The Frustrating Day

It’s been a frustrating day.

I was in the middle of printing out the comments on my dissertation chapters – the comments on the revised versions that I need to respond to in the next set of revisions – when my computer told me it had a virus. So I had to shut it down. (First I had a virus and now, just when I’ve mostly stopped coughing, my computer has one.)

What could I do? Everything I needed to work on was on the computer. Except the YA novel, so I sat down with pen and paper to write the third chapter. So far I have two chapters typed, one chapter handwritten. I’m not sure what I’ll call them yet, but here are some preliminary chapter titles.

Chapter I: 221B Baker Street
Chapter II: Seeking Hyde
Chapter III: The Mutilated Body

I’m not happy with the first one, but I’ll work on it.

I was going to write about the YA novel tomorrow, tell you how I was doing at the end of the week. But I may as well write about it tonight, because I’m too tired and frustrated to write about anything else. Before I start, notice how many participants we have for the YA Novel Challenge! Remember that you can join and leave at any time. If you want to join, just send me your name and blog URL, and I’ll add you to the list.

So first, there’s been a lot of controversy over YA novels this week. Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal called “Darkness Too Visible,” complaining about how dark and depressing YA novels are becoming. The article starts like this:

“Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.

“She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, ‘nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.’ She left the store empty-handed.

“How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

“Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.”

In response, Sherman Alexie, the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which was mentioned as one of those dark, depraved novels in Gurdon’s article, wrote a response, also in The Wall Street Journal, called “Why the Best Kids’ Books Are Written in Blood.” His article ends like this:

“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books – especially the dark and dangerous ones – will save them.

“As a child, I read because books – violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not – were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

“And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons – in the form of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Where do I come out on this? First, I don’t know how old Gurdon is, but the books that were around when I was a young adult were just as dark and depressing as the ones that are out now, my dear. For the most part, I avoided those books. That was partly because by the time I was eleven, I was already reading adult novels. I have a vivid memory of reading Angélique and the King in sixth grade. If you don’t know anything about the Angélique series, it’s about a woman in eighteenth-century France who loses her fortune and has a series of adventures, which involve one torrid romance after another. In Angélique and the King, Angélique becomes the mistress of Louis XIV. What I remember most about the book is that it was a thousand pages long. It was excellent preparation for my future career as an adventuress.

I also, that same year, read most of the Anne McCaffrey Pern books. My friend Amy Lawrence and I would sit on the swings, talking about how nice it would be if a dragonrider came (a bronze one would be best, but we would make do with a brown) and took us to Pern. Again, excellent preparation for my future career as a dragonrider.

There were a lot of books out there when I was a teenager. I had an instinct for the ones I needed. I didn’t need books about teen pregnancy or prostitution. What I needed were books that gave me a vision of life as more adventurous, more exciting, than the life I was living. The Angélique and Pern books did me no harm, if little good. But that year I also read The Lord of the Rings, and that book did me great good. It showed me a world in which beauty, truth, and honor were actually important. In which magic was real. It showed me a set of ideals that guided me later in life. It became part of who I am.

Young adults will find the books that they individually need. Some of those books will help them become who they are meant to be. I seriously doubt that any of those books will harm them. The more books they read, the more they will learn to judge for themselves, find their own way.

So what about my own YA novel? I don’t know, I’m worried. Because what I’m doing in this first draft is simply getting the story down on paper, making sure the plot works, the characters are consistent. But at this stage, it’s missing something – it’s missing a soul. I hope I find that soul as I go along. I hope I find what the book is centrally about. I think it’s about monsters, what it means and how it feels to be one. But I’m not sure that’s anywhere in the first draft.

I think I’m discovering the soul of the book as I go along, and I’m worried that it’s not going to be in the story itself. Or that I’ll have to rewrite extensively to put it in. I don’t know. I think there’s going to be a lot of rewriting anyway.

