An Award? Me?

                                

I am incredibly grateful and humbled to have been given a blog award!  Many thanks to my friend M.R. Jordan for the Liebster Award.  You can find her blog here. She also made the quarterfinals in ABNA, so go read her submission excerpt about a dog and a zombie and leave her some feedback!

Now according to the rules for receiving this award, I also have to pass it along:

1. Give to a blogger with less than 200 followers
2. That blogger will pass it on to 5 followers
3. According to Babelfish (which I didn’t check) and Google Translate (which I did), Liebster means Dearest.

So, the five dear bloggers I am awarding are:

1.  Commutinggirl

2.  Kana’s Chronicles

3.  L’ombelico di Svesda

4.  The Narrow Road

5.  Descent Into Slushland

They all have great blogs you should check out!  I must say, this is a fantastic way to connect and find bloggers I might not have stumbled across otherwise!  Thanks again, M.R.

The Triangle Game

I went on a mission trip a few years ago with a group of college kids.  To pass the time, they played a couple games that I found infuriating…until I learned the secret.  One was called the drummer game.  One person would say “I can play the drummer game,” then pat their hands around in some sort of beat and point to someone else saying, “Can you?”  That person would then try it and pass it along.  When it got to me, I said the words, drummed a beat, and pointed at someone.  “Nope,” they said.  “You can’t play the drummer game.”  Frustrated, I tried a few more times then settled in to watch others and learn the trick.  Another, the triangle game, was similar.  Someone would say “I draw a triangle between myself, John, and Mary.  Who’s the triangle pointed at?” and you had to figure it out.  Eventually, they would draw a triangle from the Empire State Building, to the Eiffel Tower, to the Brooklyn Bridge, or something absurd like that, and it would always be pointed at someone in the room.  If you don’t know the rules, I’m not going to give away the trick to either game so you experience my initial frustration (that’s half the fun of the game).  Just know there is no math involved in either (yay!).  (If you’re really just dying to know, you can leave a comment and I’ll message you or something).

These games especially irritated me because I hate being out of the loop.  Hate. It.  I want to be in the know.  Sometimes, I feel like published authors have their own version of the drummer and triangle games.  For instance, one of the most common questions I read in author interviews is “where do you get your ideas?”  The answers are usually the same: vague and unsatisfying.  You know what I mean, right?  They all say, “from everywhere,” or “they just come to me,” etc.  Sure, some give more specifics, but it’s like there’s some big secret they’ve all conspired to keep.

I think that’s one reason I love “Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King so much.  Hear me out.  People who don’t read King are usually immediately turned off by his name, but horror stuff aside, he writes some really amazing stories (“The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for instance).  If you’re not familiar with “Lisey’s Story” (first of all there’s a link on my Books You Really Must Read page so you can buy it, haha), the basic story is this: Lisey’s writer husband dies and Lisey is reflecting on their lives together.  Her husband would frequently disappear when writing, to his study, etc.  After his death, Lisey discovers where he went and it’s not what she expected.  He went to another world.  A place he called Boo’ya Moon and got his ideas from a pool there.  To fully understand her husband and the demons that plagued him, she has to travel to Boo’ya Moon.

It’s beautiful really.  And it was the first thing I’d read that described where I felt my stories came from.  It’s like Steve was writing me (yeah, we’re on a nickname basis…although he doesn’t necessarily know that…).  I’d mentioned something similar to my husband before when he asked about the source of my own story ideas.  Steve’s image perfectly captures what happens to writers when we write.  We recede within ourselves and visit a place of ideas, then we transplant those ideas to the page.

But that’s not the most satisfying answer as to where ideas come from, is it?  Nor is it particularly honest.  Sure, there is a pool of stories inside me begging to bubble out, but something inspired them.

It hit me yesterday while I was, of all things, cooking dinner.  Hubby and I had just finished weeding and mulching a flower bed.  We were covered in soft, black dirt and our hands were stained dark brown by the damp mulch.  The air smelled like Spring: light and cool with a hint of grass and flowers and earth and rain.  Our growling stomachs told us the time, so we moved to the back yard to plant a couple blueberry bushes and fix supper.  The dog bounced around our ankles as I soaked the roots in a pail of water and Hubby dug the hole.  I went inside to cut up fresh yellow summer squash and zucchini and smoked sausage for grilling.  It reminded me of Springs and Summers as a little girl, picking fresh vegetables and shelling peas with my grandmother.  As the sausage and veggies sizzled on the grill, and my husband watered the newly planted bushes, I glanced around my yard (our property backs onto a nature preserve) and thought “there’s a story here.”  Not so much a story though, but a description, and, for me at least, the best stories grow from a great description.

