writing

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.

 

Advertisements

Author visits via Skype: Vignettes from Strothoff International School

In March I did my first ever author visit via Skype with the wonderful staff and students at Strothoff International School, Frankfurt, who I met last autumn as part of a series of events around the Frankfurt Book Fair and my shortlisting for the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpeis.

Our lesson focused on ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ in writing descriptions as part of their ‘Snapshots’ unit of study. We talked about

  • using all of our senses.
  • how to convey social and cultural nuances of context through dynamic dialogue involving conflict.
  • using precise, specific language to convey more (e.g. through descriptive verbs).

The wonderful students who attended this class have kindly shared three of the beautiful vignettes they wrote following our session. Thank you so much to the whole class, the lovely teachers who assisted the session, and the parents who gave their permission for this work to be posted here. Please do comment below to share your feedback and appreciation for these incredibly talented young writers!


 


Don’t cross the line

Luca von Seydlitz


 

Where is it? Tension builds up as the clock prepares to take another spin. Time ticking. Threatening to run out. You have no choice. Time is an enemy that can’t be overcome, ruthless and unforgiving. 58. 59. 60. Another minute gone. Another opportunity lost. Another shortage of time. The place empties and your eyes dilate. You twitch. Can’t stay still anymore.

          Where is it? As time passes, tensions become concern. Concerns become fear. Time keeps ticking. Threatening to trip you.

          Where is it? The place darkens. You can’t wait. You walk up and down. Walking becomes rushing. You speed up.

          Where is it? You walk faster and faster and take bigger and bigger steps. You hear a bell. Where is it? A kid begins to cry. Your fear becomes superlative. They’re watching you.

          Where is it? Time runs out. With each passing minute they come closer. Fear becomes terror.

          Where is it? Where is it? You turn around. They are right there. You jump up. You run and then…You slip…You fall. And then it arrives…

…You have made it…


 


Walking Quickly

Eva Wedig

The first rule about being a girl in Morocco is that you have to walk quickly, and keep your head down.

Inside their houses the women yell at the characters on TV, and they tell anyone and everyone exactly what they think. They spend an hour in the bath, and another two on breakfast. They laugh when you try and pull your pajama shirt away from your chest, because they find your futile attempt at hiding your breasts adorable, and make it very clear that modesty is not a concept familiar in their household. They flaunt and they demand, never quiet, never timid.

But when they step outside, the layers pile up, and the women I know are gone. I see scarves sewing their mouths shut, the intricate swirls and colours suffocating them, the soft cloth wrapping around their hair and pushing their heads down. I see djellabas pushing them to the ground like weights on their shoulders, hiding their pride and confidence, extinguishing the fire that was once in their eyes. They are quiet, reserved, and careful.

They ignore the wolf whistles and the boys on the beach. They ignore the catcalls and the men slumped on the sidewalks. I learn to do the same.

I ignore.

I ignore, and walk quickly, and keep my head down.


 


Firsts

Mabrooka Kazi

Pud pud. Plod. Thud.

            Sounds that find their way underneath my toasty warm covers. The strange rhythms and alien melodies whisper in my ears, urging me to get up, look up, stand up.

Wake up and see what’s happening in the world around me.

            My breath leaves a trail of fog on the frosty surface of the window pane, obscuring and distorting the view beyond. The pixelated imagery makes it seem as if I am squinting through the depths of murky water. It takes a moment for my bleary, bewildered brain to remind me to wipe away the condensation and then I see.

            I stop breathing.

            This is not the world I closed my eyes to.

            Silver and ivory, part and whole, frozen and melting, diverse yet infinitely repetitive, a creaking underfoot and a soundlessness.

            An army of precious pearls paratroops downwards. Like silent thoughts, flitting in and out of the mind, snowflakes whirl away in a spiral of white. Falling and stumbling over every obstacle, yet making everything into one.

            Equal.

            The world stretched in front of me is white and white and white. Blanketed in snow, the difference between the neighbour’s immaculate lawn and ours is indistinguishable. Buried beneath this thick layer, the shiny newness of the latest car in the street is concealed just as effectively as the rusts and dents of the junkers.

            Everything is pristine and unmarred by time.

Dummkopf.

