Sunday, November 16, 2008

Guest blogger Courtney Summers debunks four myths about writing YA fiction.

Colleen called Jeff Probst a hosebag to my internet face last week! I thought you all should know. Also, this season of Survivor is amazing. I thought you all should know that, too. Some people might think it's been a boring slog so far, but by golly, do the contestants seem to really hate on each other in a way that's different from past seasons and it's pretty damn watchable, I must say. Admitting that to you Swivet readers makes me worry about my soul a little bit, but I'm just keepin' it real.

Originally, I was going to write a guest blog about how publishing is like Survivor and Jeff Probst--who is not a hosebag!--would represent agents and Mark Burnett would represent editors and all the writers of the world are (get this) SURVIVORS, but I couldn't tie it all together, so just pretend I did and it was clever. Instead, I'm going to talk about writing YA, the responsibilities therein, and debunk a few YA myths born of said responsibilities along the way... so I guess that means if you don't write YA, I got nothing for you. Sorry. Didn't mean to get all exclusive there. But if you scroll down to the last paragraph, I'm sure there will be ~*sparkles*~ and those are for everyone!

So I write YA novels because--as I said in my first guest post here--I love it. I love doing it. There's a fantastic sense of immediacy in the genre that I'm very drawn to as both a reader and a writer and I could read and write it all day. Pretty straightforward, right? Right.

One of the most interesting things about writing young adult novels is the sense of responsibility that can be and is projected on you by others because you're writing for young adults. I've gotten into some pretty intense discussions about this topic with people from all walks--writers, readers, that poor stranger I accosted on the street--and there never seems to be a consensus about this. If you write YA, are you responsible for your teenage readers? Do you have to be worried about your words unintentionally negatively influencing the Adults of Tomorrow? Do your novels and characters have to serve as a kind of moral compass for them?

Talk about your loaded questions, huh? And it's amazing the way they can and do inhibit people who are interested in writing YA. Consequently, a lot of the questions I've seen from those who want to write for teenagers often begin with, "I can't do X in a YA novel, can I?" And even though there are so many groundbreaking, amazing YA novels out there right now that blow all these can'ts outta the water, they still seem to persist and so I'm going to present to you four old hat "Why Are They Still Common?!" myths about writing books for and about teenagers that personally drive me nuts:
Myth #1: You can't swear in a YA novel
I see this unintentionally hilarious question a lot for some reason. "Can you swear in a novel written for teenagers?" Why yes, Virginia, you effing can. Whether or not you should depends entirely on your character and your story, though. Swear with care--that's my motto! Which, rest assured, has absolutely nothing to do with moderation.

Myth #2: If someone has sex, they must a.) die or b.) contract an STD or c.) end up pregnant in a YA novel.

Not so! Judy Blume totally tackled this one and Judy Blume is the Law. It's okay to portray teenagers having sex, enjoying it, even, and what's more, living to tell the tale. Some people might insist otherwise, but... they're not Judy Blume and like I said. She's the law.

Myth #3: If a character does something 'bad' (ie underage drinking, drugs, stealing, murdering people/puppies etc.) they must be punished for it.

Nope. When writing YA, certain people will want and demand expected consequences when it comes to portraying the grittier parts of life, as though presenting anything but is to lead your teenage audience astray and to glamorize negative behaviours they will then go out an emulate. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes people drink in excess and they don't wake up hungover, sometimes they do drugs and they don't get addicted, sometimes they steal and they don't get caught and sometimes they do something Very, Very Bad like kill a puppy and they walk away without looking back. It's okay if one of these types of people happen to make an appearance in your YA novel.

Myth #4: If you write it, you are advocating/endorsing it.

One word: seriously?!
So in case it wasn't obvious, my answer to all those questions in the fourth paragraph is a straight 'no' across the board. I've personally always felt my responsibility is to my story, my characters and to be as honest and true to them as I can. Anything less feels like an insult not only to them, but to the people that will be reading.

But I'm very interested in hearing from other YA writers and readers on this matter! What say you? Are YA writers responsible for their readers? Should they worry about unduly influencing them? If you write YA, do these things concern you? Weigh in, please!

And, as promised: ~*sparkles*~


Unknown said...

Colleen, Why so much hate my way? Just doing a job, trying to have some fun. Sure I wear the same blue shirts every week and say the same corny lines - it's all part of the fun. Tell me what it is about me that irritates you so... enlighten me. Jeff Probst
Yes it's me.

Unknown said...

