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.

We ALL Need Superheroes

There has been much buzz lately about the blockbuster hit Wonder Woman, and I have to agree with those that say the buzz is for a GOOD reason. I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that there was so much about this movie that hit my heartstrings and made me ponder many things, long after I left the movie theater. A week and a half later, and I’m still processing and enjoying the message and the story, and I can tell you this: Wonder Woman gave me hope about multiple things both personal and on a large-scale, at a time when I think I needed her.

Wonder

(^ When you just HAD to snap a picture of an epic scene because you thought you might need it for later).

One more thought has been rattling around in my brain about Wonder Woman, and it involves the pre-viewing buzz. Prior to seeing this movie, I did my best to stay away from spoilers and so really had no idea what to expect — except for the fact that this was a superhero story, which I typically enjoy (non-spoilers note: it is so much more than that). However, I had seen more than a few times on social media that people were urging all of their friends to take their daughters to see this movie. I was invited by a group of women to go see it a few days after I’d already seen it. As I reflect upon my own viewing of the movie, I completely understand this sentiment. Wonder Woman fought for so much, for her loved ones, for herself, and for humanity. I understood the call to take daughters to see this movie because as a woman, I was very inspired.

However, I did not take any of my daughters with me to this movie.

Okay, so I don’t have any daughters. But I went with my husband and two young sons (ages 6 and 10). We had planned to take the kids to see a movie that day, but our sons chose Captain Underpants. Nothing personal against the briefs-wearing caped crusader, but my husband and I wound up arguing (yes, literally arguing) over who would be the *cough* unlucky person to go to see Captain Underpants because he’d taken them to see Trolls, and I’d taken them to see The Secret Life of Pets, and honestly, neither of us wanted to go see this movie that day. My husband then said to the boys, “We aren’t going to see Captain Underpants today. But maybe we should all go see Wonder Woman. Because you know — your mom is a Wonder Woman.” ❤  *cue heartmelt*

I waited for the counter-argument. I waited for one of my sons to say, “But that’s a movie for girls. But we want Captain Underpants!” There was none of that, and aside from one brief pout from the youngest one, we went and saw Wonder Woman. And my boys, husband, and I all loved it. My boys especially loved seeing Princess Diana as a little girl, they loved how funny and determined Diana Prince was as an adult, and perhaps most of all, they loved how kickass Wonder Woman was.

superhero 2

Here are some direct quotes of what my boys had to say today (about a week and a half after we saw it as a family):

“I liked how Wonder Woman could do all of those cool things, like jump this huge distance and land on a building, and how surprised she was that she could even do it.” *makes flying noises*

“I liked when she tried to blend in and how she was trying on normal clothes but wanted to make sure she could fight in them.” *kicks and punches the air*

“I liked the part when she was figuring out things about people and our world for the first time.” 

“I liked her as a little girl when she was learning how to fight, just like I do karate.” *does awesome karate moves*

“There are too many cool things to say them all, Mom.” 

Wonder Woman is a story for everyone, you see, not just for daughters and sisters and mothers and female friends. Men and boys need to see kickass women as much as women and girls need to see kickass women. One way we can empathize with people from all walks of life is to experience their stories — and this applies to readers and writers of stories as well. When I was younger, I loved Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. I read (and reread) Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t when I was in elementary school (and asked my mom tons of questions about each, which she frankly answered, bless her heart). My oldest son is an avid reader, and while his current favorite series is Tyler Whitesides’ The Janitors, he also loved Judy Moody.

If only we could live long enough to read and write ALL the books. Writers often talk about the need for writing and reading diversely. Usually we mean writing about groups that aren’t widely represented in stories, and this post and others explain why writing diversely is so very crucial for our readers to understand different perspectives. Yet as authors, our books may be categorized and marketed as girl’s books or boy’s books, as women’s fiction, men’s fiction, gay and lesbian fiction, multicultural fiction, and so on (I’ve even seen the category “men’s adventure fiction” pop up somewhere). These designations are primarily for marketing toward target audiences, as these stories depict women’s life experiences, or the experiences of LGBTQIA+ characters, or the singular experience of a man’s adventure, I suppose. But as a reader and writer, there is great value in crossing those bridges and experiencing (through reading) and representing (through writing) a wide variety of struggles and triumphs, just as my sons experienced the struggles and triumphs of Princess Diana / Diana Prince / Wonder Woman and now have an even broader perspective about certain things. And okay, I’m not going to lie when I say my heart melted when my 6 yo hugged me and told me that I’m like Wonder Woman (he didn’t tell me why, but that’s for him to decide).

