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Reading the Abyss: Adult Themes in Young Adult Fiction

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of discussions about the future of Young Adult fiction, and particularly about how adult Young Adult should be. As a high school teacher, I have had the privilege of choosing books for our school library on multiple occasions for multiple school districts. Some school districts gave me nearly carte blanche discretion, and I packed those libraries with books from diverse authors, covering a wide variety of subjects, including race, LGBTQ issues, trauma, drug use, suicide, mental illness, basically the only books I avoided were those that were sexually explicit (because no matter how open minded your principal is, erotica in the school library is never going to fly) or depicted extreme gore.

Then, there was the school district where I tried to assign The Hate U Give to my 9th and 10th graders. I was gently pulled aside by the principal and the counselor and told that the book would not fly with the school board, and since one of my 9th graders had a mother on the school board, this book choice would cause trouble. I could not afford to lose my job, and Texas, my state, has no teacher’s unions that could help me fight, so I purchased multiple copies of the book, put them on my bookshelves and in the library, but I did not assign it as required reading.

The argument for more mature content in Young Adult fiction tends to rest upon the idea that teenagers experience heavy things, even traumatic things, on a day to day basis. If The Hate U Give is inappropriate for teenagers because of the themes surrounding police violence, then where does that leave the Black teenagers for whom police violence is not a fictional situation but an everyday reality? The same can be said for violence, depression, suicide, drug use, abuse, eating disorders. Teenagers experience these things, and pretending like these themes are too heavy for kids alienates those teenagers for whom daily life is a heavy thing, and deprives them of stories that could at the very least show them that they are not alone.

The counterargument tends to rest upon the idea that kids should not be exposed to certain harsh realities if they have not been already. Kids will learn soon enough that the world is a harsh place, so why make them grow up faster than necessary? Reading should provide an escape. In fact, the argument goes, exposure to certain ideas can even be damaging to young people, who are simply not mature enough to handle certain topics. Others even say that certain books glorify topics like eating disorders or suicide, making them more appealing to easily impressionable teenagers. The controversy surrounding the book and television show Thirteen Reasons Why came about in part because many felt it was an irresponsible portrayal of suicide. The character Hannah, who commits suicide, extracts revenge from beyond the grave, making each person who wronged her understand exactly how they contributed to her death. In this scenario suicide seems almost appealing. Should teenagers, particularly teenagers already prone to suicidal feelings, be reading books that make suicide seem like an appealing answer?

As a parent, a teacher, and a writer myself, not to mention someone who was once a teenager, I do not believe that sanitizing young adult books until they are fit for even the most conservative school library is necessary or even best practice for YA authors. It is certainly true that many teenagers have had experiences that mirror, or even eclipse, what appears in young adult novels. By the time I was eighteen I had had sex, done drugs, had a friend who OD’d, driven drunk, been chased by the cops, had a guy try to force himself on me, and another guy expose himself to me. My teenage experiences were, I think, relatively typical for a late Gen-X teenager, and I didn’t need YA books to teach me about those things because I had already learned them through experimenting.

In those days books written expressly for teenagers were few and far between. The generation before me had “issue” books, heavy Young Adult books that moralized on topics like drug use or eating disorders or teenage sex, written by the likes of Judy Blume and Lois Duncan. Kids of my generation, products of the 1970s-mid 80s low birthrates, had fewer options. We graduated straight from middle grades reads like A Wrinkle in Time and then went straight to mass market fiction: Clan of the Cave Bear or The Firm or Interview with the Vampire, books which are marketed to adults and contain content that is well, adult.  However, for the life of me I cannot remember anyone ever objecting to my reading material when I was a teenager. At that time the prevailing wisdom seemed to be, in all but the most sheltered communities, that reading anything at all was better than not reading.

I’m not here to say “well I read what was essentially caveman porn and I turned out fine,” but I can say with certainty that reading adult fiction was not what made me try drugs or get involved with sketchy guys. Those of us who were suburban teenagers in the 90s probably remember our parents’ economic anxiety, the crushing weight of their debts, the mortgages that were unsustainable, the lay-offs and the temporary jobs, the mixed messages – go to college, follow your dreams, but get a good job. What could we look forward to? If you were a young woman, you were taught that you could be whatever you wanted, but you were still assigned Home Economics class while the guys were assigned Shop. If you were LGBTQ, you were growing up in the era of “don’t ask don’t tell,” and you were expected to keep your identity and sexuality to yourself. If you were sexually assaulted, well you were probably “asking for it.”

