How Much Violence Is Too Much in YA Literature?

As a writer of YA science fiction and fantasy, I’m no stranger to writing my heroines into some violent struggles. Whether it’s emotional abuse or outright warfare, somehow these themes are embedded in the hero(ine)’s journey.

But I am also sensitive to the fact the readers of my stories are not adults, like me. When I grapple with violence in my writing, I am aware that my words carry the potential to be a force for good, or to be damaging. Walking that narrow line, without condescending to readers who are smart, sensitive people, is not easy.

Below are the yardsticks I keep in mind when violence erupts in my stories.

Avoid gratuitous violence.
It’s easy to use graphic violence for it’s shock value. As writers, we want to make our readers feel something when they engage with our work. However, it’s not appropriate to use violence or trauma as a shortcut to actual writing and character development. For example, I’ve noticed a number of YA novels recently where the main character is a rape victim. The topic is not explored or an organic part of the story, but rather used as a way to generate instant sympathy for the protagonist. Inevitably, the result is a character that is a shell of a person, defined by what is done to them, rather than who they are. A character that is no more than a victim, rendered lovable only by their trauma (and drop-dead good looks, of course), is not a safe message to pass to a young adult audience.

Focus on the emotional drama of a violent event rather than the gore.
Young adult fantasy seems to have a different metric than other YA literature when it comes to the level of acceptable violence. In fantasy, YA heroes and heroines wield weapons, fight in wars, and kill enemies. But handling that level of violence when writing for young adults requires some delicacy. As a huge fan of Sarah J. Maas, one aspect of her work that I have always admired is her ability to address the psychological impact of the violence in her stories. She includes enough information to set the scene, but doesn’t plunge into the details of gory acts. The reader’s horror is evoked by the reaction of the protagonist, rather than the gore.

Do your due diligence when addressing issues of abuse, depression and suicide.
As writers creating fiction for young adults, we have a responsibility to make sure that our novels do not encourage destructive behavior. A recent example is the Netflix video series 13 Reasons Why, based on a novel of the same name. The story centers around a girl who commits suicide. For teens who are depressed or suicidal, reading about others who act on those feelings can be triggering. That doesn’t mean that authors should avoid those topics. Rather, do your homework and learn what experts say should be emphasized and avoided to craft a story that acts as a force of good (or at least good entertainment).

Address the consequences of violence.
After writing a scene where a character endures violence, remember that the pain lives on long after the act is over. That means that characters need time to heal, and may suffer from PTSD. Aside from the fact that this will make your story deeper and more resonant with readers, it is particularly important for YA audiences to understand that violence has long-lasting repercussions.

Write a book description that makes any violence in your novel explicit.
If your book includes violence, make sure that readers are aware of what they are getting into before opening your book. Your book description should make it clear that you are touching on a sensitive or triggering topic. When marketing your books, reach out to age-appropriate readers, and include disclaimers about the violence.

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A Mom’s Take on Maui’s “You’re Welcome” Song from Disney’s Moana

Maybe it was because my 5-year-old decided to write a letter to Santa about all the things mom had done wrong that day.

Maybe it was because my 3-year-old refused to let  me brush her teeth for the umpteenth time until I showed her pictures of rotten teeth on the Internet.

Or maybe it’s just that writer’s block will do strange things to a person.

But that night, when I watched Disney’s Moana for the first time with my husband, and I really sympathized with Maui when Moana came to drag him off on her quest. When he sang the “You’re Welcome” song, all I could think of was my own kids.

I’m always in need of a creative outlet, so I decided to write a spoof of the song. For fun, I added some funny parenting pictures for your viewing pleasure. The singing is by a talented artist, Celeste Notley-Smith. Check it out and let me know what you think!

 

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2017 YA Fantasy Trends

captureThe crop of YA fantasy novels this year has been a true delight. It’s still February, and I’ve already ripped my way through hundreds of pages of adventure, anguish, and romance. As a reader, it’s been a blissful escape during a year that has been tumultuous for so many of us already.

