aesthetics

Hopeful endings, vulnerable readers & research

The wonderful Michelle of Fluttering Butterflies has just published a post asking various YA authors (including me) the following thorny question: Do YA writers have a responsibility to provide hope at the end of their stories? Particularly when it concerns potentially vulnerable readers such as LGBT teenagers or those with mental illness? Read the full post here.

My answer got rather long, even before I tackled the second part of the question, so I decided to make it the subject of a blogpost where I could ramble at length without my contribution becoming a monograph. So here are my thoughts on  the issue of hopeful endings and the responsibilities of YA writers to vulnerable readers.

I think Literature should be inclusive so I fundamentally don’t believe that vulnerable young adults should be given stories with a different valance to their endings. There are lots of ways in which a person might be vulnerable – or not – and this often shifts with circumstances. Sometimes it is important to focus on someone’s vulnerability in order to provide assistance, but this can all too easily become an excuse for excluding people. Often the purported reason for this is to ‘protect’ vulnerable people, but few people need or want blanket protection from all things in all areas of life: it’s a short journey from there to marginalising vulnerable people even more.

I see no harm in having some system to help people avoid books with topics or approaches they aren’t comfortable with: an online database of trigger warnings that people can consult if they want to seems a simple solution. What more is needed in terms of protection? Do we really want to exclude vulnerable young people from stories that run the normal gamut from happy endings through hopeful ones to the odd bleak one? How will that help?

Surely vulnerable young people are hyper-aware of how often the world is grim and, at best, hopeful and sometimes not even that. Why would we even consider denying them a fictional representation of what may well be their experience of everyday life? Because they need an antidote? Perhaps, but if all they get is an antidote there’s a real danger that reading happy people getting happy endings will make them feel even more different, even further from supposedly normal people.

For me what is more important is to portray the truth of difficult circumstances.

Of course there is more than one ‘truth’ to every issue, but there are broad parameters within which the truth lies: that is the key to effective and responsible research regarding difficult things you’ve never experienced for yourself. Your character’s truth should fall within the parameters of what 99% of people in that difficult situation feel and think and experience. Because it’s a pretty wide field, getting it wrong is entirely avoidable and that means it’s also unacceptable.

Research failures should involve mistakes that aren’t easy to avoid: they should cover the tricky questions you don’t even know, from the outside, that you need to ask.

One of the things that is true for 99% of people in difficult situations is that one blow-up row, or one big revelation of trauma, does not fix things. It’s sometimes an important first step, but sometimes it’s a huge mistake. Either way, maybe it’s the start of things changing for good or bad, but it’s not going to be a simple, linear path from there to recovery. And the big thing is not going to go away. It may not control the person’s life in the future, but it won’t be gone. Nothing that big ever is. And that’s OK. That’s normal for 99% of people in the situation.

It’s so important that we tell people this: that we tell the vulnerable young adults who’re in the middle of a struggle and who think that success is 100% recovery or 100% happiness that it’s never going to happen, but that’s just fine. So long as life has happiness and things are better, it’s still a success. No one is 100% happy. No one is 100% OK with all of the things that have gone wrong in their life. In life, good enough really is more than good enough. We can reach for the stars, but if the message we’re getting is that anything less is no good, then we’re going to be pretty miserable spending our lives never achieving an unreachable goal.

Anorexics are never ex-anorexics even when they learn how to maintain a healthy weight, just as alcoholics are never ex-alcoholics even when they’ve been sober for forty years. It’s always there. But it’s not always there right at the front of everything. It’s not ruining your life and your relationships and your peace of mind all the time. Life’s happy and largely healthy and that is a huge achievement. It is more than enough. That is the goal, not the ‘perfect walk-off-into-the-sunset’ endings that too many books give us.

So if we’re going to have hope, it’s actually important that it’s not too hopeful: the hope needs to be realistic. It needs to be truthful. It needs to tell people that you don’t need all the hope in the world for your life to be good – you just need enough. All of this is just as important as trying to make sure that books are only bleak and nihilistic to a purpose.

Critically, this is true for all readers, vulnerable or not, young adult or adult. So I worry a lot less about whether my endings are happy/hopeful/bleak and more about whether they speak to a larger truth. Even in fiction, when we enjoy the ultra-happy ending, we tend feel uneasy. We know it’s not real. We know it’s not true. And the best fiction always make space for a truth beyond the story: a truth that speaks to what human beings are and what we can become. The truth is rarely out-and-out happy, but it’s also rarely without hope. Hope is the touchstone of the imagination: it’s where truth meets possibility, and surely that is what fiction is.

