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.

Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

File Jul 20, 11 07 36 PM

While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

______________________________________

File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

Stages of Writing

This writing business is not an easy one. At any given moment, you will find folks in the writing community who are celebrating great successes, others wondering if they should quit for good, and all of the iterations in between. As a writer, I sometimes feel like I boarded a tiny boat on a big ocean, trying to navigate somewhere while constantly being tossed by waves that alternatively represent swells and crashes — or swells and bigger swells followed by crashes and bigger crashes.

This weekend, my computer’s hard drive failed, and I received the diagnosis that my MacBook Pro had suffered a failed motherboard. After I made the final decision to lay my beloved MacBook Pro to rest, I spent some time reflecting on all we had gone through together. Yes, I know that it’s  just a computer and that their motherboards and hard drives have a lifetime, but I had written 3.5 books on this particular laptop (and I’m sentimental, okay?). In my tumult of emotions, I also thought about my writing community and the times while writing those 3.5 books when I’d both needed support and lent support to others, talked about and shared hopes and fears, advice, and inspiration, and I realized not for the first time that (1) I’m not on this tiny boat all by myself after all and (2) what an up-and-down kind of journey it really is.

In a tribute to this journey (and indirectly to Ms. MacBook Pro), here’s my representation of the many stages of writing, showing some of the things that I and others have experienced. This is not to minimize any of these feelings, but to inform you that these are perfectly natural and totally reasonable reactions to the various stages of writing (shown via Bitmojis, naturally):

I wrote more today than I ever have! I’m in the flow! I can do this!

FullSizeRender(14)

Am I a fraud? Do I even know what I’m doing?

FullSizeRender(17)

Word count today: 0… the same as for the past month…I mean forever. What if I can never write another word again?

FullSizeRender(20)

I typed “THE END” on this draft!!!! This is the greatest feeling ever!

FullSizeRender(3)

*sends to beta readers*/*sends queries*/*goes on submission*  *refreshes e-mail every three seconds*FullSizeRender(28)

I don’t know what to write now. What if I don’t have another story in me? EVER?

FullSizeRender(12)

Do I save these rejections or delete them? *sets them all on fire and eats all of the ice cream and chocolate in the house* *buys some more for next time*

FullSizeRender(6)

Someone wants/requested/read/liked my manuscript!!!!!

FullSizeRender(22)

Revisions. And more revisions. And edits. And copyedits. And more of all of the above. Will this ever end? It has to end sometime, right?

FullSizeRender(19)

BOOK RELEASE DAY!!!!! THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING DAY EVER! I HAVE LIVED FOR THIS DAY!

FullSizeRender(15)

I’m just going to check my Amazon/Goodreads ratings one more time, but then that’s it. *five minutes later* Okay, just one more time. And one… More… Time…. FullSizeRender(7)

My book made a list! (Wait, is that category even applicable to my story? I don’t know. But who cares?) A list!

FullSizeRender(16)

Someone left me a 1-star review. They didn’t get it. They hated it. More people hate it now. What if my career is over?

FullSizeRender(27)

I’m deleting all of my social media and going into hiding.

FullSizeRender(8)

I just got the best story idea! It’s fresh and I already love the characters, and it’s almost like it’s plotting itself! FullSizeRender(25)

I’m writing again! I almost forgot how great this feels! It’s the best!

FullSizeRender(2)

Huh. I thought writing this next one would be a little easier. A tiny bit easier? Not a whole lot harder. It’s like I forgot everything I ever knew….

FullSizeRender(18)

So many plot holes. So many loose threads. What does this revision note to myself mean? What am I even doing?

FullSizeRender(5)

I feel so inspired! That writing conference/pep talk/book by *insert super inspiring writer or favorite author* was exactly what I needed! I’m rejuvenated and ready to hit it hard!

FullSizeRender(1)

I’ve been writing every night. And getting up early to write. And writing during the day between all the things. Because deadlines and expectations but also exhaustion and no time.

FullSizeRender(23)

I just hit 70K… but I’m really not feeling this story anymore, and my early test readers are bored. Maybe I should…*gulp* scrap this version and start over.

