Tag Archives: young adult fiction

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I may owe an awful lot of authors an apology. Then again, I may not.

To elaborate: I have been querying my novel for several months, with no results to speak of. I’ve tried everything I can. I’ve reworked my query so many times I’ve lost count, alternately emphasizing the male lead, the family unit as a whole, and, most recently, the female lead. Related to that, I’ve reworked my opening, creating a new first chapter from the female lead’s POV, based on the reality that female protagonists in YA fiction are so much the norm as to be pretty much a requirement.

Still, nothing has gotten me anywhere. Okay, maybe my book sucks. But according to pretty much everyone who has seen my query (and I don’t just mean friends, but people who don’t know me from Adam, or Eve), the query is solid, and it sounds like an interesting book. They give me small pointers about how to fix up this or that, but it’s always attached to some disclaimer about how they’re nit-picking, and really it looks good to go. So why do I continue to fail? I am left with one answer, and I now realize I’m going to have to face the elephant in the room: my wordcount.

To put it simply, it’s too high. I’ve been querying with a length of slightly over 100,000 words. Not bad, right? Especially for science fiction, which tends to run longer because of the world building involved. Well, not really. There’s no clear consensus, and a fair amount of outright contradiction, when experts are asked about maximum wordcounts, but overall, a first time author simply cannot have a high one. For YA fiction the range is pretty flexible, but generally seems to run between 55,000 and 80,000 at the very outside. More than that and you take a risk.

As I’ve commented more than once, agents get an unmanageable number of queries and they have to thin them out. One easy way is with wordcount. They look at the number and, if it’s high, they decide they simply don’t want to expend the time. Generally, they assume this is someone who doesn’t know how to edit. And longer books are harder to sell: they require more resources and take up more shelf space without a commensurate return. Sure, there are doorstopper YA books out there, such as the later Harry Potter books. But that’s the key, they were later. By that point the Potter series was such an unprecedented success the author could do whatever the hell she wanted. First time authors rarely have that luxury.

True, there have been exceptions. The very successful Divergent is over 100,000, as is Twilight. But it should be noted that both of those came out some years back, meaning they were probably queried several years prior. In other words, before the YA explosion that has made it so very hard for anyone to break through today. And they were, let’s be clear, exceptions. There will always be exceptions to the rule. But it’s a very bad idea to expect to be the exception. Rather, one must plan on being the rule. Sadly, that’s where I am.

It’s frustrating to see fiercely mediocre books like Divergent and Graceling finding success while I languish. But that’s the way it is. I don’t know the whole story. It’s entirely possible their authors had contacts, knew someone in publishing that gave them an “in.” Hell, that’s the only way I’ve gotten anyone to look at my manuscript so far, so I have no right to complain. But faced with the reality of my lack of success, it’s time to tackle the very likely problem. I simply have to trim my wordcount.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I started in a very angry state of mind and set about to cut everything out that’s not plot and action. I cut out virtually all the setting detail, and most of the quiet character moments. I trimmed the main romance to the bare minimum, and eliminated another romance entirely, including one of the involved characters. I tossed everything that didn’t directly forward the main plot. And, while I was at it, I removed all the sexual content and nudity, even though I got positive feedback on my handling of it.

I’m not finished stitching the remains together, but I must confess that, with a distinct mixture of dismay and surprise, what I have left with… works. It’s a tighter, cleaner story, that doesn’t get bogged down in slow moments that don’t go anywhere, even if it’s a lyrical moment to watch the sunset, or a quiet conversation between the two leads as they dance around the mutual attraction neither is yet aware of.

What I am left with was a story that moves from one action scene to another, with an ongoing sense of tension. A story that lacks anything that makes it distinctly mine. A story largely indistinguishable from all the others out there. Hence, my apology. Specifically, I owe those fiercely mediocre authors I complain about an apology. I rant about how these hacks get a book deal while my literary masterpiece gets no traction. But perhaps my ire is misplaced.

It may well be that these authors started out with books that were every bit as rich and complex as I’d like to think mine was. And, in the process of getting them published, the authors had to cut and hack and slash and remove all of those things to get something that could sell. Something familiar, that an agent could immediately grasp and, more importantly, turn around and easily pitch to a film studio. Perhaps these authors aren’t hacks, they just had to compromise their vision to break into a hack industry. Just as I am doing.

