A (somewhat) Definitive and (utterly) Arbitrary Compilation of the Elements in a YA Novel Part I

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         It’s important to read outside your “comfort zone”–whatever that may be. It’s certainly not as though I’m sitting in my smoking jacket reading War and Peace. Speaking of which, where does one buy a nice smoking jacket? I feel like every good author needs that and a pipe…but I digress. I’ve been trying to read more YA since that’s (arguably to me) the closest genre to my writing and (because I’m a total sellout) it’s a very popular genre if you want to make some money publishing. However, I always hit a wall very early into most novels since they fall very quickly into the same patterns.

         1. Your protagonist (male or female) must have an outdated, embarrassing, unpronounceable, or otherwise unusual name. In over half the cases, it will be one that prompts them to use a catchy, edgy nickname. (See: Those Stephanie Meyers Books Name of the Star, The Blue Sword, and The Fault in Our Stars)

         2. If your protagonist is female, they will most likely be incurably clumsy. I don’t know when tripping over your own feet and damaging other people’s property and, occasionally, people themselves became synonymous with being desirable. The baby fawn syndrome is so overdone (See: Those Stephanie Meyers Books, Name of the Star ) Close seconds to this rule include: possessing “untamable” hair and NOT possessing athletic acumen.

         3. If your protagonist does not meet their love interest in the first ten pages, they certainly will by the end of the second chapter AT THE LATEST (See: Harry Potter, Those Stephanie Meyers Books, The Fault in Our Stars, The Blue Sword )
         3A. If your protagonist actually likes someone in the first few chapters of the book, chances are it isn’t their real love interest. Every good YA romance grows out of hatred.

         4. The male protagonist or love interest must have an element of the rebel. This can be evidenced by his choice of clothing or simply by the refusal of his hair to conform with societal strictures (See: Those Stephanie Meyers Books, The Name of the Star, Harry Potter )
         4A. I don’t know why unruly hair is so popular among the YA lover boys. Sure, everyone thinks they like the rebel in high school or college–his hair is always a mess, he wears old band t-shirts, and possibly has some ink or an earring and plays music with his buddies in a dive bar on the weekends. But then, something remarkable happens; you graduate. That same boy is still wearing his stupid hair too long and his band t-shirt has holes in it and he and his buddies have moved from the dive-bar to his mom’s basement. The clean-cut, preppy boys that are the beloved stereotypical jerk jocks are the ones who wear real shoes, have a job that doesn’t involve a deep-fryer, and can buy you dinner and your own real shoes. Ahem. Anyway….

         5. Your protagonist must be forced outside of their comfort zone as soon as possible. This usually involves shipping them off to school, preferably out of the country. (See: Harry Potter, Those Stephanie Meyers Books, The Name of the Star, Looking For Alaska )

This list is by no means complete (I haven’t even finished reading Name of the Star, yet, or many of the other YA novels on my list) but that’s why they don’t limit blog posts.

Author’s note: several of my favorite books are included here, I’m just making an observation somewhat affected by too little sleep and too much time trapped inside a hot office possibly working for a crime ring in disguise…but that’s a story for another time

On Writing Women

It is pointed out to me quite often that I tend to write male characters or use a male point of view. I’m sure Freud would have some sort of interesting and insane hypothesis for why, but I can only look back on my early efforts at writing female protagonists.  They ranged from characters only distinguishable as female by their looks or protagonists that alternated their time between weeping and throwing temper tantrums. After a beta reader (also known as my sister) asked me why my female protagonist was sassy and fiery one minute and a puddle of distressed damsel the next, I think I decided that I was safer just writing men. 

         Now, before you think this is because men are one dimensional drones who have no feelings—that’s not it at all. I just seem to have an easier time keeping my male characters from bleeding their feelings all over the page. I’ve been trying to figure out why exactly this is as I’ve also been working on having more female main characters. Perhaps it is because I read and wrote fantasy for so long and the female main characters were usually divided into three parties. Firstly, the awkward, not overly feminine protagonist who has other talents and saves the land/world/what-have-you (Robin McKinley’s Harry and Aerin). The second possible type was the typical damsel in distress, or distressing damsel–often prevalent in the Dragonlance series. The third is the typical Jezebel, which needs no explanation.

         There are countless articles and blog posts about the lack of female leads in fantasy (Looking at you, Tolkien) but I’m not going to talk about that. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan finally introduced a huge cast of female characters and several of them have great qualities, but it seems like they end up becoming these cardboard versions of themselves (don’t get me wrong, if I wrote 15 books about the same characters, I’m sure the same would happen to me). George R.R. Martin was the first to create female characters that I like, love, and loathe (sometimes the same feelings for each character).

