30 January 2021

The YA Fantasy Reading Project: Dec. 2020- Jan. 2021

Photo by Ferdinand studio on Unsplash
Hail and well met, friends!

Last month I announced I was going to start reading YA fantasy because, as various professional writers have noted, if you want to be a writer, you have to read -- prolifically. For reasons mentioned in the previous post, I had, for the most part, stopped reading fiction (with some caveats, like webcomics, manga, and manhwa). 

All this time I had been working on the draft of my novel, Son of the Siren (which, guess what? It's YA fantasy!), but ran into a massive plot and character block. I decided I needed to see what was going on in the world of YA fantasy in the hopes that I would get inspired enough to work through some of the issues I was having. 

While the writing cogs are finally starting to turn in my head again, I want to say that this reading project has been such an education for other reasons. As I read these books, I realized I'm a bit out of touch with young people. So much exists in YA fiction that just didn't when I was younger, and not only does that include a diversity in storytelling that I just hadn't seen, but the inclusion of more "adult" topics and situations that were a bit more taboo when I was younger. I don't think any of this is a bad thing. YA crosses genre boundaries and expectations and it's great to see. 

As I write this, I've read 24 books. Initially I started reading fairy tale books only (books based off of or commenting on these stories from the Western tradition) but towards the end of the month I started expanding my reading repertoire to all different kinds of YA fantasy tales. 

Here's what I've read. 

As someone who for a l o o o n g time took about a month to get through a book, with lots of starts and stops, this amount of reading is miraculous. Once I finished a book, I pretty much started the next one, and tried to read all series together back-to-back. 

I noticed some trends with these books, and I thought I'd share them with you. Bring on the charts!

...With some disclaimers. Again, I sought out fairy tale books first, so my sampling is not diverse this go-around. I essentially chose variations on the same type of story, and I think that's reflected in the trends below. I didn't start expanding my selections until I consulted some listicles that shared the best of the year, and then I started loading up on books. 

I'm only ranking the 24 books I read. So this probably doesn't reflect publishing on the whole...I'm going to try to do this project for a year and throw a big data party at the end of it all, and that may be a more accurate representation of what's going on in the genre. 

Lastly, when I say "protagonist," I'm only going for a single character -- the one that dominates the book. With 1st-person POV it's quite clear, but some books are written where there's a rotation of characters narrating their own chapters. It was harder to choose a single protagonist for these books, so I opted on the character that got the most chapters whom the plot revolves around. 

Now, without further ado, my data!

1. POV and Tenses

The breakdown of my 24 books:
  • 1st-person POV, present tense: 12/24 (50%)
  • 1st-person POV, past tense: 3/24  (12.5%)
  • 3rd-person POV, past tense: 9/24 (37.5%)
I had heard that 1st person present was the "trendy" thing to do, but I don't think it's a trend anymore. I think this is a firmly cemented method of telling a story, and it just feels like in YA, it's wildly popular. Personally, I like this style the least, but even so, I see where it has its merits, including creating a sense of immediacy and immersion for readers. 

It took a while for me to get used to reading 1st person present, but I'm used to it now. I probably won't ever employ it in my own writing but it's interesting to see it dominate my reading. 

I always write in past tense, but I've written one book in first person, and my current work in progress is third person. 

What POV and tenses do you like to write? What about your reading? 

2. Diversity in Protagonists

The breakdown of the protagonists in my 24 books:
  • 0 Asian (0%)
  • 0 Biracial/Multiracial (0%)
  • 1 Black (4.2%)
  • 2 Hispanic/Latinx (8.3%)
  • 21 White (87.5%)
Yes, this chart looks awful. It's no surprise that publishing has been white for a very long time, so I knew the number would be high. But...it really dominates. When I counted the protagonists' demographics, I only noted characters who were very specifically described. If there is more diversity here than my graph depicts, then I missed it because the author kept things deliberately vague or avoided description or under-described. And if so, than that might be a problem along these lines:

For writers who do not take the time to describe the physical appearance of their characters, people default to white. The canon and the craft -- which has centuries of wrongness it needs to account for -- has dictated this for a long time. And as a white person, I'm guilty of imagining undescribed or vaguely described characters as white, too. It's a behavior I'm still unlearning. 

