Sunday, September 28, 2008

Notes from the Literary Ghetto

Writing Goddesses in Happier Times

So I’m in Park City, Utah, at a writing retreat with my fellow writing goddesses, Martha, Mary Beth, Kate, and Debby. We took the afternoon off to shop the tantalizing wares in Old Town Park City and encourage each other to spend money.
We were in a jewelry store, browsing the showcases, when the woman behind the counter pointed to my pin and said, “What’s that?”
“This?” I said, fingering my brooch. “This is the cover of my book.” (I’d had a pin made with the image of The Wizard Heir cover on it.)
“Your book?” she said, showing a spark of interest. “You’re a writer?”
“Well, yes,” I said. I fished in my purse and pulled out a bookmark and handed it to her. “I write young adult fantasy.”
“Oh!” She looked at me like I’d handed her a live serpent. “Here,” she said, thrusting my bookmark back at me. “I’m going to give this back to you. I don’t do fantasy, and I don’t do YA.”
I was speechless for a moment. “OK,” I said finally, sliding the bookmark back into my purse. “So you don’t do fantasy.”
“No,” she said, practically shuddering. “You can probably tell I have a master’s in library science.” When I looked blank, she added, “I know the jargon. YA, for instance.”
“I see,” I said.
I could have said that some of my best friends are librarians, and many of them fantasy fans and lovers of YA books. I could have said, glancing around the store, “So I guess the library gig didn’t work out.”
I should have just walked away.
Instead, I said, “Well, um, maybe you just haven’t read any good fantasy.”
She shook her head. “Oh, no, I’ve read fantasy,” she said, rolling her eyes. “We were forced to read it in school.”
Like the entire genre of fantasy had its chance and she was not amused.
She reached under the counter, pulled out a paperback literary novel and slapped it down on the counter. “This is what I like to read,” she said. “Have you read it?”
“No,” I said. “Um, I’ve heard of it, though. Is it good?”
“He’s a Pulitzer prize winner,” she said, thoroughly nailing me in my place.
My friend Martha had drifted over during this conversation. “Well,” she said, “Cinda is a best-selling author, you know.”
The clerk stared at me like she didn’t quite believe it. “Really?”
Martha nodded. “New York Times.”
“Oh,” the clerk said, eying me like she might be missing an opportunity to score something she could sell on E-Bay. “Well, maybe I will take a bookmark.”
I could cite other examples of this kind of literary snobbery—for instance, the workshop leader who said to me, as if she couldn’t quite believe it, “You know your writing is really quite good.” She went on to say that my stories could be quite literary if I took the magic out.
And I thought, Why would I want to take the magic out? And what is it about magic that makes them non-literary?
Here’s my point: I have my preferences in my pleasure reading, like everybody else. I read widely, but I know that I’m more likely to like certain kinds of books than others. But I’m not talking about preferences. I’m talking about a clear and visceral disdain for the heart’s work of others. Some people look down on those who write for children and teens. Others sneer at writers of women’s fiction or mysteries or science fiction. As for picture books: how hard could it be?
Nobody should be made to feel like a second class citizen of the writing universe.
If a story is formulaic, predictable, boring, pompous, or confusing—it doesn’t work. What makes a story successful is the same in every genre: engaging characters, compelling plots, and vivid settings. If those pieces aren’t there, nothing works. That’s where the magic comes from—in fantasy and in every other literary category.
Book lovers have more commonalities than differences in a world where many people don’t read a single book in a year. We should celebrate that.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why I Write for Teens

Recently, a reviewer said I was adept with teen culture. I laughed quick to drown out my husband and two sons, who were snickering and elbowing each other. “Okaay,” they said. “Uh-huh. Ri-ight.”

I’m not up to date on current music, TV shows, video games, etc.—I never have time to get on YouTube unless I’m on a mission of some kind. The social networking sites are a moving target. I’m on Blogger when everyone else is moving to Facebook. As soon as I’m up on Facebook I’m getting invitations to Twitter (!).

My MP3 player is loaded with the music that I loved when I was a teen, with a few latter-day additions. When I mentioned developing a music playlist to go with my books, (something the cool authors are doing) my husband got this pained expression and said, “Maybe you should ask Eric and Keith to do it.” The subtext was: nobody in your target audience wants to listen to what you listen to.

So sometimes I wonder if I should be writing for teens at all. I feel like I’m totally unqualified except for the fact that I once was one.

But maybe the key to writing YA stories is remembering what it was like. All I have to do is walk into a school building, and it all comes rushing back: those nasty black bathing suits we had to wear in swimming class, the humiliation of phys ed, the bad boys I used to lust after.

I remember a boy who broke my heart. He drove an orange Mustang convertible. For years, my pulse accelerated whenever I saw a Mustang.

I remember the stricken look on another boy’s face when I told him I just wanted to be friends. “That’s not how I see us,” he said, and walked away, his back very straight. He was a poet, and so was I, but it wasn’t enough.

I have notebooks full of stories, poems, songs, and essays I wrote in junior high, high school, and college. Anyone who reads that stuff wouldn’t say adolescence is carefree. I think pain was my muse for writing back then. Either that or I was always in pain.

When I was a teen, I read like a fiend. Books were a refuge for me. I remember the time I was reading Valley of the Dolls in Problems of Democracy class and the teacher confiscated it. It belonged to a friend of my mother’s so I had to go beg for it back. Books are still important in my life, but they will never be as important as they were then.

So maybe knowledge of the specifics of popular culture isn’t important. It’s not the particular band member or TV star you’re in love with—it’s the emotional memory of how it felt. You cannot write for teens from an adult perspective. You can’t condescend. They get enough of that in real life.

If I want to remember what it felt like to be a teen, maybe listening to the music I loved when I was that age might be the way to go.

I tell myself that, anyway.