Then again, I may also be too forgiving. The deficiencies that I’ve seen in these YA books may not just come from having to compromise. First, I will point out that there are more than a few YA books out there with prose that is weak, overwrought or just plain bad. That’s intrinsic to the writer. But I’ve also read books with hackneyed plot contrivances, underdeveloped characters and gaping plot holes. I am not alone in these objections. Many of these books have gotten less-than-stellar reviews, and many YA fans complain about how prevalent these problems are. I fear I may now be guilty of some of these things because of the cuts I’ve made, sequences where we get to know the characters and their relationships develop organically. I’ve cut that in order to meet the needed wordcount. I’ve been forced to turn my book into the sort of book I would condemn if written by someone else.

Sour grapes on my part, right? Not entirely. Because my story has, to a great extent, improved. I went in and cut out everything I could, and discovered that a lot of it really wasn’t needed. In many places, it’s much better, and I would not have discovered that without the damned wordcount issue. Now, perhaps I’m overreacting; wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe I don’t need to cut it this savagely. I haven’t ruled out bringing things back. But I won’t go backwards. Rather, if I decide to return something I cut, I’ll put it in fresh. I’ve already done that once, restoring a key scene between the romantic leads. But I put it back in a different point in the story, much further along, and it works much better. It’s where it always should have been, but I just couldn’t see it. I compare this to a book like Graceling, which runs over 100,000 words, yet has thin, undeveloped characters, a long journey during which nothing happens, a nearly non-existent antagonist whose defeat is anti-climactic, and what may be the ickiest sex scene I’ve yet read in the YA genre.  Length cannot improve what wasn’t very good to begin with.

So I continue forward, with a slightly more sympathetic view of other writers. And it’s worth noting that this article had been cut down substantially from its original form. Judicious editing is always appropriate. But I’m still saddened that these improvements I am making are being driven by a publishing industry that no longer has the patience for a complex story that develops at a leisurely pace, and takes a number of turns and sidetrips on the way. My book includes a journey, and that’s where I made the most cuts. I get to the destination faster, but at the cost of some delightful, yet ultimately unimportant moments. When there’s gain, there’s also loss. That’s just the way it is.

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Writing Habits: A Questionnaire

One of my recent visitors, Jodie Llewellyn, posted this little exercise, and it sounds like fun and might get me going again.

1. Typed or Handwritten?

Typed.  Word processor, actually.  Forget writing anything by hand.

2. Cursive or Printed?

See above.  But when I do write by hand, it’s print.  I put the curse in cursive.  According to my signature, my name is Ro& P Gm&&&.

a cool pen3. Show us your favorite pen.

Heh.  Okay.  This one is a combination flashlight, laser pointer, counterfeit money detector, and stylus.  Oh, and you can also write with it, I assume.

4. Where do you like to write?

Basically at my computer.  It’s a laptop, but it’s so old and creaky that I’m scared to move it.  I wrote a short story (autobiographical science fiction) where the climactic point is probably that computer being smashed on the floor.

5. Who are your five favorite authors in terms of authorial style?

Hmm, tough.  I’m nowhere near as well-read as I supposedly should be.  Here’s five I consider to be good writers: Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, Ray Bradbury, Jack L. Chalker, Arthur C. Clarke.  You might have noticed there are no “young adult” authors on that list.  Uh huh.

6. What are you your three favorite books on writing?

Don’t really have any.  I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned from a book.  I got partway through Stephen King’s On Writing, but eventually realized it would more accurately be called On Stephen King.  We writers do love to talk about ourselves.

7. Have you ever competed in NaNoWriMo?

No.  For one thing, it comes at a bad time of year for me.  Further, making myself write has not been a problem in the past.  I’ve written complete short stories in the space of an hour or less.  I’ve cranked out multiple chapters in a single afternoon.  If it’s coming, it comes.  And I prefer not to try to force it into a mold.

8. Have you ever won NaNoWriMo?

No.  Didn’t even know you could “win”?  What’s the prize?

9. Have you ever had anything published?

Um… how to put this?  No.  No, I have not.

10. What projects are you working on now?

Trying the change the answer to #9.  Revising the opening chapter on the assumption that it’s one of the reasons I’m getting rejected.  I should sit down and revise a short story I recently wrote, so I can try submitting it places.  I shared it with writers’ group and they all liked it.  And I wrote the first chapter of a time-travel novel, in a genre that I am inventing called “Old Adult Science Fiction.”  If we can target a thousand crappy books specifically to teens and their “unique” concerns, then it sould be possible to put out some good ones for people like me.  I really should try to get it going.  The writers’ group liked it as well.  Too bad none of them are agents or anything…

11. What is your soundtrack to writing?

Oh dear.  My iPod is famously eclectic.  Everything from classical to jazz to old school prog to grunge to bluegrass to Hawai’ian to novelty songs.  But these days I have been getting lots of play from the Star Trek Original Series Soundtrack Collection.  At this moment I’m being serenaded by the legendary Vulcan fight music (you know what I’m talking about!).  It’s just great music and a lot of the cues fit nicely with different scenes I’ve written.  And during my recent two week pause to wallow in Olympic figure skating, I found myself mixing together a four-minute sequence that I think would make a great program for ladies’ free skate. Specifically the cues called. “Enter Miranda,” “Alien Ship” and “Big Fite,” for anyone nerdy enough to be familiar.  I’m serious.  Isadora, are you still out there?

