whiny teens in ya literature

Today’s post is a guest post via Zoe E:

Zoe E. lives in Milan with her husband Luciano. When she is not writing, she spends time reading, gardening, practicing guitar, singing, playing video games, or otherwise touching her nerd roots. She used to be a crazy cat lady, but is still waiting delivery of her new cats.

Last night I read this post from Amy Sundberg about whiny teens in YA that hits on one of my major complaints with some of the commercial YA I’ve read. I got on a bit of a Twitter rant about it, and Mari asked me if I felt like doing a guest blog for her. So, here I am.

I’ve also read some indie YA as well, and I can say that some of their stuff is still using the same formulas, but not all of it. Indie is like that though, as you can’t lump it all into one broad category. But the author got me into talking again about my problems with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. But my beef nowadays isn’t so much with her, or the writer. Rather, my problem lies with the adult readers of YA who came up with a stunning defense to my statements that Katniss was self-centered and incompetent. They said: “But aren’t ALL TEENAGERS self-centered?”

Ladies and gentlemen, the defense of a stereotyped character in fiction with an even worse stereotype. It’s like if I said, “I don’t like this character on TV because he’s a black drug dealer, and he’s always abusive to women,” and someone defended with, “But aren’t all black guys like that?” Obviously no, not all black guys are drug dealers or abusive. No one in his right mind would make that defense…but rational, seemingly sane adults HAVE lumped all teenagers together into one big ass stereotype, “you’re all self-centered!”

It’s a defense that should be insulting to the teen readers of the market, the people who are supposedly meant to be reading these stories. I’ve read a number of stories that make me wonder, do these writers just hate teenagers and have low opinions of them? And, I can now tell you from personal experience, some of them do. I’ve been following a few on Twitter, and I watch them complain about the music today’s teens listen to or about their culture or their sexuality. Then they turn around and put out a link to their YA story, and I go read it, and I hate their teens because I wasn’t their kind of proper “good” teen.

I’m sure there are teens out there who do buy the story and “feel it.” But I don’t think they know how much the writer hates teen culture, and they’re just writing in the market because it’s lucrative. It’s not about art, and all their claims that it is are crap. They rely on cheap stereotypes in their work, making harmful statements about whole groups of people because it’s easier than writing the story out with more flesh on its anorexic and snarky bones. If this is art, it’s the equivalent of cutting out other peoples’ pictures from a comic book and adding in new bits of dialogue. And even then, the words are cut out from magazines and pasted in.

But beyond the writers who seem to hate teens, what is up with the adult readers who think all teenagers are self-centered? I’ve met a few teens during my teens, and in my adult life I’ve ended up following a few online at various social sites. Although I’ve seen a few teens who probably do fit the stereotype, I rarely follow someone who gives off a 100% me-me-me vibe…except for teen authors. But with them it’s okay, since all adult authors also do the same thing…oh, wait, what was that? Did I just use a stereotype that made your mouse finger twitch? Well that was sarcasm, so ease off the reply button just yet.

And that’s my whole point about this view that ALL teens are self-centered. I get that there are a lot of people who dug Katniss and her story. I didn’t. I hated her right from the start, and every other blunder in the book became that much worse because I hated the narrator. And later, I came to dislike the writer for her lack of concern for trying to present a better story. To me, it feels like she thinks teens are stupid, and just any old thing is good enough for them. And, a lot of people ate that stupid story up and thought it was JUST SUPER.

Great, but the book was insulting to me, and while I don’t expect anyone to agree with my views, I would hope that no adult would make a rebuttal by further insulting real teens with a broad brush negative stereotype.

The Hunger Games is just one of many stories that I’ve read in commercial YA where the main character rubs me the wrong way right from the introduction. During a reading of one writer’s latest YA efforts, the main character blows off describing a rival character by saying’ “but you know the type. Hey, stereotypes exist for a reason.” Yes, they exist so people don’t have to think. The writer doesn’t have to think of a character anymore, she just has to pen some lines that feel appropriate to the stereotype. And boy, does she ever. Which is why I gave up on her story a few minutes later when she resorted to yet more stereotypes instead of actual descriptions.

Yes, I get that there are teenagers out there who are reading my post and are like, “Meh, whatever, lady. I just liked the story, and I didn’t think too much about the characters.” Right, you’re apparently the self-centered teens that everyone else is talking about. And kids, I’ve got nothing against you being self-centered. It’s a great big world, and for this time in your life, you HAVE to do a lot of inner inspection to decide where you want to go in it and what you want to do. Some of you still have to do decide who you want to present to the world, or even to your parents. So if you become a bit too self-centered to notice someone’s utter contempt for you and your culture through his writing, that’s okay. I’m cool with you, and I’m cool with you wanting to read whatever you like.

