Writing for the 21st Century

I represent Adult fiction and YA & MG fiction, but I talk more about the latter. I know I do this, and it’s not because I don’t have a lot to say about Adult fiction. It’s that YA, and especially MG, are still new. They are still evolving. Adult genres get redefined every once in a while, and audiences grow, but mostly, adults are adults and their writers know who they’re writing for.

I talk more about YA because the category itself is known for jumping from trend to trend, being super enthusiastic and supportive, yet misunderstood (and often disrespected) by mainstream literary culture. Its target audience can relate, and they aren’t known for standing still either. Adults age at a much slower pace. The difference between a 32 year old and a 36 year old is barely a blip compared to that of a 13 year old and a 17 year old. Sometimes writers laugh when I say things like, “this character should be 16 instead of 15,” as if one year could possibly make that much of a difference. But when you’re a teenager, it can and it often does.

With adults, whether they’re 52 or 27, they have at least one thing in common: they can look back on their adolescence. Teens can’t. They only know the here-and-now. This is one of the main reasons I love YA and want to bring more of it into the world. Teens are full of possibilities. They have more ahead of them than behind them, and their stories often reflect that.

A less idealistic reason I love teens, though, is their ability to see through adults’ bullshit. They know when they’re being pandered to. They know when you clearly don’t understand them. They know when you don’t care about their lives – meaning, their actual lives and not the silly melodramatic ones adults think they have. Teens are tricky and they are wonderful. If you’re choosing to write for them – and not just about them – then you should know why you’re doing so.

When I read submissions, I see writers succeeding in storytelling and realistic characters and good ideas… what I see failing in MG & YA lately is setting. It’s not hard to see why. Setting is generally only considered when physical place has a major focus. What I see writers ignoring more and more is that setting also refers to time. Contemporary/realistic fiction is becoming very blurry, time-wise, and doesn’t feel as authentic. We’ve gotten so used to each decade being “similar enough” in the late 20th century that it seems we’ve failed to notice it’s over.

Recently I tweeted a reminder to MG and YA writers that made many writers feel “old.”

@sarahlapolla · Aug 26: MG/YA writers: If your pub date is 2015 or 2016, no one in your target audience was born in the ’90s. Use this info while you write. [1/2]

@sarahlapolla · Aug 26: Think of the world they were born into, how they are growing up, & keep in mind what concepts/politics would be irrelevant to them. [2/2]

My point is that the 21st century is a teenager now. What’s more, it has a shorter attention span than its predecessors. It’s not going to slow down and wait for writers to catch up.

So, who are the teens living in this century? Why is our late 20th century mindset no longer cutting it?

Today’s teens are not 20th century teens in a way that goes deeper than simply pop culture and fashion. Plot and character should be the first things you have in mind when you sit down to write, but once you know what those are, go back to that question of why.

Why did you choose to write for teens? Why will today’s teens care about this story? Even if you write historical fiction, there should be a reason you think modern teens will connect with the time and story you’ve chosen. Otherwise, why make it MG or YA? The reason you chose to write for this audience should be based on more than YA being popular in publishing right now. Think of who your audience is and what they care about. More importantly, remember what they don’t care about.

There’s a huge difference in cultural and political attitudes from the 19th century to the 20th. Think, for example, how folks growing up in 1890 differ from the folks who came of age during the Roaring ’20s. They’re only one generation apart, and yet seem like a completely different world if you look at the history books. This is where we are now. The new century has taken shape and 20th century attitudes are becoming less and less relevant. For an American audience, a big part of that shift is because of the very tangible life-changing event that kicked off the new century, 9/11.

Want to go back and watch 9/11’s influence on pop culture? Aside from the many “post-9/11 novels” that came out around 2005-2008, and our desire to bring back superhero movies in a big way, take these examples of my two favorite shows:

– The West Wing was largely about the staffers of a liberal president who never went to war, and who’s biggest problem was that he didn’t disclose an illness before the election. After 9/11? Bartlett becomes increasingly more willing to take strikes on foreign land, the show itself becomes darker and more high stakes, and suddenly “the day in the life of a White House staffer” wasn’t a strong enough premise to compete against the real world drama of the early ’00s.

– Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is full of ’90s optimism, fashion, and attitude; it was often campy along with clever, and full of righteous heroes who believed the world was worth saving – a lot. By Season 6 (after 9/11 happened in real life), Buffy no longer knows who she is or what world she’s even trying to save anymore. The whole season is about feeling lost and hopeless. By the end of Season 7 (when we 1st invaded Iraq in real life), the Scooby Gang goes to war, refers to it as such, and is aware there will be casualties.