12. Do you have a writing pump-up song?

Not really.  That said, I’ve been very motivated by Ambrosia’s “Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled.”  It’s a cool song, and lyrically it perfectly sums up the motivation and experience of three of my main characters.  I like it so much I worked it into the book.  Then one of my crit partners basically said, “You’re referencing a song from 1974 in your Young Adult novel?”  Then she stared at me.  Followed but somewhat more contemporary alternatives.  Yes ma’am.

Okay, any of my writer buddies want to try this?

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Science Friction

My efforts to find an agent for my book continue to be unrewarded.  My friends tell me to hang in there, that it’s simply a matter of finding the right agent.  I suppose, but in the meantime it’s not inappropriate to try to consider reasons why I have so far been unsuccessful.  The query process is brutal, and there’s much to be said about that, but that’s for another day.  I can’t rule out the possibility that my word count is too high, at 100,000, although there have been quite a few very successful debuts higher than that.  I have to wonder how much the fact that I am a man trying to break into a genre that is overwhelmingly dominated by women plays into it.  All of these are considerations, but not what I want to examine today.

I want to look at genre.  I’m presenting my book as “young adult science fiction.”  I’ve not been reticent on my dissatisfaction with the young adult genre (and yes, it is a genre, not a “category”).  For starters, I’m increasingly of the opinion that it is arbitrary, irrelevant and ultimately counter-productive.  I’ve been going back and forth on whether I should even call my book “young adult.”  But, again, that’s for another day.  Instead I want to focus on the other side of the equation: science fiction.

I’ve always been a science fiction fan.  But the genre is amorphous and covers more ground than we might think, so it’s worth laying out how I see it.  And bear in mind that this is purely my take on it.  Any writer who talks about writing, or fiction genres, is merely giving his personal opinion and it should never, under any circumstances, be taken as authoritative.

To begin, what got me started thinking about this was a recent examination of a website where agents present their “wishlists,” the kinds of things they would love to get queries on.  Why they say they are looking for these things when they then turn around and reject them in favor of yet another cookie-cutter dystopian vampire romance is beyond me, but people rarely really want what they say they want.  I base this on the fact that I have investigated agents who say they are looking for books with such and so characteristics, and my book fits them perfectly.  Yet when I queried and specifically pointed out the ways my book was exactly like what they said they wanted, I got a form rejection within a day, noting that my book doesn’t fit with what they currently represent.  Uh, yeah, wasn’t that the point?  Weren’t they looking for something different?  The answer, of course, is “Not really.”  But it was illustrative (and discouraging) to see that none of them, by which I mean none at all, had science fiction on their wishlists.

Okay, that’s an oversimplification, and to understand it better, I went searching for examples of “young adult science fiction.”  Most of what I came up with fell into two categories.  First, there were recently published books called that.  Without exception, they were dystopias like Hunger Games and Divergent.  And dystopia is on the way out (they say, but I see no evidence of that actually being the case).  In other words, for agents and publishers, science fiction means dystopia, and, because they are tired of dystopia, they aren’t interested in science fiction.  Oh the humanity.

There is so much more to science fiction than dystopia.  I was reminded of that by the other type of works that turned up in my search.  All sorts of things.  And they, too, had something in common: they were published years ago.  One well established author, David Brin, offered a list of great science fiction for young adults (not “young adult science fiction”).  His list was heavily weighted toward older books, some going back as far as the 1950s.  And many of them would get laughed out of an agent’s office if you tried to pitch them as “young adult.”  Asimov’s Foundation series?  I don’t see any teens in there, David.  I’m not saying he’s wrong about the books he listed being great reads for teens (they were when I read them as a teen).  But it’s a mistake to try to connect them to a genre that didn’t exist when they were written.  This has been done to books like The Golden Compass and Ender’s Game, and it’s why the movies based on them did poorly; they were marketed as being something they are not.  Just call them science fiction.  And they are great reads.  For everyone, teens included.

