What Do You Write?

I know I don’t let her out very often, but I’m speaking to you today as Writer Sarah. As most of you know, I also write. By which I mean, sometimes I jot down a paragraph that could someday end up in a novel, and then let it sit for months without writing anything new because “free time” is a thing of myth and legend.

But, sometimes I write.

In New York, if you say you’re working on “a novel,” the response is not “Oh, how interesting. What’s it about?!” It’s more likely to be a subtle eye roll and a polite “oh” with the clear subtext: “Yeah, who isn’t?” I appreciate this about New Yorkers. Nobody here is special, and many New Yorkers will think nothing of reminding you of that fact. It’s one of the things non-New Yorkers think is “rude” about us, but it’s actually quite refreshing.

New Yorkers in general might not care about what I’m working on, but when friends and family hear I’m writing a novel, they ask the inevitable “What do you write?” It’s a harmless enough question, but I hate answering it. Mostly because this is what usually happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: Fiction.
Q: Yeah but what kind?
A: For teens.
Q: Is it a mystery? Scary? Romance?
A: No. Just fiction.
Q: That sounds boring. You should add vampires to it.
A: ::falls over and dies::

Or this happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: I’m working on a young adult novel right now.
Q: What like vampires?
A: No, like just regular fiction. But for teens.
Q: ::does not compute:: ::thinks I’m not a “serious writer”::

I feel the need to give my credentials when people give the “you write for teens?” look. It’s mocking and ignorant and I’m always tempted to quote Shakespeare and rub my MFA diploma in their faces (if I knew where said diploma was). But I don’t do that and instead just say to myself “Yep, YA. Oh you don’t know understand what it is? You must be really stupid then.” and merrily walk away. (I hope you other writers do the same. But seriously, only say it to yourself. Not out loud.)

Maybe my “non-specialness” of being a New Yorker has made me shy away from this question. Truthfully, I’m more concerned about coming off like a novice, even though that’s exactly what I am. So, I’m curious what you real writers answer when asked “What do you write?” Do you downplay what you’re working on out of modesty? Do you proudly offer your genre even if it’s not taken seriously by the less-informed? Or do you just ignore people and keep typing?

Happy Writing this weekend 🙂

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Do Endings Matter?

As you know, I didn’t love how Harry Potter ended. That said, I was quite satisfied with it. Does it matter whether Harry lived or died in the end? Not particularly, at least not to me. Does it matter that there were flaws or lapses in logic? Nope. It was an amazing story with amazing characters who did amazing things. Not being blown away by the final installment didn’t ruin that for me. I don’t regret reading it and I got what I wanted from the series. J.K. Rowling could have had Ron flip on a boombox, blast Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, and kill everybody, and I still would have been satisfied. It wouldn’t have changed the fact that for over 10 years, and for six+ books, I was riveted.

When Lost ended, I wrote about my feelings on satisfying endings. (There are no spoilers for those who want to go back and read it, but you’ll notice that I do manage to talk about a certain epilogue.) In fact, another J.J. Abrams production is what got me thinking about endings in the first place. I was already playing around with whether endings really matter after seeing Harry, but then I saw Super 8.

I loved it. Like, loved it. It was basically every movie you’ve ever seen rolled into one, but somehow still managed to be fun and original. And the kids – the kids! They were just great. Anyway. When I went to express this love to my fellow geeks, I was met with shrugs and “yeah it was OK.” Shocking! I didn’t understand this “meh” attitude, especially from people whose opinions I respect on these matters.

Then I realized their problem. They had this desire to be satisfied. Like with Cloverfield, we don’t really get to see the physical threat in Super 8 too often. For a monster movie, the danger is sort of beside the point. It’s easy to compare that to Lost too. Pretty much all of J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi works can be summed up with: “There’s a monster. People are dealing with it. Focus on how they deal. Don’t worry about that monster.”

It’s sort of infuriating when people say they “wasted six years” watching Lost. I feel bad for these types of people. Were they not still tuning it every week? Were they not coming up with theories and having fun and waiting to see what would happen next? How does one episode ruin that experience, as if it never mattered? If anyone was expecting logical answers in the end, then they missed what the show was really about – people reacting to crazy shit happening to them. Sure, the last episode was a bit of a cop-out, sort of confusing, and full of cliffhangers. That basically describes the entire series, so in my opinion, it was a pretty fitting ending.

But to many, it was unsatisfying and I suppose I understand that to an extent. For me, monsters are cool, but I’m way more interested in human nature, so in my opinion, storytellers like J.J. Abrams are perfect. Yes, I want the threat to be real and not metaphorical. Yes, I want to see some action. Yes, I need a plot to follow. But no, I don’t need everything neatly wrapped up, or know where that monster came from, or even what it looks like. J.J. delivers on all of these points. (It’s not like he’s M. Night Shyamalan, who fails at plot, character, and endings.)

