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Realism in YA stories

Seriously, I have a thorn in my side about this topic. I’ve read quite a few YA novels and really?? Where is the realism? Teens in those books don’t swear, don’t drink, don’t have sex, don’t talk back to their parents and all their friends never say anything wrong to them. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about…the real world doesn’t work that way.

I have 2 teenage daughters and a son who just turned 21, and I’ve had plenty of their friends over and seen them in ‘action’. And I can honestly say that most YA books idealize teens and their habits and behaviours. It’s just not real. My kids aren’t bad, but they are normal and most of their friends are exactly the same. They all drink on occasion, they swear, they post nasty messages on Facebook when they’re pissed off, and they make no bones about saying what’s on their mind.

I want more realism in YA stories, and yes! I want to write it that way too, but there’s that imaginary line that stops us writers from crossing that line. Editors, publishers, agents, all don’t think it’s good to write this ‘stuff’ in to our stories and basically idealize young people so they look wholesome and good and never do anything wrong.

Oh, they make mistakes just like we all do. But, they learn from their mistakes. Their social lives are of the upmost importance to them, and they talk openly about sex and drugs and drinking. I’d have to say mine are pretty good about staying away from the drugs, but not ALL teens are like that.

Are we only appealing to an audience of teens who sit at home with no social interaction and read because they have ‘nothing better to do’? Shouldn’t we be writing with more down to earth and real life stuff so teens can identify with our characters? I’d say yes, but of course I don’t have the final say. I wish I did.

So, I’m working on my manuscript, and I’ve decided to break from the norm and make it more believable. No sparkling vamps, no perfect kids, just down to earth and real…lets see where it takes me. Yes, there’ll be some re-vamping of my work, but I’ll feel more true to my own writing by doing this.

This has been bugging me for some time. Of course I’m not going to take it over the top. There won’t be any crazy ass drug dealers or high school hookers in my story, but just the real stuff that happens to teens every day that we gloss over and don’t write in our stories because someone in their infinite wisdom thinks it won’t sell.

I’m writing for me, and writing what I love and what I love is realism. Maybe it’ll be an eye-opener and maybe it won’t, but lets see where it takes me.

Good luck with your stories fellow writers. Write for yourself. Its the only true way to self-satisfaction. ๐Ÿ™‚

29 Responses

  1. First, Pat–good on you! This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long, long time. I’d like to recommend a YA novel that imo does what you want to do. Have you read Joe R. Lansdale’s “All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky?” I usually avoid YAs for the same reasons you point out, and I read Lansdale’s YA not knowing it was a YA and loved it. It wasn’t until I finished it that I learned it was a YA. I would have loved reading novels like this when I was a kid. I suspect most kids feel the same way.

  2. Amen, sista. I so want my characters to be real, and like many of us, we’re stopped by the Gatekeepers. I think they’re afraid of realism, afraid of being responsible for showing real teens with real problems.

    Maybe we should start a movement, a rebellion, a revolution? I’d like to know what kids think about it…

  3. Amen to what Anne said! I believe the situation exists largely for that brand of censorship known as Political Correctness. It colors just about everything these days and influences both writers and editors. Which is a shame. Writers should never bow down to any form of censorship and neither should editors, but increasingly, they do.

    I had an early experience with this mindset with my first novel, “The Death of Tarpons” which was largely autobiographical. An editor made me a handsome offer for it, but wanted me to expunge a scene in which the protagonist’s father beats him with a live king snake. Why, I asked, and his answer was that to leave it in, “might offend the snake-lovers in the country.” Of which there are what? Six? (Other than those who use serpents in their religious observances…) Well, it was a novel, but that part was from my own life (yes, my father whipped me with a live king snake), and it was crucial to the plot, so I withdrew the book. It took me four more years to find a publisher with some cojones. And, this was in 1995, before the PC movement had really gained its legs.

    If a work of fiction doesn’t offend at least some, it’s not much good.

  4. Thanks Les and Anne! All comments were so very much appreciated. Loved the reference to the snake situation (beating) and sorry you had to endure that Les, but it’s what makes us real. That’s the story, and I’d rather read that than some bs that someone made up. We all have a little checkering in our pasts which we call upon and reference in our writing but most times we gloss it over so it doesn’t seem so bad. I like the truisms rather than the gloss.

    The gatekeepers need to open their eyes and see the world for what it really is. I like that you’re honest in your blog Les and you make no bones about your past and you don’t lie about it. Its admirable and I for one appreciate it a lot!