What those TV shows became are how shows now begin – dark, gritty, in need of an anti-hero because all the “real” heroes have left the building. The real world influences pop culture all the time, and it often defines a generation in the process. We’re not as lost as we were in the early ’00s, but life didn’t go back to how it was either.

The teens reading YA only know about 9/11 from history class. Imagine what your perspective of government, global politics, and even just day-to-day life might be like if you didn’t remember September 10th.

Someone on Twitter asked what I meant by “concepts/politics” in my tweet, and, in addition to major world events, I mentioned race and gender. I used the “Long Duck Dong” Syndrome of ’80s movies as an example. Movies geared toward teens are by no means perfect, and definitely not always politically correct, but overt racism is no longer mainstream comedy. Nor is language used to hide rape references, like in movies like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. For every “boys will be boys” attempt in modern teen movies, there’s a smart, sassy girl ready to shoot them down and make them the butt of the joke. 21st century teens still see horrible socioeconomic disparities, gender roles being challenged and disputed, and racial equality taking leaps forward and backward at the same time, but they also hear more voices who were previously silenced because of changing attitudes and social media. (The 21st century is, after all, still a teenager… it has a way to go before it reaches mature adulthood.)

These are ideas that go beyond whether your character uses a cell phone or still says, “totally buggin’.”

We don’t all need to be scholars or philosophers. I still want fun, commercial stories about teens being teens, and I am a firm believer that teens are teens are teens. Meaning, their circumstances and perspectives change, but they don’t. Not really. That’s another reason why I love YA. I don’t need to be a 21st century teen to remember what it felt like to be a teenager. The heart of your stories – the emotional arcs of your characters – should be timeless. That doesn’t mean you can ignore a changing world that influences how your audience relates to your novel.

Another reason I’m elaborating on these tweets is because a lot of replies had to do with pop culture, which I understand. There were jokes about not mentioning certain bands or making their characters accidentally wear outdated styles. These are things to keep in mind when you write, but don’t give them more power than they’ll actually have on your reader. At the end of the day, these things are superficial. Teens might roll their eyes, but they’ll keep reading if the story is compelling enough.

That said, using too many outdated references can absolutely set off a teen’s bullshit detector. Sure, they can Google that band from the early ’00s and, yes, they’ve heard of VCRs before, but do they care? If they look it up online, will their understanding of the book as a whole really be effected? Probably not. So why risk interrupting the narrative? When I tell my authors to delete certain references, it’s not because I think teens won’t understand them. It’s because I know the reference isn’t really for them.

Besides, those superficial references are easy to fix anyway. You don’t need to study modern teens or be up-to-date on the latest trends. You just need to remember when it’s OK to be non-specific and embrace fiction. You’re writers; this shouldn’t be difficult.

For example:

  • “Low-rise skinny jeans” = jeans
  • “Smartphone/”cell phone” = phone
  • “Facebook” = social media site with a cute name you made up
  • “Taylor Swift” = pop star

See? Easy.

Honestly, unless your plot is heavily dependent on whether your main character tweets, listens to Justin Bieber, or uses their phone, you probably don’t need to call attention to it at all. The best uses of setting are the ones you barely notice because you’re already fully immersed in it. Trust your reader. They will assume your characters do “normal teen things” even if it’s not directly written on the page. Don’t over-think it. (I mean, it’s not like you’re writing an episode of The Vampire Diaries or anything.)

As writers, you don’t need to envision the future, or even make a comment on it, in order to write about the present. We (writers, agents, and publishers alike) just need to remember what the present is and respect who is going to build the future from here.

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.

The Trend Games

This weekend, like so many of you, I went to see The Hunger Games. (It’s good; go see it if you haven’t already!)

The hype around this movie has been insane. It’s everywhere. Like with Twilight, as big as the book was, a movie adaptation makes it even bigger. Teens who don’t usually read suddenly pick up the book in anticipation of the movie. Adults who don’t read YA want to see what all the fuss is about. These types of readers are rarely changed for life. They likely won’t pick up another YA until the next HUGE THING gets optioned for a movie.

For writers, something similar happens. There are YA writers who suddenly decide to write in the movie’s genre or Adult writers who give YA a go because YA breeds the biggest hits right now. The problem with this mentality is that the book world and the film world are two different things.

There’s an episode of Scrubs in which, on a slow day at the hospital, the gang sees an announcement on the news for a Sars-like epidemic. Suddenly, the hospital is flooded with hypochondriacs who think they have symptoms of the disease. This is what movie adaptations of popular books is like.

