Sanitizing YA?

There was a Twitter thread earlier today about “sanitizing” high school parties in YA fiction. It seemed to be referring to some other conversation that may or may not have been going on, a stance that the parties are “unrealistic.” And I think these are two different arguments.

I didn’t party in high school, and I didn’t know anybody who did. (Or if they did, it wasn’t obvious.) I went to a handful of “parties,” but these were not like the movies. No houses packed full of students spilling alcohol everywhere, music blasting, precious items being broken. The parties were somewhat small and fairly tame. There was sometimes alcohol, but there was also stuff like Win, Lose or Draw. (Which is hilarious to play if you’ve been drinking btw.) ::shrug::

Anyway, everyone’s experiences vary. What is “realistic” to one person may not be to another. Aaaand there’s the whole “it’s cliché” angle to these teen parties in books and movies. But to say that a suggestion to remove such a scene is “sanitizing”? That feels extreme.

I mean, sure, if the person who is suggesting the change is doing it because they feel like they don’t want to encourage that kind of behavior, then they’re sanitizing the story. I can see why that might be considered problematic, but I won’t delve into that here. However, if they’re saying it should be changed because it’s not realistic, then . . . That’s just a personal opinion. I mean, look at most writers and editors. We were the bookish kids, the quiet ones. Parties like that sometimes don’t seem realistic based on our experiences.

The Twitter thread spent a lot of time talking about how teens need to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Agreed. And some of them party and . . . want to see parties in their books, I guess? Some take drugs and want to read about other kids who take drugs? But some of us didn’t party, and we like seeing the quiet kids front and center because we felt so insignificant and overlooked in high school.

Look, teens who party and do drugs and get in trouble with the law—they’re out there. It’s not an experience I can identify with, but I know it happens. And there’s a place for those stories, too. Maybe it’s because I don’t write those kinds of books, so I can’t see where the scrubbing is taking place. Do agents, editors, publishers really squash stories featuring problematic teens and the issues they face? I honestly don’t know. As I pointed out in a previous post, I was told my teen fiction wasn’t edgy enough, so . . . I’ve experienced the flip side of this problem.

Bottom line for me is that I’d want to know the reason behind an author being told a YA party scene (or sex scene, or drug scene) needs to be changed or omitted. Because I don’t think it’s always simply to sanitize the text, or keep the reader “safe” from those things. Maybe it is some of the time—in which case, that should be addressed—but sometimes the reason may really be that the scene isn’t realistic (or the editor doesn’t think it is, anyway), or else it’s cliché. Those are valid opinions. Not everyone shares them, but they aren’t necessarily wrong.

There have always been books, and music, and movies that parents or adults don’t think appropriate for young adults. This is nothing new. And if a publisher thinks, No parent is going to want their kids to read this, then they might not publish it. Not out of spite or a need to whitewash teen experiences, but because they’re a business and want to sell books. And though teens do buy their own books some of the time, parents buy books the remainder of the time. And school librarians. And teachers, if they keep a classroom library. And school librarians and teachers won’t buy books that will get them in trouble with parents or the school district. And a publisher won’t risk their business for something they don’t think parents and teachers and librarians will buy.

Then again, sometimes you’ll find one who hopes the book will create buzz through shock value. They hope kids will buy it in secret and smuggle it to their friends. But one copy passed around a dozen people doesn’t amount to many sales either.

So, again, it might not be that they’re “sanitizing” YA. It might just be that they see no profit in it. If you write edgy YA—if you write parties and sex and drugs and jail for teens—go for it. Prove them wrong.

Suspending Disbelief

I saw an interesting question posed on Twitter this morning: “How does an author create a tale that allows readers to suspend disbelief?”

It made me think of those YouTube videos where people pick apart movies for how unrealistic they are. We do that with books sometimes, too. So what makes the difference? Why are we willing—even eager—participants in some fiction and resistant to other?

I believe there is a natural barrier between us and fiction. We understand, when entering a book or movie, that it isn’t real. There is a sense of, “Make me believe it.” The author’s job, then, is to make that barrier permeable.

Think about all the things that pull you OUT of a story. Characters that don’t behave in ways that seem realistic, for example, or stilted dialogue. Sometimes it’s the world that doesn’t make sense. If a fantasy author has created a town or country or planet, it still must function within parameters that readers relate to. The place may be very different from Earth, the characters may be aliens, but there are some universal truths that we rely on when entering a fictional world. Touchstones, if you will. If the internal logic of the world doesn’t hold up—if every few minutes the reader is saying to him- or herself, Why did they do that? Why is this world set up this way? It makes no sense, no society would be built this way—the barrier is too solid.

