Sometimes A Guy Can’t Win

By John Gilstrap


I’m no expert in young adult fiction, but over the past ten years or so, I’ve consumed more of it than I ever did when I was a young adult. (I don’t think that “young at heart” counts in this context.)


I’m an avid Harry Potter fan—in fact, I already bought my tickets for the July 15 opening. I love the concept of the boy wizard who has no idea who he is, but even more than that, I love the interaction of the characters. They seem very real to me. They’re not the best-written books in the world (J.K. Rowling loves adverbs enough to create brand new ones on the fly), but that doesn’t matter because the stories are so compelling. The characters are so compelling.


There’s no doubt in reading the Potter books that it’s Harry’s story. Still, the secondary characters really sing. Hermione Granger is among my favorites. Smarter than any of the boys, she has a strong moral center, and she’s willing to fight for what she believes. Cupid delivers her a few tough blows along the way, but never once does she go to that self-destructive place that seems popular in other YA stories I’ve consumed recently. She never ties her self-actualization to the whims of a jerk.


Then there’s Bella of the Twilight series—whiner in chief. Never mind that she has no interest in Jacob, the guy who actually loves her and treats her like, well, a human being. Never mind that Edward is constantly pushing Bella away. Let’s concentrate for a moment on the fact that Bella has to die to be with the one she loves. Yeah, I know, dying is part of the construct of the whole vampire craze, but in the second of the Twilight stories (or, at least the second movie I watched), Bella sees self destruction—multiple suicide attempts—as the only way for Edward to pay attention to her.


If you’ve read this blog for any time at all, you know that I am 100% against censorship in all of its forms, but is this really the message with which American girls bond so thoroughly? Is there a purer form of narcissism than the gambit of “If you don’t pay attention to me, I’ll hurt myself”? How is this remotely empowering to young girls?


When did it become cool for girls to hand their emotional future over to some guy who treats her like crap?


Most recently, I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, in which young Katniss Everdeen (a girl) has to fight 23 other teens to the death in a contest that is televised as a sporting event. The Hunger Games is the new Big Thing in YA fiction. Having read and enjoyed Battle Royale—a Japanese version of a story that is strikingly similar—I thought I’d give Katniss and her adventures a whirl. It’s actually a pretty good book.


Katniss is no Bella. She can thread a needle with a bow and arrow at 50 yards, and she doesn’t take crap off anybody. As luck would have it, one of her opponents in the games is Peeta, a boy her age who fell in love with her at first sight back when they were both six or seven years old.


MILD SPOILER AHEAD


Peeta repeatedly saves Katniss’s life at the risk of his own, and he announces his love for her on national television, but she pays little attention because her heart belongs to another guy. It’s the conceit of the story that Katniss suspects that he’s merely using professed love as a strategy, but in the author’s hand, Katniss just comes off as obtuse at best, moronic at worst.


SPOILER ENDED


I know it’s all fiction, but for these stories to resonate as they have, there has to be some element of universal truth. Is this really how the adolescent female mind is wired? Do good guys have any chance at all—and in this case I mean that literally, as in guys who are good to others?


Okay, don’t answer that. Good guys are doomed—at least among adolescents and certainly in YA fiction. The romance of the “bad boy” is at least as old as the printing press. Certainly, as far back as my own high school days, really hot girls have always been drawn to the guys who treat them like crap. The good news is that like everything else about adolescence, most people outgrow the roles they play as teenagers and ultimately get their heads straight.


During that transitional time though, when the out-growing is underway, I hope there are some strong parental hands on the tiller.


When all is said and done, though, Hermione will have been a lot more help creating well-balanced young ladies than Bella ever was.

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What’s wrong with readin’ that?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The Guardian book blog recently had a piece entitled nothin‘ wrong with teen fiction’ which discusses the ‘raised eyebrow and indrawn breath’ that we all remember so well when we were caught reading something that was (disapprovingly) considered ‘teen fiction’. You remember the books – the ones by Judy Blume or VC Andrews – the ones that your teacher regarded as something akin to eating Lucky Charms for breakfast rather than whole-grain granola, in the belief that teenagers should be eating a diet of classics by the likes of the Brontes, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

Now that I am in the midst of final edits to my own young adult WIP, I am reminded of the snobbishness with which high school teachers seemed to regard these popular teen books and I’m starting to wonder, with the advent of bestselling series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, whether the same prejudices still apply when it comes to genre or mass-market teen fiction. Are teachers still curling their upper lips and flaring their nostrils or are they just relieved to see teens reading anything at all?

My own guilty pleasures as a young teenager included Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean thrillers, a drippy historical girls’ school series in which I got to channel my fantasies of going to a Swiss finishing school and marrying a doctor, and various TV/movie tie-in books which had all the literary merit as a bowl of cocoa puffs. I have to also confess to devouring Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, but at least this was something my English teacher could relate to…she reserved her horror for the girls who tried to do book reports on novels by Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel.

