Why I’m not wild about many current YA historicals

Warning: Potentially unpopular opinions to follow.

As I’ve discussed in a number of previous posts, it was a long, slow, challenging process to realize I write adult fiction that just happens to focus on young characters. The perception of the young adult category has changed so much from the time I was a young adult.

With some notable exceptions, I haven’t liked a lot of the YA historicals published in the U.S. within the last 10 years or so, since the YA explosion. The best recent YA historicals I’ve found tend to be published outside of the U.S., like Mal Peet’s Tamar, Paul Dowswell’s The Ausländer, and Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War.

So many times one of my blogging buddies, or the reading public at large, raves about a certain YA historical, and I have the exact opposite reaction when I check it out. I often wonder if we read the same book! Probably a big reason I prefer YA historicals published outside of the U.S. is because those books focus more on the history instead of the teen experience. They also have a voice and style that speaks to people of all ages, instead of feeling intended only for teens.

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While I love MG historicals, and a select few YA historicals published in the U.S., I just feel like the current YA style doesn’t fit very well with traditional historical storytelling. I want to read about young people living through history, not young people who just happen to live in the past.

The extreme oversaturation of first-person in YA is also a roadblock for me. First-person absolutely can be done phenomenally well, but historical is a genre which traditionally works best with third-person omniscient for a reason. With so many YAs being first-person these days, the narrators start to run together after awhile. First-person voice also seems rather modern and too personal for historical.

As I’ve mentioned many times, there was no concept of adolescence until really the 20th century. There were children, and there were adults. Some adults were younger and less experienced, but they were still considered adults in the eyes of society. For example, many of the young wives in The Decameron are all of 13 or 14. It’s kind of hard to forcibly bend the story of a teenager 100+ years ago to have the same voice, experiences, and sensibilities as a teen of the modern era!

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Choosing a famous young adult as the protagonist also fails for me. Someone like Joan of Arc or Catherine Howard (one of Henry VIII’s wives) would’ve been seen as an adult by her society and era. (Side note: The cover of Katherine Longshore’s Gilt, the first in a series about the Tudor Court, uncannily resembles the cover of Madonna’s Erotica.)

Many historical writers do give characters somewhat more modern views and behavior than most people of that era had, to try to make them more relevant and relatable to modern audiences. However, I’ve seen a lot of recent YA historicals making characters way too modern (e.g., anachronistic slang, high-society débutantes having premarital sex with the stable boy, lecturing people about smoking, shacking up with a boyfriend of another race).

This leads to the Gossip Girl in period clothes style, like Jillian Larkin’s Flappers series and Anna Godbersen’s Luxe and Bright Young Things series. Any actual history is shallow window-dressing for stories that essentially read like contemporaries. These books also fail because they’re trying to play it both ways. Either you’re writing about teenagers having authentic teenage experiences, or you’re writing about younger adults having pretty normal experiences for their era.

Then we have laughably unrealistic nonsense like Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied, where 15-year-old Evie sees nothing of risking her reputation by heavily making out with two legal adult men. She’s not scared of getting caught or things going too far and getting sent off to a Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers!

Bottom line: I’m sick and tired of historicals featuring typical YA contemporary characters who just happen to be plunked into the past. I’m also tired of books with very adult situations being passed off as YA just because the characters are teenagers.

How I figured out my writing doesn’t constitute YA

This is based on my own experience and perspective, and is decidedly NOT meant as any sort of bash against either YA books in general or YA writers in particular. Writers in other genres, or historical writers outside the U.S., probably will have much different experiences and perspectives.

Since I began writing when I was a young person myself, it was just natural for me to write about other young people. Even when my original characters have aged several decades, I still can’t help picturing them in my mind as their youthful first incarnations, and I really enjoy writing the stories of their children and grandchildren.

