fantasy

white daffodils

Against Those Against YA

Earlier today a retweet popped up in my timeline pointing me to an “interesting and provocative” case (though the retweeter also said he disagreed with it) for why adults should be embarrassed to read YA. Here’s the article in case you’re interested.

I can see why the retweeter thought, on first glance, that the article is well-argued. Actually, it’s just (fairly) well-written and so it simulates a good, reasoned argument – without actually offering one.

One small thing punctures the writer’s whole case: she assumes that adults who read YA *only* read YA.

Or (shock, horror!) YA and detective fiction.

<pause for collective shudder>

Ultimately, her argument is based on the premise that adults who read YA miss out on literary fiction. Instead, most of the YA-lovers I know – adult or young adult – read widely and voraciously across many, many genres. (And, yes, I think YA is primarily a genre rather than age category – but that’s an argument for another time.)

Reading YA doesn’t mean you *only* read YA. Yesterday I finished Apple Tree Yard: today I am reading We Were Liars. I don’t think I’m especially atypical. Different genres collectively deliver different things: that’s why we group books into genres. But most people also recognise the huge variation in books within genres. That’s why Crime has diversified into categories as wide-ranging as ‘hard boiled’ and ‘cosy’ – not to mention the huge number of extraordinary literary crime novels as exquisitely written and constructed as anything in the plain ‘literary’ category.

Ruth Graham unintentionally makes a good, if blinkered and somewhat “smug” (to quote an incensed friend), case for YA… if read alongside books from other genres. Which is the case for most readers. Where does that leave her article?

I suppose she could, instead, have argued that adults should be embarrassed to read YA if that’s all they read, but let’s face it: she wouldn’t have received nearly as much air-time for that article. Not least because lots of people would agree with the gist of the argument. Not the bit about  being embarrassed by your reading choices (better to read something than to read nothing, surely). But I think most readers would agree that reading YA – or any other genre to the exclusion of all others means you miss out on the wonderful diversity of literature.

I’d counter-argue that YA is incredibly diverse – arguably the most diverse genre/category out there – but I still wouldn’t want to be restricted to just that section in a bookstore.

But leaving aside the gaping flaws in her premise, Graham goes on to say some downright silly – and ignorant – things, notably this:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.

I don’t disagree that a lot of YA is slightly neater than a lot of literary fiction in terms of endings: literary fiction is famous for messy (and often irritating) endings. In point of fact, quite a few literary books would be better for a neat ending rather than one that’s only messy to make a pretentious point: if the story hasn’t lead to messiness, then tacking it on at the end is worse than starting and following a path to something relatively neat and satisfying.

But as for the claim that YA endings are “uniformly” “simple” and “satisfying”… Well, Graham has obviously not read much YA, recent or classic. On this point she is patently and unarguably wrong. And it’s not too often you can say that about anything to do with literature.

Take the first example to pop into my head… double Carnegie winner Patrick Ness. Ness’ writing is extraordinary. He’s up there for me with writers that would presumably meet Ruth Graham’s approval, like Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver. This is a person who has a unique, fascinating voice. Who does creative things with language without doing them as a statement of how creative and unique he is: this is how his mind works, the words it conjures – just as it is for the best literary fiction writers. And his endings are anything but neat, simple, tidy. Sometimes they’re not at all ‘satisfying’ – at least in the simplistic ways Graham is criticising. Some are as complex and difficult as anything in literary fiction.

How about the lovely Tim Bowler or the challenging Siobhan Dowd, just to look at other Carnegie winners who come quickly to mind? There are so many other writers I could mention in this regard. Take Ruta Sepytys’s wonderful Out of the Easy, recently shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. This is fully equal to Sarah Waters’ historical fiction for literary value in my opinion: I’d argue that it is often even more nuanced and difficult and “unsatisfying” (in Graham’s terms). How about YA fantasy, which Graham rubbishes at the start of her article? Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter delivers a messy, difficult ending that doesn’t satisfy in simple terms at all… but does satisfy on all the more complex levels Graham is talking about; it’s what probably would happen; it’s realistic and interesting and difficult. I’m still chewing away at my feelings about it.

Last (and not to blow my own trumpet but because it’s the book I know the most about) there’s my own debut novel, The Bone Dragon. I defy Ruth Graham to say that the ending is simple, neat or simplistically satisfying. One of my favourite reviews, by Isabel Popple at The Stardust Reader and on the Waterstone’s site, says this of the ending:

Other reviews I’ve read for The Bone Dragon are all massively praiseworthy, calling it wonderful, captivating, magical, hypnotic. And it is certainly all of these things, but it’s also extremely unsettling – and this is the predominant feeling I’ve been left with. Darkness overlays everything else within, no matter how beautifully constructed it might be. Tread lightly, readers.

