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.


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.


purple and blue columbine flower

Keep it simple, Stupid!

Before you get incensed, this comment is directed mostly at myself. It sums up a lot of my plot-related problems.

You know how sometimes you’re working on a book – maybe in your head still, and not even on paper – and you know there’s something magical there but the plot as a whole just won’t hang together? What do you do about it? How do you make this ‘not-quite-magical-but-could-be, I-just-know-it-could-be’ thing and make that leap?

For me, the answer is either (a) have the right idea, or (b) stop trying to make things so complicated. Basically, (b) translates into common English as ‘Keep it simple, Stupid.’

Quite often I’m sitting there trying to figure out Something Exciting That Can Happen Next when what I really need to do is ask myself ‘What makes this idea magical and how can I push that as far along the storyline as it can go?’

This is where (a) and (b) start to meld. Sometimes the right idea just won’t come. And it’s there: somewhere, there really is an amazing answer to your plot dilemna that’s as close to being The Right Answer as anything ever is in fiction… Quite often The Right Answer just refuses to present itself to me for months, if not years. This is why some ideas languish for years and years in my imagination, periodically resurfacing but then sinking again, before I start shaping them into anything that could be a book.

Usually, the main reason The Right Answer doesn’t stroll over and wave at me is because I’m looking in the wrong direction: I’m trying to make things complicated then fretting over how to make them believeable. Often The Right Answer is so simple you smack yourself in the face once you find it. But part of the reason it is The Right Answer is that it seems obvious (once you’ve captured it): it seems inevitable. Anything that seems both obvious and inevitable is probably right. Especially if we’re talking about your ending: the climax of your story.

So if you’re going in circles wondering how A can believeably lead to B and how on earth that could logically connect to C, maybe the problem is that you’re creating a long chain of unbelieveableness because you’re working on the wrong idea to begin with. The right idea is generally surprisingly simple.

Even if you’re writing a complicated mystery or thriller, often you’ll find that each element is simple within itself. The more complicated it gets, the harder it is to deliver it to the reader in a form anyone will enjoy. If it’s too complicated, not only will it be really hard to reveal it in a step-by-step way so that the reader eventually goes ‘Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that all along?’ rather than ‘Urgh. So obvious!’ or ‘How could anyone possibly guess that?’ but the reader may have such a headache by that point that there’ll be little emotional satisfaction. Simplicity offers a more effective route to emotional satisfaction in about 90% of cases. And while some stories are fun just for the pure intellectual puzzle, a book that doesn’t also make me feel something falls short as fiction in my books (horrible pun thoroughly intended).

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it has to be basic or boring. What makes a simple idea clever is the ways you find of revealing the idea (i.e. the truth of the story) to the reader without telling them outright. That’s not always simple at all. But it will probably consist of a chain of individually simple steps. The minute any one step gets convoluted, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.

Just keep asking yourself ‘What is the truth of the story?’ – or, in other words, ‘What is this book really about?’ Then ask yourself ‘If the book is really about X, what would be the strongest expression of X I can offer the reader?’ That will give you the big ideas. For the little ones, just ask yourself ‘What is the truth about what’s happen here? What am I trying to get at with this element?’

So, in The Bone Dragon the early drafts had Phee and Lynne turning up intermittantly and not doing very much. I wasn’t worried about this because they worked as characters: each had a strong, individual voice and was believeable and interesting… But only while they were on the page. In between, I forgot about them. Eventually, I asked myself if readers would want to read about them on that basis. And the answer was ‘No’. So I started to ask myself why they were there. Not just ‘What are they doing in each scene to make the scene work because people are needed?’ but ‘What is the purpose of each of these people in the book? What does Phee DO in this story? What does her part in it SAY?’

I didn’t have an answer. So I thought about the book as a whole and what the main themes are. And then I thought about my main character and how her life reveals those themes. And all of a sudden it was obvious what Lynne and Phee, individually and together, COULD add to the book as whole. All of a sudden it was obvious what the book offered each of them as a reason for being. Ultimately, the answers were fairly simple – as was how to deliver new scenes to reveal those answers to the reader. But more about that once the book is published. I don’t want to go giving things away.

At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance between leaving things foggy and vague and too simple, and making sure you don’t make them unnecessarily complicated. In other words, be focused, but keep it simple, and chances are no one will accuse you of being stupid at all.

Autumn leaves

From idea to plan: creating an effective climax

The Bone Dragon is my debut novel, but it’s far from being the first novel I wrote. First, I wrote a whole series of ‘practice’ novels. Then I wrote several novels I hoped to publish. Then I wrote the novel that no one seemed interested in but me (and my wonderful Aunty Pat, whose encouragement helped to save the day)… and now it’s getting published.

At the moment, I’m working on MANY books, but two particularly. The first (HoW) is one of the books I hoped to publish: I’m completely re-writing it now that I finally understand what is wrong with it. The other (MoB) is a new book. A very, very new book. Usually I live with book ideas for years before I do more than write the first chapter or so. But back in April, when I’d just signed with RCW and Faber, my amazing agent, Claire Wilson, got me thinking about what might be a good second book in terms of building a brand for myself as a writer. I write across a wide range of genres and that’s fine – when you’ve got a readership that is willing to travel across genres with you. But, to begin with, it’s good to show what you can do in a genre those first readers know they like.

