Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What "The Twilight Effect" Tells This YA Author

Thanks to everyone who's been showing up for the debate.  It's been eye-opening for me.  I'm sure I'll keep thinking about these issues long into the future and my (hopefully) flourishing publishing career.  But I sincerely hope never to blog about it again - ha!   (On that note: tune in later this week for more self-editing tips).

So what was the point of all that?   For me, this was about finding out what others think so I could make some decisions and plans for myself as a YA author.  I've come to some conclusions.  They may or may not agree with yours.  But here they are if you're interested:

What Should I Focus on When Writing a Protagonist for the Teen Set?

Regarding Character Intentions:

In the past ten days we've witnessed a slice of the polarizing affect of the Twilight books.  Some authors laud them, others abhor them.  Some see a picture of true love, others see an unhealthy, controlling stalker leading a teenage girl down the garden path.

What does that tell me?  That no matter what I write, the events and intentions of the characters will be viewed through the filter of the reader's experience and personal feelings.  And that means I have almost no control over how it's perceived.

I'm NOT saying I should just rush off and write every kind of imaginable mind-game, or unhealthy example because it's easy and they're all going to read it how they read it anyway.

I AM saying that even with the best of intentions, it's likely some readers will still find something icky or uncomfortable about some of the decisions my characters make.

Solution?  Make sure the characters intentions are clear.  Crystal clear.  I'm not suggesting Edward should have looked Bella in the eye and whispered "I'm doing this because I'm afraid for your life.  This is completely about you and has nothing to do with me trying to control events - Capeche?"  If I tried to spell out intentions that clearly, my book will be a boring tome no-one wants to read.

Instead, I'm going to make sure that if there are potential 'muddy waters' about an action or intention of one of my characters, that other scenes will shed light on it.  I'll make sure the reader knows either that the action the character took was wrong (by demonstrating consequences for the bad choice), or by ensuring that the character whose intention could be misread, demonstrates the selfless / positive attitude in another area, hopefully leading the reader to draw the conclusion that those same intentions could be applied to the muddy-waters scene.

I'm using that word 'demonstrate' on purpose.  That means I'm going to show, not tell.  Let my characters be seen making good choices, and let them be seen paying for any bad choices they may make.  Then, if I'm ever forced to 'defend' my book, I reference specific foundational characterizations and actions to back up my point.

Regarding Romantic / Sexual Relationships

I think this aspect of writing for teens is probably the most crucial.  More than any other time in our lives, our teen years (generally) hold a strong focus of understanding ourselves in the context of romantic relationships.  Because I'm heterosexual, my experience to draw on is as a teen girl trying to understand teen guys.  That's what I'll write.  That's what I know. 

But I've learned A LOT about men and relationships in my 35 years.  I'm going to try and put my characters in situations that allow them to learn some of the hard lessons I maybe didn't learn until later in life.  I'd love to get teens thinking in adult terms about the relationships they're entering, because these days, most of the relationships become very 'adult' at a very young age.

In my opinion, judgement, prohibition and shame have no place in a dialogue with teens about love and sex. 

Solution? Where possible, depict an adult's understanding of caution, consequences and self-preservation  -  emotional self-preservation too (an aspect of sexual relationships I think is critically overlooked, yet which can create even greater issus in the long run than physical interactions).

I'll take my worldview, my experience, and my 'advice' and (hopefully) present to teens a realistic depiction of the decisions they face.  When I write situations that are negative, I'll show realistic consequences.  When I write situations that are positive, I'll reward the characters for the right choice.

Again, I want to demonstrate to these young hearts and minds that every decision they make will have downstream effects.  But I don't want to lecture.  I just want to get them thinking ahead - so hopefully, when they're in that situation themselves, they can remember what my book told them about the consequences and rewards.  They don't have to follow my characters' examples (good or bad), but hopefully they'll at least understand them.

That is the best way I can see to be a positive role-model myself, in my writing.

What Responsibility Do I Have for the Messages Young Readers Derive from My Fiction? 

All of it.  But again, even with the best intent, some readers will see things in my fiction I never intended to write.

Solution?  I think this needs a double-pronged approach: 

1. Technical writing that demonstrates my perceptions of events and intentions as closely as possible

I already discussed this above, so go back and read it again if you aren't sure what I mean.

2. An openness and accessibility to young readers that offers them the chance to ask questions.

I learned from reading bestselling YA author Ally Carter's "For Writers"  young readers are FAR more likely to actually tweet, email, comment in blogs, etc, etc, etc.  She suggests that aspiring authors ought to expect a great deal of contact from young readers - and figure out how they're going to handle that.

To me this suggests a prime opportunity to actually spell out areas of the books that readers may question - to offer information only an author can know about how the character's think and feel, and why they act the way they do.

Of course, if my book is successful, the 'opportunities' could be endless, so I'll have to figure out the boundaries when the time comes.  But if my books ever engender even a fraction of Ms. Meyer's interest, I think I'll have a 'Questions for the Author' page on my site.  I'll try to let readers ask about any issues raised by the books, and give them my clear and succinct interpretation of events.

In the end though, there's one point we hit on during the debate which I think I will apply to my day to day existence: Talking to teens about what they read and the issues it raises is absolutely critical.

My son, my nieces and nephews, the children of friends I'm close to.... all of these are opportunities to engage with kids and talk to them about what they're reading.  As an author I can offer a unique view on books.  And as someone who loves them, I can help color between the lines.

So that's my takeaway from this debate.  What was yours?


  1. I was interested to see your comment on judgement, prohibition and shame. In my observation, as the parent of a 33 year old and a 28 year old and watching them and their peers living and growing through teen and pre-teen years, i would say that judgement, prohibition and shame are widely acted out and acted upon.
    This is evidenced to a point by the well-documented and reported incidences of 'bullying'. As in any cultural group, I don't think age precludes individuals from being either the perpetrators or receivers of such treatment as those three issues that you mention.
    In terms of writing, I'm inclined to think that the darker characters may benefit from acting out such roles to make them more real, more fully-fleshed. Think of James Potter in HP and his effect on the young Severus, Malfoy and his father, or even the darker side of Bilbo Baggins.
    Just a thought.

  2. I'd also like to thank you for this and add a caution of my own. YA spans a huge developmental range from 12 to 18. What is appropriate for an 18 yo may be woefully inappropriate for a 12 yo. My daughter recently returned a YA book because much of the sexuality was explicit and way beyond her 12 yo daughter's understanding. Yet it was on the YA shelves. I know from raising three daughters that by the time they were 18 they were way beyond most books in the YA section (Harry Potter and the Twilight series being the exception). Remember that most of your readers will be younger and talking about "s**king c**k" and other explicit sexuality is not appropriate. My granddaughter will read anything she can find on vampires but her mother is now carefully vetting books before purchase.

    I'm also a cofounder of a new publishing company and our YA books will be clearly marked as E for everyone or M for mature. I encourage all YA authors to do this as well. My granddaughter was disappointed to have her Christmas book taken from her on Christmas day but my daughter just didn't feel like explaining all this to 7th grader who won't even begin to date for another 3 years or so.

  3. Great debate! I'm really with the previous commenter, I think we should provide ratings for books. (Don't ask me who should be in charge of determining the ratings, that's a different rat's nest all together.)

    Fellow crusader, and looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.