Tag Archives: YA fiction

Romance and bromance and YA fiction

I struggle with romance.

That is to say, I struggle with the idea that YA without romance is coffee without milk. For one thing, coffee without milk is actually a pretty undiluted coffee experience. For another, whilst teenagers seldom get through the next ten minutes without thinking about sex and relationships (not unlike your average ‘middle-aged adult’), they seem to be able to function for weeks on end without plummeting into a crisis featuring either.

That isn’t to say that romance doesn’t spring up in the strangest of environments but can it please be credible romance? Especially in a war zone full of flying live ammunition? There is romance a plenty in a war zone (they aren’t call the Baby Boomer generation for nothing, you know) but it isn’t high school. I mean, was I the only person who felt that elements of the love triangle in the Hunger Games trilogy were a teeny bit flown-in?

There’s actually a technical term for this problem, which YA seems to suffer from more than any other genre – Sex in a Submarine. Let’s say you have a story where five male and two female (or vice versa) teens are trapped on a space satellite high in orbit with the air running out. They have six hours left. The whole focus of your thriller is the frantic rush to cobble together a rescue mission, the tension felt by the waiting families, the mid-plot turn-around as its revealed that one of the crew actually sabotaged the ship etcetera, etcetera…

And then an editor somewhere asks “Where’s the romance? Teenagers live for that frisky stuff. Can’t two of them have an affair or something?”

They’re on a spaceship. A small one. With no air. They are all going to die if they don’t spend every second working on a solution. They have to keep breathing slowly and evenly and not get excited. “Frisky” is out of the question.

That isn’t to say that one can’t approach the issue in a more creative way. The crew have back stories and those back-stories might be fairly intense. Two of them might be twins separated at birth. Another pair might going steady (and one might have to make a life or death decision about the other). Otherwise, you know, spaceship.

Lastly, why aren’t there more proper boy/girl bromances in YA? Because that’s the secret. Mulder and Scully, Cagney and Lacey (sort of), Starbuck and Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot…And the secret to a good bromance is that, no matter what the frisson (and we want frisson), they must never, ever kiss. Especially (see below) if one of them is a skeleton.

Six recent YA (or close as dammit) reads which do and don’t resort to the Submarine Stratagem in one form or another. There may be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk etc.

  1. All You Need Is Kill by Sakurazaka Hiroshi. I’m cheating already. It isn’t strictly speaking YA (too much of that horrid swearing) but with a big Tom Cruise movie based on this imminent and a large manga following, it’ll find itself shelved in the same zone. This is a book where this is nothing but shooting and killing. Lots of killing. There’s a romance if you look hard enough but it’s a wistful, between-the-lines, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of romance that belies the unsubtle nature of the rest of this novel. And observe the male/female bromance factor!
  2. Artemis Fowl vol 1-4. Artemis really has other things on mind – chess, crime, being a super-genius, winning Nobel-prizes as a hobby. Is it a coincidence that the moment Eoin Coifer began (for me)  to feel that he needed to explicitly address adolescence, the series began to lose a little steam And the switch from the marvelous ‘bromance’ between Holly Short and Artemis to icky inter-species snogging? Eww!
  3. The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson started out so promisingly! Arranged marriages! Hopeless husbands! Weight issues! Then the heroine goes all Keira Knightley in the dreadful King Arthur (ie skinny, likes pointy things) and the hot boys are suddenly all over her. Sigh.
  4. Red Shift by Alan Garner. I’ve written before about this short, brutal take on love, sex and adolescence (with a side order of mysticism and genocide). I don’t think love, violence and dystopia – even if the dystopia is the caravan park in our heads – have ever been integrated as well as here.
  5. Firebrand (Rebel Angels #1) by Gillian Philip. Now this isn’t perfect (though I thoroughly enjoyed it) but one thing Gillian Philip does very well is evoking the almost constant physical ferment of adolescence without letting it get in the way of the ferocious action at the core of the book. Plenty of bromance but we are, after all, dealing with a book about two brothers.
  6. Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. I do love me a good Skulduggery novel and Valkerie is a genuinely original heroine. Are there boyfriends, romance? Yes. Do they drive the story convincingly? Yes. Do they occasionally come to satisfyingly, sticky, messy ends? Yes, quite literally. And there’s also another wonderful bromance, between Skullduggery and his sidekick Valkerie.
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Make it strange – revising my first draft

Or rather, preparing to revise my first draft.

I finished draft 1.0 of my YA alternate earth novel (which followed on from a very detailed draft 0.5) just over a month ago. It came in at the planned 60,000 words, (a zillion and one articles cite anything between 40,000 and 80,000 as the ideal YA length), it had a beginning, a middle and an end and I thought it was clearly the best thing ever written.  At least by me. Ignoring all the received wisdom to put it away for at least a month, I launched straight into draft 2.0.

And stopped dead in my tracks*.

It was impossible. The first sentence alone needed every word changing. And as for the first chapter? Well, I couldn’t get through the first page, let alone the whole book. Clearly I was going about this the wrong way.

Luckily, the feedback for a “highly commended” placing in one of the Winchester Writers Conference competitions showed up at just that moment. It was a highly professional, detailed critique of my first 500 words and it tactfully but thoroughly vivisected them. Clearly the plot wasn’t set up properly, it took too long for anything to actually happen, there was too much detail and yet not enough…

After I stopped crying, I realised that Elizabeth at Fog City Writer was correct and that I was in no position to start work yet. I hadn’t achieved any kind of distance or objectivity. I need to make my book strange, to get myself to the point where I could read my first draft and discover the things I needed to do without my own feelings (or urge to tweak sentence structure to the nth degree) getting in the way. I needed to see my own book through the eyes of a stranger.

So I put it away in a virtual drawer and began to read other YA books. Lots of them. I took Holly Lisle’s invaluable How To Revise A Novel article as a guide and read them as thoroughly and critically as I could. For some of them, I made notes on plot structure, story arc, numbers and POV and the pragmatic logistics of how long particular characters spent doing what. I paid particular attention to age group – was I aiming for 10-12 or 13-14? Or somewhere in the middle? How did novels written targeting girls differ from those targeting boys? (The short answer seemed to be more guns and less kissing. Then I started The Hunger Games and all bets were off).

The best of them made me want to give up. The less good were oddly inspiring – “I can do better than that!” But most of all, I began to understand what at a more visceral level (as opposed to a theoretical level) it was I need to worry about in draft 2:

  • Plot
  • Dynamics
  • Main Character development
  • Overall tone

If I can crack the worst of the many issues I have relating to the above, I’ll have something I can feel is ready to circulate amongst my test readers for critique on the same issues. After that, I’ll probably have to start the whole thing over. There’ll certainly be another draft. And another.

Meanwhile, it’s printed out, my red pencil is sharpened and I don’t really recognise my own prose any more. I’m ready to revise.

* If I ever use that phrase in an actual piece of art, shoot me. Really**.

** Unless I’m clearly doing something clever and witty.