The American Young Adult fiction market that re-emerged in the early 2000s has dominated publishing for nearly two decades now. Some of the first books to achieve mass popularity were, tellingly, dystopian fiction, that is, books that depicted horrific versions of the future and teens who fight to break free from systemic oppression. There has been a growing movement, since the mid 2010s, for young adult fiction to reflect a realistic demographic. Whereas previously, books published for teens focused almost solely on the experiences of straight white kids, publishing has made an effort to diversify, and publish books that reflect the experiences of BIPOC teens, LGBTQ teens, and disabled teens. Often, but not always, these books include trauma, because often the very act of existing as a Black person or a trans person or a disabled person in the USA is, in fact, traumatic. When a book like The Hate U Give is blocked by school boards with the intention of protecting (white) children from harsh reality or unpleasant topics, what happens instead is that the Black student who might read that book has their reality, their very existence, dismissed and denied.

The anxieties and uncertainties faced by teenagers in 2020 are not created by the fiction they read, instead, the fiction they read reflects their anxieties and uncertainties, and yes, their trauma. The cold and unforgiving truth of the matter is that coming of age in a capitalist system is to experience alienation and to be traumatized by the various ways that this system oppresses those within it. Teenagers in 2020 are living in times of unprecedented uncertainty. A global pandemic, the looming threat of fascism, the terror of impending climate disaster – teenagers today perhaps have the greatest reason for anxiety since those of the 1930s, and if the trend in the 2020s is for fiction to be of a darker sort, then it is easy to understand why. It is rather laughable to think that anything teens could read in a book might be more emotionally damaging than the times that they are living in, and the systems that shape them.

General Writing

Why Mood Matters in a Story

Writing about writing is hard. Everything from world-building and outlining to opening hooks and sentence length has been covered so many times that finding some useful tidbit to add sometimes seems impossible. The truth is, though, that most articles repeat the same banalities and half-truths and plenty of room remains for originality. More importantly, some topics are never covered at all. As someone who started as a poet, I particularly notice the lack of discussion about mood (or atmosphere or tone, if you prefer). Perhaps as a result of this lack, many modern novels come across as flat and distant. So far as mood is created, it is usually by accident, with little control.

By “mood,” I mean the feeling that a passage invokes in a reader. In fantasy, mood used to be so common that it was a defining feature. Fantasy was supposed to be about sense of wonder, whether of awe or terror. The classic fantasies of Lord Dunsany or E. R. Eddison were all about leaving readers breathless in their descriptions of settings and events. As late as Tolkien, mood was an essential part of fantasy. Think of Tolkien’s home-like Shire, or the twilight glories of Rivendell and Lothlorien, or the wasteland that is Mordor, and you will understand immediately what I mean. The descriptions of these places are as important as the characters and plots. They are a main reason why some readers fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. A poet himself, Tolkien offers readers a poet’s eye view of his world.

Yet as fantasy has gained in popularity, mood has been de-emphasized. Part of the problem may be the amount of generic fantasy published. By definition, generic fantasy concentrates on the more superficial aspects — imitators copy elves and orcs more often than Tolkien’s worldbuilding or writing style. Another problem may be that blockbuster movies and games have made fantasy fiction a genre of action or plot, with less attention being paid to subtler aspects like mood. When attention is paid to mood, it is usually to admire the animation or green screen effects, rather than the audience’s response to special effects. As a result, mood has all but disappeared in fiction. With the emphasis on plot, mood is viewed as extraneous to the art of storytelling.

I find this state of affairs unfortunate (by which I mean, comparable to an alien invasion or a tidal wave followed by Godzilla’s relatives arriving all at once for a family reunion). Not using mood is as odd as writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”: you can do it, but why limit yourself so arbitrarily? Especially when the result is so unsatisfactory?

If you doubt what I say, take The Return of the King from the shelf and open it to “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” The chapter describes the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor. The city is vastly outnumbered and waiting for allies who may not come. Detail after detail accumulate to create a feeling of hopelessness. As the chapter ends, Gandalf the wizard confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, who mocks him and promises destruction. Things could not get any worse. Then:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Just like that, the mood of despair, that keeps readers turning the pages with growing apprehension, is replaced by relief with a sentence of five words. The entire chapter, and especially the ending, is a masterpiece of mood control, and proof enough of the importance of mood. I would call it the best writing Tolkien ever did.

But how do you capture some of the same power in your own writing? I have no idea how Tolkien did it, but I have found a technique that works for me. I start by deciding what mood I want to create, and reduce that mood to a single word, such as grief or relief or strangeness. Then I open up the thesaurus and note all the synonyms for that word.

However, I do not use that word, nor any of its synonyms. Besides being unsubtle, that would simply not work. You do not create a mood of horror by using the word “horrible.”