As a writer, I’m also excited to see that there is a changing of the guard in terms of the kinds of stories being released. I mean no offense to gritty urban fantasy, heroines who seem born knowing how to fight off all kinds of monsters, and epic battlefield clashes, but it’s refreshing to find stories writ smaller, and more intimately, than ever. The new themes and personalities that are emerging keep writers on their toes and readers enthralled.

Here are some of the themes that I’ve found to be both popular and powerful this year.

capture3Parental (and family) drama takes center stage.
This year’s heroines are not the orphans and loners of yesteryear. They must navigate family politics and expectations, and break out of the childhood roles that bind them in order to find their identities apart from their parents. In Stephanie Garber’s novel, Caraval, the heroine has a father who brutally beats her and her sister. Part of her journey is not only physically escaping his control, but breaking through the mental trauma that defines her. What I love about the emphasis of the integral role of family on a protagonist, for better or for worse, is that it leads us away from the view that you can separate an individual from where they come from. Heroines who are the products of their history feel more personal, and believable.

capture4The power of art to change us and define us.
I have enjoyed the YA fantasy of the past few years taking a concrete approach to strength in its heroines. These women could fight the biggest monsters, wield the most magic, and us their wits and logic to overcome any obstacle. But I didn’t know that I was missing heroines with artistic, sensitive souls that gave them strength. Now, I can’t imagine a heroine without one. My favorite example is from S. Jae-Jones’ novel, Wintersong. Liesl, the protagonist, is a composer, and the power of music is a theme that acts as the glue holding the story together. It deepens and intensifies both the reader’s understanding of the protagonist, and lends believability to the “specialness” that makes her unique to a goblin king.

capture2Love interests who are happy to be “beta” males.
Praise all that is good, this year the alpha male appears to be taking a backseat to a subtler, more fragile and human male specimen. Bulging muscles and overconfidence are taken off their pedestal for men who are interested in the arts, slender in their build, and comfortable letting a woman take the driver’s seat. Sigh. I’m halfway in love, just thinking about them. A prime example is the character of Jest in Marissa Meyer’s Heartless, which was released last November, but I’m still counting in our 2017 trends. Jest is a performer and a lover. He’s heroic in his own right, but he never robs Cath, the protagonist, of her choices. There is the risk that he is too perfect, but I’ll take that when I see a heroine with the ability and choice for forge her own future.

Novels that play with our sense of what’s real.
Maybe it’s because so many of us are questioning if our news, our politics, even our own opinions can be trusted, but there is a distinct theme that I’ve found winding its way through YA fantasy this year. The current crop of protagonists not only don’t know who they can trust, but they also must question the reality of the very world they inhabit. From Caraval to Heartless to Wintersong, the heroines’ stories are upended as they question what is real, and what is part of a game. Maybe that’s what many of us our wishing – that we might wake up, like Alice, and discover that the upside-down world that frightened us was nothing more than a dream.

Any other trends that have caught your eye this year, or books that you’d recommend to a reader always starving for a good YA fantasy?

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Looking for Villainspiration

abstract-1057521_960_720It’s dark and dreary in my hometown of San Jose this week, and the ghost of something dark hovers at the edges of my thoughts whenever I watch the news. The combined effect might be disturbing if it were an ordinary week, but right now I’m obsessing over how to craft a worthy villain to terrorize the protagonist of my new series. I need all the villainspiration I can get, because the task of creating a villain requires a different kind of soul-searching than writing a nuanced protagonist.

As an avid reader of all kinds of literature, I’ve been frightened by the creations of many talented authors who are adept at writing believable antagonists for their heroes. Below are some of the most helpful nuggets I’ve taken from their hard work and brilliance.

Knowledge of the villain’s plans and motivations should be hard-won.
One of the creepiest books of all time is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’ve lain awake at nights as a grown adult unable to sleep for fear that the red light blinking in the corner is not, in fact, my fire alarm, but rather the red pupils of an evil vampire after my sweet little throat. Stoker’s Dracula never revealed his darker side to the heroes willingly. He acted the part of a gentleman, and it took serious detective work to uncover his evil past and nefarious plans for the future. When the heroes earn their knowledge, the reader credits it more than when it’s handed over in a neat package of backstory from someone in the know.

