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.

The Secret to Writing Good Kissing Books

“Is this a kissing book?”

Oh hell, yes. Those are the best kind.

Ways toincorporatepurple hues inyour wedding.png

The secret to writing a good kissing book is: don’t have too much kissing.

I KNOW. It seems counterintuitive. And yet it’s true.

Because you know what we love more than the kissing even if we don’t realize it? The stuff leading up to the kissing. Yeah. All that delicious tension, building, making us downright impatient, and then BAM. Kissing. And the crowd goes wild!!!!!!

But only for about five seconds. Then they get bored and you have to pull out a different trick.

And that is why we don’t have too much kissing and it doesn’t go on too long.

I remember my earliest exposure to this principle: Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. Mind you, I was the child who would flee the room in embarrassment when the Close Up toothpaste kissing commercial came on. But even I got to the point where I was screaming for David and Maddie to get together. And at last they did and the nation rejoiced! And then . . . yawned.

Remington Steele did the same thing, now that I think about it. You’re just dying for Laura and Remington to get it over with and then they do and YAY! And then . . . yawn. But when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth get together, we stay happy because it fades to black right after the payoff.

So the tension matters, and the trick is finding the balance between how long you can play it out before you lose the reader while not playing it out so long that you can’t pay it off.

There are two primary schools of thought on this. You can take either the Half Plus Final or End Game Only approach.

I like the Half Plus Final approach. This is when you build up to a character kiss about a third to halfway through, drive them apart through an external conflict, and then reconcile them with a final, epic kiss. That allows you to play with some levels here, pushing the chemistry to a high, then dropping it, then leveling up again. It also allows you to establish the chemistry early and lead the reader to cheer harder for the couple to work toward reconciliation.

End Game Only is one kiss at the end. This is trickier because it means you’ve built the tension longer so the emotional payoff and the kiss are going to have to meet higher expectations, but if you pull it off, then it’s a deliciously rewarding kiss, the dizzying, epic kind.

So what’s the build up? How do you ratchet that tension higher?

Think middle school. Yeah. All the answers to the best tension are there. Think about how loaded every moment felt with your early crushes: every look, every glance was carrying major freight. But why? Sometimes there’s just that chemistry thing that happens. Pheremones, basically. But since books aren’t scratch and sniff, we can’t depend on that as writers.

That’s okay, because if you think about it, the deep crushes were built on the stories we imagined around who the person was, whether it was true or not. I had many middle school crushes on quiet boys because I convinced myself they were still waters that ran deep. (Sometimes that was true. Sometimes they were just seventh grade boys who hadn’t found much to talk about yet.)

So to keep it sustainable, character chemistry must be rooted in something: attraction to physical appearance is the simplest and shakiest foundation to build on. Attraction to that mystery of who someone is, even when a character is fighting it, sets up a mini arc as the characters involved begin to peel back each other’s layers and expose vulnerabilities that make a kiss both emotionally risky and inevitable.

It’s fire, baby. You kindle with it those looks, those jabs and feints, those little brushes of hands, those caught-you-looking moments, those conversations that take each other a little further behind each other’s facades.

And then . . . then you light it up and let it burn.

__________________________________

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..

The Lego Effect: Why It’s Okay to Have the Same Ideas

Life is like Lego, and so is writing. We all have our own bin, full of everything we’ve experienced on a sensory, intellectual, and emotional level. Yes, there are probably more levels than that, but I’m trying to be brief here.

Some of the pieces in our tub? They match the pieces in other people’s tubs. Because we’re all people*, and there are certain commonalties to the human experience.

*If you’re not a human person, or if you’re a sociopath, this post might

not make a whole lot of sense to you. But hey, I’d LOVE to interview

you for this book I’m writing . . .

When we pursue creative endeavors, we shake our metaphorical Lego bin, then pull out the shiniest pieces. We move them around. We experiment with different ways they could fit together. And then? We create. Or maybe you just dump them in the middle of the floor and put them together at random.

Like a monster.

One way in which life and writing are very much not like Lego, is they don’t come with instructions. Oh, there are resources—books, website forums, Facebook groups, and Twitter hashtags (and a certain incredible blog run by a group of Master-builders). There are also finished products we can study, trying to puzzle out how on earth they made something so intricate yet cohesive.

