YAF - Writing Young Adult Fiction

2nd December 2004

A friend just sent me her digest of a conference on Young Adult Fiction (YFA) run by the Creative Writing Department of Notiingham's Trent University. A few things struck me. I was surprised to find David Belbin (the convener and author of 'Denial') saying ‘the least economically significant sector of children’s books, one where it is hard for a writer to earn a living, because the audience predominantly borrows rather than buys its books.’ I suppose few writers have their books bought as class sets.

In a 'Writers’ Handbook' of some years ago, a then relatively unknown Philip Pullman wrote an essay on the freedom granted to writers of children’s books. Children (in which he presumably includes teenagers) are happy to cross boundaries, aren’t restricted by genre, are prepared to surf the larger waves of a writer’s imagination. I worry that if books are borrowed rather than bought, you need to appeal to a librarian’s sense of what teenagers want rather than the teenagers themselves – so that self-censorship sets in to meet the perceived censoring that the librarians will do in choosing what to buy, and the publishers in choosing what to publish.

And increasingly I am accepting that such worries of mine are neurotic rubbish. Just write, bring up what’s deep inside there, work on clarifying it, ignore ‘what people might think’. Who knows, it might even connect. Librarians aren’t a prurient bunch. ‘His Dark Materials’ became much wilder in the final volume. Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night’ is a hard book from which to select suitable passages for reading in schools, yet it has most nominations from international librarians for the big Irish Impac literary prize.

I wanted my first novel, ‘On Bended Knees’, to be about a boy who slowly becomes a rabbit and in burrowing under the Berlin Wall brings abut a union of East and West. However, responding to agents’ criticism that my writing was ‘too remarkable’ I deliberately steered the book toward being published. Anything ‘too remarkable’ was nipped in the bud. Shadows of that more fantastic novel still ghost the published one. My strategy worked – the book was published and lauded. But part of me regrets the novel that got away.

I have written novels since then – but getting them into the market becomes ever harder. I have ‘reined them in’, in my way, but what interests me, what is supremely real to me, is in fact very remarkable to others. I’ve been able to get my non-fiction books through the system, ‘remarkable’ books that I have shaped with the structure of novels, because they can be marketed as ‘Mind Body Spirit’. Publishers don’t necessarily believe in these books: on first meeting Eileen Campbell, then heading the Thorsons MBS imprint of Harper Collins in London, she told of publishers’ horror that ‘The Celestine Prophecy’ was heading the sales charts, a horror and incomprehension she seemed to share. But they think they can see some dollars on the bottom line.

Personally I believe publishers underestimate readers, a huge potential exists for more ‘fantastic’ literature. Boredom is driving readers to other media such as films and games. An agent wrote to me the other day a reminder “that editors have to get their sales, marketing and publicity directors' nod to take on writers now, as well as that of their MD and senior editorial colleagues. It's a very committee-based industry in 2004.” That is becoming more true but it has always been my experience. It’s been puzzling to sit in a room filled with editors waxing lyrical over my work, to go back and meet enthusiastic designers, then later to get a call that someone in marketing has pulled the plug. Bypassing such ‘committees’, I’m drawing ever closer to setting up my own imprint to feed some of what I find exciting into the world.

And increasingly I am looking to shift my own fiction towards Young Adult Fiction. Pivotal characters in all my novels are teenagers – somehow a remnant of myself has got caught in that age and the rest of me joins in to explore it. The novel I’m finishing now , ‘Ectopia’, wasn’t written as young adult fiction but that is what it is. It’s a novel written by a boy on that 16 / 17 cusp. He’s the younger twin of the last girl born on Earth. I looked for an inoffensive piece to read in a secondary school writing workshop I led the other day, and it was hard to do so. The boy is forging his own language and has shaken loose of all decorum. He’s also gay. I vowed in writing it not to apply self-censorship at all, wrote a passage involving sexual abuse within the family, then subsequently took it out. Probably because it frightened me. I’m working to put it back in. Am I kidding myself that this book is suitable for the YAF market? Probably. Who cares. There’s some comfort in Susan’s telling of the marketability of the ‘shock factor’, the very fact that such books are marketed at teenagers.

I’ve read Chuck Palahniuk to kids who have been shocked by but loved the abrasive style. I like the style myself and have learned from it, though I soon weary at the negativity. In ‘Ectopia’ my main character does not just mouth-off or react, he isn’t a victim flashing back, he just stays ever more determined to find his own positive and alternative course.

I pause at a comment from Melvin Burgess’s keynote speech at the conference, that the actual audience for teenage novels is 11+. I’ve kept an old-fashioned notion of what 11+ readers should read. Some part of me wants to help them to see the beauty that surrounds them rather than shock them with glimpses of a savage world. I’ve started a new novel, ‘Badger Boy’, which probably picks up on my earlier rabbit theme. It’s bold, but is the first piece I am consciously writing for the young adult (ie older children’s) market. It has the different child / bad parents theme, and won’t use profane language. I was impressed recently, by the way, by Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’, due out in January 2005. This is an ‘adult’ novel, without profane language, of real imaginative vigour, one which kids could really enjoy.

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