Writing Tips

Should Young Adult Books Teach a Lesson?

I was working on my WIP recently when I started talking about my book with a librarian friend. Specifically scenes where my main character fixes up an old sports car and starts racing around her country town. To my surprise, my friend assumed she would crash the car and eventually learn that this behavior is unsafe. But nope. That isn’t my plan.

My character will learn many life lessons in this book, but will she learn everything she does wrong is wrong? No.

I have literally no plans of writing a scene where her reckless driving results in a massive punishment or obvious lesson. It isn’t the theme of the book. It isn’t necessary to the story. But being a thrill-seeking teenage girl is. She will fix up a car. She will speed with the windows down and her hair whipping wildly about. She will know it’s wrong, and she won’t care, and she will get away with it. Other parts of her life, though? Not so much. There is a lot that will go wrong in her life, and she will grow from them, but I still wouldn’t necessarily call those moments a lesson.

A lesson insinuates that you plan on your reader learning something—generally the same thing from the same content. But books aren’t lessons. They are stories. If lessons or messages happen to come across, great. But I don’t believe an author should set out to write a lesson to a young reader. Sure, we have fairytales where that was the intention. (You know the ones. Don’t go into the woods; they’re wicked witches and scary animals in there!) Those certainly serve a purpose. I would even say there’s room for both kinds of books—stories that are designed to teach and stories that are just stories. That doesn’t mean stories that are just stories won’t have lessons that readers can infer in between the lines. It just means that the story did not intentionally set out to teach anyone anything specific.

To me, it isn’t the author’s job to teach. It’s the author’s job to tell a great story. It’s the reader’s job to identify their feelings about the piece. If that means they learned something, great. But it’s also fine if the reader walks away just feeling happy, sad, or simply entertained. (Not to mention that young readers are super attuned to an adult trying to “teach” them something. Spoiler alert: that’s often the worst way to teach a young person anything.)

In my WIP, my character likes to put the windows down so that she can feel the Kansas winds whipping through her hair while driving down country roads. It makes her feel alive. It puts her in the present. And when I personally think of being a teenager, it was moments like these that I remember best. I didn’t learn to slow down until I was older. My character might learn that lesson when she’s older, too, but she’s only a teenager in this WIP. That lesson simply isn’t going to happen in her life yet. The reckless driving serves a different purpose in the story. It’s a metaphor for her internal struggle. One that doesn’t completely end when the story does. Hence while she’ll continue to speed all the way to the last page. In contrast, my main character in my paranormal romance, the Timely Death trilogy, crashes his car and learns from it. So, I have written that “lesson” elsewhere—where it worked, for both the story and the character. And, of course, my main character in my current WIP will confront other life lessons throughout the piece. But in the end, I don’t expect my reader to walk away with any lessons internalized. Most lessons folks have to learn for themselves. I only want to tell them a story.

In the end, I believe that characters must learn and grow in a story, but that doesn’t mean the reader has to. And your character and readers do not have to have the same feelings/thoughts. In fact, the gray spaces are where the best stories often take place. Sometimes that means driving writing recklessly on a backcountry road with all the windows down, full speed ahead.

~SAT

Miscellaneous

Writing Tips: Mother’s Day & Childhood Inspiration

Now, I have to admit that I’m unsure if this qualifies as “writing tips” or not, but I can’t seem to think of another way to explain it other than to explain recent events in my life and how I got to this decision to post about this.

On Friday night, I was driving home when I was hit by a drunk driver. Everyone was physically fine, but these moments often make you take a step back and wonder “what if?” or simply reflect on life. It’s also Mother’s Day, and, as many of you know, my mother passed away in 2003, so there’s been a lot of personal reflection happening for me over the past few days, and I wanted to share my thoughts on how reflecting can help your passionate spark if you feel as if it’s about to die.

Happy Mother's Day. This is Halloween, 1992, with my mother, my brother, and I. I was a ghost :] Probably perfect considering my paleness.
Happy Mother’s Day. This is Halloween, 1992, with my mother, my brother, and I. I was a ghost :] Probably perfect considering my paleness.

