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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?

 

Kill That Back Story…Says The Village

My writers’ group has told me in no uncertain terms to kill that back story that currently serves as the opening to my new novel.

Image found here

But the other night, I couldn’t quite believe my trusted critique partners. No, the voice of habit and comfort, never mind a fond memory of How the Muse Struck Me, was wa-a-a-a-a-y louder than they.

As I’ve been prepping my manuscript for their critique this week, I’ve stared lovingly at my opening chapter, a back story tale of the protagonist in fifth grade. The history of how the poor thing was bullied–how in the world can I leave that out?

The main action of the novel will take place in ninth grade, when the protagonist vows to seek revenge–but no matter, no matter, the back story tale is just so clever, so well-written, so full of protagonist voice, how could I ever move it from first place?

You see, the Muse brought me the first lines of the character’s voice, they came like a revelation, so OF COURSE they should be the first words of the novel, right?

And don’t readers need to know about the long-standing enmity before we see the ninth grade scenes? Won’t the reader feel the pathos of the poor little 10 year-old character and the story will be the better for it?

My head was so full of these rhetorical questions–in other words, the vote to keep the back story had already won the argument–that I couldn’t move forward. Then it hit me: Post the question on Facebook and see what the people say.

At first I wondered if it was just another one of my procrastination tactics, me refusing to face the hard work of drafting. But I headed into the virtual village anyway.

I wrote, Begin with back story, or jump right into the action? That is the question.

Bob: Only if it’s a prologue, and I’ve been shooed off of those.

Lauren: So many of my favorites start with action in the first chapter, that I lean towards that side. But that’s not to say that there can’t be backstory as well. Find a situation to put your character in that allows them to tell a part of their story as the action develops. Just a bookworm’s two cents.

Karen: Action…plenty of time for backstory later.

Jamey: I do love me some backstory, but I think that might work (at least for me) if it’s doled out bit by bit in the story…This makes me think of when we watch older movies. The credits came before any action at all. And now it has to start with a bang.

Tara: “I will destroy this mean girl.” That’s a pretty darn great first line to a book if you ask me. Flashbacks to the history as she goes would prob work.

The people spoke, and finally, I was ready to listen.

It’s not about my not trusting fabulous critique partners, Stephanie and Jen. They steer my prose well so often. It’s not about my not knowing modern storytelling strategies that work well–because I do. I think one of my issues is that I can’t always define my genre and in this limbo land, I try to be both old school and new school. I write commercial fiction, with a literary twist–but not full-on literary and not straight genre. Since I straddle the lines, those fast-dissolving lines that perhaps never were to begin with, I confuse myself sometimes wanting to be all things to all people, which is a way of giving myself a pass Don’t box me in because there are no rules. In other words, an easy way out.

Not so with writing. What does the audience want? is a question you can never ignore. You can answer it myriad, creative ways, and the voice of the people can set much-needed strictures. Nuns fret not, remember, in their narrow convent rooms; Wordsworth tells me so. Limits are a good thing.

So I got back to work on Chapter 1. And suddenly, I started asking more questions of plot events I’d taken for granted. Why didn’t Mean Girl Carli’s secret get more play? Why didn’t Carli ever directly threaten Minerva, the protagonist? What if they had a scene together? Does the pain of fifth grade seem like centuries ago to a ninth grader, and why should the reader care anymore than Minerva about that fated day, circa age 10? Suddenly my sacred manuscript suddenly looked moth eaten, a Swiss cheese of plot holes.

The new chapter might fix this. I don’t know; it’s only draft one. But if we are going to write novels in this revolutionary time of self-publishing, we must take heed of what the people say, else become part of the supposed “tsunami of crap” that would-be authors unleash on the web, or, lost in the hubbub, the roaring noise of too many voices.

Last thought: if Salinger, Lee, O’Connor, or Munro (four of my favorite authors) had used Facebook, would their writing be better? I’m not saying it would. All I know is, I needed it yesterday for my creative process, and it kickstarted me out of an idling path and revved my engine for better plotting going forward.

Now I have a new chapter called Cornered by Carli’s Cartel. Clearly I’m having too much fun with alliteration. The inspiration came from the crowd, and I’m thankful for it.

Where do you get your inspiration when you’re trying to break through a writing block?