I could see two teenage guys, Yankees, visiting one of their grandmother’s in the South for the Summer.  The air hangs around them like a wet blanket.  Blueberry bushes and muscadine vines run along the chain link fence that separates the cultivated yard, full of flowers and herbs, from the expanse of pasture full of cows.  Crickets chirp and lightning bugs flash as the sun sinks, casting a faint bluish gray hue over the world.  Somewhere, a bug zapper buzzes to life and fries mosquitoes before they can suck the boys’ blood, leaving red, itchy welts.  Dogs bark and the cows low and chain creaks as the boys sit on a wooden porch swing, waiting for supper.  The soft drawl of the grandmother stands out, sweet and slow, against the harsh tones of the boys as she calls for them to wash up.  Butter slides down cornbread, hot in its iron skillet, and fresh fried okra fills a small kitchen with a greasy, yet mouth-watering aroma.  In the house, the air is still and warm, the only relief coming from a soft breeze blowing through the screen door and open windows.  I knew that one of the boys was named Henry and the local guys called him Hank the Yank.  I don’t know what the boys are doing there yet, or what their story is, but I know the feel and the tone, and that’s where it all starts.

This morning on the way to work I found an old cd I burned in college.  Scratched though it was, it still played well enough.  As I listened to “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, I really thought about the feel of the song, especially the beginning.  Janis portrays the imagery so well.  “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans.”  From that one sentence you know exactly where she is, what she’s doing, how she feels and how she looks.  It inspired me.  Maybe it will weave itself into the story that popped in my head last night, or maybe it will evolve into something new.  It doesn’t matter.  The seed is there.  It’s in the bottom of my pool, and one day when I need it, a plant will rise to the surface for me to pick and use in a story, like fresh herbs pulled from the garden for supper.

That’s the trick to my personal triangle game and I have a feeling it’s the way it works for other writers as well.  But, then again, I’m not published (yet), so maybe there is some big secret all published authors have conspired to keep.  What do you think?  Where do you get your inspiration?

Chocolate Explosions and Stephen King vs Disney

I’ve been writing stories literally since I learned to write.  I’m also a bit of a pack rat.  Just a tinge.  Okay, so maybe I’ve kept almost everything I’ve ever written as well as every test and paper since the seventh grade.  Don’t judge.  They come in handy.  Sometimes.  Anyway, I recently found a stack of my stories from childhood.  When I was four, I wrote about my baby “bother” and how I loved him even though he drove me crazy (much like my real brother when he was born five years later), but most of my stories were a bit morbid for a kid.  I found one about it raining chocolate (This was before the “Chocolate Rain” viral video days; it was before we even had internet).  It sounds like a sweet story (pun intended), but quickly turns south.  I run outside with a bowl and drink up the chocolate, but I eat so much I explode and die.  That’s it.  The end.  Boom goes the Sarahmite.

I don’t know why.  I had a happy childhood and all, my writing just gravitated toward the macabre.  It only got worse when I started reading Stephen King, who is the king of dark twisted tales (yeah, that one was intentional too; as my brother would say, butter me cause I’m on a roll!).  I let my grandmother, we call her Karma, read my stories, and she pointed out that I don’t really have any happy endings, which caught me off guard.  When I’m reading, I love happy endings.  Or so I thought.  But looking back, she’s right.  Not only do I not read stories with happy endings, I end my stories weird, or bittersweet, never Pollyanna kittens and rainbows everything is all good happily ever after.  I guess because real life is usually weird or bittersweet and not a Disney movie, and I like for my stories to feel more real.  They aren’t bad endings, except for the chocolate rain Sarah-splosion (but really, isn’t there a lesson there?).  My characters are always happy(ish).  Their conflicts are resolved, they’re turning a new page, starting a new chapter, moving on to something else.  That something else might not always be shiny and bouncy as we would think of it, but it’s fresh and new for them and happier than they were before.

