Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tropes in YA: why it's not so simple

Hi readers. It’s time for another blog post. I really would like to get regular on these. Is there a fiber fix supplement for writers to get regular? If not, there needs to be. I think it would involve caffeine and chocolate.

Anyway, back to my blog post for today. Today I’m talking tropes. More specifically, tropes in YA. I have been thinking of this ever since a certain twitter handle has come up in my feed, spawning numerous others. And on one level, it kind of highlights a lot of things people (especially detractors) of YA argue—that YA books rely heavily on tropes and are over simplistic and overly dramatic.

I really started to think about how most YA books are guilty of some clichés and overdone characters. It’s fun to point it out, make fun of it at a certain level. And certainly what it has created is a need for YA books that push the boundaries and challenge these notions of what YA literature is.

I spend most of my day around teenagers. Ok, almost all of it. As a teacher, I’m constantly wondering how to reach my students, how to help them, and connect with them. I started doing a little research on adolescent brains (which I find fascinating) to figure out why my students make such poor choices when it comes to academics. What I realized while researching, is that first of all, the teenage brain is WAY weird. Second, the formation of the frontal lobe (where most decision making is done) is only partly developed in the teen years. It won’t be fully developed until 24 for women, 27 for men. And thirdly, teens run mostly on the amygdala—the pleasure and reward seeking part of the brain.

“So I thought you were posting on tropes, Torg? WHAT THE HELL? You lied!”

No. Control that amygdala, people. Patience. I’m getting there.

You see, I’d argue some of the most prolific tropes/clichés of YA aren’t really overdone at all. I’d argue that this is the teen condition. And the people who criticize them are forgetting what teens are really like.

Criticism 1: Insta-love

Remember that amygdala I was just talking about? This is why there is so much insta-love in YA. And it’s why insta-love for adults (who function with more reasoning of the frontal lobe) seems ridiculous. But really, it’s not. Teens want instant gratification. They seek situations that primarily FEEL good. And having a cute guy/girl you’ve been crushing on return your affection feels pretty good. Dare I say, a teen would seek out that person at all costs. Think about them constantly. Probably rearrange their whole school class schedule so they could be in classes with that person. Hypothetically, of course. I would never have done anything like that. It’s just plain silly. (I may have done that very thing.) The thing is teens DO experience life changing insta-love. They are wired for it. Don’t blame them. Blame the amygdala.

Criticism 2: Females are weak/clumsy/lack decision-making

Again, teen brains are not good at decision making. There is a lot going on in the brain but essentially here is why. Reasoning hasn’t kicked in yet. So teens can’t see consequences of their actions. They’re unable to think and process about the outcome of their choices. Everything is done for the immediate reward. This combined with their changing bodies and an awareness that with those feelings of insta-love or whatever, they are fighting against cultural norms saying what they should be like or look like. Girls are constantly waging a war against judgment in all forms, inner and outer. It comes from others, media (perceived) and it comes from themselves. With this feeling of insecurity comes the incorrect assumption that these females are weak. They aren’t. They are just trying to figure who they are and where they fit in. They’re trying to walk the line between good girl and bad girl. (it’s practically a non-existent line.) They’re trying to avoid labels meanwhile they are all too well handing out their own. If you add on to this that teens are growing and this causes a lack of center of balance, you can see why they might be insecure and clumsy. The cerebellum, responsible for physical coordination, is rapidly developing during the teen years as well. This is why teens can be gangly and awkward. It’s not a trope. It’s the brain at work.

Criticism 3: Love triangles

Here is the thing, as fast as teens can fall in love, they can fall out. And if the amygdala isn’t receiving it’s fair share of excitement and reward, it will seek new situations. Hence, that girl or guy can fall in love with someone else pretty quickly. And to have TWO suitors…well if that isn’t pleasure and reward giving, I don’t know what is. So a love triangle is not just a tool for a plot twist, it’s reality. We always covet what we don’t have. And for teens, this is even more true. And in high school, where classes change every forty-some odd minutes, alliances and swoon worthy love can change just as fast.

Criticism 4: Why so emotional?

Because the brain is changing at the same rate as it did when that teen was a toddler. The growth exhibited by the brain is the SAME PERCENTAGE growth from 12-17 that is was from 0-3. Think of everything kids learn how to do from birth to toddler. Eating, swallowing, drinking, talking, walking, recognizing faces, motor skills. It’s crazy. You would never look at a 2 year old and criticize them for their lack of decision making. You expect they will be testing boundaries and seeking pleasure. So does our teen. And everything is life or death with a teen because they lack the long term vision and planning it takes to understand the consequences of their actions. So when they fall in love, it’s quick, it’s strong, and it will last forever in their minds. When they hurt, it’s to their core. With hormones raging and their intellectual capacity to learn peaking, while judgment and reasoning being relatively small, we see how the things that happen to a teen will impact them far greater than any other age. Even when shown troubling images, teens are shown to react with stronger emotion than both adults and children. So how, then, can we blame our teen main characters for being emotional?

Basically, teens are morphing and changing in so many ways and it’s all because of their brain development. If we are to write true characterizations of teenagers, then all of these things should be taken into account. Adult readers who are quick to say these things are tropes or clichés are missing the point. It is no more cliché to have insta-love with teens than it is to have a toddler eat something he shouldn’t or to have an adult get married. These are not clichés, rather they are characteristic of a time in life.

