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November 2012

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"You're never gonna stop all the teenage leather and booze..."

The title of this post comes from the song "Teenage Riot" by Sonic Youth.

Over the years I've written quite a few stories involving young adults. No matter how hard I try, I can't write them without some mention of drugs or drinking or sex or without cursing. I've tried to write teenagers in a cleaner way, much like "Harry Potter" or some of the other popular fantasy young adult novels that are so popular today, but it always ends up feeling false and just plain wrong. It seems dishonest somehow to ignore reality even though I am writing fiction.

Like it or not, modern teenagers do things like have sex, they do drugs, they curse. If you don't believe me, just sit on a bench at your local mall and watch the teenagers interact with each other.
 
Here are my questions for those of you who write stories for young adults:

1) How do you decide when/if to include some of these controversial realities into your prose? 
2) How much is too much? Is there such thing as too much? (I've read quite a few modern YA novels that blew my mind with their frank and graphic depictions of various aspects of modern society -- more so in the realist fiction genres than in fantasy or science fiction, of course.)

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I don't usually write YA but your queries intrigued me. I've been thinking a lot about this, given that the two most recent short stories I've written have dealt with aspects of sexuality, and when I realized that, it gave me pause. It's not that I'm uncomfortable with that, I just don't want my writing to be monothematic.

Onanistic rambling aside, regarding your actual questions, I don't know if I "decide" to put controversial realities into my fiction. They kind of just. . . happen. I absolutely loved the HP series but my main complaint was how chaste they were. Put a horde of teenagers in a school together with invisibility cloaks and teleportation and magic spells, some of which we are explicitly told are devices for eavesdropping (extendable ears, etc.) and you're telling me the student body (so to speak) doesn't get up to shenanigans beyond kissy-face? I mean. . . at my high school, which was thoroughly devoid of invisibility cloaks and magic spells, everyone seemed to be able to get up to high jinks-- even on campus-- and my school had one of the best reputations in the county. So my long-winded answer is that as a writer I decide to put controversial stuff in when it fits. If it feels forced, I cut it. If it feels unrealistic without a darker underbelly, I try to be as honest as I can without being crass.

As to your second question, again, whatever feels natural is never too much for me. Well, most of the time. Then again, it's hard to squick me out.

It's funny you mentioned how you feel YA sexuality is more in realist genres than not, but after Twilight's final book (yeah, I read them; yeah, I'm not going to go into a critique here) and after just reading Shade's Children by Garth Nix (which ruled), I'm not so sure. Shade's Children did right what Twilight did wrong, let's just leave it at that. It was frank, and often very uncomfortable for even nasty ol' me, but it never felt like "too much." I think "too much" for me is when things veer away from realism and into prurience. If a character is self-narrating something, how much explicit detail do people really get into when they self-narrate sexual, or drug-related experiences? Unless they're confessing something or unable to not say it-- a compulsion-- if that makes sense. If it's the narrator speaking, is the narrator omniscient, or is the narrator one of the characters, stated or no? If omniscient, well, then you have to decide. If it's one of the characters it's easier because you can fall back on how they would tell the story, and if they're reserved or very open or somewhere in the middle you can work with that.

I guess, for me (who has no underlying moral discomfort with the topics you mention, and that's important to my analysis, I think), it all comes down to realism, because I value that, even when I'm dealing with the fantastic. Characters should behave realistically, even if they're selkies or something. I think there's never a reason to include scandalous tidbits if they're unnecessary to a story, but I think there is certainly a reason to include such things if realism demands it.

But I think also there is a place to deal with teenagers on a non-sex-drugs-swearing level. There is plenty of room for that, I think, even in the modern world. My complaint with HP was just the vastness of the silence on the subject. The All-Star-Hogwarts-Crew just seemed to be in a weird situation of arrested development, they "liked" each other but I mean. . . what? Come on. I'm not saying we needed to see anything happen (in fact, the idea of such kind of makes me queasy) but I think it could have been addressed without being explicit.
The HP series is strange when you think about it... I read all the books and enjoyed a few of them.

I really would not envy JK Rowling's situation as a story-teller (while I would love to have her kind of success, OTH). She started off a series about a very young boy, picking up very young readers. It was a book suitable for elementary school students in the beginning. You can't really go from that to being even remotely explicit when writing for that age group I don't think. I think she had to rope in adult themes somewhat because of the target audience created by the success of the first few books when Harry was a very young boy.

But, like you, as an adult reader, it became unrealistic and took me out of the story. Like those weird version of high school portrayed in those shows like "Saved by the Bell."

I'm not saying they needed to go explicit, but at least acknowledge what is going on. Kids in the late years of school do more than just "snog," after all. No, not all of them, but everyone knows people who do, even the "innocent" kids.

Great comment. Thanks!
I pretty much agree with this comment. The Harry Potter series was supremely unrealistic. I can enjoy reading unrealistic books about teenagers, but it's just one more kind of disbelief you have to suspend. If the characters seem like real people, cursing and doing other things when real people would do those things, it makes the story more fun to read. I try to be realistic in my own writing, though I don't often write situations in which one has to decide how worldly teenagers should be.
Thanks for commenting. It is a tough decision sometimes. I tend to go for realism (especially in dialogue) in most of my interactions between characters in the society in which they belong. If writing about the 50's I'd write much differntly than a YA story set in the present day.

Well...

1) If it needs to be there in that story, it goes in. Otherwise, not.

2) As much as needs to be there for that story to work, no more and no less.

I did one story, "Peaches from the Tree of Heaven," that dealt with teenage pregnancy -- from the male perspective. It went into some very intense emotional territory, and some controversial political background, but not the mechanics of sex. That was what the story needed.

Re: Well...

Those are two good rules of thumb. Thank you!
Well, young people, like adults, come in all varieties. Some kids are having sex at 12 or younger; some are still virgins in their 20s (and beyond). And--well, you know what I'm driving at. And what they feel like reading really varies, too.

I think you need to let the story decide. If the stories that knock on your door and ask to be told are ones that have sex and drugs in them, then write those. You'll know as you're writing what feels right for the story.

"I think you need to let the story decide." I think that about sums it up nicely. Thanks!