“Look,” these creators say. “Here’s what I built.”

And all too often we feel like the tent poles of our lives have poof! disappeared, leaving us a saggy-slumpy dejected mess.

“They used one of the same pieces I used.” [Insert Eeyore Sigh] “Guess I’ll give up now.” Smash, crash, clatter. Back into the bin the Lego pieces go.

New Metaphor (because I can’t mix them if I don’t use more than one): If two people decide to paint a picture of a bird, you wouldn’t say, “You both painted a picture of a bird. That’s lame. Which one of you copied the other one?”

  1. Because you’re not a jerk like that.
  2. Because there are different kinds of birds, and different painting styles.
  3. Because people love a good bird painting. There should be more than one of those.

For the Birds.jpg

In fact, it was recently brought to my attention that our very own Melanie Jacobson wrote a blog post a few months ago ON THE SAME SUBJECT AS THIS ONE. Okay, maybe that’s not so strange. We’re both brilliant, and TTOF contributors don’t compare notes on our topic picks, after all. But guys? Her post talks about birds too.

Seriously. BIRDS. But a different kind of bird reference and a different picture with birds in it.

So instead of destroying your Lego creation or burning your birds—don’t burn your birds, that’s cruel—pause to marvel over the connection you have with your fellow creator. You both love building sharks out of Lego! You both love painting birds! You both love writing stories about a secret clan of tiny blue people who live underground!

True story? I wrote that book when I was eleven. Then I read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men when I was twenty-five. What a weirdly fantastic thing to have in common with an author I greatly admire.

Celebrating our differences instead of squabbling over them is one of the most beautiful things human beings do. Creating stories with common threads also connects us in beautiful ways. Yes, strive for a unique approach. Create sentences and paragraphs and pages that could only come from you. Shun clichés and subvert tropes. But also trust that no matter how many things we human beings have in common, twelve authors writing the exact same story concept will produce twelve very different stories, varying on a plot, character, POV, and/or stylistic level.

Yes, I know there are more levels. Shush.

Please don’t despair if you see your own ideas reflected in someone else’s work, because what that really means is you’re seeing a part of yourself in another human being. And in this Lego builder’s opinion, that’s a huge part of what stories are for.

Optional Exercise: In the comment section below, write a one paragraph story concept based on the following prompt. Check back later to see if anyone else got tricked into letting me give them homework, and enjoy how different your final results are.

A woman discovers she can read people’s thoughts . . . by licking them.

________________________

kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Make a Long Story Short: Flash Fiction as a Writing Tool

There is much to be said for sitting down with a huge book and savoring it for days or weeks on end. I enjoy meeting a cast of interesting characters, exploring the world and setting, and marveling in the myriad, intricate storylines and subplots the author weaves together into a grand tapestry. I’m constantly in awe of authors who can sit down and craft such massive and complex stories in compelling ways.

But sometimes, a big ‘ol book isn’t what I’m in the mood for. Often I will see a three-inch-thick book on the shelf and think, “I’m not that hungry.” I mean, I love Thanksgiving dinner, but sometimes I just want a snack, you know?

That’s one reason I’ve always loved short stories. I love the immediacy, the urgency, and the knowledge that once I’ve begun reading, it will only be a few pages until it’s all over with. Get in and get out, because the clock is ticking.

Like most authors, I have dreams of one day penning a full-length novel. But when I sit down to write, short stories are what come out of me. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe and Philip K. Dick. Maybe it’s because I’m not super patient and the thought of writing a hundred-thousand-word story gives me stress hives. Either way, it seems that for now, my stories of choice are short.

Enter flash fiction.

Make a Long Story Short-.png

Matt Williams provided a great overview of flash fiction yesterday. Flash fiction is usually defined as any story under a thousand words (or roughly four pages), usually focusing on a single moment or character, with a powerful ending that stays with the reader. Horror and science fiction lend themselves quite naturally to flash fiction, but any genre can work. And considering the many subcategories within flash fiction, including various forms of “microfiction,” readers and writers both can enjoy a wide range of possibilities. In fact, one could make the case that mankind’s earliest stories were flash fiction. Aesop’s fables and the parables of Jesus could even fall into this category—short, powerful stories with a single point designed to leave a lasting impact on the reader.

