WriteChatWednesday: YA Focus

What is #WriteChatWednesday?

We believe what makes Kaylie Jones Books special is the way our writers and staff support one another. Kaylie Jones Books is truly a collective of writers who believe in sharing their knowledge and experience.

#WriteChatWednesday is our latest blog series written for writers, by writers. Each month, our writers will be answering questions about writing and publishing submitted by our readers.

Meet Our Panelist:

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS

RONNIE K. STEPHENS is a full-time educator and father of five, with a strong interest in poetry, fiction, and activism. He recently completed an MA in Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction at Wilkes University. During his time at Wilkes, he was awarded two scholarships and won the Etruscan Press Prize. Stephens has published two full-length poetry collections, UNIVERSE IN THE KEY OF MATRYOSHKA and THEY REWROTE THEMSELVES LEGENDARY, with Timber Mouse Publishing out of Austin. THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS is his first novel.

Photo credit: Brynna Elzey

How do you differentiate your novel from titles that have dominated very specific markets (The Fault In Our Stars, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, etc.)?

When I was writing THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS, one of the things I kept in my mind is the sheer number of YA novels which center on romantic relationships. Since I was writing a female protagonist in a modified hero’s quest, I took note of the commonalities between the most successful novels in that vein. I actually geeked out and created a Google form to help me track similarities, such as absent fathers, sibling relationships, etc., which proved to be very helpful for me. I knew what was most common, and I had a good idea about how I could avoid writing to those trends in my own work. I think a similar approach could work for most any genre or subgenre; take a look at what’s most successful, and start really unpacking the places where those books align. You want to recognize trends within your writing that agents and publishers have faith your book will sell, but offer enough difference to make your book unique.

How do you prevent your characters from falling into common tropes – manic pixie dream girl, clever smart ass guy, etc.?

The most obvious answer here is to use beta readers who are sensitive to such characters, as they will recognize when you lean on tropes much faster than you will in revision. Beyond that, I think authentic characterization has a lot to do with trusting your characters and letting them tell the story. Tropes tend to emerge when a character is flat, or serving a function within the narrative; to avoid tropes, write every character as fully human. Remember, human means flawed and complicated. Most people are full of contradictions, and that’s what makes them interesting. In the end, never include a character simply because they serve a purpose; let every character fully exist in your world. Give them jobs and secrets, give them motivations they tell everyone and motivations they tell no one, give them memories and ambitions. Even if you never write these things into the book, just knowing each character inside and out will ensure that they don’t come across as flat and/or cliche.

How do you tow the line between YA and adult fiction?

I have taught teenagers in public schools for eight years, and I can promise that you do not need to tow the line between YA and adult fiction. Most teen readers have experienced more darkness and more trauma than we would like to believe; they can handle difficult issues and genuine conflicts. That said, it is vital to recognize the line between developing story and triggering readers. If you’re going to include an intensely traumatizing scene, make sure that it is entirely essential that the reader experience it. A good example might be The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, which covers remarkably dark issues around being forced into a cult, being forced to wed, and ultimately being tortured within the cult. Despite the physical, emotional, and mental trauma that the protagonist experiences, the author has a keen sense for how much of that trauma the reader needs to experience first-hand. Whenever possible, she zooms out from a traumatic moment, giving readers the beginning of the moment and the aftermath. That’s genius because what really matters in any moment of trauma is not the trauma itself, but the effect that the trauma has on the character. Being with the character as they come to terms with an event or process it themselves simultaneously develops the character more fully and helps maintain enough distance that readers aren’t triggered by your story.

What is your opinion on suicide in YA novels?

I’m going to be entirely vulnerable with this question because it is very, very close to my heart. In eight years as a public educator, I have not gone a single semester without at least one student attempting suicide. Two of my students have killed themselves while in my class, and three others have killed themselves after moving on from my class. I have a tattoo on my right wrist to commemorate the graduation of a student who attempted suicide for the second time while in my class; the tattoo is in her handwriting, and it is a promise to one another that we will both choose life. She has a matching tattoo on her wrist, and she is now an upperclassman in college. For the entirety of another student’s sophomore and junior years, we made a mutual commitment to choose life on a daily basis. She was only ever willing to promise one day, so we made a new promise every single day, seven hundred and thirty times in a row, until she was ready to choose life permanently. I could tell dozens more stories like these, but the point is this: teens are grappling with suicide at alarming rates. It’s one of the leading causes of death for children ages 10-18. We can’t afford to ignore it in our writing. Teens need to be able to talk about suicide, and they need to know that suicidal ideation is not uncommon. Thinking about suicide should not be an alienating experience. Teens should be fully aware that they are not alone, that there are support systems, and that survival is its own act of heroism. Again, though, we must be incredibly sensitive about how we write about suicide. Like other moments of trauma, we need to spend very little time on the act of suicide and a lot of time on the human element. One of my biggest frustrations in YA is that so many characters who contemplate, attempt, or succeed in suicide have a very clear catalyst for their ideation. I think that is disingenuous. Many, many teens self-harm and or attempt suicide because they have mental health issues which are going undiagnosed and/or untreated. That’s a huge gap in the way suicide appears in fiction, and it’s a dangerous one because it further alienates those with mental health issues, creating a false vision of suicide as an effect rooted in some specific cause or event. I guess what I’m saying is that we have a responsibility to acknowledge suicide as a pervasive reality in young people’s lives, but we must do better about representing the full spectrum of mental health, rather than fixating on suicide itself. Suicide is a byproduct of something larger, and that something larger deserves the bulk of our attention.

Given the target audience for YA, what goes in to your decisions around censorship? How do you navigate those decisions without losing authenticity?

For me, it was very important to write a novel which teachers and school librarians could use without fear. I know the amount of red tape involved in getting texts approved for school use, and I know the stress that teachers feel when they want to bring in a book that is not already approved by the district. I made a conscious decision not to include profanity or gratuitous violence, and I didn’t include sexuality by default because my book does not feature a romantic arc. Ironically, these decisions have led some to character my book as middle-grade or conservative, something I hadn’t anticipated but from which I’ve learned. Many consider authentic treatments of YA to include profanity, sex, alcohol, drugs, etc. because most teens have experience with at least some of those things. By and large, I would agree with that; however, I think it’s entirely possible to write authentic characters whose conflict(s) do not center on those things. Sometimes, what’s pertinent to the story exists outside the typical experience of today’s teenagers. That isn’t to say that a protagonist is immune to swearing, or that they never get together with friends and break the rules. Rather, not every protagonist will be doing those things on the page. Authors must make a conscious choice about whether or not they intend for a book to be classroom friendly. If the book is not meant to be classroom friendly, then there’s really no reason to exclude any “taboo” experience. If, however, the book is meant to be classroom friendly, then the struggle is to write only the parts of the protagonist that are essential to the story, and learning to write parts of scenes. That last part can be tricky, but it goes back to the first and most useful piece of writing advice I ever received: “Trust the reader.” An Irish author, Gerard Donovan, shared with me that more than half of any story happens off the page, and that leaving things for the reader to infer allows for active, engaged reading experiences. Use that to your advantage and leave the controversial things off the page if you feel so inclined. If your characters are dynamic and your conflict is engaging, readers won’t miss the “edgy” stuff.

Ronnie’s debut novel, THE KALEIDOSCOPE SISTERS, is forthcoming on August 21, 2018. Pre-order it here!

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Has one comment to “WriteChatWednesday: YA Focus”

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  1. Laurie Loewenstein - August 17, 2018 at 4:19 pm Reply

    Fascinating insights. I was moved by your discussion of suicide, your commitment to your students and sensitivity to this topic.

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