Instead, as I write, I try to choose words and descriptions that create that word. For instance, to give an unsubtle example, to invoke grief I might mention shadow and night, and funeral hymns. Possibly, I might choose a viewpoint of someone who grieves. One word, one phrase at a time, I work, and, if I am successful, a reader will receive the impression I want. If I want to orchestrate a change in mood, as Tolkien does, I repeat the process, and figure how I want to make the transition from one mood to another. In effect, choosing the word is a form of outlining, but for mood instead of actions.

Sometimes, the effect is as simple as a simile or a metaphor. For instance, if I write, “Silence spread like a stain,” the comparison carries a hint of the ominous, of something out of control and wrong. At other times, the effect works through an accumulation of details. For instance, in describing a keep, I could have written simply

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire.

However, I wanted to create a sense of the uncanny, so I wrote:

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire. Giant-built, said others, pointing at the outsized stones. Built by others, harpers said when the fire was reduced to ember. Other folk, human only by whim.

The additional two sentences and fragment steadily move readers from history to legend, to hints of the supernatural — to ghost stories. And with their addition, a snippet of info-dump suddenly becomes more interesting.

Strictly speaking, mood is unnecessary to the story. Yet by working to create it, writers can add to readers’ experience. It may even be the case that, when readers remember a scene or re-read a story, the reason may be that they have been struck by the mood.

Uncategorized

Twitter Pitching 101

Twitter is an invaluable tool for an aspiring writer. Not only can writers connect with each other through various hashtags such as #writingcommunity and #amwriting, but many agents and editors also hang out on Twitter, making it a great place to make industry connections and even pitch your manuscript. Throughout the year various pitch events take place on Twitter, in which agents and editors review submissions from writers and request manuscripts based upon what they see. Many authors have launched their careers after Twitter pitch events, but catching an agent’s eye with a 280 character tweet is not always easy.

Follow the rules

Whatever guidelines the pitch event has set, make sure that you follow them. Being unable to follow simple instructions will not endear you to an editor, so now is not the time to play fast and loose with the rules. If the rules say the pitch must fit inside one tweet, then fit it in one tweet. If the rules say no pictures, then do not include your mood board, no matter how cool it is. Most pitch events have very clear guidelines which are available online, so make sure you review the rules before you pitch.

Remember your goal

Your pitch is not a synopsis of your story, and you do not need to worry about including every detail. The most important thing is that you should grab the viewer’s interest, and make them curious enough to request an actual synopsis. What is the most intriguing thing about your manuscript? This recent pitch, which garnered some interest in the recent #DvPit event, for instance, starts with an intriguing hook that raises immediate questions:

“When Skjall accidentally shoots the daughter of the King, he finds himself thrown down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and blood rites. Now, he is caught between two feuding monarchs determined to destroy each other.”

Don’t be gimmicky

While I have seen gimmicky pitches work occasionally, in general, it is best to be professional and let your pitch speak for itself. Bullet lists, loads of emojis in place of words, pitches in verse — no matter what the gimmick is, agents have seen it before, and I promise they’ll be more impressed with a punchy pitch with a good hook than any attempts at being clever. If you have a strong concept, then gaining the attention of an agent or editor is really a matter of how you present it. You have 280 characters, so rather than wasting them on emojis, show off your skills. A pitch is a form of writing, and if you can’t write an intriguing tweet, how can industry professionals expect you to write a whole novel?

Comp your work

While comps are not required, they are often a good way of conveying a lot of information with a few words, and giving the reader an immediate feel for your manuscript. If possible, try to choose your comps from relatively recent publications, and avoid overly obvious comps, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, which will read as laziness. The general consensus is that movies and even T.V. shows may be used in comps as well, but they should be relatively well known. Normally you should use two works that are relatively different in order to provide a contrast, or something unexpected. If I said, for instance, that I was writing a book that was a combination of The 100, which is a gritty YA Sci-Fi about a group of teens surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and The Selection, a romance about a prince’s competition for a royal bride, there is an element of unexpected to the pairing that an agent might find intriguing. Consider if I said I was writing a book that was The Selection meets The Royal We. While those two books are not really similar in detail, nor in setting, they are close enough in genre and theme that pairing them together as comps does nothing for the pitch.

Try different tactics

Most pitch events allow you to pitch several times throughout the day, so take that opportunity to rephrase your pitch and see which version lands. You may find that some agents are drawn to one version of the pitch, while others are drawn to another. Play around with the phrasing of your pitch and see which version is most effective. If you find one version is most effective, you might re-use that version, making slight changes only. This is usually not against the rules.

Pitch events throughout the year:

January: #SFFPit — an event for science fiction and fantasy pitches

February: #KissPitch — an event for romance and women’s fiction pitches

March, June, September, December: #PitMad — an open event for all unrepresented authors in all genres

April: #DvPit — an event for marginalized and underrepresented voices in publishing, all genres