Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Let Me Pick Your Brains... but, you know, not in the Zombie way...

Okay, normally I don’t do this, but I want to talk a bit about my current WIP. Mostly because I want some opinions, discussions, verbal lashings if needed – and who better to get them from than the peoples who people my blog? So, if you’re a writer, editor, reader, or just unbelievably opinionated, I’d love to hear what you think:

So, here’s the dealie – I’m currently breaking a cardinal rule. Okay, it might not be a cardinal rule but it’s definitely something YA writers are admonished NOT to do. I’ve set my wip in the early 90’s... yes, yes, that also happens to be the same time period that I was the age of my characters... go ahead, make fun.

Here’s the thing, it’s actually harder for me to write it in that time period than it would be to make it current. The admonishment is generally directed at writers who set YA during their own childhood to make it easier for them, so they don’t have to immerse themselves in current trends, languages, etc. I’m actually better immersed in today’s YA world than I am in the one I grew up in. For the time period I’m writing in, I’ve had to do a lot of research, because, honestly, I didn’t remember when what fad took over. Speech is another thing that’s hard to master, because in your memory, all of those catchy little teenage phrases blend together.

I’ve been batting this back and forth since starting this wip. My feeling is that it needs to be set in that time period. That’s where these characters and their neighborhood’s story take place. The other thing is that we need to see where these characters end up, as adults. We need to see the impact of these events on their whole life – what paths did they choose, and how did the choices they made during the heart of the story impact them? That’s the whole scope of the story, to me, the larger repercussions and the impact on the whole. Without knowing the entire plot and characters, this might sound kind of convoluted. But that’s another reason I want it set back aways – the meat of the story takes place in the past, but the end of the novel is current day.

I suppose I could write the meat of the novel current day and still end it that way, staying away from too much heavy description of the time period for their future selves. And I’ve had that in mind ever since starting, that I might have to go back and rewrite, pulling them out of that time-period and into the current one.

But I’m kind of leaning toward breaking the rules. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard great agents and editors say not to set your YA in the 80’s (close enough). So that I know, when it comes time to query, I may already have a mark against me.

So, what do you guys think? Is it ever okay to break that type of a rule? Am I just giving myself excuses to keep it in the timeframe I want it in? Or does it all hinge on the execution? I know there are examples of this working – Stephen King’s The Body, which became Stand By Me was set in the 60’s but written in the 80’s. BUT he was already Stephen KING!!! I don’t want to set up even more roadblocks for myself. At the same time, I really love this story and I don’t want to dilute it for the sake of a sale, either.

So what’s your take? Have you ever broken a rule that improved your work? Have you ever broken a rule out of sheer stubbornness that on retrospect hurt your work? Am I just obsessing over silliness when I should be pushing out pages? (Yeah, yeah, I’m getting back to work right now.)

16 comments:

Stephen Parrish said...

the meat of the story takes place in the past, but the end of the novel is current day

I question whether your target audience would want the story to end at a point when the characters are adults---regardless of whether it's been done before. I'm trying to remember my younger self and imagine what my opinion would have been, and I can't see myself caring what a (say) 15-year-old protagonist turned into at 35; I wouldn't have had any frame of reference to assess it.

Bob is still watching Shane ride away, the Mad Scientists' club still meets in Jeff Crocker's barn, and Gilligan will never get off the island.

Merry Monteleone said...

I question whether your target audience would want the story to end at a point when the characters are adults

Ahhhhh, something else to obsess over!!!

Actually, I questioned that, too. This is the same wip I wrote a large chunk of, decided it was crap and started over. The story doesn't end in their immediate time-frame. That's what I was aiming for originally, but it didn't work for the story.

Without giving too much away, the later in time reveal is the ending, there is no ending without it. Though, I suppose I could write another ending... but that's only if this version completely sucks (I'm pretty much willing to rip anything to shreds to improve the story)

I did wonder about whether that would play with the intended audience. My own frame of reference doesn't help much because it would have played with me at fifteen, but I read mostly adult fiction at that age - obviously it plays with me at this age.

Hunting through some great YA, I'm finding some similar themes, plot lines and problems along the same lines but, so far, not that reveal... that reveal I've seen more of in adult fiction.