It’s possible to say a lot with only a few words. Here, for example, is a story I wrote entitled “No Vacancy.”

The car pulls up outside room eight.

My client’s husband and his mysterious lover have finally arrived.

Focus.

Click.

He helps her out.

Click.

He fumbles with the room key.

Click.

They look around quickly, then kiss.

I zoom in.

Clickclickclick.

Wait.

She is wearing an emerald pendant—the one I gave her for our anniversary.

We have a setting, a protagonist, and a plot that ends with a resolution with a twist. One little vignette, one moment in time, one satisfying story, all in only fifty-five words. Indeed, a primary allure of flash fiction is that you can really pack a punch with only a few sentences. Consider the story “Broken,” written by my friend Mercedes Yardley, reprinted here with her permission:

“The dried twigs cracking under her feet broke exactly like the small bones of children. She wished she didn’t know that.”

BOOM. Now that’s what I’m talking about. In only two short sentences, we are given a scene to meditate on, one filled with beauty, darkness, and pathos, ending with a gut punch.

Or consider one of the most famous micro stories—only six words long—often attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

That chill that ran up your spine just now? That’s called flash fiction.

Flash fiction can be a powerful tool to help you focus on the most important elements of a story, a character, or a scene. If you’re having trouble cracking one or more of these nuts in your current work in progress, try to write a flash fiction version of it. Similarly, flash fiction can be a marvelous exercise to break writer’s block and shake up your writing routine. I have often found my creative juices restored to overflowing by attempting a flash fiction story in a genre I don’t normally read or write. Granted, many of them probably aren’t worth reprinting here, but the process has been invaluable to me because it gets me up and moving forward.

If you’d like to try your hand at flash fiction, here are some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Keep it simple. Like, really simple. You don’t have any room to hide in a flash fiction story, and real estate is expensive. Eliminate most filler words, adverbs, and lengthy descriptions. Give us only the most important details. We’ll fill in the blanks.
  2. Think Big, Write Small. Flash fiction doesn’t have room to explore giant plot lines. It can—and should—explore giant ideas, but pare them down to their bare bones. Your reader shouldn’t have to go back and read your story again just to figure out what the heck you were trying to say.
  3. Start in the middle. You’re not writing Lord of the Rings This isn’t the time nor place for lengthy prologues, backstories, and world building. Flash fiction is like driving past a scene on the highway. You only get a few moments, and then it’s gone. Figure out when the most important thing happens in your story occurs, and start telling your story about thirty seconds before then.
  4. Focus on one character. Maybe two, if there’s a conversation happening. But you don’t have time to introduce us to the entire Council of Elrond. First person POV works great for flash fiction, as does third person limited.
  5. What’s happening? As with all stories, something has to happen. It’s bad enough if your reader gets bored with your hundred-thousand-word novel; it’s unforgivable if you bore them in one thousand words. Your character needs to change, grow, or learn something they didn’t know four pages earlier.
  6. Don’t Spoil the Title. Your story’s title should give a clue as to what will follow, but don’t give away the whole plot. Keep your title spoiler-free.
  7. Aim for the ending. The final E major chord of Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably the strongest ending of any pop album ever. It comes after a forty-piece orchestra has concluded a largely atonal and frenetic journey from the lowest register on their instruments to the highest register, leading to one inevitable, perfect moment. The chord crashes down upon us, and echoes for the next forty-three seconds, resonating upon itself before finally releasing the listener. That’s the sort of ending a great flash fiction story should have. Powerful. Inevitable. Lasting. Think of the structure of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which all leads to the immortal final line. It couldn’t possibly end any other way, and you wouldn’t trade your new-found shivers for anything.

So, to make a long story short (see what I did there?), whether you dabble in flash fiction only as a hobby, or as a way to think through and improve your larger work, or whether you seek to write flash fiction as its own art form, the most important thing to remember is to have fun with it. My guess is that once you try it, you’ll get hooked. I did.

Oh, and keep it short, okay?
_____________________________

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.