I’ve got a short story I’m about to enter into a contest.  It’s actually the first chapter of a book I started and stopped after the second chapter, so perfect short story fodder.  I posted the chapter here not long after I started this blog.  The way I’ve adjusted it, the main character decides to end all his cancer treatments and enjoy what’s left of his life.  Karma told me despite how the story ends, she holds out hope he’ll continue treatment and have surgery and the cancer will go away, puppies and rainbows and all that.  I can see how my ending may seem sad, especially for her because the character’s illness is based on my dad’s.  But my character felt good with his choice, so isn’t that a happy ending?

After talking with her, I started thinking about my endings.  I have all these stories in my head.  Almost every day I come up with a new idea, and usually a first chapter.  There’s a whole folder on my USB drive called “story ideas” that’s full of queries, synopses, and first chapters of shiny new ideas. While the details of my stories change as I write and get to know the characters, I always know how they end, and it hit me today that none of them has a Disney ending.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an optimist, and I guess this reflected in my writing, but is that a bad thing?  What do you think, dear reader?  Do you like happy endings, or do you like something that feels real?  I’m not going to change my writing style because that’s just how I write.  It’s me and apparently always has been, death by chocolate and all.  I’m curious, though, what most people look for.

Personally, when I’m reading, I like for loose ends to be tied up, and I like to know the character is content.  Look at most the books on my “Books You Really Must Read” list; they pretty much all have this type of ending.  I don’t like stories that leave me crying and depressed and force me to watch something happy before I go to sleep (like “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer.  Good night that was a sad book!  It was good, but so sad!  I made the mistake of reading it while my husband was traveling for work and had to stay up half the night watching “Golden Girls” re-runs to stop crying), but I don’t like stories that are unrealistically happy ever after either (like “Breaking Dawn” by Stephanie Meyer.  I mean, come on, everything ended up too perfect in the end.  I get some people’s need for escapism in endings like that, but it’s just not my cup of tea).  I prefer Stephen King’s endings.  Everything isn’t perfect, and isn’t always good, but it’s always finished, and usually weird, and maybe bittersweet.  Read “Lisey’s Story” for a fantastic ending.  For me, King beats Disney every time.  Another great example, if you’re not into King, is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.  You want to talk about a great ending?  It’s real and raw and happy but poignant.  Overall, an excellent book, but the ending especially left me satisfied when I closed the cover, yet wanting more, and to me, that’s the marker of a great ending.

Randomness #3- Black and Yellow, Black and Yellow

Today, it’s officially Spring.  Most people associate Spring with everything being fresh and green.  In Alabama, we know Spring is here when the world is yellow.  I wish I was exaggerating.  Pollen. Covers. Everything.  Cars, clothes, pets, tables, chairs, hair, hands, shoes, patios, hammocks, pavement, grills, tools, mailboxes, porches, porch swings, kid’s toys, and on and on.  The black asphalt parking lot at work is covered with a layer of yellow plant sperm.  I don’t dare touch my car, or anything really, while in work clothes.  Yesterday, I had a yellow smudge on my thigh that would not come off.  My husband and I almost ate dinner outside last night, then we realized by the time we cleaned off the table or found a table cloth, the food would be cold.  I’m surprised we can breathe at all there’s so much of it in the air, or that trees aren’t sprouting in all of our lungs.  (At least I’m not allergic!)

I love Spring.  We bought a house late last Summer, so we’re seeing our yard come alive for the first time.  It’s like the world woke up overnight.  It’s lovely.  If only I could enjoy it without being covered in pollen.  Regardlesss, the hubby and I have had fun these warm nights playing with the dog in the yard, frolicking in the new life around us.  Until last night that is.