    I will check out Joe Lansdale’s book as I’m sure it’s a novel I will enjoy. Thanks for your very honest and open words Anne and Les! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Thanks, Pat. One more little story about my novel “The Death of Tarpons” that I think is telling about publishers and editors. I went through 85 publishers after I turned down the publisher I talked about. Was about to give up on it when uber-agent Mary Smith read it in a workshop. She pulled me aside, told me it was brilliant but said she bet I couldn’t get it published. She told me why. She’d gone through the same thing with her client Michael Chabron. Seems we had the same problem. Both of our books featured a teenaged boy as the protagonist. Mary said editors were kind of narrow-minded (an example of irony…) and that as soon as they saw the protagonist was a teen boy, they categorized it as a YA. I protested, saying I never ever considered it a YA any more than John Knowles considered his “A Separate Peace” a YA. Mary agreed, but said editors weren’t really that smart. They passed on it, she said, because they saw both Michael’s (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and mine as not only YAs, but that teenaged boys are the single worst demographic for books (#1 for movies–dead last for books). She advised me to do what she had Michael do–turn it into a frame story. Add a new first chapter with the protag as an adult looking back and final chapter coming back to his childhood. That way, she said, slow-head (my word, not hers) editors would see it as it was intended–as an adult book. I did what she advised and sold it to the very next publisher (87th, counting the snake guy). These are the kinds of facts they don’t tell you about in school…

    Postnote: Even though I didn’t write it as a YA, after it was published I received a couple of dozen letters from therapists and psychologists that said they’d recommended it to their teen clients to illustrate to them that they “weren’t alone” in their situations and all told me it was of enormous help to them.

    • Thank you for sharing that Les! I enjoyed reading it so much because you shared something very personal and showed how difficult things can be because of some people’s lack of understanding or knowledge, or maybe it’s even narrow-mindedness. I’m glad you got it published. And your determination paid off, and not compromising all your values and selling them ‘to the devil’ just for publication. Kudos!
      I like that comment Mary made that ‘editors weren’t really that smart’. Maybe that’s true, but your story opened my eyes a bit more to the world of publishing and what can happen.
      There is a whole world of readers out there that we don’t touch because of our lack of realism or whatever it is that would draw them into reading a novel. Maybe if editors, agents and publishers weren’t so narrow-minded, we’d be able to entertain a lot more people with honest, open stories that truly showed the world as it is.
      I love that professionals would recommend your book to their YA clients since it portrays a realistic world. Such an amazing accolade for you. Honesty is always best! People DO appreciate it. Again, thank you for all of this. And for your time ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Guys, why don’t we gather a bunch of like-thinkers and do something about it: a manifesto or some kind of protest? I don’t want my niece growing up reading books that don’t portray her, her problems and her reality. I just refuse for that to happen.

    And Les, I just might be literarily crushing on you, sir.

  7. Anne, I’d certainly sign such a manifesto! Don’t know if it would do any good but what the heck. And… you make me blush!

    I think there are a lot of writers out there who think the same as we do, but find it frustrating in the perception that the publishing world won’t allow reality.

    May I be so bold as to suggest a new ebook press that would welcome these kinds of submissions? Check out Bare Knuckles Press and it’s companion publishing arm, which you can find at http://evegaonline.com/

    They’re poised to deliver books based on one criteria–excellence. And, will be breaking a lot of parameters. If you decide to visit, tell ’em I sentcha, okay?

  8. Awesome post, Pat, and I agree whole-heartedly. I just finished my YA and it’s much more real than many YA books I’ve read. The teens are not perfect, they drink, some do drugs, they’re disrespectful at times, they post mean videos on YouTube & Facebook. And I even let my daughter read it. (she loved it, but she’s a little biased)

  9. Anne, I don’t know what good it would do. It’s somewhat like government. A little change at a time, but it’s up to us to try and implement it and bring the powers to be into this century.
    Thanks for the info Les. I’ll be checking them out. Good to know not everyone isn’t so narrow minded.
    Danni, so good to hear that. And Adriana is the perfect person to read it. She’s at the age where she understands all of it and I think she’d be honest with you about the content. That’s what matters! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I think part of the issue is not that editors are stupid (they may or may not be), but publishing isn’t about art, it’s about product. It’s a business. Publishers will publish what sells. If teens are buying books that edge toward reality, publishers will be cautious in their purchases of such books. I know that going in and I’m okay with it. That doesn’t make it right–it is what it is. But the bottom line is that it all comes down to a bottom line. Can they make a good return on their investment in you? (or me)

  11. The comments discussion is aslmost as interesting as the blog! Great post, Pat. I agree that the challenges teens face could be more realistically portrayed in YA. I propose that the industry pay more attention to the teen writers themselves. I attended an open mike on the weekend where teen writers and poets read from their work and was astounded at the talent and depth of experience. Who better to portray the teen experience than the younger generation themselves. Let’s give younger writers more opportunities in publishing.