So if you want to create something really different, you have to lay the groundwork of there being very good reasons for things. It can’t be because “it’s always been this way.” There needs to be an explanation of WHY it was ever that way to begin with.

Another reason people begin picking stories apart is sheer boredom. If nothing interesting is happening, the reader begins to look for something else to entertain them, and your world or characters may be the victim of their detachment. When you’re really into a book or movie, you’re carried along on a wave as the plot and characters move along. You feel immersed. Later, someone might point out a plot hole and you’ll say, “I never noticed.” But, boy, when you’re bored you notice everything.

Think about long car rides, looking out the window, trying to find anything interesting to look at. Or, if you grew up going to church, synagogue, some house of worship, think about sitting there and looking around at people, the walls, the chairs/benches/pews. Every stain, crack, speck of dust came to your attention. That’s what happens when a reader is bored, too. They start gazing at the wallpaper and noticing the wrinkles, rips, mismatched seams.

Boredom, then, is one of the particles that forms that barrier to fiction. The reader shouldn’t ask, “Why am I here?” He or she should want to be there, in your world, with your characters. They should never want to leave.

These things don’t only apply to fantasy and sci-fi, though the barrier to those is probably thicker. Authors of these kinds of books have more work to do to make their worlds and characters believable. But even real-world based fiction must give readers compelling characters and situations that, even if far-fetched, the reader can be made to accept.

I love Tana French’s books, but there is one called The Likeness that really stretched my believability. The entire premise is predicated on a detective who looks so much like a murder victim that they insert her into the victim’s world to root out the killer. The book is well written and entertaining, but I still had trouble giving the premise credence. And since no reliable reason was ever given for the, er, likeness . . . Sure, “long lost twin” is weak, but I’d believe it over random chance.

What pulls you out of stories and/or makes them unbelievable to you? Which books have you encountered with this problem? Did you finish the book or put it down? Let me know your thoughts!

Looking for Grit

Back when I was first trying to become an author—a long time ago, just after I graduated from Emerson—I wrote a book that was in the vein of the Judy Blume novels I’d loved as a kid. It was called Nick Terpiccio, Eighth-Grade Hero and was light and funny. I duly combed my reference books of agents (I said it was a long time ago!) and mailed off queries (yes, in the post). I had some nice responses, all saying I had talent but this wasn’t for them. But the response that stuck with me was one from an agent who said my book simply didn’t have enough grit.

Book needed more Jeff Bridges apparently.

It tackled no issues, really. The main character wasn’t battling drugs or dealing with abuse. Nick’s biggest problems were that his two best friends were fighting, and that he liked a girl. Bubble gummy stuff, I suppose, but the novel was meant to be fun and upbeat.

The agent’s letter went on to more or less say “kids these days” (and this was the early aughts) wanted “edge.” I remember that word distinctly. And I guess that must be true because it seems dark books are popular. Angst is in. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. (This article suggests it might be.) It’s just not what I write, really.

The article linked above talks about YA books featuring black protagonists being shot, kids being abused, etc. The stance is that not all kids deal with this stuff, and even if they do, why would they want to read about it? Shouldn’t reading be an escape? Well, yes and no. I think we read for a lot of reasons, often subconsciously. Escapism is one reason, but we also read to know we’re not alone. When we talk about “representation” in literature, we mean seeing people like us. Straight white people don’t have a problem with that since most books have straight white characters. But people of color, people with different sexualities, people with complicated blended families or whatever—they have trouble finding themselves in popular books. That’s starting to change, but when you consider the vast number of books, it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket.

Still, it might be a valid question to ask, “But even when diversifying characters, do they always have to be in gangs or doing drugs or sexually abused?” The article above asks more broadly (and I’m paraphrasing): Why not depict a happier, more hospitable world? Well, readers aren’t stupid. They’ll find a happy-go-lucky world to be fake and therefore won’t invest as fully*. They want complicated worlds and complicated characters. They want the book to reflect what they know because that’s how they’ll connect and identify. Sure, the world may not be as bad as some of the dystopian novels out there, but it’s easy to imagine things going in that direction. And it’s just as easy for us to feel relieved that, hey, at least we’re not living in that world.

*Unless it’s Stepford. Then we’ll know what kind of book we’re in.