Thanks for yet another ~* ! *~ post Courtney and Colleen.

I find I write for all the formerly disaffected, sometimes erratic, about to detonate teens and young adults much like I have been nearly my whole life.

You're so right! The whole spectrum needs to be depicted. People swear, and smoke, and do drugs etc etc, and they also form relationships, make mistakes, persevere, and evolve.

Julie Butcher said...

Ms. Summers,

Thanks for answering every question I posed at my last critique meeting! My group of writers and authors write romance, so I'm flying by the seat of my pants with my YA Urban Fantasy. I had decided to go your route, but it is a great relief to have the validation.
Also, Colleen, Thanks for the nice mention of my brother, Jim Butcher, in your More things to Query, post.

Julie Butcher-Fedynich

Jennifer Hendren said...

Great post, Courtney!

I couldn't agree with you more. When I started writing my first YA, I got into a rather heated argument with a writer friend, who insisted above all else that by including sex, alcohol, swear words, etc., that I was doing some sort of disservice to teenagers and was in fact endorsing said behaviors.

Thankfully, I saw that for the complete hooey it was.

Even now, tho, I notice a general reluctance by adult readers to accept that teenagers can get away with certain behaviors without some adult coming along to check them. Obviously, they were never that age and sprung from the womb full grown adults. (g) Cuz *I* remember what it was like to be that age...and my friends and I got away with plenty. :)

Anyway -- thanks for the post!

KD Sarge said...

I had also come to those conclusions, and am also happy to have some verification. Thanks, Courtney! I was thinking, though, that perhaps the reason the myths stick around isn't because we think the readers would balk--we think the grown-ups in charge of getting the books to the kids might.

Is it harder, do you think, to sell a book of teenagers being teens if your name isn't Judy Blume? I wouldn't censor my characters to get a sale--but I will worry every fourth word that I'm not actually moving any closer to the career I want by writing it.

Emily Hainsworth said...

Dear Ms ~*Sparkles*~Probst,

On the money, as usual! The most heated responses I got to my last MS was from my mother and sister insisting I take out the homophobic dialogue...from a homophobic character. They insisted it was just too offensive. (!!!) I was like, "Do you KNOW people like this?" And they said, "Yes," and I said, "THEN IT IS STAYIN' IN MAH NOVEL."

Keep it real, Yo.

Anna said...

It really depends. I think that when you portray bad or dangerous behavior, the message shouldn't be 'do it, it's cool' but 'people do this, make up your own mind'. There's a difference between telling a story and pushing your ideas.

I'll try to use an example... Okay Twilight. In Twilight, the main boy character acts like a stalker (gets into the girl's room at night to watch her sleep) and is pretty abusive of the girl on an emotional level. And yet this behavior is repeatedly portrayed as romantic and the guy is repeatedly described as the perfect man. I'm old enough to see how unhealthy the relationship is but it seems a lot of the fans don't think for themselves and just assume the author's portrayal of this relationship as the ultimate romance is correct. This makes me very uneasy. No young girl should think it is OK for a guy to climb into her room at night without her knowledge or for a guy to hurt her feelings over and over because it's 'for her own good'. I think these books cross the line between telling a story and encouraging dangerous behavior or encouraging girls to tolerate dangerous behavior.

Unknown said...

Dear Jeff -

Well, you see, there was a debate about werewolves vs. bats and which of the two were more inconvenient as villains and somehow your name got thrown into the mix. I believe I may have denigrated your werewolf-fighting abilities as well...



Jinxie G said...

Ah yes, Judy Blume--my sexual education. haha

I'm so glad you cleared up the myths, not so much for me because I have read many YA novels, but for those who think there's some sort of duty attached to writing one. My opinion: your only duty is to the story, and if it's good without all that stuff, great. If it's good WITH all that stuff, great. Young adults DO those things and they want to read stories they can relate to on a personal level. I have worked with teens for 8 years and know what they like. It varies by clique, but essentially, it's all similar.

In the end, the environment surrounding the kids has much more influence on them than the writer when it comes to those negatives aspects. They'll make their choices no matter what the author writes. It's the people in their lives who influence them, good or bad. But that's just my opinion after working in behavioral health for the last year.

sruble said...

You got them all right Courtney. Serve the story, not the censors and the book banners.

~*sparkles*~ coming back your way!

Daisy Whitney said...

I must admit, I had a lot of worries myself and many of these worries held me back from trying my hand at a young adult novel. But after reading yours and some of my friends' and others that showed the truth of being a teen -- swearing, sex, being bad sometimes -- I got over that sense of being responsible and started writing in this genre.

