Friday, November 14, 2014

In Defense of YA Fiction

I haven't blogged in a long while, but I'm working on changing that! In the meantime, here is an essay I wrote for an application into an MFA program. I decided to post on here since it was a big debate recently.  

Why Young Adult Literature Matters (and not just to kids)

In June of this year, Slate published an article that sparked substantial debate. The premise of the article, written by freelance writer Ruth Graham, is that adults should not be reading young adult (YA) literature. The main point of the argument, which was buried deep in the article, was that if adults “are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something” (Graham). In addition to making the grave error of lumping all YA into the category of “maudlin teen dramas,” this argument demonstrates a sincere lack of knowledge about the YA genre. The best YA is complex, and anything but maudlin. Like any great literature, great YA literature is breath-taking, deeply conflicted and full of wonder and darkness. However, unlike adult literary fiction, which Graham champions as the highest form of writing, YA literature also contains hope. Therein lies its greatest appeal.

Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century, literature began to change to depict a dark world devoid of hope. Writers like Shirley Jackson, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor wrote stories that depicted depravity with no glimmer of light at the end. Literary works from this period often “were increasingly self-aware, introspective, and explored the darker aspects of human nature” (Merriam Webster, 1236). While not all writers followed this model, they were often not taken as seriously as their darker counterparts until later. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, for example, were looked somewhat disdainfully as books for children, and therefore not serious works. Ironically, this is a viewpoint that Graham and others continue to advocate today.

To illustrate her point, Graham singles out a literary novel titled Submergence, which she describes the virtue of by stating it “ends with a death so shattering it’s been rattling around in my head ever since.” The author of Submergence is J.M. Ledgard, a writer the New York Times describes as being “concerned with confinement, savagery and despair” (Skloot). While not concerned with confinement and savagery, I’d argue that Bridge to Terebithia has moments of great despair, as well as a shattering death. However, in Bridge to Terebithia, the author does not leave the reader to wallow in grief. She provides a glimmer of hope, as Jesse opens his heart to let his little sister May Belle into Terebithia, which begins to heal his pain over his loss.

While Graham finds endings of “emotional and moral ambiquity” satisfying because she equates them with the “real world,” she is mistaken. The world may be full of emotional and moral ambiquity, but people are not. People may have moments of ambiguity, but these moments are usually resolved. Life does not like ambiguity. Life often demands we make a choice, or forces a choice upon us. While some people may choose to wither away after suffering a loss, most find a way to rise up and move on. Damaged, perhaps, and more weary, but they generally do not give up. If Graham feels that teens need literature that holds back painful truths, she underestimates them. If she feels that adults must be crushed under what life deals, she underestimates them as well. One of the most enduring stories of all time, Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, is timeless because it demonstrates that as long as we are alive it is never too late to rise above the grief and pain we’ve experienced. The ending of Dicken’s tale is not ambiguous or messy as Graham would prefer, yet it endures as one of the greatest works of literature.

 In YA literature, the greatest works are driven by the characters in the story. They make their own way, and rise above their challenges. They do fail, and often, but they eventually pick themselves up again. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen demonstrates remarkable resilience in the face of unthinkable horror. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry’s self loathing and anger at her father’s absence holds her back and prevents her from rescuing her father and brother until she overcomes those flaws. As readers, this is more than just comforting to us, it is inspiring. Excellent literature, YA included, takes us on an emotional journey leading us to discover new truths or reinforces old ones. It not only can’t sugarcoat the truth. It must be honest to a fault.

 Another flaw in Graham’s argument seems to be that she feels literature must have some other purpose than the enjoyment of reading. As Non Pratt writes in an article for The Guardian, Graham feels that “literature should confound and discomfit and present characters with whom it is difficult to empathize” (Pratt). The enjoyment of reading YA comes mainly from its characters. It seems to be a hallmark of adult literary fiction to create protagonists with whom we dislike or at best are ambivalent towards. In YA, it is essential that the protagonist is, if not likable, at least redeemable or possessing redeeming qualities.

Finally, Graham indicates that as grown-ups, we should roll our eyes at descriptions of breathless first love and other flights of youth. This is where we see the problem Graham truly has with YA literature. Connection to the story is an essential part of the reading experience. If our youth is full of regrets, or if youth themselves are viewed disdainfully, or if for some reason we are unable to emotionally relate to those younger than ourselves, then we might have difficulty reading YA literature as adults. However, that does not indicate a problem with YA literature, or with adults who read it. It simply means that this person has emotionally separated from youth, and this is arguably not an entirely healthy thing. Graham herself says that she experienced “some of the most intense reading experiences” of her life reading YA literature as a young adult, even though she has no desire to go back and re-read them. The question Graham needs to be asking herself is not whether adults should or shouldn’t read YA. The question should be why does she not want to. After all, the majority of responses to her article have disagreed with it, suggesting she is not on the same page as many of her peers.