I fear I’m starting to ramble. Let me condense my thoughts here. 1. I once wrote an MG book that was considered too happy. 2. I read an article that suggested YA literature isn’t happy enough. 3. Even though I don’t write dark, angsty books, I can see why they might be popular and that they have a legitimate point of view on the world.

This is the world we live in, after all, and while it’s nice to read fluff sometimes, there’s nothing to be gained by hiding our heads in the sand, either. And to only produce happy-go-lucky books for kids would be doing just that. Though I think a few happy-go-lucky books would be good. Anyone want Nick? (Just kidding, I don’t even still have the manuscript. Remember floppy disks? Yeah, neither does my computer.)

Reflection

I started out writing short stories. I’ll admit they aren’t my strong suit, but at the time they felt like a testing ground and less of a commitment than entire novels. One of my earliest stories was published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine (now defunct) in 2004, and that gave me the courage to keep writing.

I put that story in the anthology The World Ends at Five, which I first published in 2008 then republished a few years ago. I think my favorite story in the collection is “Raising the Ruins,” which is told from the point of view of a Jewish-Japanese woman dealing with the loss of her culture because Japan has sunk beneath the waves and her mother is dead. Of course, I am not Japanese, and I’m only Jewish by marriage, so I’m sure some people would find the fact I wrote the story problematic. But I enjoyed exploring the themes of how we connect to our heritages, particularly if and when they are diverse. I myself grew up Creole and . . . Well, I don’t know what to even consider the other side, but my parents came from two very different backgrounds, and I am the result of their struggle to compromise and make something cohesive. Whether they succeeded is still a matter of debate.

I’m not sure why I chose Jewish and Japanese when I wrote “Raising the Ruins” all those years ago except that I very much admire the Japanese culture (what I know of it), and found the touchstones for it and Judaism easier to express in a story than Creole and mutt. I have since started a story called “Voodoo Lessons” that will more explore my Creole heritage; I don’t know yet whether it will be a short story, novella, or novel.

When I look back at The World Ends at Five I both think that the stories are better than I remember, and that they still show the marks of a writer finding her voice and learning her trade. But I’m not ashamed of them. At least one of them found professional publication elsewhere, which is worth being proud of. And I’m able to read the fairy tale “A Tale of Two Queens” to my kids’ classes; it is the only story I’ve written that is suitable for that. (I originally wrote it as a birthday gift for a friend and co-worker.)

Not sure what brought this one to mind today. Guess I was feeling nostalgic.

Success Soup

This article has made the rounds in the writer world today. Most of the attention has been directed at the fact that this author had the misfortune to be represented by Mark Gottlieb, an agent who has since been outed as pretty terrible on many fronts. But what I keyed into while reading it was the despair. The exhaustion. This author has been pushing that boulder up the hill for 11 years, and I get it. I’ve been there myself.

We’re bombarded daily by messages that tell us: “If you just try hard enough, you’ll get there!” That’s patently untrue. If everyone could get there, we’d all be there—wherever it is we wanted to be. But we can’t all make it as actors, writers, musicians, athletes, investment bankers, lawyers, whatever. Telling people they can be whatever they want sets them up for disappointment in the long run.

This is probably not helping anyone feel better, and in fact it angers a lot of people whenever I say it (which is fairly frequently), but I’m a realist.

The thing is: success is not a measure of talent. Success is a byproduct of a lot of ingredients, of which talent is only one (and sometimes not even necessary depending on other ingredients). Luck, timing, connections, serendipity . . . There are so many things that contribute to success. And even if you have a pantry full of talent, if you don’t have at least something to season it with, you can’t make soup.

And a lot of these things you can’t go buy at the corner grocery. You can hone your skills as a writer, you can up the chances of making connections by attending conferences and events, but some of the ingredients for success soup are like lottery prizes. You hope to win some of them, somehow. “A little luck sure would spice this soup up a bit!”

People like to say things like, “Make your own luck,” but those are the same people who already have what they want, often due to privilege (like their daddy owning the company). Again, if making luck were something we could all do, we’d all be lucky.

So before you tell someone they just didn’t try hard enough, or want something bad enough, think about the things you want and don’t have. Why don’t YOU have everything you want? Is it because you haven’t tried hard enough? Are you too lazy to have them? Is it because you lack talent or ability? And if you do have everything you want, how nice for you. But I can bet it wasn’t your own skill alone that got you there.