Susan Adrian said...


*knuckle bap*

You speak the truth.

Unknown said...

Interesting post! However, I don't think it's quite fair to tell beginning YA writers that these are all myths and you can just ignore them.

Yes, all of these things have been done in YA novels, and they'll continue to be done. But for a lot of beginning writers the real question should be whether they can do these things in their novel.

And of course they can, but it's a lot harder to get that book published. It's true you can write about sex without consequences, but looking at most YA fiction, it's still fairly common to see sex = consequences, and as a beginning writer without a rep you're going to have a harder time getting away from that. Not impossible, not that you shouldn't try, just that it may make an already uphill battle that much more... um... uphilly.

There's also a fuzzy gray area in the way you do it. Saying two characters have sex is a lot easier to get accepted than describing it in detail, etc. Having swearing in a street lit book is a lot easier to get away with than swearing in your medieval fantasy, because it's harder to argue that you need it for authenticity. Lots of stuff like that you just have to feel out, or have someone invest the time in you to request edits.

Nancy Farmer herself talks about how sex in YA too often means consequences:

(Search for "beans" to find the relevant section quickly.)

I think if Nancy Farmer (who rocks!) still thinks this is an issue, then beginning writers definitely need to think about how much uphill they're willing to take in exchange for those sex scenes. (Enough that you're willing to put your novel on hold until you've established rep with an easier-to-sell novel, for example?)

Rob Sawyer, an adult SF writer, advises writers to make their first book less experimental and boundary-pushing, because those kinds of books are much easier to sell once you have a rep, so this difficulty isn't even unique to YA, except that in YA sex is pushing a boundary, even if it's one that gets pushed a lot.

Sorry about the wall of text... I'm not saying don't do it. I'm saying be aware what you're getting into as an unpublished writer.

Carradee said...

I believe that every writer is responsible for the content he or she writes. We should be true to our characters, true, but that does not mean that we should, necessarily, actually have a character swearing and using demeaning words for women all the time just because it's true to his character. It's amazing what can be done with some well-structured dialogue and indirect description.

Patricia Briggs, for example, in her Mercedes Thompson series, has a character named Ben. He is a foul-mouthed probable misogynist, who obviously calls women all sorts of names I likely don't even know how to pronounce. The reader KNOWS he's foul-mouthed, and "hears" him that way. Yet we don't actually read any major swearing from him (and maybe not any at all, but I don't remember to be certain), 'til near the end of the third book.

Now, I don't write sweet fluffy stories. My characters' lives are messed up. PPD, white slavery, incest, rape, substance abuse--all are legitimate plot elements, in my book; they're ones I've used. And I am responsible for every word I chose to show to others.

When writers are creative and tasteful and tactful, I find it a lot more memorable and powerful than when they aren't. Then, I just want to stop reading. When writers take responsibility and care with their words, it makes me all the more eager to keep reading.

amberargyle said...

Thank you Carradee!
I completely agree with you. YA readers should not be exposed to porn, or soft porn. Not in a library. You can be true to your characters w/o describing things in all there private details (using such techniques as allusion, fade to black, etc).
Why offend readers anyway? You want the biggest possible audience possible, so why cut out the librarys and the responsible parents/YA readers who don't like their kids fixating on sex at such a young age.
And let me make this clear (you can hate me all you want) SEX HAS CONSEQUENCES. ALWAYS! It can deepen a relationship that isn't ready to go to that level, or force maturity on a person that isn't ready. It could label on or the other party as 'easy.' STD's pregnancy, groundings, misturst, lower self esteem, regret. Let's not make things innocent when they aren't.
As far as the swearing, it's like pepper. A little might add some flavor, too much, and the reader will gag.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I've heard from librarians that too many curse words would keep a YA off their list of books they'd be willing to acquire, and I can't help but think that the terrain is different once you are an established writer.

In a world of people looking for reasons to say "no" to your first time novel, is it too easy for them to say "no" if it's too curse-sex-drugs laden?

Then again, I honestly believe you have to write your PASSION, and that success will follow from that - telling the story only you can tell in the way only you can tell it - and if there's sex, or cursing, or drugs, be aware of how you handle those things, but don't think you can't include them.

A good discussion!



C. K. Kelly Martin said...

That last myth is especially annoying. Thanks for including it so we can all shake our heads at the utter ridiculousness of that.