Sometimes the worst villains start out as the heroine’s friend.
This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that is powerful time and again when executed well. When a friend turns enemy, they know the heroine’s fears, strengths, and vulnerabilities. And because the villain began as a friend, the author is less likely to let the villain devolve into a caricature of evil instead of a person. Sarah J. Maas has a new twist on this idea in her Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy. The heroine’s true love in the first book becomes the villain of the second, without any idea that he has fallen from his throne in her heart. Seeing how the good in him grows warped in both fascinating and troubling – in the best way.

No monologuing. Ever.
Your heroine can have a speech. Your heroine’s friend can espouse on relevant topics at lenght. Your heroine’s mentor can have a rallying pep talk. But, please, skip the long explanation of motives, preview of evil plans, and exhaustive reminiscences of the past coming from the mouth of the villain. If the villain’s backstory is crucial, find a creative way to expose it. J.K. Rowling created the pensieve to give Harry a peek into Voldemort’s past. It allowed the reader to experience events in real time, with action, instead the biased ranting of Voldemort. This makes more sense for most villains, who would never willingly reveal weaknesses or plans to someone with the ability to undermine them.

Take a peek inside your villain’s head.
It’s human nature to over-simplify and stereotype the people we encounter, and the heroine of your story is no different. When, as a writer, you’re lost inside your protagonist’s head, good and evil are very black and white. But readers have a different reaction to villains who are too extreme, or cartoonish. They are less terrifying, because they don’t feel real. Writing from the villain’s perspective (even if you don’t use what you write in your final draft) forces you to give them believable motives, a view of the world that makes sense to them, feelings, and a personal history. If you’re looking for an author who does this so well, consider the protagonist/villain of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert. The man is a child molester, but in his own head he is a victim of the thirteen-year-old torturing him with her beauty. You find yourself on the brink of sympathizing with him, and then the reality of what a monster he is hits you again and again. Even if you can’t give your villain a voice within your novel, as his creator you should know him well, so you can write him believably.

Thunder (or a garbage truck) is rumbling in the background as I write this post, reminding me that I should return to the task of tackling my next novel. So I’ll dim the lights, shed reality, and put some of this villainspiration to good use. As long as I don’t encounter my own personal tormentor…writer’s block.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

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Goodreads Book Giveaway of My YA Fantasy Novel, The Society of Imaginary Friends

The-Society-of-Imaginary-Friends300x200Enter for a chance to win a hard copy of my Amazon bestselling novel, The Society of Imaginary Friends, a young adult epic fantasy. Click here to enter my Goodreads Giveaway, which is live now through December 21, 2016. This breakthrough novel is the first book of The Conjurors Series, and retails for $8.99.

Description:

Valerie Diaz has a power that she can’t contain, and it’s killing her. Bounced between foster homes and the streets, she only has time to concentrate on staying alive. But a visit from the imaginary friend of her childhood opens a world of possibilities, including a new life half a universe away on a planet that is bursting with magic.

The Society of Imaginary Friends follows Valerie on a journey that straddles two worlds. In order to survive, she must travel many light years away to a realm where anything is possible. On the Globe, imaginary friends come to life, the last of the unicorns rules the realm, and magic seeps from the pores of all the Conjurors who live there.

But choosing to embrace her potential will set Valerie on a treacherous course – one filled with true love, adventure and perilous danger.

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Tips on Your Quest for An Agent

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Self-publishing my 4-book YA fantasy series, The Conjurors, was an experience that I am so grateful for. Over the past five years, pushing myself to finish the series and learning how to effectively market it has given me purpose and taught me what it means to build a platform and brand for myself.

But I’ll be the first to admit that marketing my books isn’t nearly as fun as writing them. There’s a satisfaction to be had when a sales/marketing strategy succeeds, but, for me, it doesn’t compare to the joy, the oblivion, of losing myself inside the movie in my head. So I decided for my new YA science fiction series, Joan the Made, I would search for an agent and try the traditional publishing route.

