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The regular musings of Carolrhoda editorial director Andrew Karre and guests.
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1. The Sex

 Edwin_Meese_publicity_shot (This is a picture of Attorney General Edwin Meese, who commissioned the Meese Report on Pornography. He’ll be keeping an eye on things, just so no one gets the giggles.)

I had the pleasure last week of teaching a class with Carrie Mesrobian at the Loft Literary Center. For three hours every day, we had the attentions of a dozen teenage writers. And what did we do with their attentions? We talked, read, and wrote about sex and violence. In essence, it was a class about crafting dramatic conflict and intense personal interaction. I cannot vouch for the students, but I can say it was an education for me.

This was not a focus group; I wasn’t there to discover what teens in general want to read. I tried to keep my primary engagement with them on the level of writer and editor. But I was keenly interested in listening to them talk and reading their writing, particularly about sex. I was interested in what things they perceived as clichés and as fertile, unplowed YA soil. Outside of increasingly unreliable memory, this was as good a window into experience as I was going to get. I tried hard not to blink and miss something. Here are seven things the class showed us that might be of interest to those who write about teenagers:

1. Girls masturbate, and the writers and readers in this class have noticed a distinct lack of same in YA fiction. A couple students talked about scenes they wished they could read (and will probably write) dialogue that connected the experience of masturbation with the experience of partnered sex. (More on this one later.)

2. Virginity is more a point on a life’s timeline than it is a character trait. To be a virgin is not necessarily to be virginal.

3. More mixed-race relationships. In the context of the class, I took this to mean they wanted to write and read about these relationships without having the mere existence of the relationship become the story.

4. They have a very sophisticated sense of the diversity of sexual orientations. Nobody thought the word “pansexual” was particularly novel or exotic. As people, these teenagers took their sexuality much less for granted than we generally imagine, and as writers they were vastly more interested in exploration than categorization. They’re impatient even with the non-diversity of our so-called diverse books when it comes to explorations and expressions of gender and sexuality.

5. Oral sex is a two way street. We asked the students to identify sexual clichés toward the beginning of the class, and then near the end we asked for the anti-clichés—the missed opportunities as they saw them. One student wrote “girls getting eaten out” three times on her anti-cliché list. Her general sentiment was not unique. This one was very interesting to me. Yes, reconsider the cunnilingus-to-fellatio ratio—duh—but I thought this comment also shined a light on how we adults so often write about teen sex—especially oral sex acts—symbolically. The no-strings-attached quickie blow-job can be a character development move in much of YA fiction. The girl who goes down on a guy but won’t have intercourse with him is a certain kind of person, etc. But what about depictions that aren’t concerned so much with what the act signifies as how the newly experienced desire feels to the character? Would the world come to an end if a YA novel captured a character discovering that she wanted to give a blow job? To capture this is to get ahold of something so much more personal and fleeting than the purely symbolic.

6. One girl said she preferred writing queer sex scenes because it felt like she was working in a room less crowded with other people, an analogy I will not soon shake. In general as writers and readers, the class often found depictions of queer sex more appealing because such depictions had to rely more on “data” (Carrie’s extremely useful word for sex scenes that actually have anatomic specifics) and less on cliché or coy euphemism or nudge-nudge wink-wink. Makes sense, right? To conjure a non-heterosexual sex act, a writer has to be specific about bodies if she has any hope of putting a specific picture in a reader’s head. Spreading petals and silk and exploding stars fading to black doesn’t get the job done.

7. While they’re not looking for things to be “left to the imagination,” they are similarly uninterested in the sexual simulacrum that is porn (at least they were uninterested as writers—they were teenagers with pulses so I imagine they might have been interested in porn in other capacities). The girl who wrote “girls getting eaten out” was not ignorant of the fact that she could find millions of hours of cunnilingus with a single Google search. She was after something else. They don’t want symbols, wish fulfillment, or pretend sex. The sexual weariness, frustration, and disappointment so common to literary fiction about adults are uninteresting and foreign to them. Several said they wanted to write and read sex scenes that include conversations about the sex, which, while possibly terrible as writing advice, is a fascinating observation. Teen sexuality is its own unique thing in the vast universe of human sexuality.

I'm beginning to think of sex in YA this way: the processes of discovering

  • the facts of any given sex act,
  • the desire to have it,
  • and then of the opportunity to have it

are not necessarily erotic or symbolic or easily recalled by an adult, but they are none the less distinct, absolutely fascinating, and true to the experience of being a teenager. And isn’t that the whole point of the genre?

