Author Interview with Sage Collins

I am really, really excited.  Why you ask? Well, today I have my first ever guest on my blog!

Author Sage Collins stopped by to spill some details about herself and her new book. Sage is just amazing. I would gush, but I’m sure you’d rather hear from her So, without further ado…

Hi Sage! *Waves* Tell us something random about yourself.

You cannot stop me from singing. Seriously, I do it without thinking half the time, which is kind of a problem at work. I have an okay voice, so it’s not like I sing out of tune, but I’m not exactly Adele. And, yeah, I do it all the time.

You have a new book, “Love Sucks,” what is it about?

Here is the official blurb:

Mailee is about to answer the age-old question: “How much love would a love sucker suck if a love sucker fell in love?”

Mailee’s greatest wish is to be an ordinary teenage girl, but thanks to one stupid demon gene she consumes love from any human she touches. The only person she can touch is her best friend Eric, a hot lust-drainer. Except for slight hand-brushes to keep from starving, she avoids humans.

Until she meets Logan, a diabetic and the first human who could understand Mailee’s diet angst. She grows closer to him, but each touch risks his love for her. If she wants a normal relationship, she’ll have to become human. But the only way requires her to free and be infected by demons representing the Seven Deadly Sins. Sloth? Pride? No problem. But when wrath-infected Mailee punches the cheerleader who’s making eyes at Eric, she realizes getting through the sins might cost too much.

Like Eric. Because if she turns human, he’ll be the only one she can’t touch.

That sounds really cool and is so fresh! Where did you get the idea for “Love Sucks”?

I was playing a game with another writer, where our characters answer and ask questions of each other. Her character drained something negative (sadness or fear or something), and mine exclaimed how horrible that was. Her character said, “No, it’s the love drainers you have to watch out for.” Instantly I had the idea of a love drainer, who had to eat love to survive, even though she was afraid to drain people completely. And what’s the biggest complication that could come up? Why she’d fall in love, of course.

Okay, so this is not a romance. How would you classify it?

Well, thankfully, my writer friends who are reading it now say I have nothing to fear by people calling it a romance because the romantic elements are strong enough. So, phew, that’s a big relief to me. But I have always classified Love Sucks as a YA contemporary fantasy.

Who is your favorite character in the book and why?

Eric, hands down. In fact, he’s one of my favorite characters of all my novels. Eric is that perfect combination of big brother figure and classic boyfriend for me. He’s confident, even though he doesn’t always know the best thing to do. But he always tries to do the right thing, even if that might hurt him in the end. On one hand, he seems really secure with his life as it is—he’s popular, he’s worked out how to drain lust without hurting anyone, his family’s great, he’s rich, he gets good grades and excels at football—but then we see all these little hints that life isn’t really that perfect for him, no matter what Mailee thinks about it. Plus, he’s fun to be around, joking when it’s appropriate but sweet when it’s needed. It’s a great mix. If it was me choosing a boyfriend, it would be Eric. I won’t tell you which one Mailee chooses.

Pick one character from any work of fiction you’d save and one you’d kill.

Oh, man, tough question. I think I’d save Professor Lupin in Harry Potter. I understand why he dies as one of Harry’s parent figures, but of the people who walk with Harry to meet Voldemort, I think he’s the one who least is needed as one of those figures, and then he can be there for his son, which would be nice.

One to kill, hmmm. I was going to get my Joss Whedon on and kill off some beloved character, but then I decided to kill off Bella and make so many people happy who either hate Twilight or who love it and want Edward for themselves.

So I mentioned this to my roommate, and she went off on this fantasy where, with Bella out of the way, Edward and Jacob fall in love and this heals the animosity between the vampires and the werewolves. She hasn’t even read the books and she’s making fanfic for them.

I would definitely save Lupin too! What else have you got in the pipeline and when can we expect to see it?

I’m currently querying two novels to agents. One is a YA superhero novel that’s told from the POV of both the hero and villain, who are obsessively in love with each other. The other is a middle grade fantasy about a girl who teams up with an elf to save the Pear Tree from falling into the hands of a tyrant known as the Grey Partridge, following a prophecy in the form of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

I’m also revising a YA sci-fi novel about a boy who is fighting alongside the girl of his dreams for the rights of androids that are built to be the perfect boyfriends. Then he finds out that he is an android built for her.

But as to when I’ll be published next, I don’t know. If I publish with Musa again, it could be next year, but right now nothing is actually in the pipeline for me.

Random question: if you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be?

I would be a pterodactyl (even if it’s not technically a dinosaur, shh). Any excuse to be something that flies, right? Although I would probably be the one pterodactyl that couldn’t fly at all, like Petrie in The Land Before Time. (Still, there’d be hope. After all, he flies in the end.)