         Why did Martin succeed (in my opinion) where so many others missed the mark? I believe it is because his characters are so real, I could see myself having a conversation with the characters in the book, hanging out with them, slapping some of them. It doesn’t matter that the character is female because they aren’t “characters.” The fact that Martin can inspire such feelings of both love and hatred for his characters is the strong point in his writing. Hopefully, he will not fall into the trap that so many series writers tumble into and have his characters all become lifeless copies of themselves.

         Every genre has its stereotypes, archetypes, tropes, etc and I don’t necessarily think any of those things are bad. I think tropes and archetypes all have their place, even stereotypical characters and plots can be great—if you turn them on their heads and twist them. For me, writing female characters has always been a challenge in my fantasy stories, one that I am working on remedying.

         The reason I this was on my mind is because one of my female protagonists just grew a backbone. I’ve been plodding away at my latest fantasy venture lately and have a larger cast of female characters than I have ever aspired to write before. There is still massive amount of room for improvement, but one of the protagonists grabbed the reins today and finally put her foot down. It was one of those great moments in writing a piece where the character finally starts to become real. These moments don’t come along every day and it’s nice when they do because they give me a definite kick to keep on writing.

         Are there any characters/character types you struggle with writing?
         Do you have any advice on how to get inside your character’s heads—or let them get into yours?

Thursday Thoughts: The Stereotypes That Bind

Now, before you roll your eyes or run away, this is not going to be a political post. I promise. While I sometimes discuss politics on this forum, today is not the day. I have been mulling over some thoughts lately about stereotyping as it relates to writing, especially “genre” writing. A post from a great blog I just started following volleyed the idea back to the forefront of my mind. You can (and should) read it here. In it Misha Burnett discusses the origins of different “genres” as well as how they have been manipulated, reversed, and inverted over time. He points out that literature (and arguably any creative venture) is in constant flux, a refreshing contrast to a more widely held thought. A more commonly held idea states that “nothing is unique” or “everything has been done before.” It’s a terribly depressing thought. But there is also the sage advice a professor gave me: “steal from other writers.” Obviously he was not condoning plagiarism, instead he was telling us to borrow, to twist, to bend things that have been done before and to make them our own.

       One of the examples Mr. Burnett uses is horror fiction and particularly vampire fiction. *cue reader eye-roll* Stay with me on this one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was arguably the first “popular fiction” novel on vampires (to my limited knowledge), but obviously it wasn’t the last. That book spawned countless more creative works dealing with vampires, from Anne Rice’s novels to The Series That Shall Not Be Named, to the content on the shelves of the Young Adult section in any bookstore, to my current guilty pleasure, the TV show “Vampire Diaries.” So my question is: What’s wrong with that? People say that vampire fiction, or werewolf fiction, or any of the current “trendy” topics are so cliche and that real writers wouldn’t waste their time with such a topic. Watch out, because Bram Stoker and Anne Rice might come after you with a stake. I agree that there is plenty of  t e r r i b l e  Young Adult (and Adult) fiction that has been spawned by the vampire craze, but take a walk down the Adult Romance aisle and tell me that is all good writing.  I’m using vampire fiction as an example because a) too much Netflix and b) my generation is the generation that raved over Twilight…er…The Series That Shall Not Be Named. I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, seen the movies (even went to a few midnight premieres), and enjoyed them. The Twilight series is entertaining. It’s not high quality, academia writing–but why should it be?

       Harry Potter can easily join the conversation as well. J.K. Rowling is not the first person to write about boarding school, magic, or witches and wizards, but she spun the common subjects her way. If you boil it down to its barest bones, Harry Potter is a coming of age story and, as every high school English class I ever took taught me, bildungsroman has been around since the dawn of time. So why do we look down our noses with disdain when writers choose to write about subjects that are popular or “cliche”? In one sense, the saying that “nothing is new” is encouraging; you have plenty of examples to learn from as you seek to create something that has your personal fingerprints all over it. So to writers: if you want to write about vampires–do it. If you want to write detective novels–do it. But make it your own.

       To readers: read whatever you want to read, reading should be about enjoyment and if you learn something or are inspired or affected along the way, so much the better. Readers have another responsibility, too, and that is to try new things. If you are a fantasy reader (guilty) read some non-fantasy, read some autobiographies, read some classics. This applies to writers as well–read voraciously, whatever you can get your hands on. If you hate a book, never read it again (I suggest getting cheap/used/kindle books just in case). If you love it, read it again until it falls apart, until the pages are stained with tears and crumbs and dirt and memories. But don’t let the stereotypes of genre bind you, cage you in, or prevent you from reading, writing, and experiencing.