Posted May 25 2011, 7:00 am in , , , , , , ,

I don't know about you, but THIS is not a story I want to read.

While I was writing my first YA novel some years back, I wrestled with the best ways to straddle the too much information fence. I may be writing for young adults but their parents are likely the ones buying books and it’s hard trying to please everybody, particularly when it comes to writing realistic scenes. Love scenes, dialogue, fight scenes – how could I write them with enough detail to feel real without causing offense? How much information is too much?

I really obsessed over this question. I finished that first novel the way I thought it ‘should’ have been done, with no tongues in the kisses and ‘screw yous’ instead of ‘fuck yous’ in the dialogue. But it wasn’t the story I wanted to write.

You know what? That showed.

I’ve learned a thing or two since then. First, I’m not alone. Crossing this arbitrary line is a big concern for a lot of authors, even those who don’t write YA. Check it out:

Call me depraved, but I like full disclosure in my love scenes, raw language in my dialogue and below-the-belt hits in my fight scenes. That’s because I like realism. When characters face a critical emotional challenge, I’m lifted right out of the story if the hero utters an “Oh, dear” or the bedroom door closes just as the couple gets busy. (Breaking Dawn, anyone?) It stops feeling real and when it’s not real, I don’t care as much.

On the other hand, I’m a parent. I understand the need to protect children from content they’re not mature enough to understand, let alone handle. My teens are big fans of metal music – the heavier, the better. Before iPods, I was buying CDs and scoured the parental warnings on lyrics and Wow! did they churn my gut. I sent my youngest to his room when certain ten o’clock programs aired. I was diligent but I also knew they were seeing, hearing, and facing exactly the issues I was trying to protect them from on a daily basis. As my sons grew, there were many topics we had to discuss because they were there – such as what “molest” means after the school alerted us to a sex offender in the area. There’s that damned fence again  – we want our kids to stay innocent but the only way to protect them is to face some of these issues head on, together.

The reality is kids are doing drugs, having sex, drinking and driving, or contemplating suicide  – or have friends that doing these things.  I don’t write fairy tales. I write contemporary young adult fiction. I think that requires an in-your-face attitude.

So, what’s the answer? I’ve decided to let my characters and my story direct me. There are people in my life I’m sure would wash out their own mouths with soap if they ever uttered an F-bomb. It’s just not in their nature. That’s how I approach the writing. If it fits, if it feels right, I’m going with it.

I think I fear as much as I hope a novel I write will end up on some banned book list one day because that means I wrote a story that appealed to people on a very real level.

Because that’s a compelling story.



11 responses to “TMI in YA”

  1. Linda G. says:

    I think you’re right — you have to keep it honest and authentic if you’re going to connect with readers, YA or otherwise. Teens, especially, have finely tuned BS detectors.

  2. Kelly B says:

    Bravo! I think you said it just right.

  3. Candyland says:

    I’m with you 100%. Reality is, these things are going on. Pretending they aren’t, or sugarcoating, or fading to black doesn’t work for me. It’s not real. I sometimes lose faith in the story and the writer when these things aren’t played out the way they would in life.

  4. Patty says:

    Thanks, ladies!

    Linda, you’re right. When I met teens who’d critiqued SEND, they demanded more profanity, more violence.

    Remember the book review my son did with me for Thirteen Reasons Why? That was some deep subject matter. I wasn’t sure I wanted him reading it. But we used it as the basis for a great discussion and you know what? I learned more about my son than I knew before.

  5. I’ve got swearing, sex and fighting in my YA novel. It was the only way for the story to ring true. I understand the desire to protect our children from the darkness in the world, but I also think kids can learn how to handle these difficult situations by first reading about them in fiction. The short answer is our kids are exposed to things we don’t like every day and hiding them from these circumstances leaves them ill prepared to make it in the real world.

    • Patty says:

      I’m with you on this: “…our kids are exposed to things we don’t like every day and hiding them from these circumstances leaves them ill prepared to make it in the real world.”

      But, I don’t want to write parables either, where everyone looks for the ‘lesson’ and ‘morale’ in every story I write. Sometimes, there is no lesson. It’s just the story I needed to write, you know?

  6. I must admit to a very real hope that one day, my book will pop up on someone’s Banned Book List, for much the same reasons that you pointed out.

    Although, I will admit that I’m not one to write explicit sex scenes, but I hardly blink when I have to throw out an F-bomb or two. :)

  7. Matthew Delman says:

    I will be highly, highly amused if anyone ever bans my stories. Mostly because that means the sales will skyrocket. :)

  8. Donna Coe-Velleman says:

    I think if it feels right, use it. I’ve read some stories where the sex scene ended with the door closing on the couple and it fit. While in others I’ve read, I felt cheated because it didn’t seem to flow with the style of the rest of the story.

    Then again I don’t write YA and might restrict myself even subconsciously.

  9. Catie Rhodes says:

    I liked this post. I struggle with these same issues in my writing. I am sure any author of genre fiction does. You write a cozy mystery and agonize over using the effword. You write an Urban Fantasy, but scrap it because you don’t have two supernatural races battling against each other.

    The thing I always remind myself is that Twilight (like it or not, it was and is huge) and Outlander (even though it’s old) didn’t do exactly what you’re “supposed” to do.

    Great advice!

  10. Patty Blount says:

    Matt, Karla, I agree! Being “banned” could be cool.

    Catie, you’re right; ‘supposed-to’s’ aren’t always the best sellers.