FullSizeRender(11)

I love this story again! I just needed to do “V, W, X, Y, and Z” to fix it, and it’s awesome again!

FullSizeRender(4)

Deadline is approaching…. I’m not sure I can meet my deadline…. Deadline is past.

FullSizeRender(24)

I finished the draft! I did it! I DID IT! (I knew I could do it.)

FullSizeRender(26)

Wait. All if this. All of this is my writing/publishing life? Can I really sustain this in the long term?

FullSizeRender(13)

I love writing! Ultimately I write for me, and I can’t imagine not doing it.

FullSizeRender(21)

I AM A WRITER, AND ON MOST DAYS, I LOVE IT.

______________________________________

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. 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. She’s working on a couple of new stories right now, and you can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.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.

____________________________________

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.

Permission to Let Go: Lessons from The Concorde Fallacy

About two *cough* decades ago, I conducted my Ph.D research on parental behavior, using a bird species as my model system. In the biological sciences, it’s common practice to use research models to ask questions that then might be applicable to other species — perhaps even applicable to… people *gasp*. Through my background research, I discovered that there are actually a lot of social parallels between people and birds. Birds are socially monogamous and they are largely biparental, meaning that in most species, both father and mother provide parental care to the offspring (not necessarily equally or through the same tasks, but for most bird species where offspring are born helpless, fathers and mothers collaborate to care for these youngsters). In my studies, I also learned about this relatively straightforward seeming concept called the Concorde Fallacy. Named after the very expensive supersonic jet, the Concorde Fallacy refers to the error in reasoning of the British and French governments’ continued investment into the aircraft program because they already had invested in it, despite the impracticality and lack of economic need of this luxury transport. The Concorde Fallacy serves as a warning against the common argument that “we have come this far and now we should continue.” The argument is not that you shouldn’t ever use past investment as a justification for continuing: just as all businesses require a start-up period with initial investment, all writing takes time, effort, and sacrifice before you can finish a project or publish a book.

How often do writers commit The Concorde Fallacy with their own work? How many times have we persisted with a project because we’ve come this far and can’t quit now? How could we let go of a project if we’ve put years and years of our time and energy and effort into it? How do we avoid feeling like the planet’s biggest failure if we do walk away?

concorde

In working on my Ph.D so long ago, I remember grappling with the question of whether I could apply some of these principles to my own life. According to my advisor, I wasn’t supposed to think of my own research concepts in the context of my own life. After discussing-arguing this point with him for the twentieth time, he gritted his teeth (or maybe he was smiling) and said that I had the mind of a sociologist and not a biologist. To this day, I love teaching biology and asking scientific questions. While I occasionally use my scientific background in my fiction writing, I more or less gave up on trying to apply those long-ago research concepts to my own life — until recently.

Last weekend I attended the Storymakers Conference for the very first time, and everything about this conference spoke to me: the classes, the intensives, the energy, and meeting old friends and new. But one of the things that struck me most of all came during one of the keynote speeches, delivered by the brilliant and talented, and kind and humble, author Ally Condie. As just one example of the many inspiring messages, Ally told us about two back-burner projects that she wrote. These began as projects that were not what her publisher requested. Despite this, she felt compelled to write them, and so she did. As I sat in the ballroom listening to Ally’s speech, I felt like someone had punched me in the chest (and no, it wasn’t Ally because she is too kind). But it was her message on giving yourself permission to be daring, to start something new and something that you’re excited about, to write something that you want to write, not necessarily something that you’re supposed to write. She made the important point that while some of these projects will never see the light of day, others will. In Ally’s case, the two back-burner projects she mentioned were ones you may have heard of: MATCHED and SUMMERLOST.

ally

Some amount of fangirling may have happened at Storymakers!

So, I have been working on a manuscript since the summer of 2014. It started as a challenge from one of my critique partners. For much of the first three months of writing this, what I will here refer to as the “scarred story” didn’t feel quite right. At the three month mark, I was forced to put it aside to finish the third book in my YA trilogy, which was on a deadline (while the scarred story was not). Book three of my trilogy was finished the following spring, and at that time, I went back to working on my scarred story. That was over two years ago, I have rewritten it many many MANY times. I am still unhappy with the beginning, parts of the middle, and I have never gotten to the ending. I know my characters well, but they don’t speak to me very openly anymore. But for over two years, I told myself I had to keep at it because I owed it to those characters to finish their story. Because I am not a quitter. Because I don’t want to fail. Because I have already come this far so how could I ever … oh. OH! Oh.