But, first, If you want something short and sweet, I posted this on my Twitter, and many followers found it comforting. “Do you sometimes feel like chasing your artistic dream is hard? This will cheer you up: click here.” 

Now–the bigger reflection: I’ve had more experiences in this sort of stuff than I’d like to admit to myself, but they always cause me to look back, and my childhood is often where I end up. I cannot say why this is other than it’s caused by a “flashback” sort of a thing. I begin thinking about what I’m grateful for, who I love, what I love, and everything that moves me from one day to another. But I’m going to concentrate on writing, because I want to stay in the “writing tips” as much as I possibly can.

So what in my childhood moved me forward into writing? (And many of you already know about my mother’s death being the biggest moment when I was pushed forward into taking it seriously, so, again, I’m going to talk about something else, although that is essential.)

Favorite Books:

I think this can be very important to remember, but, even more so, to return to every piece once in a while and read. Include first books, middle school reads, and beyond. On days where you’re feeling down, especially about writing, returning to these texts can spark your passion again, easily and without any strenuous effort. All you have to do is read, and you might be amazed at how quickly you’ll return to your timeless love for language, even if the original texts are simple and/or wouldn’t spark interest today if you hadn’t read it before.

Mine, as an example, includes childhood novels about Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo, young-adult series by Meg Cabot or Lynne Ewing (specifically Daughters of the Moon), and adult novels, generally memoirs like Mop Men, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or A Long Way Gone. I can even return to literature I loved in school, my favorite being The Stranger.

As a comedic picture: this is me, shocked by novels, at 3 years old, and my great-grandmother quite thrown off by my craziness.
As a comedic picture: this is me, shocked by novels, at 3 years old, and my great-grandmother quite thrown off by my craziness.

Favorite Writing Experiences: 

These moments can bring back the original moments that brought you the utmost happiness before other moments brought you down. You can return yourself, especially to childhood, when you first started writing and you didn’t have the stresses of publication or critiques. These memories, although little, are very powerful.

My personal example? In second grade, my short story about my two dogs, Milo and Max, won the class writing competition, and I got to read it to the class. I still have it, and the drawings and wording often makes me giggle, but it also lightens my writing soul. I go right back to that podium, when I was fearless, and I feel it transition to today’s time.

Others who inspired:

Think beyond the top five people who inspire you today. Try to recall the first few who you may not remember on a regular basis but know that they linger somewhere in your artistic past (meaning they’re also in your artistic self today.) Most of the time, you might remember one, but then you’ll remember more and more, and you’ll soon have a list of small instances that led to your wonderful path you’re on today.

My personal example here is my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Metcalf. She was the first teacher to pull me aside and encourage my writing. When I was first writing back then, I was started my stories off with “Hi. I’m Henry, and this is my story…” and she taught me to start in the middle of action. I wrote her a story for Thanksgiving Break, and it started with a turkey running wild through a grocery store. Looking back on it, it was cheesy and poorly written, but she returned, having read the entire twenty pages, and encouraged me more and more, teaching me what else I could do in order to enhance my words. I was nine at the time, yet her teaching lingers today, and I’m grateful to have had such a wonderful teacher in my life at such a young age.

My hope is that you may take a moment today (or any day) to reflect on the moments that have brought you here today and remember never to give up on your dreams! It may seem cheesy, but it is, ultimately, very true, and I’m sure many of you know this, but many also have fleeting moments of doubt, and we can prevent these by reminding ourselves of what matters: life, love, and passionate dreams.

I always tell myself to write with passion; succeed with self-discipline. 

This is my personal philosophy, but I’d love to hear yours as well. Share below and spread the dream to others who may be struggling at this very moment in time (whether they read this today or two years from now.) Words are timeless. Let’s use that to embrace the love of art.

Have a great and meaningful day 😀

~SAT

P.S. Goodreads Quote of the day:

I leaned against the desk, ran my hand over my father’s paperwork, and picked up a pen. Turning around, I shoved it into my father’s hand.
“What’s this?” he asked, raising a brow.
“You’ll need it to sign my death certificate,” I said, pain vibrating my veins against my muscles and bones. “Are we done now?”

Eric, Minutes Before Sunset