Monday, October 17, 2011

Guest Post by Stina Lindenblatt: Edgy, Dark YA

Today's post is from Stina, one of my favorite bloggers who has become a friend. Stina and I have corresponded a bit about the topic of "dark" YA, and I asked her to write this post to share her thoughts.



 Stress. Unfortunately it’s an issue not isolated solely to adults. Today, teens face more negative stress than ever before, but they don’t have the same coping skills as adults. This is why edgy dark young adult novels are so beneficial.

So what does edgy dark YA have to do with stress? Plenty. Topics typically dealt with in this type of story include: death, eating disorders, bullying, cutting, rape, drugs. None of these are cute and fuzzy. But the beauty of YA is it doesn’t matter if you write a paranormal or thriller or contemporary story, each genre allows you to approach the topic a different way. This means that even though Laurie Halse Anderson authored a contemporary novel about a girl struggling with anorexia, it doesn’t mean you can’t write a thriller with a girl dealing with the same issue. The stories will be very different, and yours might snare the attention of teens who weren’t interested in Winter Girls.

If you want to write edgy dark YA, figure out why you are passionate about the particular issue you want to approach and what you are hoping to achieve. Let’s take suicide as an example. Thirteen Reasons Why is a brilliant YA contemporary novel that addressed the topic of suicide in two ways. The first one dealt with a boy struggling to understand the motives behind why a girl he was crushing on killed herself. The author, Jay Asher, also wanted to show teens the warning signs to look out for in case someone they know is considering suicide. Thanks to Jay’s passion about the topic, his book has saved lives.

Passion is also important because it helps you create an authentic story. You care so much about the topic, you want the story to succeed. And how do you that? Through research. If you don’t do the research, someone will catch your mistakes. Unfortunately, it won’t be your agent or editor. It will be a teen dealing with the same issue who will notice it. You’ll lose credibility with some of your readers. And loss of credibility is a danger thing.

How do you avoid this problem? Read as much as you can on the topic, and make sure you are studying information from qualified experts, such as child psychologists. You also want to make sure your research is relevant to teens. For example, teens don’t deal with depression the same way adults do. If you can, talk to teens dealing with the issue (either the individual is experiencing it or knows some who is, depending on your story). This will ensure your voice is genuine, your character is authentic, and her experiences are true to her situation. For example, if your character is a cutter, make sure you understand how it feels (or doesn’t feel) when she takes the blade to her skin. When done correctly, your character won’t sound like a clinical case study.

By bringing the psychological issues that affect teens’ lives (directly or indirectly) to light, you can give hope to those who felt there was none, empowerment to those who felt there was no other choice but the path they took, and increase awareness and understanding to those sitting on the sidelines, uncertain if something is wrong. You can change a teen’s life, hopefully for the better. You might even save a life. Now what could be better than that?

I agree with everything Stina says here--especially about figuring out WHY you want to write about a particular topic, and then doing the research to make sure you are respecting those who've been through these things by portraying their experiences accurately and sensitively.

Do you read dark YA? If so, why? Do you write it? Was it a conscious decision or just what came to you? How do you make sure what you're writing is true to life?

And of course, check out Lydia Kang's Medical Monday and Laura Diamond's Mental Health Monday!

31 comments:

  1. Before we had a genre called YA -- and before there was Edgy, Dark YA -- teens used to be assigned to read Edgy, Dark Adult Fiction in school, like Catch-22, and As I Lay Dying, and The Scarlet Letter (none of which really related to the lives of today's teens and none of which they'd probably pick up to read on their own). Why were these titles chosen and why did adults have no problem with their children reading them -- and yet the books you list above are banned and criticized as poisoning young minds?

    Is it because they DO relate to teen lives? Why are we trying to hide the truth?

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  2. IMO, the problem with "dark, edgy" anything comes when someone sets out to write something dark and edgy. It usually falls into the same traps as someone writing a "message" or "lesson" story. The dark overshadows the story.

