Saturday, April 20
Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Tone Too Literary for YA?
Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.
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Submissions currently in the queue: Six
This week’s questions:
Is the tone too literary for YA? How can we retain the prettiness of our words while still paring things down?
Market/Genre: Young Adult
On to the diagnosis…
Miss Rosenow walked me down the path, leaving me at a row of pear trees. The buzzing of bees about the fruit mirrored the warm humming from her rosy company. But by the time I stood at Celia’s grave I was sober again. And furious.
Her resting place under the junipers was marked by a sunken slab of dank stone. The area seemed to be a no-man's-land just beyond the cemetery, in fact. Her grave lay almost entirely claimed by dense branches and needles and plants that thrive in shadow. Ivy matted the ground; its purple bloom might have been pretty in another setting. Tangled with last autumn’s un-raked leaf mold and inhabited with rude ferns, the scene appalled me.
Did I have a right to my indignation? The neglect was my own. Far from finding ‘closure,’ I was confronted with the result of my cowardice. I should have stood up to her father.
Hardly a place for contemplation, this spider’s nest, I knelt and abandoned the swaddled innocence of flowers on Celia’s headstone and rose to my feet determined to get some answers.
My Thoughts in Purple:
Miss Rosenow walked me down the path, leaving me at a row of pear trees. The buzzing of bees about the fruit [mirrored the warm humming from her rosy company.] Does this mean she was humming? But by the time I stood at Celia’s grave [I was sober again.] Does this mean he was drunk before? And furious.
Her resting place under the junipers was marked by a sunken slab of dank stone. The area seemed to be a no-man's-land just beyond the cemetery, in fact. Her grave lay almost entirely claimed by dense branches and needles and plants that thrive in shadow. Ivy matted the ground; its purple bloom might have been pretty in another setting. Tangled with last autumn’s un-raked leaf mold and inhabited with [rude ferns] love this, [the scene appalled me.] This tells me, and the description is nice, but I'm not getting a sense of fury (or any emotion, really) from the narrator yet.
Did I have a right to my indignation? [The neglect was my own.] Feels a little passive and detached. [Far from finding ‘closure,’ I was confronted with the result of my cowardice.] This doesn't feel teen to me, but older, more retrospective. How would someone confronted with their cowardice feel? Try getting the same idea across without stating it outright [I should have stood up to her father.] I like the sense of regret here
[Hardly a place for contemplation, this spider’s nest, I knelt and abandoned the swaddled innocence of flowers on Celia’s headstone and rose to my feet determined to get some answers.] Reads awkwardly, and doesn't sound like a teen. It's also telling a bit.
Is the tone too literary for YA?
I don't think it's an issue with the tone so much as voice. I'm not hearing a YA voice from this yet, and it reads more like an adult narrator. For example, the phrasing feels detached and bit reserved despite the narrator being furious. The narrator also implies they're responsible for the upkeep of the grave, which again skews this to an older person. Even the mention of the father could be any age, a husband regretting not standing up to his father-in-law.
I'd suggest inserting more teen voice in this. Not slang or anything like that, but a sense that this person is a teen. "The neglect was my own" doesn't feel like something a teen would say. Perhaps, "this was my fault," or "I neglected her grave." Something more personal and not so detached. Teens tend to be in the moment, and focus on how they feel and what it means to them.
(More on voice)
You might also consider adding more internalization to help convey the emotions more. That will also help get more teen voice in since that's where a lot of it comes from. Another thing you could try is adding references to teen things. Is the narrator carrying a backpack for school? Did they come here on a bike? Is there something teen related they think about that Celia would have liked or hated? Things like that.
(More on internalization)
One more thing you could consider is switching to an omniscient third person narrator. You'd be able to keep your narrator more literary sounding and your teen more teen sounding. That has its own share of issues, as it could come across more adult sounding, but it could also allow you to keep the style you prefer in most of the narrative.
(More on omniscient narrators)
How can we retain the prettiness of our words while still paring things down?
You don't need to pair things down for YA, you just need to write a story with relatable teen characters dealing with relatable teen problems. I can't tell what that might be here from just this snippet, but teens deal with death and that's an age where they've very curious about it. And guilt over not helping a friend in need who later died is a pretty powerful premise and one some of your readers could be struggling with.
I'd suggest reading a stack of literary YA to get a feel for what's being done out there. YA doesn't group books in the store like adult novels, so you can't just find a "literary" section. But here are some suggestions:
Anything that got a Printz Award nod or win. They tend to lean toward literary works.
The White Darkness by Geraldine Mccaughrean
The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, and An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (probably anything by him, actually)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (This is a good example if you wanted to change POV styles)
Almost anything by Laurie Halse Anderson, Jennifer Donnelly, MT Anderson, or Meg Rosoff.
There's a wide variety of voices in these, but they all still maintain that teen voice as well as being beautifully written and dealing with more literary plots and stories.
"What is literary fiction?" will get you more answers than you can parse, but generally speaking, YA literary is a tad different from the adult versions. Adults will enjoy a literary style just to admire the beauty of the words. Teens typically need a little more. You'll find folks out there who say all contemporary YA is literary YA, but I'd disagree. Contemporary YA can have light, fun reads that aren't literary, and genre YA can be literary in tone and style. It casts a wide net.
YA literary tends to be very character driven, with poetic or beautiful writing and language. It's more than just lovely descriptions of things or colorful metaphors. There's a rawness to the emotions and a sense of struggling to understand, and they frequently opens doors to deep discussions about life and issues. It's very compelling in most cases.
I think as long as you nail the YA voice, you can be as literary as you want. Teens enjoy a wide variety of stories, as long as they can relate to the stories and characters. Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.