I have to say I disagree about sex *always* having consequences, Amber. Risks, yes, but not always consequences. I think one of the reasons we so often read about sex having physical or emotional consequences in fiction is because as writers we're drawn to dramatic situations, whether that drama lies in romantic relationships, drug addiction or a fight to the death with everlasting evil.

The fact that sex happens to have consequences in my book actually turned a couple of publishers off. There were those who were perfectly fine with the sex but not with the pregnancy. So I think you're constantly in danger of turning someone off and should just tell the story you want to tell and try not to worry how it will ultimately be received.

"But the fact of the matter is, sometimes people drink in excess and they don't wake up hungover, sometimes they do drugs and they don't get addicted, sometimes they steal and they don't get caught and sometimes they do something Very, Very Bad like kill a puppy and they walk away without looking back."

Definitely! But I bet those people drinking to excess and not getting hung over are under thirty ;)

Annika said...

I can't wait to write some YA so I can write about how AWKWARD sex was the first few times.

courtney summers said...

Jeff!!! I KNEW YOU'D COME. Colleen said you wouldn't, but I ~*BELIEVED*~.

pseudosu: we're on the same page! I think you said it perfectly--"the whole spectrum needs to be depicted."

Julie: thank you for commenting! I'm glad the post helped and good luck with your YA urban fantasy!

Jennifer: thank you! it's a really strange line and people come down firmly on either side... but it sounds like we're on the same one! :)

KD: "[...] perhaps the reason the myths stick around isn't because we think readers would balk--we think the grown-ups in charge of getting the books to kids might." <- I think you're exactly right. And in answer to your question--there is so much raw & honest YA out there, a lot of them debuts (John Green's Looking for Alaska, for instance). I think good writing will always find a home.

Dear ~*Sparkle-E*~, I *love* that story! Love, love, love it! Keep it real, yo, INDEED.

Kalika: thanks for weighing in! I agree that it is important for readers to be able to draw their own conclusions as well. As much as I love Twilight, I did have a few issues with Edward/Bella's love... still, as uncomfortable as their dynamic sometimes made me, that line is going to be different for everyone, and it's impossible to please everyone. I feel a writer should be true to their story/the story they want to tell, and I think SM did so with Twilight. I personally think it more a parental figure's responsibility to instill certain values in teenagers (ie stalking is not romantic! etc) than it is an author's.

Colleen, I wish you had seen that episode of Survivor where Jeff fought the werewolf. It was AMAZING.

Jinx: I *definitely* agree--environment has a bigger influence/impact. Another thing that has been pointed out to me by other writers is that fiction is often a way for teenagers to safely experience certain things--and I agree with that as well. I can think of many books that drew me in for this exact reason alone as a tween/teen.

sruble: thank you! ~*more sparkles*~

Daisy: I am super glad you did. :)

Susan: *knuckle bap*

Michail: the goal of my blog post was not to get YA authors to write a certain way, it was to let them know that they shouldn't let certain pervasive misconceptions about the genre inhibit their writing. My debut YA novel has drinking, sex and swear words in it. I carefully considered every sentence of my work and I was/am aware of what I am getting into in doing so--I would have rather told that story than censored it. As they say, you can't please everyone! :)

Carradee: I take full responsibility for what I write, in the context that I understand I can't be responsible for pleasing every single person who reads what I write. Just because I--or anyone--might write a book that someone somewhere might not find tasteful or tactful (that line is always going to be subjective) does not mean that book should not have been written, or that the author didn't take responsibility for or wasn't careful with their words.

Amber: Holy Da Vinci Code, Batman! Where is this cryptic reference I made that says YA audiences should be exposed to soft porn/porn? Sex does have consequences, I agree (I couldn't help but notice the overwhelming majority of the consequences you've listed are negative). Every action has consequences. But not every action produces an expected consequence. Negative actions do not always = negative consequences and positive actions do not always = positive consequences and I have no problems with books that want to reflect this reality. As I said above, I'm not telling any writer to write a certain way, I am telling them not to let their writing be inhibited by certain misconceptions about this genre and to be true to their stories. Fiction is very subjective and it is impossible to please everyone. Rather than anticipating who you might offend, I feel it's more important to be as truthful to the story you're telling (no matter what the content--from G-rated to R). And I think it's important to give readers credit. In the case of YA, teens are very perceptive--they know when they're being cheated and they're able to draw their own conclusions about what they have read.

Lee: thanks for weighing in! it's true that the use of certain language and themes can create obstacles, but for me personally--I feel it's important to write your passion, as you said. And as you said, I feel that success will follow from that.