My husband has one big fear.  He’s actually been working on overcoming it, and making progress, but last night was a bit of a setback.  He was in the yard throwing the ball with Atticus and I was watching the end of “Smash” (what can I say, I like musicals).  All of a sudden the back door crashed open and Hubby ushered Atticus in.  Hubby was nervous and his voice was a little higher.  “Kill it,” he said.  “Sarah, kill it.”  I paused the show and slipped on my flip-flops.  “What is it?”  I asked.  “An evil thing.  Where I usually sit.”  (It took me a while to grasp he meant some rocks surrounding a tree right off the porch.  He also frequently sits on the grass and on the porch so “usually” wasn’t quite descriptive enough.) I was about to remove a shoe to smash the spider when he stopped me.  “You can’t take off your shoe.  It’s a black widow.”  “Okay, then give me your shoe.”  He glanced at his feet then back to me.  “But it’s a black widow,” he said, like it had the exoskeleton of an armadillo or something.  “Okay,” I said, “then get me a boot.”  “How about a fly swatter?”  He grabbed one from under the sink and thrust it into my hand.

Armed with floppy red plastic, I charged onto the porch.  “Where is it?”  I asked, scanning the stones.  “Right there.”  Yeah, he’s great with descriptors.  I walked down the steps, still not seeing the venomous little beast.  Hubby was right behind me, pointing at the ground.  I saw it, and sure enough it was a black widow, red hourglass on its abdomen and all.  Not really that uncommon around here, but still a bit unnerving, even for me, and I don’t mind spiders.  I whapped at it with the swatter until it was good and dead, then showed Hubby as proof.  (Me woman, me kill spider!)  We climbed back on the porch and Hubby stopped dead.  “There’s another one.”  He pointed to where the porch meets the house.  I didn’t get a good look at this spider’s abdomen because my husband’s next biggest fear was right next to it.  “Flying bugs” as he calls them.  Basically anything with wings and a stinger.  So I got the wasp/hornet spray and murdered a couple, killed a nest, and squished two more spiders.  (I am all that is woman!)

Now my husband is paranoid because black widows frequent ivy, where our dog likes to sleep, and because they were so close to the house.  I did all sorts of research and showed their bites are seldom fatal except to children, elderly, infirm, and small pets, and pointed out the dog had been sleeping there since we got him with no troubles.  Hubby wasn’t satisfied, so today I have to call the exterminator.

So, yay Spring!  Pollen, spiders, wasps, yellow jackets, bumblebees, and hornets!  But also flowers and soft grass and sweet smells and warm weather!  You have to take the bad with the good.  I keep telling myself that, today especially.  See, today is also the next round cut in ABNA.  I’ve been anxiously, nervously, obsessively refreshing the site, praying for the results to be posted and my name to be on the list.  Of course the odds are still very much against me, and the competition is getting stiffer so I’m sure I didn’t make it (but maybe…).  If I didn’t though, it’s just one thing.  Like a couple of black widows in my back yard.  I’ll get over it, move on, and enjoy the rest of Spring.

(On another note, every time I see the cloud of pollen that seems to have overtaken the air, I can’t help but think there’s a story in that.  Or last night’s escapades, there’s a story there too.  Maybe a shiny new idea will develop out of it and give me something to focus on if/when I get cut from ABNA!)

**Update** I didn’t make the ABNA cut, but I’m okay with it.  This isn’t the end for this manuscript, and even if I exhaust all my options without it going anywhere, I’ll still be alright.  I’ll just write another.  Congrats to all who made it!!

Importance of Conflict and Why I Hate Forrest Gump

There is one issue in my marriage that has caused an impasse.  A conflict over, of all things, lack of conflict.  I’m talking about one of the worst movies ever made.  “Forrest Gump.”  My husband loves it.  He thinks it’s a fantastic movie about a man’s life.  I, on the other hand, despise it.  It’s a three hour snooze fest about some random guy.  To it’s credit, the movie had an excellent soundtrack, and to be honest, I’ve never read the book, but from what I can gather it’s just a longer version of the movie so I’ll spare myself the trauma.

This all came to mind when I was confronted with the question: Does a book have to have conflict?  My immediate answer was “Yes, of course it does.  What’s the point of writing it if there’s no conflict and who would even read it?”  Then I remembered “Forrest Gump” and how it’s lack of conflict stretched for hours.