It’s no surprise that I love Harry Potter. I love it not only because the books are well-written and the story is timeless, but also because of what this series meant to literature. Yes, Young Adult existed – just barely – before Harry Potter was published in 1998, and (as I’ve pointed out before) there were certainly popular YA titles in the late ’90s and early ’00s. But it wasn’t until the overwhelming, Beatle-mania-level popularity of Harry Potter that YA became a legitimate force in literature, complete with its own section in the bookstore and bestseller list in the New York Times
Unfortunately, there is one thing I can’t quite forgive J.K. Rowling for, and that’s her creation of “the trend.” More than in adult fiction – and perhaps because teens themselves latch onto trends more than adults – the YA market is often built around one huge concept. Before Harry, YA was full of stories about teens finding their voices. Some novels took more chances than others, some were darker, some were genre fiction gems, but for the most part they were contemporary stories that came of age with the term Young Adult itself.

Harry showed the world that YA could go beneath the surface of what being a teen is like. Taking us to a land of magic and showing us the powers of family and friendship, YA was able to become a more nuanced genre. The formerly quiet Young Adult market needed a while to get a hold of what Harry did to it, and once it recovered the timing was right for Twilight to take over. In the book world, The Boy Who Lived was so five minutes ago by 2005. While the rest of the world enjoyed our wizards, we book dwellers found vampires. Not the vampires adults were used to. YA needed their turn with them, so enter Twilight. For better or worse, YA was all about cute dead boys and the girls who loved them. As followers of the publishing industry, you don’t need to be told what happened next: Paranormal Romance Overload.

After a few adaptations of the books that started our obsession with vamps, werewolves, and all those paranormal dreamboats, the book industry was once again ready to move on. So in the midst of the later Twilight books and the early Twilight movies, readers moved on to the next next big thing – The Hunger Games – and it’s been all dystopia all the time ever since.

Which brings me back to the The Hunger Games movie. Despite claims of following agents on Twitter and reading industry blogs, it seems every querying writer who writes in a trend consciously ignores our insider knowledge that the market is too saturated for them to join the club. The justification that I most often see in queries is “because of the success of the movies…” What trend-hoppers don’t realize is that the popularity of a movie does not effect their likelihood of getting – or not getting – published. That’s not to say movies don’t help immensely with sales of already-published books within the genre. They also can help start trends within the movie industry. But, we don’t work in the movie industry.
When a book like Harry, Twilight, or The Hunger Games becomes so big that it single-handedly creates a trend, the next logical step is for that book to become a movie. Writers should think of film adaptations as the equivalent of your parents joining Facebook. Millions of people were already enjoying it, but anything exclusive or cool about it is over the second it crosses over to a different audience. Books start trends; films end them.

Twilight wasn’t fantasy and The Hunger Games wasn’t paranormal romance. The Next Big Thing won’t be in the same genre as the current trend, so jump off the train, start something new, and be what’s next.

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. 

What The Fudge?

In high school, my AP English teacher gave us the freedom to choose which book to read individually for our final paper. She tried to push Catcher in the Rye by adding “you’ll like it; there’s swearing in it.” (Despite what you may believe, based on the name of this blog, I did not choose Catcher. I had already read it, so I chose Lord of the Flies.) I remember she specifically added the “swearing” bit because when I had read it I didn’t even notice those words were there. I was too wrapped up in the ball of emotion that was Holden Caulfield and the journey through New York City to pay attention to things like that. If he swore at all, then it was as natural and as necessary as any other word.

We often talk about sex in YA, violence in video games, and other things that might not be “appropriate” for our nation’s youth. While the question of gratuitous language does come up, it’s discussed – on the whole – far less. I should mention that when I talk about “colorful” language in books, I’m not just talking about YA. If anything, teens use curse words way more than adults because, like drinking, adults learn when to hold back, when it’s appropriate, and when to indulge.

I bring this up because I was recently reading a manuscript – one that I was excited to begin – and I could not get over how many F-bombs were on the first page. Obviously this narrator was mad. But I didn’t know who he was, why I should care, if the person he was angry with really was a “bitch,” as he claimed, or even where he was. It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn’t ready to take on as a reader. The narrator went on to drop this language into conversation, and every time it felt forced and unnatural. Eventually I had to give up on the story because it was so distracting to read.

Certain things are translated differently when they are on the page, which is why, as novelists, you need to be more conscious of the image you project. Writers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet don’t have to worry about that as much. (If you’re familiar with their work, you can probably guess why I chose them as examples.) They aren’t writing for the page. In the flash of a single image, their world, setting, and even character can be immediately established. As a result, their characters can say whatever the fuck they want.

