Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

A Character’s Time to Die

“We aim for the point where everyone who is marked for death, dies.”
– Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

My wife and I have been working our way through a TV series recently, and one of our favorite characters just died. (I won’t mention the name of the show or character, so as not to spoil it for those who have not seen it). This character’s death did not come as a complete surprise to us. The storm clouds had been gathering around him for a while, as it were, and there had been hints that he wasn’t going to make it out alive. From a narrative standpoint, his personal story arc was pretty much over, with nowhere left to go. It really was his time to die.

Nevertheless, his death still was still difficult to witness, and not just because it was a rather violent and shocking death. We mourned the loss of this character because we had been following his story since the first episode. We had watched him struggle and grow as a character, and we felt like we knew him-in many ways, even better than other characters on the show did. We liked him, and we miss him. His absence in the story after his death is as significant as was his presence beforehand.

I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about here. Even now, you’re thinking of the death of one of your favorite fictional characters, aren’t you? I’ll bet you can still recall in vivid detail where you were when that character died. It’s fascinating to me how we can feel genuine grief over the loss of someone we intellectually know was never alive in the first place. But they felt real to us, didn’t they? Such reactions are evidence of good writing, and the sort of connections that all storytellers hope to create with their audience.

A Character's Time to Die.png

Death is one of the most powerful tools writers can use to impact their readers. The death of a character can elicit a range of emotions, ranging from anger, fear, and sadness, to catharsis, joy, and even humor. (Admit it: you laughed when the Boba Fett fell into the Sarlaac and it burped).

As I have reflected on the death of this particular character, I’ve come up with five lessons about using death as a tool to strengthen your storytelling.

1. His death was earned.

You remember on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk and his crew would beam down to an alien planet. Everyone knew that Kirk wasn’t going to die, and neither were Spock, Dr. McCoy, Sulu, or any of the main characters. But those unnamed security guards in the red shirts? Yeah, we all knew they would be the first to go. And what’s more, we didn’t really care. Their only purpose in the story was to be cannon fodder or monster chow.

This character wasn’t a red shirt. He had earned his death-or rather, the powerful emotions that came from it-because we had known him from the beginning of the story. We had invested time in learning his story, and thus his death had meaning to us.

2. His death had meaning to other characters.

It wasn’t just us as viewers who were upset when this character died. Part of the emotion of the moment came from seeing how the other characters in the story reacted. We mourned his death partly because we saw his friends mourning, and we knew what he meant to them.

Death will always bring with it a certain shock value, especially if the reader doesn’t see it coming. Much of the horror genre depends on the tried and true “jump scare” type death, or the “who’s gonna get it next?” approach. But gratuitous deaths, or deaths for their own sake, will never carry the same weight or meaning that the death of a solidly developed character will.

3. His death moved the story forward.

This character’s death came at a critical point in the story, and his death served as a primary motivation for the other characters going forward throughout the rest of the story. Virtually everything that happened thereafter in the plot was directly or indirectly related to his death.

Death is a powerful motivator, and is often what sets the hero off on his or her journey. It’s the death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru that motivates Luke Skywalker to leave home and go with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s the death of Mufasa that causes Simba to run away from Pride Rock. In fact, Disney has built an entire empire on the corpses of dead parents, few of whom ever even make it out of the prologue.

But while a death near the beginning of a story can be a natural reason for your character to start their journey, it’s by no means the only place where it can happen. Lenny isn’t killed in Of Mice and Men until the very end of the book, for instance, because in that case, the whole story has been leading up to that moment in one long crescendo. The same holds true for Old Yeller, and Where The Red Fern Grows, where the story is about the loss of one’s pets.

4. His death reflected his life.

He got to go out in a blaze of glory of sorts, voluntarily sacrificing his life to save three of his friends, including his best friend. This was in keeping with how this character was during his life, constantly looking out for and protecting his friends. His death therefore felt natural, and even right.

The manner of death should also fit the tone of the story. It’s best not to include a gruesome or graphic death in a story that has been fairly tame thus far. William Wallace’s death in Braveheart-where he is hung, drawn, and quartered-is gruesome, epic, tragic, and inspiring all at once, and is perfectly in harmony with the tone of the rest of the story. Such a death would feel out of place in

Even a death that feels random and even senseless can be impactful if that is the story you’re telling. In The Walking Dead, pretty much anyone can die at any time, without warning or fanfare. That’s the reality of living in a zombie apocalypse-death is always right around the corner, and that sense of fear is what the story is all about.

