reading

Why the Disabled Students Allowance does need to change

The Government has just confirmed major cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance, making it the responsibility of universities to support many aspects of their disabled students’ study.

As a dyslexic/dyspraxic student who received much needed support for all three of my degrees, I can speak to how important DSA is in helping make higher education more accessible. But I can also speak to how egregiously and systematically it has been misused and exploited at huge cost to the tax payer.

In every degree, I had to go for an assessment of my needs – each costing over £300, not to mention the cost to me of travel when the assessment wasn’t on campus or where I wasn’t living near the uni. The real problem wasn’t the need to jump through expensive hoops but the fact that my reports always recommended things that I didn’t need or want – and which cost at least 50% more than what I did want and need. Each time I lobbied my Local Education Authority directly, showing that the equipment that would be most beneficial to me was available through a reputable retailer (not the ‘specialist company’ that the assessor had recommended) at significantly less cost. In each case, I substantially upped the specs of the computer I ended up with – meaning I had a better machine that lasted for longer because it was more powerful and could run the newer software available as time passed.

For instance, during my first degree my LEA agreed that having a big monitor would help me deal with databases and grids as I could use a large font and still see large chunks of data and write long calculations. I also nearly doubled my RAM and hard-drive capacity as well as getting a better processor. My needs-assessor was furious and complained that I needed to use the ‘recommended supplier’ who would come and set it all up for me and make sure I could use it all. But the LEA sided with me and gave me the machine I asked for. It was perfect and made a huge difference. I lasted me through my degree and into the start of my Masters, until I could access DSA again.

During my PhD, the assessor listened a bit more but also ‘sold’ me on the idea of a small hand-held scanner that I could use to scan text from books so I didn’t have to write notes (an excrutiatingly slow and inaccurate process for me as my spelling is atrocious and my handwriting is worse). What they didn’t say was that the scanner couldn’t deal with most type-faces, quailed at italics and needed to be wielded with coordination not possible for a dyspraxic to muster. It was an expensive waste of money and my time trying my best to make this ‘miracle solution’ do what had been promised – and it was a huge blow to my confidence when I realised that there wasn’t a magic fix to my note-writing problems after all.

And that’s apart from the fact that at every assessment the assessors pretty much insisted that I take MindMapping software because ‘they were positive it would be brilliant once I tried it’. I never did because I was so busy struggling – as most dyslexics do – to keep up with my reading and attempts to take notes. Since mindmapping has never done anything for me on paper, I couldn’t see why doing it on the computer would be better so why would I spend invaluable reading time on another ‘snake oil’ solution?

Yes, students need help identifying the software, hardware and other forms of assistance that could be useful for them. There’s a lot out there and it changes all the time: a chat with an expert is important. But surely it could be a chat with a well-informed member of student-support. In that, I agree about passing the responsibility to universities.

And I also agree that there should be a cap on what is available – especially for students who don’t have a physical disability. When there is a cap, you have to prioritise what is really likely to help enough to make the money worthwhile… And, in that context, students are often the best placed to know what is really going to work for them, at least after a chat with well-informed support staff.

But I also think that the reduced, capped amount available to disabled students should come from the Government and not universities because, if it comes from universities, then students will end up being denied access to diagnostic tests – expensive in their own right – that would give them access to DSA funds.

Universities screen to determine if someone is likely to be dyslexic and so whether it is worth sending them for formal diagnosis. Screening tests are – at VERY best – 90% accurate and it’s often a lot less. I know this as a fact because I was project leader of a Cambridge University research unit examining how effective screening tests are for people with high IQs – and the answer is ‘not effective at all’. Things have improved, but they’d have to given that the statistics behind these tests showed they were actually better at identifying which students were in further education and which were in higher education than which were at identifying which were dyslexic and which weren’t. And that was the market leader screening test. If universities have to pay out for support as well as diagnosis, then the bar will be raised on how ‘dyslexic’ you need come out as on these not-very-reliable screening tests before you’re sent for diagnosis and, thus, more people who need and have a right to support will be denied it.

So, yes, there has been massive misuse of public money, but there must be support for disabled students. And let’s not forget that they are NOT the people who’ve been gaming the system. It’s the people who’re meant to be helping them who are at fault. Let’s take it out on them by cutting their jobs – and, thus, their access to public money – and put more power in the hands of students to decide where a smaller, capped amount of money would best be spent. I expect students would benefit more, despite there being less money available to them. I know that I did when I got the lower-cost support I knew would help me the most and not all the rest of the rubbish that other people insisted would help me but, if anything, complicated my life by diverting time into ‘solutions’ that were never going to solve anything for me.