She concludes that the book “left me feeling itchy inside my skin”. That’s exactly what I hoped readers would feel. For me, while I’m inside the book the ending is satisfying and empowering and tied up in a neat little bow. When I step outside the book, the ending becomes anything but. It becomes frightening and sad, tugging me in at least two directions. It’s a book that can’t end happily for everyone – not just inside the book but once the cover closes – and that is the whole point. It’s a book with no answers, just a lot of difficult questions.

So I challenge Graham to read this or any of the other books people must be pouring in to offer as examples of the fact that she has managed to be outright wrong in a field where that’s actually pretty hard.

Or we could just go back to the beginning of the article and the fact that the whole piece is built on a silly, badly thought out premise.

So here are my thoughts…

Read. Read widely. Be proud of reading. Be proud of reading widely.

Just don’t be snotty about it.

There’s room for all sorts of books and the world is better for that fact.

 

mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but Hot Key’s question today on Twitter pushed me to get on with writing about it, not least because I’m determined to start blogging more regularly again.

What Hot Key wanted to know was how you build a world. It’s not something I’ve done in The Bone Dragon or in MoB (i.e. Book 2). But it is something I’m doing in several of my upcoming novels so it’s been on my mind a lot.

It’s so easy, when you think about building a world, to start with place. That’s what a world is, at base, after all. Isn’t your first image, when you think the word ‘world’, a planet or a map or something of that sort?

It’s a lot of fun to let your imagination conjure up mountains, deserts and seas… vast cities and picturesque villages. What a lovely afternoon you can spend peopling them with fantastic creatures from myth and fairytale or just from your own mind.

But none of this is going to help you write a really good book. A good book starts with a good story. And story is not place. The setting may be hugely important, but usually because it’s almost a character in its own right.

And there’s your answer about where to start: character.

Build your world about the characters you’re going to write about. What sort of world explains who they are? What sort of world will challenge them in interesting and exciting ways, giving you your plot?

Are you doing it again? Are you thinking of your world as a place that will challenge your characters? Do you really want to write a book about people climbing mountains or surviving in the desert? That’s not much of a plot, is it?

Remember, your world is a character.

‘But how does that help?’ you ask. And the answer is… it helps when you remember that it’s only one character. One among many.

There’s the real key: the true place to start. Your world is how all the characters fit together. How does wealth work? How does your setting influence that? How does gender (or the equivalent) work? What are the axes of inequality? What gives people power? What are the social and inter-personal rules? What are the values and beliefs, traditions and norms that underpin these rules?

Those things will grow out of and through ‘place’ – the physical world of your story – but the most important elements of any world-as-story are the people and the structures that dictate how they relate to each other.

Whatever they do, characters are always acting in accordance with the rules or against them: even when characters break the rules, the rules are still there. Which means that whatever characters do, they’re making a socially meaningful decision. They’re inviting consequences and… Hey, presto! We have conflict and tension, risks and rewards, goals and desires, obstacles and aids… We have all the ingredients for a great plot. A great story.

Some of the rules you need to work out to build your world will be relationship rules and some will be social rules… But there are always rules between people: big ones and small ones. Ones for whole societies and sub-rules even within families.

That is the true world you need to build: the world that grows out of who your characters are and the story you want to tell about how they relate to each other.

So don’t start with a map. Start with characters and build your world outwards from them. Don’t ignore your setting, just treat it as one of those characters. But only one of them. Otherwise you’ll end up with a setting to graft a story on, not a setting that is an integral part of your story.

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour graphic

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

The Bone Dragon goes on tour! A whole range of posts, interviews and even the first 15 pages, hosted by amazing bookbloggers, magazines and book organisations. Thank you so much for giving me these wonderful opportunities to connect with people to talk about books and witing!

On May 13th, Jo Stapley interviewed me on Once Upon a Bookcase.

On May 14, I discussed whether characters should be consistent with BookBabblers. BookBabblers also reviewed the book here.

On May 15, Laura at Sisterspooky hosted me talking about how photography helps me to write. She also reviewed the book here.

On May 16, INIS interviewed me about The Bone Dragon, how many script-consultant work influences my writing, and about what I’m working on now. Betty Maguire also reviewed the book here.

On May 17, Jenny from Wondrous Reads made the first 15 pages available to read for free: a nice alternative to Amazon’s ‘Look inside feature’, especially for talking to independent bookshops about the novel! Read it here.

On Monday 20, Meg from The Book Addicted Girl hosted me discussing whether themes such as abuse and violence are ‘too mature’ for the YA audience. Look out for Meg’s review too, coming soon.

On Tuesday 21, Julie and Lanna from Bloggers [Heart] Books hosted a writing-advice post on when to get feedback: ‘I don’t want your opinion yet!’

On Wednesday 22, Vivienne from Serendipity Reviews let me join in the fun of discussing books I loved as a teenager as part of her ‘YA from my Youth’ series. Do check out the other fab posts in the series too!

On Thursday 23, BookTrust hosted me discussing how I think difficult themes like abuse and violence are best handled when dealing with a YA audience. There’s also a review here.