One last observation. But first, it’s not an exaggeration to say that being allowed to listen to a group of teenagers who are serious readers and writers discuss sex, reading, and writing in an open and unashamed way for many hours is a privilege and implies a certain amount of trust and respect. I hope I am honoring that trust, and I want it to be clear when I recount this next student question that I’m doing so with the considerable respect it is due:

"Why would I want to put a dick in my mouth? Do adults even do that?" asked one young writer.

At the time, Carrie and I answered with glib, adult equivalents of “yes” on the latter inquiry, but after a week’s reflection, her questions are far more valuable to me than our answer was to her.

Teenagers have always existed in a weird chasm between childhood innocence and adult experience. And the progress they make across that chasm on the way to adulthood is uneven and sporadic. Desire outpaces understanding. Understanding lurches ahead of desire. You know that people put penises in their mouths—and a dozen other things completely incomprehensible to the last vestiges of your child-self—before your new self quite feels the desire to do it. Or you feel the desire for intense and unfamiliar intimacy but don't know how bodies—your body, another’s body—can quite satisfy it. Your mind surprises you. Your body surprises you. And on and on. The one thing of true value in all this chaos is honest, specific depictions.

“Yes, adults do that, but it’s not the same as what you might feel. No, I cannot really explain why you would want to do that or anything else, but trust me that if you do, you are not weird or a symbol of anything other than yourself. Though I cannot give you a reason, I can try as hard as I can to do justice to the process you will go through,” I wish I had answered.

If you as a writer take the specifics of adolescent sex—all of them—for granted, or let its symbolism be the primary force in the book, then you miss an opportunity to express something breathtakingly true about this thing that is being a teenager. And that would be a shame.

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2. Old magazines, experienced authors, and the long view

One of my favorite topics at author conferences--and one of the few things I feel qualified to advise authors on, really--is helping authors understand what their work is about over the span of a career, regardless of trends, audience, or any other externalities. IBeetle Boyf an author knows what she cares about and what her work adds to the larger, longer conversation, she'll always have something solid and safe to return to when it's time for a new book. Margaret Willey is among my favorite examples of an author with a clear vision of her career, and thus I'm so pleased with this The Horn Book review of her Beetle Boy, which, in typical fashion, puts its finger right on the matter:

"Willey crafts a delicate psychological landscape through carefully timed flashbacks, showing how injuries (and small kindnesses) from the past inform future relationships. Relentlessly honest, and also hopeful."

"How injuries (and small kindnesses) from the past inform future relationships" is something I always find in Margaret's manuscripts.

The Fat GirlIt should be noted Horn Book is good at this long-term thematic awareness. Roger Sutton's review of Margaret's previous book with me made reference to her very first YA novel, published in 1983, when I was five. And seven years ago, I bought the rights to Marilyn Sachs' then-out-of-print The Fat Girl because Roger mentioned it in a blog post about (I believe) Chris Lynch's masterpiece Inexcusable. We sold many, many thousands of copies of that "old" book in its new edition (we changed nothing but the cover[and what a cover you made, Lisa Novak]).

All hail historical perspective.

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3. The pleasures of pagination

There are few pleasures in bookmaking greater than that moment when you're paginating a picture book text, and suddenly it all clicks.

image

I have no idea how others do it, but I make a 40 page Word document (so I can include ends—hence the “[pasted down endsheet]” tag shown above). Then, I dump in the manuscript  and work backward from the key spreads and page turns.

I find the manuscript’s dramatic high points really reveal themselves in this process, especially when you put in the page turns.

And sometimes, like the one I worked on last night, the thing just calls for one of my favorite parts:

image

Now I get six months or so of anticipating what the illustrator will do with this blank space. Delicious.

This is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson picture book, by the way. To be illustrated by the marvelous Elizabeth Zunon and designed by @carkneetoe. It’s becoming very clear in my imagination. You’re going to love it.

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4. In case you missed the frosting and sprinkles.

Questions were asked; answers were given. A good time was had by all.

25463-2[1]

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5. "Nothing but individual talent mattered."



Like some sort of irritating, insane migratory bird (because sadly this topic is sadly too persistent to be compared with locusts), the debate about whether x group should read y book type is back. The only saving grace of this tedious conversation is that it always makes me think of this bit in my favorite book. 

