In fall 2014 I took an elective in Young Adult Literature and Services through my graduate program in library science. My best friend knew I would love this class—because, well, I already loved YA—but he knew I would run into difficulties because, well, I’m super, super picky about all fiction but especially YA. And yet, when that YA novel comes along that so utterly crashes my world and leaves me with a book hangover, that hits on all the feels, I am reminded that YA has the potential to totally disrupt my jaded soul and electrify my desire to live fully and love totally. I am, at heart, a full-blown YA geek, the kind who bulk pre-orders upcoming YA in one fell swoop and then realizes by chance that she already ordered Passenger three times in three separate orders over the span of three months. Yes! It is kind of a gnarly mess, my Amazon “Open Orders” section.
But of course, as with any other genre (literary fiction, romance, mystery, etc), the quality swings widely from high to low. When I start feeling particularly bitter I think about how I suspect some YA just gets churned out of the publishing mill because it’s a premise novel—a novel whose pitch sounded great on paper, especially if it could be summed up as “Popular Novel X meets Popular Novel Y,” but failed to measure up in characterization, consistent world building, or obnoxiously over the top prose.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what kind of advice for YA authors or aspiring YA authors I’d give on how to avoid the dreaded DNF or Did-Not-Finish. And so in this article about tips for YA authors I target avoidable traps that authors so often fall into due to conventions of the genre. I myself am an aspiring YA novelist working on her first novel, and I try to follow my own humble advice below.
My Advice for YA Authors: How to Avoid the DNF
Avoid writing boring characters we don’t give a shit about
This one gets me maybe the most. It is almost a guaranteed DNF. All of my friends in high school were involved with at least one extracurricular or had at least one quirky, eccentric hobby. Everything from Fine Films Club, which showed art house films on Friday afternoons, to the Panther Press, our beloved and surreal newspaper, to marching band, a delightfully chaotic 300-member unit of sound. Our interests ranged from postmodernism to zine culture to Boy Scouts to working at Five Below. We were not boring. No teen I knew in my 1,200 student suburban public high school was boring. So please don’t write teens as vanilla bland!
Characterization is the root of the reader’s relationship with fiction. The protagonist should be someone you would want to be locked in an elevator with because you know they’d keep you entertained with weird stories or bizarre trivia from the fringes of the Earth (i.e. drama nerd land, mathletes, cheerleading culture, competitive board game night, etc.). They should have unique interests and strange secret obsessions (pour on the fandoms…give me a Whovian or a Supernatural fan) that distinguish them from the legions of lame people out there. They should be a little weird. And they don’t even have to be a nerd or a geek or outcast to be weird. If your protagonist is boring, you must not be spending enough time around teens. We don’t care about the normal people! The whole Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey mumbo jumbo with one of the stages being the hero leaves the normal world…that doesn’t mean your protag has to be normal. For the love of god, dress them up with some defining characteristics and interests!
Yet I caution you not to make them quirky just to be quirky or because it seemed like a good idea after you read some article online about how well-rounded characters all have a weird quirk or two. Too often the protag will get some quirk that just sticks out like a sore thumb and just screams superficial characterization. It’s a crutch that belies shoddy characterization. Your character is Joe Average except his one identifiable feature is his undying love for German Expressionism? I don’t believe you (though I do love Metropolis). So please, instead of throwing on a quirk or two, build your character around his or her interests just like a real three dimensional person.
Reading an overly-written novel. Or, He Speaks in One Liners
Every so often you come across a YA novel that is littered with clever, #profound one-liners. You get to the end of a paragraph and there it is:
He looked at me and my world shattered into a million shards of glass. If you leaned over it, you’d see your reflection in the mirror-like splinters of my life floating in a puddle of iridescent tears. Was this what love was like? Epic and fragile and lush all at once?
Right, so that was a fake excerpt I created for this article, but we’ve all been there, reading a novel that is over-written. These novels breathe “clever” prose, spit out precious little swoon-worthy quips, and exude over the top metaphors that break the third wall and take you outside the narrative experience.