So, I ask again – do endings matter? Of course. As writers, you need to reach a conclusion that’s in keeping with your story and that will satisfy your readers (there’s a reason Ms. Rowling didn’t just kill everybody). But, as readers, how much do they matter to you? Will an unsatisfying ending ruin an experience you otherwise enjoyed?

Oh, and see Super 8 if you haven’t already. You’ll want to hug it.

The Real Lesson from Harry Potter

**If the select few who only experience the Harry Potter series through the movies wish to avoid “spoilers,” then consider yourself warned.**

Like many HP fans, I went to see The Deathly Hallows: Part II this weekend. I surprised myself by not crying and mostly floated through the movie waiting to see how they would present certain scenes, rather than anticipate the scenes themselves. Despite knowing what happens, and making my peace with it, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I will probably see it again in theaters at least one more time.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. That statement alone feels sort of strange to say. The series has reached such popularity that saying you’re a fan is practically commonplace. Obviously I’m a fan. It’s like saying you think The Beatles are a good band, or you enjoy eating pizza. There’s a “duh” factor.

My inner fangirl loves Harry Potter for many, many reasons. The plot and characters, of course, but more than that, my admiration for J.K. Rowling’s storytelling ability is what keeps me such a strong advocate for this series. Each character (and there are many), no matter how insignificant, has some sort of back-story. We care about every single one of them, even when we can’t always keep everyone straight. Not only that, but in the hugely rich tale of why a boy must battle the darkest wizard of all time, there are several sub-plots – many of them independent from Harry and Voldemort – that are just as interesting. Beneath “good vs. evil,” there are socially relevant themes of government interference in schools (Umbridge), attack of independent media (The Quibbler), modern slavery/class systems (house elves), and feminism (Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall, strong women forced to take a back seat in the man’s world of their generation.) These are just to name a few, by the way.

This is all by way of saying how much I love Ms. Rowling’s writing and how much of a connection I’ve felt toward this series for so many years. That’s why in addition to not crying, I surprised myself for a different reason while watching The Deathly Hallows. I realized something – you can be brilliant and still have flaws.

Maybe it was the fatigue of writing this series for 20 years, or pressure from her publishers to turn in the next book, or simply a desire not to make each book 4,000 pages… but our beloved Ms. Rowling leaves quite a few loose ends and rushed conclusions. For example:

1. Snape. Was he actually good that whole time? The final film does a good job of redeeming his character, but the books actually keep him pretty ambiguous. Yes, he did what Dumbledore asked him to do, but why not still be a double agent for The Order? Why not let them in on Dumbledore’s plan? Even though his heart was never in it, his choice was to give himself over to Voldemort completely, knowing he’d never be allowed to escape. Is that martyrdom or stupidity? And why is such a dick all the time? This comic puts all of your Snape questions into context. OK, we get it, Snape had a soft spot for Harry this whole time because he loved Lily. But… he is still basically evil, right? Based on the books alone, we never know the real answer.

2. Harry’s connection to Voldemort. We know why they can hear each other’s thoughts, but Dumbledore seemed to think Harry could block them out with a little practice. But because Snape’s hatred of Harry gets in the way of his responsibility to The Order (see above), he basically tells Harry to fend for himself. One of my favorite lines in the final movie was Harry’s response to Hermione when she asks whether he can sever the connection to Voldemort: “I can’t! Or maybe I can. I don’t know.” It’s such a perfect comment on the fact that J.K. Rowling  drops this storyline with no real explanation. If Harry did learn to block out Voldemort’s presence, there goes pertinent plot points for Books 6 and 7, so it’s left open for interpretation.

3. Neville! In Book 5, we learn that the prophecy labeling Harry as Voldemort’s one true enemy could have actually applied to Neville as well. It takes about two paragraphs for J.K. to explain that Neville’s parents also defied Voldemort and that Neville was also born at the end of July, but don’t worry it really is Harry who must defeat him. Wait, what? Why bother telling us about Neville then? And didn’t Voldemort mark Harry by accident? He didn’t know the spell would backfire and just leave a scar. He was trying to kill him. Maybe the spell backfiring weakened him before he got the chance to hit up the Longbottom house. We don’t know. It’s an odd thing for J.K. to include in the series so far into it. She would have had to re-write the last two books to make Neville our hero after all. Of course, changing the game so far into the series would have been a disaster for readers who have come to love Harry. So, Neville’s would-be calling becomes a red herring. Still… is Harry really our hero?

