Monday, February 20, 2017

Searching for Meaning in YA Literature

In the last few weeks, I have read two novels about cults: EDEN WEST by Pete Hautman and THIS SIDE OF SALVATION by Jeri Smith-Ready. I then revisited Jennifer Matthieu's DEVOTED. After reading this thematic group of YA novels, here are a few observations that might be useful to writers:

1. A Fundamental Sense of Agency. YA literature is noted for the centrality of its teen protagonists--a reason the "orphan" trope is common in the genre. While, in real-life, adults may offer help or guidance, in YA literature, teenagers solve problems largely on their own. In the cult setting, families are often separated by cult rules which, in many ways, strip parents of as much agency as their children. Thus, in the cult narrative, the young adult does not merely seek the independence adults are observed enjoying, but must discover the very existence of his or her own individuality and examine their rights to free thought and agency.

2. A Separate World. Cult settings disconnect teen protagonists from mainstream society, from the news, from education and other forms of opportunity; meanwhile "reality" still exists beyond cult boundaries. In contrast to dystopian settings, cult worlds generally reject technology and progress.

3. An Experiment in Extremes. Cult settings allow authors to explore the effects of extremes--be they rules, rituals, punishments, or beliefs--on individuals, particularly teens who are at the point in life where they are struggling to carve their own identities apart from family and peers.

4. A Promise. Cult novels incorporate a promise to its members that they are "chosen" to survive when outsiders do not. This promise is complemented by another: that of some type of apocalyptic event or punishment that will befall non-believers (a promise and a threat). Promises are tempting.

5. Search for Meaning. Teens (dare I say all human beings) struggle to find meaning in their daily lives and future plans. The core conceit of the cult novel is that MEANING is provided and it is up to the characters in the novel to decide if it is valid, helpful, or worth the sacrifices required. The cult frame offers the author a bright light and multi-faceted lens through which to look at critical questions of belief and identity.

While one should never set limits to creativity, as a writer I find it interesting and instructive to see what types of ideas lend themselves to exploration in various settings. For example, school settings may examine issues of peer pressure, substance abuse and romantic/sexual relationships. Dystopian worlds enable teen protagonists to resist, fight and lead in ways that might seem implausible at summer camp. And castles let teens find their own magic.

WRITING TIP FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS. Examine the relationship between the setting and the theme(s) of your work. Make a list of at least three new ways you can use setting to raise tension, advance plot, or tighten focus on your MC's actions or mood.

A few more cult titles for your consideration: NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES by Brian Bliss; THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY by Stephanie Oakes; GATED by Amy Christine Parker.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What does it mean to have a "writing career"?

Six years into my journey as a "published YA author," I have accomplished the following:

  • Published a "quiet" debut novel, AUDITION, 2011.
  • Worked myself to the bone blog-touring, live-touring and otherwise promoting AUDITION.
  • Paid my own way to several book events in support of AUDITION.
  • Wrote another novel that was passed on by my editor so it is currently filed away.
  • Contributed a short story to the DEAR TEEN ME anthology edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, and a short entry to THE GIRL GUIDE by Christine Fonseca.
  • Published a more successful (Junior Library Guild selection; made a few award short-lists; PW star, strong reviews) sophomore title, THE SOUND OF LETTING GO, in 2014.
  • Did next to nothing (not even a launch party) to promote THE SOUND OF LETTING GO but the reviews have driven slightly better sales.
  • Found out my first novel was being remaindered.
  • Wrote a fourth novel that was passed on by my editor but I didn't want to file it away--I thought there was something to it--so I wrestled, moaned, moped, tore apart and rewrote it. After a few rejections, realized it needed revision, so that's in progress and I'm writing another story as well.
  • Attend (and enjoy) SCBWI meetings and events.
  • Collaborate with my local librarian on an on-going monthly writing program in my community which continues to be well-attended.
  • Swapped participation in a formal critique group for monthly meetings with several writer-friends for support and feedback.
  • Mentor at the online First Five Pages writing workshop.
  • Work harder to reach out to other writers (at all stages) I like and admire--for coffee, write-ins, general commiseration.
  • Beta-read for a number of fellow-authors; read a lot of YA and fiction more broadly.
  • Continue my successful freelance writing and consulting business for which I read about 400-800 pages of other peoples' writing per month.
  • Have made some amazing writer friends, several online, and quite a few whom I have ACTUALLY VISITED (in the flesh) in California, Utah, New York, & Massachusetts.
  • Attended a writing class at a local college; currently attend a (fantastic) writing class at Hugo House in Seattle.
So here I am in February, 2017. I feel like the more I study the craft of writing, the harder it gets to write my next book. I'm not sure whether I have lost confidence or self-discipline or the belief that publishing is sufficiently meaningful to merit the angst, but there you have it.  I find myself struggling with the question: Do I have a writing CAREER? What exactly does that/should that mean? And, where do I go from here?

Monday, February 6, 2017


10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
 Second Saturdays Writing Program at Woodinville Library 
17105 Avondale Road NE, Woodinville 

The elephant in the room. The element that unites character, setting and voice to move a story forward. The thing Stephen King “distrusts.” What is plot? How do we create it? Use it? Learn to trust it? Everett Daily Herald columnist, and young adult author of GENESIS GIRL and DAMAGED GOODS, Jennifer Bardsley will show you the way.

This workshop is open to writers in grades 7 to adult. Registration is not required. For more details, click here