imagination

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.

 

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.

bluebell wood light and shadow

Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.