4. Harry is Not Really Our Hero. Our boy who lived is an incredible wizard. There’s no question about this. He has skills beyond his years, he’s clever and resourceful, and he’s certainly not short on bravery. But if you really think about the series, Harry doesn’t really do anything at the end. He fights and wins battles the same as everyone else, but when it comes to fighting the big end-of-show evil, someone else manages to swoop in and help out at the last minute, leaving Harry to take all the credit. Hermione knows the winning spell, unexplained swords and patronuses appear out of thin air to help him out of jams, and Neville (see above!) is the one who destroys the final Horcrux, thus killing Voldemort and saving the world. Harry is a natural leader and a gifted motivational speaker, but when it comes to physical battles, he’s no more or less equipped than his friends. I’d be fine with this portrayal of Harry if that was the intention, but the series hinges on the fact that Harry really is a hero. And by himself, he’s just not. Sorry, J.K.

5. Harry’s Love Life.  After seeing Deathly Hallows: Part I, I made my disapproval of Harry and Ginny’s happily ever after known. I still find it insulting and unrealistic, but seeing Part II of this installment made me remember Luna Lovegood. Oh, Luna! Now, keep in mind I have a huge problem with Harry ending up with anyone romantically. He’s only 17 and just ended seven years of going through some serious shit. All I want for Harry is a tall, frosty butterbeer, and maybe a  vacation. The sexual tension between Ron and Hermione pays off splendidly in the end, which should be enough for readers wanting a little romance with their fantasy. But, blah blah Harry blah blah Main Character blah blah He Needs Love Too. I get it. But does it have to be Ginny? I’m a huge fan of Ginny as a character, but the two have absolutely no chemistry. The only logical explanation I can see for having Harry end up with Ginny is that Harry is too exhausted after the war to care, and he always wanted to be a Weasley anyway, and Ginny is the only girl in that family. If our boy HAS to end up with anyone, it should be Luna. (Ginny, of course, should be with Neville.) From the beginning, Harry is the only person who doesn’t think Luna is completely insane. She makes him laugh and we see them have actual fun together, as opposed to Harry and Ginny, who just give each other awkward stares. Luna and Harry also share an ability to see only what the truly bereaved can see. Plus, any time Harry is going through his woe-is-me emo phases, it’s Luna who always pops up to comfort or give him advice. This should be obvious, J.K.! Why make awesome characters like Ginny, Harry, and Luna settle for a crappy post-high school existence?

6. That F@#(@#* Epilogue. Kind readers, you know my feelings on epilogues. I will spare you all my rant. If The Deathly Hallows was a standalone title, or if the series wasn’t as popular, I’m sure J.K.’s editors would have made her remove that horrible piece of writing from the series. The level with which I hate it is akin to the S.P.E.W. sub-plot in Book 4, which is to say, quite intense.

So, does this mean that if you’re writing a series, you can cop out, be deliberately vague, and leave things unexplained? Of course not. As the series became more ambitious, so did J.K. Rowling’s writing, and sometimes adding so much more didn’t always work. But, by the time The Deathly Hallows was published, it was abundantly clear that J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and however she wanted it. Unless your series reaches that status, it’s best to stick to the script.

The real lesson here is that if you have a good story, readers will respond. If you have even better characters, readers will stick with them. Build your fan base by getting it right, but don’t become consumed by being “perfect.” Real fans will recognize your faults, and they will continue to love you anyway.

Gateway Books

As an agent, I represent both YA and adult fiction because as a reader, I love both equally. Admittedly, I read a lot more YA than adult, especially since I became an agent, because that’s what’s sent to me most often. (Note: this is not a complaint!) It’s my job to keep up with the markets I’m specializing in, so even in those rare moments of free time, I read YA.

However, in the same way I can’t read too many books within any specific genre in a row, I find that too much YA leaves me craving something more grown up, something written with absolutely no regard for a younger audience. The language gets denser, the characters are closer to my age, and the situations are more relevant to my life. As complex and literary and wonderful as YA can be, the whole point of it is to speak to the teenage experience. I don’t think I’m alone here when I say that remaining in high school forever feels like a cruel joke. Much like in my actual teen years, sometimes all I want to do is graduate and embrace the adult experience.

There are many other readers out there who manage to strike this same balance between YA and adult fiction. But, there are others who are clearly in one camp or the other. I’ve met readers (and writers) who barely know any modern adult fiction titles because they only follow the YA community. Likewise (as we read about way more often than we should), adult fiction readers, of both commercial and literary tastes, tend to either a) think of YA as “kid stuff,” which to them includes teens, or b) don’t understand what YA is and don’t enough care to find out.