So yes to reform, caps and giving some more responsibility to universities, but no for making almost all costs the responsibility of universities. It won’t work and it will penalise disabled students. We need to give them a system that does the most in a cost-effective way. But if we can penalise those who’ve been misusing the system in the process, and only them, that bit gets a big thumbs up from me.

 

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.

 

Happy UKYA Day: Why I love UKYA

Thanks to lovely Lucy Powrie for organising UKYA Day – and so many other UKYA things during the year. I absolutely love #UKYAchat: such a fantastic way to gather swathes of the community together to fill in the gaps between when we are in the same space! You’re a star, Lucy. I think we’re all blown away with how much you do. It’s incredible at any age: the fact that you have the known-how and dedication already is such a statement to what brilliant things lie ahead. Thank you for all you do for all of us. The support and positivity of the UKYA community is so important to so many people: a constant reminder that some corners of the world are full of enthusiasm, creativity and lovely people being lovely to each other.

It’s the UKYA community that inspired me to turn YA Shot from a little local event I was working on with Hillingdon Libraries into something much, *much* bigger. I knew there would be the support and enthusiasm to dream big because everyone would rally behind us and the fact that YA Shot will support all the libraries of the London Borough of Hillingdon. YA Shot is thriving because of your support: your interest, your RTs, your commitment to books and libraries… And the best is still to come. Join Lucy, George Lester, Holly Bourne, CJ Daugherty and me at 7pm on the #UKYADay live show for fun, bookish mayhem and the biggest YA Shot announcement yet. I hope you’ll agree that it captures what UKYA is all about. If you miss us, the news will be up on the website – www.yashot.co.uk – launching at the end of the #UKYAday celebrations (i.e. ~9pm 12 April 2015). Catch us on Twitter via the #YAShot hashtag.

As you’ve probably gathered, there are many reasons I love UKYA. A lot of them revolve around how wonderful the people are (which I wrote about in this post for the UKYABA), but an equal number centre on the books.

People disagree on whether YA is an age category or a genre. I’d put my flag firmly in the genre camp. One of the defining features of YA as a genre is that it can move across genre boundaries: it often sits on and in the ‘between’ spaces. It’s the perfect home for books that are lots of things at once. And I love that. I love that there’s a space on the bookshelf where Literary Contemporary can meet Fantasy and/or Magical Realism AND sit alongside Historical Fiction and Thrillers. Sometimes all in the same book.

Where UKYA has the edge is in the diversity not just of its subject matter but of the characters who people our pages. The UKYA community believes passionately that books and people are and should be diverse. We don’t always agree on exactly what that means or how to achieve a body of literature where diversity is as normal and natural as page numbers, but we all agree on the goal. UKYA authors and readers think and care about the issue: that is an incredibly important first step.

I also love that UKYA affords a particular edge in terms of moral implications. In general, UKYA is less dictatorial than, say, American YA (and I say that as a dual British-American citizen). UKYA often shows different people navigating different issues and situations in a ways that let the reader figure out whether they are doing it well or badly or somewhere in between.

There’s an argument that UKYA is more nuanced in general. Happiness and hope are generally not absolute in UKYA, just as they aren’t in the real world. That’s such an important message for people – tweens, teens or adults: that life can be good and happy and hopeful even when it could be more so. It doesn’t have to be picture perfect to be really pretty good.

In a lot of American YA (and MG) there’s a tendency to a ‘clear cut’ moral and an almost entirely happy ending for the main characters: there’s a lot more walking off into the sunset. I’ve never enjoyed that as a reader or as a writer. It’s not real and, for me, it doesn’t fulfil an emotional need because it’s so unreal. I like endings that are perhaps a little happier and a little more hopeful than real life tends to be, but I don’t want the Hollywood version. I want to see people happy with what someone in real life might get if a bad situation turned out really, really well.

I like complex, messy endings: endings that say that a life that is a qualified success, with a qualified level of happiness, is more than good enough. It doesn’t need to be rewritten to reach the 100% happy/successful mark that no one ever manages in reality to represent a satisfying ending. We don’t need the 100% version: it’s still a happy ending. UKYA excels at that message.

I also have a soft spot for the particular type of clever snarkiness mingled with outright silliness that only a Brit can deliver.

Three cheers for UKYA!

 

autumn leaves in pond

Why impatience is a GOOD thing

One of the criticisms commonly levelled against adults reading YA is that it is symbolic of a wider cultural problem: the fact that attention spans are getting progressively shorter and shorter. That a diet of skimming online has rendered us unable to devote the time and effort needed to appreciate deep, serious, proper Literature (note the capital).

