Exploring Your Writing Identity

Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I define myself as a writer?

We all ask ourselves these questions from time to time. Self-reflection is inevitable when we face frequent rejections and pour so much of our hearts onto the page for the sake of art. Our personal and creative identities are irrevocably linked.

Your voice is unique. Think of the countless influences and experiences that have shaped you. You are a complex, glorious being made up of every hardship, heartbreak, disappointment, desire, joy, and triumph you’ve ever known.

Your distinct writing identity stems from an endless list of factors: where you grew up, your socioeconomic status, family dynamics, belief system, schools, friends, jobs, favorite books–even the TV shows and movies you enjoy.

Are you writing the kind of books you want to write? How about the ones you have to write? Perhaps there is a certain type of book you longed for growing up, one you wished someone had written that spoke to your dearest hopes, your deepest fears.

Writing Identity TToF

If you find yourself examining where you are in your writing journey and where you want to go from here, try these five simple questions:

  1. What are your strengths as a writer?
  2. What genre do you enjoy writing (and reading) the most?
  3. What do you want to say to potential readers?
  4. What are your long-term writing goals?
  5. How would you like to grow or change as a writer?

My Happy Place is writing for middle grade readers, preferably with healthy doses of adventure, humor, and the paranormal. Moving backward through time I can clearly pinpoint several touchstones on the path that led to this point: the children’s lit class in college; the bleak novels we were force-fed in high school English; the stacks of ghost stories I devoured as a young teen; the steady diet of earnest, cheesy 1980s TV shows I adored as a kid.

I used to believe that my Happy Place was static and unchanging. But as I grow older, as I read more widely and interact with other writers, as we as a nation wrestle with our values and face our shortcomings in the struggle for social justice, I realize that my writing identity is still evolving.

As writers we owe it to ourselves and our readers to learn, to soul search, to expand our minds and hearts.

Consider writing something outside of your usual comfort zone. Read something completely new and unfamiliar. Seek out news from a wide range of reliable sources. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Plan a trip or a simple change of scenery. Wander through a new neighborhood. Observe people in new places. Engage with them. Hear what they have to say.

You will become not only a better writer but a better person, more qualified to explore, understand, and represent the human condition. You will learn to write from a place not just of sympathy but of empathy. You will speak not from secondhand knowledge but from firsthand experience.

I firmly believe that you should embrace what you feel called to write—compelled to write—without fear of judgment that your work isn’t important. When you write from a place of authenticity and a well-examined life, there will always be an audience for what you have to say.

_______________________________

 

Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Survey Analysis: How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovetIn my post from last month, “How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?” I talked about how authors of young adult books are including more profanity, sexual situations, drug use, and other controversial content in their novels. I was really curious to find out in greater detail what readers of all ages thought about various difficult topics. Leveraging Google Forms and Sheets, I created a survey to find out.

The survey was both a success and a failure. On the plus side, I got almost 200 responses, which was more than I expected. On the negative side, only six of those responses were from actual young adults. The rest were from grownups (18 and older) who read young adult literature.

I promised to provide an analysis of the results, so here they are. Please note that I’m not claiming statistical significance here. I’m not a stats person, though I do consider myself something of an Excel ninja. Though it’s interesting, I would caution against reading too much into the data I present below. When in doubt, write the book you want to write.

Respondents

From sharing my results with various groups, I managed to get a total of 195 responses. The demographic section of the survey tells us a little about the people who completed it.

Age

As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of people who responded to the survey were adults. The breakdown by age category is here:

Age Category

Respondents

Percent

12 – 14 years old

1

0.5%

15 – 17 years old

5

2.6%

18 – 29 years old

28

14.4%

30 – 39 years old

94

48.2%

40+ years old

67

34.4%

Gender

The overwhelming majority (86%) of respondents were female. Here’s the full breakdown:

Gender

Respondents

Percent

Female

167

85.6%

Male

27

13.8%

Something else, or I prefer not to answer

1

0.5%

Last year, I was at a writing conference, attending a panel about writing young adult fiction. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and asked the question: “What can be done about the perception that YA is dominated by females?” I actually laughed out loud when I heard this. All four panelists were women. Maybe 80% of the audience were female. This isn’t a “perception” … it’s a reality.