Young Adult literature is an essential literary form. It has the freedom to go places adult literature doesn’t willingly go, places adult literature has outgrown. It reminds us of a period of our lives when the very shape of who we are was forming. As writers of YA literature, we can learn from Graham’s article. We do need to make sure our writing is full of astonishing sentences, big ideas about time and space and love, and characters who become as real and memorable to us as people we know and love. We can look to YA literature that does exactly that for inspiration; books like A Wrinkle in Time or A Dark is Rising. Most importantly, we need to stick to our script of writing truth about the harshness of the world, but tempered with the knowledge that there is always hope.

We owe this to our readers, whatever their age may be.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The weekend is coming…do you have your writing time planned?

If you are like me—employed full time, parent, stressed, harried, rushed, etc…—you need to make the most of your writing time when you get it. It’s taken me years to learn that I can’t just duck into my writing hole and work for thirty minutes when the opportunity does finally present itself. Instead, I’ve learned to plan ahead. You think this would be obvious, but my wife spends more time planning play dates for our kids than I do planning my writing time.

There seems to be something about writing that makes us feel like it has to spontaneous to be genuine, but this suggests that writing only happens when we sit down at the computer. But that isn’t the case. Our subconscious continues to work as long as we continue to work on the book on a regular basis. All planning does is move that subconscious work forward into a plan before we sit down at the computer.
Here are some ideas for planning your next writing time.

Think about the scene you will be writing next, and write down what the goal of that scene is. Ask yourself how it moves the story forward. If you don’t know what the next scene is going to be, then ask yourself what does need to happen next to move the story forward.

Jot down any sensory details that spring to mind to help you get a head start on visualizing the scene when you are at your computer.

List plot details that need to be revealed/introduced/resolved in this scene. If you are struggling with your scene, make this a brainstorming list and put down as many ideas as you can think of. Remember, a good scene has conflict and moves the story forward.

Finally, list ideas for the next scene in case you really get rolling. Even if you don’t, this will give you something to think about for your next writing time.

If anyone else has thoughts on how to make the best of limited writing time, please feel free to share them!

Friday, June 10, 2011

We make our own destiny

I'm going to make a goal of regularly posting on this blog, so for those few followers (my wife, my brother, the dog, etc...), please check back frequently and feel free to comment.

It's been rough writing for the past year or so. I've learned that as a writer, you may go through periods of not wanting to write. The guilt that happens during these periods can be substantial, but I've come to realize that sometimes the creative part of your brain needs to step back and pause for a while. I've also learned some tricks for reducing the time your brain needs to recharge. This may seem obvious, but in case some of you haven't experience this problem, I'm going to list them here.

1. First and foremost, read. Read books you truly love. Ones that inspire you and make you remember why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. Enjoy the break your brain is giving you and indulge yourself here.
2. Refresh, reorganize, revitalize your workspace. It's kind of like when you were a kid and you reorganized your room. It feels new and fresh, and makes you want to sit in your chair and work.
3. Research. If you have a book idea in mind, and you find the topic or subject matter interesting, immerse yourself in it. Don't worry about trying to force the information into plots, scenes or settings for your book. Just enjoy the learning.
4. Read inspirational books on writing. A Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes, Take Joy by Jane Yolen.
5. Relax- Take a vacation, even if it is sitting in a lounge chair in your backyard. Writing is work, and if we don't allow ourselves a break, we will burn out.

That's all for now. I promise it won't be over a year before I post again!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's been a long seven months since I last posted. I'd like to say I've been busy writing, but for a good portion of that time, I couldn't bring myself to do much writing. Some days, it seemed completely pointless. I know it all writers feel this way at times. In fact, I'd been down this road many times, but this time I was having a difficult time making my way back.

I think what made it different this time was the close calls. Editors kept getting excited about my manuscripts only to end up passing because of another title on their list, or someone else in their office giving it the thumbs down. The result was a rollercoaster that was truly making me sick.

To the rescue came my longsuffering wife and my almost as longsuffering agent. My wife gave me a gift card to Barnes and Noble and told me to go rediscover my love of books. My agent sent me "Take Joy" by Jane Yolen, which reminded me of the whole reason I wrote in the first place. For the love and joy of it. Publication, when it comes, should be the icing, and not the cake.