When I was a teenager, I read my dad’s Ken Follett, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz paperbacks, and I enjoyed them (Ken Follett’s “men’s adventures” were some of my favorites, TBH). But my dad also had his Danielle Steele paperbacks that filled up an entire shelf on his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and I read a lot of those as well. I still remember the day when he gestured to his personal collection and told me that I could read anything I wanted to because I could be anything I wanted to someday.

Maybe even a superhero.

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HelenHelen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager (and this post explains why). An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romance-suspense LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

Good Writing vs. Good Storytelling

A couple of years ago, I developed a sneaking suspicion that I might be a good writer—sometimes a very good one—but not a very good storyteller.

Then I went to grad school and found out I was right. No one told me. I just figured it out after taking apart scores upon scores of novels and analyzing out which ones failed, which succeeded, and why. I could see the problems in my own writing far more clearly when I returned to it.

So, here’s the difference: good writing erases the outside world if just for a moment or a scene. Good stories always draw you in but then keep drawing you forward.

design (5).png

I recently joined a critique group of writing pros. Everyone is either agented or published and they all have excellent insights. One of my critique partners after seeing my work for the second time said, basically, “It’s like this. If you grabbed a jar of spaghetti sauce from your pantry and we all had to write a paragraph about it, yours would be the most polished, but NOTHING would happen. Words come really easily to you.”

Correct. She’s absolutely correct. It’s exactly what I had diagnosed in myself and I’m especially guilty of this in the early stages of the story. This is largely because I’m a character-driven reader and writer. I’m perfectly happy just following my character around, taking in what they see, watching how they interact with people, observing them. I don’t really need a lot to happen to them. They’re just interesting to me in the same way that real people are interesting to me.

But. That’s not great storytelling. So . . . what to do? How to get to good storytelling?

The solution is NOT to plot.

You maybe weren’t expecting that, hm?

Yeah, me either, because I’m actually a plotter. In fact, all the romantic comedies I’ve written have come really easily to me because the goal, the protagonist’s heart desire, is always obvious: it’s the Adorable Love Interest. I just get to have the fun of getting her there. However, when I write outside of romance, I really, really struggle. The plots get fuzzy. But honestly, that’s kind of silly when the solution is the same. Regardless of genre, you must know your protagonist’s DEEPEST desire. It’s just more clear in romances.

Much of my wandering around in the beginning stages of a story is a symptom of a few things: I may have started with a cool hook and tried to craft the character that lets me make that hook happen. I can’t possibly know that character’s deepest desire without doing some serious sidewriting and character exploration. It could also be that I THINK I know the character’s deepest desire but I haven’t gone nearly deep enough yet.

But I make both of these mistakes over and over and over, so I’ve been trying to figure out an efficient self-monitoring test to make sure my story is staying on the rails and moving forward, not following my character around to moon over flowers or injustices or grades or whatever may be preoccupying her.

This may sound totally obvious to most of you, but the closer I get to internalizing this, the sharper my storytelling is becoming. The test is just asking myself these questions:

  1. What is my character’s deepest desire?
  2. Does this desire set up high enough stakes in the story, at least at key points, to make the reader uncomfortably tense?
  3. Is this scene (ask about EVERY scene) connected to this desire, either driving her toward it or away from it? If not, the scene needs to, or it needs to go.

Time after time, I find the first question is the hardest to answer. If anyone has some great tricks for figuring out their character’s deepest desire, TELL ME. Until then, I’ll be over here writing beautiful prose about jars of spaghetti sauce.

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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..

On Writing About Sensitive (Trigger) Topics

Trigger warning: This post mentions potential trigger topics.

