Switching It Up

Some people are really happy working in the same genre all the time.

I’m not.

I’m happiest when I go between very different genres, but I’ve discovered a surprising bonus to flightiness: working in a new genre whets my appetite for going back to the one that bored me in the first place.

For example, I wrote five “chick lit” books in a row. “Chick lit” is considered a dismissive term now, but at the time it was a helpful marketing handle. Anyway, when it was time to start manuscript #6, the idea of doing another chick lit novel was just a huge yaaaaaaaaaawn for me. So I didn’t. I started something else—a contemporary YA novel—just to see if I could.

I could: I got three offers of representation.

And when I was done with it, going back to chick lit sounded like a fun break from contemp YA. Fast forward a few years, and I was a little bored with both of those genres so I decided to switch it up again and I took a run at a historical novel, again just for fun. Not only did I discover a new facet of my writer’s voice, but—you guessed it—it made the idea of returning to my contemporary genres seem fun instead of boring.

I’m commitment-phobic by nature, so I guess none of this should have surprised me. But I’ve learned one other little trick for amping up your creativity too: restrict it.

You read that right: RESTRICT IT.

Switching It Up.png

I had to do another romantic comedy last fall when I was totally not in the mood to write one, but contracts are contracts. And I knew if I was bored then readers would be bored, so I looked for a way to make it fun. I decided to choose one of the corniest tropes I could find and then write a story that was actually good based on the trope. (FYI, it was the “secret baby” trope.) It turned out to be totally fun, and I think I did a pretty good job with the story.

But whichever genre I just finished writing in is always the one I feel burnt out on, so once again, when I finished the “secret baby” story, I felt like I didn’t want to write another romance ever again. But I love my readers and the idea of being burnt out made me sad, so I brainstormed ways to make it fun again. That meant finding a new restriction to challenge myself. I decided to do a chapter-a-week on my author Facebook page every Friday where I do a gender-flipped contemporary fairy tale. I polled my readers to see which fairy tale they wanted, and within 24 hours I had restricted parameters with a modern male Rapunzel character. Brainstorming the broad outline of that novel with some writing friends is some of the most fun I’ve had in ages. And the fact that I only have to do it once a week keeps me from feeling too resentful of working in a genre I’ve worked in fairly often already.

And the bonus, of course, is that each time I work in the just-for-fun fairy tale, it makes me itchy to get back to the historical YA I’m supposed to be finishing. Because did I mention I’m commitment-phobic? But switching it up allows me to make that work for me instead of against me. You just have to figure out how to hack your own brain; nothing makes me want to get back to a project I used to be tired of more than finding a new project I’m more tired of. And then round and round I go, with the time I spend enjoying my work far outweighing the time I spend feeling burnt out on it.

This is a bad principle apply to relationships, but I have to say, project infidelity works great for creativity!

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

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?

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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.

Losing Your Voice and Finding It Again

I recently started an MFA in writing for children and young adults. It’s expensive, and I knew if I was going to commit the time and money to it that I wanted to get the most out of it. And so I thought hard about how to do that.

The first thing I decided was that it didn’t make a lot of sense to go into the program doing the same old things I’ve always done with my writing. It seems like if that was super working for me, I’d have met all my publishing goals by now. But I haven’t, and so I wanted to challenge everything about my process to see what I learned.

Challenge #1: Write a different genre. I’ve only tried YA before so I thought I’d give middle grade a shot and see what I learned.

Challenge #2: I only work on one project at a time. So I started a second simultaneous project. And in the spirit of Challenge 1, since I only do contemporary, I decided to also try a YA historical. Um, fantasy. Just for good measure.

Challenge #3: Ditch the outline. Because I always outline.

Challenge #4: Skip beta readers. I use beta readers pretty exhaustively before my stuff goes to my editor, so I decided to still revise my work but send it straight to my advisor with no outside input.

Challenge #5: Forget about my audience. I always think of who my audience is. For me, I’ve learned that I can’t get anything into the hands of kids unless I get it through my agent first, and then past an editor. And so I’ve thought about what they might be looking for, how they want to hear things. So I resolved to quit thinking about the pub pros and think only about the story and what it was telling me I needed.

So the semester has finished and I have much to think about.

Did becoming my opposite author-self lead to a growth stunt or a growth spurt?

Challenge #1: Writing a different genre. The middle grade story was a fun experiment. It was cool to think about how the problems confronting a twelve-year-old are significantly different than those confronting the sixteen-year-old protagonists I usually craft. It forced me to think about character motivation and why kids do what they do.

The real eye-opener was the YA historical fantasy. Playing in a different era meant following a new set of social rules, and having to consider how every choice I made as author closed or opened paths in the rest of the story. I’m used to the rhythm of romantic comedies. It’s become almost second nature to me to know what each of my character’s words or actions signal. I know what it sets up for later, and I understand the consequences of everything. But that’s the thing: It really is second nature. I lost that luxury by writing a totally different genre. As a result, the story was far more thoughtfully constructed, and it became a delicious sort of brain exercise to chase down different imaginary trails before choosing the right one.

Challenge #2: Work on simultaneous projects. I already knew that I loved switching between genres. If I finished an adult romantic comedy, then I tackled a YA novel next. It makes my brain happy. But I felt this even more intensely as I worked on these two projects. It’s like alternating cardio with strength-training instead of doing stupid kickboxing aerobics all the time. And switching back and forth kept them both fresh and interesting to me.