Novelists don’t have that luxury. Yes, their characters can say whatever they want, but when they can say it matters a little bit more in books than it does in movies. It takes longer to introduce your character and establish a connection to your reader – especially if you’re writing in 3rd person. First-person narration might makes things easier since you’re establishing your main character’s voice right from the beginning. Even still, the reader needs to understand his or her POV before they’re forced into it. 

Now, lest you think I’m just being prudish about “the devil’s words,” I’ll admit that not all swear words are bad and no one needs to be sheltered from them. Sometimes they need to be added, not taken away. If your character finds himself in some seriously fucked up shit, then he better call it like he sees it. Even the mildest person in the world will let out a quiet “motherfucker!” when they stub their toe. It’s natural and sometimes a curse is the only word that can sum up events.

Whether you’re writing YA or adult fiction, treat swear words the same way you would any other word. Sometimes they need to get edited out, and sometimes they fit so perfectly that the reader barely notices them. If you’re ever in doubt about whether you’re being excessive or not excessive enough, just ask yourself two questions: Is this something my character would say? and Does this type of language fit the situation? Like with most things, there are exceptions to rules and ways to bend them, but in most situations, answering these two questions will suffice.

I’m of the mindset that almost everything can be appropriate for all ages if done properly. Why hold anything back if it will resonate with your audience and enrich your story? But make smart choices. Swear words are just words the same way sex and violence are just actions. They each have a slightly heavier weight than their counterparts, sure, but ultimately it’s up to you whether your story needs carry it.

What Do You Write?

I know I don’t let her out very often, but I’m speaking to you today as Writer Sarah. As most of you know, I also write. By which I mean, sometimes I jot down a paragraph that could someday end up in a novel, and then let it sit for months without writing anything new because “free time” is a thing of myth and legend.

But, sometimes I write.

In New York, if you say you’re working on “a novel,” the response is not “Oh, how interesting. What’s it about?!” It’s more likely to be a subtle eye roll and a polite “oh” with the clear subtext: “Yeah, who isn’t?” I appreciate this about New Yorkers. Nobody here is special, and many New Yorkers will think nothing of reminding you of that fact. It’s one of the things non-New Yorkers think is “rude” about us, but it’s actually quite refreshing.

New Yorkers in general might not care about what I’m working on, but when friends and family hear I’m writing a novel, they ask the inevitable “What do you write?” It’s a harmless enough question, but I hate answering it. Mostly because this is what usually happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: Fiction.
Q: Yeah but what kind?
A: For teens.
Q: Is it a mystery? Scary? Romance?
A: No. Just fiction.
Q: That sounds boring. You should add vampires to it.
A: ::falls over and dies::

Or this happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: I’m working on a young adult novel right now.
Q: What like vampires?
A: No, like just regular fiction. But for teens.
Q: ::does not compute:: ::thinks I’m not a “serious writer”::

I feel the need to give my credentials when people give the “you write for teens?” look. It’s mocking and ignorant and I’m always tempted to quote Shakespeare and rub my MFA diploma in their faces (if I knew where said diploma was). But I don’t do that and instead just say to myself “Yep, YA. Oh you don’t know understand what it is? You must be really stupid then.” and merrily walk away. (I hope you other writers do the same. But seriously, only say it to yourself. Not out loud.)

Maybe my “non-specialness” of being a New Yorker has made me shy away from this question. Truthfully, I’m more concerned about coming off like a novice, even though that’s exactly what I am. So, I’m curious what you real writers answer when asked “What do you write?” Do you downplay what you’re working on out of modesty? Do you proudly offer your genre even if it’s not taken seriously by the less-informed? Or do you just ignore people and keep typing?

Happy Writing this weekend 🙂

Gateway Books

As an agent, I represent both YA and adult fiction because as a reader, I love both equally. Admittedly, I read a lot more YA than adult, especially since I became an agent, because that’s what’s sent to me most often. (Note: this is not a complaint!) It’s my job to keep up with the markets I’m specializing in, so even in those rare moments of free time, I read YA.

However, in the same way I can’t read too many books within any specific genre in a row, I find that too much YA leaves me craving something more grown up, something written with absolutely no regard for a younger audience. The language gets denser, the characters are closer to my age, and the situations are more relevant to my life. As complex and literary and wonderful as YA can be, the whole point of it is to speak to the teenage experience. I don’t think I’m alone here when I say that remaining in high school forever feels like a cruel joke. Much like in my actual teen years, sometimes all I want to do is graduate and embrace the adult experience.

