1. LostThePlot
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    Putting the adult into young adult?

    Discussion in 'By the Genre' started by LostThePlot, Apr 17, 2016.

    Sometimes it takes just letting your thoughts wander a bit to get some perspective on stuff. I was posting over in the 'your book in a nutshell' thread a few days ago and as I was pontificating (as I am wont to do) I sort of sarcastically tossed out the suggestion that maybe I should classify my work as part of the YA niche. The joke here being that I write bleak, lonely, thematically challenging stuff with explicit sex, drugs and self harm and weird sex, drugs and self harm come to that.

    But the idea kinda stuck with me. Maybe not all my stuff, but I've written three in a row with teenage protagonists that are coming of age stories about kids who feel (rightly so) not normal and trying to come to terms with who they are. That takes them to some dark places off on the edge of being socially acceptable but it's not like this is a million miles away from what YA fiction is. It's not like dark, grown up themes are off the agenda here (see all dem murders over in Twilight and Hunger Games and even in Harry Potter) and the explicit stuff is easily toned down or totally cut which leave just... Well, some teenagers living teenage lives, worrying about school and boyfriends (and their miscellaneous problems involving lying about having cancer or being a prophet) and figuring out who they are going to be.

    Maybe I'm seeing something because I want to but after a few days of thought I've seriously started thinking about pursuing this. These aren't hard cuts to make and I've always had an eye towards the potential angsty teenager in the ideas I write anyway (because part of me still is one) so why was it so ludicrous to suggest that the world of YA couldn't support this kind of work? Decently written fiction about teenage problems.

    Is it really just because we (or I anyway) have the received opinion that YA fiction is, to coin a phrase, shit? I mean, I never really read YA fiction ever. People I trust tell me that Twilight is tosh but is that really a good enough reason alone to just denigrate the genre forever? To the point of not pursuing a potential audience or at least a potential pay cheque?

    So; two questions for discussion here:

    1. Is there any story with adolescent themes that couldn't be pitched as a YA book with a reasonable expectation of success assuming you were cynical/audacious enough to try?

    2. Is there actually any difference between decently written adult fiction starring teenagers and decently written YA fiction with adult themes? And if not are these things you should be selling the same way?

    Or to ask another way...

    Why is it so stupid to suggest good, dark books can't be for the YA audience?
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I can tell you haven't read YA. I've read YA novels with overt sex, cutting, suicide, drug use, murder, sexual assault, abduction, abuse, etc. It covers any subject matter. And there's a lot of very good YA fiction that handles these issues well. So, YA does take all of these sorts of elements and handle them well. If you want to write in YA, become familiar with what is out there.
     
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  3. BayView
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    I'm with @Steerpike - you need to read more YA before you decide whether you're writing it or not. You may want to look for "Edgy YA" - it's a category that was pretty popular a few years ago, but the term itself has maybe suffered a bit from over-popularity lately. Still, it could be useful. You might want to try:

    Inexcusable by Chris Lynch;
    Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott;
    Smack by Melvin Burgess;
    or pick about anything by Ellen Hopkins.

    In terms of whether there's a difference between well-written YA and well-written adult fiction, other than the ages of the protagonist, it usually comes down to voice. Which is a bit nebulous, of course, but... do some more reading and you'll probably pick up on what it's getting at.
     
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  4. Feo Takahari
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    I've read a lot of YA with explicit sex and drug use, like Rats Saw God or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Self-harm is more likely to be found in award-bait stories with no other explicit elements, but I have seen it in a few drugs-and-sex YA novels like Elsewhere by Will Shetterly.
     
  5. LostThePlot
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    So to put it another way - Yes, you can pitch this stuff out there it's only my perception of YA work as a whole that's the problem here?

    The reason why this was even a joke to begin with was because (frankly) my work is difficult to sell to adults (positive depictions of incest for all!) and typically I'm not telling the 'correct' moral story. My characters don't do bad things for good reasons; they do it because they are kinda shitty people.