I always thought, thus, that I was writing books for a primarily teen audience, based on my characters’ ages. When I finally took my lifelong dream of publication off the back burner in early 2011, however, I gradually came to discover that probably most of what I’ve written, and have continued writing, doesn’t seem to fit very well in the current U.S. YA market.

These reasons include:

1. Length. While my Atlantic City books to date (except Cinnimin, my 12-volume handwritten magnum opus in progress) have tended to be under 70,000 words, my more serious-minded books are much, much, much longer. When I entered Jakob’s story as YA in a few contests and even got a few behind the scenes partial requests from agents, I got a number of comments about how the writing and concept were great, but it was “too long,” at a mere 120,000 words (actually 128,000, as I recently discovered).

The story covers five and a half years, October 1940-May 1946, and takes place during some very dramatic, intense events. Of course it’s going to be long. I expect my other European books will be about the same length. It’s honest to the plot trajectory and longer timeline, but doesn’t fit with current word count policing, particularly in YA.

2. Ensemble casts and adult characters. By and large, I tend to work with ensemble casts, not just one or two protagonists. It’s what I’m used to reading. I also have fairly important adult characters in many of my books, who feature as more than just parents or friends’ parents in the sidelines.

3. Third-person omniscient. This is just how I write, the voice that comes most naturally to me. Once in awhile, I’ll write something that’s a lot closer to third-person limited, if the story is focused on just one character, but it’s still for all intents and purposes third-person omniscient. Outside of short interludes within a book, like a letter, newspaper op-ed, or love note, I haven’t written first-person in about 20 years. I doubt I could sustain that voice for more than just a few pages every so often, as much as I love writing these short interludes.

4. Timespan. My longer books are set over long time periods, and thus the characters age more than just a little. Most American YA these days is set over just a short period, maybe a year at most, not three, five, ten, or fifteen years. And with an ensemble cast, that means that not all the characters will be the same age at the same time, and that some will become adults midway through the book while others go through the full journey from childhood to adolescence or early twenties.

5. Mood, theme, language, introspection, focus. A lot of what I’ve written reads more like adult literature that just happens to focus on younger characters.

6. Slower-paced, character-driven. I tend towards writing about the overall journey of growing up and coming of age during historical times. Of course there are plotlines, but they’re more peripheral to the overall story of going through life and becoming an adult. They take slower to unfold and develop. I prefer stories about growth, change, and development.

7. Historical is a much different beast from other genres. The typical teenager of 50+ years ago was more like a twentysomething of today. Experiences like marriage, engagement, parenthood, living on one’s own, working, and assuming very adult responsibilities at home were commonplace. Could the average modern teen really relate to a Shoah survivor who’s engaged at 15-16 and married while still in his or her teens, or my four parentless Ryan siblings, Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, who grew up squatting and fending for themselves by begging and doing odd jobs?

This is why I roll my eyes so much at a lot of what passes for historical YA in the U.S. these days. They seem more like Gossip Girl in period clothes, fluffy, silly soap operas that just happen to be set in the past, giving historical teens very modern interests, language, actions, and lives. Others can’t seem to figure out if they’re telling an adult story, about people who would’ve been considered adults in their era, or YA.

Overall, I like to write stories that are history-focused and just happen to involve young people, not teen-focused stories that just happen to be set in the past.

IWSG and What’s Up Wednesday

My Horny Hump Day post is here.

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time for the first meeting of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group this year.

I’ve finally stopped waffling and come to the conclusion that I’m not a YA writer in the modern, U.S. sense of the word. I’ve always most enjoyed writing about young people, but it’s become more and more obvious, based on contests, following trends, and such, that my stories are more adult in nature, and just happen to be about young people.

I’ve gotten a lot of good comments and feedback when I’ve entered Jakob’s story in contests and query critiques, but one thing that prevented a number of people from selecting it as a finalist was the length, and the narrative voice. 120K is actually a drop in the bucket by my adult standards, and this particular book is a lot closer to third-person limited than I usually do. Jakob remains the pivotal character throughout, and there’s never a scene where he’s not present. For example, when his mother Luisa is being abused at the police station before they go to Westerbork, he can only hear what’s going on in the other room, and then sees the evidence when Luisa is let go.

