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?


The Shape of Things

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,829. 2500 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 935

Prognosticators about the economy are saying things will be bad for quite some time. Timetables for exodus from Iraq are spoken of in years. When it comes to solving the problems of a global economy and international diplomacy, one has to think in decades.

I’m beginning to think in a similar timeframe about this novel.

While it doesn’t exist on the level of economic depressions and wars, I have to view this work in progress the same way I view my retirement accounts: in decades. (I didn’t ever think I’d be so thankful to be “only 40”!)

Neither is my work in progress about justice per se, but there’s a whiff of justice around trying and trying and trying again and finally getting someone to care about what you’re writing.

Considering I conceived of this novel in 1994, wrote 100 pages then and the first draft between 2003-2004, and now four years later still tackle it weekly in its third draft, the arc of the creation is indeed long.

There are signposts of hope along the way. In 2007 I entered the first 50 pages of my manuscript in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. This was after trying to enter the year previous and being rejected due to a postmark set one day beyond the required one. A funny thing happened on the way to the packaging place in 2006: since the person behind the counter stamped my envelope on the day of the postmark, I thought I was legit; but because it was after 3:00 p.m., the stamp was set for 3/02/06…My negligence, my procrastination, my fault running myself right up to the deadline like that – never mind the fact that when my manuscript made it to round two where you submit the next 50 pages, I wasn’t even sure if I was sending the competition the right ones that would match up with the original submission (I’d made enough revisions by then to be confused on that point).

But it doesn’t matter. I believe now, after making it to the fourth round of the 2007 competition, that submission in 2006, or winning in 2007, wasn’t meant to be. I realize now that I’ve actually been too early. Making it further along in a competition was all that’s been needed to send me a strong message to keep writing.

Then there’s the stopgap writing – the short story urge that grabs me every once in a while to shake a tale out of my system. The stopgap story (a term coined by Doris Betts) also bends towards hopeful outcomes. I am a finalist in the Writers’ Group of the Triad contest for a story that’s taken three drafts and seen at least three rejections. This contest was judged by Shannon Ravenel, founder of Algonquin Books. I can’t tell you what a green flag this is to keep trying. Rejection sends me back to revision, which gets results, it seems.

Am I a Pollyanna? Well, then, so was MLK. The idea of him thinking justice is the outcome! That the promised land awaits us! The very idea!

A writing colleague and co-author Delia DeCourcy sent me some good advice after my last post that coincides with my advice to myself to be patient:

“I don’t pay attention to word count but shape. I…look at the arc of each part and that is helping me shape each chapter in terms of plot and character. Obviously, there’s no scientific method to writing a book, but maybe if you think more in terms of architecture rather than pages as you revise it will help? As I recall, your novel has numerous narrative strands. You’ve probably already asked the question which ones are necessary? Sometimes that’s hard to discern. Which ones are necessary to show us Daria’s emotional journey, her shift? Are there characters or strands who are showing the same things to us about Daria? Can you cut some of those? The same question goes for scenes. If a scene isn’t revealing something new about the protagonist, it should go. Don’t know how helpful that is. These are some of the things I ask myself as I’m writing. Also, my thesis advisor told our workshop that he wrote a 700 page version of his novel, cut it down to 200, them brought it back up to 400. What if you did an exercise where you forced yourself to piece together a 300 page version of the novel, keeping only the utter essentials? What would you include? What would the shape of that book be?”

Shape. Arc. These are words synonymous with the long-term, global, thematic urges that form a story – that direct a life. I will be thinking forest rather than trees whenever I get discouraged about the years logged in this process. If I’m not doing this for the love of the experience itself, for those transcendent moments you have while writing, then I’m hurrying after a hollow shell of a goal, built on joyless sweat and competitive drive. Who wants to live like that?

Uh, those who have been mangling our stock market lately.

Count me out and in for something bigger.

Today’s Writing Goal: As I move into the second half of the novel, think shape, think scope, think global. I see three acts in this novel and I approach the crisis in the next phase. Make it a good one!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Option 1: Making the World a Better Place.

What do you do to make the world a better place? Think of the littlest things you do. Is it saying please and thank you? Is it helping someone who needs it? Is it speaking up when someone is doing something wrong? Is it apologizing for something you have done?

Make a list of things you do to improve the lives of others around you and to make your life kinder, friendlier, and fairer.

Then tell a story about one of these times when you made a good choice. What did you do? What did others do? What did people say? What was the outcome?

Option 2: Naming Justice

What does the word “justice” mean to you? How do you know when something is “just”?

Write about something you have heard about in the news that is just or something that is unjust. How do you know when something is just – or not?

Secondary and Adult

Option 1: Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

Do you tend to see the big picture or look at the details of things? Whether you see one or the other or both, the chances are one of your acts of kindness had a broader impact and meaning than you think.

Think about a specific time when you did something kind, fair, or just. Tell that story with as many details as you can, reliving the experience. What was done, said, thought? What was the outcome? What was the purpose behind your action? Why did your action matter? Frame your actions in light of larger reasons, purposes, or movements occurring around you.

Option 2: The Moral Universe

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

What do you think he meant? Explain his thinking in this quotation.

Then respond to it. Explore your opinion about

— whether the world is getting better or worse,
— whether morality is increasing or decreasing, or
— whether you have hope for the future about the goodness of society and its ability to improve.