How Much Reality Can I Take?

Post Date: March 9th, 2014

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?


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  1. Lena says:

    Lynn, I read WendyRBD. The material’s tough, but that’s one reason people read…to gain empathy to other people’s experiences without having to go through the experiences themselves.

    I remember worrying about the Lemony Snicket books, thinking they were too dark for young kids. Then, my friend who had gone through a tough divorce said they helped her kids by telling a story of other kids who had gone through a rough experience and emerged triumphant.

    I’d rather my kids read Wendy RBD than Lord of the Flies, that book still makes my spine shiver.

    Looking forward to your next novel.

    • Lyn Hawks says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Lena. I think it does depend on a child’s/young adult’s particular situation. “Too dark” is relative to one’s life experience, isn’t it? And the key phrase in your comment is “emerged triumphant.” Kids and young adults need to know there’s light out there somewhere.

      Lord of the Flies…it haunts me as well. I didn’t even understand how dark it was when I read it at 14…later as a adult, I’ve shuddered, too. But when I had a group of 7th grade boys act out the stage version, boy, were they ready to rise to that occasion.

  2. Natalie says:

    I am responding to the email about Is this YA. I have this problem with my first novel and in my writing style in general.

    In answer to the question about seeing a movie the book and the movie was “Carrie” by Stephen King. Actually a lot of Stephen King books made a huge impression on my childhood. Books like Carrie and Salem’s Lot had teen age characters in violent situations. Salem’s lot in particular has influenced my writing. In it a very young boy must fight vampires. The book IT had young children go up against a monster that killed lots of children in their town. These books by Stephen King showed me that children can fight back when they are in bad situations. And no matter how bad it gets, things can get better.

    My parents and other adults did not want me to read horror or Stephen King books. They thought horror books and movies would “warp” me and make me grow up a psychopath. These books actually helped me. They showed me that the world is and can be a very tough and evil place. These books prepared me for when bad things happened to me. I could recognize evil people and not be victimized by them. These books also made me not feel so alone. The books had child abuse and other forms of abuse. I had these experiences and I thought I was the only one. I could not read “happy” young person books because I could not relate. The “happy” books made me feel sad and alone. The horror books I read (especially by Stephen King) showed me that I could overcome my childhood demons and achieve happiness.

    • Lyn Hawks says:

      Natalie, this is powerful information. I had never thought about the happy YA books being isolating and painful for someone who could not access that kind of life, but it not only makes perfect sense, it also helps me understand why I struggle to write those books. Though I had a sheltered, safe upbringing, I quickly learned through reading and then life as a teacher just how much others suffer as children and teens, and I think I’ve always felt one should never assume when writing that all teens are a certain way. I struggle with some YA books that appear to be set in “Anywhere, USA”–suburban, white, calm neighborhoods. Interesting thoughts!

  3. Natalie says:

    The book I will talk about is “Twilight” These books have a great story and are memorable. However, they are not realistic at all. Vampires that “sparkle” Come on! Seriously? This is the main reason why true horror fans make fun of and hate on Stephenie Meyer. The vampires are way to nice! Never taking human blood! Wrong! I write about vampires and they burn and scream in pain when they go out in the sun! Plus the idea that vampires fly and have extreme superhuman strength!

    I think this book “crosses the line” because of the message it sends young teenage girls. In Breaking Dawn, Edward leaves Bella and she goes into an extreme depression. While Edward is away she hears his voice if she does dangerous things. This teaches young girls that you need to do stupid things to get a guys attention. When Edward is away a nice sweet boy named Jacob befriends Bella and wants to date her. When Edward comes back, Bella forgives him! How stupid! Bella never should have automatically taken Edward back! He hurt her! This book teaches young teenage girls that you need to be a doormat! Plus it tells young girls that the bad boy or the boy who hurts you is better and more interesting than the nice boy.

    I also don’t like the clueless father Charlie. He could not figure out that Edward is a vampire? He had no idea that Bella had a boy in her room? In Breaking Dawn, Bella goes away for a long time and he does not try to find her? He is a cop, he could have done something. I am so sick of YA and children’s shows and books that have “clueless parents” It sends a message that it is okay to lie to your parents. That you can’t trust your parents because they don’t care. I am a parent of three kids and this makes me sad that young people read these books and believe them. I think that the “Twilight Series” while interesting and a fun read, that it is wrong on many levels.

    • Lyn Hawks says:

      Natalie, I haven’t read the Twilight series, but I’ve heard similar complaints, and that’s why I’ve been reluctant to pick the series up. I have seen the films, and they are disturbing to me for the same reasons. Bella’s obsession with Edward is natural in that we all can fall head over heels, but her repeated choices without any ability to see herself as a unique individual (from what I’m hearing) don’t exactly send an empowering message to young women. It tells us that there is Cinderella-like rescue ahead and just sit tight and your man, for better or worse (worse being abusive or physically dangerous) will take care of things.

  4. Natalie says:

    I should have said “New Moon” for when Edward leaves Bella.

  5. Natalie says:

    In my novel the main character is a 13 year old girl. In the first 20 pages, she sees her father shoot her mother and then kill himself. Then she watches her grandmother die of a heart attack. Her grandfather then shoots himself and kills himself. She ends up in a foster home and is sexually abused.

    I was told by my early readers that this is too much violence. That this is not for a YA audience.
    There are also scenes in the book that are extremely graphic. In one chapter young children witness a man accused of being a vampire set on fire. They throw water on the man to put the fire out. Then they go to town and get the sheriff to help the man. At first I had the oldest child be 10 and the youngest 7. I was told that this was not realistic. Young children would not react the way my characters did. So I made my characters young teenagers. Age 10 to 13.
    I also have a scene where the “vampire hunters” are hanged for what they did. I had the whole town witness it, including the young children. I was told that no parent would let their children witness something like that. I think that in my books time setting and “reality) (the 1930’s) people did watch people being hung and brought their whole family’s’

    I wonder if I should take out some graphic violent scenes.
    I would like to submit this book to a YA publisher, but I feel that publishers will say that it is too violent.

    • Lyn Hawks says:

      These are tough questions for any author as we revise: how much is too much violence? Where does the violence occur, and to whom, and in front of whom?

      Have you looked at an outline of events in your novel and thought about similar books/movies you’ve read with a lot of violence? If you can handle works that have repeated and regular violence, then ask yourself why you follow such stories and whether the work you’re creating is similar. It may be the readers who’ve looked at your story don’t have those tastes.

      Hangings were a major event once upon a time in American history, and lynchings and hangings were a town event that all families attended through the 40s in this country, I’ve heard. So to me, your novel’s history is accurate. Depending on the region of a country and the time period, you might research to make sure you’re right on target, but if it’s the southern United States before 1950, chances are families showed up to small-town public executions.

      My final thought on the amount of violence is that I as a reader need a sense of forward momentum, suspense that gives me hope things will be resolved or get better. How much a protagonist fights and survives his/her situation helps with that, no matter how horrific the events. I’ve read books where horrible thing after horrible thing occurs to characters, but their tenacity and hope, belief in self, keeps me going. Also, if the story ends with some resolution and some light, realistically developed, then I feel satisfied. The tough journey has been worth it. Maybe asking yourself whether in between and during the tough events, your character is showing grit, hope, faith, love…and whether she’s moving toward something better…are those things there?

      Good luck with your writing. It sounds like it’s your passion and you reflect deeply about it.

  6. Natalie says:

    Thank you for responding to my posts. I appreciate your writing advice. The character does have tenacity and hope. Eventually he does find something better. The bond between him and his wife grows stronger. He also makes life long friends. (These are the children that witness his torture.)