C.K.: I gots nothing but, "Amen!" :) And also lulz re: the under thirty comment. (And let it be known everyone, that I think I Know It's Over is a fantastic example of a YA novel that is honest & real & uninhibited by these aforementioned myths. It's amazing.)

Annika: omg. I can't wait til you write some YA either. get on that, lady!!! It will RAWK.

Little Willow said...

Don't you DARE kill puppies! FICTIONAL OR NOT!

Bobbie said...

Late to the discussion this time, but I just received a review from a member of a crit group who loved my story and dialog but, as a parent of young adults, took issue with the language. I only have one character who swears at all, and she only does so when worked up over her abusive father. Her life has been completely screwed up b/c of him, turning her into a cynical smart-(aleck) who uses dark humor and language to cope when talking to her friend. Like you, Courtney, I carefully consider every word she says.

I completely understand parents wanting their children to only be exposed to positive, life-affirming experiences literally or literaturally (yes, it's made up but apt). I'm a mother, too. Yet my concern is that of others who post here: the kids may like it and want to read it, but what of parents who say no to the language, the sex, and the other hot-button issues? You want to be true to yourself and your characters, but do we have to find a balance as well? Can we make compromises without selling out? And if so, how do we know when to say when? Kids today don't put up with preaching or pandering, so they're going to know when we intentionally point out the consequences of teen sex or hand them an unauthentic character who's completely messed up but never says anything worse than "heck" or "darn."


pls said...

I continue to be amazed that some writers and critics are still stuck in '50's-era Victorian sensibilities when it comes to YA fiction:

1. I may be responsible for MY words, but I'm not responsible for my readers' reactions to them. I may be going out on a limb by assuming that few if any young sociopaths read Judy Blume and then committed atrocities as a result ... but I am NOT assuming anything when I state that young readers are not stupid. YA novels are NOT written to be didactively instructive; they are entertaining and possibly informative.
2. The story in any novel, YA or not, should dictate what should be included. If you have to stop the story to permit the characters to cuss, drink, have sex, or anything that doesn't move the story along, you should delete the passage that stops the story. Which swear words you choose to use are irrelevant, as there's not a teen alive that doesn't understand each and every one of them. On the other hand, like any expressions, they should be used sparingly for effect, and if the foul-mouth teens gets creative with them, s/he should also be creative in the novel.

Dal Jeanis said...

sex = consequences?

How is that possible?

1) If there is anything in your novel that doesn't have consequences, why is it there? Really.

2) Verisimilitude is important. Fiction needs to contain truth. Sex has consequences in real life. Social, emotional, physical, and statistical consequences.

By the time they leave college, half of American YAs will have permanent STDs, a quarter abortions. Deal with it.

On the other hand, not all possible consequences happen every time you do something. If you speed, you get a ticket, right? Every time? Sure....


3) Not every consequence has to be explored in every case. You're writing a story, for God's sake, and individuals experience different paths.

However, be honest with your readers. If a guy acts like a possessive stalker, he'll have a hoard of other abusive character traits and eventually hit you.

[nods to Kalika's Twilight paragraph, and remembers the movie Pretty in Pink ...]

4) The fact that you *can* do something does not mean that it is mandatory. There are lots of teens that don't swear and don't use drugs and don't have sex. It depends upon your setting and milieu.

Also, just because something happens, doesn't mean you have to show it. Two teens can walk off stage and come back later with soft smiles. Maybe they were just playing Parcheesi...

4) The story is more important than the exact swear/drink/sex act at any given point. Like in any other novel, sex should only occur when it *shows* something about the characters, especially how their relationship is changing.

Swearing should only occur when it shows something you can't show a fresher, more imaginative way. A long-neglected Hollywood quote indicated that "every swear word takes the place of something fresher and more original that should have been there."

Also, beware of using slang words for swearing - they spoil faster than milk products.

danceluvr said...

If that is truly Jeff Probst, why aren't you on an island somewhere with the next group of survivors?

amberargyle said...

Let me just say that I have read many a passage that I would classify as soft porn. How could detailed descriptions of sex acts not be? Some of them have been YA.

All actions have consequences and I firmly believe that for the vast majority (99%) of "teenagers", these consequences are negative. Teenagers are neither mature enough or savvy enough to make those kinds of decisions.
You can disagree with me. That's your right, but I've seen way to many of my high school classmates suffer (and continue to suffer) for the decisions they made in HS.