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.

Advertisements

Write an Opening Chapter that Hooks Readers

CaptureThis year, I have left behind the characters who populated the series that I’ve been writing for several years. I’m embarking on a voyage to a new world, with a crew who is brand new to me. It’s fun and thrilling to be writing something completely new, but starting from scratch is also much harder than continuing a series.

The first chapter of any book, but especially the first book in a series, has to be gripping. Win a reader and they could go on to follow your characters for a long time. I’m now on the fifth major rewrite of my first chapter, and in honor of that I thought I’d share some DOs and DON’Ts that I’ve learned the hard way, with examples of excellent series openings from successful YA authors.

DO get to the story quickly rather than delving into too much description.
When your readers know nothing, it’s tempting to want to share everything you can about their backstory and the world they inhabit. But readers want to be immersed in a world, unaware that they are learning a character’s quirks and how their world functions because they’re more involved in the drama unfolding. I love Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the first book of The Lunar Chronicles, because she doesn’t waste time introducing Cinder and Prince Charming and throwing them together right away. She hooked me by the end of the first chapter, and I kept reading until I finished the series.

DON’T jump into the middle of an action sequence from the first page. (Most of the time.)
Some authors take the advice of getting to the story quickly to mean that they throw their main character into the middle of a battle, or struggling to survive, from the first sentence. Remember, before your protagonist faces big danger, the reader has to care if they live or die. There are examples of stories that start “In Medias Res” (in the middle of things) but those done well are rare. If you’re a new author, stick to a simpler scene that lets us get to know the character.

DO give readers a picture of what the main characters look like.
While no reader wants to read pages about the protagonist’s long, flowing locks of golden hair, they do want to have a sketch of the characters in their minds. This is a tidbit that I’ve ignored in the past, and readers and agents have called me on it time and again. For an example of an author who puts a riveting picture in your mind from page one, check out We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. When the main character says of her family, “The Sinclairs are athletic, tall and handsome…Our smiles are wide, our chins are square, and our tennis serves aggressive” we can picture the protagonist and her family’s appearance and personality in one swoop.

DON’T start your story with your character waking up.
I saw this tidbit in several reputed literary agents’ pet peeves. Starting your story at the start of your main character’s day makes logical sense – to everyone. Readers, editors, and agents alike have read this kind of opening so many times that it has become cliche.

DO end your first chapter with a teaser that invites the reader to turn the page, NOW.
No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it takes time to get a reader to invest emotionally in your character’s life. The first chapter is about piquing the reader’s interest, but it will take longer than that to earn their sympathy and empathy. With that in mind, a little mystery or promise of something fascinating to come goes a long way toward keeping readers moving forward with your story. Maggie Stiefvater does an excellent job of this in The Raven Boys. She introduces the protagonist, Blue, as a girl from a family with supernatural gifts. They’ve always predicted that she will kill her true love. The chapter ends with a promise from one of the characters that this is the year that she’ll fall in love. Will I continue reading? Hell, yes!

DON’T be afraid to change your first chapter, even if it impacts the rest of your story.
I know from experience that there is nothing more daunting for a writer than making a change to the first chapter that ripples through the rest of the book you’ve written (or in some cases, the series). But taking the time to make the opening perfect is an investment that will pay you back in spades. If readers aren’t hooked, they’ll never have the opportunity to see how great your writing gets by chapter 6. So grit your teeth and make it perfect, consequences be damned.

There are few things more difficult to do, or more critical to your success as an author, than writing an outstanding first chapter. But when you get it exactly right, the momentum can carry you through the rest of the book, and even the rest of the series. Readers will forgive a crappy chapter 32, but they will never read past a weak chapter 1.

How to Weave Believable Technology into Your YA Dystopian Novel (Part 2)

file000898499863As I mentioned in my last post, Part 1 on this topic, it is with glee that I leave behind the world I’ve been writing about for years to enter a new one. It’s radically different than the one I left behind, not even set in the same time. I’m visiting the future, and am learning about the technology I’ll find there. For the first time, my day job is kinda helpful, as I work in Silicon Valley at a high tech company, where we geek out about what the future will look like all the time.

I’m a believer that the best place to generate ideas for plausible ideas of future technology is to check out cutting-edge technology from today and extrapolate. Below are some resources that might trigger ideas for you.