That’s why readers who love YA will defend it. It reminds us of who we are at heart, and how far we’ve come. It helps us think about our emotions a little more, consequences a little less, and that sometimes, pleasure is important to seek out. Perhaps there is a lesson to learn from YA tropes. We should all be a little more open to the teenage mind, willing to take risks with no fears, and live like love lasts.

What do you think? Yes on tropes or still not a fan?

Want to read more on the teen brain? Check this out from National Institute of Mental Health

Sunday, February 8, 2015

WITH SERIES POTENTIAL: how books are becoming "Hobbitized"

Today's blog post comes from a topic that my friend and colleague (Erin H) were talking about a bit ago. We were talking books, which we do a LOT, and she said something that really resonated with me.

"I''m kind of over the whole every book is a series thing. I just want to read A book,"

And though at the time, I didn't really think about it, or why it bothered me, it kind of just sat there, simmering.

I just want to read A book. As in, one single book. Be able to wrap it up in a day.

I got to thinking, and kind of becoming resentful, of all the damn series books out there. As an active person on twitter and in the writing community, I am constantly barraged with book after book in a series.

When I go to buy books, it's like "BUY THIS ONE AND THEN GET THE WHOLE SERIES". Then I end up buying three books when all I really set out to do was buy one. And that's OK. Once in a while. But...this is no longer once in a while. It happens with every damn book.

Flashback to last year. I was talking to some author friends of mine and was surprised to find a book that was originally sold as ONE book, has now been stretched into a trilogy and that the whole story that was once told in one book, is now going to be three. And my brain kind of went..."WHUT?"

I get it from a business standpoint. The publishers and agents and authors can make more money on several books because I can't just buy one. It's like the OCD in me won't let me just buy one. I HAVE TO HAVE THE SET. So, that's awesome for the author and the publishers and all. Not so awesome on my wallet. Or my family when I can't pay bills. (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you see where I am going?)

On one hand, as a teacher, it's awesome. Because if I get that kid hooked on a series, I've got them reading for a while. BUT, it's also THE WORST.

Because what happens a lot in my classroom is one kid loses the middle book, now the series is an expensive paperweight. Then I have to buy the damn middle book...AGAIN. Or even worse is when the kid wants to read a series and can't find the first book. AGHHH.

And imagine yourself as a young reader. Even better...a STRUGGLING reader. You walk into a library to grab a book for your English class--damn teacher always makes you have an independent reading book, damn her--and you pick out what you think looks like a cool book, people say it's popular and whatever, you start reading and you're lost. You think it's YOU that's dumb. Why? Because it's book three in a series. And you haven't read book 1 or 2. But you don't know all that.


I just want to pick up A book. I want to read A story. I want to fall in love and be mesmerized and have a glorious book hangover that makes me want more of  that book.

You know how when you're young and in love, you just want to wrap yourself up in every moment with that person? You want every touch, every whisper to just freeze because you know that soon, it will end. And when it does, you whirl around in your bedroom, cheeks tired from smiling all night, and let the memories lull you to sleep?

Then, once things are over, you can look back and remember how great it was once. Then three years later, you bump into that same person. You go to coffee and catch up. Thing is, now that you look closer, the person isn't as great as you remember. They're breath kind of reeks and they are kind of...meh. You walk away from the whole experience now, and instead of the wonderful memories you had before, they are tainted with meh.

That's how a lot of series are for me. Tainted because it went on too long. The story got tired. The world wasn't as unique as it once was. And honestly, the things I liked about the characters in the first place I now find cliche and overdone. The other thing that happens is it becomes unrealistic. How many times can our hero battle a villain and always come out victorious? How many odds does this one person have to face? How many times can we see a corrupt government/ leader/ organization/ kingdom/ overlord/ (fill in your own noun here) that our hero has to take down?

It starts to get drawn out and it ruins the whole story for me. Even the books that came before. It has happened to me so many times, I now stay away from buying series. And I feel led on if I read a book that is supposed to be one, but then another one comes out. Like...if I would have known a guy never wants to commit, I would never date him. Same thing with books. If I knew this story was going to be 1 in a series of 5, I would've said "no, thank you."

As a writer, I think there are so many interesting worlds to explore, so many lovely heroes and heroines I want to swoon over, so many plots and conflicts and twists I want to see, I don't have time for an epic saga. That is what it seems like every book is becoming.

And now that is also bleeding into film. Notice how what was once one movie is becoming two? Three? Hobbit much?

Finally, from an industry that seems to constantly tell writers to be succinct and cut unnecessary things from the story, to then be told to stretch it out, build on to the story, make it longer...seems counter-intuitive. No exposition but LONG EPIC SAGA. Wait...what?

Let's learn a lesson (yet another one) from LOST. Those writers had it right. They knew the series couldn't go on forever. They didn't want it to become a victim of "now what do we do?" on season 10 or 11. So, they told ABC we want it to end. And they gave their own timeline. It was unheard of in a industry all about the bennies. But, they did it. And ABC agreed. And they ended the series before it got tired. I know people disagree with the last season, and the direction they took, but what can't be argued was the fact they didn't keep it going long after it should have. Most people wanted different endings, but we don't get to decide (as readers or viewers) how stories end.

I think publishers could use a lesson in knowing when to end a book. It's like a party. End it so the guests still want  more. Then everyone goes home saying "Great party, I wish it wouldn't have ended." If you let it drag on, people get bored, the party gets lame, and guests end up reflecting on it saying, "It was fun the first hour, then it got stupid."

Let's not let our stories get stupid. End them. Just like Semisonic said, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."