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?



Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 115,027. That means 143, 357 words have been removed.
Page Count for the Novel: 414 pages. That means 502 pages have been removed.

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.

Sometimes all it takes is a couple words to spark a huge change. The magical words of a marriage proposal; the deal-breaking words hurled during a fight; even the seductions and offenses of billboard signs. For me, it was two words in Steve Almond’s “The Great Plot Test” in Writer’s Digest: “plot drift.”

My novel’s plot is drifting and dragging, caught in a wide sargasso sea. Time to pull the lengthy thing, slimy and dripping, from those deep and dark waters. Time to hose it off in the hot water of revision. To extend the metaphor in one last gasp of purple prose (please, let my blog be where I get to indulge): the slimy longboat is my manuscript, almost sinking my subconscious, which is those deep and dark waters. The first, second, and third drafts of my novel are nothing but therapeutic dumping grounds of subconscious. Thank goodness I’m at least a “writer” by Colette’s estimation.

But to be an author… I showed my courage and cut 502 pages. Give me not purple prose but a purple heart. These pages are now divvied up between two files: one called “killed_darlings” and the other called “put_back_in.”

(A brief nod to technology: when I was crossing out with pen on legal pads this novel began in 1993, such a cut might have been much harder. Now one click moves a whole ton of weight and I can see a new horizon.)

To be frank: these are temporary removals as I scrutinize each page for its purpose, thus the eagerly-awaiting “put_back_in” file. But I’m more serious than I’ve ever been about purpose and determined to only put back in the essential. Another helpful guide that took Almond’s advice to the next level — ie, what is that said purpose — is the article, “Your Novel Blueprint: Turn Your Dream Novel into a Reality by Taking Some Tips from the Worksite” by Karen S. Wiesner (Writer’s Digest). She speaks of “story sparks” and “character conflicts (internal)” versus “plot conflicts (external).” Her tips have helped me outline the bare bones of what this novel’s trying to say.

While reading Almond and Wiesner, I received an e-mail update from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and that was the coup de grace, the third sign that this was meant to be. To enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, your novel needs to be 150,000 words, not 250-some. As I’m writing my pitch, which is a synopsis and the only submission allowed in the first round, I’ve been forced to ask myself who and what matters in this novel. Sure, I’ve written more than a dozen synopses before, both for querying and contests, but this time, Almond + Wiesner + Amazon equaled a neat little “Click!” The lightbulb click, and this time, the economizing kind. I had a breakthrough. This story can only be about a few things, not everything related to singlehood, education, and faith. If I insist on maintaining this trinity of themes, each one must sacrifice something to the gods of unity, clarity, and meaning.

Whether my novel is ready by the contest deadline doesn’t matter. I now see that if I want to stick with the traditional novel – what will fit in paper and binding rather than say, an electronic device — then I need to get serious about slimming. It won’t be 2,000 words cut here or there every four weeks. It will be banning characters, cutting scenes, and linking what remains in a tight and seamless narrative sequence.

Right now, the toughest road is deciding whether or not to cut a secondary character who’s key to my protagonist’s evolution. If I keep her advent in chapter one, she slows the story down with many character development scenes thereafter. If I cut out her good scenes in the beginning (sob!), I lose elements of setting and character development affecting both the heroine and the villain. The gaps created by that change will need to be filled…but perhaps only by a line or scene, briefly stated, that can serve the same purpose. These are the tricky questions plaguing writers during revision.

As of this writing, I’ve decided to let her early scenes stay but cut school politics scenes that lead to the crisis. I’ve got less than 100 pages to wrap up the whole tale, miles of manuscript to cut before I sleep. But bearing this breakthrough in mind, each paragraph re-inserted or created from scratch will have to pass through of a security checkpoint that bellows: State your purpose.

Today’s Writing Goal: Begin on page 385 and cut scenes with Sandra and Jerome. Stay under 530 pages.

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.


A Big Lesson

Did you ever have a moment when you suddenly realized, I know something new! It could be learning how to write your name, tie your shoes, or ride a bike. It could be learning how to divide numbers or how to spell a word. It could be understanding something new about history that happened before you born, or playing music, or painting a picture. When you learned this new piece of information or a new skill, you suddenly changed.

Write the story of learning something new.

What happened?
Why did it happen?
How did it happen?
How did you feel?
How do you feel now?

Secondary, and Adult


We call it a breakthrough when we undergo a transformation. You might be living your life one way, and suddenly, you have what’s called an epiphany. You decide you need to start making different choices. You know something new you didn’t know before – such as who your true friends are, or where you want to work, or how you wish to live. You make a change.

Write about a breakthrough you’ve had. Describe yourself before and after this change of mind or heart, and discuss how it’s impacted you since.