But, doesn’t it piss you off just a little bit that adult readers rise to the defense of your books by putting you down? Even if you are genuinely self-centered, doesn’t it bug you that someone else thinks that you’re the way all teens are, everywhere? You’ve become a bad stereotype that’s also popular at the same time. You’re like individual Kurt Cobains, targets for adult contempt just by right of your inability to tune into the adult world when adults need attention and coddling.

I know not all YA is like this. I’ve read plenty of YA that isn’t, so don’t think I’m going to whip out another stereotype to fight a stereotype. I’m not saying the YA written this way needs to change. The writers and publishers find success with it, so more power to them. But I’d like to see writers of next year’s crop of YA titles use a few less easy stereotypes in their narration and act like they love their craft instead of trying to get something out that’s fast-paced, but nasty to everyone outside a tightly focused target market and harmful to many other groups without meaning to be.

realistic character development

Avoid the usual stereotypes

  • the doubtful Catholic priest
  • the tortured main character
  • the virgin heroine
  • the disbelieving police chief
  • the good/bad twin

Give your characters quirks

  • did he have an affair
  • use colloquialisms in speech
  • did they (she/he) give a baby up for adoption?
  • had a divorce
  • got married
  • sings off-key in the shower
  • first car
  • first love
  • first kiss
  • favorite food
  • childhood pets
  • what is your character passionate about? – politics, romance, the ocean, global warming, etc
  • 5 most wonderful moments of his life
  • 5 most painful moments of her life

The character is what you do when no one is watching.

How do you feel when someone disappoints you?

What scares you? What are you the most afraid of?

What would you do in this situation?

Read the obituaries. Real people have interesting histories.

Real characters have weaknesses and make mistakes. But if your character is going to do something stupid, give him a good reason for doing it!

Read a telephone book.

midnight’s heir – picture

I had Preston print me a copy of Midnight’s Heir and bring it home today. I’m appalled. I had no idea the story was this long–it’s stored in the hard drive in pieces. But here it is, in all its glory. I have a lot of cutting to do:

organizing writing and research

This picture is an example of how I organize my writing and research files:

In the top directory, you’ll see a folder titled ‘FAQs’ – that is absent in the rest of the directories. That’s because I don’t use that folder any more. While Evernote was still in beta, I started using it, and now that’s where my writing/research notes go. Tremendous help – it allows the notes to be sorted/organized/tagged, and I don’t have to worry about losing anything if my computer decides to go belly up.

The “in progress” folders house each story by chapter. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t write in order. I write totally out of order. I write by scene, not necessarily by chapter. If a scene comes to mind, I write it down, or at least take notes. Everything gets pieced together much, much later. Some scenes get dumped into the ‘unused’ folder while others get reworked, redrafted, and added in where they belong – and sometimes are moved elsewhere in the story. Each story gets its own ‘unused’ bin until I get far enough along that I don’t need it any more – then those unused pieces go into the main ‘unused scenes’ folder.

‘News’ folders hold my templates – such as the notes I send out to readers, the contracts I use for permission to use my friends’ stuff, etc – reviews and notes from my readers, and anything related. ‘Pictures’ hold just that. Pictures. I have floorplans I’ve drawn, mock-ups of the new high school in Harlan County, maps and directions, etc. For Eventide, for example, I have a folder that includes pictures of downtown Harlan and Corbin from the 1930s to the 1960s as well as pictures of what homes would have been furnished with back then, what people wore, etc.

And that really is pretty much how I work. I used to work like this:

Then I got a laptop, and it started looking more like this:

That purple binder is my Harlan County Bible. (what’s a series bible?) That’s where I keep all of my working notes, timelines, calendars, Harlan brochures, the L&N Railroad passenger train schedule / menu I found, physical maps, and all that other stuff that won’t scan into Evernote. (I’m not going to take the time to scan a 3 foot by 3 foot map of downtown Harlan, for example; that would be suicide and counterproductive aside.) One thing I don’t have in that book are all the notes, etc, etc, from when I first started writing Midnight. I kept nothing. I tossed it all out. I regret that! All I have of that are the bits and pieces I did manage to save somehow.

I went psychotic last month and took my entire Devon Family Tree and plugged it into FamilyTree Maker. That was a chore. But now I can easily see who’s who and where and how everyone is related to everyone else – without having to scroll / flip through thirty pages of screen / paper. This proved a much saner way of dealing with it.

