JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO, I had the pleasure of attending When Words Collide (WWC), a conference for writers, readers and those in the publishing industry held in Calgary, Alberta. While there, I met a lot of terrific folks and experienced many facets of the writing biz, but was particularly immersed in my own, current part of the business—young adult (YA) fiction. I've written a lot of different types of stuff, but my first published novel—Out of Time, coming from Five Rivers Press in early December, 2013—is a YA fantasy as is the novel I'm currently releasing as an experiment in building readership on Wattpad (http://www.wattpad.com/23807527-the-great-sky-chapter-1). On several panels at WWC, I was asked why I write YA, and Susan asked me to offer some thoughts about that here.
To start, I have to admit to some misgivings about the very concept of YA as a discrete ‘bin’ for writing. Frankly, I think a good story is a good story and will appeal to readers regardless of their age (although I'm mindful that young children do require stories to be told in a particular way, simply because of constraints on their language skills and their general understanding of their world). I first read The Lord of the Rings and A Canticle for Leibowitz when I was thirteen and doubt anyone would claim these to be YA. On the other hand, I read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, John Horner Jacobs' The Twelve-Fingered Boy and am reading Michell Plested's Mik Murdoch – Boy Superhero and thoroughly enjoy all of them as an adult. Having said that, though, I can certainly appreciate the differences in approaching a story I'm writing as YA—that is, something written for a roughly thirteen to seventeen year-old audience.
Writing YA fiction allows me to do several things I may not be able to so readily do in ‘adult’ fiction. First, it allows me to use younger characters. Again, youthful characters aren't confined to YA; a book I'm hopefully about to sell to a U.S. publisher is decidedly not YA, but its protagonists are all sixteen to seventeen years old. Moreover, there's no particular rule that YA fiction can't feature adults. However, YA generally tends to focus on younger characters, particularly as protagonists, because that makes it easier for younger readers to identify with them. More fundamentally, though, youthful characters open up story-telling possibilities that can be more restricted, or at least would be handled differently, in older ones. Young characters are generally more ‘innocent’, in the sense that they have less life experience, so I'm able to explore complicated ideas in a new way. For example, in Out of Time, the two main protagonists are both fourteen year-old boys, but both come from very different worlds—Riley is from the present day, while Gathering Cloud (or simply Cloud) is an Aboriginal boy from pre-European contact Canada. Confronting a very different culture can be jarring enough for an adult. Writing from inside the respective heads of Riley and Cloud, however, gave me the opportunity to have each struggle to understand the other from that particular perspective of innocence. For instance, there are still great swathes of Riley's own world that he doesn't yet appreciate or understand, so trying to figure out Cloud and his world causes Riley to draw some unique conclusions, some of them quite wrong. That's okay though, because it helps drive the story forward in a way that simply wouldn't work for older protagonists, who would (hopefully!) have the life experience to understand things more fully.
I also enjoy writing younger protagonists because of another by-product of their youth—their resiliency. As a (now retired) army officer, I had occasion to serve as a peacekeeper in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 2000s. Open conflict was rare by that point, but the whole region still seethed with post-war ethnic tensions exacerbated by organized crime, including weapons smuggling, human trafficking and sporadic, sectarian violence. The children of Bosnia not only faced this as the backdrop to their daily life, they also had to contend with the reality of their country being heavily contaminated with land mines and unexploded military ordnance. What struck me as truly amazing was the extent to which they were still simply kids. They might have to remain wary of the occasional sniper or firefight on their way to school, and had to remember to never step on grass or dirt for fear of losing limbs, or their life, to anti-personnel mines. Still, they gaggled, laughed, fought, played, and generally behaved like kids in pretty much any Canadian town or city. They'd simply adapted the simmering unrest and danger of their war-torn country into their lives and got on with living in a way that still leaves me shaking my head.
This resilience is, perhaps, one of the most remarkable things about young people and, therefore, young characters. It can't be overdone, of course; youngsters aren't unbreakable! However, in Out of Time, I found it easier for Riley to deal with the reality of a sudden, violent death than I probably would have for an adult in the same situation. Riley saw it as terrible, but also ending a threat to people he cared about, so was able to believably move on with things. An adult would likely be more analytical about it, digging deeper into the moral and ethical issues around someone's violent end and, perhaps, prolonging the extent to which it was an overriding issue in their life. This isn't to say that kids can be entirely flippant, all "meh, whatever," about something like violence and death, while adults will become mired in doubt and self-recrimination. One of the great challenges of writing YA is ensuring that the young protagonists aren't simply portrayed as little adults while also making sure they aren't shown as some entirely alien species. Kids are adults-in-the-making, so while it's important to draw on their innocence and resilience when writing them, it's also important to continue showing them as genuine human beings. If we were to meet Riley in ten or twenty years, we may find that his encounters with violence and death have affected him deeply. I thought it important to include hints of this in the way in which Riley has changed and grown as a character by the end of the book. In the relatively brief course of Out of Time, however, it's that innocence and resilience that sets him apart from an adult protagonist faced with the same stuff—this is one of the main reasons YA is so challenging, and yet so much fun to write.