My Name Is Barry Allen and I Write Fiction

Too many ideas run through my head. Different genres, age levels, etc… And as an already slow writer these clusters of ideas can be quite hazardous. They start to bleed into whatever current work is happening, only to be deleted once the mistake is realized. However all these ideas can be used to your advantage…with the help of more writing.

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Flash Fiction is described as fictional work of extreme brevity. By most accounts they should be no more than 2000 words. Most are much shorter. There’s Six-word Stories which is fairly self-explanatory. Then there are selections known as Twitterature that are 140 character pieces. There are Dribbles topping out at 50 words and Drabbles going to 100 words. The last subsection (to my knowledge anyhow) is Sudden Fiction which is a story told in 750 words.

Using any variation of these can help relieve some of the pressure of story ideas. You can allow yourself to wander a bit before coming back to the main path. While you take your little detour it’s possible to have it enhance your story. Let’s say you’re writing a particularly dark work yet a lighthearted tale has been pressing on you. That light can be added to the dark to grant it some humanity. Or maybe what you come up with can create a character desperately needed to develop your story. If nothing else you may just want to revisit your flash fiction at another time, and boom you got yourself another story to work on.

Use these short stories to jump start ideas or be a fidget spinner for your brain. Nothing has to come from them in the end other than allowing you a bit of a reprieve. Well that’s how I take a bit for myself anyway. Until next time have a writeous day!

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

Writing a Different Kind of Romance: The Sibling Relationship

I recently attended a class by Sarah M. Eden because I’ve taken courses from her before and she’s a brilliant teacher. I went in knowing I’d learn something, but I didn’t have super high hopes as she was teaching about the plot structures of romance novels, and while mine have subplots that are romantic, I knew I wasn’t completely the target student for the course.

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Sarah was teaching about how to merge a popular plotting strategy (originally presented by Dan Wells) into a romantic genre. Because of the character driven nature of what Sarah writes, I was curious to see how she’d merge the strategy into romance. She details it brilliantly here (and is sharing everything about the presentation for free!).

The tricky thing is the story I’m working on now isn’t romantic – I’m not even sure yet if there is a romantic plot line. But as I was working through the worksheet (again, free at Sarah’s site), it hit me:

WAS writing a romance.

Each plot point that Sarah described, each conflict she mentioned as essential fit with the story I am outlining — a story between sisters.

Now, this isn’t some weird incestuous book. It is, however, a story about two girls who drifted apart as they were growing up and have something that brings them back together. They do have to decide if they want to work through what life will throw at them alone or together. They do have setbacks and uniting experiences, the markers that make chick flicks so popular, the things that have been markers of some of the best stories the world has known.

If you have had the opportunity to be anything but an only child, chances are decent that you are already familiar with some of these elements, but I’d like to hit on a three key points.

Hook:

Whether you are sharing a story about siblings from one or multiple points of view, it is essential that the reader has the opportunity to really understand who the characters are at the beginning: what were they like as children, how was their nurturing experience similar or different, both at home and in social settings. Do they consider themselves a replica of an older sibling, the person who is supposed to be the example to the younger, etc. As a former high school teacher, I understand the real struggle of trying to not call the second or third child in a family by the oldest child’s name, and how easy it is to assume that because one or two children from the same family were one way, they must all be.

Midpoint:

Where the midpoint for a romantic couple has them deciding whether or not to be in each others lives, working through feelings they may have, not want to have, wish they had differently, etc., sibling relationships are unique in that they can’t separate, not all the way, not really, and not with a total resolution. And if they are a truly developed character, they also can’t go back to things as they had been “when they were kids”. Generally speaking, in a sibling driven story, the midpoint is where each siblings starts to understand how the other experienced things growing up, how the siblings were each changed because of the role the other had in his/her life.

Resolution:

The expected resolution for a romance is happily ever after (word on the street is that if you don’t do that, readers will come for you like Gaston went after Beast). Because of the emotional situations surrounding sibling relationships and the complications they can contain, the goal tends to be satisfactorally ever after. Yes, there are those who would like the siblings to be BFFs who share secrets and ice cream forever and ever, but realistically, that may not be true to the story. But I’d like to think that most of us, having taken a journey with some people with as much connectivity as siblings can have would prefer to see something where both people end up happy, even if that happiness doesn’t evoke the same kind of feeling as wedding bells in a romance.