If anyone has YA recommends with the same type of thing, let me know!!!

jjdebenedictis said...

So what’s your take? Have you ever broken a rule that improved your work?

You can break any rule provided the story works. Focus on the writing. If you can slurp your reader in, it doesn't matter if you're breaking a rule.

Remember, agents only make up those rules because they've seen something done badly so many times. If you do it well, then all the people who screwed up before you are not relevant.

That said, if your head is saying the story should be set in the nineties and your heart is saying it should be set in the present, that's not something you should be ignoring. Some part of your subconscious has a valid concern.

To answer your question, however, I'm breaking a few rules with my WIP and am hoping like heck that's going to help, not hurt! (I'm writing in present tense, for example.) It's a bit scary.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi JJ,

The time setting feels right in both my heart and my head - it's when I get outside of myself and hear all of the comments directed at YA writers not to set your story in your own coming of age years that I get skittish.

But I'm kind of thinking that's a fear reaction, that I'm making myself second guess just when I start making progress. (I really like this one - so if it sucks, what does that say about me as a writer?) Then again, I really liked the last one...

Present tense makes me nervous, too, JJ. Bravo to you for stretching! When a writer tackles present tense with skill, it can really be amazing.

Demon Hunter said...

Just write the story you want. I was told not to kill kids. Um, yeah, it was a part of my plot and it's in there and staying. :-D

Get to writing. ;-) Brian Keene and several other writers have done it. Stephen also did it with flashbacks in DREAM CATCHCHER and in a few other stories. Regardless of that, just write your story. ;-)

Gary Corby said...

As for picking my brains, you'd probably get more value from nibbling on them than taking my opinion about YA, but since you ask...

If you're going back in time, I think you should go all the way. Pick an historical period you like, the 1800s perhaps, or any other time that is unmistakably historical. The time when the reader's parents were kids is a literary no man's land. If I were a teenage reader it would be a total turn off.

I agree with Stephen too on stopping before adulthood.

Sorry Merry. It doesn't feel right to me. Speaking as a total expert, of course.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Demon Hunter,

A lot of people get very turned off by stories that hurt children or animals, which is probably where that crit. came from. But, I think it depends on the way it's handled and its importance to the story - I watch SVU (tv series, but same idea) all the time, even though I normally cringe at stories of bad things happening to kids. It's the way they handle the subject matter and the stories they've built for the characters themselves.

So I'm kind of with you on this one - there are taboos out there that are there for a reason, that doesn't mean it applies to your story. Look at all the great books that would've fallen under those same rules.

Hi Gary,

I appreciate the honesty. I can't guarantee you I'm going to change anything because of it - but I do find it interesting that both of the men commenting feel the same way.

As far as going all the way back - I love historical fiction, and even have some kernals of an idea for a novel set in the industrial age (I have favorite ages, which makes me completely odd, but there you go).

I'm not convinced historical fiction would be a good fit for my voice, but it's definitely something I might like to try at some point.

Mary Witzl said...

What Stephen said. My main worry would be the response of teenage readers to grown-up protagonists. That sounds more like a novel for adults than YA or MG.

I have a story that starts with a kid who's fast asleep, dreaming. I know that's a big no no, but I have my reasons. All I can do is hope that agents will make it past that first paragraph.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

gah - another one!

I actually get this, what you and Stephen and Gary are all saying - it's exactly the reason I wrote the post and why it's been bothering me - you're giving me the same advice I would give to another writer. Except all of my instincts for this story tell me to go this way anyway and I'm not sure if that's me being pig-headed or me listening to the story.

That sounds more like a novel for adults than YA or MG.

You hit it on the head. It is an adult novel. It really is. But what I know is that so much of it takes place during the characters' teen years that it will be shelved as YA. So the question is, how do I stay true to the story while still appealing to its most obvious market?

About opening with a dream - you already know all the pluses and minuses of that, so I don't want to second guess you on it. What I can say, is the biggest reason it seems to be a pet peeve with so many agents/editors is that when they realize it was a dream they kind of feel cheated or tricked. If you can find some way to get around giving them that impression, it might work.

