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.)

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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.

And Away We Go…

I am currently querying my most recent book, “Playing with Fire.”  I submitted my first round of queries on Saturday, September 17.  This in an of itself was a chore.  Figuring out which agencies to submit to, then which agents, then their submission guidelines…whew!  Here is a run down of my process:

1.  Search AgentQuery for AAR member agents who represent Young Adult fiction.

2.  Plug the results (80 agents!  Sounds like a lot, but the starting number was around 248.) into a spreadsheet.  Arrange alphabetically.

3.  Search Preditors and Editors for the agent/agency.

4.  Group agents in spreadsheet according to P&E results

5.  Search submission guidelines, email addresses, etc for each agent.  Plug these into my spreadsheet.

6.  Email first twelve agents my query, adding the date queried in my spreadsheet.

I could add a step 7. “Realize I sent only a query to three agents who requested the first few pages and fret about whether they would accept my submission”, but I’m not planning on making this a typical blunder.  Of course prior to step one came the repeated tweaking of my query until I got it in somewhat decent shape.

Now I wait.  I’m extremely grateful to the agents who have already responded, and grateful to every agent out there plugging away reading the queries of the countless writers begging for their work to be accepted.  For each response I receive, I dutifully enter it into my spreadsheet with the date, and email them a polite message back.  After a few weeks I’ll move down the list and query the next batch. 

In the meantime, I shall focus on the dreaded synopsis and on my new work in progress.  After I finished “Playing with Fire” (2 full drafts with beta readers on each and a final polish), I felt empty.  There was a void inside me.  An empty feeling that must be close to a parent sending their child off to college.  My baby is all grown up and out on its own now. 

So what am I to do?  Start a new one of course.  I’m pretty excited about it, but nervous as well.  It’s an idea my dad came up with while he was battling cancer.  One I’ve been putting off because I’m afraid I won’t do it justice.  I wrote the first chapter yesterday, though, and posted it on the Absolute Writer’s forum for thoughts.  I must say, I’m pretty happy with the feedback I received.  Happy enough to keep pushing forward.  Hopefully, it will keep my mind occupied while I wait for agents to respond.

Currently reading: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey.