Tag Archives: young adult fiction

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.


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Writing Process Blog Hop

I’ve been assigned by the Planetary Defense Commander to join the Writing Process Blog Hop. The Commander is tasked with defending the planet from bad science fiction, and we’ve never been more in need of his services. Take a look at his site for a rather different approach to reviews. Meanwhile, the idea of the Blog Hop is to get inside the heads of writers, to find out what makes them tick by asking four basic questions:

1. What are you currently working on?

Hmm. Motivation, mostly. I’m still refining Infinity, the novel that got me going on this journey (not counting the two decades I spend collaborating on a ridiculously over-ambitious Blake’s 7 fanfic). I finished the novel nearly a year ago, but since then my query attempts have not gotten me anywhere, so I’ve been doing massive revisions in an attempt to make it more marketable. Some people tell me to stop and just go with what I have, but I do think I keep making it better. Other than that, I don’t have anything on the front burner, mostly because my teaching job eats up a lot of time. I’ve tossed out a couple of short stories I need to revise and shop around, and I have two other novel ideas, one “Young Adult,” the other definitely not, and I really should start working on one of them in earnest.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not particularly well-read, and these days I don’t much enjoy reading. I know, that’s heresy for a writer, but I read so much in my job that it makes it very hard to read for pleasure. Beyond that, I’m so infamously disenchanted with the state of Young Adult fiction that I can only say my book differs in that it’s basically not like that stuff at all. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all YA is “garbage,” as some people assume. I just think it could be so much better than it is. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and readers deserve better. I am sick of all the darkness, and so my book is upbeat and fun, because that’s what I’d want to read. It’s largely free of violence, and what is there has profound emotional and moral consequences. On the other hand, there’s nudity and sex, and I’m trying to present that in a fun and positive way as well, something also uncommon in YA.

My non-YA stuff is, I suspect, right in line with current trends in science fiction, as it’s quite dark, but in what my readers call a “beautifully sad” way. But it’s not particularly violent, and is more about the human condition, and the human spirit.

3. Why do you do what you do?

In terms of writing? The difficulty of the last question makes this one easy. I want to offer something different from all the paranormal angst and dystopian despair. I firmly reject the oft-repeated mantra that says that writers write because they love to write, and that’s really the only reason to do it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, that’s a rather self-indulgent attitude. It also sets a very low bar, if you are only writing to please yourself. I write because I have a story to tell and I want people to hear/read it. My book is nothing without readers.

But more than that, I write as response to the problems I mention above. I want my book to be an instrument of change, to be the vanguard of the rejection of all the darkness, to be a setter of a whole new trend in hope and humor and bringing fun back to teen books. That, I think, is the best reason to write. Great writers write because they want to change the world with their words.

This attitude, by the way, has met with great hostility. The ever-supportive folks on Agent Query Connect responded to my negative opinion of YA fiction by informing me that I was insulting every single writer, publisher and reader of YA out there by not loving it exactly the way it is right now. They couldn’t be more wrong when they accuse me of having “contempt” for YA readers. It’s the publishing industry that’s selling readers short, by assuming they won’t read anything unless it’s about teens just like themselves dealing with experiences that can all be correlated to going to high school and stuff, and I want to offer something better. When I expressed my desire for my book to bring about change within the genre, I was told that that was an extremely arrogant attitude, and that I was doomed to fail. An odd thing for one writer to tell another, don’t you think? It may go a long way to explaining how YA has gotten the way it has, if it’s being written by people who want nothing more than to just contribute more of the same, with no real vision, and no desire to shake things up.

Obviously, I don’t go to Agent Query Connect anymore.

4. How does your writing process work?

I start with some sort of observation, which then ferments in my thoughts for a while while I’m doing other things, until I have a basic story idea. Then I just sort of start writing. I wrote one short story loosely inspired by an old Star Trek episode that got me wondering how a multi-generational colony ship would actually work. Another story had its genesis when I saw a breathtakingly beautiful little girl in the supermarket and found myself wondering how her parents felt about that (and about the fact that I was probably not the only person noticing her). My not-yet-started YA novel Hayley and the Aliens came into being because, on a whim, I Photoshopped a crashing spaceship into a photo of a girl looking out at the ocean, and realized that was the beginning of a good story.


Time Passes is a direct response to my opinion of Young Adult fiction, which led me to wonder why we even have to call it a genre. Why we can’t just call Harry Potter “fantasy”; why we can’t just call Divergent “science fiction”; why can’t we just call The Hunger Games “horror”? Why do we have to attach the “Young Adult” label and put it in a special section of the bookstore? We never used to. And why then don’t we target books specifically to thirty-year-olds, or fifty-year-olds, or seventy-year-olds, all of whom have unique perspectives and experiences every bit as profound as teens have. So I set out to write “Old Adult Science Fiction,” with a story that touches on the experience of middle-agers trying to still be relevant in a world that seems to have passed them by. Nothing autobiographical about that.

Once I have the basic story concept, I sketch out the characters a bit, then start writing. With short stories I write the whole thing in one sitting (generally). With a novel, I bounce around, writing anything that has a clear picture in my head. This timey-wimey approach confounds many of my fellow writers, because I can be simultaneously working on chapter four and chapter twenty-seven. But I find this really helps maintain continuity and ties the story together. This only works because I know the end point of the story (although I may no know exactly how I’m going to get there). That’s what’s stalled Time Passes, because the end point is still fuzzy.

That’s surprising because it has my most blatantly autobiographical character, other than the one in a short story I wrote about a frustrated writer who builds a time machine so he can go back and stop himself from trying to be a writer. But the thing is that my characters are real to me, and, as they develop, they take more and more control of the story, sometimes surprising me. I have a key scene in Infinity because one of my characters (the one who’s generally the loudest in my head) insisted. Literally as I was writing, she butted into the dialogue and said, “We have to do this.” The other characters considered, then agreed. And I was sitting there thinking, “Great, now I have to write a whole new sequence.” That’s exhilarating when it happens, but what’s funny is that, in the recent massive rewrite, the sequence got totally restaged, so I no longer have the scene where she insists on doing it. That worked better played out between two other characters. But it was still her idea.

I revise as I go (a side effect of jumping around), so when I’m done with the “first” draft, it’s really already had a fair amount of polish. I bounce ideas off of critique partners and take problem passages to my writers’ group. And sometimes a whole new idea will pop into my head that leads me to make significant adjustments. I’m facing that right now with Infinity. The hardest part, I suppose, is finally declaring it finished. I really thought it was done last fall. But then the query process so thoroughly undermined my confidence that I’ve gone back in, and I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m happy with it again. I suppose that’s why people say you should just write for yourself; you’re the only one who isn’t going to reject it.

Oh yeah, and I always have my famously eclectic iPod playing as I write, sitting right next to whichever caffeine-delivery system I’m using at the time.

Okay, now I’m to tag fellow writers (and friends):

Cheryl Mahoney writes clever, slightly subversive re-imaginings of fairy tales and classic literature, and her stories are delightfully free of violence and brutality. She’s also as well-read as I am not and offers great insights on that on her website. And she gets most of my obscure sci-fi/fantasy references.

Kelly Haworth, despite being a voracious reader of YA, writes things that are anything but. Dark, twisted stories that challenge your conceptions of identity, especially when it comes to gender. With characters who are all extremely damaged. And Kelly loves aliens (if you know what I mean…).

Andrea Stewart is the closest I know to an actual professional author, her quiet, poetical stories having appeared in legitimate anthologies and landing her an actual agent and everything. She’s prolific to a degree that makes my head spin. And she paints. In the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”


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