Writing What You Know

This post is not going to be about the new HBO show Girls because that’s the last thing this world needs. But I suppose I should it some credit for today’s post because it relates to what I’ve been thinking about, writing-wise, lately. “Write What You Know” is a maxim taken straight out of Writing 101, but I think it’s been getting abused.

I’ve long been an advocate of writing what you know, and I’ve written about it before (way back in 2009) when I discussed a young writer, Nick McDonell, who wrote his acclaimed novel Twelve when he was seventeen. Like Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, McDonell is from a privileged New York upbringing and used his limited worldview to his advantage (he’s now 28 and has three published novels with protagonists that aged along with him). The similarities between McDonell and Dunham end there, and I actually feel guilty even putting them in the same sentence.

What Nick did that Lena doesn’t is that he drew from what he knew rather than recreated it. In Dunham’s 2010 movie Tiny Furniture, she writes about a college graduate who moves back in with her mother, an artist (like her real-life mother), and deals with being a post-Gen X twenty-something. Girls is not much different. The situations she and her friends get into are very specific to being an educated twenty-something in post-recession America who consciously ignore the huge safety net beneath them.

Some will relate to this, others won’t. For me, it was beside the point. What it came down to was “was I interested in this story?” and the answer was no. Then (always relating back to writing), I said to myself, “this is why I’m not excited about New Adult.”

I’ve spoken about New Adult before and why I don’t think it’s marketable yet. Even so, I still get queries for it, even if they don’t label it that. Many college and just-graduated writers send me “literary fiction” that seem remarkably similar to their bios. Write What You Know is what they were taught in all of their creative writing classes, so this is no surprise. What bothers me about what writing programs have been churning out is that they don’t seem to be showing the writers how to use what they know and still create an interesting story.

When you don’t have much life experience, writing what you know should be what you write. It’s a great starting off point. But the trend I’m seeing with young writers is a literal interpretation. If every aspect of your storytelling is a mirror of your personal experience, you risk alienating readers who don’t have your exact background.

I get a lot of submissions for literary fiction from young writers who compare their work to The Graduate, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and Bright Lights Big City, and then when I request them I quickly realize that they are lacking in one major area: a standalone story arc that could be enjoyed by a larger audience. Writers should use what they know to enhance their stories, not diminish them.

Take The Graduate. An older woman seduces a younger man. What if that man was 33 instead of 23? We would have had a very different experience watching it. What makes The Graduate such a funny, poignant story is the fact that Ben is younger than “young.” He’s internally struggling with all of these New Adult things when – bam! – a plot line hits him.

I suppose it’s ironic that YA has had more time to mature than New Adult, and – after a rocky start – has found a way to make itself relevant in the marketplace. The reason why it was able to become relevant, I think, goes back to Write What You Know. No matter how authentic the voice, YA comes with an adult perspective. While there are exceptions, most YA is written by adults. They use what they know about growing up to capture the essence of being a teen without getting consumed by it, allowing for non-teen readers to appreciate the actual story.

New Adult, however, remains exclusive. Their stories tend to ask “doesn’t it suck being 22?” or “isn’t it great being 22?” and leaves outside readers saying, “yes, but what is your point?” There’s also a theme – not just in my submissions, but in various “Gen Y” pop culture I’m seeing – of the main character being self-aware of his or her role as a twenty-something. The writers usually seem pleased with themselves for being so astute. Gen X set the precedent for “the listless twenty-something,” and now Gen Y is using it to wink at their audience and roll their eyes at themselves. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. But – and this is important – 

Being self-aware is not the same as having perspective.

For the same reason the best memoirs aren’t about events that happened a month ago, knowing you’re in a certain situation and being able to objectively assess that situation are two different things. That’s why instead of getting the next Bret Easton Ellis, we’re getting people who reference the fact they’ve read Bret Easton Ellis and hope their audience reads between the lines. 

Self-awareness vs. perspective is a distinction that many young writers are failing to grasp, at least from what I’ve seen in my submission pile. It’s also, I believe, why many Gen Y writers take Write What You Know so literally. They don’t yet realize what they’re writing isn’t universal. This doesn’t make them wrong or shallow or bad writers (on the contrary, I’ve turned down far too many talented writers solely because their stories weren’t developed enough). It just means they need more distance from the thing they are writing about in order to get their point across.

(Note: I realize I am generalizing a bit, so let me reiterate that there are very talented young writers who do get it right. And trust me, when they do get it right, it is brilliant and often leaves me seething with jealousy.)

I know I’ve picked a little too much on young people in this post, but that’s only because of the types of submissions I’ve been getting lately (and, ya know, Girls didn’t exactly disprove my theory). But “real” adults – you are guilty of this too. When you draw on what you know about falling in love, getting divorced, burying a parent, or having your character “find themselves” on some journey, be careful that you don’t cast yourself in their role unless you’ve gained the necessary perspective about it. Understand that your audience might look and think and act differently than you, so don’t expect your personal story to translate the way you want it to without the appropriate context. Like all good writing, it’s not always about making your reader like, relate to, or even understand your character all the time. But you do need to make them care.

Putting the A in YA

Last week I had an interesting conversation about “New Adult” with the author of this article, “Where Are All The Young “Adults?” She lamented – with good reason – that there is nothing for her to read that’s written specifically for her, at age 22. The closest a genre has come to successfully targeting those in their early twenties is the sub-genre Chick Lit in the late ’90s/early ’00s. Twentysomething males or women looking for something in a different genre were out of luck. I understand why the 18-25 crowd is frustrated with their lack of options, and their confusion over why Young Adult doesn’t include them.