So I sat down and rifled through the cluttered drawer of ideas that’s off somewhere in the far reaches of the leftside of my brain. And MoB clawed it way out of the mess and sat itself down on top and said ‘Me!’ I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, but, at the same time, I felt that this was the book that Claire would want to represent after The Bone Dragon and that readers would be most tempted to move on to. I waffle about it all in my Next Big Thing meme post.

So, decision made, I started to chip away at the idea: started to ask it questions about what happens in teh story. About who the people are and what they are like. About why real people would want to read the book. About how the story worked and what tugged on my heartstrings about it.

MoB isn’t a sequel to The Bone Dragon, but there’s a natural progression between the two so I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the books should be similar while ensuring that they weren’t too similar.

Usually my books develop from one or more mini-ideas about scenes that represent emotional highpoints. The first set of vague idea starts to turn into a book when I know what the key three emotional moments are going to be – from my perspective, though not always the readers. I found I already had the emotional drama needed for the climax and the emotional charge for the hook. But it took months and months and months to progress beyond that. The sticking point, as it so often is, was the climax. I thought I knew what it was. But I wasn’t quite right. I knew what propelled the story into the climax, but I hadn’t yet come up with a good enough Part II: The True Climax. That’s been the case for a lot of my books.

Quite often I have an idea for the climax but when I write it out (sometimes just in my head) it falls a bit flat. There’s plenty of action but not enough emotion, or vice versa. It’s just not quite satisfying. Most of all, these climaxes turn out to be a little too obvious: they’re inevitable to the point where there’s no real surprise. And I’m not talking about twists that come out of nowhere: those are generally a bad thing anyway. What I’m talking about is that little extra thing – that one final step – that takes the climax beyond the thing that is obvious and inevitable to the deeper truth. For me, a really great climax always has an element of revelation, as if the author is saying ‘Here! Here’s the real heart of the story.’ And the moment you read it you go, ‘Of course! Of course that’s it really. Why didn’t I think that little step further?’ So it’s not a twist, it’s just pushing the idea to the end of the line: past the bit where the reader has already thought up to.

The tricky thing about these types of climax is that it’s all about having the right idea. And there’s no formula or technique that’ll deliver it to you. After all, if the idea doesn’t surprise you when you first hit upon it, you’ll probably find it won’t surprise the reader either. Or not quite enough to be truly satisfying. For that reason, these ideas often require some major lateral thinking – not necessarily thinking outside the box, because you don’t want to end up with a twist that’s just a ‘twist for the sake of it’.

Take The Bone Dragon. I think the climax does all of these things, but it also does a whole bunch of things that pretty much every writing book tells you to absolutely never, ever do. There’s one incredibly important rule about writing a good climax that it ignores entirely. A rule most writers – even those that aren’t particularly bound by rules – would think it’s a no-brainer to follow. But breaking that rule is exactly what The Bone Dragon needed because it cuts to the heart of the story: the way the climax is delivered *is* the story.

MoB takes a different tack: a much more straightforward one in structural terms – and in terms of the big rules about creating effective climaxes. But because I wasn’t using structure to push the book to a unique climax, it was much harder to figure out what the climax should be. 

Although technique won’t give you the answers to the thorny questions about what ideas should lie behind your climax, there are things you can do to help coax the right idea out into the light and these things are all about good technique. First and foremost, ask yourself what the book is about… and keep asking. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking too much about themes. Think about your Controlling Idea (to use Robert McKee’s terminology). Think about the ‘Character does Action to achieve Goal with Result’ equation. What are your characters after? What do their attempts to achieve this goal actually result in? Then think beyond that: what does your version of the equation say?

I don’t believe in ‘message’ books but that’s not to say that I don’t think books can’t have a message. It just shouldn’t be didactic. Generally my message is ‘Look at this complex human problem and how it’s turned out in this case. Is the conclusion right and fair or wrong? How do you feel about it and is that feeling comfortable?’

So ask yourself ‘What does my book say about people and the world?’ That is what should drive your climax. Chipping away at my bag of ideas for MoB with that question firmly at the front of my mind finally showed me where I was going wrong. In my attempts to put in lots of action, I was thinking down obvious paths. ‘Let’s have a bit of this. Oooo and a pinch of that. And then they can do this and it’ll be REALLY dramatic.’ Only generally it isn’t, because that sort of thinking generally results in plodding action, even if it’s plodding involving gun battles and car chases. Above all, when you start focusong on what actions should go in and not what the truth behind the story is, you stop thinking about what the relevation is: what are you going to show readers at the climax that they haven’t realised is the truth behind the story all along? And I don’t mean truth as in a fact. I mean truth as in ‘this is how people work sometimes, and this is how the world works’.

It was only when I figured out what I was trying to say with MoB that I realised how the climax had to work. I have a good feeling about it, even though I’m a little nervous about whether or not it’ll work on paper. Sometimes things that seem great in my head don’t, but this feels like it’s one that will. It just feels right: for me, it’s a truly satisfying end that couldn’t push the truth behind the story any further.

Once I had the climax worked out, the rest of the book fell into place, as is so often the case. But more about that in my next post.

For now, the floor is open. So… How do you go about figuring out how your climax will work? When do you do it: at the idea-stage or the panning-stage or the writing-stage?