The Page Is A Mirror . . . Or Is It?

Most of you have seen the Twitter storm surrounding the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign within the past year. At GeekyCon last month, I attended a panel titled The Page Is A Mirror, and authors spoke on the power of representation, and how we see or fail to see ourselves reflected on the page, and what we want from YA moving forward . . . more diverse books!

Now Lee & Low, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the US, started an information-collecting tool: a diversity survey for all publishing companies.

“It’s quite clear this data is essential, and the fact we don’t have it…problematic. This lack of information blinds diversity initiatives.”

Why do I want the big five to sign on? I teach English Language Arts to mainly eighth graders. The first day of school we discussed why as children in elementary school, they LOVED reading. Then they got to middle school, and they are in a FULL DOWNWARD SPIRAL when you ask them to read a few pages.

Holy Howling Dogs!! What went wrong?!

Many claimed they didn’t have time to read anymore. They have more responsibilities, more activities. To that end I asked how many watched reality TV and played video games on a regular basis. Almost all raised their hands. I told them they still had time to read.

But one class in particular got real. We spent 45 minutes discussing how they DID NOT see themselves reflected on the page in YA literature. They’re tired of seeing the same story over and over again. It’s the end of the world and another white girl or white boy is saving them all. All of whom are extremely good-looking. Most girls are skinny. Most guys have six-pack abs. Sure, some are poor, some live in a violent area. Maybe a few are gay. But where are the heroes with learning disabilities, physical handicaps, the ones who were physically abused by their parents, or molested by a creepy uncle, the ones who self harm to escape the real pain, the girls who weigh 150 pounds or more, the boys whose faces are covered in acne?

And I felt their pain. The first two novels I TRIED to publish? Number one was about a sixteen-year-old girl who cut herself to escape her horrific childhood, most notably a rape by a family member (*written in 2010). The second was about a biracial ballerina dealing with the prejudices of a hick town when she was forced to move there the last semester of high school (*written in 2011).

Responses from agents? Most often along the lines of, “Though these stories are important to tell, they’re hard to sell.”

Okaaay . . . so I wrote a YA romance with a paranormal twist and a love triangle. Guess what? Harlequin Teen, Sourcebooks, and TOR (a division of Macmillan) all requested the full. While I waited to hear back, I submitted to a contest on a whim and consequently, offered an immediate contract with a small publisher called Curiosity Quills.

In January 2013, CQ released the first novel in my trilogy, 18 THINGS. Two and a half years later, I feel we live in a different world. Change is in the air, and I hope the publishing industry changes with it. I hope we don’t miss this opportunity to create books teens want to read, pages that reflect them like a mirror, that speaks to THEIR experience. Imagine a world where teens rushed home to read a book instead of watch reality TV or inhale violent video games. Wow . . . what a place that would be. I’d want to live in that world.

Oprah quote

This has been a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, the brainchild of Head Ninja, Alex J. Cavanaugh. Feel free to join us the first Wednesday of every month! Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds! 🙂

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*This was also my post for the #BigFiveSignOn bloghop . . . it’s a busy time of year for me with the start of school, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. You can sign up for that bloghop at SCWrite’s website.

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What YA Authors Can Teach Us About Writing

This past weekend my teenage daughter and I made our second pilgrimage to GeekyCon in Orlando for their YA Lit Track. Some of the authors we listened to were Veronica Roth, Maureen Johnson, Leigh Bardugo, Jenny Han, Marie Lu, Tahereh Mafi, Stephanie Perkins, Jason Reynolds, Ransom Riggs, Adam Silvera, Holly Black, Courtney Summers, Robin Wasserman, and Sabaa Tahir!!

GeekyCon

Today I’ll share some notes I took during the panels. I tried to give some order to my convulted thoughts, but I’m going through Con withdrawals, so bear with me.

Page Is A Mirror: Authors talked about stories that inspired them, and in some cases changed the way they saw themselves and the act of writing. They addressed the power of representation, how we see or fail to see ourselves reflected on the page, and what we want from YA moving forward.

