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

Writing Tips

#WW Help! My Female Character Is Flat

I’m guilty! Oh, so guilty.

While writing my latest manuscript for my publisher, I hit a snag 38,000 words in, and could not—for the life of me—figure out what was wrong with it. Then, I realized what happened.

My female protagonist was flat.

Allow me to back track for a little bit.

I never used to have this problem. When I first set out to write books, I honestly feel like I was a better writer than I am now. At least, in regards to the first draft. I would simply let my work be what it needed to be. Now, I’m bombarded with so many rules and expectations (some awesome, some not-so-awesome) that I end up worrying about what I should be writing instead of worrying about what my book actually is, who my characters truly are, and how things will happen naturally.

Example? Well, let’s go back to where I started. My flat female character. Why was she flat? Because she wasn’t flawed. So, why wasn’t she flawed? Because I was afraid. I kept thinking about all the things readers want (and don’t want) a female character to be. Tough but not too tough. Girly but not too girly. A good friend, a completely independent lover, a strong-minded leader, a determined dreamer, and someone who never faints from total exhaustion from all that perfect-ness.

I take issue with too much expectation, especially in young adult fiction where characters are coming of age and still trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and how they’re going to achieve it. But I get it. I do. As a reader myself, I know readers are harder on female characters, because the world is harder on females in general. I have my moments, too! It’s ingrained into us, after all. But I hadn’t realized how much it was affecting books until my paranormal romance trilogy released last year. Spoiler warning now, I was shocked that my male protagonist could take a two-ton car, throw a hissy fit, and crash it at 100 mph without so much as a blink of judgment, while my female character was called all kinds of nasty names because she went underage drinking with her friends and got into some trouble. Personally, I think his choice was much more destructive considering how he could’ve killed someone else—or an entire car full of innocent people—while her reckless decision really only put herself in danger. (And she was with friends she should’ve been able to trust.) All that aside, though, only one of them was judged. And she was judged harshly. (Shameless plug: I’m talking about Seconds Before Sunrise.)

As much as I wish I could say this didn’t affect me, I think it did.

Now, when I approach my female characters, I’m hesitant to let them make any mistakes at all. I’m afraid to let them cry (because they’ll be deemed whiny), but I never hesitate to let my male characters cry (because when they cry, they are somehow seen as deep and approachable and need to be comforted).

It’s extremely frustrating, because I am also a female, and I know these judgments extend far beyond the pages of my books. It’s also why I fight my own fears to keep my female characters round. In a world that is constantly trying to flatten female characters, I will fight to keep them round. I will even fight myself—my own misconceptions and…well, flaws.

Before, I held myself back, and therefore, I held my female character back, and I apologize for that.

She is not someone I should hold back. She is strong and weak and happy and sad. She’s dealing with trauma and dreaming about the future and falling in and out of what she thinks might be love (but she isn’t sure), and she is reckless for all kinds of reasons. She also cares deeply about those around her…and sometimes she forgets to care about herself, too. But she will do her best and she will make mistakes, and the combination of both is what matters, because that is who she is.

I will not worry whether or not readers will hate or love or judge her, because she is her, and that is who she is supposed to be. And this is her story to tell, not mine.

~SAT

Miscellaneous

Challenge Your Inspirations

Fact of the Day: this is my 200th post.

If you follow my Facebook Author Page, then you already saw the photo I’m about to share. But this is at the beginning for a reason:

Yesterday, after sharing my journal excerpt that inspired Seconds Before Sunrise (The Timely Death Trilogy), Minutes Before Sunset hit #586 in Books > Romance > Paranormal on Amazon.com! Thank you for sharing my dreams with me.

#586
#586

So, yes, thank you so much! It’s an amazing feeling to know my inspiration can inspire others, and that’s why I wanted to say this: although my dreams inspire me, you all are my ultimate inspiration. Your support, encouragement, and kind words continuously bring a smile to my face.

I know I often mention how inspired I am by dreams—how my novels are derived from my nightmares—but today I wanted to talk about four other ways writers can find inspiration. Who knows? Maybe you’ll try one outside of your usual inspiration and find a new love you would’ve never expected:

People:

Unless you’re a hermit, people are all around us. Society holds teachers, parents, kids, cops, doctors, hippies, and so many other kinds. And they can all be heroes. (They can also be villains.) I think psychology is one of the fundamentals to life—and it transfers to writing. Knowing how people work or where they come from can help create more realistic and rounded characters—especially if you get to know more unique individuals. Taking a moment to talk to someone you never thought you’d talk to might end up in a novel one day.

Events/Stories:

As a child, I clearly remember reading an article over an eight-year-old organ donor who saved ten lives. This story struck me as beautifully tragic, but it is so alike to the 2008 movie “Seven Pounds” that I wondered if maybe the writer saw an article just like I had. Basing a story off of news events is pretty common. But there are also tales, mythology, classical literature, legends, and more. Recently, for instance, I shared “6 Baffling Discoveries that Science Can’t Explain.” The point of this was simple: mysteries from real life can often inspire fiction or the famous Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Traveling:

Most people wish they could do more of this, but it’s expensive and time consuming. If you can, great! Travel away. I find traveling to be one of the most energizing life experiences, but, like many, I can’t do it as much as I’d like. Thank goodness for the internet. The World Wide Web has hundreds—millions—of websites dedicated to traveling and/or learning about other countries. It’s not as authentic, of course, but it can spark the imagination. One of the best articles I read recently was “He Was Arrested 20 Times For This. But I Think It’s TOTALLY Worth It.” The article follows photographer, Dan Marbaix, as he travels the world, trespassing into abandoned locations. Just seeing these unsettling photos is enough to make your mind wander.

Drugs & Alcohol:

I am, by no means, encouraging this. Again, I am not encouraging this. I’m actually very against using anything that can be potentially harmful for inspiration. But, nevertheless, this is a commonly used tool. In fact, there are entire articles dedicated to this topic, including this one, “Top 10 Substance-Addled Writers.” Reasons for this seem to be simple: drugs altar the mind and body. It can often relax the creative walls artists put up. But I think there are better and healthier ways than this.

So what to do?

Try talking to someone you wouldn’t usually talk to. Try going somewhere you haven’t been before or somewhere you never thought you’d like to go. Read about cultures you’ve never been interested in. Or, if you have extra time and money, travel somewhere.

If you share your story and/or a unique idea in the comments, you might be the one picked to be a guest blogger!

~SAT