Don’t let not “making it”—and it’s really important to define success for yourself and not let others do it for you—make you think you’re not talented. Success soup can be made with various quantities of talent and all the other stuff I listed above, but a big bowl of talent alone won’t do it. And your access to other ingredients may be limited by gender, socio-economic status, geography, support systems (or lack thereof), and other biases. Or it may be limited by bad timing or plain bad luck.

Not everyone will make it. Not everyone can; the system doesn’t allow for that. “Anyone can be a writer.” Not true. Many writers can’t be writers, at least not in the sense of making a living at it. Anyone can put words on paper, sure, assuming they’re literate, but in a compelling way? Not everyone can tell a good story. Not everyone can sort through and organize information into a non-fiction book either, no matter how much they know about a subject. It takes skill, if not talent (not all successful people are talented, they just make up for the lack of flavor with many other ingredients). And even then, many will fall short.

Anyone who promises, “You can do it!” is telling you a lie. Sorry if that seems harsh, but let’s get real. Try hard enough, want it bad enough, and you might succeed. Write anyway. Make art anyway. If it’s in you, you won’t be able to stop yourself. Even as your heart breaks because no one else cares, you’ll keep coming back to it, again and again. And where’s the harm, aside perhaps from self-persecution? If you give up, you surely won’t succeed. If you keep writing anyway, just because you love it, you may yet get there, if only by an accidental left turn at Albuquerque.

Social Media Letdown

So I have a Tumblr that I only recently started seriously playing with. I was using it as a place to shelve snippets of a fanfic. But though some of the “chapters” got attention, it seems to have tapered off. That might be because I’ve been away on vacation (I did post a few pics while away, and I’m not officially “back” yet, but I’m home for a day before going off on the next leg, hence this post). Or it might be because I’m just not very good . . . at writing, or “tumbling” or whatever. Dunno.

Social media is so, so tricky. We’re told we need it in order to succeed as authors (or in other creative fields). Major companies are convinced they need a social media presence, too. But what we’re really feeding is our craving for validation. And we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Or worse. People get more depressed when faced with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. They see others getting all the followers and Likes, and they feel like failures. Comparison is the thief of joy, or so the saying goes, and social media is really just a massive platform for measuring how “popular” you are. Or aren’t.

I have several friends who have recently announced they’re deleting their Facebook accounts. I’m tempted to do the same. A few years back I slashed and burned a number of my accounts and profiles, but it seems to have ballooned again. There’s always some new platform that authors are being told they need to be on.

For those wondering about the fic on Tumblr, it was inspired by my recent reading of The Raven Cycle. I actually indexed the posts on this post. And then there is a post that came after those. Though I know where the story is going, I’m not sure I’ll bother actually writing it. Social media saps the joy and desire from me, forcing me to face the indifference of the world to my work. It perpetuates the feelings we had in school, I think: there are those who have all the friends (and followers), and those who have only a few . . . or none. The kids at the crowded cafeteria table versus the kids sitting alone.

Still Worth It?

I saw a tweet today that more or less expressed this sentiment: Even if your book never gets published or your script never gets turned into a movie, the experience is still worth it.

I can’t decide if I believe that.

Writing can be its own reward, that’s true. I often remind myself that I used to love to write just for the joy of it (though that was fan fiction). And I think my best work has been written for love of the characters, like Peter Stoller or the characters in 20 August.

Sometimes, though, writing starts to feel like a chore. That’s when I know I’m also probably not doing my best.

So I guess I can say that experience of writing has taught me something: how to “feel” my writing and know when I’m on the right track.

Still, there’s something frustrating and tragic about not being able to get published or produced. One has to decide, I suppose, whether the end result of simply having the writing exist is enough. Writing that exists but never gets to readers or viewers . . . Doesn’t fulfill its potential, does it? This is all very philosophical, of course, but if prose is meant to be read and scripts are meant to be filmed so others can view them, and that never happens . . .

No, I get it. The point was for the writer to have done the work. And I’ve never been sorry I wrote something, only sorry when I couldn’t get anyone to publish it, or read it, or produce it.

Being a writer means setting yourself up to fail, at least in some respects. If you go in knowing that and accepting it, things will be easier for you in the long run. It’s the people who go in so convinced they’re going to write a bestseller or a huge blockbuster that end up bitter and angry. Me, I’m just sad. Not for myself, but for those characters and pieces of work that won’t get the eyes they deserve. Not because I’m some great writer, but because I failed them in some way—I was too clumsy and inept to tell their stories well.