There are many other readers out there who manage to strike this same balance between YA and adult fiction. But, there are others who are clearly in one camp or the other. I’ve met readers (and writers) who barely know any modern adult fiction titles because they only follow the YA community. Likewise (as we read about way more often than we should), adult fiction readers, of both commercial and literary tastes, tend to either a) think of YA as “kid stuff,” which to them includes teens, or b) don’t understand what YA is and don’t enough care to find out.

Neither side here is right, and in their own way, neither side is really wrong. As long as one refrains from bashing the other, it all comes down to personal preference. But if you’re one of those readers who spends way too much time reading one vs. the other; or you want to try YA, but you’re hung up on the stigma of shopping in the “teen” section; or you’re waiting for an adult novel to speak to you as much as YA has, then might I suggest a few gateway titles that will make the transition easier:

1. Election by Tom Perrotta: Ah, Tracy Flick. The original Hermione Granger, minus the ability to conjure spells. All Tracy conjured was an immediate sense of annoyance and disdain… but who also had an odd likability. She wants to be president of her high school and one day conquer the world, but her teacher, Mr. M, would rather that didn’t happen. The novel takes place in high school and only has one real adult protagonist (if you want to call him that) in the mix of teenagers. Yet it’s a deeply rich satire about politics and scandal. If you’ve seen the equally brilliant film version, then you know this isn’t meant to speak directly to the teenage experience, but it features teens we all know, even sometimes love.

2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss: I read this book in a class called “Young Adult as the Narrator” when I was getting my MFA and couldn’t understand why this book was even on the course list. It had nothing to do with young adult fiction, or so I thought. Which I guess was the point of the class. Told from the alternating perspectives of 14-year-old Alma and 90-year-old Leo, it’s a story about family and survival and self-discovery. While no one could accidentally misplace this in the YA section like they could with Election, The History of Love is a novel teenagers would enjoy because its core themes transcend age, like all good novels should. But with a young narrator, it makes the crossover appeal that much easier to take in.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: Published in the late 1940s, this novel also features a teenage narrator whose focus is on her family. It’s hard for me not to compare this novel to Jane Austen – wise-beyond-her-years young woman sees herself as an outsider in her formerly prominent family, who is dealing with the changing times in the English countryside. Then, to shake things up, handsome (American!) young men move in next door and matchmaking ensues… It’s all there, but 17-year-old Cassandra Morton’s family are no Bennetts. They are dysfunctional and broken and wildly eccentric – and Cassandra’s sharp eye and wit is there to capture it all.

4. How I Paid for College by Marc Acito: The subtitle for this book is “A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater” and I picked it up in the bookstore for that reason. I was 20 when I read it, and having been a proud member of my high school’s drama club, a book about “play people” (as they’re called in the book) who drink, have sex, and go on madcap adventures to New York City was appealing. This book would probably be more for adult readers who want to segue into YA, but honestly even knowing what I know now about the industry, I’m not sure where I’d categorize this. I bought it in the regular fiction section, but it could very easily fit in on a YA shelf next to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or Youth in Revolt. It’s a crazy book and laugh-out-loud funny (a phrase I do not use lightly!). Basically every age group should read it, even if you weren’t a play person.

5. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: This is an easy, if not obvious, pick coming from me. Not only does it introduce reluctant YA readers to a younger character, but it introduces sci-fi skeptics to a world where battling aliens is just as important as the literary writing style and richly developed characters. The thing about Ender is that he is very young, not even a teenager. So while the overarching plot is pure sci-fi territory, the readers get to see a very simple coming of age story. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it. I’ve also just noticed Orson Scott Card’s original dedication as I leafed through my copy – “For Geoffrey, who makes me remember how young and how old children can be.” It can’t really be said better than that, can it?

Reading the above-mentioned titles will not only convert reluctant readers on both sides, but they will also help any of you writers out there who are thinking crossing age lines. You may have noticed that several adult authors are tackling YA these days (Grisham and Patterson among the larger names). You may have also noticed it’s not a matter of simply “dumbing down” prose and making a few characters younger. It’s writing with an entirely different viewpoint in mind, one that most adults have not considered in quite a while. Tapping into a part of your brain that hasn’t been used in decades is not easy. Oh no, how do teens think? Will they understand if I use this literary device? Do they modern-day teens even care about this anymore? It’s easy to get yourself worked up over whether your audience will “get” you if you are trying something completely new. Same goes for YA authors trying adult for the first time. I find that if I read too many YA voices in a row, the switch to an adult perspective can be jarring. Switching your brain in order to write it is even more of a challenge. Even though the adult voice is the writer’s own voice, it is still a daunting task. That’s where crossover titles – Gateway Books – come in. They exist in the middle, and writers can pick and choose what they need to take from them.