[Professor Lake] had been born in Ohio, had studied in Paris and Rome, had taught in Ecuador and Japan. He was a recognized art expert, and it puzzled people why, during the past ten winters, Lake chose to bury himself at St Bart's. While endowed with the morose temper of genius, he lacked originality and was aware of that lack; his own paintings always seemed beautifully clever imitations, although one could never quite tell whose manner he mimicked. His profound knowledge of innumerable techniques, his indifference to 'schools' and 'trends', his detestation of quacks, his conviction that there was no difference whatever between a genteel aquarelle of yesterday and, say, conventional neoplasticism or banal non-objectivism of today, and that nothing but individual talent mattered - these views made of him an unusual teacher. St Bart's was not particularly pleased either with Lake's methods or with their results, but kept him on because it was fashionable to have at least one distinguished freak on the staff. Among the many exhilarating things Lake taught was that the order of the solar spectrum is not a closed circle but a spiral of tints from cadmium red and oranges through a strontian yellow and a pale paradisal green to cobalt blues and violets, at which point the sequence does not grade into red again but passes into another spiral, which starts with a kind of lavender grey and goes on to Cinderella shades transcending human perception. He taught that there is no such thing as the Ashcan School or the Cache Cache School or the Cancan School. That the work of art created with string, stamps, a Leftist newspaper, and the droppings of doves is based on a series of dreary platitudes. That there is nothing more banal and more bourgeois than paranoia. That Dali is really Norman Rockwell's twin brother kidnapped by gipsies in babyhood. That Van Gogh is second-rate and Picasso supreme, despite his commercial foibles; and that if Degas could immortalize a caleche, why could not Victor Wind do the same to a motor car?
-Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov.
There are reasons for the pictures on my office door. This quote is one of them. 
"... which starts with a kind of lavender grey and goes on to Cinderella shades transcending human perception." 
What were we complaining about again? [Goes back to trying to be Professor Lake.]

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6. #amediting, a soundtrack

Some books demand a musical accompaniment during the editing. And this was certainly the case for the book I'm finishing now, the sequel to E.K. Johnston's debut, The Story of Owen

The highlights:

(There was a great deal of Stan Rogers, whom I totally imagine as Siobhan's bardic forebearer.)





(And then there was a considerable amount of Glenn Gould. Because Canada and also because I always listen to Gould.)


(And then Kate introduced me to a couple new things from Canadian bands, including this, which is crazy moving.)

And there's one other, but it would be spoilery.

I have no idea what @carkneetoe listens to while she designs Kate's books, but I do know she's procuring a bugle for the photo shoot. I'm not sure if that will be easier than the sword from the first book.

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7. Pass the red Solo cup of bad life choices, please

(I promise it doesn't link to the Toby Keith song.)

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8. “I am a pretty, pretty woman. But I’ll cut you.”

I have a fantasy where I’m able to employ certain authors as editors. I’ve worked with several whose strong taste and advice-giving chops would make them into formidable editors—or at least into editors whose work I’d like to read.

Tessa Gratton, at large editor? Where do I sign? I’m sure E. K. Johnston and Dot Hutchison would concur. (The emails I got from Tess about Dot’s debut will never leave my possession.)

John Hornor Jacobs would definitely be on that list too. And alas, for now, the list is a fantasy. Fortunately, though, John’s extremely entertaining (and sound) thoughts on character are available for the price of a click. A taste:

My responsibilities to my characters are (1) I should be fearless in the depiction of their character. This has very little to do with appearance, garb, physical description. I doubt any reader has one whit of interest as to the exact shade of red lipstick some ingénue wears – they care about her capacity for emotion and action. For love or betrayal. That is the essence of her character and consequently, the essence of that part of my own subconscious from which I conjured her.

Pretty neat trick, that.

I am a pretty, pretty woman. But I’ll cut you.

So click.

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9. Hiring an editor

This Gun for Hire (1942) Poster

Lots of smart people have gone over the famous Hugh Howey AuthorEarnings.com Report, revealing its many statistical and analytical shortcomings. I have nothing to add on those fronts (hell, I didn’t even read the whole piece). Read Shatzkin and others for detailed rebuttal and commentary.

There is one item in the Report and in Shatzkin I would like to address. (And if it has been addressed elsewhere, I’d be glad to know of it.)

Here’s the item in Hugh Howey’s Report:

image

And Mike Shatzkin actually echoes Howey’s position:

image

Allow me to say this plainly: When an author chooses, hires, and pays an editor, the author is creating incentives that are meaningfully different than the ones present in a “traditional” publishing deal.

To put it another way, if you want financial advice, you may hire a fee-based financial advisor or solicit the services of a commission-based advisor. And maybe if you’re very wealthy or your money is very interesting, advisors will pursue you. People feel strongly about both models, but no sensible person would claim they are interchangeable.

