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Why Don't I Write YA?

A reader asks, "Why don't you write a YA book?"

I know that YA is the growing market, and right now everyone is writing YA, but the reason I don't is because I don't want to. YA is important and the archetypal stories of growing up are necessary and good, and YA is a fine thing for people to write, but at this point in my life I'm not interested.

Coming of age stories are constant through every culture. Every society has stories about young people growing up and taking on adult responsibility, about learning who they are and what they want in life, about how they function in the broader society. They have stories about rebellion and sexual awakening, about dealing with parents and facing down authority to make one's mark on the world. These are important stories.

But they aren't the only important stories. I want to read and write stories about people my own age, about adults carrying adult responsibility. I want to read and write about raising children, not leaving childhood behind. I want to read and write about wielding authority wisely and gracefully and how you do that, not about rebelling against authority. I want to read about complicated relationships and second chances, established loves that stand the test of time and healing after loss, not about losing one's virginity. I want to read about the archetypes in their mature forms -- kings and queens and magicians, not farm boys and warrior maidens and young untried wild talent. I want to read about hard won expertise honed by years of adventure and responsibility, not brilliant children. I want to read about responsibility and power and stewardship.

I love the Warrior Maiden, don't get me wrong. But I want her to grow up. I want to see her at forty, at fifty, at sixty -- the queen, not the blade-bright ingenue. I love the reluctant hero -- but I want to see what happened after he fought and hurt. I want to see what happened in the rest of his life after he became king. I'm tired of the wild talent magical child who blows everyone away with his or her natural or preternatural genius. I want to see the Wizard, the Lady of the Isle, who has learned craft and wisdom. I want stories for grown ups about grown ups. Those stories are important too, and hold the lamp for our passages just as the coming of age stories did when we were fourteen. Right now they're not very popular. But life doesn't end at twenty five. It begins.

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( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
tychoish
Feb. 7th, 2013 07:29 pm (UTC)
It strikes me that there can and should be good, useful counter examples in both columns: stories for young people that talk about aging, adulthood, and stories about later life events that resemble coming of age events. To turn the post on the head: adulthood isn't just something that people over 25 get to experience, nor is maturation a process relevant to people under 25...
jo_graham
Feb. 7th, 2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
Oh agreed -- everyone needs stories about every age. But our culture has a lot of good and functional coming of age stories. We don't have a lot of stories about mature archetypes. How many books are there about plucky young heroines discovering their dreams? How many books are there about forty five year old mothers who are responsible for others and who wield power? There are a lot of Princess Leias and not many Helen Magnuses. And sure, there are some fourteen year olds who identify with Mace Windu or Dumbledore rather than Anakin Skywalker or Harry Potter -- but most young people identify with the young protagonists. That's why a YA book by definition has to have a young protagonist to sell to a publisher.

And of course they should! Most people identify with people in their own life stage. Most people look to fiction to show them what they'll encounter in the next few years. That's natural and functional -- fiction doing what it's supposed to do. But our culture has glorified youth at the expense of mature archetypes in a way that leaves our stories very lopsided.
tychoish
Feb. 7th, 2013 09:50 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with you, I have no particular member of reading YA material as a YA, because I've always found young people a bit boring (including myself at that age.) At least for me, I'm not sure that I buy into the idea that adult fiction is somehow categorically inappropriate for teenagers.
lc59
Feb. 8th, 2013 03:45 am (UTC)
I have to agree. I can only think of one book I read at age 12 that would've been classified as YA(if the classification of YA had existed 30 years ago,lol)...altho...would Nancy Drew classify as YA?
Mostly though I was reading the same stuff as my mother...so that would've been mysteries...Phyllis Whitney was one of my favourites. I suppose my mom's influence is why I've always preferred escapist plot-driven books that require some thinking as opposed to character-driven RL stuff.
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 11:52 am (UTC)
Oh I remember those! The Green Cat! Hunter's Green! Those were so much fun. I read those when I was twelve too.
janetlin
Feb. 7th, 2013 07:49 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear!
jo_graham
Feb. 7th, 2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
lferion
Feb. 7th, 2013 07:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, this. Though I was often more interested in the grownups in the books I read as a child -- I wanted more of Archibald Craven's story, not more of Mary's. I still do.

That is one of the things I realize I really love about the Order of the Air books.
jo_graham
Feb. 7th, 2013 08:33 pm (UTC)
I loved the Warrior Maidens -- Princess Leia, Saavik -- and most of all Cassie on Battlestar Galactica, young women when I was a teenager. And I learned a lot about being a grownup from them. But somewhere around thirty, when I was older than the characters I had admired, I cast around and realized there weren't many for the stage ahead. Who would teach me to be a leader and a mother and a mentor and a person who wields power gracefully and well? There were so few stories. There were so few queens. Queens are wicked and mothers are absent and powerful women rulers are rare. And certainly the Sacred Prostitute and the Priestess are almost extinct! So I decided I'd better write some. If I wanted those stories I would have to tell them myself.
tielan
Feb. 7th, 2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
I find that I prefer reading about mature characters with life experience behind them, but I tend to write younger ones.