If you’re wondering why I left out the more obvious titles of To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, or Huck Finn, it’s because you already read them. Also, with the exception of Dodie Smith, the above titles are for the more contemporary reader. I find “classics” to be classics for a reason; people of all age groups have accepted them as “great” or are being told they’re great high school. Contemporary fiction is still divided. You either “like that kind of thing” or don’t. Not enough time has passed to see where they’ll fall in the literary spectrum.

Whether you’re on Team YA or Team Adult, I guarantee reading the above-mentioned titles (in no particular order) will help you find value in both styles of writing – one way or the other. Unfortunately, this is not a money-back-guarantee, so in case I’m proven wrong please accept the following song as a consolation.

(But I doubt I’ll be proven wrong. You will love them and learn from them!)

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Innocent Pleasures

There was quite a stir yesterday in the YA community over yet another “article” completely degrading YA writers, books, and anyone who reads them. I won’t link to the article because it’s getting enough traffic as it is, and I won’t further respond to it (after my Twitter rant) because, well, Damn The Man.

Like the YA community, I’m tired of people saying things like “I really liked The Hunger Games even though it’s YA” or “It’s for teens, but it’s still good.” Sigh. Why can’t good just be good, regardless of the stereotypes surrounding a certain demographic? I hear this all the time about Battlestar Galactica. “It’s sci-fi, but like… it’s not sci-fi because it’s good.” Yes, I have friends who have used that exact quote. Yes, I explain to them why that’s a ridiculous statement. Yes, it’s usually in vain.

When we have to qualify why we like something, it usually means we have something to defend. Good is good, even if others don’t always agree with you. We’ve all admitted to guilty pleasures, and I’ve come to realize that this term is actually sort of offensive. There’s merit in everything. Even in check-out lines or $1 bins, where even the authors know they aren’t creating high art, there are gems within the genres. Who are we to judge? And who are we to feel guilty, or make others feel guilty, for enjoying them?

I might not like everything, or even understand why people like a certain book, but I don’t see value in making people who disagree with me feel like they’ve done something wrong. Going into the weekend, after a week of YA taking yet another hit, think about what you love to read that others don’t always “get.” Then read the hell out of it and make no apologies.

Explaining Your Art to Warren

Barry Lyga had a brilliant response to the horrific Wall Street Journal article that was talked about all weekend. Granted there have been many, many responses to this article, and my own opinion is no different than anyone else’s. It was disgusting and offensive, and the WSJ’s sad attempt at salvaging what they printed was patronizing and unconvincing.

I didn’t want to read the WSJ article because I knew what my response would be. I’m sparing you that full response here because everything I want to say has already been said, and frankly I’d prefer to put this trash to rest. But Barry Lyga’s post reminded me of a simple quote from the underrated movie, Empire Records, after a kid named Warren asks why someone would glue quarters to the floor. Response: “I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.”

If you’ve never seen the movie, you do not need to know who Warren is to see the relevance this line has. Yes, it’s a silly little ’90s slacker movie, but this quote seems especially apropos. As Mr. Lyga says, he refuses to justify his art. And really, why should anyone?

Yes there was the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter this weekend and the many, many blog responses about how clueless the author of the article is. And clearly she is. While I don’t know her, I can picture her. She’s Tipper Gore senselessly fighting to ban 2 Live Crew. She’s the librarian in Small Town, USA who refuses to stock Laurie Halse Anderson. She’s the news anchor who asks whether Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine. She’s Reverend Lovejoy’s wife on The Simpsons who screams, what about the children??

She’s Warren.

She sees something she doesn’t understand, and when she doesn’t get a satisfying response, jumps to her own conclusions. Her opinions, though wrong, are forgiven. She, after all, did not publish that article in a national newspaper by herself.

While that’s all true, I have to remain on the side of Barry Lyga. Why bother? There will always be people like her, and there will always be people who get upset by people like her. Nobody needs to explain their art. No one needs to defend themselves. If you are a writer, all you need to do is write.

Yes, it is always difficult when someone – OK, a lot of people – demoralizes you, claims your work is inferior, refuses to see the good you do, and doesn’t understand your importance. The stigma that YA literature is somehow “less than” is hurtful and wrong and should stop immediately. But it won’t stop immediately. We need to show people the power of YA and its credibility as a genre. Books are powerful enough to do this, but it will take time.