Location

Survey respondents came from 27 US states, plus some international locations. However, because of my circle of friends (and also because of the groups where I went to solicit responses), the vast majority of the responses (54%) came from people who live in Utah.

Here’s the breakdown of how many responses came from each location;

Alabama (1), Alaska (1), Arizona (14), California (7), Colorado (4), Hawaii (4), Idaho (11), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Louisiana (1), Maryland (1), Michigan (3), Minnesota (1), Nevada (5), New Mexico (1), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Oregon (4), South Carolina (1), Tennessee (2), Texas (8), Utah (105), Virginia (2), Washington (5), Wyoming (1), Other or International (5)

Average number of books read per month

I thought it would be interesting to know whether the respondents were voracious or more casual readers. Because of this, the survey asked how many books, on average, each of the respondents read.

Books per Month

Respondents

Percent

less than 1

17

8.7%

1 or 2

50

25.6%

3 or 4

64

32.8%

five or more

64

32.8%

Percentage of books read in the young adult genre

Finally, I asked what percentage of books each of the respondents read in the young adult genre.

Books in the YA Genre

Respondents

Percent

less than 25%

33

76.9%

25 to 50%

79

40.5%

51 to 75%

45

23.1%

75% or more

38

19.5%

Methodology

Using the word “methodology” automatically makes things more scientific, right? Well, probably not, but I did have a method to my madness. For every topic or subject matter in the main section of the survey, I asked respondents to rate their comfort level using the following rating scale:

  1. Very uncomfortable. I actively avoid books like this, and won’t read them at all.
  2. Uncomfortable. I have a low tolerance for books like this, and sometimes stop reading if I encounter the topic.
  3. Moderately comfortable. I don’t seek out books like this, but I don’t avoid them if the story is good.
  4. Comfortable. I don’t mind reading books like this, and often enjoy them.
  5. Very comfortable. I enjoy reading books like this, sometimes seeking them out specifically.

To analyze the responses, I considered a 1 or 2 to be negative (discomfort) and a 4 or 5 to be positive (comfort). The 3 responses were neutral, so I ignored them for the purposes of analysis. Using this methodology, I created Pro/Con comparison for each item, and then compared them as percentages.

As an example, the first question asked the respondents’ comfort levels with “Bible” curse words like “damn” and “hell.” (I actually asterisked them on the survey so nobody could complain about being exposed to profanity). In the results, I got 60 5s, 63 4s, 61 3s, 8 2s and 3 1s. (Yes, three people indicated they were “Very uncomfortable” with encountering the words “damn” and “hell” in a YA novel. Go figure.) Adding the 4s and 5s and the 1s and 2s together, I got a Pro score of 123 and a Con score of 11, or 91.8% Pro and 8.2% Con. Make sense?

So let’s look at the individual sections and scores. To reduce clutter, I’ll provide just the Pro and Con tallies and percentages for each item. However, you’ll find a link to a PDF with the full scoring at the bottom of this post.

Language

I grouped the questions about language into three categories: “Bible” curse words, scatalogical and “body part” curse words, and F-bombs (which my teenaged son calls the “Elder Swear”). The results didn’t really surprise me:

Language

Pro %

Con %

Stories with characters who use “Bible” curse words (d**n, h**l)

91.8%

8.2%

Stories with characters who use scatalogical or “body part” curse words (s**t, a**, d**k, c**k, c**t, p***y)

30.5%

69.5%

Stories with characters who drop F-bombs (f**k)

23.2%

76.8%

On one of the groups where I posted this survey, a group member took me to task for grouping words like “shit” and “ass” in with the body part swear words. The names for female body parts, she claimed, were used more for sexual power games than for curse words. I can see her point (to a point), but I was just trying to do a survey, not make a statement about gender politics.

Sexual Content

As far as I can tell, one thing that distinguishes young adult from middle grade fiction is the introduction of sexual situations. (Sometimes, when meeting other writers, I like to joke that I write “middle-grade erotica.” It’s just fun to see the looks on their faces as they try to parse that.) As in all of the categories, I ordered the items based on what I expected the relative comfort/discomfort levels to be.