Technology Websites
No surprise, there are a lot of online resources to sift through if you’re interested in technology. They range from those too mundane to yield exciting inspiration to those so futuristic that they don’t feel plausible. The sites I regularly check out are TechCrunch, which covers the latest technology news, and Fast Company, which doesn’t exclusively focus on technology, but rather innovation. If you’re interested in learning about how electronics function in a little more depth, check out the text and videos on SemisMatter to become more knowledgeable.

Technology-Focused TED Talks
If you haven’t heard of TED talks, they are awesome. Some of the most brilliant people alive share their expertise on everything from writing to technology to business. These brilliant people deliver short (18 minutes or less) talks on all kinds of topics, like robotics, biotechnology and space travel. And you can watch the videos of these talks for free on their website. They have a great search feature, including a way to filter by topic. Check out their most viewed talks and their technology topic talks. You’ll be educated without realizing it, and I defy you not to be inspired by some of the technology that you’re introduced to.

Consumer Electronics Show (CES)
CES is perhaps the most famous technology trade show, where the coolest up-and-coming technology is on display. Unfortunately, this is an industry event that isn’t open to the public, but there is a lot of media coverage of the event. If you do a search for the 2015 show, you’ll hear about the hottest technology that was present. I got distracted by a 3D printer that prints dessert, but that’s another story. Search for new coverage of CES for the past three years or so and you’ll start to notice trends that you can weave into your story.

Reference for the truly geeky.
For those interested in a dense but thought-provoking read about the extremes of what our future might look like, my favorite book, which I encountered in my day job, is The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. It blew my mind and made me grateful to be living in an age of exponential growth of technology. Maybe I’ll have a chip in my brain before I die (by choice!) or tiny robots will be released inside me to cure me of diseases. I sure hope so.

If you’re interested in how some famous ya dystopian authors have handled technology in their novels, check out my last post on the subject.

How to Weave Believable Technology into Your YA Dystopian Novel (Part 1)

CityI’m in the process of closing my current series and beginning a new one, and I’m thrilled at the chance to create a new world from scratch. My next series will be dystopian YA, and in preparation I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the kinds of technology that I want to incorporate into the world. When I’m engrossed in a well-written YA dystopian novel, the technology never feels foreign. I think that’s because it’s a natural extension of technology that exists today, and therefore feels so plausible that it doesn’t give me pause. On the other hand, when technology is not done well, it often feels superfluous, like a special effect that isn’t really essential to the plot.

Below are some of the ways that successful YA dystopian authors seamlessly integrated technology into the worlds they created.

Have relevant technology interact with the setting of your novel in a way that shapes your protagonist’s mental landscape.
Under the Never Sky, Veronica Rossi
In Under the Never Sky, the heroine, Aria, lives in an enclosed city because the outside world is considered toxic. As a result, space is at a premium. So that people don’t go crazy by being trapped in tight quarters, the Internet and virtual reality mingle to create a world of infinite space. As a result, in reality people may be weak or even malnourished. So when Aria is cast out of the city into the toxic outdoor world, she is more vulnerable than the “savages” who have spent their lives fighting for survival, and are therefore in prime physical condition. This unique use of technology and setting feels like a natural extension of how the Internet works today, and it isn’t superfluous. It’s essential that it exists in order to drive the plot forward.

Modify an existing technology by taking it to the extreme.
Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman
Today, kidneys, hearts, lungs and other organs can be transplanted, but imagine a world where that technology is taken to the extreme, and eyes, arms, even brains can be transplanted. One of the creepiest YA books I’ve encountered was Unwind. The premise is that parents can choose to have their kids “unwound” when they’re teenagers – have every single body part donated to science, so their troublesome teen is effectively gone, without officially having been murdered. Most of the technology in this series isn’t creative, but this one strong premise makes it feel wildly futuristic and spookily familiar at the same time.

Have your young protagonist interact with technology of the future in a way that adults wouldn’t.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game is a classic, and a longtime favorite of mine. The setting, though it is in a very futuristic world complete with space ships and flashy weapons, is also not particularly unique. It’s technology we’ve seen in Star Trek and a number of popular sci-fi books. What makes it unique, however, is that the protagonist is a kid, and he reacts to it differently than any of the adult protagonists of other books and shows do. He finds creative ways to manipulate this technology, and ultimately is himself a victim of his own innocence when it comes to the power of the technology he wields. As a YA author, considering how your young protagonist will inhabit the world you’ve created is crucial. Remember that they are learning about it alongside you and your reader, rather than guiding you through it.