If YA gets taken seriously, then maybe teenagers finally will too, and then maybe people won’t be as concerned about their precious virgin eyes and ears that need to be protected. But until then, all we can do as writers, and workers in the publishing industry, is produce stories that need to be told, hope the right people read them, and not let anyone else tell us we don’t belong.

To borrow another relevant quote from Empire Records, “Damn The Man.”

YA: Then vs. Now

If it weren’t for having to remember all those dates, I would have loved to have declared a history minor for myself in college. I like seeing how things go from Point A to Point B, and have a special appreciation for the past. But, sadly, history is about learning a lot of facts, and since I was more interested in the ideas behind those facts, I chose English, a very close relative of history, in my opinion.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the history of YA literature. How did we go from its roots as an undefined, confusing genre to one of the largest markets in publishing today? Like most things in history, seeing this evolution is pretty fascinating to me. Understanding that progression wasn’t as easy.

For being such an important part of the industry, YA is practically a baby. It’s a genre that keeps growing, not only in numbers (though that is true too), but in definition. Novels for teens used to be its own category, relegated to the back of the bookstore with a simple sign above it reading “Teen Literature.” Today, there are as many sub-genres in YA as there are in adult fiction. YA sci-fi, YA romance, YA mystery, etc. After Twilight, Barnes & Noble even created a section just for “Teen Paranormal Romance.” You can’t categorize them under one blanket term anymore; it would be impossible.

Part of the reason for this is that people are finally realizing teens aren’t all the same. They are as complex and unique as adults, and each have different preferences in what they watch, read, and listen to. The word “teenager” didn’t even come into existence until the late 1940s and early 1950s. People between the ages of 13 and 19 existed, of course, but no one thought to put a name to them as a group. This makes teenagers relatively new to the world, but also sort of old. With over 60 years of recognition, society still tends to think we go from childhood directly to adulthood. Teens are the third option that no one likes to talk about. If they’re talked about, it means they matter. It’s just easier for adults to mock their hairstyles and taste in music, and ignore the fact that that teen-hood is not just an extension of childhood. It’s something else.

When I thought about the changes in YA, I decided there was a clear difference between “writing about teens” vs. “writing for teens.” YA novels published in the past decade tend to fall under the latter. The voices are edgy, hip, modern, and are void of adult interference, regardless of the age of the author or the characters. YA of the last ten years has taken on a new attitude about their audience, which is that they are savvy enough to know the difference between authenticity and pandering. 

There’s something downright old-fashioned about the books we thought of as YA, and I wanted to find out why this was. When did it shift? There’s no clear-cut example of “the book that changed YA.” There’s no way for me to say, “Oh, well obviously YA is different now because…”

The truth is, there are a lot of reasons, and those reasons can be boiled down to the idea that things simply progress naturally. An entire genre does not change overnight. Instead, it creates sub-genres like the ones I mentioned above. It’s finding new topics to explore. It’s pushing boundaries and making adults uncomfortable. Just like teens are supposed to.

I am 27 years old. My coming-of-age happened in the mid-to-late 1990s. Admittedly, this does not feel like that long ago. On paper, it looks as if it was practically yesterday. But, thinking of how much the world has changed in the past twenty years, and remembering it is 2011 (the second decade of a new century), it is, in reality, pretty far gone. I read a lot as a child, but when I think of books I read as a teen, they were mostly for adults. YA novels were much fewer and farther between in the ’90s, but they were still there.

In my quest to find this shift in the history of YA, I took to Twitter. Asking only people ages 25 and older what books they read as they came of age, I got some overwhelming results. I don’t think I’ve gotten more responses to anything I’ve ever said on Twitter. Or in real life, possibly. There were so many responses, I can’t list them all here, but there were many repeated titles that I thought were particularly interesting.

You see, when I polled my peers on what YA (MG acceptable too) books they loved when they were that age, the majority of people gave me the following titles:

The Babysitter’s Club
Nancy Drew
Sweet Valley High
Goosebumps
Wait Til Helen Comes
The Indian in the Cupboard
A Wrinkle in Time

Then there were “all novels by” Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, Katherine Paterson, and Paula Danziger (who I had to Google and am ashamed about).

Do you notice the same pattern I did? None of these books are YA! Some are Middle Grade, yes, but most of them are books we would have read before we turned 11.

The next biggest group of responders referenced TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ENDER’S GAME. These books, along with my beloved CATCHER IN THE RYE, feature incredibly strong child and teen protagonists. We read these books as teens and enjoyed them, but fair readers, these are also not YA. They were not written with us in mind. We just read them because they were there (or because we had to) and the main character was our age, so we responded positively. Still, they fall under the “books we read as teens” category. Close, but no cigar.