Traditionally, historical has been a lengthy genre. I usually look askance at historicals that aren’t at least 400 pages, though there are wonderful exceptions. I get the feeling that a lot of agents who list historical in a big laundry list of interests aren’t really passionate about it. If you were, you’d understand that it normally requires a fair bit of length for worldbuilding, not to mention how most historical novels are set over a number of years, not just a few months.

Jakob’s story ended up a bit over 120K, because that was the length that naturally unfolded for it. Cutting out at least 30,000 words just to make it shorter would make it not the same story anymore. It’s the same way that my Atlantic City books tend to be under 70K, because that length works best for the types of stories they are. Within each genre, there’s a continuum of normal, like 60K for a police procedural or YA contemporary, and over 300K for a lot of classic historicals and fantasies.

Also, I’m just really disappointed in a lot of YA historicals from the last 10 years or so. The best ones I’ve encountered tend to come from outside the U.S., where the focus is on a young person fully experiencing history, not a teen who just happens to be living through history. Don’t even get me started on the Gossip Girl in period clothes trend.

WUW Winter

What I’m Writing

Past the 555,000-word mark in my WIP, and up to Chapter 72, “Shelter in Shanghai.” In the last chapter, Lyuba, Ivan, Eliisabet, and Aleksey became grandparents to little Kira Tvardovskaya-Koneva, and the chapter before was the polio chapter. It was pretty emotionally challenging to end the chapter in the iron lung ward, as I had to research what an iron lung sounds like and then put myself in 12-year-old Violetta’s semi-conscious mind as she’s being taken into this place and put in that grotesque breathing machine.

Two of the girls, Beatrisa and Platosha, got non-paralytic polio and were able to walk again within a week, but the other two, Violetta and her sister Flora, were paralysed. In later chapters, little Flora will take a ballet class taught by Lyuba’s stepsister Lyolya, who knows what it’s like to have a mobility injury and gradually relearn how to walk and dance. Lyolya is about due to retire as a ballerina anyway, so teaching little polio survivors how to dance as part of their rehabilitation is a really nice touch.

Violetta is going to date and marry Lyuba and Ivan’s son Igor in the future fourth book (1948-52), so her being a polio survivor creates some good storylines. Being the sinistral chauvinist I am, I also made her left hand and arm untouched by paralysis. Though her paralysis isn’t permanent, her right side will be too damaged to remain her dominant side.

What I’m Reading

I saw The Age of Innocence in a classics display at the nearest library, and decided to revisit it 20 years later. In 8th grade, I basically just read the dialogue and short narrative passages, and still got an A+ on my social-studies book report. As an adult, I can appreciate the writing style and storyline much better, though I still think there are way too many descriptive passages and backstories bogging down the action, as well as far too much telling.

What Inspires Me

I’ve got an upcoming blog series called “Diseases and Historical Fiction.” Part I, to go live on the 13th, is a general debunking of the vaccine-denialist cult and their complete ignorance of history and hatred/abuse of children with ASDs. In the final paragraph, I’m officially outing myself, and that prospect no longer frightens me. God chose to wire my brain a little differently, and that’s just part of who I am. The fact that these people would see me as damaged, defective, cursed, nonexistent as an adult, or soulless enrages me, and I don’t think it’s right to continue hiding in the crowd just because I learnt how to more or less pass as “normal.”

What Else I’ve Been Up To

I was playing around a bit with my title page for Little Ragdoll, and changed the typeface a few more times. The original Edwardian Script seemed too fancy for the type of story it was, and Monotype Corsiva, Lucida Handwriting, Lucida Calligraphy, and Snell Roundhand felt a bit dull, not too creative or inspired. I initially loved Handwriting Dakota, since it matches the typeface in the Wordle I made, but I had to look it up to make sure Dakota isn’t considered amateurish or overused by serious typographers. I’d hate to unintentionally use something as disreputable as Comic Sans or Papyrus!