Why is this such a bone of contention in my marriage?  I guess because I’m so stolidly against the stupid movie, and because so many people, for some strange reason, seem to love it.  Here are my main problems:

1.  It has no plot.  None.  From as early as I can remember learning about story structure, I was taught a story has five parts:  Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.  A good story forms an arc (This mnemonic is even used as another name for galley copies of books, or advance reader copies. Coincidence?  I think not).  “Forrest Gump” is linear.  My husband argues that the guy’s life is the plot.  But even stories about lives follow the arc or else they’re boring.  That’s why memoirs don’t sell well.  Just sitting down and reading about some random person’s life is boring.  “I woke up today and ate two Rudy’s frozen sausage biscuits for breakfast.  Fed the dog.  Brushed my teeth.  Dressed and left for work.  The drive was good.  No traffic.”  That’s boring.  Why do you think reality shows all have the same format (No tv, lots of alcohol, put them in dramatic situations, etc)?  Because every day people going about their every day lives is boring.  At best, “Forrest Gump” revolves around several episodic scenes, but those are typically called subplots.  I guess you can say the plot revolves around him and Jenny, but even romance stories have the five parts of a plot.

If we break “Forrest Gump” into the five parts we have this:  Exposition- We meet Forrest in small town Alabama, a puny kid with leg braces.  He likes a girl and he gets bullied.  That sets the scene.  Okay, I’m following so far.  Rising Action- He and the girl become friends. He loses the braces and discovers he can run.  He runs away from the bullies, championed by the girl.  He gets a football scholarship and he and the girl drift apart.  Here’s where it starts to crumble.  That’s as close to rising action as I can see.  Then it goes flat.  Conflict-  I’m just not sure.  I don’t think there is a conflict.  Finding and losing Jenny is as close as it gets, but that isn’t conflict.  It’s just two people living.  What is the main thing he’s fighting against?  Himself?  The perceptions of others?  That’s not good enough to drive the story.  There needs to be something he has to overcome, something that represents his internal conflicts if that indeed is the driving force of the story.  But no.  He just bounces from one scene to another without anything really changing.  With each scene Forrest meets a Character, and he does the same thing- he runs.  Whoopty-doo.  Falling action-  Perhaps returning home?   But that’s tenuous at best.  Resolution- He has a baby with Jenny, which isn’t really resolution at all.  More like another story altogether.

So we have a linear, episodic story, with no point.  I have no idea what he accomplished other than what every one of us accomplishes until day we die.  He lived.  That’s it.  I don’t know how the book sold.  I couldn’t imagine reading a book with no plot.  Yet somehow, it did.  Go figure.

2. It frustrated the heck out of me because I kept waiting for conflict that never came.  It’s like when “Marley and Me” came out.  I love animals and really wanted to see the movie.  My little sister, however, ruined it.  *Spoiler Alert* She told me the dog dies.  I’m a somewhat emotional person.  Especially when it comes to animals.  I can’t stand to watch those Sarah McLachlan commercials for the ASPCA because I cry every time I see those poor, pitiful creatures.   I used to like the song, but now I can’t even hear “In the Arms of the Angel” without welling up.   So there I was, watching the movie about an adorably bad yellow lab and every time something bad would happen, I’d brace myself.  Tears would start to form.  I’d turn my head and squeeze my husband’s hand…only to realize the dog was fine.  And it got worse as the movie progressed.  I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to die early on, so the longer it stretched, the worse I got, until I ended up just crying through the last quarter.

That’s what happened with “Forrest Gump.”  I kept bracing myself, waiting for the conflict, but it never came.  I kept thinking: “Surely the conflict is coming.  It’s getting close to the end!”  But the movie stretched on, and the conflict never appeared.  It was torturous.

3.  It’s not real, but people believe it is.  Forrest Gump was not  real person.  Greenbow, Alabama does not exist. There’s a Greensboro, and a Greenville, but no Greenbow.  Forrest Gump did not exist.  He never played foot ball at the University of Alabama.  Because he wasn’t real.  Yet, I’m amazed at how many people think he was.

I’m from Alabama and this is source of constant headache every time this movie is mentioned (and even though it’s old, it inevitably comes up when people discuss “great movies,” ugh).  Namely, thanks to University of Alabama fans who are proud “one of their own” had a movie about his life.  It blows my mind.  Especially because most “Bama” fans are extremely hardcore and obnoxious, yet don’t know their history well enough to know the man never played there.  Again, because he’s fictional.  (They also can’t grasp they don’t really have fourteen national championships, but good luck explaining that logic to them.  For those of you outside the state, I graduated from Auburn University, Alabama’s rival, so I say this from a completely unbiased viewpoint.  War Eagle!).

