that’s been plaguing them since 2007, each passing year stacking the odds against ever seeing anything come of it. But it didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Like so many of life’s milestones, things don’t instantly change the moment you achieve something you want. No magical switch was flipped, clowns didn’t appear out of nowhere with explosions of fanfare and confetti. I simply sat at my desk and watched the cursor blink at the end of line.

That’s what it was, I realized: the end of the line. And like any journey, it ended right as another one began. Except this time, as I set about revising the thing and trying to get it published, I have way more going for me. I have a newly-born self-confidence–not just from actually finishing something, but from slowly coming around to a radically different worldview.

Up until a few months ago, everything I did, everything I wanted and every decision I made was tinged with negativity. It’s amazing what a little perspective can do to your sanity. I have been happier these past few months than I’ve ever been. Things are no longer scary. Things have promise, they have hope, and I know now that I can do it because I have done it: I have made something good. The momentum I’ve built over the past few months is carrying me into a future I very much want to be a part of.

Now my manuscript must age, like all good wine, whiskey, and Angus beef. A very good friend has already read the thing, assured me I’m not crazy, and shown me ways to make it better (proving again I’m crap at critiquing, because oh my goodness the way she puts things puts all my attempts at self-analysis to shame). I’m making notes and biding my time, and while I’m waiting for the right moment to dive back in, I’ve already started on the next one. My shiny new WIP gurgles and coos at a mere 4000 words, having existed in my head for less than a month–which is terrifying to me, considering all my other ideas existed for years or more before coming to (semi-) fruition.

My new idea takes several things I’ve experienced first-hand, adds something I’ve never experienced and never will, and synthesizes them into two brand new characters I’ve already fallen in love with. Someday, I hope you’ll love them too.

If my new WIP was a music video, this would be it, complete with hand-clapping:

Happy New Year, everyone.

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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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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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