Blödel.

Doesn’t she know that this isn’t packing snow?

Hasn’t she ever seen it?

            I begin to shake in fury, my vision blurring until all I see is red. A biting insult takes shape in mouth and my lips part when suddenly I have a much cooler idea.

            Raking my hand through the powdery snow particles, I scoop a handful and wield my weapon carefully.

            Then I step back, take aim, and hurl my snowball at the retreating figures.    

 



 

I’m so looking forward to my next Skype lesson with the school later in May. I’ll be teaching a ‘Diploma Programme Language and Literature’ class about authorial voice as it relates to intention through reason versus intuition.

 

 

 

YALC Developing Your Writing Voice

So, better late than never, right? Here, finally is the hand-out from my YALC ‘Develop Your Writing Voice’ workshop. Thank you so much to everyone who was there on the day and made the chaos so much fun! (Disclaimer: ‘cover’ image of the YALC authors by Rowan Spray.)

Developing a unique writing voice is not about trying to be different. It’s about recognising how you’re already different and unique, then harnessing that.

That was the core message of the workshop: it’s at the heart of discovering and developing your voice as a writer.

But what is voice? There’s no accepted definition, partly because it’s a somewhat woolly concept, but also because it’s so hard to pin down in theory – it’s much easier to identify aspects of a specific writer’s voice in practice. But that’s not how to discover your own.

Voice is partly about the things that make a piece of writing something only you could produce. But it’s also about the things that stay the same from one piece (or book) to another.

Cris Freese, in Writer’s Digest, says that voice is “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.”

When planning the workshop, I asked what people on Twitter thought I should cover. KM Lockwood suggested I should also discuss what voice *isn’t*, which is a really good way to go about firming up the whole concept.

Voice isn’t about book-specific stuff, current trends, or aping another writer. It’s the writer behind the text.

At the start of creative writing courses, some students think that being ‘unique’ means doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing. But that’s not unique: that’s just contradictory.

Doing the opposite means you’re thinking inside a box someone else has built. Build your own box – and remember that it doesn’t have to be square.

And remember that just because developing your voice is about tapping into your own uniqueness, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it. It isn’t something you’ve either ‘got’ or ‘lack’. Some people are naturals at tapping into their voice. Other people need to make more of a conscious effort. But training yourself to tap in more efficiently is always going to be good.

You can’t control your level of innate talent, only the amount of work you put into developing it.

So where do you start? With technique. When everything else in your creative toolbox lets you down, technique will help you get back on track. It’s like spells and runes: the method rather than the magic, but no less vital for it.

PD James says “Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”

I start with aesthetics. It’s a fancy but useful word that can be used to mean a person’s ‘understanding of beauty’. But beauty in the sense of Art, which can be hideous at one level but so powerful it is fascinating to the point of beauty.

So forget ‘prettiness’, what do you find beautiful? What is lovely to you in an emotional sense? Figuring this out will help you figure out what to put into your work… and what to leave out.

 IMG_1256

EXCERISE: Find things that are beautiful and try to capture them in photos. Critique your work. Have you really captured what you intended in the picture? Can you capture it in a picture? How could you capture it in words? If you can’t, why not? What are you trying to say and why?

In the workshop I talked a bit about how my aesthetics play out in The Bone Dragon. I focused on the importance of subtext. What do I put in? Just enough for people to see what questions I’m trying to ask. Just enough to follow the story. What do I leave out? Anything that dictates the reader’s response at a moral or emotional level.

The Bone Dragon book cover

Voice is not just about the sentence-level stuff or the type of words you use. It’s about all the choices you make as a writer. Most of all, it’s about drawing those choices together so that the small choices and the big choices all work together.

EXCERISE: Re-take a photo from the exercise above that didn’t come out right, thinking about why it wasn’t right – why it didn’t capture your aesthetic properly. Keep going until you’re happy. Why are you happy? Now try to take a photo of something else and see if you can get the perfect shot in fewer tries.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read was ‘write the book only you can write’. This applies at multiple levels.