There is only one book, however, that I remember was (virtually) banned at my school. It was a coming of age book called Puberty Blues and for a young teenager (I must have been about 12 at the time) the fact that my own mother disapproved of it was enough to ensure that I had to clandestinely procure a copy. Now I think back I can’t understand what all the fuss was about – except for the sex and drugs there was nothing controversial:) Today’s teenagers would no doubt think it very lame.
So here’s my question – what books do you remember drawing the ire of your parents and teachers? What ‘teen fiction’ books were you guilty of enjoying? Do you think any of this snobbery has changed or are popular teen books still looked down and frowned upon?
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Quick, Catch That Voice!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


My current WIP uses a first person perspective which is new for me. New, not only because I usually write in third person (a close third person voice I grant you), but also because this time the first person narrator is a seventeen year old. Oh and living in 1914. So last week I just rewrote the first chapter for a third time – not because I’m anal (well…) but because I hadn’t nailed the voice yet.

For any novel I think voice is important but when dealing with a first person narration it’s critical – as far as I’m concerned a reader has to fall in love, has to inhabit the ‘body and soul’ of the narrator, right from the first page or (I fear) the novel is doomed to fail.


Why did I chose the first person POV for this book? Well, almost all YA novels adopt this perspective and I think wisely so. The journey normally taken in a YA novel is, after all, a journey of self discovery, one we want the reader to identify with as closely as possible . However, once I adopted the first person it was much harder than I had anticipated to get the voice just right. I’ve had a ‘challenging’ few weeks…and the process I went through to try and establish the ‘voice’ of my protagonist Maggie Quinn was far from perfect, but here’s what I did…

  1. I reserved and read as many YA historical/paranormal books I could. I took note of how the authors approached the issue of voice and how they appeared to achieve making that voice as authenticate and compelling as possible. The best YA book I read so far was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (an awesome book which is also illustrative of the fact that great YA books are really just great adult books with strong YA characters and themes).
  2. I started compiling a backgrounder for Maggie and brainstormed ideas about her inner self – delving even deeper perhaps than I have done for other characters in previous books (but then again that may also be because my husband is convinced Ursula Marlow is actually me!).
  3. I then walked around for a week or so with Maggie in my head, ruminating on how she would act and react to things.
  4. I drafted a prologue and first chapter.
  5. Read it. Realized the voice was not there.
  6. Got despondent. Decided perhaps I should focus on research for a day or so…
  7. Tossed the prologue – don’t need one!!!
  8. Rewrote chapter one. Wrote snippets of key parts for chapters two, three and four (as an outliner I already had these place marked:))
  9. Read second draft…realize I have no talent for writing whatsoever (shit!). Got even more despondent.
  10. Watched teen movies. (John Hughes, come back!)
  11. Did more historical research….
  12. Walked around a bit more with Maggie in my head. Still despondent.
  13. Rewrote chapter one again…and then a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Maggie is finally taking form. (hmm…is that ‘lucky’ number 13??)

So how do you approach the issue of voice? How do you know when you ‘have it’ or you don’t? What challenges do you see for someone attempting a first person POV – any advice on the do’s and don’ts? I’m already realizing it’s limitations but believe it or not, I think I’m starting to finally enjoy it…until next week when I reread chapter one and decide Maggie’s voice (and my writing) sucks once more.

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The YA Market

Now that I have finally finished the third Ursula Marlow book, Unlikely Traitors, I’m turning my attention to a few ideas I have for a young adult novel and I need help! This is pretty much an entirely new area/market for me. I confess I’ve always been a sucker for children’s and YA books – I’ve devoured Harry Potter, guiltily polished off the Twilight series, relished the Luxe books and when it comes to TV and movies I have been known to have more than a passing interest in all things high school. I guess I just never grew up…so now I want to indulge my passion for history, mythology and mystery in the YA market – but where to start in terms of looking at the YA market? Here’s where I need some help.

My first question is the state of the YA mystery market…Is there even such a thing? It seems from my initial research that the YA market is dominated by paranormal and fantasy books. Even in the historical context what I’ve read has a decidedly paranormal bent – either that or it’s Gossip Girls for the 1900 set. So does anyone have any recommendations or insights into YA mysteries? Are there any that you would highly recommend? Is there even a market for YA mysteries anymore (most seem designed for a younger more middle grade or elementary school readership…)

The second question is – does history totally suck for most YA readers? This is another concern I have – that history equates with deadly dull – do you think that’s true? What about recommendations – any really cool historical YA books out there that I should check out?

Finally I have to wonder, am I actually thinking about a YA book or is it an adult book with a young protagonist??? At this stage it’s difficult for me to tell. I guess what I’m really wondering about is voice and which authors out there have a strong grasp of what I’d call the YA voice…Again any recommendations?

I’m at the research phase at the moment so any insight or recommendations you could provide would be greatly appreciated. It’s my first foray into the YA market but it feels right…Of course, writing the next Twilight series would definitely feel very, very, right…but at the moment I’ll settle for just gaining some insight into this market and (hopefully) writing the best book I can…
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No Kids Allowed!

LBenedictAug08 We’ve been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I’m thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it’s also a must-read.

Without further ado…
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.bene_lonely heartscopy

Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.

A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)

I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"

My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.

I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it.  Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.

So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!

www.laurabenedict.com
Notes From the Handbasket
CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, Now available from Ballantine Books!
ISABELLA MOON, Available in trade paperback

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