And I think that’s it, really. Questions? Answers? Beer?

i refuse to give away my plot

[[this is a repost]]

I say this all the time:

The narrative parts of the story aren’t platforms for the author to step on stage and explain or reveal things to the reader.

Yet people reading my writing – critique partners and first / second / even third readers – will say that they’ve read ‘so far’ into the story and still don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. Well, the reader isn’t going to know what’s going to happen at the end by page five because the main character doesn’t know what’s going to happen at the end until she gets there. The way I write, the reader doesn’t know anything that the main character doesn’t know – if she doesn’t know it, tough. The reader may figure it out before the main character, and that’s cool. But I’m not going to drop point of view just to point something out for what I consider ‘lazy readers’.

It’s right up there along with:

Forecasting. “If I’d known then that before the end of the day, the goat would have eaten my hat and my Great-Aunt Hattie would never speak again, I would have worn the blue shirt instead.” This cheats the reader of the pleasure of finding out what happened.

Emphasis on that last sentence is entirely mine. I’m mean. I figure if my readers aren’t smart enough to figure stuff out on their own, they don’t need to be reading my writing. The writing I read growing up, I had to figure stuff out on my own. I had to learn to think and then put those skills to work. It seems like writers / people in general these days don’t do that so much – either they don’t know how or weren’t taught how or weren’t taught how properly. Or something. It’s aggravating.

My point is, I refuse to drop information into my readers’ laps just because they expect that information to be there. I refuse to spoon feed anything to anybody. Doing so is lazy writing. It never hurt anybody to have to sit down and figure something out for himself.

I know a number of people won’t read things where they have to figure things out on their own. If that’s the case, these people just won’t be reading my writing. And they probably won’t be reading a score of other writers, either.

[[Quotes from Nalo Hopkinson: About Writing: Things Fall Apart.]]

wrong impressions

Even after five years, it seems like some people are still confused by my vampires. So, I think it’s high time for a(nother) explanatory blog post. (See also, my bibliography page) For the record, the questions here pertain to Midnight.

I’m going to start with these questions:

  • What is the core of this story?
  • Who is the antagonist in this story?
  • What does Sami have to lose?
  • What does Sami have to learn?
  • The core of this story is Sami losing herself only to find herself and where she belongs. Learn, laugh, live – and remember that Darkness Doesn’t Have To Mean Evil.
  • Samantha Clark is her own antagonist. I know a lot of readers expect for some villain to rise out of the shadows. In this story, that isn’t necessary. As cliché as it is, Sami is her own worst enemy. She’s been abused and told she is neither wanted nor loved over the course of her lifetime. She comes into the story lost, depressed, and with little will and no direction. She believes her ultimate goal is to regain the life she had made for herself and had had ripped away from her in Richmond. If she can get back to Richmond, she can rebuild what she’s lost.Over the course of the story, Sami falls further into the darkness and comes close to losing sight of everything she ever was and ever had. She drowns herself in alcohol and marijuana to hide from the pain that awaits her in reality. That rope with the knot in it that she clung so tightly to? she feels she slipped off of the rope and lost sight of the knot months before, if not a year before, she ever came to Harlan County. How to get it back within sight and reach, she doesn’t know.
  • Sami has to learn that some things she thought were real aren’t and some things she thought weren’t real are. She had to learn that she does have a home, that she does belong, and that there are people in the world who do love her. Within the darkness, she must find herself and the source of her own personal power. Also there, she must come to terms with the life she ran away from and face her new beginnings.

Now this group of questions:

  • I like how “human” your vampires are. But I’d lik them to seem more dangerous.
  • Where’s the danger in these vampires?
  • Where’s their power?
  • Where’s their rage and conflict?
  • These questions make me scream, “You’re missing the point! at the top of my lungs until my voice cracks. But, like Sami, most people expect classical, Bram Stoker-like vampires. Mine just aren’t like that. And no matter how much people complain, my vampires never will be like that, either.Being human with human issues is the point. As I’ve stated before, my stories are more about ‘humans having a vampire problem’ than anything else. My point from the onset of the idea of Midnight was that my vampires had to be as human as possible. In my Harlan County, more danger lies in not awakening to the vampire within than lies in the actual becoming.

    From my own notes:

    In those who aren’t given the change to ‘become’, awakening may manifest in actual physical or psychological illness or even debilitation untraceable by the best of medical professionals to any one specific source. These people become empty due to their ‘illness’ without knowing or understanding as to how to fill those voids. Their bodies rebel, then, shutting down vital functions seemingly at random, filling the hollows with cancer, depression, or other maladies. These people sometimes turn to self-harm or even suicide.

