Writing Tips

#RealYA How Does It Affect Fiction?

Last week, many took to Twitter to discuss the differences between young adults in YA and young adults in RL (a.k.a. real life). Let me tell you, it was awesome! I loved talking to current high schoolers as well as discussing my situation when I was in high school. Even more so, it was great to see what current readers want to see more of in fiction. Below, I wanted to cover a few topics we discussed, both from my perspective and theirs. And, of course, I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below. Let’s begin:

High Schools and How They Function: This is a tricky one. When I was in high school—only ten years ago—it was SUPER easy to skip school and classes. In fact, I was a known skipper, as was my older brother. I got in trouble once in four years and skipped many more times than I can count. But now, it’s much harder. At the exact school I went to, less than a year after I graduated, they implemented automatic calls to parents and double locked doors at all the exits…with cameras. Sounds like a jail to me, but… 😉 Soda pop and candy machines were also readily available, and teachers often had students get things for them too. Now, apparently, those aren’t allowed in many schools. I loved seeing all the modern high schoolers coming out and explaining things in books they see that are different now, like skipping and soda machines. How does this affect literature? Well, for one, when I wrote The Timely Death Trilogy, skipping was EASY. But when I published it, I knew things had changed, but there is a lot of skipping in the book, so I had to adjust how and why. It’s honestly revealed in the last book, so I don’t want to spoil it, but it comes down to knowing people in the office. Other topics that were different included homeroom, AP classes, lockers, and more. A main subject brought up was grades as well. How are all these kids passing classes when they are saving the world? It’s okay to have your main character fail at something. I mean, who remembers when Cassandra Clare pulled Clary out of school once she got involved with Shadowhunters? I do! And I loved it!

Teachers: I wanted to separate this one from high school because I think a “teacher” can be in the classroom but also out of the classroom. One thing I thought was important was the discussion that not all teachers are good teachers and not all teachers are nice teachers either. We see a lot of encouraging and helpful mentors in teaching roles in YA – think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower as an example – but it’s not as common to show an educator actually discouraging a child. (Unless it’s the cliché football team coach.) My personal example? I had a teacher in my high school tell me to stop trying to write because (and I quote) “You will never get published.” Yep. That happened. My older brother, who was an artist, had an art teacher tell him he’d never be great because he couldn’t’ take it seriously. Then, one year later, she hung up his artwork in the hallway. It’s still there, too. Teachers aren’t always kind or helpful or encouraging—and for a variety of reasons. Maybe they think tough love will push you. Maybe they are jealous. Maybe they are trying to stop you from “wasting your time” by failing at a dream they also failed at. Who knows? They are human too, after all.

As an extra…a peek into SAT’s HS life.

From left to right: The day my first novel released in 2007, Homecoming (That’s my dad. Which, here’s another topic covered: kids actually getting along with their parents. I did! My dad is still my best friend!), my work uniform at 810 Zone, my tennis uniform, and graduation day in 2009.


Part-time Jobs: I don’t know about you all, but I did a lot when I was high school. Looking back, I’m not sure HOW I did either. I took AP and Honors classes, played tennis, participated in Goal 0 and yearbook, and I worked as a nanny…AND worked a part-time job at a sports bar as a hostess (See photos above). I even managed to get my book published between all that. (God, I wish I had that kind of energy now.) Despite all of this, my situation wasn’t rare. I worked with four others kids I went to high school with, and many others I knew worked too. But part-time jobs—jobs outside of babysitting your own siblings—aren’t seen in many YA novels. Perhaps this is because of time restraints. I mean, how does a kid save the world when they’re going to school, let alone when they are working a job too? Still, it’d be nice to see more part-time jobs covered. I have jobs covered in November Rain…BUT the characters don’t go to school, so it doesn’t really count.

And last but not least, I HAD to talk about this one: (Warning. Rant ahead.)

Dead parents: I actually get a little sad when I see people ask for authors to stop putting dead parents in novels. As someone who grew up in a situation where my mother died, I remember how hard it was for me to FIND a book like my situation. I honestly still haven’t. Here’s the thing. I don’t think the dead parents trope is the problem. I think it’s HOW it’s shown in books and other types of mediaI also think there isn’t enough variety in families in general. I covered this in another article I wrote, Writing Tips: Family Variety.