And I've just realised I should rec you to a friend of mine who was bemoaning the lack of mature-age characters in fiction the other day. She was talking more about fanfic than profic, but she might like your books.
jo_graham
Feb. 7th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
Oh cool! Thank you for reccing me!

And also as a consumer of stories? I have a problem with crushing on characters young enough to be my children. It kind of feels skeevy.

Edited at 2013-02-07 08:35 pm (UTC)
tielan
Feb. 7th, 2013 09:37 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure that I tend to think of fictional characters in books as sexually attractive. I like them, sure. I'm interested in exploring their stories. I want to know what happens to them next, the possibilities of their personalities and where they could go.

They're fascinating, as people are fascinating whether I'm physically attracted to them or not.

Characters in TV shows and movies are different - but, again, it tends to be the character's personality/ethics/morals that decides me. As I once argued with a friend, I have to like someone (IRL) for them to be attractive to me. Yes, there's a conventional standard of physical beauty, but if I don't think there's something worthwhile in them, then there's a gap that mere physicality can't cross.
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 11:44 am (UTC)
For me, as we've talked about before, a character's sexuality is so intristically a part of who they are that if I like a character I find them sexually attractive. (The same way that in real life if I like a person I find them sexually attractive.)
kaviiq
Feb. 7th, 2013 11:45 pm (UTC)
It wasn't long ago that I was part of the target audience of YA fiction publishers, and I think the only YA book series I've read that I thoroughly enjoyed were Terry Pratchett's stories about Tiffany Aching. It's a definite coming-of-age story, but he doesn't simplify his writing style just because he's writing for a younger audience. Sure, he's writing about a young witch who ventures off into the land of the elves, but he still packs just as many details into his stories about her as he would any other Discworld book.

I think you might be able to write a pretty good coming-of-age story, but when so many other people already write so much... yeah, there's more to fiction than writing for or reading about teenagers.
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 11:47 am (UTC)
The characters in Black Ships are young, and one editor actually suggested that Black Ships be sold as YA, but I didn't like that for several reasons. First, in the culture these characters live in, they're adults. In the Bronze Age, nineteen is a man. Secondly, the experiences they're having and the roles they're taking are not young roles. Neas may be 24, but he's struggling with being a single father, for example, while at the same time he's caring for his own aging father. These are conflicts more common today to someone in their forties than someone 24!
kaviiq
Feb. 9th, 2013 02:37 pm (UTC)
I really liked Black Ships, and I think it's because the characters are in my age range (I'll be 20 this year, so no worries about the more intimate chapters). But it doesn't have the feel of the bulk of stories that are marketed for people my age. It's not about college life or getting drunk/high and having wacky adventures, or a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting drunk/high and having wacky adventures. I felt that, as a reader, I was treated as an adult reading about other adults. Sure, they're young and don't always have the experience or confidence that someone older would have, but they're adults all the same.
jo_graham
Feb. 10th, 2013 08:43 pm (UTC)
Yes, that! And in times past, we didn't think that people in their late teens and early twenties were kids. We thought they were adults and they had adult responsibilities. They had children of their own -- being a "teen mom" used to be the norm! They had jobs. They had responsibility for things that were important, and no slack cut if they didn't handle it. Just my opinion, but I think that's one of the problems today. We have this extended adolescence when people have way too much time to play and way too few real life responsibilities and work. It makes people self centered and childish because the bottom line is this -- most people are matured by the experiences they have, and the people who aren't won't be mature when they're forty! Nothing teaches you to handle a job except having a job. Nothing teaches you to handle a relationship except having a relationship. There are no classes and shortcuts to make adulthood risk free. Your first baby is a challenge, personally, financially, and relationship wise, whether you're eighteen or thirty. You learn from your first serious job, whether you're sixteen or twenty five. And it can't be that teens and early twenties are inherently immature, or they wouldn't have handled these things through most of human history!
kahva
Feb. 8th, 2013 12:26 am (UTC)
Well, personally I would say that life begins at 45, since now being in my 45th year and will be hitting my 46th this summer it seems like my life is heading in a new direction - I just have no clue where yet. :) But yes to everything you've said. :)
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 11:56 am (UTC)
There's sort of a trope that older characters are boring, which I just don't buy!
kahva
Feb. 9th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
I don't buy it either. Older characters have more life experience, which to me makes them more interesting because of all of the things they've seen and lived. Doesn't make them all-knowing, but more seasoned. Plus the longer you've been around, the more tales you have to tell. :)
selki
Feb. 8th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
Hurray!
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 11:47 am (UTC)
Thanks!
aishabintjamil
Feb. 8th, 2013 04:02 am (UTC)
The whole concept of "I want to read about people like me" has never seemed very relevant to me. As a teen, when in theory I should have been eating up YA books, I cheerfully read and enjoyed all kinds of characters - male, female, young, old - it didn't matter as long as they did interesting things, or lived in interesting places.