I ultimately found a typeface called Journal, which is recommended as one of several substitutes for Dakota. It conveys the same feel of casual handwriting, is still very similar to the Wordle typeface, looks better-designed (no slanting, and the characters are closer together and more proportionate), and really does match the story of a young girl, her sisters, and their friends growing up poor in Manhattan during the Sixties and early Seventies. I made the title dark blue, Adicia’s favourite colour.

LR Title Page

IWSG and What’s Up Wednesday

My Horny Hump Day post is here.

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for the monthly meeting of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, where writers share insecurities, doubts, and concerns. I’ll try to keep it short this month, to allow enough space for the second half of this post.

I guess I’m insecure lately because I haven’t been querying or entering too many contests this year so far. There’s the worry that some of the agents participating in contests have already seen my queries in other contests, and wanting to give a fair shot to people with different or new manuscripts.

I also decided to step back till I figure out just how to classify myself and some of my books. For reasons I’ve enumerated many times before, I just don’t feel comfortable classifying most of my books with younger characters as YA in today’s market, nor as marketing myself as a specifically YA writer. I want to be able to say I write books, without making special mention of age-based categories. It would’ve been so much easier for me if I lived in a place like England, Australia, or Germany, where the current YA historical offerings seem much more in line with what I remember from my youth.

It also continues to frustrate me that so many Americans these days have such short attention spans, and that 400 pages is seriously considered a very long book by many people. The historicals I’m used to are at least that, if not more. It’s frustrating and annoying to see the words epic and saga bandied about so casually these days. How is a 300-page book a saga?! I really think indie or self-publishing is my best bet till the market changes a little bit.
Ready Set Write

As part of their What’s Up Wednesday feature, Elodie NowodazkijAlison MillerKaty UppermanErin Funk, and Jaime Morrow will be hosting a summer-long initiative called Ready. Set. Write! Participants will share weekly, monthly, or overall goals in the “What I’m Writing” section of the weekly posts.

What I’m Writing

I’m up to Chapter 56 of my current WIP, around 453,000 words. I’m very pleased to be keeping the chapters of Part III so far short by my standards. I’d like to think my upped guesstimate of 550K for the final length is still doable. I already have an outline in my head of how the rest of this chapter will proceed, Inessa and Vitya falling in love despite feeling they’ll only love their murdered first spouses.

But first, it needs put on hold so I can temporarily resume my hiatused WIP Justine Grown Up, set from 1979-84. I’ll be writing Chapter 54, “Irene and Amelia Redecorate Their Room,” set in early 1983. To date, I’d only gotten up to Chapter 18 and around 114,500 words. My guesstimate for this book is around 200K, which is short by my standards! There’s a special, unique holiday coming up on Saturday, and I’m such a dork I wanted to have some appropriate pieces for this weekend’s Sweet Saturday Samples and Weekend Writing Warriors posts.

What I’m Reading

I’m finally getting around to reading the rest of the Five Little Peppers series, with the so-called midquels I got free for my Kindle awhile ago. I’m starting with the first midquel, Five Little Peppers Abroad, which starts almost exactly where the original second book, Five Little Peppers Midway, left off. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: Margaret Sidney had a number of serious limitations as a writer, not to mention coming from a very Victorian environment.

I was rolling my eyes and dozing off from the first page. These people turn every little thing, and I really do mean every little thing, into some huge dramatic crisis. Plus this book starts with a few people I don’t know and therefore can’t bring myself to care about. Teenage Polly and Jasper are as annoying as I found them before, while coddled little Phronsie acts more mature than they do. I read these books more for the historical value, as some of the first children’s books that were written specifically as children’s literature, as well as the snapshot of the long-gone world of the late 19th century.