Or, perhaps an analogy closer to home: authors have long been counseled (rightly) that they should never “hire” an agent, that they should never pay reading fees, etc. to agents. Donald Maass gets tremendous criticism from many quarters from being an agent who also sells and promotes his own writing advice books. There is among authors a strong—and I’d argue healthy—awareness of the different incentives in each model where agenting is concerned.

Why, then, are so many people so quick to say “hiring” an editor is an acceptable substitute for the present model? The incentives are so clearly different.

It is not presently possible to hire me as an editor. I choose the manuscripts I want to edit, compete for them in the marketplace, and when I win them, I am accountable not to the author  but to my employer, the publisher, to make from that manuscript a book that the publisher can sell in quantities sufficient to meet certain performance goals. My incentive is to do this more often than not so I can continue to have a job.

I am not a short-sighted idiot or a sociopath or glutton for punishment, so I want very much for my authors to enjoy working with me and to find the experience rewarding and to be happy in the end. Authors are the fountainheads of my personal satisfaction in doing my job—my emotional incentive, if you will. But that doesn’t mean I want them to sign my paychecks. My primary incentive—my financial incentive—does not not come from the author. When it comes time to say what I believe will make a book successful, the pressure comes not from my relationship with the author but from my relationship with my employer—who is, pleasantly, fairly removed from the day to day work of editing. No one editorial decision has me thinking about my livelihood, thank goodness.

In the world of for hire-editors, the incentives and accountability are much . . . cozier. Or, if you prefer (and I do), you could say the incentives appear hopelessly entangled, painfully acute, and way too close for comfort. I do not want someone who is trying to do the hard work of writing a novel with me looking over her shoulder thinking about whether she’s getting good value for my fee. I don’t want “he who pays the piper calls the tune” in any author’s mind as he works on my edits. I don’t want to think about my mortgage when I suggest an author needs to scrap tens of thousands of words. I don’t want the temptation to flatter a writer whose manuscript I don’t believe will sell because he will make a good reference.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made myself clear. For-hire editing is different from the model that’s evolved in traditional publishing. Maybe it’s actually better for reasons that remain opaque to me in my vast inexperience of it. Maybe for-hire editing is the way I’ll have to go one day (may that day be very, very far off). But don’t let anyone get away with telling you it’s the same.

[Update: I will happily attach a civil rebuttal, critique, or commentary to this from a freelance editor who wants to address the question of incentives and editing. Just stick it in the comments and I’ll copy it into the main post.]

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10. If I had a million dollars…

…to spend to help the ALA Youth Media Awards, I’d probably spend it like I’m about to describe. You see, I love the awards—the whole slate of them. They’re a fantastic but underutilized resource for anyone who loves books. And I want to see them reach their maximum audience. So here’s how I’d start: I’d endow a fund to finance a permanent YMA Civilian Publicity Strike Force. Here’s how it would work:

The three governing principles:

1. I would begin by stating that my goal is that the whole awards list becomes well known as the premier discovery tool for people who want to buy high quality books. The Whole List—all the Youth Media Awards--will be important even if the Newbery and Caldecott remain supreme. People on the street buying books for children in their lives should see the YMAs as guide that has value to them across a huge spectrum of needs—not just those addressed by the big two.

2. Nothing about how the awards are chosen changes. New awards are added or modified as they would naturally be

3. The one slight exception to 2 is the date of Midwinter. If Midwinter needs to move into the holiday shopping window, the ALA should at least consider that.

Given those three principles, the strike force might consider the following as first steps:

1. Every single honoree and committee member is a trained and promoted public ambassador for the list in their community—in the media, in the retail, and in libraries. If a news outlet in Topeka, Kansas wants to do a story about the Caldecott book, they should at least be aware that the a Printz honoree or the chair of the Stonewall committee lives in their city—and that those awards were chosen with equal care. There are a lot more news-worthy early morning phone call stories than are presently reported.  Hell, you could even deputize editors in this aspect.

2. The strike force will help the Newbery and Caldecott honorees to lend some of their celebrity to winners of the awards that are now less well known.

3. The strike force will disseminate the list of awards in forms and through channels that are accessible to regular readers. Apps, shareable videos, whatever.

4. The strike force will reach out to retailers large and small who could use the awards lists to help their customers discover books.

5. The strike force will annually make non-binding recommendations to the various award committees about how they might optimize the way the awards are announced, how annotations are written, and when speeches and celebrations are held. However, the strike force will remain forever mute on the subject of selection criteria.

OK, that’s what I’d do with that million bucks I could give to the ALA. You?

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11. Simple New Year’s resolutions for authors

  1. Backup your work.
  2. I don’t care what else you resolve. See 1.

I have very few good habits, but computer backup and regular review of my backup schemes is one of them.