Then, because Twitter never lets me down, the magic four authors were named:

Gail Carson Levine, ELLA ENCHANTED
Caroline Cooney, THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON
S.E. Hinton, THE OUTSIDERS
Lois Lowry, THE GIVER

I was waiting, hoping, for people to list these titles specifically, but it wasn’t until I thought about them again in terms of the evolution of YA that I realized they were the answer to my original question the whole time. Only, I shouldn’t have been asking when YA shifted; I should have asked when it started.

These books, or more specifically their authors, are who I hereby dub YA Pioneers. (Proud to say 3 of the 4 happen to be members of the Curtis Brown family!) Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t the only four, but they are arguably the most widely read of their generation. They not only made the genre popular, they made the genre a genre. They are the reason bookstores started Young Adult sections. They weren’t just writing about teens; they were writing for them.

[Digression: Sadly, they were not the reason the New York Times finally decided to give YA props by including their own Bestseller section. That honor went to J.K. Rowling after the newspaper was tired of Harry taking space away from the “real” books in 2000.]

Anyway, remember when I said that teenagers have been around since the 1950s, but no one paid attention to them as individuals until recently? To give you an idea how recent YA – as a named, recognized genre – is, each of the above four novels, with the exception of THE OUTSIDERS, was published in the early 1990s.

[Note: THE OUTSIDERS, of course, was published by a teenage S.E. Hinton in 1967, and had to wait over 20 years to be defined. It remains, more often than not, the exception to most rules in literature.]

These books didn’t only feature teenage protagonists, they offered a teenage perspective. Obedience, betrayal, alienation, and oppression are all things teenagers feel every day of their lives to varying degrees, but not many people were willing to give them a voice before these books came along. Yet, for all their forward-thinking and barrier-breaking, they were tinged with one fatal flaw. They sounded like they were written by adults. Granted, they were written by adults who gave teens a lot more credit than most people at that time, but adults nonetheless. They read as if they are telling a story to their audience, and even though the authors describe the feelings of their characters remarkably well, going back and reading these novels now don’t offer the sense of being there in the same way YA novels published today do (examples to follow).

[Another interesting exception to a rule I found was that while Levine, Cooney, and Lowry’s novels were written in the 3rd person past tense, which creates the most distance between the author and her characters, teenage Hinton wrote THE OUTSIDERS in1st person.]

There are still authors of “the old school” who continue to have voices that resonate with modern teens. The above-mentioned YA Pioneers, along with the likes of Judy Blume, are examples of authors who seem to defy the laws of evolution and whose classic novels are as strong as ever with their key demographic. Others don’t pass the test of time as well, but it doesn’t make them any less important in their contributions in starting a genre.

As big as YA is now, I’m convinced that we are still in a transitional period. Perhaps that’s why I cant tell when the shift happened – it’s because we’re still in it. My fellow over-25 readers and I grew up with books that are now considered classics. They are important and they should continue to be read by generations to come. But, tides are changing, and these classics should no longer be considered the standard. Writers today are no doubt influenced by them, so we exist in a time where both old and new voices are spoken simultaneously.

The YA Pioneers made it possible for late-’90s/early ’00 books like THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, SPEAK, and MONSTER to exist. They allowed the characters they created to be taken into new areas – specifically, the taboo, the banned. Suddenly authors were giving a voice to the parts of being a teenager that adults didn’t like, or even know about – sexuality, drugs, abuse, rape, injustice. Not exactly the stuff Disney movies are made of. (But it could have been the stuff WB shows were made of, a network also born in the late ’90s. In retrospect, that might not have been a coincidence.)

Not only were topics and stories getting more to the heart of the teen experience, but the way these stories were being told started taking risks too. PERKS is written in epistolary format, MONSTER is told as a screenplay, and SPEAK takes on the rarely-done-well 1st person present tense that puts you exactly in the moment with the main character.

In turn, these books made it a easier for titles like THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, and CRANK to be published. Which, of course, will be responsible for the YA we see released tomorrow. Things shift, the way things always do, and the way things should. Sure, it’s a little sad to know that your kids won’t enjoy the same exact things you did, but every generation experiences the effects of the previous one, so nothing is ever really lost. Books are no different, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the next generation takes what we give them and evolves.

**Author’s Correction: Commenter Manette Eaton has brought to my attention that Ella Enchanted is also written in 1st person. I’m sorry to have led you astray.