Sexual Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with lots of sexual content but no actual sex between teens

42.9%

57.1%

Stories that talk frankly about pornography and masturbation

12.8%

87.2%

Stories depicting hetero sex between teens

19.9%

80.1%

Stories depicting sex between teens and adults

7.8%

92.2%

Stories depicting taboo sex involving teens (incest, BDSM, etc.)

5.5%

94.5%

One aspect of the results surprised me: overall, the respondents were slightly more comfortable reading stories about actual sex than about pornography and masturbation. I don’t know why, but I was really taken aback to see that readers found simulated, solitary sex more disturbing than the real thing.

The last question in this section is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t seem that the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon has trickled down to the YA reader. E.L. James’ books pushed BDSM into the mainstream to a certain degree, but that’s not happening for adult readers of YA fiction.

LGBTQ+ Content

Like it or not, young adult fiction tends to be heteronormative in the sense that it assumes that most boys like girls and most girls like boys. (It reflects the real world in this way.) Since I personally know a number of readers who intentionally steer clear of books with gay and lesbian protagonists, I figured it made sense to ask these questions separately.

LGBTQ+ Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is incidental to the plot

57.7%

42.3%

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is crucial to the plot (including “coming out” stories)

39.9%

60.1%

Stories with minor LGBTQ+ characters

73.8%

26.2%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens

13.0%

87.0%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens and adults

5.9%

94.1%

YA readers seem to be more accepting of LGBTQ main characters if their sexuality isn’t directly tied to the plot. The big difference in comfort levels between the first and second items above kind of surprised me. Minor gay and lesbian characters (I was careful not to use the word “token”) seem to be more acceptable to more readers.

Substance Abuse

I remember being shocked, as a young teenager, reading about teenagers drinking and smoking in The Outsiders. I was probably 13 when I discovered that book, and nobody in my sheltered circle of friends did any of that stuff. My kids had a very different experience. In my kids’ school, vaping and seems to have replaced smoking as the default bad-habit-du-jour.

And remember: The Outsiders was published in 1967. Teens have always smoked and boozed and used drugs.

Substance Abuse

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting teenagers smoking or vaping

64.2%

35.8%

Stories depicting recreational drug use by teens

38.0%

62.0%

Stories depicting alcohol use by teens

50.4%

49.6%

Stories depicting the abuse of prescription drugs by teens

42.1%

57.9%

Stories depicting the sale or purchase of illicit drugs by teens

36.8%

63.2%

I actually expected the Pro scores here to be a little higher. It’s possible that the older audience skewed the numbers here to the Con side.

Mental Illness

There has been a huge effort over the past several decades to destigmatize mental illness. In the past several years, I’ve read YA books with protagonists who have Tourette syndrome, with severe depression, and even sociopathy. Readers seem to see mental illnesses as just another obstacle for characters to overcome.

Mental Illness

Pro %

Con %

Stories focusing on protagonists dealing with mental illnesses

95.1%

4.9%

Stories that prominently feature self-harm (cutting and other self-injury)

52.5%

47.5%

Stories focusing on protagonists who have eating disorders

85.5%

14.5%

Stories depicting characters with suicidal thoughts or who attempt suicide

68.1%

31.9%

The one surprise here is the balanced Pro/Con score for self-harm. From what I can tell, in the United states, around 6-10 percent of teenagers intentionally hurt themselves, with “cutting” being the most common activity of this type. At the same time, less than 3 percent of of teens struggle with eating disorders. With self-harm being two or even three times more common than eating disorders among U.S. teens, you’d think it would be a topic more people would be comfortable reading about. Not so, apparently. That self-harm is significantly less acceptable to readers than suicide should be an eye-opening fact.

Abuse and Violence

I’m not certain I got the questions in this category “right.” Violence is a staple of growing up—kids beat up on each other all the time. I tried to think of the types of abusive situations that might cause someone to put a book down.

Abuse and Violence

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting sexual abuse involving teens or children

17.9%

82.1%

Stories depicting sexual assault involving teens or children

19.5%

80.5%

Stories depicting domestic violence

43.1%

56.9%

Stories depicting other kinds of violent situations

68.1%

31.9%

Interestingly, the Pro/Con rating for sexual assault is within half a point of the rating for hetero teenaged sex (see above). And the readers I polled are more comfortable reading about sexual assault than about consensual sex between LGBTQ teens. That last question is kind of a catch-all, and doesn’t really say much about anything.

