One of the main problems with the Atlantic City books I wrote from age 11–22, even after growing by leaps and bounds over the course of that journey, is that I was so young. While that naturally had a negative impact on things like plotting, character arcs, transitions between scenes, knowing when to end a scene, and focus, my youth negatively impacted something even more egregiously.
The deliberately edgy, realistic content.
Only very recently did it dawn on me that a big reason I went SO over the top was because I truly had no idea it wasn’t normal for preteens to have sex, date, use drugs, drink, smoke, ditch school constantly, stay out past midnight, or wear clothes suited to a nightclub or porno movie. I went to an awful public school system full of kids doing just that, and I had no counterexample to show how abnormal and concerning that was.
And while I still don’t believe in treating young people like overgrown babies and glass flowers who can’t handle anything not 100% G-rated, my stance back then was basically “Expose them to everything! It’s no big deal!”
There’s a huge difference between, e.g., an age-appropriate lesson for kids who accidentally saw part of an R-rated movie or adult TV show, a dirty magazine, or porn, and deliberately rubbing it in their faces and making it super-easy for them to access. Now I’m horrified at the very idea of magazines called Playteen and Playkid, or a porn channel for teens!
A lot of these things I depicted, or planned for future books, could’ve resulted in arrests in real life. E.g., in Part II of Cinnimin, Elaine has a Viking stripper at her twelfth birthday party. All her guests are 10–11, and her even-younger cousins hide in the fireplace to watch! Even if Elaine pretended to be an adult when she hired this guy, he should’ve immediately left when he saw his underage audience.
The university seniors who ran Creative Writing Club my ninth grade year felt my scene of Max and Kit doing weed, amphetamine, and heroin at a party, coupled with Max drinking enough to kill himself multiple times over, was a bit over the top. That was putting it kindly and mildly!
Beyond the fact that they’re only twelve, they have every side effect possible of these drugs. I’m horrified at how often I played drug use for laughs, or depicted it as no big deal in moderation. A lot of the drugs mentioned or featured in the earliest drafts of my Atlantic City books also weren’t available without a prescription or in existence in that era.
So few people had the sense to ask, “These kids are twelve?” Or whatever extremely young age they were. By the time they’re about 15, their mental and actual ages are synched, but before then, they don’t read that age at all.
My original intent was to show “how preteens really are,” as an extreme overreaction to the unrealistic, G-rated goody-goodies in books like The Babysitters’ Club series. When I learnt about the many reasons books have been challenged or banned, I began gut-loading my stories with the most over the top material possible to goad my imagined future censors.
There was no purpose to any of this. It was just shocking and over the top for its own sake. Many of my characters are also really mean-spirited and poorly-behaved, which hardly engenders sympathy in any normal readers. I reveled in the worst of human nature.
My mental SORASing now reminds me of the creepy anime trend of pornified women who look like little girls, with the excuse, “It’s totally fine to show them in adult, sexual situations because they’re over 21! They only look underage!”
There’s shock value for a purpose if kids start experimenting with sex, smoking, and drinking at 12. Definitely not desirable by any stretch, but at least plausible. When they start doing this at ten, it feels downright creepy and gross.
Many of the scenes and dialogues in my older drafts still make me heartily laugh out loud today. Others, however, horrify me, like Kit’s sociopathic treatment of her mother. Their dysfunctional, darkly comedic relationship isn’t going anywhere, but Kit doesn’t come across very well. How can anyone decent root for a character who constantly physically assaults her mother?
Kit’s grievances are more than valid, far more than a typical adolescent who hates her mother for flighty reasons, but that doesn’t come across at all in the earliest drafts. Now it’s clear Mrs. Green started the rift, keeps making it worse, and hates Kit, but Kit’s treatment of her needs to be toned down a million levels.
Satire is supposed to make people laugh or think. It’s not supposed to horrify them at over the top content being passed off as perfectly normal in the context of an unusual town. Things like my talkshow parody Lulu and the local heartthrob bands with jokey names like The Homicides and The Balls are satire. Sexually active 10-year-olds and kids constantly beating one another up at the least provocation are not.
I never even intended it as a cautionary tale to show how wrong such behaviour is, nor the troubles which result when kids think they’re more grown-up than they really are, just “This is totally normal here!”
One of my main themes is that real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and that kids are a lot sharper and smarter than many adults give them credit for. But that shouldn’t mean going as over the top as possible in depicting edgy, realistic content.
It’s best to choose a few issues to focus on. Gut-loading your story with everything but the kitchen sink makes it impossible to stand out, and doesn’t reflect well on you.