The morning after Ally Condie’s keynote speech, I closed all of my files that held my scarred story, the story that was so familiar to me yet so distant. I took my little AlphaSmart word processor down to the hotel lobby and opened up a brand new file. I started to write a new story, a back-burner project that has been rattling around in my head for some time now, and as I tapped on my keyboard, those ideas jumped out and started to play out in my mind like they were celebrating. I’m not kidding — I seriously felt like crying, in part because it felt so good to start working on this new project, but also because I had finally given myself permission to let go of the scarred one.

I haven’t shelved my scarred story forever. I know will come back to it, and I know will do it justice, but I will do it when I’m ready. And it’s okay to let it go for now (and yes, even if it is forever) because writing is about heart. If our hearts are not in our work, then there is really no purpose.

helen

At Storymakers, I got to play with the other authors at the mass book signing ❤

Helen 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.

The Gamification of Writing

Gamification is one of the biggest buzzwords in business today. As defined by the Financial Times:

Gamification is an emerging business practice that refers to the use of digital game design techniques and video game elements to solve non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. It is applicable to a number of business areas including human resources, sustainability, innovation and marketing.

To those who are paying attention, it seems like practically everything is being gamified today. Any process that can be tracked and measured, the results ranked and made public, is certain to get this treatment.

A few months ago, my company’s technical support group got gamified. The manager divided the techs into teams and assigned point values to certain types of tickets. The two-week competition got pretty heated as the guys ended up gaming the gamification—trying to win at all costs. In the meantime, they managed to clear out a backlog of lingering support issues. Gamification FTW.

Not everybody likes having their jobs (or their lives) gamified, though. For a good illustration of this, check out the top definition of the term on UrbanDictionary.com:

A cynical practice by corporate douches where workers are supposedly motivated to work even harder on menial, pointless tasks by rewarding them with lame titles, meaningless rankings, coupons or a variety of other real-life trash loot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing someone couldn’t quite make it to the top of his call center’s leaderboard.

TTOF---gamify---badges

Badges? We need some stinkin’ badges!

Regardless of what the critics say, turning an essentially non-competitive activity into a competition can be highly motivating. When I bought my wearable fitness tracker last year, Garmin immediately started awarding me “badges” just for walking around. I got a “5,000 Total Steps” badge on the first day I wore my tracker. They had gamified the very act of walking! Thus encouraged, I found myself ducking out a couple of times each day for a quick jaunt around the block, just to get the extra steps in. Thanks to Garmin’s behavioral conditioning, it only took me until October to get “2 Million Total Steps.” Woo-hoo!

Back on February 25 of this year, I earned Garmin’s “Quadruple Goal” badge for racking up 53,545 steps in a single day. When I bragged a little about that little achievement on social media (with gamification, bragging is practically compulsory) one of my Facebook “friends” actually accused me of cheating. “What did you do, attach your FitBit to a ceiling fan and let it run all day?”

In reply, I posted screenshots from MapMyRun, another gamification app:

TTOF---gamify---dogtown

The app measured and showed exactly what I’d done: back-to-back half marathons … like a boss. It was all there in the stats: distance, time, pace, calories burned. My friend’s response to this was, “Oh.”

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, you’ve had your writing gamified. I’ve done and won NaNo five years in a row now, and I freely admit I’m addicted to racking up the word counts. There’s nothing like a daily bar graph to encourage you to stay above the trend line. If you have a day when you don’t write as much (or at all), you see the disappointing flat bars. If you have a particularly productive day, the bars soar up. Sure, the motivation might be a little artificial, but it can also be very compelling:

TTOF---gamify---nanowrimo

I worked my tail off last year to hit 75,000 words—my best November ever. Were they all good words? Of course not. But you can’t edit something that’s not drafted, and you can’t trim words that haven’t been written.