What do I mean by variety? Well, we don’t see as many grandparents raising kids after parents were too young to raise them, or siblings dying, or combined families, or unusual living situations, like living with an uncle while the parents are traveling for work. But when you tackle the death of parents, I think the WAY parents die is almost always the same.

A. Parents are already removed from character. This can happen in the form of a parent dying before the kid was old enough to remember them or an extremely distant divorce or whatnot. (I still think these are important, don’t get me wrong.) In fact, The Timely Death Trilogy follows this. Jessica’s parents died in a car wreck when she was a baby, but she definitely still struggles with their deaths and what it means in regards to her identity. That being said, Eric’s mother’s death doesn’t follow this trope at all. (We’ll get to hers in the next section.)

B. If the parents are close, they die “innocent deaths.” I use the term “innocent” carefully – and not heartlessly. It’s just the easiest way to explain them. So, what do I mean by innocent? To me, these deaths aren’t judged by society. They are seen as completely out-of-control situations, like car wrecks or cancer. Again, these are important! Please don’t get me wrong. But there’s another type that is rarely shown, what I would call “blameful” deaths. I’m talking about suicide, addiction/drug overdoses, etc. The reason I call them “blameful” is because, in general, society is more likely to judge these deaths, which adds another level of coping for those left behind. There are a million ways I could explain this with my situation, so I’ll try to keep it short. My mother died from a drug overdose one room down from my bedroom when I was eleven. Instead of sympathy, many people asked why she didn’t get help. (Guess what, she tried.) Or why my father didn’t forcibly take the drugs away. (Guess what, he tried.) I could go on and on about how people insinuate blame without even meaning to. But if I put my real-life situation in a book, especially if I added details, most publishers would say it is “too much” for young readers, especially an eleven-year-old.

I reject the phrase of “too violent” or “too much” or “too dark” for young readers, because my eleven-year-old self didn’t get to look at the universe and say “Hey, my mom can’t die this way. That’s too much for me.” That’s not how life works. And it happens to many people. “Every day in the United States, 44 people die as a result of prescription opioid overdose.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But god forbid, it’s in a novel. Which is why I love books that cover up-in-your-face parental deaths, like All Fall Down by Ally Carter. (I don’t want to spoil how her mother dies, but it’s a great example.) I’m not saying we need to bombard literature with violent deaths. There’s always a way to write it so it’s not overwhelming or inappropriate. I try to do this in my own novels. Example? Many of the children’s back-stories in November Rain includes a very violent and/or emotionally-removed parent. There’s a murder-suicide and a flat-out abandonment on the streets. Take Me Tomorrow involves drug-addicted or criminally-minded parents. In The Timely Death Trilogy, I cover suicide when Eric’s mother shoots herself.

Tropes or not a trope, to someone, it’s real, and I think the more “types” we cover, the better it can be. On a side note, I do think it would be great to see more parents directly involved with teens in YA, especially parents that get along with their kids. My dad and I almost always got along. I still call him every other day. He’s definitely one of my best friends! I actually based Sophia’s relationship with her father Dwayne in Take Me Tomorrow off of my life with my father when I was her age.

These were just four of the AMAZING topics I saw discussed. Victoria Aveyard even got involved, which I loved. Seriously. She’s the bee’s knees on Twitter. And I’m finding myself more and more involved in these conversations. What I learned was pretty simple. Sometimes, RL and tropes can mix, because well, tropes came from somewhere. But it’s important to stay up-to-date on RL. Listen to your readers. Learn about their lives. Know what matters to them. Challenge each other, and maybe, together, we can make YA the best YA ever seen.


17 thoughts on “#RealYA How Does It Affect Fiction?

  1. I think I caught part of that hashtag conversation and had no idea what I was looking at. Forgot how I got there.

    Having not read a lot of real world YA, I don’t really have a basis for a lot of the school-based stuff. Percy Jackson, Spiderwick Chronicles, Harry Potter, and Ranger’s Apprentice all took place in a setting that was magical. Those with schools were more specialized academies, which I think is a way for an author to write about school time without risking incorrect information. The characters are in school, but it’s something unique. Though this seems to make it appear that the characters aren’t learning any basics like math and English.