5. His death was remembered.

In the next episode, the other characters hold a wake, and they each put remembrances in his coffin. Each character is given a chance to say their goodbyes and pay their respects. It’s somber and formal, and very cathartic for everyone involved, including the viewer. It’s our chance to say goodbye as well.

When people die in the real world, we eulogize them. We remember their life and honor their death. Character deaths need a similar eulogy. When a fellow hunter dies in Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester give them a “hunter’s funeral,” full of meaning. When Gandalf drops off the bridge of Kazahdum with the Balrog, there isn’t time to stop and fully remember him until the Fellowship arrives safely at Lothlorien, where Sam composes a poem about Gandalf’s fireworks while the elves sing a lament.

This doesn’t mean that there has to be a formal funeral service for every character death, but there should be at least a moment sometime where other characters can reflect and remember their loss. The Wolverines in Red Dawn take time to carve the names of their fallen friends on a rock before moving on with their war. Wilbur the pig is saddened by Charlotte’s death, but is happy seeing all her children living on.

Death is a part of life, and will always be so. It’s quite natural to incorporate death into our storytelling, and we should. Because part of the reason we tell stories in the first place is to keep memories of those we love alive for future generations. In this way, stories have the power to transcend death itself.

10 Suggestions for Writing Transitions

I have a transition in my current work-in-progress that has been giving me headaches for a while now. It shouldn’t be so difficult—I’m just moving the main character from one scene location to another—but every time I try to revise it, I still get that niggling “this isn’t working” feeling.

And, okay, I’ve had readers point it out, too, so I know it’s not just me. But what to do about it?

Recently, I’ve been reading Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. It’s an older craft book (the original copyright was in 1990), but it’s proving to be one of the most helpful I’ve read when it comes to crafting on a sentence level. Plus, the prose is engaging and very readable, which is surprisingly rare in writing craft books.

Lucky for me, Provost has an entire section about transitions in his chapter on pacing.

Provost gives three different types of transitions:

  1. Transitions of Time
  2. Transitions of Place
  3. Transitions of Subject

Regardless of what type of transitions you’re dealing with, all good transitions will “make a connection between what the reader has just read and what he is about to read, by implying the relationship between those two bodies of information” (Provost 89).

In other words, a transition can’t be abrupt and confuse the reader. Readers hate being confused.

Provost also gives ten suggestions for transitions:

10 suggestions for writing transitions.png

1. Don’t Use Long Transitions

Sometimes if days, weeks, months or even millennia pass, writers feel like they need to fill in that gap and explain what happened during that time. If nothing happened during that time that’s directly related to your story, readers don’t need it. If your character is just going about life as usual and nothing happens at his office job that will affect the plot, readers don’t need it. Keep transitions short.

Remember: “A story is not everything that happened. It’s every important thing that happened” (Provost 91).

2. Don’t Write a Scene When a Transition Will Do

This goes along with the previous suggestion. Sometimes we are so worried about telling everything that happened, that we will write entire scenes that are unnecessary. I know I’ve done this before. If nothing really happens in a scene and nothing changes in the story, consider cutting the scene and using a simple transition instead. Often, that will help with pacing issues.

3. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To

If your character is doing something that your reader already understands, like driving a car, for example, you don’t need to explain your character going through the motions of it. Simply acknowledging that they drove from one place to another is all that readers need.

4. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain

However, if your character is doing something uncommon, something that the readers wouldn’t necessarily know how to do, like escaping from a dire situation, you can’t simply say that they escaped. Readers will feel cheated.

5. Do Not Use Transitions to Conceal Information

If something big happened during a transition, like a woman going into labor as she drove across town, you can’t simply say that she drove across town and then surprise readers when the baby shows up. Readers assume that you’re telling them all they need to know and the woman driving across town was not all they needed to know about that trip.

6. Don’t Write Transitions That Distract the Reader

According to Provost, “In general, your writing improves as your words become more specific. If you can make your character trot, dash, or lope, the writing will be more effective than if she simply “runs.”…However, in writing transitions your goal is somewhat different. You don’t want to attract attention.” He goes on to use the example of having a woman cross the street. “If…you write “Diana dashed across the street to Penelope’s” you will distract your reader with the vivid picture of Diana dashing and you will also occupy him with the question, “Why is Diana dashing?”” (Provost 94).

Keeping it simple is much better when writing a transition.

7. Point to the Transition

If the transition will be coming later in the story, like the main character travels to Europe, the readers need to be warned ahead of time that this trip is coming or it will throw readers out of the story.