Social Issues

Speaking of catch-alls, this last category was exactly that.

Social Issues

Pro %

Con %

Stories involving bullying (real-world or cyber)

92.2%

7.8%

Stories involving racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality

89.3%

10.7%

Stories involving sexism, sexual discrimination or sexual inequality

83.2%

16.8%

Stories in which teens talk about or get an abortion

46.6%

53.4%

Stories involving firearms

88.5%

11.5%

Stories with heavy political content

67.8%

32.2%

The bullying question was a gimme. Bullying is so pervasive in all aspects of teenagerhood that I would defy anyone to come up with a single YA novel that didn’t feature bullying of some kind.

I wasn’t surprised by the Pro/Con ratings on the “ism” questions. I was pretty surprised that my respondents were more comfortable reading about teenagers with guns than they were about teenagers getting abortions. (But then, I had a very Utah-heavy population that responded.) The question about politics was also interesting. I wasn’t expecting a two-thirds Pro rating on that one, though I’m not sure whether I expected it to be higher or lower.

 

Conclusion

Again, since this turned out to be essentially a poll of adults, I’m not sure how much we can extrapolate regarding teen readers. It’s worth pointing out, though, that adult readers of YA fiction are often the “gatekeepers” who buy the books, put them on library shelves, assign them for classes, and so on. So grownup attitudes about young adult fiction are still worth considering.

You can download a more detailed analysis of numbers below. Enjoy!

YA Fiction – How Edgy Is Too Edgy?

____________________________________

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovet

I didn’t actually set out to answer those questions. But over the past several months, they’ve been on my mind. A lot.

Let’s back up. My teenaged daughter is a voracious reader. She always seems to discover and read the “hot topic” books months before I even hear about them. She’d read all John Green’s books before I even got a whiff of The Fault in Our Stars, and she read Thirteen Reasons Why way before Netflix even thought about vandalizing the book as a miniseries.

In the run-up to my NaNoWriMo project last year, I decided I wanted to write the kind of YA book my daughter likes to read: edgy, real, and touching on the scarier areas of high school life. I settled on a revenge novel, one that used multiple points of view. Then she and I sat down and brainstormed about the horrible things high schoolers do to each other.

Some of the ideas we came up with together were pretty dark. But I was drawn to the characters they suggested, and I thought they made for a great story. I’m revising now, struggling with my beginning, but I’m still happy with the way the book is shaping up.

To help me get in the right frame of mind for this book, I’ve been reading extensively in the “edgy YA” category. Here are a few of the books I’ve devoured in the past few months:

  • Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. Deals with suicide, bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, rape and voyeurism.
  • King Dork, by Frank Portman. A comedy dealing with sex, drugs and (of course) rock ‘n’ roll—plus bullying, alcohol and assault with a deadly tuba.
  • Hate List, by Jennifer Brown. The main character is the survivor (and unwitting participant) of school shooting rampage. Also touches on bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, sexual issues.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews. A very funny, profoundly weird story about terminal illness, bullying, racial issues, drug use and gangs. Contains copius F-bombs.
  • Looking for Alaska, by John Green. This multiple award-winning book deals with sex, smoking, death, more sex, and alcohol and drug use, with enough profanity to earn it a hard R from the MPAA.
  • The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Abuse and poverty, some surprising violence (domestic and otherwise), lots of language and bullying and mentions of kiddie porn mixed in. So far, my favorite book of 2017.
  • Castration Celebration, by Jake Wizner. Billed as “High School Musical—rated R,” this book revolves around sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, alcohol, suicide, and depression. And it’s a comedy!

Now, I live and write in southern Utah, so I work in a bubble. Though this isn’t an absolute, readers here tend to gravitate more toward sci-fi and fantasy, focus on “clean romance,” and stay away from heavy realism. The bubble is thick and isolating—so much so that, when I began introducing my current project to my writing group, one of the members asked, “Do books like this actually sell?”

Publishers don’t release sales numbers, but if we look at Thirteen Reasons Why on Amazon, we see the book has 29 separate formats and editions, including seven hardcover, nine paperback, two digital and four audiobook. There’s also the popular miniseries on Netflix. What this says to me is that Jay Asher probably doesn’t have to feel around under his couch cushions for gas money. Similarly, Looking for Alaska is available in 55 different formats and editions. Millions of copies of both books have been sold.