Some Notes:

A lot of books portray diverse characters, but that’s the whole storyline & not just a person who is going through something who happens to be Asian, Puerto Rican ….

Jason Reynolds said he was looking for a character in books that did fit all his cultural codes but couldn’t find it. He found it in music and movies instead.
Authors also discussed if they feel the pressure to write about their own “group” . . . Impossible to portray everyone in the culture, & we have to swallow readers expectations or it becomes a different book, but we also have to remain sensitive. We want to write what we want to write but feel a responsibility to reach out. For instance, there’s enough images of poor, scary black teenagers, so it’s important to change that. Another stereotype is Pakistan being considered as part of the Middle East and people there speaking Arabic when it’s really part of South Asia and the official language is English. We can learn a lot from another culture who isn’t our own & it’s important to have these discussions so we do learn. There is a call for white authors to make their books more diverse but important to understand the culture so it’s absorbed into the story & it feels organic. It’s hard because there’s this Internet Witch Hunt whenever an author gets something wrong & people calling them out with a vengeance (used Mosquito Land by David Arnold as an example)… But you can’t write colorblind because our country isn’t colorblind so if we do, it feels cheap.

Let’s Make Out & Explode: The Art of Creating Love and Fight Scenes

Notes on Love Scenes: It’s hard sometimes when writing romantic scenes to distinguish between what’s real & what’s wish fulfillment … and then sometimes we include things in books that did happen in real life, but it ends up sounding psycho on the page. Other times, it sounds so cheesy you think it’ll never stick but readers eat it up. Think of ‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb’ line in Twilight or Okay? Okay. in TFIOS & how it became so romantic. The simmer became a beautiful boil.

Keep in mind when writing YA, it’s going to be awkward for a teens first time. Certain body part words are jarring in YA so be mindful of that. Make sure you include the other person in the scene too & what’s going on with them- not just the POV main character. Scenes need strong emotional core readers can relate to & characters who can learn from their mistakes, except learning a lot faster so our readers can learn from them in return. Ambiguity isn’t really rewarded in YA. As kids we want the happily ever after, but many of the panel authors also feel obligated to not have full closure in their books because that’s not life, and it’s also comforting to know others aren’t certain either. Always keep in mind, what’s the end result you want from a scene?

Notes on Fight Scenes: It doesn’t matter if we blowup the building if we don’t care about the people inside. Think of Wes Craven Scream & how every single character in a scene has good lines & you want all of them to live. Think of It by Stephen King & caring so much about the kids. For fights, you’ll most likely be writing scenes you’ve never experienced, so do a lot of research. Yes, there’s Google, but also talk to people- they’re usually very eager to talk about their jobs, lives, etc… Be willing to accept help.

Funny side note, when Veronica Roth (author of Divergent series) was asked about her weapon of choice, she answered wasp spray. Check out an article here about using it for self-defense. Turns out, it was a pretty good answer!

Plot Hospital: Holly Black and Leigh Bardugo helped diagnose problems in people’s manuscripts.

Some notes:
*Think about what the character wants vs. what they need.
*Think from a readers POV & what they want to happen from the end & would be disappointed if it wasn’t there.
*The hardest thing about writing is being at the crossroads & making a decision about where to go.
*Retelling an old story like a fairy tale & stealing the structure is a great idea if you’re struggling with plot.
*Have to know who your main antagonist is and think, what makes a villain a villain? Read MG story The School of Good & Evil for a good example or watch Orphan Black- that show doesn’t save plot; twists that you think will take multiple shows to resolve takes 20 minutes. They are very brave in their storytelling.

There was lots more, but I’ll save it for another day as this post is getting quite long. Incidentally, my only motivation in life after leaving this Con the past two years is to be successful enough as an author to get invited to a GeekyCon panel! Did you hear that Maureen Johnson? That’s the sound of me coming after you *growls, throws pokeball, and utilizes death stare*

This has been a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, the brainchild of Head Ninja, Alex J. Cavanaugh. Feel free to join us the first Wednesday of every month!

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