  12. Danielle’s precisely right. It’s about the bottom line. Always has been. However, there’s a new element at work that wasn’t there in the past. Always, editors have known they have to deliver books that sell in order to keep their jobs and that’s as it should be. But… and this is a big butt (pun intended), in the past editors also took on a few promising writers, knowing they wouldn’t earn out, but investing in their talent for a future possible payday with that writer’s second or third book. That’s all gone now. Here’s a true story. A thriller of mine (that’s coming out at the end of October from Bare Knuckles Press, was championed to the top editor at one of the Big Six, who eventually rejected it. He sent me a long, warm letter extolling its worth and really showing regret in not taking it. My friend who’d championed it is good friends with this editor and shortly after my rejection, he had drinks with him in a New York literary hangout. The editor told my friend that a few years ago he would have taken my novel in a heartbeat and he desperately wanted to now, but it was impossible for him. Why? He told my friend in confidence (why I can’t reveal who these players are), that his boss had told him that if he signed a single book that didn’t sell a minimum of 30,000 copies… he’d be fired. Truth. And, this is a Big Six publisher and a top editor who has his own imprint. That’s what we’re up against these days. It’s much, much more than just a simple bottom line. If you’re not a brand name with tons of followers, it’s almost impossible to get a deal these days. This guy isn’t an anomoly–he’s the present situation of legacy publishing. My friend told me he had tears in his eyes when he related his situation to him. He wants to publish good work, but he just can’t.

    • Oh, I believe you. My friend, Michelle Muto, had interest in two of her books from top agencies. An editor w/the Big Six was interested in each novel (at seperate times) but came back saying they couldn’t take the chance for one reason or another. They all loved her writing and the stories and the characters, but they couldn’t take the risk. She has since self-published both YA novels to rave reviews. The traditional publishers need to change their business model or they’re going to miss out on some great work.

  13. Thanks, Danielle. Most of us are aware it’s the bottom line, but this was the first time I saw a real number assigned to it. And, my friend tells me this is the figure most are going by–30,000 copies. The rejecting editor will tell writers all kinds of reasons in their rejection letters, but, from what I was told (and by a highly reputable source) this is the real bottom line. If the acquiring editor isn’t very sure it will move 30,000 copies, he or she just isn’t going to risk their jobs for it.

  14. Wonderful and enlightening conversation. Big thanks Les for your knowledge and expertise. The information is invaluable and I know we all appreciate these real life experiences for they tell us what we’re facing as writers and authors. Tough world and tough business. That number is astounding. It’s unfortunate like Danielle said that some of our colleagues have to turn to self-publishing to see their work come to fruition, but it’s necessary in some cases. Thanks for all the chatting and information. I know how busy you are. Looking forward to that guest blog. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Right on!!!
    I don’t like reading YA…just not interested but when I do, I like it to be as real as possible.
    I mean, sometimes fantasy is good but gritty is what I really want.
    Good for you, Pat! Looking forward to seeing what comes out of this project!

  16. Thanks Angie, me too! LOL

  17. A solid post and one that really needs to be addressed. There was one YA book that I read that really struck a chord with me, it was called “Boy’s Don’t Cry” by Marjory Blackman and it had a lead character who was about to do his exams only to discover he was a father and had to look after the baby when the “mum” needed a break.

    It was heart rending and to be honest was something that I felt a lot of people should read due to the “consequences.” Whilst I’m not saying all Teen’s are that way, theres a fair few who don’t consider what could happen even when aware of the “biological” facts.