8. Use Key Words

This goes along with pointing to the transitions. Provost uses the example of a wrap-up party after filming a movie. By using the key word “wrap-up” when the actor is invited to a party that evening, readers are automatically oriented when the wrap-up party starts even if several other events have happened during the day before he actually reaches the party.

9. Use Bridge Words

We do this all the time in conversation with phrases like, “This reminds me of…” or “Speaking of…” These are the “similar words and phrases” that we use “to imply a connection” when we make a transition (Provost 97). Find some way to make a bridge between the time, place, or subject in your story.

10. Make Transitions Seem Logical

This usually isn’t a problem in fiction since “your scenes emerge from something that happened in a previous scene” (Provost 97), but it’s definitely something to think about, especially if you’re working on a non-fiction piece.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who struggles sometimes to find the right transition in a piece, but these suggestions have helped me think through the specific issues I’ve been having. Hopefully now I can come up with a better transition for my story.

Happy Writing!


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

How To Write As A Stay-At-Home Parent

SAHM writer

The year I felt profoundly moved to pursue publication for my novels was—you guessed it—the same year that I got pregnant (after years of infertility, too, which makes it doubly ironic). I jumped into the querying game when my daughter was barely a year old, and sold my first book not long after her third birthday. From the beginning, I’ve been building my professional career around my mothering… and when my daughter hit two and stopped napping, I panicked, knowing that I had to figure out a way to become more efficient and write in the small chunks of time I was able to snatch here or there, or else I would be kissing my writing dreams goodbye.

That year I spent a lot of time studying up on ways to boost my output and write in short bursts off and on throughout the day. By the end of the year, I’d completed my new book, almost never writing for longer than half an hour at a time. By the next summer, I’d sold that book, and now—two years later—I’ve successfully edited my debut novel, written another novel and a half, and dealt with the myriad of other tasks that come with being a pre-publication professional novelist.

Often, people ask me about the mysterious tips that helped me shift my work style to accommodate writing once my kid stopped napping, so I thought that I’d share them here!

  1. I switched from pantsing to plotting. Before 2015, I was a DIEHARD pantser, the kind who felt like plotting took the creative energy from a project and killed all originality. But when my daughter was a toddler, I realized that I was completely miserable with the way I was writing; it took me about a thousand words to feel like I was hitting my stride and really taking my story in the right direction, and since I almost never had time to sit down and write a thousand words in a row—let alone anything more than that!!!—it felt like all of my writing time was just arduous and unpleasant. In 2015, I took a class from Melanie Jacobson about increasing productivity, and she talked about how she’d adapted the Rachel Aaron plotting method for use as a busy mom. I blogged about how I outline now in a series of posts here and here. In particular, briefly blocking out scenes before I write them gives a really invaluable tool to help guide me right back into a scene if I’ve had to leave off writing in the middle of it, so that I can be truly productive even if all I manage to snatch are a few ten-minute increments throughout the day. This method also majorly boosted my wordcount, so that I can now knock out a thousand words in about half an hour (sometimes even less) if I’ve done enough prep work before.
  2. I learned how to work well even if the setting wasn’t what I’d prefer. I’m the kind of person whose brain peaks around mid-morning. I’m not a night owl, and by the end of the day, honestly, all I want to do is curl up with a good book or Netflix and let my brain take a break. But when my daughter was little, I read this wonderful series of blog posts on living a creative life with children, and it was transformative. One of the things that it said was that a crucial part of being able to be a creative person as a parent was to learn to work in sub-optimal times and places, even if that’s not naturally the way you’d prefer to work. I knew that was the wake-up call I needed, and I took it to heart. I started practicing writing at night a few times each week, after my daughter had gone to bed, making myself churn out at least five hundred words before I could stop and do something else. Over time, working in sub-optimal conditions became more and more natural. And, sure enough, my overall word output went much higher!
  3. Set a schedule… and make sure it has time for relaxing, too. Around the same time, my husband—who is a software engineer and loves creating programs and websites in addition to his day job—and I came up with the idea of a weekly schedule of “work nights” and “[TV] watch nights.” We realized that we’d started defaulting to watching TV together every night because we were too tired to work, and we wanted to change that. Ever since then, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday have been our designated “work nights,” and the rest of the nights are “watch nights.” We’re only allowed to skip work nights in cases of illness, injury, or holidays. (We also, of course, will often work other times; when one of us is trying to get something finished, we’ll either skip a watch night or work for an hour before loading up Netflix. These three nights, though, are the minimum we’re allowed to work each week.) Combined with the changes I made in step #1 and step #2, this schedule has been really effective for me. It’s honestly amazing what you can get done in a few dedicated one- to two-hour stretches throughout the week. These days, I’m usually able to carve out thirty or so minutes of writing time most mornings, as well, but for a long time these three nights a week were the only consistent time I had to work, and I still managed to get all of my debut novel written in the space of a few months.
  4. When all else fails—get a babysitter! This fall, I hit a patch of intense deadline-crunching for my debut, where I was working for hours every day and still not quite getting as much done as I needed to. I hired a local teen to come play with my daughter (sometimes while I was around, sometimes while I went to the library to work there) for a few hours on a couple different afternoons, and it was just what I needed to get that extra work in. Plus, going to the library felt like this HUGE luxury—so much quiet! Nobody asking me for anything! If you’ve tried everything else and just are not able to fit in enough work time, try a babysitter, a preschool, or a babysitting trade-off. You might be amazed by how much your productivity increases merely by not having any other responsibilities! (And if you’re in a pinch? I promise, a little bit of TV time won’t kill the kids!)