    And again; I genuinely don't know what I'm looking at here and that's why I ask - On a thematic level can you tell a story about shitty people doing bad things for ambiguously bad reasons and still roll out the other end with a YA book? Taken at face value you can read my work as 'lying is a great idea if you don't get caught' or even 'heroin and self harm are acceptable ways to handle your problems'. That's kinda why I ask about what stuff might (or apparently might not?) put something into explicitly adult territory. Like seriously; is there anything that couldn't thematically be called YA if you were so inclined to call it so?
     
  6. Steerpike
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    I've only seen incest presented in what might be considered a positive (or at least neutral) light in an adult novel. Given everything that is out there in YA, though, I would be hesitant to say that there is anything you can't do if handled well. Every time someone says that, some YA off goes off and does what you supposedly can't do.
     
  7. LostThePlot
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    To put it in context; they aren't blood related. But it is still a fifteen year old boy in a very mutual romantic relationship with the forty year old woman who he's known as his mother. He initiates it and she's into it and eventually they have a kid and get married (this is three books of plot condensed, not one story). It's written to be creepy as all hell (in bed she talks to him like he's still eight) but it does work out for them in the end. But it's a very ambiguous story; while it is creepy as all hell the overriding message is 'follow what makes you happy, not what people tell you'. I don't even know if that's the appropriate moral message in this context or not anymore. Which is the point of course. Should society tell them they can't be together if they want to be?

    I really wasn't considering this book (or series as it has become) to be one I could realistically pitch as a YA book. It's main character is a teenager but I figured there wasn't a chance in hell I could pitch it because, well, the whole story is playing off the problems of being a teenager going out with his mother. But maybe not? I mean, seriously... If that's stuff that wouldn't disqualify it from the YA niche then my stuff about the girl lying about having cancer or my weird lesbian beauty queen story from going out to teenagers.

    And I don't see that as a bad thing. I really do think that if you're a teenager you could use a book that teaches a certain brand of cynical adultism to you; and getting the message that no matter how horrible the world is (and it really is horrible) you can always find happiness, you can always find love and that's really what matters. The reason I haven't tried pitching them that way before was really because, frankly, I didn't think they'd let me sell them that way.
     
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  8. PrincessSofia
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    I read a lot of YA and to some extent you could I say write it too ( same themes, but my characters are in college), so I would suggest you read some , just to make an opinion for yourself.
     
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  9. GingerCoffee
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    While this might be a plot in a novel dealing with complex issues of family, attraction and love, I can't see this as a theme that would interest the YA audience. It's not a theme many young adults are dealing with and I can't imagine it's a fantasy they would enjoy vicariously.

    Is there a reason you think YA might be your target market?
     
  10. LostThePlot
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    Well that's kinda my point (or was when i made this thread anyway); I had no idea what you could and couldn't publish under the YA banner. Everyone (my girlfriend included) were saying 'Oh you can totally sell that as YA' while I was saying 'No seriously; I don't think you understand exactly what is in this book'. I still don't really know if I can pursue the Messiah books as YA books (I'm going to anyway just to see) but what I wanted to really know is where the line is here. Is that book maybe not a YA book? Maybe. But my next book is essentially a high school drama about a girl lying about having cancer, the one after that is set in the world of teenage beauty pageants both of which definitely fit the YA mould fairly well.

    As for themes that fit the YA stuff... God only knows mate. People have been queuing up to tell me all the nasty glibly YA books they have with graphics sex and violence and what have you. There's plenty of nasty dark stories on YA imprints sitting on my girlfriends bookshelf. She assures me that the only pre-requisite is drama. Whether that rules out Messiah as a project because it's not easy for teenage girls to project into I don't know. His coming of age (which is over half the book) is still really relevant to the niche; a very different kid from a different world just trying to be normal. And the romance is packed full of drama and is genuinely well written and presented as weird but sweet and the overall message is 'follow your heart no matter what people say'. Is that YA enough? I guess we'll see. I still don't know.
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    My philosophy is, write the book you want to write, and if it's not in a clear-cut genre, wait until it's finished and have others judge the genre.
     
