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Friday, October 22, 2010

Mature Themes and Writing YA

These two posts are both cross-posted from the NaNoWriMo message board, with some addition comments.

The thread is about mature themes/topics in YA books and what readers can handle versus what writers can/should write. It's a long debate, especially with books like The Hunger Games trilogy where many readers, parents, and librarians were outraged at the violence of the trilogy, especially in Mocking Jay. I haven't read the books yet, but they're on my list. But then you have other books that have teen sex, drugs use, drinking, any number of things that some adults don't want/thinks teens to/should be exposed to.

Actually, I think the thread started as a rant, but as someone who writes YA, this interests me beyond the level of a rant.

So here's my first post.

Granted I'm no longer in the YA age range, but I still love reading and writing YA. I read YA a lot more now then when I was actually in high school just because the YA market has become it's own entry since then. Before I would have to look for books in the adult section and hoped they had younger characters or just deal with it.

But now YA has exploded as a market, and in some cases it's more popular than the adult market in the same genre. So it seems like a lot of authors are crossing over, meaning they're writing the same genre, but now for both markets.

The only problem I have is that it seems that some of these authors need a formula in order to write YA. Like the last book I read, it seemed like the author made a checklist of all these things that are in YA books, and therefore she needed to use them in her own writing.

Her philosophy seemed to be:
Every teen drinks, unless the parental units are around.
Teens do drugs, like pot and cocaine.
Every teen has sex.
If you can't have sex, you'll masturbate.
Even if the character's in a steady relationship, there still needs to be a love interest that's the new student at school.

That's all I can think of for now, but it just really annoyed me.

I think as an older person trying to write YA I'm more sensitive to some of the stuff that older YA writers feel like they have to include. Mainly because when I was in high school, not everyone was drinking or smoking or doing illegal drugs or even having sex. And sometimes I feel that older YA writers feel like they have to include these things otherwise they won't be true to the YA market, when instead it feels like they're writing stereotypes of teens.

And my second.

When I was in high school I didn't want to read about characters swearing, drinking, having sex, etc because I didn't do any of those things. So a lot of the fiction I wrote at the time was anti-swearing/drugs/sex and it seemed like I went out of my way to avoid those topics in my writing.

But now, ten years later, I've learned a lot about writing, creating characters, and life in general. Now I don't have a problem writing about some high schoolers going to a party and drinking. I don't try to write how evil acohol is, even though I don't drink myself and would prefer my son didn't drink until he's 21. At the same time, I don't write it that every character drinks, has sex, does drugs, etc. It's not who I am now and it wasn't who I was in high school, so I think it's important to show that not everyone does these things, but I think it's more important to be true to the character.

Just like some people experience more "mature themes" at a younger age, some characters can and should experience those same things at a younger age. But just because some teens drink, smoke, do drugs, and have sex, that doesn't mean all teens do or that all teens should in writing either.

Finally, some additional comments.

Do I think that writing YA makes me obligated to write about teen sex/smoking/drug use/drinking/swearing? No. Just because it seems likes it's becoming the norm to write "edgy" YA doesn't mean I need to. That's like saying just be use I write adult fiction about a character in a romantic relationship, I need to include explicit sex scenes. (But that's a topic for a later blog post.)

Some people mention (not necessarily on that thread, but this is just what I've picked up around the blogosphere) that if you include sex/drinking/swearing, etc. you should be obligated to educate your readers on it. Like at another message board I go to, someone said if your teens are having sex, they need to have "safe" sex (which was suggested to them by their agent/editor). I have nothing wrong with that, but birth control still isn't 100% effective. You can extrapolate this into saying if your characters drink and drive, they need to get into an accident or get pulled over by the cops or something.

But other people say that the only obligation you have to your readers is to tell them a good story. You don't need to preach to them about the horrors of teen sex/drugs/drinking or anything else--whether that's your view or not.

To me, telling a good story is being true to my characters. Some of them drink, others don't. Some of them have sex, others don't. Just because I think writing young adult should be true to the young adult experience. Not every teen drinks. Not every teen smokes. Not every teen has sex. So why should all of my teen characters drink, smoke, have sex, etc.?

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