I love writing happily-ever-afters (HEAs) for my characters, but in order for them to get there, they have to go through quite a lot. The following quote from one of my favorite reviews summarizes this nicely:

review

My stories always include hard and stormy issues (This post explains why it helps to write darker topics for my characters). Some of these issues may be trigger topics: subjects that generate strongly negative emotional responses. Triggers could be related to a damaging experience in one’s past (e.g., war, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic abuse, eating disorders, suicide, hate crime, bullying, racism, sexism, and more). Triggers may also be deeply rooted in a phobia of varied or unknown origin (e.g., fear of dying, fear of blood or violence, fear of spiders, fear of being alone, and more).

Given the wide range of experiences in your readers, I posit that there’s no way to predict all of the elements of your stories that may serve as triggers. However, you might reasonably assume that what you’ve chosen as characters’ primary struggles or fears will resonate on a very personal level with some readers who have had similar or at least analogous struggles or fears. Ideally, isn’t this what every writer wants, to have our readers be deeply affected by our stories? Readers are more sensitive and also more vocal than they were fifty years ago, and this is a natural result of social media and increased social connections. But it’s also because of an increasing social presence and conscience. Voices in our society rise with the call to address lingering social problems such as rape culture, racial inequality, gender discrimination, and mental illness (just to name a few).

You may decide to write about some of these trigger topics because they are part of life. If you do these topics justice, your readers will respond accordingly. Wendy Jessen had a great post with tips on how to write these tough topics. First and foremost, you need to pick your characters’ issues with knowledge and sensitivity. If you’re going to write about a sensitive topic, do your research well. Also draw upon real people’s experiences — perhaps this is you, or if not, seek out the perspective of someone who has gone through the storm.

In addition, here are three tips about emotional preparation:

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  1. Deal with the emotions. Make sure you understand your own emotions as you write about these sensitive topics. Channel that understanding to your story so your characters deal with their emotions as they work toward a resolution. You need to also accept the fact that you will have some readers dealing with their own emotions as they react to these issues. If this manifests as anger, know that this is their right. I have seen authors become extremely defensive or (worse) respond directly to a review that is strongly negative about their book with a justification as to why people shouldn’t take offense to how they wrote it. Every reader will take away something from a story, and it is their right to love it or hate it. It is natural, of course, to have your own emotional response when someone reacts strongly negative to something that you’ve written. However, find a healthy way to cope with your own emotions — go for a walk or a run or journal or paint or meditate or hit a punching bag — and then move on and keep writing.
  2. Know your place. This probably goes without saying, but I need to say it. If you craft a character that lives with a mental illness, this in and of itself does not make you a professional counselor. If your character is a survivor of sexual assault, this does not automatically qualify you as a victim’s advocate. Both of these are professional positions with specific qualifications. I have had readers write to me about their connections to something traumatic in my character’s backstory. (In these cases, these have been strongly positive responses, but as I stated in #1, anything is possible.) As an author, thank your readers for sharing their own stories, but it is not your responsibility (in fact, it would be irresponsible of you) to counsel them further.
  3. Trust in yourself. When we craft stories, we risk putting a very personal part of ourselves out there. When we write about highly sensitive issues, this risk of putting ourselves out there increases even more.  But if you want to write these stories, you need to shelve your self-doubt and instead trust in yourself and your abilities to represent your characters’ stories to the best of your abilities. I debated a handful of times whether I should include one particular element into my YA character’s backstory before deciding that yes, this was part of who she was. Like everything that has happened in my own past/backstory, this has influenced my current actions, and so was it with her. As I look back now to some of the vocal responses of my readers (both positive and negative), I do not regret my decision. If you decide to write sensitive topics, above all, you need to trust yourself to guide your characters through that storm and then back out again.  

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.

For the Love of Story

Part two of my Art of Character post will appear in May, mostly because I need a little more time to complete my own character revisions! In the meantime, today’s topic was inspired by a recent experience at Salt Lake Comic Con/FanX.

This was my first-ever fan convention. It was one of my bucket list items. I rented a table in the author area of KidCon, where kids could play quidditch, attend a princess tea party, or navigate a dragon obstacle course. I talked to children, parents, grandparents, librarians, burgeoning authors, and random conference goers. People were happy, polite, curious, kind. And their costumes were to die for! There were hordes of Hogwarts students, plenty of superheroes and supervillains—even a group of aliens from Galaxy Quest. My very favorite was The Man in the Yellow Hat.