Obviously, books for teens with lots of “adult” material can be incredibly popular and make bucketfuls of money for their authors and publishers. But I’m still curious to know: how far is too far, and how much is too much? Are there specific topics that readers just don’t want to encounter in young adult novels?

I can’t answer that question. In fact, it’s a question I’m asking TTOF readers. I’ve put together a survey for you to fill out:

Take_Survey_button

Copy-and-paste link:
https://goo.gl/forms/AyEmZ23eLdXptYMt2

You’ll be asked about various thematic elements and  your level of comfort with them. I encourage you to respond to the survey, and to ask your friends to do so as well. I’ll summarize the results in a future column.


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Well-Rounded Readers Make Well-Rounded Writers

I’m pretty sure you all know the importance, as writers, of reading books within the genres you write, yes? Obviously, this is a given. How are you to know the trends and meet the expectations of your genre’s audience if you aren’t also a member of your genre’s audience?

By reading within your genre, you learn which tropes to include, and which tropes to avoid. You learn your genre’s average pacing and plot structure, what’s been done and what hasn’t, and how to skirt that line between providing unique characters and a unique plot, while still adhering to the qualities and characteristics of your particular genre that will keep readers coming back for more.

But there’s something to be said for reading outside your genre as well. I used to be timid about doing this. For the longest time, I nearly exclusively read SFF books because that’s what I was drawn to. That’s why I chose to write within that genre, after all. I love SFF. I can relate to it, and at the same time, it transports me away from normal, everyday life.

Lately, however, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more widely. And you know what? Not only have I found that I enjoy a much larger selection of stories than I thought I would, my writing has improved as well. Tremendously. I know it’s improved, because I now find myself looking at my characters differently, and being more creative about the situations I put them in, as well as how I have them react to those situations. I’ve also honed my writing voice more—with different genres comes different ways of wording things, and my exposure to this is coming out in my own style of writing.

wellrounded

As mentioned above, I mostly write SFF. More specifically, I write urban and contemporary fantasy. However, so far this year, I’ve read mysteries, historical fiction, magical realism, contemporary romance, and dark, twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. Each one of these books has influenced my writing for the better.

Mystery has helped me figure out what information I should (and shouldn’t) reveal to the reader, and when. Historical fiction has taught me the importance of understanding the socio-political landscape in which my characters have been placed. Magical realism has influenced me to slow down during certain moments throughout my stories and really focus on the sensory details, drawing the reader into my character’s experience as far as I can. Contemporary romance has been a terrific study on the push and pull that takes place in character relationships, and how to add delicious tension. And thrillers with unreliable narrators have helped to remind me that every character is the hero within their own story, and they’re all going to want to portray themselves that way, whether their portrayal is accurate or not.

I have books in other genres waiting on my to-be-read list as well. Horror, for instance. And comedy. And I read plenty of non-fiction as well.

“Wait . . . non-fiction? You mean besides books about writing?”

Heck yes, you should read non-fiction! And not just for story research, either. Right now, for instance, I’m reading (well, actually listening to) a book about the quirky ways in which the brain works.* How is that helpful? Well, in understanding how the human brain works, I can better understand why my characters do what they do. I’ve also been reading biographies, which make great character studies, books on time-management, which are helpful for managing my writing life, and of course (since I have a degree in the subject) history books. History is the ultimate plot bunny source, let me tell you. Even if you’re writing a contemporary book, or a book set in the future.

So I challenge you now, if you’re hesitant about reading outside your writing genre, to go do exactly that. Ask trusted friends for recommendations, scroll through Goodreads, or take yourself down to your local library or bookstore and walk past your favorite shelves, over to new, unexplored territory. You can thank me later. No, seriously, after you’re done reading. Pretend I’m not here. I don’t want to interrupt you.

. . . Puts finger to lips and tiptoes away. . . .

 

*THE IDIOT BRAIN, by Dean Burnett
______________________________________

When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

What is Hip?