There are two things I want to end with. First, I lost a week, but I seem to be writing an average of about 500 words a day. That’s partly because I’m ending up writing the chapters by hand. They don’t come easily enough to simply type. So I hand write a chapter one day, then type it up the next. Second, I’m having to remind myself of something that I emphasized in the Wiscon writing workshop. I’m going to write it here in case it helps anyone else.

Take a look at the ends of your chapters. Are they good places for your reader to put down the book? Take a short break? If so, you’re doing it wrong. You want each chapter to end in a way that leads into the next chapter. That makes it difficult for your reader to put the book down. We have a tendency to seek closure. But closure at the end of each chapter defeats your purpose, which is to keep the reader reading. I’d like to give you an example from the end of Chapter 2, but it’s on my virus-y computer. So here is a preliminary example from the end of Chapter 3, which at the moment is just a mass of handwriting.

“Mary was already thinking of the box of documents Mr. Guest, her solicitor, had sent her. It would take hours, perhaps all night, to go through them. Well, she would have Mrs. Poole make a strong pot of tea. What secrets had her father kept from his family? She did not know, but she wanted to find out.”

That’s all right, it does gesture toward the next chapter, but it’s not as impelling (is that a word?) as I want it to be. It needs something more. The second chapter ends with the information that there has been another murder. I need something like that. Well, hopefully I’ll find something.

And hopefully I’ll get my computer back tonight. This has been a very frustrating day.

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4 Responses to The Frustrating Day

  1. Marigold says:

    I read that article. I don’t think I was as disturbed by it as most, considering I live in the South and they hate Harry Potter in my county. I do understand parents’ feelings though. However, like you, I never really read that much children’s fiction outside wonder tales and fairy tales and that sort of thing. I was reading adult fiction at a very young age, probably eleven years old. I hope you have a better day tomorrow. And goodness, you are NOT messy. ‘>

  2. sarah says:

    I hope your tomorrow is better. Anne McCaffery’s Pern books helped me so much when I was a young teenager – but I am very careful about which of them I let my own dd read at this point, as the attitude towards sex was so sick (both F’lar and F’nor seemed to think having sex with the heroines despite their protests was okay – and the heroines eventually liked it.) She can definitely read them when she is old enough to have a real discussion about sexual politics.

    As a mother, I do despair at the darkness in YA fiction, mainly because I would like my almost-teenager to be inspired, entertained, challenged, uplifted, and met somewhere important inside, by what she reads, and I don’t see vampires and evil clowns doing this for her. Also, I feel sad for those children with light-filled spirits who don’t respond well to the dark. There seems so little breadth of choice lately.

    I feel some of the creepy nasty books I read as a teenager did stay with me, and did harm me in an insidious way – kind of polluted my mind, you know? And I don’t know teens are necessarily all that discerning. I’ve taught classes about Twilight to teens and they go away reeling from all the things that hadn’t even thought about. (I don’t mind Twilight, I just believe teens need to think about what they’re actually reading – eg, the violence and disregard surrounding motherhood in those books.)

    Of course, there are brilliantly written and deeply mindful horror stories for young adults – and I’m sure yours will be one of them 😉 Please excuse this very long comment, it’s a subject with which I wrestle these days.

  3. Kelly says:

    I’m excited about your monsters! I found that the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. graphic novel series’ internal discussion of what makes a monster and what it means to be one has stuck with me for quite a while now (in case you haven’t run across them). (Totally different than the movies, as usual.)

  4. Sofia says:

    Another dragonrider here–and another hand-writer. I would love to teach myself to write on a computer because it would be so much faster, but so far, no dice. 😦

    I agree that kids tend to make their way to the books they need. I certainly knew what I wanted by the time I was 12, and it involved faraway places (in space or time or imagination) and a particular tone, which was not dark, even if bad things happened (does anybody remember Flambards?).

    I don’t know enough about YA these days to know whether kids have enough options. My oldest is 8 and lives at Hogwarts. People have told me not to let her read the later ones (she’s on the Half-Blood Prince) because they’re too dark, but everybody tells her what’s going to happen on the playground anyway. She seems all right with it.

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