Here’s what I do these days:

  1. I’m on a Mac at home, so I backup to an external drive on the desk with Time Machine. Easy. This is in case of disk corruption or some other failure. I’m sure there’s some PC equivalent.
  2. My wife is a freelance writer and editor, so all her working stuff is in a folder that lives in my Dropbox folder, and that syncs to the cloud and to my work machine. In practice, this should mean her most recent working files plus a decent version history are effectively impossible to lose accidentally and are easy to retrieve from several sources.
  3. I use Backblaze to backup the whole Mac to the cloud (including things like photos, etc. that don’t go to Dropbox). There are lots of options for this service, of course, but Backblaze works well for me.

Annual cost for all my backup schemes is around $100.

If you’re a writer, you owe it to yourself to do number 2 at least. Do it right now. Dropbox’s free storage allotment will be more than sufficient for many years’ worth of manuscripts, and thus for no money at all you can have good, basic protection from lost files. Just move your manuscripts (your intricate folder structure or the mess of files in your Documents folder—however you work) into your Dropbox folder and leave it there. If you’ve got multiple machines, you’ll also have easy access to your files from anywhere.

(Yes, of course there is a tale of authorial woe behind this post.)

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12. This is a call

Unagented debut authors of YA fiction, I will open the submission window for one week in January. I will look at any debut YA attached to an email dated between 1/6/2014 and 1/12/2014.
Some specifics:

  • I consider a debut to be a first book-length work in any category. So, if you've published a picture book, a MG novel, a work of narrative nonfiction, etc, you're not eligible for this call. Similarly, self-published books are books as far as I'm concerned. If it had an ISBN and appeared for sale anywhere, it's your debut.
  • Please take a look at what I’ve published in the past. I’m not going to set any sub-genre specifications, but you might draw some conclusions based on what Lab has done before. It’s a small list.
  • I'm open to submissions from any country, as long as the book is in English. 
  • No “New Adult.”
Warning: Ask anyone. I’m slow as hell with these, and thus I do not require any sort of exclusivity.
Submission specifics are here: http://carolrhoda.blogspot.com/2007/11/solicted-submissions.html

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13. So this happened

Sex&Viol_MorrisSeal

We are all so very, very proud of Carrie. (And we hope her pinky feels better soon.)

I obviously have a well-established soft spot for the YALSA's Morris Award, but the award really is a fantastic standard bearer for all that YA can be and for how healthy and exciting the genre is. The Morris should the high-road rebuttal of choice for every stupid HuffPo/Slate/whoeverthehell piece about how YA is just sparkly vampires, dystopias, and John Green (though it is all those things too).

Congratulations to all the nominees! I look forward to reading them all.

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14. #heretherebedragons

To win an advance copy of The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston plus any other Carolrhoda Lab title of your choosing, please do the following:

1. Follow @ek_johnston on Twitter.

2. Comment below or tweet about a book where everyone’s conveniently forgotten the important role played by dragons: “Nobody remembers the dragons in [name of book] because [pithy reason]. #heretherebedragons”

For example: “Nobody remembers the dragons in Dune because everybody wants to be a Freeman riding a sandworm not a Harkonnen on a dragon. #heretherebedragons.”

If you’re confused, go here. It might help.

We’ll pick our favorites on Monday morning.

image

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15. A Call for Middle-Grade Fiction Submissions

Imagine you’re a young child, waiting patiently as Halloween morning turns to Halloween night. You’ve waited patiently all month, in fact, eager to sport a brand-new Oscar the Grouch costume around your Saint Paul neighborhood. Although you didn’t make the outfit and didn’t purchase it, you maintain a sense of ownership over the duds in the way that only a kid can. And then the snow starts to fall.

You can still go trick-or-treating, of course. But your costume’s material is too thin for this change in conditions, and instead you’ll walk the streets as a pirate. (Apparently your family had a plastic eye patch around the house even though neither you nor your brother expected to use it.) Once outside, every look from a nearby homeowner is a reminder not only that you are not wearing an Oscar the Grouch costume but also that an eye patch alone does not make for much of a pirate outfit.

Two decades later: You cancelled your membership at a nearby health club at the end of March. This spring will be all about outdoor running—the post-work jogs around Lake of the Isles you’ve missed these last few months. Minnesota weather soon makes your deft-if-slightly-optimistic financial maneuver look like plain arrogance. Rain and sleet come down, like, every day during April, the death throes of a wet winter. Susceptible to head colds in these kind of conditions, you stay inside your studio apartment, watching old Sopranos episodes. The first weekend in May, as the summer movie season’s earliest blockbusters debut, fallen snow lines the gutters of Minneapolis.