Anyway, I think I’d make a great pterodactyl. The other day my cat was sitting there, naked without her collar, which makes it near impossible to catch her and put it back on her. Well, I swooped down from the sky and snatched her up. Totally pterodactyl-like. *nods seriously*

I love that you just whipped out a “Land Before Time” reference. (I’d totally be Cera!). Where can we find “Love Sucks”?

Right now you can find it at Amazon in Kindle format and on my publisher’s website in all formats. In a few weeks, it will be available on B&N and other e-book locations.

How can we find you? (And no, that’s not me in your bushes waiting for an advanced copy of your android book, “Taylor-Made.” *ducks behind a tree*)

Haha. I’d be honored if you were an early Taylor-Made reader.

You can find me:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/Sagecollins
Blog: http://sagelikethespice.wordpress.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/sage.collins.16

Love Sucks- Sage Collins

Thanks so much for stopping by, Sage!  I can’t wait to nab my hubby’s Kindle and read “Love Sucks!”  Everyone, go check it out, and then stop by Sage’s blog for teasers and updates.

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.

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.

Painting the Picture

How important is setting in a novel? Does it really matter where a story is set, or if the scene is expressly painted for you?

I enjoy painting.  I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it.  Getting creative and messy with brightly colored globs of acrylic goo that I can smear in whatever patterns and shapes I desire can be wonderfully freeing.  Some people, however, prefer more constraint.  I don’t know how much the concept has taken hold in other places, but in the south a place called “Sips and Strokes” has been springing up everywhere lately.  It seems to be a popular venue for “girl’s night” (I don’t really know for sure since I don’t have a lot of “girl friends” and don’t do many girly things in the first place).  You take your beverage of choice and they provide the easels, paints, canvases and brushes.  Then they show you what to paint.  Each person’s comes out differently, but they’re all basically the same thing: a sunflower, or the Eiffel Tower, or a pot of flowers.  (They all seem to be girly things as well.  Bear in mind, I don’t really speak from experience since I’ve never been, but I have friends who love it and have reported back on the experience).  It’s basically a grown up version of paint-by-number.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in it (beyond “girl time” I mean).  If you feel creative, but need direction, or look at a blank canvas with no clue where to start, this sort of thing would be perfect.  It’s like the difference between a book setting the scene for you, and you making it up for yourself.  How much do you want the author to paint the picture?

Obviously there are books where setting is immensely important.  In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, Harper Lee had to set the scene for the story to work.  The setting was almost another character.  Without it, the events wouldn’t have happened the same way, or mattered as much.  On the other hand, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” didn’t seem so dependent on setting.  Sure, we knew Charlie’s brother played football at Penn State, but they could have been from anywhere.  The main story could have taken place in any town.

To me, it depends on what you’re going for.  If your story is a socioeconomic commentary, it probably matters more.  If it’s a story based more on the characters and their interactions than the plot, or something more fantastical where the main character will travel to another land, I don’t think the city the character starts is that important.

I have a history of not including a concrete setting in the books I write.   I think it’s simply that the setting hasn’t mattered much.  It hasn’t been necessary to the plot.  In my head, my stories takes place in the south, because that’s what I know, but I like leaving it open to the reader to imagine it in their own city.  I like stories that don’t give it all away.

“Bridge to Terebithia” for example.  I couldn’t tell you where that story is set.  It very well might be mentioned, but it wasn’t important enough for me to remember.  And because it wasn’t important enough to remember, it could take place wherever I wanted.  Like in my backyard.  I felt closer to the story, more pulled in by the fact such amazing things could just as easily occur for me as for the characters.

Don’t misunderstand, I think stories with definitive setting are wonderful too.  “The Chronicles of Narnia” had to start in London, and C.S. Lewis did a great job describing the scene.  “Little House on the Prairie” obviously had to occur on the prairie.  “Harry Potter” had to describe the setting for the story to come alive.  Hogwarts was a character in it’s own right.

I guess this is coming to mind because I’m revising a manuscript and catching places where I’ve used southern phrases.  Like “gotten a hold of” instead of just “gotten.”  Which is all well and good if the setting were important, if I’d specifically said it took place in the south and included southern mannerisms, like Harper Lee did.  But for a more generic setting, I think the language needs to be more generic.

It comes back to painting.  I enjoy the creative release of slapping color on canvas in any pattern and combination I choose, so I like reading books where I can shape the setting how I want.  That’s one reason I write.  I’m not so big on the paint-by-numbers, grabbing me by the hand and leading me down the path mentality though.  What I’m saying is, if an author is going to set the scene for me, I want it to be beautifully and masterfully done, a Monet or Van Gogh.  Otherwise, it leaves me in setting limbo, with a half-fleshed out scene that’s set in Seattle or Maryland, just because, without giving me the real feel of Seattle or Maryland.  If it’s not important, I’d just as soon have it left out.

How do you feel?  Do you like books that leave the setting open for your imagination?  Or do you prefer to have the scene set for you?  Is it important at all?