And I agree entirely that our collective attention spans are altering and that this is having an impact on what we want from both art and entertainment.

Another criticism against YA that is often twinned with the first is that, as a collection of literature, it represents a ‘low culture’ form of entertainment for people who, because of their short attention spans, need instant gratification. Proper Literature (note the capital), conversely, requires patience – not to mention high-culture knowledge and skills – to be appreciated.

And I agree that sometimes art and entertainment are the polar opposites they’re often seen as. But I’ve never liked the snotty implications of dividing things into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I much prefer the more nuanced concept that people render the same objects ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’ by their reaction to and interaction with them during both creation and reception. In one reader’s hands, Harry Potter is fluff. In another’s, it is the subject of quality scholarship.

More simply put, the world is what we make of it. Art is surely the zenith of this truism.

Our behaviour towards cultural objects is what renders them entertainment or art or, more commonly, a mix of the two. Do we spend time analysing a book? Do we read slowly, checking back to make connections? Do we relish the language? Do we think about the book after we’ve finished? Do we daydream our own stories from it? Do we think about the implications for the real world? Do we consider how and why a book works? Or do we simply read as quickly as possible to find out what happens so we can start a new book? Time allows us to elevate any cultural object. Time gives us the scope to think and, perhaps more importantly, imagine.

But do we have to be patient with the object itself for this to happen? It rather depends on the object. The idea that writers might want to make cultural objects as ‘efficient’ as possible is not antithetical to the idea of writing as an act of creating Literature. It takes precision and skill to edit out unnecessary material. Knowing what to take out is as important as knowing what to leave in.

One of the things I love about YA is the precision of the editing in so many of the books. The idea that our readers (teens or adults) may not want to dawdle unnecessarily or depart on pointless tangents pushes us to keep asking ‘What does this contribute?’ and ‘How can this scene do as many things as possible?’ and ‘How do we convey the max. with the least number of words?’ All of these things are as much about Literature (note the capital) as entertainment. The idea that baggy and long-winded books are necessarily more literary makes little sense.

And, yes, times and tastes have changed. I thought Middlemarch was fascinating but overly long. I would have got as much from it in terms of its literary value if there had been less to slog through – and it would have increased its value to me as entertainment at the same time.

After all, surely the ultimate goal is for people to take pleasure out of ‘quality’. Art and entertainment should, can and do go hand-in-hand – though only in the best books. Art and entertainment are not antithetical. And in this regard, sometimes impatience can drive Literature forwards, demanding that we do our best to make every word count, every page illuminate as well as entertain, not allowing us any slack.

The people who could read – and could afford books to read – used to almost exclusively be people with time on their hands: the idle rich. That was true from the birth of the novel until surprisingly recently. Cheap paperbacks and an increase in literacy changed things… Now lots of people read, but very few of them have the time to read as much as they’d like. There are so many demands on our attention, our time… and also myriad possibilities for entertainment. Not only are books competing with TV and computer games, but with other books. So is it any wonder that our patience is waning? We could be doing other things. We could be reading other things. Books can’t afford to ask us for any more patience than is strictly and absolutely necessary. And why should they?

If they do, why shouldn’t we turn to books that recognise that time is limited – that our lives are limited – and that, when we’re surrounded by such wonderful possibilities, we should be impatient to make the most of them. We should want to spend ourselves on the best books: those that give us the most with the least waste.

So let’s be impatient… to a point. Let’s all try to get the most out of life and the wonderfully diverse array of books that we can access (at least in the UK, where we have a brilliant, if threatened, library system). Let’s not waste our reading time on books premised on the idea that art and entertainment can’t and shouldn’t go hand in hand. Literature can and should be lots of things at once. That is the whole point. That is what makes it Literature with the capital. But we, as readers, are just as important as writers.

We need to be patient enough to read actively whenever we can. To be part of the act of creation. To collaborate with writers to bring Book-Worlds to life. Writers need to make their work open to this type of reading, but we’re the ones who have to follow through if a book is to become Literature.

We need to be active, not passive.

But we also need to be impatient when authors waste our time. We need to demand their best creativity in exchange for our own.

If that’s the type of impatience we’re exercising, how can it be bad? Isn’t it, rather, a refusal to waste ourselves and all the real and fictional possibilities before us?

Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

magenta and white tapestry rose

As good as it gets: writing romance is all about your understanding of love

A while ago someone asked if I could give some advice on writing romance. I sent a reply at the time, but I always planned to expand it into a full post. Here it is. (Of course, because I saved the original message in a safe place, I can’t find it. If you’re the person who inspired this post, please let me know! Also, thanks and hope you like it.)

For me, the key to writing successful romance – whether it’s a romantic novel or a romantic storyline in a thriller or fantasy novel – is thinking about what you, individually, find romantic.

Writers are told to forget the clichés, and this is especially important with romance. Do you find red roses romantic? Personally, I’d be far more touched by a man turning up with a wilting dandelion from the paving stone by his porch. Don’t get me wrong: I like roses, red or otherwise, but it’s not ‘as good as it gets’ for me. And romance in a story should be as good as it gets while still (for the most part) being give-or-take realistic.

So what would be better? Does the guy turn up with a whole rose bush because the girl or guy he’s trying to impress likes gardening? Does he bring a cutting from a bush he saw the object of his desires admiring? Does he bring a planter of different herbs because his love interest adores cooking? Or an orchid? Or plant feed because actually what the love interest wants is not to kill the plants he/she already has? Or perhaps he brings a plastic plant. Or a dried rose. Or his love interest has terrible allergies so he brings a DVD box-set instead.

Telling a good romantic story is like telling any other story: the characters are all-important. Who is the love interest? What sort of person is he/she? What would he/she experience as truly as-good-as-it-gets romantic?

BUT… you also have to think about the person bringing the flowers. Maybe this is a person who’s a player: if all he’s trying to do is make a grand gesture to get into the knickers of the object of his desire (because it’s desire not affection at stake) then maybe he’ll turn up with two dozen red roses after all, then treat this as payment for sex.

Or maybe he’s clueless. Maybe he’s never thought about romance and is just doing what he thinks he should and has seen in the movies. Or maybe he doesn’t know the object of his affections very well yet and buys tulips when all that does is make his love interest cry about a lost kitten.

So you may want your character to turn up with red roses. But if you do, your story will probably be fairly boring if the love-interest reacts with uncomplicated delight.

And here we’re into character = plot territory. What does Character A bring to Character B? Why? How does Character B react to the gift?

There’s one good cliché to remember when it comes to romance writing: “the course of true love never did run smooth”.

Maybe you’re writing about lust or temporary love rather than ‘true love’ – it doesn’t really matter. But if the course runs smooth you have no plot, no drama and no story. Or at least none that anyone’s going to care about reading.

What are the obstacles in the way? Maybe the roses are intended to help A get into B’s heart/knickers, but actually make that *less* likely than if he turned up empty handed. (BTW, I’m assuming A is male but that doesn’t have to be the case: I just don’t want to dodge two sets of pronouns in one post.)

Stories are all the better when Character A does something to achieve his goal, only for this to conflict with Character B’s goal… or at least Character B’s idea about how to reach that goal, if the goal is mutual. It’s even better if readers can see that what A is about to do is going to spectacularly misfire because they know that B will react badly. The gap between what the characters know and what readers know is critical to most good romance stories. A lot of the process of falling (or not falling) in love is about coming to understand the other person: when readers can see  misunderstandings coming before they happen on the page, the dramatic irony helps increase the pace and the level of conflict. It also helps readers emphasise with the characters. The urge to yell ‘Don’t do that! It’s totally going to backfire!’ can’t help but make us engage at a deeper level with the characters in question and the story as a whole.

So think about how your characters, as much as external forces, can stand in each other’s way. The best romance stories don’t see us wincing as Life and Fate and Other Things come between two people in love… the best stories occur when the two people in love (or in the process of falling in love) are their own obstacles.

So let’s come back to my key to writing romance: what makes romance ‘as good as it gets’ in your eyes? Just remember not to try too hard. Don’t sit there thinking ‘What is the weirdest thing Character A could bring Character B’ as a way to be different and unique. It might be a good way to be funny, but it isn’t a good way to the heart of romance.

Romance is ultimately about what you think the process of falling is love is. What really matters to you about falling in love and staying in love? What has experience taught you are the ways people succeed or fall down, and at what points? What are the secret highs and lows and joys and disappointments no one seems to talk about?

Everyone has their own secret list of beliefs about love – their own sense of hard-won wisdom – when it comes to love and romance. Use that as the heart of your story. What is the ‘as good as it gets’ version of that? How can you put obstacles in the path of that ‘as good as it gets’? How can you make your lovers their own obstacles? How can you show what you’ve learnt about love?

So forget the clichés. Think about what love and romance mean to you. Now write about that.

 

 

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.