If you are me, you do not need to imagine these embarrassments, because they happened to you (me). So this year, I’m taking precautions. Whether the Minnesota winter runs from December to February or from Halloween through the next six months, I intend to have plenty of reading material. Specifically, I’d like to switch my screensaver to ‘fireplace’ and curl up among middle-grade novel proposals. Hot cocoa, a cable-knit sweater, and tightly written, idiosyncratic work for readers in upper-elementary- or middle school. Before winter taketh away whatever it’s going to taketh away, please giveth your submissions to me.

I’m making a stockade of manuscripts that adopt surprising perspectives, that make lateral moves, that aren’t afraid to scare readers a little. Books with empathy or a sharp wit or both. And crucially, books that can transport a reader, whether or not he or she is holed up in an office, trying to remember what sunlight feels like. Manuscripts are welcome through the end of November.

--Greg Hunter, Associate Editor at Lerner Books/Carolrhoda

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16. Think of the children!

It gives me great hope to know that while too many adults are clutching their pearls and worrying about the hypothetical innocence of hypothetical and painfully simplistic children, actual kids are doing complicated and  interesting things like this.

I don’t publish books for teenagers, but I’m honored when they read the books I publish.

(Hat tip to Steve Brezenoff for the video.)

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17. The state of book challenges

Once upon a time, people who challenged books actually had to read. More than half a century ago, in order to be offended by Leopold Bloom sitting on his privy, one first had to read the fifth chapter of Ulysses, which (spoiler alert) does not feature a sentence remotely like “Leopold Bloom took a shit” though it does feature several paragraphs a thousand times more evocative of Leopold Bloom taking a shit. And if you got to the part with sex and managed to be offended, you were philistine but an unquestionably literate one.

No more.  

Now academics count swear words and calculate rates of profanity per hour. Now the metaphoric triumph of hope over  cruelty is deemed obscene because of words utterly divorced from their syntax to say nothing of their context. This is a worldview that does not acknowledge the existence of sentences, much less of thoughts. This is a worldview that sees isolated words as volatile pseudo-magical catalysts for reptile-brain behavior.

This is the post-literate world of book challengers (a world that’s too geographically close to my own for comfort), and that shit can go straight to fucking hell.

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18. Mixing memory and desire

504: How I Got Into CollegeOne of the things that makes YA fiction so intensely interesting to me is the problem of memory. Something about adolescence is uniquely illusive and distorting to our powers of recall. Overcoming that distortion and slipperiness is, I think, one of the  most daunting challenges of any fiction about teenage experience that’s even remotely autobiographical.

I find this story from the most recent This American Life to be a perfect example of the phenomenon. Often, the stories we tell in adulthood about what was meaningful in adolescence are a wishful line of best fit between childhood and adulthood. Young- adult fiction, it seems to me, should concern itself with the present-moment scatter of data points rather than the hindsight trend line.

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19. The sub-genres

“an agent told me that publishers are no longer looking for paranormal or dystopian, but now want contemporary realism. True?”

I’ve heard a few responses on Twitter and Facebook since the PW piece that made me want to revisit something I wrote earlier on subgenres in YA. It’s from 2010, but I don’t think my feelings have changed much. Here’s the piece: “The Rise of the Subs.”

In the PW profile, the interviewer asked me for my thoughts on two much-discussed YA “subgenres” (my term): paranormal and dystopian.

“What does make sense to Karre is the evergreen popularity of dystopian and paranormal YA fiction. Such stories, he argues, provide a prism through which to explore the realities of being a teenager.”

This is absolutely how I see these two subgenres—how I see any subgenre that’s consistently functional in YA. What I don’t intend in my answer is a comment on the market’s taste for these things in any given moment. Do I even need to say that the market doesn’t give a shit what I think about how YA works as art or rhetoric? Yes, paranormal and dystopian will always hold a certain natural attraction for  authors who make teenagers their subjects because, I believe, the set pieces, commonplaces, and building blocks of these subgenres resonate so very well with adolescent experience. This does not mean that the business of publishing won’t create peaks and valleys in the market popularity of these subgenres. Dystopian is evergreen in YA—you can find landmark examples across the decades. This doesn’t mean, though, that in any given year, every third dystopian manuscript on submission will sell in a five-publisher auction for six-figures. The market for manuscripts is a speculative economic market—with all the attendant inefficiencies, irrationalities,  and blind spots—not a literary salon.