  12. LostThePlot
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    That's exactly what I'm doing. The challenge has been in obtaining those opinions. Is Messiah a literary work because it's a character focused drama about some outsiders finding each other? Is it a YA coming of age book about a teenager doing teenage stuff with a unique twist? Is it a weird romance book? Fuck knows! I just know it's good and I'd quite like to make money from it. Who I sell it to I'm not fussy really; I have faith the strength of the work will elevate it wherever it starts out. Is there some attraction to have a core fan base of teenage girls? I would be lying if I said otherwise. But one thing at a time.
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    I can't judge solely on your plot because the story could go in numerous directions but like I said, I don't see your plot fitting very well into a YA genre. Especially when you added the incest, even if faux incest. I can't imagine a story about Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn ever selling big among any audience except people mildly curious about such a relationship.

    This is Mary Kay Letourneau/Vili Fualaau territory and not too many people were interested in what is still seen as a child abuser who married her victim.

    There were several books about the case, mostly in other languages. This one, If Loving You Was Wrong, is sold in the US.

    Salon has a detailed account of the convoluted (semi-auto-)biographies of this affair.

    You should read the whole article, it's interesting.

    But most people did indeed see it as "icky" here in the US. France and Japan, on the other hand.... who knows?
     
  14. LostThePlot
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    This is one of these trans-atlantic things. Their relationship is weird and creepy as all hell but it's all his idea and there's absolutely no abuse here. Back in the motherland the age of consent is 16. He's 16 when he starts pursuing her; if he wants to sleep with her he absolutely can and she never did anything to encourage him to do so, aside from being the only human being he ever had a connection with his whole life.

    That's why it's written that way; their relationship is a huge heap of unhealthy and both of them have pretty serious issues that lead them to give it a go but they are openly and notoriously a couple and there's nothing that anyone can do if they are both happy together which they are. It's not a story hinging around the shock of them getting together; it's about why they want to be (she has a bunch of unrelated teenage and maternal stuff going on that make her open to the idea of a young man who she taught unknowingly to be her perfect boyfriend if you're curious).

    If anyone is being taken advantage of in the story it's absolutely her, what with him being a religious icon and literally a Christ figure to her (literally the son of god in their faith) which makes it extremely difficult for her to say no to him. That pays off in the next book where he doesn't realize that after ten years in a cult this is something almost pathological in her and doesn't understand selfishly asking her for sex is almost exactly raping her.

    There's a lot going on here, that's what I'm saying. It's an extremely teenage story though. It's just the premise of 'a coming of age story in a weird restrictive environment' extrapolated out a few notches. Does that take it outside YA? If so, where does that take it? I'm certainly much happier with the pitch I've written for it as a potential YA book; thematically it's all about alienation and loneliness and trying to find out who you really are. Part of figuring that out is him finding her. She is the catalyst for him becoming a young man; he finally learns to spread his wings and stop being a baby under her wing. He figures out how to stand on his own to feet, be confident in himself and see her as a person. And it's not the whole book at all, it's about the last third; he starts to grow up, he figures out he likes her, they miss a connection, then they figure out how to make it work just in time for the church to collapse and them apparently get torn apart by a world that won't understand them. For theirs was a (seemingly) doomed romance that was never really meant to be just after the reader buys into it maybe working.

    And in that first book there's really nothing objectionable as such; they don't have sex while they are still in the church; they kiss and cuddle but nothing else. They are actually very sweet together.

    Again; I have no idea what that does to the genre but without a genre I'm pretty much fucked in terms of selling it and while I agree it's not the best YA fit, 'teenage protagonist' is the best I got right now. Submitting this one is really only something to be getting on with until I edit down the more naturally YA books to size and get them out and about. This one is a sticky one for sure, but lacking any other niche to put it in I think YA is as good a fit as I'll get.
     
  15. GingerCoffee
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    Just out of curiosity, do you believe if a 16 yr old girl comes on to a 40 yr old man, is it fine if he has sex with her?
     
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  16. LostThePlot
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    Yup. That's fine by me. It's a cultural thing.

