historical fiction

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.

 

Advertisements

Writing and Teaching Resources: Write like a Victorian by Emma Carroll

Huge thanks to the lovely Emma Carroll, author of the forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), for providing the first entry in the collection of writing and teaching resources I’ll be creating here.

Remember, if you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of the blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. 

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

Readers: do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

And now, over to Emma…

*

Write like a Victorian

Right from the start, I swore I’d write what I knew. I’d been a secondary school teacher for fifteen years, so I’d be writing for teens, about teens, doing teenage things. End of.

Not quite.

My debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall, which will be published by Faber in October, is in fact a middle grade historical novel. Contrary to what my students think, I wasn’t alive in the C19th. This wasn’t ‘writing what I knew’ at all. And yet my teaching job did play a huge part in it.

In AS English Literature coursework, students can opt to write creatively in the style of a Victorian novel. In order to deliver the unit, I had to know how to write this way myself. Gulp.

Suffice to say, in teaching my students, I taught myself, which for me is part of the magic of being in the classroom

How did we do it? Here are a few of my own tried and tested considerations when writing historical fiction. I’m sure there are better/ different ways to do it; these worked for me.

  1. Pictures: Photos or painting from the relevant era often tell a thousand stories. Very helpful for visualising characters, settings and dress.
  2. Literature: My students worked closely with a set text, which they had to know inside out. For my own purposes, I read widely: any adult or childrens’ literature from or about the era, news reports, websites, journals, biographies, I could go on!
  3. Historical practicalities: Be mindful of what can and can’t be done. Characters can’t text each other or turn on a light. Information will often be conveyed through letters or diaries, night scenes taking place in candlelight or under a moon. Also travel: how long would it take to get from A to B? Would your character have the means to embark on long journeys? Consider too how much things cost, what was available and how people might purchase them. This list is not exhaustive.
  4. Class and Gender: In historical fiction these tend to be foregrounded concepts. A character’s class will impact on their work, their dreams, where they live, what they do, how they look, and, all importantly, their ‘voice’. Before 1870, there was no formal education system. If your character can’t read or write, it may impact on how they receive plot information. Likewise gender: this is particularly significant for female characters. Consider the norms and values of the era, and how these fit with your character’s motivations. In her YA historical novels, Marie Louise Jensen overcomes this ‘constraint’ wonderfully.
  5. Language: A very obvious way to tell a book is old is through its use of language. Jane Austen writes in very long, grammatically-complex sentences: the Brontes use domestic and natural symbolism. Brilliant contemporary ‘Victorian pastiche’ writers such as Sarah Waters and Essie Fox use words no longer in common usage such as ‘casement’, ‘visage’, or ‘gaze’. I create my own glossary of era-appropriate words. A good copy editor will pick up on anything you’ve used that isn’t quite right.
  6. And The Rest: Plotting, character tropes, style, focus on intense personal experience, gothic, I could go on…

The end result? My students got great grades: I got a two book deal. The rest is history. (Fingers crossed!)

Frost Hollow Hall book cover

A ghostly tale about love, loss and forgiveness with an instant classic feel.

Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker and the person who punches holes into filofax paper. She recently graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing For Young People.

Frost Hollow Hall is Emma’s debut novel. Told in the distinctive voice of Tilly Higgins, it was inspired by a winter’s day from Emma’s childhood. Currently, Emma is working on her second novel, set in a Victorian circus. Emma lives in the Somerset hills with her husband and two terriers.

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?

hazelnuts

Is the world trying to tell me something?

Today was a writing day… Well, it was meant to have been a writing day.

Somehow I ended up picking nuts.

The world is probably offering me a metaphor but I’m not entirely sure I want to interpret it.

Instead, I’m looking on the bright side – I have picked a lot of nuts.

Now, hazelnuts macaroons loom on my horizon… and through all my thoughts. This is not helping with the screenplay treatment for The Bone Dragon or my WWII novel.

Perhaps it is a sign I should try to bribe potential producers/publishers with baking. Or perhaps it is a sign that I have a bigger problem than the urge to procrastinate.

I think I shall go and pick some more nuts.

 

 

Note to fellow copy-editors:

I know it would usually be ‘go to pick’ but I am going as well as picking in this instance, so just bear with me here.