Anyway, the other thing to consider is that I could be part of the problem as to why these numbers look bad, and that's because for December and January, I sought out a very specific type of book with a very specific formula (retold Western fairy tales), and that formula contains a lot of whiteness. But I *will* say that I bought a ton of diverse books -- I just haven't read them yet. I'll get to them over the course of the year. 

Also...secondary characters, tertiary characters, and background characters are being described as nonwhite, so it's not like the books are entirely devoid of diversity, but I think representation in protagonists is important, so that's what I chose to focus on. 

 3. Gender & Sex Breakdown of Protagonists

Out of 24 books:
  • Cisgender, heterosexual: 19 (79%)
  • LGBTQIA+: 5 (21%) 
  • She/Her pronouns: 20 (83%)
  • He/Him pronouns: 4 (17%)
  • They/Them pronouns (forgot to graph this): 0 (0%)

This graph surprised me because I didn't expect there to be so many books with protagonists using she/her pronouns (I want to say female-identifying but I don't know if that's the right term). Anyway, as with racial diversity, there is a bit more representation when it comes to secondary, tertiary, and background characters in the books that I've read, but I'm only counting protagonists in my data. 

4. Other Story Trends

I just noted what was of particular interest to me based on the types of things I write...

For romance, this means that the protagonist's love life plays a significant role in the story.  Out of 24 books, 22 protagonists have a love story as a major component to the plot...as in, falling in love is a huge part of their story. That's like 92%!!

For royalty, this means that the protagonist is either royal or directly involved with members of the royalty in a significant way that shapes the plot. 17 out of 24 books feature royalty as major players, or 71%.

Lastly, I wanted to look at the number of books that are set outside of our own. Some books feature 1 or 2 chapters set in a present-day Earth, but if the majority of the story takes place in a different world, I counted it. 19 out of 24 books are set in unique fantasy worlds, or about 80%. 

5. A Final Observation - I've Got a Bone to Pick With Authors and First-Person POV

Unpopular opinion time... and this admittedly is a little difficult for me to explain, so forgive me...

But I think writers need to consider why they're going with 1st-person POV and develop a unique voice for their character, because sometimes, 3rd-person POV is the more appropriate choice based on their writing style.

Many of the YA books I read disappointed me because I found issues with the voices of the characters speaking in 1st person. This is because The Author's Voice swooped in and took over when it's supposed to be the character narrating in their own voice, with their own personality, the whole time. 

For example, in a couple books I read (really! more than one!), a teenage girl described the setting or action of something as a "susurrus" or "susurration." This means they were describing something rustling. 

This is not the standard vocabulary of a 16-18 year old girl. This is not a word that comes up in casual conversation. This is not a phrase that people normally use to describe things, let alone someone who is technically still a child. 

If the author wants to describe things in this way, it has to make sense to. Maybe the character is well- read and loves language. Maybe the character loves learning vocabulary. Maybe the character is surrounded by other people who speak this way, or they are highly educated. But if none of these things are demonstrated, then it really is a character speaking in an unnatural way that is inconsistent with the rest of their characterization...especially if their dialogue is informal and natural compared to their actual narration. Do people speak in two different voices? Sometimes, when the situation calls for it, but not generally. 

Anyway, none of the books I read gave me evidence for why the character would spend time describing things in this way. The dialogue would be snappy, informal, maybe with a little slang here or there, or, you know...just sounding like how people actually speak, and then when narration kicked in -- describing events, scenes, settings, etc. -- the voice completely changed from the character to The Author.

If that is how you want your narration to sound, that's fine, but wouldn't it make more sense for it to be in 3rd-person POV? Then you can use The God Voice or yes, even The Author's, and observe things distanced from the characters, and you can use whatever prose you want for it. It won't ring with inauthenticity because the narration is not betraying how the character actually speaks. It's a completely different voice. 

There are a couple more variations of issues that I saw with 1st-person POV besides word choice. 