Finally, I’d forgotten that I quoted Elaine Marie Alphin* in my post about subgenres, and I was so glad to re-read her thoughts. I don’t think I have anything to match this in terms of perceptiveness and wisdom:

[…] genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.

This is good insight for writers, but as an editor, I will take it as a mandate from an author I respect and admire.

*As some of you may know, Elaine suffered a serious stroke two years ago, and though she survived, she has not yet recovered the ability to communicate verbally. I worked on one book with Elaine, and had many illuminating conversations with her. Re-discovering her post is one of many available reminders that she was a wise writer and her voice is much missed.

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20. “Childhood is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

(With apologies to Stephen Dedalus)

File:President George H.W. Bush holds Jessica McClure in the Roosevelt Room at the White House (1989-07-19).jpg

(I feel like I have to write something in this space, lest the universe explode.)

Miley Cyrus may be the best example going at the moment of a child who became public property (and if you don’t believe people are still possessive of her, why on earth do they feel compelled to explain what she does to their teen and tween daughters in terms of their daughters’ self-esteem and self-image?), but she is certainly not the first. She may, however, be doing an exceptionally good job of taking her self back. Are you going to tell her it’s not “her party”?

Teenage celebrity is part of what I believe makes the cultural phenomenon of teenageness so deeply fascinating. It’s why Sarah Aronson’s Believe was a manuscript I knew wanted to publish after I’d read five pages.

"I was fascinated by this thoughtful, twisty, and convincing story about faith in the media age. Halfway through, I felt so deeply for Janine that I found myself looking at my own hands and wondering what I'd do if I were her."

—Nancy Werlin, New York Times
bestselling author of Impossible and The Rules of Survival

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21. FYI (if you write about teenagers and their “orgies”)

I have nothing to add to the chorus of scorn, contempt, and slight regard that’s risen up against a notorious bit of parental concern-trolling. Many authors, publishing pros, and librarians of my acquaintance have been eloquent and amusing on the subject already.

There is one sentence in the post, though, that sticks with me (stuck with Ms. Hall too, I guess. The italics are her own) as an echo of something bigger and older:

“[M]en of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls.”

This is a real thing, this moral logic. It’s a real old thing too, of course. And, more often than not, it asserts itself in adolescence. Here, let James Joyce write you a portrait:

As he crossed the square, walking homeward, the light laughter of a girl reached his burning ear. The frail gay sound smote his heart more strongly than a trumpet blast, and, not daring to lift his eyes, he turned aside and gazed, as he walked, into the shadow of the tangled shrubs. Shame rose from his smitten heart and flooded his whole being. The image of Emma appeared before him, and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry? The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils.

If there is a silver lining to the nonsensical and damaging moral logic of Hall’s post, you may find it in the perfection of Joyce’s portrait of young Stephen Dedalus (it only took a girl’s laugh to lay waste to his integrity).

So, what’s the “Dear writers” in all this (because the open letter is now the official medium of those who have concerns)? If I may borrow a phrase from Ms. Hall’s moral universe: “Hate the sin, but don’t forget to love—that is, to write about in a curious and clear-eyed way—the sinner.” Let Jezebel and Twitter continue to tear the post to shreds in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, please, for the love of YA literature, make sure you’re pillaging every single thing you can from this superb evidence of an evolutionary step in the teenage condition. Don’t let scorn be the last word. This blog post is a gift.  

0 Comments on FYI (if you write about teenagers and their “orgies”) as of 9/6/2013 3:47:00 PM
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22. Mixing memory and desire

504: How I Got Into CollegeOne of the things that makes YA fiction so intensely interesting to me is the problem of memory. Something about adolescence is uniquely illusive and distorting to our powers of recall. Overcoming that distortion and slipperiness is, I think, one of the  most daunting challenges of any fiction about teenage experience that’s even remotely autobiographical.

I find this story from the most recent This American Life to be a perfect example of the phenomenon. Often, the stories we tell in adulthood about what was meaningful in adolescence are a wishful line of best fit between childhood and adulthood. Young- adult fiction, it seems to me, should concern itself with the present-moment scatter of data points rather than the hindsight trend line.

0 Comments on Mixing memory and desire as of 1/1/1900
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23. FYI (if you write about teenagers and their “orgies”)

I have nothing to add to the chorus of scorn, contempt, and slight regard that’s risen up against a notorious bit of parental concern-trolling. Many authors, publishing pros, and librarians of my acquaintance have been eloquent and amusing on the subject already.

There is one sentence in the post, though, that sticks with me (stuck with Ms. Hall too, I guess. The italics are her own) as an echo of something bigger and older:

“[M]en of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls.”