Listen up, all you hepcats and cool kittens, you daddy-o’s and hot mammas, you radical dudes and bodacious babes, it’s time to get down with your bad selves and get totally tubular as we talk about slang! So, grab your bae and make sure you’ve got enough vo-de-oh-do to stay on fleek, because this groovy post is about to go off the hook, yo!

[crickets chirp]

[a tumbleweed rolls past]

Okay, that was pretty lame. But it does bring to mind a conversation I saw recently on social media. A friend, who is in the midst of writing a contemporary YA story, was asking others for words and phrases that were common among teenagers. The answers were wide and varied, and very few agreed with each other, even as many people offered words culled directly from their own teens’ lexicons.

The conversation got me thinking about the need writers feel to keep the language in their stories as hip and relevant as possible. Writers are always striving for that air of authenticity that says “I know what’s going on in the world today, and I am attuned to the things my potential audience likes.” In short, using current slang terms and pop culture references is a way for a writer to prove that they themselves are still current.

whatis-hip

In 1980, when I was but a wee lad of seven with tousled hair and cheek of tan, the book of choice for everyone in my school was Judy Blume’s Superfudge. I mean, everybody was reading it. And, being set in a then-contemporary setting, the book featured pop culture references of the era, including The Amazing Kreskin, a TV mentalist popular in the late 1970’s, and the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. In 2003, Judy Blume went back and “updated” Superfudge and many of her other books from the 70’s and 80’s by inserting more current pop culture references. Thus, kids today will read about how Peter Hatcher listens to music on an mp3 player, and wants an Xbox for Christmas.

While Judy Blume certainly has the right to do what she wants with the books she’s written, I disagree with her decision. To me, the “updated” versions of her books feel grossly anachronistic, and the new additions stick out like sore thumbs, much like the “updated” versions of the original Star Wars trilogy that George Lucas just couldn’t seem to stop tinkering with. They smack of insecurity in one’s own work, that it cannot stand on its own without constant retooling. Furthermore, I see such actions as evidence of a fundamental distrust in the intelligence of modern readers, who the author seems to see as incapable of understanding or relating to anything not set in the current day. And it begs the question in Blume’s case: what will happen in another thirty years when Xboxes and mp3 players are out of date?

This is why I believe authors shouldn’t get too hung up on wanting their contemporary fiction to be hyper realistic. Getting the details right is commendable and good, but those details will change over time, just as authors themselves change over time. It’s a sobering fact of life that nearly everyone grows up to be less cool than they were as a teenager or young adult. As Grandpa Abe Simpson said: “I used to be ‘with it,’ but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m ‘with’ isn’t ‘it,’ and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me!” Or, as the 1970’s era funk band Tower Of Power suggested, “what’s hip today might become passé.” (And yes, I fully recognize the irony of citing 20 and 40-year-old pop culture references to make my case here). The slang terms and pop culture references you so painstakingly researched and included in your story will, in fact, feel outdated at some point, and probably sooner rather than later. That’s the nature of living in a linear timeline.

This is all especially true when it comes to the language of teenagers. Let’s face it: we don’t allow teenagers to do very much in this world on their own. They can’t do cool things like drink, smoke, vote, or rent a car like sophisticated adults do. The only thing left for them to control themselves is their language, which they do. For as long as teenagers have been around, there’s been a new word or phrase that only the younger generation is using. And when adults try to learn to speak this language, they almost always end up looking silly. You want to instantly lose some credibility? Tell your teenagers—without a shred of irony—that they’re “on fleek” in front of their friends. You’ll get reactions ranging from stunned shock to outright horror. Adults are often the killers of cool in the teenage world.

What does this mean for your writing, then? If you’re writing a contemporary YA novel set in the current year, how much attention should you really give to the popular slang terms and pop culture references of the day? One solution may be to treat them with a sense of irony, as if the characters themselves are in on the joke. Another solution may be to ignore actual pop culture trends and invent your own. Thus, instead of teenage girls getting all gooey eyed over One Direction or Taylor Swift (they’re still things, right?), maybe the teen girls in your story have their own pop stars to fawn over. Maybe the kids in your story are saying “sparking” when things are going great, much like how Kaylee uses “shiny” in Firefly.