    If you write honest fiction, and it happens to dip into some darker stuff then the story is the important part, rather than trying to make yourself edgy.

    Do I write dark things? Yes, occasionally. The book I'm doing my first round of agent-edits on is what most people would consider dark - it involves grief, bullying, victim-shame, social stigma, assumptions based on social personas, lying, manipulation, too-strict parents, too-lenient parents, over-compensating parents, zero tolerance, and other things that teens deal with on a daily basis.

    Darkness in a novel is like shadows in a painting. They should accentuate the main picture, not obscure it.

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  3. Love to see two of my favorite bloggers coming together. I'm not a big reader of issue books, not because I have anything against them, but I tend to be more attracted to explosions, sword fights, magic and easy to read adventursome things like that.

    However, I have read some heart rendingly powerful stories, both for and about adults, and for and about young people, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it's all about passion. You have to care deeply about these kinds of subjects to do them justice, and if you don't do them justice, people who do care will see right through it.

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  4. I'll read darker books. It really depends on the voice and writing. I loved Wintergirls. I'll read anything if I like the writing!

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  5. I do read some books that are "darker". I like to think I write darker things. I usually don't go for the happy.
    Great post!

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  6. I write dark YA and I read it too. I did as a teen as well (Not too long ago). There is something cathartic about it, about feeling like there is a story in the world that exists separate and outside of yourself, but which tackles issues you maybe dealing with (or a friend may be dealing with) in a safe space. It is a way to experience and work through those emotions in a world where you are in control. You turn the pages. You make the journey. And the nice thing about YA is that the endings, although not always the most rainbow friendly, are cathartic and healing.

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  7. Like Matthew, I'm not a big issues reader either. I'm also not a huge fan of YA as a whole. I have found some books that I liked, but those were few and far between. I do like to read dark adult novels, but they must have an HEA. Which is why I struggle with some YA--not all of them are hard-go-lucky in the end and I need that warm and fuzzy feeling.

    However, with the topic you discuss here, I can see why research and true voice would be important to the genre (and the readers). My daughter (who is 13) is very particular about stories she reads and she never hesitates to tell me when something didn't fly with her. Adolescents are hard to please, which is why I don't try, and I applaud all of those who do and succeed. YA is hard.

    ~LD

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  8. great post and comments here today!

    i love to read these kinds of books. and you're so right it's all about the passion. and josin's right, it's all about the honesty.

    together passion and honesty are better than pb and j! :)

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  9. I love dark and edgy... not because it's dark and edgy, but because it feels real. My story, FLOAT, is like that... about a teen who overcomes bullying and finds her self-esteem in the unlikeliest of places. I wrote it because I wanted teens to know there's more to life than high school. Reading stories like these gives readers a chance to learn thru entertainment... and if it helps just one person, then it's all worthwhile.

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  10. Great piece. I also want to reiterate the importance of knowing your passion for writing about a certain subject. Very important to have a want to explore said subject as well as being educated in that subject. Research is vital.

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  11. Going by the picture above, I read a lot of "dark, edgy" YA, but I never think of it as dark or edgy. I just think of it as "real." I agree with the poster above who stated that when authors try to write something dark or edgy, it just comes across like a lesson or a book with a message. Sometimes it's just about the character, who happens to have an issue.

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  12. The comments here are just as interesting as the post!! Really nice job, Stina!

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  13. I don't actively seek out these types of books, but I don't shy away from them if I've heard good things. I think the greatest thing we can do as writers is help our readers--or even save their lives--as well as entertain them.

    Great post, ladies! :o) <3

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  14. Amazing post, Stina!!

    I'm a huge fan of contemporary YA. Even though I read light and funny, I tend to gravitate toward the darker stuff. Like previous posters have mentioned, I see these stories as real, but they're not my reality. This is why I love them so much--I approach stories I can't relate to and learn so much about the "issue" they deal with and, of course, compelling and evocative writing. THIRTEEN REASONS WHY is an excellent example of what I'm referring to. Great characters. Great writing. Great way of handling the topic of suicide without sounding preachy and rude to teens.