This is a real thing, this moral logic. It’s a real old thing too, of course. And, more often than not, it asserts itself in adolescence. Here, let James Joyce write you a portrait:

As he crossed the square, walking homeward, the light laughter of a girl reached his burning ear. The frail gay sound smote his heart more strongly than a trumpet blast, and, not daring to lift his eyes, he turned aside and gazed, as he walked, into the shadow of the tangled shrubs. Shame rose from his smitten heart and flooded his whole being. The image of Emma appeared before him, and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry? The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils.

If there is a silver lining to the nonsensical and damaging moral logic of Hall’s post, you may find it in the perfection of Joyce’s portrait of young Stephen Dedalus (it only took a girl’s laugh to lay waste to his integrity).

So, what’s the “Dear writers” in all this (because the open letter is now the official medium of those who have concerns)? If I may borrow a phrase from Ms. Hall’s moral universe: “Hate the sin, but don’t forget to love—that is, to write about in a curious and clear-eyed way—the sinner.” Let Jezebel and Twitter continue to tear the post to shreds in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, please, for the love of YA literature, make sure you’re pillaging every single thing you can from this superb evidence of an evolutionary step in the teenage condition. Don’t let scorn be the last word. This blog post is a gift.  

0 Comments on FYI (if you write about teenagers and their “orgies”) as of 1/1/1900
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24. “Childhood is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

(With apologies to Stephen Dedalus)

File:President George H.W. Bush holds Jessica McClure in the Roosevelt Room at the White House (1989-07-19).jpg

(I feel like I have to write something in this space, lest the universe explode.)

Miley Cyrus may be the best example going at the moment of a child who became public property (and if you don’t believe people are still possessive of her, why on earth do they feel compelled to explain what she does to their teen and tween daughters in terms of their daughters’ self-esteem and self-image?), but she is certainly not the first. She may, however, be doing an exceptionally good job of taking her self back. Are you going to tell her it’s not “her party”?

Teenage celebrity is part of what I believe makes the cultural phenomenon of teenageness so deeply fascinating. It’s why Sarah Aronson’s Believe was a manuscript I knew wanted to publish after I’d read five pages.

"I was fascinated by this thoughtful, twisty, and convincing story about faith in the media age. Halfway through, I felt so deeply for Janine that I found myself looking at my own hands and wondering what I'd do if I were her."

—Nancy Werlin, New York Times
bestselling author of Impossible and The Rules of Survival

0 Comments on “Childhood is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” as of 1/1/1900
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25. The sub-genres

“an agent told me that publishers are no longer looking for paranormal or dystopian, but now want contemporary realism. True?”

I’ve heard a few responses on Twitter and Facebook since the PW piece that made me want to revisit something I wrote earlier on subgenres in YA. It’s from 2010, but I don’t think my feelings have changed much. Here’s the piece: “The Rise of the Subs.”

In the PW profile, the interviewer asked me for my thoughts on two much-discussed YA “subgenres” (my term): paranormal and dystopian.

“What does make sense to Karre is the evergreen popularity of dystopian and paranormal YA fiction. Such stories, he argues, provide a prism through which to explore the realities of being a teenager.”

This is absolutely how I see these two subgenres—how I see any subgenre that’s consistently functional in YA. What I don’t intend in my answer is a comment on the market’s taste for these things in any given moment. Do I even need to say that the market doesn’t give a shit what I think about how YA works as art or rhetoric? Yes, paranormal and dystopian will always hold a certain natural attraction for  authors who make teenagers their subjects because, I believe, the set pieces, commonplaces, and building blocks of these subgenres resonate so very well with adolescent experience. This does not mean that the business of publishing won’t create peaks and valleys in the market popularity of these subgenres. Dystopian is evergreen in YA—you can find landmark examples across the decades. This doesn’t mean, though, that in any given year, every third dystopian manuscript on submission will sell in a five-publisher auction for six-figures. The market for manuscripts is a speculative economic market—with all the attendant inefficiencies, irrationalities,  and blind spots—not a literary salon.

Finally, I’d forgotten that I quoted Elaine Marie Alphin* in my post about subgenres, and I was so glad to re-read her thoughts. I don’t think I have anything to match this in terms of perceptiveness and wisdom:

[…] genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.

This is good insight for writers, but as an editor, I will take it as a mandate from an author I respect and admire.

*As some of you may know, Elaine suffered a serious stroke two years ago, and though she survived, she has not yet recovered the ability to communicate verbally. I worked on one book with Elaine, and had many illuminating conversations with her. Re-discovering her post is one of many available reminders that she was a wise writer and her voice is much missed.

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