Thursday, April 01, 2010

Not an April Fool's Joke

I briefly considered doing some kind of April Fool's Day post about how I'd decided to give up having a sense of humor and writing fantasy and was going to focus instead on writing Nicholas Sparks-style books about people who find each other and fall in love, only to have one of them die tragically soon afterward. Or maybe that I'd decided to give in and go with the flow and write a vampire book. But I think doing online April Fool's pranks can easily backfire, since it's still out there, and you have no idea when people might read the post or how it might show up in a search engine. If you're reading something in June, you take it as fact, and you probably aren't looking at the date it was posted. And from there rumors spread and then I get lots of e-mails complaining about me selling out to try to write that kind of stuff and why don't I write more good things they like. Therefore, this post will be a non-April Fool's zone.

So, you know how I said yesterday that I didn't need to fix the recently written scenes until revisions because the fixes wouldn't affect the plot? I was wrong. Once I started trying to plan what happened next, I realized that setting it up would require going back at least 75 pages to revise some of the placeholder scenes, and that would then significantly change a lot of other things to follow. Some of the scenes will require complete re-writes, while some will be just adding some things. I did find out that there is a plot reason for that scene that hit me out of nowhere over the weekend, so it looks like it might stay. And while in some ways it's frustrating to be so near the end yet having to go back and fix things before I can get there (I suspect I won't make my Easter self-imposed deadline), I think revisions will require less hair-pulling, moaning and general angst. Plus, fixing the set-up means the ending is more likely to be right the first time.

Although I have no plans to write tear-jerkers or vampire books, I do spend some time thinking about what I could be writing in addition to where I already am. I've been encouraged multiple times to try writing young adult books. Since my adult books are teen-safe (they're "clean") and I do have a teen following, it seems like a natural extension for me to move into that market, which is a really hot market right now. Unfortunately, my attempt there wasn't very successful. The thing is, I'm not sure I'm edgy enough to write young adult, especially in today's post-Twilight market. In some ways, it seems like the recent YA fiction I've read has actually been edgier than a lot of adult fiction. There's more of a pressure to be "real," to deal honestly with a lot of the issues that kids today face, like pressure to have sex or the consequences of sex, family drama, suicide, drugs/alcohol, etc. There's also an emphasis on heightened emotion -- that dramatic "I'd rather die than be without you" sense. I don't think I can capture any of that. Even when I was a teenager, I wasn't really a teenager. I may have had a few drama queen moments, but they were usually very calculated to get a particular result, not anything I actually meant. I had a few crushes as a teen, but didn't think I actually was in love with someone until I was in college. Finding out that a guy didn't like me back was disappointing, not "I think I'll go cut myself" devastating. I didn't feel pressured to have sex (heck, I couldn't even get a date), and alcohol or drugs weren't even the slightest temptation. I don't think I'm mature enough for young adult, even though I'm old enough to be a parent of one.

But lately I've noticed that what I enjoy reading isn't young adult, it's what gets classified as "middle grade." Like Inkheart or the Flora Segunda books, Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books and, yes, the Harry Potter series. Most of the fantasy novels I enjoyed as a kid/teen (and even now) are put into this classification, like the Narnia books, the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books or Madeleine L'Engle's Time series. The YA/MG distinction didn't exist back then. There were just children's books and adult books, without teens having their separate category, so it's possible that these older books might be classified differently today but are still stuck in the children's section because that's where they were to begin with. But I think there's a distinct difference in tone. I'm still trying to figure out, precisely, what the difference is. The middle-grade audience is younger, probably in the fourth grade through junior high, depending on reading level, and the characters tend to be around that age range, as well, though may go a little older, since kids generally like to "read up" and read about characters who are a little older than they are. I can't really tell any difference in writing style or vocabulary between YA and MG. My agent says a big difference is pacing. Middle grade needs a much faster pace, less stopping to think or talk too much, and the turning points need to be drastic turning points with lots of big, unexpected stuff happening.

But in my recent reading and thinking, I think I'm finding another difference. It has to do more with tone or emphasis, and part of this epiphany came from reading a question asked on a publishing industry blog, where someone asked about YA characters and should they be self-confident to provide good role models or self-doubting so that readers could identify with them. A commenter mentioned that it seems like the YA characters, particularly girls, who were self-confident were portrayed as bitches and were usually the bad guys/antagonists. That really struck a chord for me. There have been all kinds of studies talking about a kind of dip girls go through around the time of puberty/early teen years. Before that time, they're confident and fearless and do rather well in math and science. After that time, confidence levels plunge and math and science scores tend to go down. Around this time, confidence starts to look like a bad thing. I remember this from my own younger days and it also comes up in the non-fiction book that inspired the movie Mean Girls (and was dramatized in that movie), but being considered "conceited" was the worst sin a girl could commit. You couldn't even graciously accept a compliment because that meant you actually believed it, which meant you were a conceited bitch. You were supposed to downplay the compliment or argue with it. It seems to me like middle grade books take place before this "dip" or ignore the dip and are written for readers who haven't hit the dip yet or who don't hit it (not all girls do -- I don't think I did, since I never cared much about peer pressure and was more likely to be friends with boys than with girls). The middle-grade heroine seems to be fearless -- think Pippi Longstocking or Hermione Granger -- while the YA heroine worries about not fitting in or no one liking her. If a MG heroine meets a strapping young man in the course of her adventures, her first thought will be that his presence improves her chances for success, as long as he isn't an idiot. You need someone around to get things that are up high or to lift heavy stuff, and if he proves his worth, then maybe she'll fall in love with him. A typical YA heroine would see him as potential boyfriend material, while thinking that he'd never notice her because she's just an ordinary nobody. In today's market, he'd also probably be a supernatural stalker type who's dark and dangerous and moody.

I'll have to do more reading to see if this holds true. And if I do write for younger readers, then maybe middle-grade is more my speed. Unfortunately, I don't really have any ideas that aren't totally cliched or done to death. When I was that age, I think most of my fantasies were along the Narnia lines of finding myself in some magical world where I could have grand adventures. And that's been done a few zillion times. The trick is finding a new twist on it, and I'm not there yet.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

Thanks for the food for thought. I myself have decided that I lean more toward middle grade science fiction and fantasy myself. I like to read for escapism, and middle grade, with its lack of Angst, is just generally more fun.