Thanks guys. I feel like I'm not sounding appreciative here, but the truth is, I am very thankful. I'm not discounting any of what you guys have said, and I'll definitely weigh it in with my final decisions regarding the novel.

Colleen_Katana said...

I agree that you can break any rule if it benefits the story. If it were me, I'd ask myself if it were really pertinent for the story to be set in the 80s...will the decade act like a character in itself? If you set the story in present day would you have to change a lot of the plot?

If it were my book and I answered these 'no,' then I (personally) would change the decade to present day. But if it's something you really believe in, stick to your convictions. When I worked in the submissions department, I'll admit I was always a little put off when I saw stories set in the 70s, 80s and 90s (mostly because with most of them, the decade didn't seem necessary). But every so often, there was a story that broke the rule that stood out.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Colleen,

Thank you, that's really helpful and those are good questions. And I can see that, that it would be offputting if there was no real reason for the decade that wasn't integral to the plot.

Okay, here's the thing, the decade itself isn't so important, the neighborhood it's set in is a character in the book, a major character. And the character of the neighborhood is different today than it was during that time period. The neighborhood was in a period of flux and change during the course of the novel.

Now, of course, the big question I need to answer for myself is whether I can write the neighborhood as it was, but set it in current day. Most readers won't know the difference because they won't know the geographical area - anyone from Chicago will, and they'll know that that neighborhood is different today than I'm depicting it in the novel.

Or I could just make it a fictional neighborhood... but I'm not sure if I want to do that. It's one of the things I love in fiction, the bits of reality that exist in the fictional world. I don't take characters from real people, but I do love when historical events and places and timelines are accurate.

Colleen_Katana said...

Yes, I think I understand what you're describing. That the neighborhood itself may not necessarily be a character but there are specific attributes within the neighborhood in the 80s/90s that are are important.

Therefore, knowing this now, I would say to either A) stick to your guns and go with the decade you initially felt the connection to or B) Write it in a fictional neighborhood and chances are that those folks who know the Chicago neighborhood you're describing will go "Ha! That sounds like X from 1990!" But other people will still probably feel a connection to the neighborhood, because most of us have a neighborhood or something we connect to that we can place in other stories.

As for telling a YA story that also involves the characters as adults as well....I used to love stories like that when I was younger. Just like I loved movies that would show the characters as they're older too. I think as long as you execute it well, it will be fine!

Erica Orloff said...

Merry:
I think we talked about this in emails . . . My feeling is it would have to be an INCREDIBLY compelling reason to break that rule for reasons Stephen mentions, for resistance to it, for the 90s not being this incredibly evocative time period (versus the 60s, or 50s, say). If the reason is to enable a certain plot point, or a certain device . . . I think there are other ways to tell the story. Also, have you considered maybe leaving the ending purposely ambiguous (i.e., not letting us know what happened to everyone from the vantage point of hindsight?).

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Colleen,

Definitely food for thought... I've always loved novels and movies that give you that little, this is where they end up, kind of thing... so maybe that's part of why I so want that in here, but there's definitely another part, too.

I think, for the moment I'm going to keep writing it as it is, as it's coming out, but I'm honestly not sure if I'm going to stick dead in the time-frame or if I might make it more ambiguous as far as time-frame.

Hi Erica,

I think we might've actually discussed this on your blog a bit, but I'm not sure if we've talked about it in email. Though, I'm going to shoot you an email on the reason for the reveal that way, because I don't want to give too much of the ending away on the blog and there's no way to explain why I'm doing it without telling you what I'm doing.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Are you sure it's actually YA? Charlie Huston (one of my faves) wrote a book set in the 80s that centers around teenagers, but it's an adult book. Maybe it's your intended audience that you're off on, not the book itself.

Other than that I say "rules-schmules."

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi SS@S,

I like 'rules schmules' :-)

It is an adult novel. I've thought so since I started it. But I can't help but think it's going to get shelved in YA because of the character's ages. We'll see where I'm at when I've finished the entire first draft and done some revisions... and had a few betas read. As far as I'm concerned, anything's liable to change as long as it strengthens the story.