As great as NaNoWriMo is, I wish the system provided even more in terms of stats and tracking. I love the fact that I can look at a running log on MapMyRun and see how elevation and fatigue affected my pace. I enjoy challenging myself to go faster on the uphill stretches or to finish strong after a long race—and then seeing my results in the workout log afterward. But NaNoWriMo’s “daily stats” only tracks a project’s progressing word count. I want more gamification, dangit!

This month, since I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo while also preparing for a marathon, I thought I might start tracking my writing sessions in a little more detail. Just as MapMyRun records the pacing of each mile, I’m using a spreadsheet to log each of my writing sessions, tracking my start and stop times and my beginning and ending word counts. The sheet calculates the total time, the total words, and the combined words per minute and words per hour.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-Session-Log

Since I generally go somewhere else to write, I’m also making note of where I spent each writing session. I want to know, when the month is over, whether certain locations might be more productive for me. As one of my marketing mentors used to say, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” And yet, all these years I’ve never really done much measuring when it comes to the creative process.

So far, what I’m finding is that I’m much more motivated to crank out words when I know the clock is ticking. In other words, the very fact that I’m tracking time and word counts impacts my behavior. (In physics, this is known as the “observer effect,” a phenomenon that’s also observed in quantum mechanics.) I’m also seeing that my level of preparation—essentially, how much I’ve thought about and planned out the day’s chapter(s)—affects my total production as well as my production rate (words per hour). It’s hard to know how to measure that, though.

I know there are those who might shy away from such an overtly nuts-and-bolts approach to the act of creation. To me, though, drafting prose is not about creating art. It’s about generating the raw materials for something that I hope will be compelling, inspiring and artistic. The first draft is the block of marble. The fifth or seventh or twentieth draft is the finished sculpture.

It might sound a little weird, but I figure if there’s anything I can do to streamline the process of pounding out that first draft, I’m willing to to try it. And that includes a little over-the-top gamification.

TTOF---gamify--featured

______________________________________

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.

Trudging Through Sludge

It creeps under doorways, rises through vents, incorporating everything and everyone in its path, zapping them of energy, physical and mental. It’s a destroyer of focus and productivity, causing its victims to write at a snail’s pace, stare at blank screens, and abandon projects. I call it the Sludge, and I’ve been trying to wade through it for ages now.

Sludge

I briefly escaped it when I traveled across the country to write in a cabin with a bunch of other writers (several of whom were also traveling to escape the Sludge.) I hoped that maybe while I was away, the Sludge would get bored and move somewhere else. But no, it had waited patiently back at home, and was there to greet me again when I returned.

I tried to convince it to go with threats of Camp NaNoWriMo word counts, but it laughed in my face and gave me the flu. It knows I can’t write when I have the flu. Then the dreaded Spring Break arrived and the two teamed up. There’s no wading through a combo of Sludge and Spring Break—what was originally the thickness of molasses hardened into clay. I’ve written very, very little during the last three weeks.

There’s a trick to fighting the Sludge though, if you’re patient. You know how in old movies, the protagonist would fall into quick sand, and the more they struggled, the deeper they would sink? Eventually they would realize that if they stopped struggling, they’d float back up to the top where they could reach a vine or outstretched hand that would bring them back to safety. The Sludge is kind of like that. The more you stress about how little you’re writing, the harder it becomes to write, until eventually, you’re not writing at all.

I’ve found that I do better if I stop thinking about it much. If I just ride along on the surface of the Sludge and let it carry me to wherever it’s trying to go, it will eventually float me to a branch that I can use to pull myself out. I stop worrying about word counts, and just ask myself if I’ve written at all that day. Or heck, if I’ve even opened up my document and looked at it, if I’ve thought about it at all while showering or doing the dishes—if I haven’t abandoned it completely, that’s good enough for now. And eventually, if I keep at it in just such a way, the Sludge will slink away for a while and let me get back to work.

Have you ever been taken over by the Sludge? How did you handle it? Or, if you’re currently trudging through it, I hope this has helped you to know you’re not alone, and eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

______________________________________

File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.