Is it worth writing even if your work never sees the light of day? That’s a question that has to be answered individually, I think. Putting in the hours hones your craft. You can always go back and rework pieces to make them better. But you have to be self-aware enough to know whether you can live with having written things that live in the dark. How do you take rejection? If your sole goal is to be published or produced, then I don’t think you’ll find the exercise of simply writing satisfying. If you write because you love to write and the hope of publishing or production is the cherry on your sundae, then you’ll probably be fine. The key is to know the answer to that before you even start. That way you don’t waste your own time.

Confession

Under pain of torture . . .

. . . I’ve decided to admit something.

Well, really, it’s just that some thinking it over made it very obvious to me. I probably should have noticed it a long time ago. My friends almost certainly already know this about me, though no one has ever bothered to say as much to my face.

All my favorite literary couples are gay.

While others swoon over, I dunno, Bella and Edward (is that still a thing?), I just don’t get any heat from those kinds of stories. When I stopped to consider my favorite pairings, this is what I came up with:

  1. Touya & Yukito (& Yue) from Cardcaptor Sakura
  2. Subaru & Seishirou from Tokyo Babylon
  3. Adam Parrish & Ronan Lynch from The Raven Cycle

It was, in truth, this last one that caused me to think about this at all. I’m reading The Raven King and I love Adam + Ronan so much it hurts.

I feel kind of bad/weird about this, but it’s not something I can control, either. This is what I like. Not erotica, but these slow-burning relationships, sometimes star-crossed and tragic. I like drama and angst, I guess. I like potential for flames to erupt at any moment.

It seems like a good thing to know about oneself. Particularly as an author, I find myself leaning into the gay relationships in my books. They’re fun for me to write. If I define “fun” as tormenting my characters. Which I do.

Who are your favorite literary couples and how hot do you like your love stories?

***

ETA: Someone pointed out that I do also like Rey & Kylo from Star Wars. And that’s true! Talk about drama, angst, and star-crossed, eh? So I guess I do like at least one hetero couple.

IWSG: Writing Goals

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month (except tomorrow is a holiday, so we’re posting a day early). Read more posts and/or join in here.

I’m still fretting over finishing Faebourne.

Question of the Month: What are your ultimate writing goals, and how have they changed over time (if at all)?

Well, ideally I’d be producing more than one title per year, since generating new content seems to be the one solid way of making any money as a writer these days. And I’d like to make money—well, more than I do now. I should probably set a concrete number; they say that’s the best way to set a goal and therefore be satisfied when you finally hit it. I think it’s so very important for authors do set their own, personal definitions of success, else it’s easy to always feel like a failure. Having concrete, quantifiable goals helps you feel successful in the long run.

I’ll start modestly. I’d like to:

  • Make three figures per month consistently
  • Be asked to speak or sit on a panel at least once a year
  • Publish at least two things per year

So many other authors already do these things (and much more) . . . But as they say, comparison is the thief of joy. I can only hope to do better than myself, not as well as or better than anyone else.

I think when I started, I had no specific goals except to get my work out there. And you know what? I was happier when I didn’t have set expectations. But I don’t think I can avoid having expectations at this point, and hopes. Unfortunately, these often lead to disappointment. And I find myself less enthusiastic about writing the more pressure there is to produce and perform. Hmm. Maybe I should go back to having no goals after all. Or, rather, maybe my goal should be to just write for the fun of it again.

Favorite Authors, Influencers—Who makes your list?

I noticed something the other day, and now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop noticing it.

There’s a tendency, when asked about our favorite authors, to reach for the big names. The names people will recognize. Is that why we do it? What I mean is, whenever an author is asked something like, “Who do you like to read?” or “Who influences your work?” we go straight to Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or whatever big author applies. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.

But here’s the thing: as indie authors (or, in my case, hybrid), shouldn’t we at least try to include our fellows on that list? Stephen King doesn’t need any exposure, but if we were to mention someone else—another indie author, for example—mightn’t we perhaps cause readers of the article or interview to be curious and go look them up?

I’m not suggesting we do this as a marketing ploy. I want, honestly, to know which indie authors, or lesser-known authors, people read. It’s far more interesting than hearing you, like a billion other people, read Anne Rice or whatever. At the very least, mention a couple big names and follow with a couple smaller ones? (There are no small names, just small authors?)

For starters I’ll say I enjoy Christine Rains‘ work, and D.B. Sieders, and Caroline Warfield. (And, yes, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice.)

Which indie authors do YOU read?