Bubba Gump shrimp doesn’t exist either.  Bayou La Batre does.  My best friend from college is from there.  And it’s a huge shrimping area.  Pretty much all the men in her family were/are shrimp boat captains.  Bubba however, completely fake.

I guess it’s a pride thing.  People try to latch on to something so they can say “Hey, look!  He’s from Alabama.  Go Alabama!”  They can say the story is set in Alabama (Yay, go Alabama!) but the story itself and it’s main characters, are fiction.

4.  One word.  Oscar.  As a rule, I immediately discount anything nominated for an Oscar.  If it’s something I’d been wanting to see, the moment it’s nominated, it drops down my list.  Why?  Because most Oscar movies suck.  Sure, there are a few gems.  “The King’s Speech” wasn’t bad.  “Titanic” was okay.  On the whole, though?  They’re typically horrible and terribly pretentious.  “Tree of Life” is close to “Forrest Gump” in a lot of ways.  They were both awful, plotless, Oscar nominees.  (Don’t even get me started on “Tree of Life.”  What a gigantic waste of an evening.  It’s like the director only filmed a scene from the first page of every chapter of a book and spliced it together with space scenes from National Geographic to form a mostly dialogue-less piece of gibberish.  Like “Forrest Gump” I hung in there, waiting for the story, the conflict, something, anything…and then the movie was just over.  Boom).  Bottom line, if a movie gets an Oscar nom, it’s pretty much guaranteed to suck.

So, I circle back around to my earlier question.  Does a book (or movie) have to have conflict?  My answer, after much debate is: no.  If it doesn’t have conflict it will be highly praised and critically acclaimed and people will love it despite it’s obvious flaws.  It will be nominated for lots of awards and probably make the author a lot of money.

In my mind the better question is: Does a book (or movie) have to have conflict to be good?  Yes.  Yes it does.  But don’t expect any Oscars.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Every generation says it.  Unfortunately it’s true.  Kids today are so different from when I was a kid.  I feel like teenagers are a world apart from my high school days, and that was only like ten years ago!  The world is changing and adults are flailing their arms trying to keep up.  My family is pretty spread out.  My mom is 45, I’m 29, my brother is 19, and my sister is 13, so it’s easy to trace the changes from one decade to the next.

My mom was in high school in the 80s.  You know, the days before computers and internet.  If you wanted to look something up, you had the encyclopedia.  Want to call someone?  Pick up the land line at home and if they aren’t there leave a message with their mom.  Music?  Cassette tapes.  Giant boom boxes or a personal cassette player with headphones.  There were a limited number of channels on tv.  MTV was just launching and played pretty simple, basic videos.  Sure, kids had problems.  Cocaine usage became big in smaller towns in the 80s, spreading from cities, to college campuses, and then to towns.  Teenage pregnancy was becoming more frequent.  Standard teenage drama.  But on the whole, life was easy and good.  The Cold War ended.  The Berlin Wall came down.  The economy was good.

I was in high school in the late 90s and early 2000s.  We had multimedia encyclopedias on CD Rom and floppy discs.  Pagers were the hot thing.  When I was sixteen I was one of the first kids in my school to get a cell phone because everyone wanted a pager for some reason.  Cells were the same price and could do more; I never figured it out.  Of course my phone was the size of a small car with an antennae that stretched to the ceiling, but I felt cool.  Cds were the preferred music format.  TV seemed infinite;so many channels!  MTV’s videos had bigger budgets, but were played less frequently.  Riding the wave of “The Real World,” shows were becoming more popular.  We had bigger problems.  Columbine happened.  There was a crack-down on clothes that could be considered weapons.  We started lock-down drills.  Prayer was banned in school.  Heavier drug use was more prevalent, like Oxycontin and something called Meth.  Several of my classmates dropped out because of pregnancy.  One girl missed our graduation to have her baby.  The economy wavered, wars were fought.  Life didn’t seem so bad, but maybe that’s because I looked at it through teenage eyes, it had a different tint.