Challenge #3: Ditch the outline. I started out as a discovery writer or “pantser”—someone who writes by the seat of their pants with no clear plan. And I loved it, but I learned for my own mental health that I had to outline if I had a prayer of hitting my publishing deadlines. To go back to my original state, to the discovery—it was magic. It was really fun to just show up to work and see what would happen, and it reinvigorated my creativity. I don’t think I could do it for my regular deadlines, but that renewal of creativity and rediscovering the fun of writing was possibly worth the price of admission.

Challenge #4: Skip beta readers. I did it. I revised and then let it appear, wart-riddled and everything, in front of my advisor. Who is Kind of a Big Deal. That allowed him to see a little bit more inside my process, to see where my ideas came from and what they turned into, and to figure out exactly where to step in a coach me. I don’t necessarily see this as something that I would do in my professional writing life, but it was great in terms of the school process. I still think when working toward publication that putting your polished work in front of beta readers is best.

Challenge #5: Forget about my audience. This is where I was least successful. I couldn’t quite silence the voice in my head that would say, “If it’s good enough, maybe I can sell it and THAT will help pay for school.” But I tried to shut that voice up. I tried not to think of what my agent would like, or what kind of submissions editors want to see. I even tried to ignore what a current twelve- or sixteen-year-old might find interesting. Instead, I focused on what I would have loved at twelve and sixteen, what I would have found interesting, not what adults think is interesting for kids. And to some extent, that allowed me to think less about literary conventions and just what’s purely cool. And once again, I felt that surge in creativity, that sense of looking forward to going back to work on a manuscript each new day.

I don’t know if I’m going to finish either of these stories. And I guess that’s Challenge #6: I’ve never written something just to write it, never churned out 100 pages only to walk away from it. So maybe it’s time to do that too, to go find a new story to tell, see what it teaches me, and then when I’ve experimented and had a few failures purely for the sake of learning, I can sit down to craft a winner again. But I suspect what I’ve learned more than anything is that it must be a story that satisfies my soul to write, whether it’s booger jokes or Antebellum New Orleans. As long as I care, as long as there’s joy in the work even when it’s not always fun in the day-to-day, I might catch lightning by the tail some day.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

I Never Thought I’d Ever Write This Kind of Story

When I was a kid growing up in Arizona, I always signed up and completed the summer reading program at the local library. I always wanted the pizza party and certificate at the end of the summer—a book nerd’s version of summer camp without all those outdoor activities.

But one summer, the library decided on a different program: you needed to read five books from five different genres. I read the first 20 books no problem—and then I hit sci fi.

Ugh. How I hated sci fi. It took me the other nine weeks to read five books. The only books I liked were about a girl falling in love with her cyborg (I wished I remembered the title!) and the novelization of Piers Anthony’s Total Recall.

I even hated one of the preeminent sci fi movies ever filmed: Blade Runner. (I even deconstructed it in a film critique class in college and still hated it–and thus I became “the girl who hated Blade Runner.”)

As I grew up, my tastes changed. I started liking coffee and that Snuggie blanket. I also found a few sci fi titles I LOVED:

-Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
-Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
-Neal Shusterman’s Unwind
-Andy Weir’s The Martian

But I never thought I’d write one of these tales.

Until I did.

Why Am I Writing In a Genre I Hated?

Without telling you what I’m writing (I’m a superstitious sort who doesn’t discuss the story I’m writing—I’ve learned the hard way about this one), I’ll use an example with another subject:

Zombies.

First of all, I hate watching zombie anything on TV. But I have read a few books on Zombies that were decent:

Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth
Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies
Max Brooks’ World War Z

The first two, by Ryan and Marion, were fantasy. They focused on what the zombies did—ran hyperfast, ate a brain and could experience the dead person’s memories, fell in love with humans—that were based on the “that can’t happen with science!” These two were fantasy.

In Brooks’s tale, he focused on how the zombie-ism spread and how it could be stopped with a vaccine. That was a sci fi book.

Let’s take another example: Ironman vs. Superman.

Ironman is sci fi. His parts could scientifically happen.

Superman is fantasy. His parts were grown on the make-believe planet of Krypton.

In my YA story (which is currently in Draft 4), it would fall under sci fi because I’m focusing on the science and no one’s doing anything that Samantha could do with a twitch of her nose.

In the story I’ll be writing next, it’s a women’s fiction focusing on the exact same subject—but it’s fantasy because what people are doing could be done with a twitch of Samantha’s nose.

How You Can Write Something You Think You Never Ever Would

So I told you here about my hatred of sci fi. You may have your own hatred: romance, mystery, historical, YA, etc. But are you limiting yourself in the tales you can tell because you just don’t think you respect that genre?

Take a look at the movies that stick with you. Are any of them romance? Any of them YA? Any of them historical? Then that means there’s a bit of love toward that dreaded genre.

When I started NaNoWriMo in November 2014, this was the book I was working on, and I put it aside because it didn’t quite work. I soon saw I wasn’t embracing the sci-fi nature of it—I was using too many crutches that you use as you worldbuild a YA or romance (the two genres I’m currently published in).

It became a much better story when I embraced the genre that I had been running from.

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Sydney Strand is a fiction writer who has published two young adult books through New York and another six books via self-publishing. Over the last two years, she has focused on writing fun romances, but not of the Red Room of Pain variety. More like the Dan and Roseanne/Sam and Diane variety–humor is sexy, dontcha know. You can follow Sydney on Instagram (1st Favorite), Twitter (2nd Favorite), and Facebook (Not a Favorite). She’s also at www.sydneystrand.com. (Her favoritest of favorites.)