When I had time to explore the vendor floor, I was blown away by the massive turnout, the merch, and the absolute, unabashed enthusiasm for favorite fandoms. More than once that day I commented out loud, “These are my people!”

What drives all these passionate people? I believe it’s the shared love of story. It’s like we were all walking around going, “You like stories? Hey—I like stories too!”

LoveofStoryPic

Story provides an endless supply of positive benefits, including inspiration, escape, exploration, knowledge, and understanding. You get heroic characters to idolize, the thrill of vicarious adventure, and the possibility of recognizing yourself in the pages of a book. Stories examine the human experience. They ask questions about who we are, who we could be, and the things we share in common.

How amazing is it to be a part of the storytelling community? To create something shiny and new where nothing existed before? No matter what genre you write or what audience you write for, there is a reader out there who will connect with YOUR words. Authors have many different reasons for writing. We have different goals we hope to achieve. But that promise of connection is something I think we all aspire to.

That day at the convention, I met a tween who had read my book and who came over to tell me how much he loved it. The moment was a true bright spot in an already memorable day. Words on a page forged that connection. It reminded me not only of why I write, but how important is it for there to be lots of writers and stories out there—to fill that vital human need for story.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Tell Me a Story

Every now and then I see calls go out for people’s favorite writing podcasts. And I always offer my favorites.

But . . . I think I’m doing it wrong.

I mean, yes, Writing Excuses is excellent. What’s not to love about listening to Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler break down the intricacies of writing into thoughtful, helpful pieces?

But those aren’t the kinds of writing podcasts I listen to. I always end up offering a list of my favorite storytelling podcasts instead, which is not the same thing, but which I think may be as or more essential to writers than podcasts about the craft of writing.

These podcasts are true stories, told by the people who experienced them, and they are wild, funny, heartbreaking, absurd, delightful, painful, and wondrous by turns. Each of these stories has something essential to offer novelists who are creating experiences and sometimes even worlds out of nothing but imagination. They’re a foundation to build on, maybe even a manual for getting it right.

The sad stories teach us to find our humanity, to remind us that there is nothing antiseptic about pain. It is immediate and visceral and we should not write a convenient distance between us and it.
The absurd stories teach us that sometimes reality outstrips our imaginations in the most fantastic ways and challenge us to match it.

The funny stories remind us of the very necessary breath that humor allows our readers to take in our novels.

And on and on and on.

My all-time favorite, ALL TIME favorite, is The Moth storytelling hour. It’s magic. These are true stories told without notes in front of a live audience. Sometimes they’re organized around a theme. Sometimes these are professional raconteurs, but often these are ordinary people who have experienced something extraordinary. Sometimes it’s extraordinary in a quiet way and sometimes it’s on a grand scale, but always in a way that changes the teller. A recent favorite story was about a tattoo gone horribly, terribly wrong.

Before I discovered the Moth, This American Life was my hands down favorite. Ira Glass understands storytelling in a way that has influenced the entire current field of story-driven podcasters, and he says incredibly smart things about storytelling in this short, utterly worthwhile clip:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/24715531

(Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo)

 

This American Life will take you to unexpected places and give you glimpses into American life that will alternately enthrall, enrage, and energize you. It is by turns funny and touching and befuddling, depending on the episode, but they go to a depth and breadth in exploring a story that I’ve never found anywhere else.

A much lesser known but totally great podcast is The Mystery Show. There are only six episodes and each one explores some tiny mystery for an entire hour, but it’s fascinating. For the sheer delight of it, you should listen to the one about the belt buckle. My husband bugged me until I did and I love him for it.

Snap Judgment describes itself as “storytelling with a beat.” Sometimes I find the incessant audio editing à la Radio Lab a little off-putting but I’ve learned I’m in the minority on this. That aside, in one recent episode, the black radio hosts tells what it’s like to grow up in a white supremacist Jesus cult. I mean . . . how are you going to pass on that?

I think the whole reason I love telling stories so much is the countless hours I spent listening to my dad, uncles, and grandfather regale us with tales both harrowing and hilarious of their experiences. The simplest stories became art in their gifted hands, and these podcasts take me back to that. A good story—and a true one—well-told reminds me to push for that kind of magic in my own work.

Go on . . . download a little magic for yourself.

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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.