I graduated from reading Heinlein's YA books to his other books at about 12-13. On the other hand, I still pick up and enjoy books classified as YA now, at 50.

I don't see myself ever trying to write YA because I feel strongly about writing believable characters, and so many publishers are afraid that if you have someone under 18 even thinking about sex with another person of similar age that someone will accuse them of kiddie porn. And avoiding the issue completely is so wildly unrealistic it makes my teeth hurt. So I'm just not going there.
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 12:00 pm (UTC)
I don't see myself ever trying to write YA because I feel strongly about writing believable characters, and so many publishers are afraid that if you have someone under 18 even thinking about sex with another person of similar age that someone will accuse them of kiddie porn. And avoiding the issue completely is so wildly unrealistic it makes my teeth hurt.

YES! That! A lot of people scream about the unrealistic heroines in novels of sexual awakening -- "How can you have a college student who has never done X or Y, who has never thought about A or B?" Well, because if the author made the character actually thirteen instead of twenty, they'd get arrested! Actually writing about teenage girls sexual awakening is utterly taboo, unless you're writing it as a cautionary tale of how horrible sex is. But you can't write about thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year old girls discovering their own bodies or experimenting because the author would be in so much trouble. And so you get stories about bizarrely adolescent twenty year olds because the author HAS to make the girl over eighteen to cover her own butt.
(Deleted comment)
lillibet
Feb. 8th, 2013 02:28 pm (UTC)
Give me people who take years developping their skills instead of geniuses.

I think you might enjoy In Praise of the Hermione Granger Series, if you haven't already seen it.
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 12:02 pm (UTC)
I'm 28, I don't need to read coming of age stories anymore. Give me stories about how to deal with adult life.

Exactly! A lot of people want to read about the next stage. When I hit the point where I couldn't find any, I figured I had to write some! There aren't a lot of Helen Magnuses out there. If that's the kind of story I want to read, I'm very out of luck.
lillibet
Feb. 8th, 2013 02:33 pm (UTC)
It's interesting to me how the publishing world runs on trends, just like seemingly every other aspect of our culture. (I love a good beet salad, but I'm ready for something else to be on every menu!) Anne Rice's success gave us vampires all the time. Harry Potter got kids to read, so then we got YA fantasy out the wazoo. Now Fifty Shades of Gray is giving us erotica up the hoo-ha.

Fortunately, there are still lots of different books being written, we just have to look past the first screen of Pushed Books to find them. Thank you for making the shelves more robust!
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 12:03 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! I think one thing that's a really good trend is the smaller publishers. If a book doesn't have to sell 10,000 copies to be worth publishing, they can take chances on things that maybe appeal to 5,000 people. Which is still a gracious plenty, and makes the shelves more robust, as you say.
kickstand75
Feb. 8th, 2013 05:50 pm (UTC)
I think the issue I have is with the YA label itself. Some of my favorite books have included the younger set (Les Miserables, some of Stephen King's books, IT was one of my favorites though I still can't/won't walk over an open sewer and I'm 37! lol) and have been intelligent and worthy of reading. Why can't a good book just be a good book? Why do we have to package it up as anything at all? If the characters are interesting, witty, mysterious, whatever, shouldn't they be so in any setting/form of themselves? So, if you have a "priestess", if her story is compelling enough, I'd love to read it, explore it, at any age.

I read Les Miserables when I was 14 going on 15. And while I could, at the time, most identify with Cosette and Eponine, it didn't diminish my pleasure or sadness regarding Valjean or Fantine.

However, having said all that, agreed with the line of conversation above that it IS just a little skeevy and creeperish to think of any male hero that could be your son's age (you know, if you HAD a son....) as hot! ;)
jo_graham
Feb. 9th, 2013 12:27 pm (UTC)
I mean, if my daughter has a crush on Justin Bieber, that's cool. But wouldn't it be a little uncomfortable if I did? If I were posting crush pictures of Cody Simpson who is all of sixteen? Er.... My daughter is not quite eleven, and if she were all into Cody, well and good. But it would be kind of skeevy if I were!
kickstand75
Feb. 9th, 2013 08:59 pm (UTC)
Also, I think to clarify (because I must have been a little stressed about the weather forecast the other day and I'm sorry that I sounded a little snarky - that wasn't the spirit, I promise!) with another example.....Elza! She's only 19 (right?) when General's Mistress begins. Yet she's compelling at this age.....she's spunky, she's adventurous, she's brave, she's a little selfish......she's a great character no less diminished by her young age. Yet General's Mistress was decidedly not YA even though it's heroine was young. I look forward to "seeing" her mature and reflect upon decisions she made and hearing the wisdom gained from these experiences in her life. :)

And oh, tween daughters! Oh, oh, oh, how I love them in spades - they're fascinating little creatures, aren't they?
jo_graham
Feb. 10th, 2013 08:44 pm (UTC)
No, not at all! :)

Oh yes, Elza starts at nineteen, but it's definitely not YA! And Elza makes a lot of mistakes and bad decisions. She definitely does things between 19 and 24 that she bitterly regrets later. (As one sometimes does!)
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )