Monday, January 10, 2011

YA Writers : Give Them Wings

Something’s been bothering me lately.
Ok, what’s new, you say.  I do tend to blog about things that bother me a tad more than things which don’t.  I guess I just find that in our angst we unite.  I am a generation X’er after all.  I was raised on angst.  I’m a happy person at heart, but in my angst I’m most comfortable.  Now that that’s out of the way, I can grumble some.
I discovered relatively quickly that the first books I wrote were in that grey area somewhere between YA and Adult.  The more I refined them, the more they began to fall into the YA category.  Since that’s where my writing leads me, I figured I should get to know the ‘rules and regulations’ for writing to the impressionable youth of our society.  This is where the angst begins.
There are a lot of things that you can and can not, should and should not do when writing toward the YA crowd.  But there are a few things that really bother me about these ‘rules’. 
-      The YA voice.  Why?  Why do I have to try and speak their speak and walk their walk?  Do they even want me doing that?  Because I sure as heck wouldn’t have liked that as a young person.  In fact I would have thought it was sad and rude and insulting.  I would have told them to talk to me, intellectually, like an adult, because believe it or not, I know your speak just as well as mine.  I’ll speak to my friends in our own way, but don’t make your characters mimic me, because that’s just plain stupid.  It’s like talking down to me.  Like I’m an alien who will only trust you if you pretend to know my language.  No.  I’ll trust you if you let me hear your language.  I’ll listen to you if you speak to me in words that are beautiful and expressive and seduce my senses.  But hey, that was just me as a YA.  Maybe that’s not everyone.
After all, I was reading Anne Rice, Tennyson, Byron, Morely, Service, Stoker, Bronte, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Shelly, Shakespeare, …  I wasn’t reading anything forced upon my age group and set apart from the rest of society.  I didn’t want to know what I had to say, I wanted to know what people, old and young, living and dead, had to say.  If I wanted to know what I had to say, then I’d write.  And I did.
-      YA main characters should be YA age.  Ok, most of my books have a main character that is in the range of say 16-23.  Most of my secondary characters tend to be a little older, probably 25-40 (well, technically 140, but you know how the whole immortal age thing messes the count up.)  I’ve talked about the age difference thing before, so I won’t go into it here.  But, the point is, do all 10 year olds want to read about 12 year olds?  Do all 16 year olds want to read about 18 year olds?  Because, ok don’t be shocked here, I didn’t.  I wanted stories about characters and places that were different, varied, and sucked me into their lives.  They didn’t have to look like me or have lived as long as I did, in fact if they didn’t that was even better.  Why do we think that all YA’s have to look like their characters?  Do we think they are so much different than ourselves?  How do you plan on teaching them about the world or taking them on an adventure if you never make it out of their own back yard and away from their mirrors?
Isn’t reading about going somewhere new?  Challenging your thoughts and perceptions?  Forcing you out of a mold and not into one?  Why feed them bread when we could let them eat cake?  I wanted rich and colorful, exotic and enticing cake!  I wanted everything I wasn’t.  Only in reaching that spot where we our entirely away from our comfort zone can we see everything around us in a whole new light.  Only there can we truly learn what we’re made of, what we stand for and what we believe.  Give them writing that takes them away, so that they’ll learn more about who they are.
-      YA censoring.  Ok, this is a different one for me.  Because even though I read a lot of Anne Rice while I was young, my own writing tends on the ‘clean’ side.  Not because I’m afraid of influencing anyone, because, well, Rice never caused me to go out and do any of the things in her book.  It was a book for goodness sake and I wasn’t a spineless moron.  I had values that no song or book or movie was going to change.  Different world, out of comfort zone, blah blah blah…  Maybe YA’s aren’t quite as impressionable as we’re all thinking.  In fact, maybe letting them out of their designated rows in the bookstore is the perfect kind of education sometimes.  Maybe hearing Rice’s descriptive scenes that made me blush, actually helped me cement my own values while exposing me to a completely different set of ideas. 
I don’t write ‘clean’ because I’m trying to make the list.  I make the list because I tend to write ‘clean’ and adult genres are not really into that.  I fall into the YA category by default.  I didn’t set out to write it.  The way I write just happens to be more accepted there.  But my style of writing isn’t as accepted there.  I use big words.  I don’t try to over explain things.  I don’t pretend that a 140 year old character who looks 30 can’t be with an 18 year old character.  Their immortal for goodness sake, who cares!  The whole point is that time doesn’t matter in that way, it only matters in how you use it, what you do with what you’ve been given, or cursed with as the case may be.
Rules, rules, rules.
The point is, why are we forcing YA books into little molds and then expecting them to be original?  We want all the characters to be 16 year old high school students (but we’re tired of high school scenes), without any dead parents (done to death so to speak), and beautiful immortals (oh, but no vampires, overkill you might say), and do all the cool things (but unexplained wealth is passé), oh and really cool worlds (but getting bored with other dimensions or realms)… WHAT?
What ever happened to writing a really great story, with really deep characters, and words… lots of beautiful and descriptive and thinking words?  Or is that just ‘not done’ anymore?
We have to fit into a box, but also break the mold.
Is that really what YA’s reading YA want?  Because I’m not so sold on it.  It’s not what I wanted.  It’s not what I want now.
Ok, I know that for purposes of agenting, publishing, printing, marketing, categorizing, YA exists and I seem to fall into it.  I’m ok with that.  I hope YA’s are ok with that.  I hope they don’t mind having their own shelves in the bookstore.  I hope they find me if I’m on it one day.  (I’ll try not to get banned from B&N for sitting on their shelves… maybe I should lose weight first.)  But why all the rules?  Why all the expectations about how they should look and talk and act?  A great character is a great character.  A great character will appeal to the masses and touch the heart of the individual.  A great character in a great story will stretch the mind.  A great story will make you question yourself and only leave you stronger. 
Why are we so afraid to give YA’s great characters and great stories?  Why are we so quick to put YA’s in a box and label them?
Give them wings.  Let them fly.  Because if you don’t, well, then they’ll just go shopping in the adult isles instead (that’s what I did!)

Shortly after writing this post I discovered the following post over at In Which A Girl Reads.  Click here to view. I like this post, it’s a teen perspective on some related topics and has great comments posted too.  Take a look, because maybe it is time to reconsider what YA’s are really looking for in YA.
Thank you!

1 comment:

Wendy Delfosse said...

Hey I know I'm late to comment, but I got behind on reading blogs and catching up has been slow. I disagree with some of your points here, Julie. As far as voice I'd say the voice shouldn't be me mimicking a teenager, but it should be my teenage character having authentic voice shine through. That does not have to equate talking down or something else bad. But I don't think the emphasis of an authentic YA voice is a bad thing.

The point isn't that ALL 15-year-olds want to read about 17-year-olds. Teenagers are varied and different--I think we agree there. However, simply being a teenager does not have to equate being a YA reader. A YA reader may be 15 or 50 and a 15-year-old may like to read YA or a bunch of different genres.

Do you read a lot of YA now? More to the point: do you LIKE reading YA now? Cause if the answer is no the problem may not be the "rules" of the genre, but maybe it's just not the genre you like.