    It's creepy but creepy doesn't make it wrong. I think furries and polyamerous couples are creepy; but they are legally adults (adult foxes sometimes, but adult nevertheless) engaging in consensual behavior. What they do is up to them. Over here when you are 16 you are legally an adult and can consent, and it's not uncommon for younger kids to have sex too. It's almost unheard of for us to prosecute close-aged couples for statutory rape and, frankly, it's just not that big a deal over here. If an adult sleeps with someone under 16 then yeah that's a big deal, and I'd certainly get some dirty looks for sleeping with girls twelve years my junior but no-one's going to tell me I can't. I happen to know that (in private) I would get a thousand high fives for sleeping with actual, literal school girls; doubly so if she came on to me. I understand that in the US the culture is different. Even in states with a 16 year old age of consent the culture sets acceptable limits at 18, at least with adults. But we don't really have that. Maybe it's because we don't have parents who can concealed carry?

    From my perspective it's genuinely weird to suggest that it's wrong for someone over the age of consent to have sex with whoever they want. No matter how icky it's hard to argue that society has the right to decide for them when they are consenting adults. Their relationship is supposed to make the reader uncomfortable but the whole point is that it's challenging you for being uncomfortable and asking for a good reason why we should stop them being happy together if they want to be. If the genders were flipped it's the same story. I like it less because Judith's character is about motherhood (she joined the church because after ten years of trying she found out she couldn't have children and that very nearly gave her a nervous breakdown) and being the quiet, shy little sister who no-one ever paid attention to; something that doesn't work as well as a male parent but in principle I think it's the same.

    When my girlfriend and I had just met one of her friends was going out with a guy in his 40s. Was it awkward and uncomfortable? Yes. Was it wrong? No. I went to the same uni as that girl and I happen to know they stayed together for over two years until we lost touch and she was happy with it the whole time. Her parents were not happy. But who are the going to call here? The sex police? A lynch mob? This is Britain. We tut at these things because it's not hurting anyone.

    I'm absolutely playing with the edges of what is and isn't ok, what is and isn't creepy. That's the whole deal of what's happening here. It's supposed to pull the reader in different directions between them having moments where they feels very sweet contrasted with them being just super icky. If you think it's objectionable now you wait until you hear how she talks to him in bed. But (I am informed) none of this puts its outside the YA world, at least on content. YA doesn't mean 'children' remember, it means '14+'. There's no graphics sex at all. Their relationship is part of the story but it's less than half the story. It's a challenging book that's asking why exactly you aren't ok with them being happy together and the message really is 'follow your heart, not what people tell you you should feel'. And yes, it makes that point by going beyond where that story normally stops. That's just the real world as I see it. You should follow your heart but that is way harder and way more complex than just picking the right boy.

    Again, I really don't know if it's something that an agent would buy as a YA book. The books I'm still working on are much more clean cut to fall into that. But to go back to the title of this thread; the question was really 'can I reasonably present this as a YA book?' or to put it another way 'how adult can a YA book be and still be YA?'. And the answers seem to be 'Yes, but it's a tough sell' and 'Very adult; that's not your problem here'. I'm certainly happier trying to sell this story as a hard to sell YA book than as a genreless literary work.
     
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  17. GingerCoffee
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    Where is "over here"?
     
  18. BruceA
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    Surely, the issue is more about power, rather than age, or gender. I come from a background of Mental Health Nursing so am very concious of how older people are often in a more powerful position in the relationship than the younger person (especially if they are teacher, nurse, doctor or mother or father figure). That is where relationships can be dodgy, not the age gap. If both people have equal power in a relationship it is all good. But if one holds more power (and it sounds like @LostThePlot that you are saying in your story it is the younger person EDIT: or is by one of your later books, but perhaps starts off the other way around?) then the relationship can (is?) be abusive.
     
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  19. LostThePlot
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    The first book (which is all we're really looking at here right now) is set inside the church just after Ellie (the boy)'s father has died and he has become the prophet; a combination of pope and Christ. The story runs for about nine months until the church ultimately collapses but the whole of this first story is inside the church with Ellie as leader and his word is law to all of his following. He absolutely doesn't want to become the tyrant his father was and he badly wants to find people who care about him as a person, not just as a religious figure, but he does have the power here. He absolutely doesn't command Judith to be with him, to the contrary he's attracted to her because she's the only person who he feels genuinely doesn't care that he's the prophet.