    Very insightful rant on the parental side of YA. Now that you mention it, stories do seem to ‘coddle’ the demographic in terms of parental loss. I can’t really think of any that had a ‘blameful’ death since most are accident, disease, murder by the villain, or even the abandonment path. I’m reminded how Disney movies tend to do this with only a handful of exceptions. Anyway, this probably stems more from fear of getting into a public shouting match with those that feel such things aren’t good for children. I’ve met many authors who say they’d write a dark scene in YA, but they fear the fallout.

    1. I love the examples you posted about school! Those are great ones! As for the parental rant, yes, I agree. I know many authors who had different ideas, but they either changed it out of fear or a publisher/agent suggested a change. I think it’s a lot like adding a variety of families. It comes down to not being confident that they are portraying it correctly and/or respectfully. But like anything, I think it could be done more. 🙂

      1. The funny thing is how it kind of ignores pieces of reality. I’ll admit that I’ve shied away from a few things or being blatant. There’s this since of not wanting to deal with a possible headache. Not sure this was an issue before social media though. Back in the day, you only had to deal with hate mail, which you could ignore. Now you get it in the face if you’re even slightly off about something. Such a strange world we live in.

      2. That is so true! I didn’t think about it that way, but come to think of it, many YA authors have took to the Internet and explained how much social media has changed publishing for better and worse. Ex. Cassandra Clare LEFT Twitter because of people getting too upset over x, y, and z. And there was nothing too controversial in her stories. I mean (SPOILER ALERT FOR MORTAL INSTRUMENTS) the only “controversial” part was the two main characters thinking they were siblings when they didn’t end up being siblings at all . . . Um. In Star Wars, they actually WERE siblings. Not to mention Flowers in the Attic. But it wasn’t so easy to contact the writer back then.

      3. I think people enjoy making controversies out of nothing or simply disagree with what an author does. This seems to range from plot twists to a character’s choice. I’ve even seen fans/readers claim to know the stories/characters better than the author. This comes out a lot in social media, especially Twitter. Think a lot of celebrities are bailing from that medium because it’s becoming highly negative.

      4. Agreed! If only we could get more positive…Maybe it’d be easier to have diverse fiction that way, if we could actually have open and fun conversations with one another. I think that’s why I loved this conversation so much, with the readers getting directly involved about the future, rather than shooting down current subjects. I always enjoy talking with you, Charles! 😀

      5. I need to find some of those conversations on Twitter and take a look. Sounds interesting. Good point on being more positive. Like if we put more effort into supporting the stuff we like and finding aspects of a story to enjoy instead of tearing books down or nitpicking. For example, I’ve seem more people supporting ‘Hunger Games’ by insulting ‘Twilight’ than simply praising the former. Something to be said for being positive. Definitely always enjoy our talks. 🙂

  2. I think you hit the nail on the end. I’ve always had trouble believing YA books that follow essenially same plot line, specifically when it comes to romance. i.e.: Incident incites in young Girl’s mostly normal life. Girl crosses threshold of adventure and meets Boy. Boy stand-offish. Do we like boy? We think so? Girl grows into herself and begins to find compansionship in Boy. By the end of the first book, Boy and Girl have usually shared some sort of fondness. Second book opens and pretty much immediately, we’re introduced to Boy #2 who threatens everything we had worked for between Boy and Girl in Book 1. Typically, by Book 3, things have straightened out and Girl has chosen a boy–all whilst saving her world from a corrupt and oppressive population, whatever that may be (usually it’s the government….or aliens.) That, right there, is multi-tasking. To be emotionally-invested in two very emotionally-demanding plots. Don’t get me wrong… I still pick these books up and enjoy them. But like you said, it’s refreshing to veer from the norm and harnass RL. Thanks for the post! It was a good distraction from work! 🙂

  3. What a thought provoking read. I don’t write much “real life” fiction, but the points you make here are important to think about no matter what you’re writing. Thanks for this post!

    1. I suppose you could say I don’t write “real life” fiction at all either. Only fantasy and sci-fi. (Only one of my series takes place in a “modern” day setting.) But I think real life can still move into fantasy too. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you for commenting.

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