How Much Reality Can I Take?

Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.

“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”

– Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?

On page 24, I had to put the book down. And ask myself: In my fiction, how much reality can I take?HWRDSTDAON 300x200

When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.

This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.

By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”

I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl.  I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.

I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed. 

Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.

Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing. 

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.

At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.

We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well. 

 How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts. 

  • Do you recall reading a book or seeing a film at a young age that marked you for life? (For me it was the amputations in Gone With the Wind; at age seven I was haunted for days by the scene of a solider screaming, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut!”)
  • If you read my Wendy novel, is it “young adult” or better described as “young adult for adults”? At what age would you introduce it to someone, and why? 
  • What young adult books have you read that ride or cross the line? Which ones are “just right”?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:

  • Is there realism?
  • Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
  • Is there an arc, or journey, that transforms a character?
  • Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?
  • Is there emotional connection between characters?
  • Is there redemption and hope?
  • Does the story accurately portray young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?
  • Is there enough resolution balanced with realistic limbo and possibility?


A Declaration of Dependence

“Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on. If you can change the way people think. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create.”
— Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

After doing some July 4th musing about my goals, I proudly declare a hopeless addiction and utter dependence on writing. I’d do it even if I weren’t paid.

As a person who earns royalties for three books, payment for articles, and fees for editing, I get that writing deserves lucre and have no trouble calling myself writer. What I need to do is get to a place where I accept, sans guilt, that I am utterly dependent on writing.

There’s a picture on my web site of me at age eight, hand poised over a notebook, interrupted in the act of writing. No doubt I was busy crafting an imaginary world where runaway kids sought justice, where mouthy girls confronted vampires, where elves built little houses on their elvish prairies. I read voraciously and wrote constantly. I didn’t finish much at that age, but I started many a frabjous tale. I intuited then the unreal is pretty powerful for me and worth pursuing. I never questioned that need nor how much time to spend in the pursuit.

Then the Little Girl becomes a Big Girl and every day must walk the adult tightrope of balance, balance, balance, not sacrificing too much for the art but giving just enough and some days, her all.

There’s that tension and another that Society whispers around every corner to just about every artist.

We’re all wired for something. I am wired to write, and yet the Big Girl + Society tend to question the daily sacrifices for the craft. Others will place that call to a friend, knit that rug, water that garden, and they don’t ask why do these things. But to the writer in the corner, both self and Society say, “You sure you need to be doing that right now?”

Why do adult concerns of bills, relationships, and tumbleweeds of cat hair quash the wisdom the child already knew? Perhaps because there’s something the world deems selfish and showy about writing. Writers’ acts are unadulterated communication. A carpenter or a gardener creates and their works may speak to us, but not in the same obvious, billboard way.

When the Lascaux mystery guys and gals scrawled on the cave walls, they scrawled to be seen. I have to believe they saw their work less like a personal journal and more like history’s scroll or maybe even a bible. These humans hoped to record, to remember, to reach, and to teach. They hoped to uplift their lives and others’ with their art.

I don’t write to tuck it away. I write for my words to be seen. I write for what’s seen to create change and touch lives.

There is nothing wrong with total dependence on writing. There is no wrong in daily following the lead of my hardwired DNA.

Say it ten times, and say it like you mean it.

That belief is a must-have if you wish to make your art known. That belief is a must-have if you’re going to query again and again. One glance at author Victoria Laurie’s stats is enough to help a hopelessly dependent one as myself keep the faith. She received 100 rejections, and it wasn’t the first novel, either. These stats come courtesy of the agent who asked her for revisions and who has partnered with her through 22 novels.

I like the goal setting questions at Shrinking Violet Promotions. The process has helped me shape passion into logical plans.

Yes, Virginia, methinks there will always be doubt some days haunting my art. Yet I have found money and a room of my own. All that’s left is to silence certain voices.

Do you declare dependence on writing as the work you’re born to do?