In the end, I learned several things from attending that one class:

  1. No matter how many plots you’ve examined, or how many classes you’ve taken or books you’ve read, a writer can ALWAYS learn more about plot, character development, etc.
  2. The things that work for one genre can often have very valuable crossover appeal, especially when taught by someone who takes the study of craft seriously.
  3. Sarah confessed to taking YEARS to solidify the ideas about how to make this work. Doing so has resulted in her winning multiple prizes for her writing. Studying and learning pays off.

Do you have a favorite sibling story that could be characterized by a romantic plot line? Have you ever made an unexpected discovery while taking a writing class? 

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tasha short hair picTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

The Waldorf Philosophy and the Middle Grade Reader

I homeschool my children using the Waldorf philosophy. It’s a beautiful education filled with art and music and delayed academics. But part of the philosophy has really helped me understand what a middle grade book should be. And it is the philosophy of the seven-year stages.

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In Waldorf philosophy, there’s this idea of the seven year stages of childhood. The first seven years (0-7) are all about the “will.” This is when a child is really learning how to use their body. They are full of energy and constantly moving and exploring and learning new ways to move. Everything from walking, to skipping, to doing the monkey bars. Movement and play is the most important part of this stage.

The stories that are supposed to be brought to kids at this age are simple stories, full of repetition. Which explains why picture books need to have a rhythm and some kind of repetitive quality to them. Children at this age see the world in black and white with no gray area and the stories Waldorf tells them at this age reflect that. In Kindergarten and grade 1, it’s all fairy tales. And think about how fairy tales work.

The princess is beautiful and good and gets a happy ending.

The witch is ugly and evil and gets her just punishment.

Good is beautiful and rewarded. Evil is ugly and punished. The end. Like I said, no gray area.

And this worldview is perfect for that stage of childhood. It makes children feel safe. It makes their world feel ordered.

But then we come to the next stage of childhood. The years from 8 to 14. In the Waldorf philosophy, these years are called the “feeling” years. They are when the child really learns to start seeing outside themselves. They begin to have empathy, to think more consciously about how their actions can affect others. They understand that everyone has feelings. And they start to become more aware of their own emotions, able to talk about them more, name them, and control them.

It’s during this stage that children start to see some of that gray area that was missing from the first seven years. They understand that sometimes good people make mistakes and that “bad” people can do good things. They are beginning to see that their parents are not infallible and grown-ups don’t always know everything.

The stories brought to this age group in the Waldorf philosophy reflect that growing awareness and complexity. In grade two, they learn the stories of Saints and great heroes to help them see the potential people have for goodness. And they also learn fables, to see the potential people have for folly and selfishness. This continues in grades 3, 4, and 5 as they learn the stories of the Old Testament and the great mythologies of the world. Who better to show children that greatness AND selfishness can lie in the same person than some of those Greek gods?

This idea of gently introducing children to the goodness within people and the not-so-good things within them is really what middle-grade literature is all about. MG lit opens up the world to the young reader. It shows them that life can be hard, but they can overcome. That endings can be bitter but also sweet. It helps them see a world that is complex and not really full of bad guys and good guys. But like Jem says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “I think there’s just one kind of folks—folks.”

What a great privilege and responsibility, to bring life with all its ups and downs to this budding reader. To teach them empathy, introduce them to hard subjects, and then fill them up with hope and courage and send them into the next stage of childhood.

I think when we truly understand this idea of where the middle grade reader is in their development, that we can truly honor them with fantastic stories that are what they need for their worldview. Middle grade readers need stories that don’t talk down to them but also still honor their innocence. They need stories where the adults don’t know everything and are flawed characters, but that also show there is always an adult who is dependable and safe. They need stories without a true “bad guy.” They need to learn empathy for the victim AND the bully. And most of all, they need to have hope. I think these words from Anne Frank really sum up where the middle grade reader is when they look at the world, even in the worst of circumstances.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

This idea is what you need to honor most in your books.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.