Balancing parenting and writing is tricky—and for a long time, I felt like it was impossible. I’m glad to have been proved wrong!

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses theadshot1he sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2018. Find her online at http://www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter @beingcindy.


Confessions of a Reformed Pantser

When I first started writing, I was working in romantic comedy. I didn’t really need to plot. We all know how those go: a “meet-cute” followed by a series of internal and external obstacles that keep the two characters apart, a kiss near the mid-point to show us why they should be together, more obstacles, and then sacrifices on each of the main characters’ parts that allow them to be together at the end, which is always happy.

But as I began to grow as a writer, I developed more subplots for my protagonists where they had to do some real internal growth, and sometimes the manuscripts grew unwieldy. 75,000 was the publisher’s sweet spot and when I had one reach 110,000, I knew I needed an intervention. I had to cut almost 25% of that manuscript, and with the exception of one scene I still miss, every scene I cut made it better. So how had I ended up with so much extra useless story? I didn’t have time to overtell stories when I was supposed to turn in two books a year.

reformed pantser.png

I looked around for solutions, and I realized I was going to have to plot. I had liked meandering through stories and figuring characters out. I could follow them around all day just observing them without them needing to do anything. Of course I knew readers needed more than that, but for me as a writer the fun was the discovery. However, also for me as a writer, the pain and time of editing out the excessive length had finally begun to outweigh the fun of discovery.

So I started with my first plot effort, which was using the Hero’s Journey. This only worked kind of well for a romance since the biggest obstacles are often internal, not external, and there aren’t generally “quests.” But it absolutely CAN work in romance: unfortunately for me it only got me to the halfway point in my next manuscript before I realized it wasn’t going to work anymore.

Then I switched to Dan Well’s Seven Point Structure. You can watch the whole series beginning with Part 1 here, and for many years that served me well. I would lay out the major plot points on notecards (real ones on first, then in Scrivener) and then, using Rachel Aaron’s method for boosting productivity, I would write a single sentence or phrase linking the smaller scenes between each major one. I would end up with 25-30 notecards/scenes, and each day I would do a short pre-write about what I was writing then dive into the writing. My productivity shot up, my manuscripts quit fighting me, and my stories got tighter.

But lately I’ve been working on a YA novel that doesn’t follow a straightforward romance plot, and I’ve found myself wandering out in the weeds again, lots of pages of “Nothing is really HAPPENING.” I couldn’t figure out what the story was realllllllllly about, or what my character really wanted. So I decided to try beat sheets, a concept I understood pretty well but had never actually used. Ten minutes later, I knew what my whole book was about. And that got me at least a third of the way through the new manuscript until I realized I didn’t always know what to expect my characters to do . . . and I should.

So after an exasperated call out on Facebook, several writer friends responding with suggestions that I took (it’s one of my finer qualities) and . . . they worked! First, I used KM Weiland’s blog posts on writing character arcs which tie character and plot development to each other intimately. Developing the character arc is what develops the plot, and sure enough, when I finished working through the series of questions she prompts you to answer about your character, I had begun to fill in some of the empty spaces between beats on the beat sheet, to understand that if the beat said, “This character and that character have a conflict about X,” I knew all the nuance and subtext of those conflicts and where each character was coming from before I even wrote the scene.