Susan also asked me to comment on what themes that might work well in YA, perhaps even better than in other genres. There are certainly some themes that are going to be immediately relevant to younger readers, because they're a more prevalent part of their day-to-day lives. For example, I explore the theme of bullying in Out of Time. This isn't to say that bullying doesn't occur among adults, but it's a truly visceral part of many kids' lives. Even if they aren’t the bully or the bullied themselves, most youngsters are exposed to bullying in some fashion, so they can be quickly and deeply engaged as readers. Another issue I explore is that of parental acceptance. Kids hunger for their parent's understanding, approval, pride, and love. Now, this may be true life-long, but it's a particularly compelling theme for youngsters already struggling to define who and what they are. They are dependent on the adults in their lives—especially their parents—to support them and keep them going while they work these things out. There are few themes, I think, that don't lend themselves to being addressed in YA fiction, as long as the writer remembers the above point about kids not just being little adults. That said, some themes obviously have to be approached with caution and sensitivity. Sexuality, for instance, is a huge issue for teenagers, but for a wide range of reasons, ranging from good taste to legality, writers must tread warily when introducing such an emotionally-charged topic into a book written with young readers in mind.
Although not strictly thematic, a related area I still find troublesome is that of language. This goes beyond simply capturing appropriate tone and correct use of euphemisms and teen jargon. Listen to a couple of fifteen year-olds talking and you'll hear more than a few f-bombs, pretty explicit scatological references and quite possibly some comments bordering on hate crimes. This is how many kids talk, so completely sanitizing their dialogue can turn them into bland, plastic stand-ins for real characters. The question for me is how much is too much, along with how to factor in the target audience. Language I might be willing to spring on seventeen year-olds might be somewhat inappropriate for thirteen year-olds…but thirteen year-olds often speak just as colorfully as their older brothers and sisters. And then, of course, there's the matter of what parents and other care-givers might consider acceptable and appropriate for their young charges to read. I've yet to really nail this one down, so I'd be keen to hear some comments about this.
All of this leads me to what I consider the most problematic area in YA fiction—preaching to the reader. This is a problem in any type of fiction, but my experience reading YA, and sometimes even while trying to write, is that there's a temptation for authors to put their ‘grown up’ hats on and start lecturing their audience about some topic they consider important. This is probably the easiest way to lose an audience of younger readers. I certainly think it's possible to deliver powerful messages through YA fiction without getting preachy about it. Once more, kids aren't little adults, and they are relatively innocent when it comes to chunks of their world—but they aren't dumb, either. The challenge for a writer of YA fiction is to find a voice that speaks to younger readers in a way that they seamlessly accept as that of the storyteller, while still portraying believable characters in interesting ways. The other tenets of storytelling—have a beginning, a middle, and an end; really turn the screws on your characters, and then turn them some more; show, don't tell; and so on—all still apply. But writers have to work hard not to talk down to their audience, and this is especially true for younger readers. Accept that the young people reading your book are going to be smart, critical, and looking mainly, in the end, to be entertained. If they're a little sad when they finish reading that last sentence of your story, but have still learned something new about the world, or a new way of thinking about some aspect of people and how they behave, then congratulations—you've been more than simply successful as a writer of YA fiction, you've actually touched a young life. And that, right there, is probably the best reason to write YA of all.
Dave's Bio: Dave Laderoute and his wife, Jackie, live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, along with their three kids—Andrew, Mark, and Sarah—and the obligatory writer's cats. Dave has a Master of Science degree in Geology, has worked extensively in the mining and geoscience sectors, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Canadian Army Reserves. He's been writing off-and-on since 1990, and has had several short stories appear in various small press publications. He's also written extensively for role-playing games, particularly The Legend of the Five Rings product line. Dave's debut novel, Out of Time, is being published in December by Five Rivers Publishing. He's also releasing a novel entitled The Great Sky on Wattpad, as an experiment in building readership. You can read it yourself at: http://www.wattpad.com/23807527-the-great-sky-chapter-1
(Thanks, Dave. Excellent guest post. I look forward to reading your novel, Out of Time this December.)