My brother just finished high school and my sister is about to start.  Wikipedia and Google are the way to go and things are saved on USB drives.  People don’t call on cell phones as much as text…and do everything else.  Mp3 players carry thousands of songs in one tiny format.  TV isn’t only infinite, it’s moved outside its box with Netflix and Hulu and streaming on the internet.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a music video on MTV.  The economy is in the tank.  We’re still at war.  Kids can’t carry backpacks to school anymore unless they’re clear.  Drugs are everywhere.  Pregnancy almost seems to be accepted (and sometimes even glorified–see MTV).  School shootings are more frequent and have bled over into colleges.  Teen suicides are at an all time high.

If you’ve scanned the YA or Teen section of your bookstore lately, you may have noticed these changes reflected on the shelves.  Stories are getting darker.  They cover drug use, pregnancy, abuse and neglect.  Even the fantasy titles out right now are dark.  Dystopic worlds with teens killing one another and fighting/leading wars and rebellions.  This isn’t exactly new, I mean, look at “Lord of the Flies,” but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent.  Agents have been requesting darker, edgier, grittier titles.

This year is the 50th anniversary of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.  Sure the protagonists fought against a government of sorts, but there was a lighter feel to it.  I came away from that book feeling good and smiling.  Lately, while the books are good, they leave a darker sense of foreboding at the end.  It leaves me wondering: how far is too far?  There have been several discussions on the AW forum asking how far to push the envelope when it comes to drugs and sex with teens.  I think some of this grit is good.  It starts teens questioning the world as they know it and looking beyond themselves to see a bigger picture.  These stories help teens connect by showing them they aren’t alone.  There are others who cut themselves or starve themselves or inject themselves.  Others who have gone through it and found their way to the other side.  I think it’s important to meet teens (and everyone really) where they are.  But how dark is too dark?  Is there a limit, a line, that’s too far?  Or is the line constantly shifting and moving?

As I pointed out in the beginning of this post, the world is changing and teens are going through heavier things than they were a generation or two ago.  I think YA literature should match some of these themes, but I also think it should lift teens out of the grit.  One of my favorite things about reading is the escape.  You read a book like “A Wrinkle in Time” and you’re transported to other worlds and it takes you away from yourself and your struggles.  I don’t think we have enough of that in YA right now.  Don’t get me wrong, I love books like “The Hunger Games” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”  If you haven’t read them, both are about fighting to the death.  In the first, a dystopic fantasy, the main character fights others for survival.  In the latter, a YA contemporary, the main character fights the cancer killing herself and her boyfriend.  The themes in both touch on issues that are prevalent today, but they don’t do much to lift the reader out of it.  I think there needs to be a healthy mix and I would love to see YA focus more on the *lighter side of life and capture not just the current climate, but the feel of the 90s, and the 80s, and beyond.

What do you think?  Should YA continue down this trail and match the feeling of its readers?  Or should lighter, happier stories make a comeback to lift the readers out of their current situations?  When it comes to the dark, gritty stories, how far is too far?

*Writing this post brought to mind a song I catch myself singing when I’m down.  From Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” I give you, and urge you to listen to, this: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  (Just a warning, without seeing the whole movie, you may think this scene is sacrilegious–as a Christian it made me uneasy the first time I saw it–but remember this scene alone is out of context.  If it bothers you, just minimize the window and listen to the words.  I couldn’t find a good video without the scene.  I also recommend watching the movie.)

What’s the Difference?

Conversations have been all over the internet lately asking what separates Middle Grade from Young Adult from Adult literature?  I’ve taken part in some of these debates in various forums and have noticed more agents and editors stepping forward to address the question (see Agent Michael Bourret of Dystel Goderich and Editor Molly O’Neill’s new weekly blog conversation specifically on the topic of Middle Grade lit.).

So, what’s the difference?  Most people would say it’s an age group thing.  Middle Grade is for middle school ages, 10-13, Young Adult is high school, 14-18, and Adult is everything after, 19 and up.  It’s not that easy though.  Especially when it comes to the MG/YA line.  Sure, age is part of it.  Kids generally like to read up, meaning they want to read about someone their age or older.  I think age is a good starting point, though.  If you’ve got a twelve-year-old protagonist, it’s likely MG.  Seventeen is pretty soundly in YA territory.  Thirty is obviously adult.

The lines blur on age, though, when say, your protagonist is thirty but the novel is his flashback to when he was twelve and how a middle school experience shaped his life.  Where would that end up?