Thank you so much to all the wonderful book people who hosted the stops along the tour. Thanks also for all the lovely reviews! It’s been so much fun working with you all. Hope to do it again soon!

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour graphic

The Bone Dragon book cover

Read the first 15 pages of The Bone Dragon now

… on Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature here.

Buy it now from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Telegraph bookshop, Sainsbury’s and of course, your local independent bookstore!

In the US, The Bone Dragon is available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.

tapestry rose close up

What’s in a name?

Names are important. Sometimes they just identify things and there’s a simple relationship between the signified (i.e. the thing being named) and the signifier (i.e. the name itself). Often, however, names do not merely identify things, telling us that A is different from B: often, names tell us something about the nature of the thing they’re naming.

In fiction, it’s rarely enough to name things in order to distinguish them. Names shouldn’t just help us tell characters and places (among other things) apart, but should also convey something further to us. Careful naming is an opportunity to give readers information without telling them anything beyond the name: it can be a great way to info-dump without anyone realising that’s what you’re doing.

Sometimes this can go too far: recently, there was a dreadful murder mystery episode on TV where a character took on a name meaning the same as the phrase he scribbled every time he committed a murder. The trouble with this is the ‘spelling it out bit’ necessary for the revelation of whodunit to work. Why is this a problem, you might ask? Well, in my mind, this approach to naming is by way of making an in joke. The minute you spell the joke out, it becomes both (a) not at all funny and (b) not very clever. A really clever in joke reveals itself, rather than requiring the author to step in.

If you’re writing parody or comedy, then silly names are de rigeur. Or they should be. Who doesn’t like good old PC Plod or (my ten-year old attempt) Detective Inga Vestiggatin. (You are allowed to groan here, but do remember I was only ten.)

Now, I’m not arguing that all names should have a ‘translation’ that tells you something about the character and/or their fate in the story, just that names need to fit: the key connotations should feel natural and appropriate. I would find it very hard to suspend disbelief if, in an action flick that took itself seriously (always a bad thing to begin with), the superhero were called Hubert. Similarly, I would take issue with a modern teenage beauty in a work of serious literary fiction being called Griselda. Each to their own, but I, as a reader, would find the name a terrible mismatch. The writer would have to do a lot of convincing before I imagined a pretty eighteen-year-old each time I saw the name.

Now, obviously books can make new ‘matches’, creating new connotation. But I think the Griselda one would be a real uphill battle. ‘Hermione’ as a nickname for someone clever but not stereotypically pretty makes sense on the basic snap-judgement level we tend to react to names on.

Finding the right name can be really hard. The Wordsworth Dictionary of First Names and the Wordsworth Dictionary of Surnames are both excellent places to start, but they are pretty Anglo-centric. Even if your character’s family has lived in the UK or the USA for generations, they may well have immigrated there at some stage and brought with them a tradition for, say, Italian names or Iranian ones. A little research will help identify some options (e.g. for Italian names), but it won’t necessarily tell you what connotations attach to those names in the language/culture they originated from. That isn’t always a problem if the vast majority of your readers are unlikely to know these connotations, but it is something to consider in terms of doing your research ‘due diligence’ for your own satisfaction.

Sometimes it is the sound of a name that is important. Often this is the case for names that are foreign to the writer and/or the majority of readers. Sometimes what matters is that major historical figures have carried the name: Elizabeth raises a wealth of connotations. Conversely, Benito was a very popular name among the completely apolitical farming communities of northern Italy until Mussolini came along. Sometimes the connotations are to do with other books or TV shows or movies… The key thing to think about is what most readers will associate with the name. Remember to distance yourself from purely personal associations if they are likely to be at odds with what most readers think and feel about a particular name. Unless it doesn’t matter if most readers don’t get the joke. It’s fine to leave in a few little things that you, your closest friends and family will spot, but no one else will bat any eye at.

So, the message is that names are important. Take the time to get it right. You’ll know when you’re there. Conversely, if a name makes you want to itch (I sometimes literally get the scritches when I can’t find the right name for a character), then stop and fix it. This doesn’t have to be during your first draft, but it should probably be by the time you’ve finished your second. If you don’t believe fully in your characters because they have the wrong names, then how will the reader manage?

This applies to everything in your story world that has a name. It’s one of the things that makes writing fantasy and sci-fi so hard. Conversely, it’s one of the few easy things about writing historical fiction.

My last words of advice: remember that other people may well be able to help with names. Just don’t be too proud to ask and to accept suggestions if they’re good. Also, if you’re really bad at names, it’s worth thinking about what genre is going to suit you best as a writer. Because names really do matter and, unlike with titles, your agent/editor is probably not going to offer to rewrite them all if your efforts stink.

All that said, I find names really, really hard to get right. I’m getting better at finding the right names – and finding them quicker – as I become more experienced, but it’s still one of the things I struggle with. Titles are a real issue for me. But more on that another time.

 

Any tips of books of names or how you find names for your characters/places?