I had no illusions that it would be easy, or even possible, to land an agent. I have no contacts in the industry, or published friends to look to for advice or a reference. I’m also a hard-core introvert with the networking skills of a meerkat. But I have a book that I believe is the best thing I’ve written so far, and the willingness to spend a ridiculous number of hours researching agents, personalizing my query letters, and sending out hopeful wishes into the universe.

At first, there was a lot of rejection. But after sending dozens of queries and tweaking my manuscript and letter, interest began to rise. I’m still waiting and hoping that an agent will be interested in working with me. My manuscript is currently in the hands of a few agents, and there are others who have yet to respond.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way that dramatically improved the response rate from the agents I queried.

Revise your query letter when it isn’t working.
After every ten queries, I would rewrite my letter to emphasize a new angle. I adjusted the paragraph about myself, the description of the novel, and expanded why I was reaching out to that particular agent. This was the best thing I did. By the fifth query rewrite, I began seeing a lot more interest in reading samples of my manuscript, and even manuscript requests.

Revise your manuscript if you receive valuable feedback from agents.
A few kind agents gave me words of advice in their rejection notes, letting me know what they liked or what could be improved. About halfway through my querying process, I rewrote my manuscript to incorporate those suggestions.

Try Twitter pitch fests.
I know. I was skeptical at first, too. Condensing my manuscript into 140 characters was a challenge, and what real agents found writers on Twitter? A lot, it turned out. It was also a much-needed ego boost to see agents “like” my tweet and request a query letter and writing sample. One of those agents went on to request the full manuscript. I had the most success with #PitMad and #PitDark. Just be sure to vet any agents who are interested in your manuscript before reaching out to them to make sure they’re legit.

Only target agents interested in your exact genre, or you will drive yourself nuts.
Take it from the girl who queried over 100 agents. There are a lot of agents interested in exactly what you’re writing. Focus on those agents, rather than agents who have broader interests. If you’re writing Fantasy or Science Fiction, I found this list helpful. Another tactic that I tried was looking up who the agent was for books that were similar to mine that had been published and were successful.

I’m a still a newbie at the querying process, so I welcome any suggestions you have for me that I haven’t thought of yet.

 

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The New YA Prince Charming

picture1Protective. Strong. Aggressive.

These have been the most prized traits in many YA romantic heroes over the past decade or so. But why did protective feel like stalking? Why did strength trump kindness? Worst of all, aggressive translated to controlling. (I’m looking at you, Edward Cullen.)

Fast forward to the present, and a new romantic leading man is emerging in YA literature, one that I admit finally has the power to make my heart pound.

Warm. Respectful. Selfless.

The new YA Prince Charming is as flawed, even broken, as the heroine that he loves, but what really makes him stand apart is that he is a partner, not a protector. He doesn’t fiercely guard “his woman” because she is an extension of himself. Rather, his goals are broader, he embraces being good and making the world better, with a woman as strong and selfless as he is by his side.

My favorite example of the new YA Prince Charming is Rhysand from Sarah. J. Maas’ trilogy, The Court of Thorns and Roses. Rhys (we’re close enough now to go by nicknames) fundamentally respects Feyre, as well as the choices she makes. It’s not just lip service; he accepts her decisions even when they place her in danger. Feyre and Rhys challenge each other, make each other better versions of themselves. Life has victimized them both, and they want to raise themselves and each other up as equals. Throw in Rhys’ violet eyes and sensitive…wings, and you’ve got the makings of a swoon-worthy hero.

I’ve seen elements of rounder, more lovable and loving heroes popping up in YA literature and beyond. It’s refreshing, new, and hopefully more than a trend. Here’s to a future filled with heroes and heroines who have each other’s backs, where the tropes of romance can be stretched and broken, just like in real life.

Of course, there are a few traits that remain the same for heroes old and new.

Killer body. Great kisser. Artistic soul.

Thank God some things never change.

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