Hopefully, I won't forget this again. But if I do, hopefully, my wife and/or my agent will remind me yet again that writing is a labor of love.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Okay, deleted the pity trip entry

I deleted the last entry because I figured out what was bothering me as I was worked on one of my manuscripts the other night. The novel is about the main character coming to terms with the death of his mother. Of course, to write this with the correct emotion and sensitivity required, I used my feelings regarding the death of my own mother. And I wondered why I was feeling blue afterwards...

In any case, I think drawing on personal experiences and your emotional responses to them is a great way to make sure your character's feelings come off as real and not forced. You just have to be prepared for the emotional baggage that comes along with it!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Perseverance

I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in any other activity that required more perseverance than the quest for publication. There are so many barriers you have to overcome, it hardly seems worth it. First, you have to write your book, which is no small task itself. Then comes revision, which can be even more difficult to face. At least when you wrote you book, you were in the honeymoon period; getting to know each other and being surprised by what you discover as your relationship progresses. Revision, though, is when the honeymoon is over and you are fighting each other at every step. Then comes the quest of finding an agent or publisher, which means dealing with rejection and long waits, which can drive you mad if you aren’t writing something else in the meantime.

I think the only way a writer can persevere is to keep writing, and to do so is critical. The hard part is maintaining your enthusiasm for writing new books while you wait for the submission process to play out with your existing manuscripts. This can be really hard to do, because waiting fuels that little voice in your head that tells you you're no good and you should just give up.

There are times when I wonder if I should just quit. But a person who is truly a writer at heart can’t simply quit. Even when I allow myself to take a week or two break, I get depressed, cranky and irritable. So, quitting is not an option, at least if I want to stay married.

So when I find myself getting depressed, I think of Hilari Bell, a wonderful and successful writer. I heard her speak on this very topic at a conference. In her case, she wrote 14 books before one of them was acquired for publication. After that, she sold most of the others in quick succession. Think of it as building inventory. The more you have in your inventory, the more you can sell.
Perseverance, while not my favorite word, is a necessary companion on the path to publication. As Samuel Johnson said over 200 years ago “Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”

So don’t quit. Focus on the one part of the publication process you have control over and keep writing. If you persevere, the rest will follow.

Fear- Life's Greatest (first posted April 2007)

Starting a new novel is much harder than it sounds. This will be my fourth novel, not counting a couple that were never finished, and I keep thinking it will get easier each time. But this time it’s harder. Maybe because this time I know someone else besides my wife will be reading it.

When I told my critique group members that one of the emotions I was feeling after getting signed by an agent was fear, no one was more surprised than myself. Why on earth would reaching this milestone cause fear? You’d think fear would lessen as my career progressed. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “fear defeats more people than anything else in the world..” I couldn’t agree more. Fear kept me from having children until I finally mustered up the courage to become a father. Maybe the upside is that I’m a better father because of waiting, but it also means one of my children never got to meet their paternal grandmother, and the other was only two months old before she died. Fear robbed me of the joy of watching them together.

It’s much the same story with writing. Fear kept me from seriously attempting to write a book for several years. Once I beat that, it prevented me from sending my work out for a couple of more years. And now that I’m making real progress, it’s rearing it’s ugly head again. It’s a clever thing, fear. It knows what scares you. It knows just what to say to get you out of that chair and do almost anything else rather than allow you to live up to your full potential. Whether or not you believe in the devil himself, there is indeed something assailing our spirit, holding us back at every step.

So last night, I sat down at the computer and forced my fingers to start to work. I typed “Chapter one” and wrote a paragraph. It wasn’t a bad paragraph either. It’s nothing that would set the literary world on fire. But it was decent. More importantly, it was progress. With each key stroke, that awful little voice that tells us we are nothing, that we are crazy for believing anyone would ever want to read something we wrote, that we aren’t worth being loved, or that we can’t lose weight, or that we can get a better job… that voice grew quieter.

Fear will always be there, lurking in the dark parts of our soul. But there is one remedy: courage. And how do we find our courage? Courage is, quite simply, choosing not to listen to fear. It is action, whereas Fear is inaction. So, face it head on by doing exactly what it doesn’t want you to do.

I doubt that I will ever be able to eliminate fear, but I can do the next best thing. I can rob of its power, until it becomes a laughing stock, a faint shadow of a once great and terrible monster. John Quincy Adams wrote that courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. The beautiful thing is, that talisman exists in each and every one of us, just waiting for us to find it.