All a writer—or any artist, for that matter—can really do is to show what it is like to be alive in a certain part of the world at a certain time in history. It’s why, when rereading Stephen King’s The Langoliers recently, I didn’t get worried that one of the characters said “totally tubular!” The story was written in the late 1980’s, and such an expression was commonplace. It sounds silly to modern ears, but I wouldn’t want King to go back and change it. In the same vein, while I’ve never lived in 19th century London, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the worlds of Oliver Twist or Ebenezer Scrooge. I wasn’t alive during the greaser era of The Outsiders, but it doesn’t mean that I need S.E. Hinton to change them into the Bloods and Crips. And I certainly don’t expect the ghost of William Shakespeare to appear and magically change Hamlet’s “get thee to a nunnery!” to “I’m swiping left on you, Ophelia!”

Great stories can and will be able to stand on their own throughout all time. Indeed, the greatest stories have done just that, even those stories that may not have been totes on point with all the tight fleek and lit references of the day, dawg!

(I think I injured myself just now).

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Connecting with Young Readers

For my first post with Thinking Through Our Fingers in September, I wrote about Emotional Resonance. Today I’d like to zero in on writing for children, and how to create stories and characters that will ring true for younger readers.

Picture books, middle grade novels, and YA novels are very different animals, but they all share the common goal of connecting with a young person. Recently there’s been a lot of discussion in the kidlit world about the role of books as both mirrors and windows. Mirrors, of course, provide ways for kids to see their own identities reflected in a story. Windows offer the promise of a journey, allowing readers to explore the unknown or the impossible.

Adults who write for children can only rely so much on memory. Childhood is a hazy, distant reality. I assert that you must interact with children on a regular basis in order to gain a current, relevant perspective on what they fear, what they care about and dream about. Whether you observe your own children, nieces and nephews, neighbors, or friends, this is the most important ingredient in telling stories that kids want to read. Talk to them. Play with them. And above all, listen. They possess a rare brand of wisdom and empathy that will take your breath away.

The next step is to ask yourself: what does my character want more than anything in the world? Why is it important? How is she going to get it?

Now. This one is a deal breaker. At all costs, avoid being didactic or planting obvious “lessons” for kids to learn. Children know when they’re being talked down to, and they will treat your book like the plague if they suspect that a story is “for their own good.” Blech. Do you read stories so you can learn that sharing is good, or that littering is bad?* No? Me neither. (*Self-help books don’t count!)

Kids have a powerful sense of right and wrong. They recognize injustice when they see it. Think of poor Harry, forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive. Kids feel the unfairness of this, and they root for Harry to have a better life and people who love him, because they want—and deserve—the exact same thing.

Think about a child’s world. They need family (those who love them). They need friends (those who understand them). And they need dreams: the promise that someday they will be recognized for who they are and what’s important to them.

Not so different from adults, really.

A few more things to consider:

-Give your character flaws. No one likes to read about a too-perfect character (a Mary Sue), because it doesn’t reflect reality. Kids can spot a fake from a mile away.

-Send your character on a personal journey of growth. By the end of the book he should evolve in a positive direction, becoming stronger or braver or kinder or wiser (or some other quality of your choosing).

-Show your character’s personality in action. Don’t tell us that she’s impulsive or brainy or has a quick temper. Put her in situations where she can act and react, so we can see it for ourselves. Will she keep her best friend’s deepest, darkest secret? Does she stand up to the school bully? Mouth off to authority figures? Small details provide often provide the clearest insights.

-Place your character’s point of view front and center. Whether using first person or third, zoom in on your central character as closely as you dare. Give us thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears. Allow us to see the world through his eyes—the good and the bad.

Here’s a quote from the best fan letter I ever received: “I noticed that I really felt like I was Josie [the main character], and not just that I was spectating.” Be still, my heart! This is my ultimate goal as an author: to help a child both lose herself and find herself in a book.

Finally, children’s literature should be no less compelling than books written for adults. The content should be age-appropriate without glossing over the sometimes harsh realities of life. By the same token, don’t be afraid of magic and whimsy. Children’s imaginations are fertile playgrounds—and often the only escape available to them. They’re constantly being told no, don’t, you can’t, you shouldn’t, it’s too dangerous/not polite/against the rules. A good book allows them to go exploring in a world of their choosing—and kidlit today offers a wealth of exceptional worlds to choose from.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.