In other words, it’s purple prose. According to The Advanced Edit blog, purple prose can be defined as:
“Purple prose is the name given to writing — or, well, prose– that’s just too flowery and too melodramatic for its own good. In other words, just way too much.”
I think YA is especially susceptible to this icky purple prose because there’s such a cult of YA built around notable quotes you can vote for on a book’s Goodreads page and later find on Etsy merchandise. Excerpts from the novel, that choice quote that’s supposed to shatter the reader and give them a book hangover, are slapped on the book jacket or even the back cover of a novel.
Dear authors, our experience living life is not like this. People don’t think that way, maybe writers do, chasing the perfect way to describe a situation (and as an author I definitely get into that mode sometimes), but the world is not written like a novel. Our stream of consciousness does not usually take the form of such lyrical prose, and, I’d argue, probably not your typical teen. It takes away from the reading experience because it can sometimes seem unrealistic.
My advice to you is to write clearly, but don’t lose your unique voice. See: E. Lockhart as a brilliant example of posh style that isn’t overwritten or too smart, as in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Aim for the middle ground. It’s not a competition to see which novel’s best quotes will end up screen printed on shoes. Check your purple prose-ish tendencies at the door and write how we actually think and talk.
Man, nothing burns me more than sloppy worldbuilding, especially when it comes to anything with a dystopian theme. Sometimes it seems like authors start with the subgenre—dystopian—without thinking out how we ever got to a dystopian society. Friends, do yourself a favor and read up on the history of national political revolutions that successfully overthrew the status quo. Then tell me how that happens now, within the next few years, on a global scale, and prove to me why the citizens will roll over and played dead.
Look around. Have we forgotten that America is loaded with people who keep guns in their home to protect themselves? Even now in the news there are headlines of an armed antigovernment militia occupying land in Oregon. The idea that a political administration could rule a totalitarian regime and start a dystopian reality with the country just going with it is predicated on the idea that the populace will let that happen. I just don’t see that given the lengths people will go to to bear arms. So when you’re writing a dystopian novel, please really ask yourself if it’s conceivable that we would get to a dystopian reality and how that happens (and if the planet will still exist at that point). For the love of god, give us some background and some context.
Many a time I’ve seen some cute guy in a bookstore and feel my heart go pitter patter. But eventually I pull out of it and move on with my life. No, apparently he didn’t think I was super dreamy just because I was carrying Cloud Atlas. It was not True Love.
In too many YA novels you’ll find the protagonist swoons over some guy as soon as they lock eyes. To top it off, as these two characters get to know each other in the next ten minutes, they fall madly in love. So often I don’t get what they see in each other, especially if they are Boring Characters (see above). It just seems so unbelievable and forced and so, so sad, especially if the guy turns out to be a manipulative, possessive asshole.
Authors, the classic “meet cute” of romantic comedies was built on more than just locking eyes. There’s definitely something to be said for physical attraction, but to me relationships, and falling in love certainly, are grounded in easy rapports and shared interests and sexual chemistry and kindness. Readers shouldn’t be left wondering “What does he see in her?” or “I don’t get why she’s attracted to him!” because they get together in the first few chapters after Instalust.
I guess what I’m saying is, never underestimate the power of the slow burn…the protagonists stubbornly deny their feelings for each other, at first they start out as friends, eventually their relationship evolves into romance…”Will they or won’t they?” Mounting sexual tension like that makes for a great romance. Yet beware: it’s frustrating when a romance is put off forever because of that overused fiction Rule of God to “Deny the character whatever he/she wants as long as possible and make the conflict the character’s pursuit of the thing he/she desires.” So if you’re going the slow burn approach, at least make it logical why the characters put off their relationship, like they genuinely don’t get that the man/woman they love is perfect for each other, and not because of a few obstacles that get thrown in their way just to create ConflictAndTension. When they finally get together, it is so psychologically rewarding for the reader. We’ve been rooting for them this whole time, watched their relationship evolve, and now get to see the satisfying, logical resolution to that tension. It’s hotter that way!
Those are my four recommendations for YA authors on how to avoid pitfalls of the genre (or really any genre) that lead to the dreaded DNF: Did Not Finish, which in my opinion is even worse than finishing a book and giving it one star.