YA is a sub-genre of fiction written specifically for (and starring) high school aged teens. If they are out of high school, the book is not a YA. (Note: There is some leeway with freshmen in college and 18-year-old protagonists, but those are on a case-by-case basis, and truthfully, if you want the book to be marketed as YA, you better have a darn good reason for making them that old.)

I wish YA was called something else (Teen Lit, perhaps?). For one, the name implies that the intended audience are adults. They’re not. Teens are what happen before adulthood and after childhood. I mentioned before that the term “teenager” didn’t come into the mainstream lexicon until the 1950s, and it took almost 40 years for YA – as a genre name – to have its own section in a bookstore. That’s a long time to wait for recognition, and as we all know too well, YA – even in its Renaissance Period of today – barely gets the respect it deserves.

Bringing me to “New Adult,” a sub-genre of fiction trying semi-hard to exist in the post-YA, pre-adult marketplace for those between the ages of 18 and 25. I am all for this. The college experience, figuring out grad school, jobs, not living off your parents, etc. are hard to deal with and they are certainly not “adult” concerns.  They deserve their own literature. So why hasn’t it caught on yet?

To me, there are two reasons why New Adult isn’t a marketable genre, and why it probably won’t be for at least another ten years. 

Theory #1: Before “teenager” came into the lexicon, there wasn’t a need to think of them as something different. Pop culture hadn’t given them a voice yet. They didn’t have rock ‘n roll or heartthrobs or beach movies being marketed directly to them. The concept of marketing to teens separately from adults and children was something that lasted well through the ’80s. But then, the ’90s happened and the “twentysomething” was born. (OK, well technically they were born in the ’70s, but you know what I mean.)

Teens were still being directly marketed to, but now another group of people had their own language and pop culture – Gen X. They read books by Bret Easton Ellis (found in the adult section) and watched movies like Slackers and Dazed and Confused. “Grown-ups” didn’t understand them, and teenagers only looked admiringly at them from afar (like I did).

This idea of an extended adolescence wasn’t something that previous generations had the privilege of experiencing. Gen X was the first generation to come out of the Baby Boomers. Many of them were the first of their families to go to college, have a choice other than marriage or military, and live without mortgages and jobs and car payments just a little bit longer. 

When you think of how long it took for YA to become a genre after teenagers were finally given a name, New Adult even being discussed as a possibility feels like progress. Even a “Big 6” publisher has started looking for titles under that heading. Knowing this, I don’t think New Adult will take quite as long as YA to get recognized by the masses. The fact remains, however, that it’s not a sub-genre that exists yet.

When I get queries for New Adult, I’m torn. I can either request it, knowing I’m only going to tell the writer to make it older or younger. Or, I end up rejecting it if I know the story can’t be older or younger. As much as I think New Adult should be a genre, I know there’s nothing I can do about it all by myself. Writers can’t write for a marketplace that doesn’t exist, and agents can’t sell to a publisher if the publishers can’t sell it to a bookstore. So, for now, that 20-year-old protagonist who’s still in college who you think teens should read about is going to get placed in the general adult fiction section of most major bookstores.

Theory #2: Like I said, New Adult will happen eventually, but the fact remains that it will need to sell in order to prove itself. And, well, I’m skeptical. I think New Adult is great in theory, but as someone who’s no longer in that 18-25 age range, I speak for only for myself when I say it’s unlikely I’d look in the New Adult section of a bookstore to find something to read. While I make exceptions to any genre I’m not particularly drawn to, New Adult holds very little interest to me. So, why? After all, I read YA.

For one, maybe there’s just not enough distance between my current age and the New Adult age, so I’ve had less time to feel nostalgic for it. (And egad! Why on earth would anyone want to re-live being 22??) But I don’t read YA because I’m nostalgic for high school. I read YA because of the emotions it evokes, and knowing that the human experience at that age is pretty universal.

It’s true that not everyone goes to the same type of high school, or even goes to high school, but everyone goes through puberty. Everyone feels what it’s like to not understand any of your emotions or why they are suddenly happening all at once or why hugging your parents is much more embarrassing than it was the year before.

With New Adult, there is no universal experience. Within the genre, there are too many niche markets to consider, which makes it that much harder to place. Not everyone goes to college or makes the same choices when entering adulthood. Even within the group who goes to college, the experiences differ in ways that are much more polarizing than going to different high schools. No matter what kind of high school you went to, we were all forced to take the same general courses or participate in the same extracurricular activities. 

The Gen X definition of twentysomething created the template for the next generation, but it’s still considered a privilege to go to college, to live off your parents, to have an extension on avoiding adulthood. If you ask the person who opted to get married and have kids right after high school, or even right after college, their experience of being a New Adult will look a lot closer to what those who chose to wait consider Real Adult.

So, then, is New Adult really “College Lit?” That creates an even smaller market. There’s a reason “The College Years” of high school TV shows fail. There’s just not enough people who care. The original teen audience can’t relate, the adults out of college think of it as too young, and the actual target audience is too busy being in college, working, or starting families to watch TV or read for fun.

To current 18-25 year olds, I know this sucks for you. It’s not your fault you’re the 1st group of New Adults to exist after Gen X (unknowingly) gave you a name. And it’s not your fault no one thought of creating books for you, anticipating your arrival. Someone needs to be the pioneer, and unfortunately that someone is going to be you. Write stories about your experiences, as different and as wide-ranging as they may be. Give us something to listen to, and we’ll respond. We might just take a while.