Neither side here is right, and in their own way, neither side is really wrong. As long as one refrains from bashing the other, it all comes down to personal preference. But if you’re one of those readers who spends way too much time reading one vs. the other; or you want to try YA, but you’re hung up on the stigma of shopping in the “teen” section; or you’re waiting for an adult novel to speak to you as much as YA has, then might I suggest a few gateway titles that will make the transition easier:

1. Election by Tom Perrotta: Ah, Tracy Flick. The original Hermione Granger, minus the ability to conjure spells. All Tracy conjured was an immediate sense of annoyance and disdain… but who also had an odd likability. She wants to be president of her high school and one day conquer the world, but her teacher, Mr. M, would rather that didn’t happen. The novel takes place in high school and only has one real adult protagonist (if you want to call him that) in the mix of teenagers. Yet it’s a deeply rich satire about politics and scandal. If you’ve seen the equally brilliant film version, then you know this isn’t meant to speak directly to the teenage experience, but it features teens we all know, even sometimes love.

2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss: I read this book in a class called “Young Adult as the Narrator” when I was getting my MFA and couldn’t understand why this book was even on the course list. It had nothing to do with young adult fiction, or so I thought. Which I guess was the point of the class. Told from the alternating perspectives of 14-year-old Alma and 90-year-old Leo, it’s a story about family and survival and self-discovery. While no one could accidentally misplace this in the YA section like they could with Election, The History of Love is a novel teenagers would enjoy because its core themes transcend age, like all good novels should. But with a young narrator, it makes the crossover appeal that much easier to take in.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: Published in the late 1940s, this novel also features a teenage narrator whose focus is on her family. It’s hard for me not to compare this novel to Jane Austen – wise-beyond-her-years young woman sees herself as an outsider in her formerly prominent family, who is dealing with the changing times in the English countryside. Then, to shake things up, handsome (American!) young men move in next door and matchmaking ensues… It’s all there, but 17-year-old Cassandra Morton’s family are no Bennetts. They are dysfunctional and broken and wildly eccentric – and Cassandra’s sharp eye and wit is there to capture it all.

4. How I Paid for College by Marc Acito: The subtitle for this book is “A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater” and I picked it up in the bookstore for that reason. I was 20 when I read it, and having been a proud member of my high school’s drama club, a book about “play people” (as they’re called in the book) who drink, have sex, and go on madcap adventures to New York City was appealing. This book would probably be more for adult readers who want to segue into YA, but honestly even knowing what I know now about the industry, I’m not sure where I’d categorize this. I bought it in the regular fiction section, but it could very easily fit in on a YA shelf next to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or Youth in Revolt. It’s a crazy book and laugh-out-loud funny (a phrase I do not use lightly!). Basically every age group should read it, even if you weren’t a play person.

5. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: This is an easy, if not obvious, pick coming from me. Not only does it introduce reluctant YA readers to a younger character, but it introduces sci-fi skeptics to a world where battling aliens is just as important as the literary writing style and richly developed characters. The thing about Ender is that he is very young, not even a teenager. So while the overarching plot is pure sci-fi territory, the readers get to see a very simple coming of age story. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it. I’ve also just noticed Orson Scott Card’s original dedication as I leafed through my copy – “For Geoffrey, who makes me remember how young and how old children can be.” It can’t really be said better than that, can it?

Reading the above-mentioned titles will not only convert reluctant readers on both sides, but they will also help any of you writers out there who are thinking crossing age lines. You may have noticed that several adult authors are tackling YA these days (Grisham and Patterson among the larger names). You may have also noticed it’s not a matter of simply “dumbing down” prose and making a few characters younger. It’s writing with an entirely different viewpoint in mind, one that most adults have not considered in quite a while. Tapping into a part of your brain that hasn’t been used in decades is not easy. Oh no, how do teens think? Will they understand if I use this literary device? Do they modern-day teens even care about this anymore? It’s easy to get yourself worked up over whether your audience will “get” you if you are trying something completely new. Same goes for YA authors trying adult for the first time. I find that if I read too many YA voices in a row, the switch to an adult perspective can be jarring. Switching your brain in order to write it is even more of a challenge. Even though the adult voice is the writer’s own voice, it is still a daunting task. That’s where crossover titles – Gateway Books – come in. They exist in the middle, and writers can pick and choose what they need to take from them.

If you’re wondering why I left out the more obvious titles of To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, or Huck Finn, it’s because you already read them. Also, with the exception of Dodie Smith, the above titles are for the more contemporary reader. I find “classics” to be classics for a reason; people of all age groups have accepted them as “great” or are being told they’re great high school. Contemporary fiction is still divided. You either “like that kind of thing” or don’t. Not enough time has passed to see where they’ll fall in the literary spectrum.

Whether you’re on Team YA or Team Adult, I guarantee reading the above-mentioned titles (in no particular order) will help you find value in both styles of writing – one way or the other. Unfortunately, this is not a money-back-guarantee, so in case I’m proven wrong please accept the following song as a consolation.

(But I doubt I’ll be proven wrong. You will love them and learn from them!)

Have a good weekend, everyone.