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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.

 

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mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, your world is a character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Dragon book cover

Win a copy of The Bone Dragon

… Just retweet any Faber Children’s (@faberchildrens) message on Twitter about The Bone Dragon competition by 4.30pm today and you’ll be entered to win a copy!

On to the proofs

Just for the record, you might like to know it’s now late August.

By now, there have actually been two ultra-fast stages of copy-editing (see Everyone should have a project editor). The first set of copy-edits came in on August 9th. I returned my comments in batches August 15th-17th. Further comments arrived from Eleanor on the 20th, returned same day.

At this stage, it works for me to have (self-set) tight deadlines. For me, there’s a real danger of agonising over tiny things to the point where I just can’t see the pros and cons effectively. Which is not to say that I don’t take a lot of care over the tiniest of tiny details… but there’s a point at which I’ve taken care through 10 drafts and now am sailing into obsession territory. And a tight deadline means there’s a point at which I’ve got to just make a decision. And that can be a Very Good Thing.

So, August 21st off the manuscript goes to be page-set and turned into a manuscript that actually looks like a book (why do I keep typing ‘good’ for ‘book’?).

… 13th of August the electronic copy of the proofs comes into my in-box. Hardcopy picked up on the Monday when I go into Faber to have a strategy session on how to promote the book.

As always, I am fed chocolate and everyone is lovely to me. If you’re looking for a publisher, I can gush over Faber for you. 🙂

This time we’re in a lovely airy room at the top of Bloomsbury House and there are glass cases with different editions of TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I still call my cat a possum, though I’m not entirely sure that this was what Eliot intended with the title.

Anyway, the meeting is also a chance to meet Leah, the new Children’s Publisher at Faber, who is lovely (a running theme at Faber)… and also very kind about the fact that I’m in a frenzy of excitement. I suppose it’s good not to be getting in the least bit complacent, but it would be nice if some of the nervous energy of I’M GETTING PUBLISHED! would wear off soon.

It’s a productive meeting, with Rebecca, Leah and Laura, Faber’s publicity wiz, who organised my first ever book-related press clipping, all helping me to get my head around the next stages which will include…

(1) proofing the proofs

(2) printing a proof version to go out for early reviews (terror alert!)

(3) publicity things…

We also talk about the back cover blurb, online branding… and Twitter. We talk a lot about Twitter.

Twitter is a problem for me. First, because I’m a novelist I think in 300 pages about most things. Second, while I hope I’m not boring, I find it hard to believe that anyone but me cares whether I’m having tea. I don’t think my closest friends care… Well, unless they’re actually in the room with me (in which case the tea is important because (a) I am fueled by tea, (b) when I’m about to spontaneously combust with excitement (a fairly common occurrance actually), tea stops me from doing so because I know I’m clumsy so I stay still to drink the tea on the basis that then I will only spill some of it, and (c) when you might as well label me Beware the Beastie, tea restores me to being semi-human, which is as good as it gets).

Anyway, I find it hard to say anything short enough to fit into a tweet that I think will be interesting to other people. I suppose this will get easier as publication approaches and there are more snippets of ‘news’. But a friend (thank you Fiona!) has had a brilliant idea, that I think was mentioned in the Faber meeting too, so I think I may have a way forwards…

Does anyone else have the same problem with Twitter? How do you get around it?

(PS: Just in case you’re wondering… I’m nearly caught up with my posts about the process of taking TBD from unagented manuscript to publication. Plus I’m working on a new book. So this, my author blog, and the TBD blog will soon start to diverge again. Thanks for bearing with me!)