MedicalInvent a medical technology that solves a current problem in a way that creates a new one.
Uglies, Scott Westerfeld
There are a number of effective uses of futuristic technology in the Uglies series, but the most dramatic is the extreme plastic surgery that everyone undergoes to be made beautiful as they enter adulthood. Aside from looks, this also includes messing with the brain so that people are placid drones who don’t question the status quo. What worked well with the way the technology was handled was that the author didn’t over-explain it. The mechanics were hinted at, but specifics were left to the reader’s imagination.

Incorporate technology that affects the social structure of your world.
Matched, Ally Condie
In Matched, it is less the physical technology that takes center stage, but rather software that matches soul mates to each other that forms the premise of the series. It’s easy to think of futuristic technology in terms of things, like hovercrafts, but this more subtle use of technology can be even more believable and compelling. Matched, like Uglies, seamlessly wove in technology without over-explaining specifics of how it works. In hardcore sci-fi and fantasy, this would never fly. But with YA readers, it works well. Imagination supplies answers where needed, and readers are more interested in the character development than geeky details.

For those interested in learning more info on how to create believable technology for your dystopian YA novel, my next blog post shares resources that can inspire you if you’re having trouble envisioning what the technology of the future will look like.

In Quest of an Honest Review

shutterstock_228985963

When I began my self-publishing journey a few years ago and sent my novel into the world, I’ll confess to being shocked when anyone didn’t like it. My first 3-star review led me to eat five peppermint patties in a row. That’ll show ’em. But 3 years and 40 reviews later, I have a very different take on reviews. I’m happy to see them, no matter what the star rating is. The people who don’t like my writing teach me at least as much as the people who do.

Think my dialogue is trite? Allow me to rewrite it. The opening of my book didn’t hook you? Let me add a scene. My book reads like it was written for a younger target audience? Maybe it’s time to market it to middle grade instead of young adult.

Now that I’m almost done with the last book in my series, I know that I’ll take all the lessons that my readers taught me and apply them to my new series from the get-go. And my attitude toward reviews has completely changed. When it comes to reviews, no matter how critical, I say bring it on.

I have gone from wanting people to like my book to wanting to know the truth about my writing. No matter what people think, I’ll probably always write, but I don’t want to be deluded about it. When readers give me the truth, I relish it, even when it’s criticism.

For that reason, I decided to have the first book in The Conjurors Series reviewed by Glenn Hates Books – Brutally Honest Book Reviews. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants an honest assessment of their book. He won’t pull punches, but he’s not out to eviscerate everyone, either. If you’re ready for the truth, give it a try.

If you have any other recommendations on places to get legitimate reviews of books, let me know. I’ve tried Story Cartel with some success, and reaching out through social networks. Have you had any luck with other sources?

Lessons from a Failed KDP Select Free Promo

shutterstock_120732190In the new year, I used three of my KDP free days to promote the first book in The Conjurors Series, The Society of Imaginary Friends. I was determined to put everything I had into the campaign in order to maximize downloads of my free book and hopefully convince readers to continue with my series. I’ve been exclusively selling my books through Amazon since I began self-publishing, and have been toying with the idea of making my books available with other retailers (and thereby enabling the first book in the series to be perma free). This promotion was my final push to see if I could get a serious number of downloads of my free book using Amazon alone.

I’ve never spent more time (or money) promoting my free days, than this round. I submitted my book’s info to more than 70 sites that list free ebooks, and paid for placement on Book Goodies, Book Goodies Kids, The Fussy Librarian, Genre Pulse, Free Books Daily, FK Books and Tips, and through Fiverr with bknights. None of these ads were expensive (almost all were under $10), but it’s still more than I’ve ever spent promoting my book.

So what was the result? A lot less downloads than I had when I ran my last free promo in the summer (when I submitted my information to about 30 sites that list free books, and that was it). Same cover, same blurb, more positive reviews than ever. Below are my stats from my last two KDP select free promos.

March, 2014 Free Promo (minimal effort):
3,041 Downloads
Highest Rank Achieved on Amazon’s Free List: 96

January, 2015 Free Promo (major effort):
1,924 Downloads
Highest Rank Achieved on Amazon’s Free List: 220

I don’t think it’s worthwhile to make guesses about why my promo was so weak this time around (or lament how hard it is to give a book you’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on away for free). Instead, I’ve assembled a list of do’s and don’ts for your next KDP select free promo based on all of the free promos I’ve run since I began in 2011, in hopes that your next promo goes better than mine.