  1. Concept-level: What is the most original story I have only I could have thought of? What makes it too much like other peoples’ stories? What would make it even more ‘me’ than it already is?
  2. Plot-level: How do I tell this story so it’s as ‘me-as-can-be’?
  3. Sentence-level: What would I notice if I were there, in the story? What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? What are the characters doing? How do they treat each other? How can I capture all this in a ‘me’ sort of way?

EXCERISE: Which picture would you choose to write from? Why? What does that say about your aesthetic?

magnolia tree and gate               gate with magnolia petals

 Neil Gaiman says, “Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Any starting writer starts out with other people’s voices. But as quickly as you can start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

In other words, read and write as much as possible, but do it thinking about your reading and writing aesthetics. The goal is to refine not just your understanding of your aesthetic, but your ability to capture it in words or images.

But it’s much easier to capture once you know what you’re chasing … and what you’re chasing is you. The truest, purest form of what is already unique and different in you and how you see the world.

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…

Acer leaves

Are you in the mood?

When writers talk to me about the ‘energy flows’ of their writing space, or the purity of the vibes in their study, or the necessity of being in a state of zen before they can centre themselves to create, I tend to want to vomit. While one part of me says ‘each to their own’, the part that gets irritated by people trying to make writing mysterious starts snarking on about the fact that it would rather like to examine some entrails to see what is in store for the day – preferably, the entrails of a moron who needs to ‘centre’ before work can commence.

I get the concept, I really do, and I think meditation is actually quite a good idea. It’s just the way people talk about it that gets me. Mediate. Go ahead, but just do it. Don’t dress it up as something half miraculous… And don’t dress writing up like that either.

Writing is many things but most of them aren’t mysterious if we’re not trying to pamper our lazier tendencies… or trying to exclude people. The mysteries of writing can only be mysterious if a select few – and only a select few – are clued in. I’d rather like to think that everyone could be clued in. Believing this should be a prerequisite if you also teach writing, though a fair few writer-teachers don’t seem to agree. I suspect most of these people are only teaching to make money on the side because writing often doesn’t pay enough. Which is fine, but if you’re going to teach you need to do it with decent principles rather than in a state of petulance that your last advance wasn’t six figures.

Of course, no matter what their teacher believes, some people will be good at writing and some won’t be, with varying levels of goodness and badness in between. But there’s no reason for the enterprise of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to be this weird thing shrouded in rites and rituals and secret handshakes and, most horrid of all, secret clubs where you’re in or you’re out.

Writing is about putting words on a page. It is both as simple and complicated as that. But there’s no reason it can’t be democratic – or at least a meritocracy: open to all who are good at what they do, whether that’s writing novels, fanfic or blogposts.

There is ‘magic’ in writing but it’s not the magic of a study’s vibrations or The Perfect Pen. It’s the magic of turning something in your imagination into words that will recreate that imagined something (or an equally interesting imaged something) in the mind of a completely separate human being. That’s pretty magical all on its own, if you think about it: the closest to telepathy as we currently get. What more magic do we need?

Another good reason to do away with the concept of the mysteries of writing is writers’ block. This is equally unmagically. It’s not some pseudo-illness that other people just can’t understand because they’re not true artists [sniff, sniff, wail: my tortured soul, etc. etc,]… It’s simply a problem with the process of getting words on the page, usually because you don’t actually know what you’re doing with a specific project yet and haven’t blindly stumbled on the right answer through pure dumb luck so have to actually work at it. That’s something that happens to all writers all the time. The thing that makes one person a ‘real’ writer and another not is that the ‘real’ writers just get on with the hard work of figuring out where they’ve gone wrong… or they turn to a new project, taking a break to get some perspective on the old one. Either way, ‘real’ writers get on with the act of putting words on the page.

And there we lead into why I find the idea of having to ‘centre one’s energies to get the creative zibbles flowing smoothly’ such a lot of rot. Meditate to clear your mind because you’re plagued with self doubt: a great idea! Do a bit of yoga or karate or go for a walk to give yourself time to climb out of the real world and into the world of the book: absolutely, go for it! But don’t see it as some weird magic ritual.

Everyone’s inner writer has a delicate ego. But that doesn’t mean it should be pandered to and inflated by silly means. I generally prefer the word ‘writer’ over ‘author’ because it comes from the verb: a writer is a person who writes. Who puts words on a page. End of story.

Or rather, the 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.