  • As for their ‘power’, it isn’t the same as the run-of-the-mill, overused supernatural tropes. This is in part where the ‘paranormal‘ – not the same as supernatural – comes in.My vampires have their metaphysical skills tested during the earliest stages of their awakening. If they’re found not to be adept, not to have any Pagan leanings or magical skills, they are introduced to someone outside of the Anethdraeg (House of the Dragon) clan who will help them – unless they are found by the others first. If they’re found to be adept, then they are given some training, helped through the awakening process, and are adopted into the Family.

    Their power comes from their own metaphysical prowess, from what lies within their own chemistry, through their relationship(s) with their god(s), and from genetics. Some have more, some have less. Except for the Elder. He has his own basket of idiosyncrasies. As a whole Family, this balances out when they all have need to work together.

  • What rage and conflict they do have, if any, is what they bring with them over the process of being turned and through the course of the change. Anything they’re hard-convinced of, any vices they have, any deeply-held beliefs, they bring those with them into their ‘vampirehood’ (ha! I just made up that word!). And there’s what Stephen Young calls the ‘infamous vampire guilt’. Many vampires spend too much time wallowing in the regret of things they’ve done or left undone. Both Steve and his friend Michael Devon are infamous for their ‘brooding’. As for the rage? Well, some have that, but it more boils down to ‘genetic temper’ than vampireness.

Next, these questions:

  • Where are the compact discs, the Internet, and cellular telephones?
  • Why can’t Michael call a cab for those who are too inebriated to drive after a party?

These questions make me laugh until I ache.

  • On the very first page of the story, it says in clear letters and language: 1985 – September. Ergo people:CDs arrived in 1982, yes, but in the Kentucky mountains in 1985, we were still fairly clueless about CDs; we still had our LPs and .45rpms, didn’t have the hundreds of dollars required for a CD player, and were convinced vinyl would live for eternity.

    Cell phones. The first 1G (yes, 1G, we’ve come that far!) network in America came online in Chicago in 1983, and cell phones were gigantic and weighed ten pounds. I’m not certain when cell phones made it to Kentucky, but I bought my first cordless telephone in 1989 – they’ve been around since 1968 but became popular / more common in the mid to late 80s.

    The Internet. ARPANET came around in 1962. E-mail was born the same year as I was. Public access to either wouldn’t come until much later. While I took programming languages classes all through high school, I didn’t really know what a ‘net was until 1987 in college when I had my introduction to the VAX. Back then, it took webmail ten to fifteen minutes to go from my terminal to the one beside me; so while we waited, we would talk or do actual homework! We had our EKU-BBS, but even that took time. NSF released its sponsorship of the Internet in May 1995, four years after Al Gore ‘created’ the Internet.

  • This brings us to Michael calling a cab.I’ve also been asked about passenger rail service. First of all, passenger rail service died in Kentucky in the early 1960s – and it’s not the kind of rail service you’re probably thinking of, anyway. If we want to ride Amtrak, we have to go to Cincinnati, Louisville, Maysville – or gods forbid, Atlanta, Charlotte, or St Louis. So trains are straight out. The trains we’ve had in Kentucky for over forty years now are of the freight and coal variety. And there is no such thing as ‘light rail’ here.

    When I first saw the question about Michael calling a cab, I stared at it a few minutes, then I laughed. Out loud. You might even say I guffawed. Because only people who live in major metropolitan areas and / or who don’t understand how back of beyond rural eastern Kentucky is ask questions like this.

    Harlan downtown has a cab service, but if I remember correctly, it doesn’t do much service outside of Harlan, Baxter, Rosspoint, Loyall, Browning Acres, and all points in between. I don’t know their rates and can’t find them online (no surprise there), so I’m using Lexington rates as an example. Anybody who’s read Midnight knows Hensley Store is twenty-five miles from Loyall. Lexington cab fares start at $2.50, then it’s twenty-five cents every tenth of a mile thereafter. If the math was done right, that’s a $65 ride. I don’t know anybody in the real Harlan County who could ever consider such a ride, never mind not knowing anyone down there with that kind of available cash. The county is populated with people on welfare or Social Security (or some combination of both), and the majority who have jobs outside the coal mines work for minimum wage. $65 for a cab? Infeasible – even in my Harlan County. (See, I like to keep things as realistic as possible, and that’s not a crime. Yet.)

Now with that silly out of the way:

  • Is it possible to start the story with Sami meeting Michael at the party?