When I was a teen, I took a class in high school called “speculative fiction.”  We read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, and Childhood’s End by Clarke, and many different short stories.  What we came away with was how diverse science fiction is.  So what is it?

If we focus on the “science” part, we see can conclude that there is some basis in scientific thinking to be found.  Okay, not a bad start, but limiting.  Some science fiction deals with the application of various scientific concepts, either real or projected.  Space flight, time travel, cybernetics, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, virtual reality, the list goes on.  A young man in my writers’ group writes what the rest of us have affectionately dubbed “techno porn,” which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with wallowing in hardware and physics concepts and the sort of stuff that makes most us have our eyes glaze over after a few pages.  But we all agree that he’s doing it well and there is most definitely an audience for it, even if most of us don’t fall in it.

But that’s only one angle.  There’s a scale of science fiction, ranging from “hard” to “soft.”  His work is “hard.”  I will illustrate using the example of a time machine.

Hard science fiction:

Stan:  I have invented a time machine.

Bob:  Interesting.  How does it work?

Stan:  It’s complicated.  Please have a seat while I bring you up to speed on the current understanding of quantum mechanics.  Then, in the next chapter, I’ll discuss the theoretical ways that quantum entanglement can be postulated to allow the manufacture of artificial singularities by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.

Soft science fiction:

Bob:  I have invented a time machine.

Stan:  Cool!  How does it work?

Bob:  It’s simple.  You sit in this chair, enter the date on that dial, pull the lever, and off you go.

My work definitely leans in the latter direction, although I have managed to work cosmology and quantum theory into it, sort of.  Indeed, I play so fast and loose with the science that my book could well be called “science fantasy.”  I’m okay with that.  The issue is what you are reading for.  People who read hard science fiction want to be blown away by amazing concepts, and in fact will be riveted by a book that consists of little more than two people sitting in a nondescript room talking about stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in a graduate seminar at Cornell University.  Believe it or not, that’s the gist of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” widely considered the best science fiction story of all time.

On the other hand, people who read soft science fiction want a ripping story and enjoy when it’s dressed up with a few sciencey trappings.  A lot of science fiction is barely scientific.  Consider Ray Bradbury, who only grudgingly accepted the classification for his stories, which were about the human condition and just happened to take place on a planet that bore no resemblance to the real Mars.  I’ve mentioned Star Trek before, and I value Gene Rodenberry’s dictum that they would never explain how things work.  Later incarnations of the franchise lost sight of this and had an unfortunately tendency to engage in “technobabble,” stuff that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything.  I say, either get the science right, or else don’t try to make it anything more than background.

Both angles are valid, and the best works combine both, but there’s nothing wrong with ones that lean one way or the other.  Some classic science fiction has generic plots and cardboard characters, while other equally great science fiction has embarrassingly bad science.  It’s not worth arguing about which is “better.”  Great stories are just that: stories.  This is true in any genre.  When writers forget this, and just offer books that focus on a setting through which the characters bounce like pinballs, or offer non-stop scenes of action and barbarism, the results should be disappointing for them.  Alas, this is not the case, not with the way the publishing industry has been made an arm of the film industry, which has learned that you fill theater seats by offering mindless spectacle.

But great stories are about people, dealing with ideas.  More to the point, they are about us, dealing with ideas that are relevent today.  I don’t mean they are specifically about teens navigating the perilous world of hormones and peer pressure, or teen girls in the bloom of first love, or whatever limited characterizations are now required in the young adult genre.  I mean that they are characters who would fit in our world.  This is true in historical fiction, which fails when it presents historically accurate characters with motives and experiences we can’t connect to.  That’s why a western created in 1950 is markedly different from one created in 1990.  They are products of the time in which they were written and have little to do with the real “Old West.”

The same holds for science fiction, which may pretend to be about the future but is really about the present.  It says a lot about the time in which it was produced.  Authors use it to comment on some element of today that should be examined in a new way.  It reinforces our values and ideals, while at the same time interrogating and challenging them.  That’s why the preponderance of depressing, dystopian crap makes me so sad.  I don’t like what it’s saying about who we are today.  I don’t think it reflects reality in any way that’s healthy.  That’s why I want so badly for my story, which is hopeful and optimistic, to get out there, and why I feel even worse that it’s being blocked at every turn, as though people don’t want hope and optimism.

I am sad at the way hopelessness has become so pervasive that it’s colored the ability of people in the publishing industry to see science fiction as anything else, at least in the young adult genre..  It’s limited thinking.

Mind you, when has that ever stopped anyone?

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