There is a wildly popular book series that has a teenage girl narrating all the books in the trilogy, and she's no-nonsense, tough, and decisive overall. When characters are introduced in a scene, she spends a ridiculous amount of time describing the clothing they are wearing. 

This girl is not fascinated by clothes. In fact, most of the time she throws stuff on. She doesn't sew or design things. She uses a sword and gets stabby with people. But she sure knows a lot about gossamer and embroidery and velvet and... you get the idea. I love costuming and normally would be delighted by descriptions of clothing but it sounded completely inauthentic to her character and weighed the scene down. Setting the stage can be a lot of fun, and so can description, but I think authors need to think about why their characters would devote such time to talking about certain things. Brief descriptions are fine, but if you spend a lot of time lovingly describing something, it has to make sense that your characters are the ones seeing it and talking to the reader about it. If this character doesn't care about clothing or in general how she looks, why does she care so much about what other people are wearing and look like? 

The last thing I want to make note of is something to be wary of writing 1st-POV with characters alternating between chapters -- you've got to make them sound different from each other. When The Author Voice seeps into the narrative and overtakes the voice of each character's narration, it makes them sound indistinguishable. One of the books I read was guilty of this and I could not tell the characters apart from each other. They even used the same types of similes and metaphors and utilized the same sentence fragments when they narrated, which just made it repetitive.

I do think these are problems with easy solutions, though. Either the writer edits the narrative to be more appropriate and authentic to their character's voice, or they switch from 1st person to 3rd person to allow for the authorly flourishes to pop up in their text.  

Phew! That was definitely a RANT. 

I hope this last part made sense. Of course there are going to be exceptions to what I'm saying, and maybe I just sound really picky because I'm an editor (it's certainly changed the way I read), but if you found any of this helpful, I just want to say thank you for reading and staying with me this far. 

Good luck on your writing and I'll see you for the next update soon!

12 December 2020

A Reading Project Begins!

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

Hello folks and happy December! I hope you're holding up well enough in these strange times. 

You last heard from me in October when I mentioned being a panelist at the Japan Writer's Conference. Well, how did that go? I learned about crafting villains with Charles Kowalski, plotting formulas with Melinda Falgoust, and structuring with Michael Pronko, all of which were panels I hoped would help me with my writing journey with Son of the Siren (they certainly gave me plenty to think about!). 

And of course, I did a panel on what it's like to get an MFA in creative writing. I talked about my experiences with Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program...and I also had technical difficulties with Zoom and some issues with my nerves where I rambled a bit 😓 so I wouldn't count my personal performance as all that successful, but my fellow panelists and moderator John Gribble all spoke well and were very helpful and I think our attendees got a lot of good information out of it. 

November came and went like a blur. I honestly don't remember what happened that month. Obviously nothing exciting or important enough to mention here. 

And then lately, I've hit a hump with my writing where I'm really stuck with a major secondary character and what to do with them; I'm finding my plot isn't working too well; and I can't seem to get from point A to point B. I knew how my book would start and I know 90% how it should end (I know what the hero and the major secondary character do; I do not know how to resolve the villain's part of the story).  

I've officially entered the dreaded writer's block section of drafting, waaah. The thing is, I plotted this baby out in full -- the first time I'd done so with a book, and I had some help using The Novel Factory software -- but as I wrote I kept thinking about all these potential problems, then plot holes, then silly contrivances that I was laying down, and then I realized I had created people with not enough to do, or giving them things to do with no real reason for it. I need more plot! 

To try and help calm my brain down, I'm taking a breather and doing something I haven't done in a long time: read books. 

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash
This has been a problem for me long before pandemic brain set in. I've mentioned, or at least alluded to, that I suffer from mental illness. My brain has changed over the years. When I was much younger, basically the entirety of my school years and partway into college, I read books all the time, and fast, too. I could finish a book in a day and start the next one and actually retain and process what I'd read.

Then bipolar disorder hit in my early 20s and my attention span and ability to focus went out the window. I lost my ability and the perseverance it takes to make it through a standard novel. Books just didn't hold my attention anymore and they became something that took effort that exhausted me. In short, they were not longer fun, but a chore to be endured. This tragedy has lasted for years (don't even ask me how I managed grad school; I still don't know how I made it). 