It comes down to two main components: voice and theme.  Think of it like a chart.  If the thirty-year-old protag is telling the story as a thirty-year-old–using more mature language, longer words, longer sentences, etc, that’s a point in the Adult column.  If the protag only introduces the book as a thirty-year-old then tells the rest as a twelve-year-old (shorter words, snappier dialogue, shorter sentences, different language), that’s a point for MG.  If the theme is how the protag was abused in middle school and the effect on his adult life, point for Adult.  If it’s about how he overcame a bully and kissed his first girl, MG.

A similar system can be used for MG/YA.  One: What’s the main character’s voice? When I think of voice, I imagine the character sitting in front of me.  How does he sound?  How does he talk?  What language does he use?  Then I write him.  If you read a string of messages from four different people you know, can you usually tell who said what without seeing their names?  That’s voice.

Two:  What’s the theme?  MG, YA, and Adult explore different territories.

Most MG books focus on internal conflict: how does the world affect the main character?  MG books usually involve a main character learning who they are and what they like.  They’re growing older, gaining more responsibilities, and experiencing new things.  Conflict usually revolves around their small world: school, family, neighborhood.  “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is a great example.  It takes places around the school and is about the main character dealing with bullies and popularity and how it affects him and his friends.  There can be more serious themes in MG, like divorce, but the focus is still internal.  For example, how the main character’s parents’ divorce affects him.

YA tends to be more about how the MC affects the world. It goes beyond the boundaries of their small world; their world gets bigger. There is usually internal conflict, but the main conflict is external. The main character generally encounters more adult problems and tries to change things. Think of “The Hunger Games” where teenage Katniss is thrust into a very adult situation and is forced to choose whether to rebel against the government she’s always known or take care of herself.  How does she fit into the world?  Using my MG example, if the YA main character’s parents were divorcing, the story would focus on not just how the main character is affected but how he affects the world because of it.

Harry Potter is a great example because it started MG and ended up YA.  The characters grew with their audience.  The first half of the series deals with Harry finding out who he is and where he fits in the world.  In “The Sorcerer’s Stone” he finds out he’s a wizard with a special place in a new world (mostly set at his school of Hogwarts).  The main conflict is Harry embracing who he is and dealing with Malfoy and Snape.  Voldemort is almost a subplot in the first book as it’s not him Harry ultimately has to defeat; rather, he has to overcome personal challenges and defeat Professor Quirrell.  “The Chamber of Secrets” shows Harry getting more comfortable with his place, but still discovering and learning.  The main conflict, again, really isn’t Voldemort, it’s Tom Riddle and saving Ginny.  “The Prisoner of Azkaban” starts to shift a bit, but the conflicts are still MG: Harry verses Sirius.  All of these are how the world affects Harry.

The second half of the series deals with Harry using who he is to change the world around him.  Book four, “The Goblet of Fire,” is a transitional book where he’s growing from middle school to high school.  Most of the book focuses on Harry overcoming the various physical challenges and disdain from his peers who think he put his name in the cup.  There’s a major conflict shift where Harry finally faces Voldemort at the end of the book.  “The Order of the Phoenix” completes the turn.  The main conflict is Harry versus Voldemort.  Sure, there are a lot of scenes at school where Harry’s peers shun him because they don’t believe his “lies,” but the driving force is Voldy himself.  “The Half-Blood Prince,” is again Harry versus Voldy, with some growth in Harry’s relationships.  The last book, “The Deathly Hallows” is completely about how Harry can defeat and destroy Voldemort.  How he can change the world.

Themes in Adult literature vary greatly from internal to external depending on the genre.  Mystery/Suspense/Thriller is pretty external, Literary/Women’s Fiction, etc is more internalized.

None of the genres are better or worse than the others.  I hate it when people downgrade MG or YA and think they’re less worthy than Adult books.  I may be a bit biased, since I write MG and YA, but the plots can be just as advanced as Adult books.  To me, themes and ages aside, the voice classifies the book.  So if you’re still not sure where your work may fall, especially when it comes to the MG/YA line, imagine the main character talking to you.  How does he sound?  Who would he hang out with?  What does he say?  If he’s got a strong voice, it should be easy to classify.