Absolutely not. That’s one thing I refuse to change. The story starts with Sami crashing into Loyall after a panicked three hour drive which started with her running away from her abusive boyfriend. This gives the reader Sami’s mind state along with other information that would be lost or too ridiculous to put in as asides or memories. I won’t cheapen my story or lessen Sami’s pain and experiences this way.

  • Why can’t there be more interaction between Michael, Steve, and Jeremy?

First of all, the story is set completely within Sami’s point of view. It’s called ‘limited narrator’. The reader perceives the story through Sami, and she’s unable to tell the reader anything she doesn’t know outside her own experience. If those three men have contact with each other and Sami isn’t there, then it’s impossible for her to relay those meetings to the reader – especially when she doesn’t have a clue they exist. The concept is very simple, and I have trouble grasping why it’s difficult for some readers to understand. I learned how to use this in seventh grade Language Arts class. If the narrator doesn’t know, the reader doesn’t know. “Limited omniscient allows the narrator to relate the thoughts and feelings of only one character”.* If Sami isn’t in the same room with Michael, Steve, or Jeremy, then she doesn’t know what they’re doing or what’s being said – or even if or when all three are together or not together. Therefore, it’s inconceivable that she could communicate that information to the reader.

  • Why is Shelly in the book?

Jeremy Bradford can’t spend all of his time at school, in band practice, or with Michael, can he? When he isn’t in scene with Sami, he doesn’t always run home to his mother or to The Market to Steve. Shelly is important to Jeremy, which is why he introduces Sami to her. The reader doesn’t see Shelly in the sequel, but she is mentioned and plays a critical part to Jeremy’s future. Between Midnight and the sequel, Shelly and Sami develop a strong, sisterly friendship.

The better question to ask might be, “Why is Angela in the story?” No, really. Why is Angela in the story? We meet her on the first page, and her name is mentioned in the narrative a whopping nineteen times. The reader never sees her outside of The Market – except that first night when she brings Sami’s car to Steve’s.

Shelly’s name is mentioned fifty-five times, and Sami has quite a bit of interaction with her as they build their friendship. Shelly is important to the story.

Angela is just a clerk in a corner convenience store. Someone has to mind the place when Steve can’t be there, right?

I think that wraps up this session. If anyone has any questions, please post them in the comments. I’ll compile them and create another post later.

* Basic English Revisited: A Student Handbook, 1985.

a thought about midnight & the hvs

When I first got the idea for Midnight in late 1996, I knew I wanted to write a different kind of ‘vampire story’. I never meant for the story to be the typical vampires-are-demons, the embodiment of our worst fears, gothic-chiller type story; I wanted to write about humans having a vampire problem. My characters, therefore, had to be as human as possible and face every day, normal difficulties. The added element of Samantha Clark’s discovery of real vampires, including that she, herself, carried vampiric genes only provided her another avenue of self-realization and wholeness.

2010 writing metrics

Every year for the last five or six years, I’ve set myself a writing goal of 150 thousand words. More than once, I’ve gotten twice this many words. This year, though, by the middle of May I worried whether I was going to get any words at all. On May 30, I wrote 768 words. It all, as ‘they’ say, went from there. On October 19, I wrote the 768 words that got me to 150,052 – 52 words over goal. I’m currently at 3822 words over goal. We’ll see where it goes from here.

now is not a good time

Now isn’t the time for a metaphysics lesson, Michael. Sure, you and Sami are confined inside your car, probably for another good twenty minutes. But that doesn’t mean she wants or needs a lecture. Besides, this isn’t the place in the story for this. We all can learn how energy transfers between two people and how like energy attracts like energy further along in the narrative. If we need to.

“But this is basic metaphysics!”

Yes, I understand this and it’s also one of the basic laws of energy. But the reader isn’t interested in that right now. The reader is interested in how you and Sami are interacting in this confined space.

“Our energy is interacting all over the place, and she hasn’t even noticed!”

Have you forgotten, Michael, that she’s exhausted, confused, and hungover? That and after your little adventure last night, you applied your special mojo-gumbo and made her forget everything that happened between the two of you. No lectures. No energy transferences. And no pantomime! Sami can’t handle them right now.

I really would like to be furthering this scene instead of discussing it with you.

“But–”

“Michael, stfu.”

“You know I’m not good at that.”

“Do you see this delete key?”

Yeah, you quieten down when I remind you that you’re a figment of my imagination and currently made of nothing more than ink, fiber, ones, and zeros. And my dreams.

“But the metaphysical implications of her touching my hand like that–”

“Michael?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Get the fuck out and walk.”