 

YALC Developing Your Writing Voice

So, better late than never, right? Here, finally is the hand-out from my YALC ‘Develop Your Writing Voice’ workshop. Thank you so much to everyone who was there on the day and made the chaos so much fun! (Disclaimer: ‘cover’ image of the YALC authors by Rowan Spray.)

Developing a unique writing voice is not about trying to be different. It’s about recognising how you’re already different and unique, then harnessing that.

That was the core message of the workshop: it’s at the heart of discovering and developing your voice as a writer.

But what is voice? There’s no accepted definition, partly because it’s a somewhat woolly concept, but also because it’s so hard to pin down in theory – it’s much easier to identify aspects of a specific writer’s voice in practice. But that’s not how to discover your own.

Voice is partly about the things that make a piece of writing something only you could produce. But it’s also about the things that stay the same from one piece (or book) to another.

Cris Freese, in Writer’s Digest, says that voice is “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.”

When planning the workshop, I asked what people on Twitter thought I should cover. KM Lockwood suggested I should also discuss what voice *isn’t*, which is a really good way to go about firming up the whole concept.

Voice isn’t about book-specific stuff, current trends, or aping another writer. It’s the writer behind the text.

At the start of creative writing courses, some students think that being ‘unique’ means doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing. But that’s not unique: that’s just contradictory.

Doing the opposite means you’re thinking inside a box someone else has built. Build your own box – and remember that it doesn’t have to be square.

And remember that just because developing your voice is about tapping into your own uniqueness, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it. It isn’t something you’ve either ‘got’ or ‘lack’. Some people are naturals at tapping into their voice. Other people need to make more of a conscious effort. But training yourself to tap in more efficiently is always going to be good.

You can’t control your level of innate talent, only the amount of work you put into developing it.

So where do you start? With technique. When everything else in your creative toolbox lets you down, technique will help you get back on track. It’s like spells and runes: the method rather than the magic, but no less vital for it.

PD James says “Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”

I start with aesthetics. It’s a fancy but useful word that can be used to mean a person’s ‘understanding of beauty’. But beauty in the sense of Art, which can be hideous at one level but so powerful it is fascinating to the point of beauty.

So forget ‘prettiness’, what do you find beautiful? What is lovely to you in an emotional sense? Figuring this out will help you figure out what to put into your work… and what to leave out.

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EXCERISE: Find things that are beautiful and try to capture them in photos. Critique your work. Have you really captured what you intended in the picture? Can you capture it in a picture? How could you capture it in words? If you can’t, why not? What are you trying to say and why?

In the workshop I talked a bit about how my aesthetics play out in The Bone Dragon. I focused on the importance of subtext. What do I put in? Just enough for people to see what questions I’m trying to ask. Just enough to follow the story. What do I leave out? Anything that dictates the reader’s response at a moral or emotional level.

The Bone Dragon book cover

Voice is not just about the sentence-level stuff or the type of words you use. It’s about all the choices you make as a writer. Most of all, it’s about drawing those choices together so that the small choices and the big choices all work together.

EXCERISE: Re-take a photo from the exercise above that didn’t come out right, thinking about why it wasn’t right – why it didn’t capture your aesthetic properly. Keep going until you’re happy. Why are you happy? Now try to take a photo of something else and see if you can get the perfect shot in fewer tries.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read was ‘write the book only you can write’. This applies at multiple levels.

  1. Concept-level: What is the most original story I have only I could have thought of? What makes it too much like other peoples’ stories? What would make it even more ‘me’ than it already is?
  2. Plot-level: How do I tell this story so it’s as ‘me-as-can-be’?
  3. Sentence-level: What would I notice if I were there, in the story? What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? What are the characters doing? How do they treat each other? How can I capture all this in a ‘me’ sort of way?

EXCERISE: Which picture would you choose to write from? Why? What does that say about your aesthetic?

magnolia tree and gate               gate with magnolia petals

 Neil Gaiman says, “Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Any starting writer starts out with other people’s voices. But as quickly as you can start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

In other words, read and write as much as possible, but do it thinking about your reading and writing aesthetics. The goal is to refine not just your understanding of your aesthetic, but your ability to capture it in words or images.

But it’s much easier to capture once you know what you’re chasing … and what you’re chasing is you. The truest, purest form of what is already unique and different in you and how you see the world.