    It's actually not a religious thing about Judith being unable to say no to Ellie at times. It's not relevant at all in the first book; but to fill in some blanks here: Judith demonstrably can say no to him, but only when it's for his own good. She can teach him, tell him not to play with matches, make him get up in the morning; normal mum stuff. But when he's really upset and needs her she absolutely can't let him down. Mostly that's not a problem. It becomes one because in the second book she hasn't resolved the crossed wires between being his mother and being his girlfriend. Ellie is damn near hysterical, they cuddle up, he thinks that them sleeping together will make him feel better. At that moment Judith is feeling like he's her son but she can't just tell him no either; doing so feels like losing him forever. She says yes, rationalizing that she'd rather let him hurt her than her hurt him but it really does hurt her.

    Much later on Ellie will wonder if he is taking advantage of Judith, to the point that he nearly walks out on her and his baby because he suspects that she's only with him because of her faith in him. He's super aware of the power dynamic, even years after it's gone. But Judith never really sees it like that, even in the very early days of their relationship. To her he'll always be the five year old that she first met; the little boy she single handedly raised and taught to be a decent human being against incredibly tough odds. If he tried to order her to do something she didn't agree with she'd tell him not to be silly and go back to her sewing. It's the same story for their parental relationship. Judith is super-committed to being his mum; the miracle baby she couldn't have outside the church. But to Ellie, well, he knows she's not his mother. And really he doesn't know why mothers are such a big deal anyway. He never knew other kids, never saw what actual families are like. He barely knew his jerk of a father and he'd much rather hang out with Judith than anyone related to him.

    Their relationship is definitely not healthy and there's lots of trailing strands from how they met and how Ellie grew up. There's a bunch of weird crossed wires in what they feel and why but they aren't supposed to be abusing each other at all. There's no subtext of that in the first book at all; the really challenging stuff relating to sex etc is later in their story. All you're going to see happen in the first book is Ellie grow up enough to start thinking about girls; meet a few girls and being uncomfortable with them treating him like Jesus; him wondering why no-one else can treat him like Judith does; him awkwardly telling her he has feelings for her; her slowly realizing that they haven't actually been acting like mother and son after all. She likes being affectionate with him, she likes holding his hand and she likes it when he kisses her but with a sixteen year old that's not really what mothers do, is it?

    The point of the story is not about abuse; it's about how upbringing effects our perception of normality and particularly our taboos and to have the courage of those convictions. It's not all leading up to the big reveal of him falling for his mum. It's about following that strand beyond that point and looking where it would take them. It's not just about screwing them up then cutting away at the climactic moment of screwed up; it's to get them realistically into that situation and then following where that leads right up until they get their shit together and become pretty much normal people some years later. The first book is just about a teenage boy growing up; seeing him overcome his upbringing to become a good leader and a confident, capable young man and finding love and the normal coming of age stuff. There's a weird twist on that but it's not going outside the bounds of that story structure.
     
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  20. LostThePlot
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    To return a little to what I was originally asking here;

    Is a better question perhaps something like 'How challenging can a YA book be and still be a YA book?'

    Just nosing around I've found plenty of nasty, dark stuff in the YA market place. On content it appears you can please yourself. However, presentation clearly does matter. YA books like to get edgy. Teenagers like it too. If you're 14 then a book that's all about sex or violence (or both) is really grown up and awesome but to adults it'd seem juvenile. So that kind of content is out there. But I don't necessarily think it's portrayed in challenging ways.

    You can revel in violence in a teenage work but I think it's less common to tell stories about the effects of violence. You can have your main characters be brother and sister and also a couple (seriously, it's quite common in manga), as long as you don't really examine what's going on here. You can be edgy in all kinds of ways but can you perhaps not be challenging? You can include these elements to get that kind of dark mystique but if you go too deep in looking at and humanizing these things (and thus removing the sexiness of the idea) do you perhaps run into the problems of kids no longer wanting to project themselves into that world?

    That is perhaps the hurdle here. I'm certain that on content alone I'm not doing anything impossible. But by not playing those elements for laughs, for awesome, for sex appeal or for catharsis; does that maybe make it into something that teenagers don't want to read? Do you need to maintain that slick, glossy sheen of fantasy fulfillment (even taboo breaking, dark fantasy) to stay inside the niche?
     
  21. Pixelated Porn
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    lol, was thinking this was a thread about Nabokov's Lolita
     
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