Monday, March 19, 2012

Sex, Young Adult Novels, and What I learned from Jessica Simpson

I write primarily YA novels.

I have a certain set of personal moral beliefs.

I feel responsible for potentially influencing people who read my books.

I cannot write in a way that would be contradictory to my beliefs.

That said, my characters don’t always hold my beliefs. They don’t make choices I might make or live in worlds I’ve experienced (except through them.) They are different. They are varied. Their story is their own.

So what is my obligation as a writer to uphold the values I cling to, while at the same time exploring the lives of characters very different from myself?

As a general guide I ask, would I be embarrassed if my own children read this one day? I think it’s a good gauge. It lets me know if I’m writing for the truth of the story or the overly sensational grab. My characters will make mistakes. My kids will make mistakes. The point of life is not living it perfectly, but learning and changing. Sensational adds no value to the story, but without mistakes there would be no story.

So if my characters are flawed. If they make mistakes that I cannot condone nor glorify, how do I maintain my integrity as a writer and allow their mistakes to be visible?

I think my own personal convictions show through in my stories. Sometimes they’re subtle, sometimes less so. It depends on the characters and how their views differ from mine. One thing I tend to find is that cause and effect are a way to show conviction without preaching beliefs. If my characters make a choice, that choice will launch a series of events. Are those events proving their choice to be beneficial or harmful to them? By showing cause and effect I’m able to convey good or bad choices in a realistic light. I can say - maybe this character did this particular thing, but did it turn out well? Without telling the reader what to think.

The one area this comes into question more than anywhere else is sex. I have my beliefs. My characters don’t always share them. So if I’m writing real characters, they’re not going to make the choice I would make. Being YA, this becomes an even touchier point. There are only so many methods and times that characters can abstain before the story begins to look contrived. In real life would they just keep pushing it away or claiming to be ‘old fashioned?’ Ask 8 out of 10 teenagers and the answer is no.

But I don’t want my characters hopping into bed. I don’t want my readers to think that’s ok by my standards. I have a moral duty to influence people toward my values, not away from them. I have a duty as a writer of mainstream novels to write true characters and not preachy stories.

So where do I find that place that can satisfy all my requirements?

I turn to Jessica Simpson for the answer.

You see, before she ever married Nick, she was portrayed as this deeply religious girl, devoted to her faith, protecting her virginity, guarding her heart and wearing a ring to signify her purity. Then she got married. Suddenly she became all about the sex. Sexy outfits, sexy talking, and basically running around shouting how wonderful sex was and let’s all have more.

Ok, there’s a problem here. Yes, as a married person I think it’s great that she loved having sex with her husband. But she went from prude to fiend overnight. Just because she did it by the book she felt that all restrictions were off and it didn’t matter whom she influenced or how. I disagree.

How will I stop my writing from becoming like Jessica Simpson’s love life?

First off, I believe in making my readers feel the story, without showing them the gruesome details. I’ve got to keep it clean. For me, and for them. Whether my characters do it my way, or some other way, I write it with respect. If I’d close my door, then maybe they need to as well.

Second, they have to have reason behind what they do. If they choose to wait, or not, to stray, or not, it must be clear to the reader why they made the choice they made. Going along with that is the whole cause and effect thing as well. I must convey consequences.

Last, I have to consider my audience. When I was a teenager, I read Anne Rice. If you’ve read her then you know that she doesn’t shy away from details and her characters have considerable moral flaws. I loved her characters and their struggles. They were so unlike my own. I would read and then be launched into arguments in my head about why they thought what they did or chose what they did. I could read the gratuitous parts and not be influenced in any way to go out and emulate their actions. Their morals did not alter mine. In fact, their struggles gave me a reason to consider more deeply why I held the convictions I do.
I believe that a well posed question is worth more than a thousand answers given. The questions her characters posed and never clearly answered made me find the answers and strengths in my beliefs.

Because of my experience I tend to view young people as a lot stronger and a lot less persuadable than most people treat them. I think by the time you’re reading YA, you have opinions and you’re more apt to fight for them than push them aside for someone else’s.  I also have to consider that this is not always the case. Maybe I was unusual. Maybe things in my life had given me a different kind of conviction than some young people have.

I have to realize that once a book is written, I am responsible for how it changes people. I have to be true to myself while telling a story that might be very different from my own.

Dang, this gets tricky.

So, now you might ask me if I’ve ever written a book I wouldn’t publish.

Yes, I have. I love the story. I think the characters are very true to themselves. The consequences to their actions are clear. Yet I would not publish the story. Why? Their voices are too different from my own. They speak more openly than I’m comfortable with, although it’s right for their voices. If I altered the story and took away the parts I’m uncomfortable with, then it wouldn’t be true to them. So I can’t.

What I’ve written is tame compared to most adult novels, and most that I’ve read myself. In fact I’m completely fine with a lot of people reading it. But I can’t put it on a shelf, place my name on it, and allow just anyone to pick it up. There are too many moments that I don’t agree with the characters. There are too many places where what they do could be seen in the wrong light. Some might consider it crazy to limit yourself like that. But I wouldn’t feel right doing anything less.

I write mainstream books, because to me that's the most effective way to tell my stories.

I write YA, because it’s where my passion and my comfort lie.

I answer to an editor that doesn’t work at a publishing house. I have to listen to the feedback I’m getting, so the standards of my editor are maintained.

While there are many constraints placed on novels within the YA publishing world, I have a few of my own too. For the most part it’s easy however. I write the stories that play in my mind and capture my heart. If I’m moved or thrilled or fall in love, then perhaps my readers will feel the same. If I capture a question and convey an answer, perhaps my readers will be challenged.

Because really, the most important thing I need to do is write a good story.

The rest will fall into place.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Great post. I think it's so funny some of the "YA" books published have more gratuitous sex than a harlequin novel. But I wrote a YA book with a marriage proposal and was told that "it was too mature." So sex is okay, but marriage is not.