DO be flexible about what days your book is free if it means being listed on a major site like Bookbub or Pixel of Ink.
I wasn’t lucky enough to snag a spot on either site, but authors who have report thousands and thousands of downloads, which pays for their free promos many times over. But they have a limited number of slots, so be willing to work your schedule around theirs. The impact will be worth it.

DO track where your book was actually posted, to the best of your ability, and see if you notice any trends/spikes based on when different sources posted your book.
Whether you run your next free promo through KDP select or make your book perma-free, like I’m planning to do this year, you will have future promos of your free book. It’s worth it to track which sites gave you the most love, so you know where to focus your attention for future campaigns.

DO your due diligence on having a professional cover and blurb.
Spend the money to have a strong, professional cover created for your book, and make sure your blurb has been run by an editor, as well as a good number of readers you trust. For a relatively unknown writer, having a weak cover or book description will break your promo.

DON’T spend a lot of time submitting your information to the dozens of small sites that list free and discounted books.
Many sites will only result in a download or two, nowhere near what you need to rise up the rankings (where your visibility will begin to drive your numbers). Finding these sites and submitting your info is a surprisingly huge time sink, that would probably be better spent writing your next book. Note: For a paid promo of your book, it might be a different story. Sites that are willing to post your paid book and yield a couple of downloads can be hugely impactful for your numbers.

DON’T inundate your Twitter and Facebook feeds with your freebie announcements.
Experts suggest posting links once or twice a day, but don’t be sending notices every hour. Not only is it annoying to fans and friends who follow you, but it isn’t an effective strategy. For most authors, sales are not driven through these mediums. That’s not to say it isn’t worth getting the word out, but keep it simple.

I’d welcome any additional tips you have on how to run a great free promo of your book.

What’s Your Story’s Logline?

shutterstock_208876747In the writing world, there is a lot of talk about creating stories that are high concept, especially if you’re writing YA fantasy, like I am. Basically, if your story is high concept it has a compelling idea that can be summed up succinctly. (The Writer’s Store does a great job of explaining the concept here.) If you hear a high-concept idea, you know it because it stays with you. You find yourself already picturing the movie in your head.

The idea of creating a high concept novel reminded me of a term I learned about in my days writing screenplays. Every script had a logline, in which the author summed up the protagonist, conflict, and what made the story unique in one or two crisp sentences. Though novel-writing is a completely different medium, I think creating a logline for your story is the perfect place to start before you pen your first chapter. If you can’t identify what makes your story different and the emotional impact it will have on the reader at the highest level, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Once you’re deep into your book (or series), it’s tough to make big changes. It’s impossible to change the fundamental concept – you might as well start over. Writing a logline forces you to make sure that this is a path that you want to spend months or years of your life exploring. All the editing in the world can’t make a story more high concept, so it’s the one thing you have to get right from the start. You probably have many ideas in your head, and most of them are okay, or just good enough. It’s worth taking the time to write a logline to see if your idea pops, if it is THE ONE.

I wanted to see if my theory applied to some of the most successful young adult fantasy novels over the past few years. I went to IMDB to read the loglines for these books, which are all now turned into movies, to see if their core premise could be summed up in one or two compelling sentences, or if the plots were too nuanced to draw readers in without a little explanation.

Here are 10 examples of the loglines from YA fantasy movies that instantly convey a high concept.

Divergent
In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Beautiful Creatures
Ethan longs to escape his small Southern town. He meets a mysterious new girl, Lena. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
When her mother disappears, Clary Fray learns that she descends from a line of warriors who protect our world from demons. She joins forces with others like her and heads into a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
A teenager discovers he’s the descendant of a Greek god and sets out on an adventure to settle an on-going battle between the gods.

The Giver
In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.

Warm Bodies
After a highly unusual zombie saves a still-living girl from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to compete.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Rescued from the outrageous neglect of his aunt and uncle, a young boy with a great destiny proves his worth while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Twilight
A teenage girl risks everything when she falls in love with a vampire.

Eragon
In his homeland of Alagaesia, a farm boy happens upon a dragon’s egg — a discovery that leads him on a predestined journey where he realized he’s the one person who can defend his home against an evil king.

And though it wouldn’t make the top 10, below is the logline for the first book in my own series, The Conjurors.

The Society of Imaginary Friends
Valerie Diaz has magic that she can’t contain, and it’s killing her. In order to survive, she must embrace her power and travel many light years away to fight an enemy who has been trying to kill her since she was a child.

What’s your story’s logline?