But just to make sure that each scene had a point and moved the action forward, I took one more step and tried the scene and sequel method as I drilled down into each beat. I suggest Googling this one because there are several good articles explaining it, including the one I used, but the guy was kinda condescending and annoying so I’d rather you found a more pleasant one on your own. Basically, while KM Weiland’s character arcs helped me figured out what each character wanted in a scene and made it easy to imagine how they would act/react, scene + sequel helped me give each scene enough tension.

The idea of scene + sequel is that each scene must have a Goal (what she wants), Conflict (something standing her way), and Disaster (she fails) followed by another scene that has a Reaction (what does she do), Dilemma (faced with no good choices), and Decision (chooses the least of the evils and presses forward). But it was much easier to figure out each of these when I understood my characters so well.

And again, with the magic of a five minute pre-write every day, the words come pouring out. I think these characters are fully fleshed out. I think they’re constantly doing interesting things. And I think that soon, in a novel or two, I’ll find that this combination of methods don’t work for yet another kind of story and I’ll go hunting for new strategies.

But that’s the key: no stagnation. Try a bunch of different approaches until you figure out which one opens up the story path, and know that unless every story you tell is the same (that’s bad), exploring different paths isn’t taking you off-course: it’s finding you the shortcuts to better, tighter stories.

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..


Sketching Your Setting

I’ve been working on a revision of a project and, as I was thinking over the events that took place, I realized that many of the scenes take place in very vague settings. The main character’s house, for example. I have a clear idea in my head of what some of the rooms and the furniture look like, but when it comes to the rooms all fitting together, I have a house no architect would ever design, not unless they were, um, very eccentric.

And eccentric was not the look I was going for in their classic, colonial revival style of house.

So I had to sit down and sketch out a believable design for the house, as well as a layout for the furniture in the rooms. I plan to do it for other scenes in the story. Why? Because setting is so crucial to what takes place in a story. It affects how your characters can move in a space and even what they can do in that space. For example, if you’re writing a mystery and you want your character to shoot someone, you have to make sure to place a gun somewhere in their setting so that they can use it. If you are writing a romance and there’s only one small sofa in the living room, they have no choice but to sit next to each other. However, if there are multiple couches, there are different choices to be made and the character’s actions will tell a lot about them by how they interact with one another within the space of the setting.

Sketching Your Setting.png

Setting, especially a home, is a reflection of your characters. In this particular story, another character called the main character “a control freak.” But her house, and her space, was always messy. One reader pointed this out and asked if the main character really was a control freak. Not that it’s impossible to be both, but it’s important to look at how the two work together and whether or not your setting is contradicting the character you’re trying to establish. And if you are setting up a contradiction, make sure to do it deliberately.

Setting can also show readers who your character is by showing us what they notice in a setting. But how can you, as a writer, know what they will notice if you don’t actually know what’s in the setting? By drawing out your setting, you’ll better know what is in it, which will help you figure out what your character will notice and what they won’t.

Your sketch of your setting does not have to be pretty—it doesn’t even have to be something that you ever show to anyone else—but it can be a very useful tool for you to figure out the blocking within a scene. For me, even something as simple as realizing where my characters kept their garbage can outside helped me work through a snarl in my plot.

What tips to you have for creating a setting? Do you have a particular process you use for your writing?

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

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.


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.


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



12 – 14 years old



15 – 17 years old



18 – 29 years old



30 – 39 years old



40+ years old




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










Something else, or I prefer not to answer



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.


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



less than 1



1 or 2



3 or 4



five or more



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



less than 25%



25 to 50%



51 to 75%



75% or more




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.


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:


Pro %

Con %

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



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



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



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



Stories that talk frankly about pornography and masturbation



Stories depicting hetero sex between teens



Stories depicting sex between teens and adults



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



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



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



Stories with minor LGBTQ+ characters



Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens



Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens and adults



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



Stories depicting recreational drug use by teens



Stories depicting alcohol use by teens



Stories depicting the abuse of prescription drugs by teens



Stories depicting the sale or purchase of illicit drugs by teens



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



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



Stories focusing on protagonists who have eating disorders



Stories depicting characters with suicidal thoughts or who attempt suicide



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



Stories depicting sexual assault involving teens or children



Stories depicting domestic violence



Stories depicting other kinds of violent situations



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)



Stories involving racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality



Stories involving sexism, sexual discrimination or sexual inequality



Stories in which teens talk about or get an abortion



Stories involving firearms



Stories with heavy political content



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.



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.