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  15. Such a great post - and I think you can bring out these edgy things in contemp, as well as the other genres.

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  16. I tend to read more fantasy, sci-fi, and anything with history or mythology. I like to escape into a book.

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  17. Oh, this was great. I'd like to think I write edgy YA (at least part of the time) and I have a psych background, so I think I do pretty well with the realistic angle, but I haven't made a point of 'message', other than thinking for ones self (a distrust of authority that will probably run through everything i do)--but I have a story planned for NaNoWriMo that i think could really benefit from this.

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  18. I love issues books when they are done well, such as THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. But like most, I don't seek them out. I'll gobble up pretty much anything if there has been some hype, or the back cover blurb entices me - if it happens to be issues-based, great. If not, I'm ALWAYS up for a great, well-written adventure/romance/mystery/etc.

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  19. Great topic and really good advice. It's tough to get it right. It takes many revisions and a lot of research - sometimes conflicting research that you have to sift through. I write and enjoy dark YA (as well as other things).

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  20. To me, I consider dark and edgy as real life fiction. Life is full of horror, but if we look closely enough we can learn how to prevent it, or at the very least increase awareness.
    That's why I enjoy reading "dark" YA. It's real, more real than a lot of the fiction out there, so that makes it beneficial. Talking about issues provides insight, and I do believe discussing darker subjects saves lives.

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  21. I haven't read much edgy contemporary YA--Beautiful is one of them, maybe. But I think it's good to be honest about those stressors and real life scenarios. This is great post, Stina and Sarah, thanks!

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  22. Fabulous post, Stina. Such a great point, about understanding your purpose for writing the story. Writing to trends is perfectly fine most of the time, but in the cases of these emotional kinds of issues, you've got to be passionate about the topic, or the writing isn't going to ring true. Readers are going to see right through it.

    Thanks for hosting her, Sarah!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  23. Solid advice for any genre, but even more important for vulnerable readers looking for empathy and information, like stressed-out teens! Thanks.

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  24. Understanding the "why" behind what we write is a lot harder than it sounds! We are such complicated, confused creatures (or maybe I should admit it: I am such a complicated, confused creature).

    But it is worth the journey inward!

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  25. Wow, so many awesome comments.

    I didn't consciously start writing dark edgy YA. It just happened. I was passionate about a topic and had to write about it. But those are the types of books that call to me the most.

    Thanks, Sarah, for having me on your blog. :D

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  26. When everyone talks about a book and tells me how great it is, I want to read it, edgy or not. I don't seek out edgy books, but I will read them and enjoy them and be affected by them. I don't write edgy, but I might if the passion strikes. Thanks for this post, Stina and Sarah!

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  27. I love dark YA, and quite a few of the novels in the picture are ones I've enjoyed!

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  28. I do read edgy YA. Impactful and authentic, yes; when it crosses into preachy, no.

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  29. While I understand that these dark books may be of some help to certain teens, it is also true that some of them read like "how to" manuals, thereby bringing about a negative rather than a positive impact. I know of one girl (an acquaintance of my daughter) who had no idea what cutting was until she read about it in a YA novel. The author did a fine job of describing "how it feels" to the cutter. Authentic? Yes. And a new girl joined the ranks of cutters, thanks to an edgy YA. Not the outcome the author wanted, I'm sure. Remember "Go Ask Alice" from the '70s? I knew kids back then who ventured into drugs because Alice's exploits sounded "cool." It didn't matter that she died at the end of the book. Most teens don't think it will happen to them.

    Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying these books shouldn't be written. I've read several, and I agree they are intense and compelling---good reads. But there are negative consequences, too.

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  30. I love these blog interactions--have just met Stina through Pay It Forward blogfest; and Sarah, you are just one o' my real faves! Keep it up, both of you.

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