What Inspires Me

The realisation that the youngest campers truly don’t know their left from their right, even when a clear handedness is evident. It just goes to show that kids don’t know or care about things like that till they’re told to care, or given messages that the right is supposedly superior to the left. It’s the same way no one is born racist. It’s only an issue after society makes it one.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

We still don’t have a real kitchen, so I’m still going to my parents’ house for dinner, eating out, or eating stuff that doesn’t need cooked. This is even more frustrating than dealing with oppositional defiant campers, Pull-Ups full of feces, and inveterate thumb-sucking. Please remember I’m the one with the more lenient, Conservative views on kosher and that I thought this needed taken care of before or soon after the move!

Has historical YA become an oxymoron?

I recently read a Goodreads review of Jillian Larkin’s Diva that I think nailed the problems I see with a lot of current historical YA. These characters are in their late teens in the 1920s, and their behavior is supposed to be so shocking for teens,  like going to speakeasies and premarital cohabiting. But that was kind of normal adult behavior for that set in that era (not to mention premarital cohabiting was a scandal for anyone, outside of a very few Bohemian places like Greenwich Village). In your late teens, you were an adult in the 1920s. It’s like the writer couldn’t make up her mind as to whether to write a teen or adult story, and so tries to play both sides.

For much of the 20th century, and for all human history before that, young people assumed mature, adult roles and responsibilities early on. People didn’t assume one came from a broken home if someone married at 16 or 17 in, say, 1880 or 1910. A lot of couples getting engaged and married in the post-WWII era were in their late teens and very early twenties, and they began having children very quickly. That was considered normal, since they were considered adults.

A lot of the American-published historical YA I’ve found from recent years seems to want it both ways. You can’t portray a teen of the 1940s, 1920s, or 1930s like a teen of today. They would be more like a miniature adult, albeit with somewhat of a youthful outlook. It’s just laughable to read, say, anti-smoking sentiments in YA historical. If anything, the average teen of the past would’ve smoked, or been excited for the day when s/he were old enough to smoke. I do have some teen characters who don’t smoke, but that’s based on finding it a lowbrow habit, immoral, not common in their native culture, etc. Those views wouldn’t have been widespread, and they certainly wouldn’t have gone around lecturing other teens on not smoking.

Additionally, much of the YA historical I’ve run across recently has seemed to be YA (i.e., teen-centered) first and historical second. I was so excited to read two of the books for my final project in my YA Lit class, Paul Dowswell’s The Ausländer and Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War. They were originally published in England and Germany, respectively. They have so many wonderful historical details, and take time to build characters and settings. They’re not just period pieces with teen characters.

The latter ages the character from 10 to 17, with a short Epilogue in her early twenties. That’s almost unheard of in YA these days, a real Bildungsroman like Anne of Green Gables or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where it’s more about the journey from child to young adult, not plot-centric. I never had any problem with characters aging dramatically. If a book is set during a long-running historical event like WWII, the Civil War, or the 1960s, I kind of expect to follow the character through all of it, not just the first year or the last six months.

I’m not trying to stereotype or generalize, but I feel that since the YA explosion 5-10 years ago, YA has come to mean something a lot different than what it was in my generation, before it had that designation. But you can’t really have a teen with a self-centric, young voice if s/he lives 50+ years ago. Just think of how Scarlett and Melly are 16 at the start of GWTW, but they’re never portrayed as anything but adult women, with adult speech, motivations, and actions. Sure they might not be on the same level as they are at the end of the book, but they’re still considered adults in their era and society.

I consider myself a writer first, a historical writer second, and a teen or children’s writer third. Like it or not, I really don’t think my Shoah books would be considered YA in today’s U.S. market. The themes, language, situations, and roles are just too un-teen-like by contemporary measurements, not to mention the length. I’m used to historicals being long, so I don’t see an issue with a historical about a teen, set over a number of years, being 120,000 words. If you think that’s too long, you don’t know that that’s a drop in the bucket next to some of my other books!