  18. Realism in YA, a controversial topic, and one you’re brave to tackle head-on, I admire that.
    There does seem to have been gate-keeping happening on the part of editors and publishers, but they get sued when a crazy parent blames their kids OD on a book.
    With the advent of self-publishing such gate-keeping is no longer an issue, but unfortunately the potential legalities are. As a culture we are probably over-protective of our youngsters, and our culture vindictively looks for a scape-goat when anything goes wrong, even if the blame cannot reasonably be placed upon a writer, programmer, or film maker.The more ‘real’ your setting and characters, the greater the potential risk?
    Be creative, be brave, but be careful.

  19. It’s interesting, because some of the most popular YA novels (Catcher in the Rye, Go Ask Alice, It Happened To Nancy, etc) contain all those things, and yet the current mainstream trend is to avoid them in order to teach kids good morals without being preachy.

  20. I loved those books Em! Especially ‘Go Ask Alice’ which was one of my favs growing up. Both my girls wanted to read it too, so I had to buy them each a copy since mine was long gone. Great reading! And you’re right about mainstream trend. It’s just too bad, some of the best stories are the real down to earth and true stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Great post Pat, and a great attitude to have. I would also add that the lack of realism in the YA genre extends beyond the teen characters. Parents always seem to be either overly strict but well meaning or else understanding and perfect. The police are often bumbling, condescending and won’t take teens seriously. Teachers are poor at applying common sense along with discipline etc.

    Not all YA novels are guilty and some are more guilty than others, but the worst I’ve come across feel like a parade of caricatures.

    I’ve only dabbled in writing YA, but I suspect I am guilty of not having enough “realism” but for me I put that down to my personal life experiences rather than a desire to be acceptable.

  22. As the grandmother of two boys in their late teens, I can only say – Go For It! Teens don’t want condescending bilge and what’s more, I bet a discerning editor would be glad to find a realistic YA book on his/her desk.


  23. Excellent topic Pat and guests. A frightening reality, to think that the Gatekeepers are up against these kinds of odds. The question is, do we write art or what sells? The answer is up to you.

  24. wow! I had as much fun reading this post as i did the comments! I’m half and half, I don’t always want a story with gore and cussing and whatnot. In fact I personally believe the reason Twilight was so successful because of it’s simplicity and er…non abrasive nature. On the otherhand, I love ‘real’ teens too, but i do believe there is a happy medium. We don’t need to hear/write an Fbomb every other word simply because they use it. I believe in ‘effective’ use of realism. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  25. I don’t think it’s just YA, take a look through most (if not all) dark fantasy/urban fantasy/paranormal fiction writing for adults and the swearing is very minimal. Sometimes not there at all. You’ll have a heroine saying “Damn!” when in reality she’d be using a much more colourful word.

    There was an article I read last year (I don’t remember if it was an author or publisher, but it was one of the two) that touched on this. They basically said that as much as language has changed in society, for swearing to be seen as more commonplace, publishers still dislike seeing it in print. They talked about how your first chapter should probably not start off with swearing as it will most likely be automatically be sent to the reject pile straight away.

    Obviously, if a situation in a book calls for the character to use stronger language then don’t tone it down just for the sake of it because then the passage will read stilted. But definitely don’t start adding more in just because it’s used all over the place in normal society. Speaking from a purely YA point of view… Swearing isn’t allowed at schools and most parents still teach their children not to swear. So putting in more harsh language will only hurt your sales and, more than likely, the probability of the book even being published.

  26. I meant to add…

    The other reason I think why swearing is frowned upon in the writing world is that swearing is seen more as an option when people don’t have anything better to say. In writing, we get to think, re-think, edit and re-edit ever single line in a book and polish the dialogue so that it’s as witty, clever or cutting and harsh as needed. Swearing has always been seen as a lazy way to make a point, not utilising vocabulary to it’s fullest. Now while the argument may be that teens don’t always have a full vocabulary, writing allows an author to create a character that can cut someone down without resorting to swearing.

    I think publishers are probably looking for books, even fictional stories, to give readers someone who not only speaks to them in terms of similarities, but also gives them someone to aspire to. If you show your character handling a situation without swearing and using a much wider vocabulary, then your readers also then have that arsenal at their disposal and it may make them handle situations in their own lives differently.

  27. Good points Natalie. There definitely is that idea that concept that characters who swear will reinforce the idea to teens reading the stories. And, yes the powers to be know that and don’t want it. I think there has to be a happy medium. You know the saying, ‘a little goes a long way’. Maybe that’s what I’ll have to do. Less is more type thing. I want it but I don’t want it to overpower my story or my character’s personalities. ๐Ÿ™‚

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