The one benefit during this troubling period of my life was that I discovered the joy of reading graphic novels and comics, mainly manga and manhwa (Japanese and Korean comics) and web comics, with some modern classics thrown in (like Saga, for example).  Then in 2015 Tor.com started publishing novellas, which were a slow reintroduction to reading fiction again. The stories were manageably sized, often fast-paced, and easier for my brain to digest. I highly recommend them. 

Enter 2020, where pandemic brain added another layer to my decades-long brain funk, and the progress I made reading actual books halted. 

Stephen King has said, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."  And two more quotes from King for you: "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write" and "reading is the creative center of a writer's life... you cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you."

I can't say that I haven't been reading at all -- I've got years of a wide range of comics under my belt -- but I am someone who writes novels, and to not read novels means I'm not utilizing the tools at my disposal.  

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
I needed to re-educate myself in the ways of writing. And Son of the Siren is YA fantasy, so I decided once I hit writer's block with my book to just start reading as many YA fantasies I could get my hands on. Primarily I sought out YA fantasy that played with or adapted fairytales since that's what my own book is doing, but I didn't brush off any novels that didn't fit that category. If it is fantasy meant for young readers, I'm lapping it up.

This reading project is a very recent endeavor, so I don't have a lot of books under my belt. And where I used to be able to read one book a day, it takes a week or more to get through a book, depending on how the prose and pacing are. And I am trying my best not to DNF anything I picked out for this project, choosing to take it as a learning experience.

Here's what I've read so far, with descriptions of the book sourced from the publisher. 

Long before she was the terror of Wonderland―the infamous Queen of Hearts―she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.

Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

In her first stand-alone teen novel, the New York Times-bestselling author of the Lunar Chronicles dazzles us with a prequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Emeline's quiet village has three important rules:

Don't look at the shadows.

Don't cross the river.

And don't enter the forest.

An illustrated fantasy filled with beauty and power, Between the Water and the Woods sweeps you into a world where forests are hungry; knights fight with whips; the king is dying; and a peasant girl's magic will decide the future of the realm . . .

When Emeline's little brother breaks all three of their village's rules, she is forced to use her family's forbidden magic to rescue him from the dark things he awakens, the Ithin. Now that the Ithin are afoot in the land, she must, by law, travel to the royal court and warn the king. But the only way she and her family can make the journey to the capital is with the protection of a sour magister and a handsome, whip-wielding Lash Knight. Will Emeline survive in a city where conspiracies swirl like smoke and her magic is all but outlawed?

Seven full-page black-and-white illustrations accompany Between the Water and the Woods, a lush, fairy-tale-style fantasy perfect for readers of Karen Cushman and Shannon Hale.

She survived the curse. Now she must survive the throne.

All Ekata wants is to stay alive—and the chance to prove herself as a scholar. Once Ekata's brother is finally named heir to the dukedom of Kylma Above, there will be nothing to keep her at home with her murderous family. Not her books or her experiments, not her family's icy castle atop a frozen lake, not even the tantalizingly close Kylma Below, a mesmerizing underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic. But just as escape is within reach, her parents and twelve siblings fall under a strange sleeping sickness, and no one can find a cure.

In the space of a single night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother's captivating warrior bride, and ever-encroaching challengers from without—and within—her ministry. Nothing has prepared Ekata for diplomacy, for war, for love . . . or for a crown she has never wanted. If Kylma Above is to survive, Ekata must seize her family's magic and power. And if Ekata is to survive, she must quickly decide how she will wield them both.

The Winter Duke is an enchanted tale of intrigue by Claire Eliza Bartlett, author of the acclaimed young adult fantasy novel We Rule the Night.

Three books doesn't seem like a lot, but I have continued to read manga and comics (Given, Dungeon Critters) and sneak in some horror (Pet Semetary, The Hunger) and nonfiction (Ghosts of the Tsunami) during this project. 

I'll continue to write little updates here and there to show you the progress with this project. I hope from studying the craft of these novels I can see what's happening in the genre and the market and break through my writer's block. 

See you next time!