Friday, July 31, 2009

to the edge

“We were doing something we weren’t supposed to do. We were playing on the roof. He fell off and broke his neck.”

Tommy spit again.

“I played on roofs before. Don’t all boys do that?”

-- From Ghost Medicine

Well, a couple days ago I said something about how boys are risk-takers by nature, and they appreciate that element in the books they read, too. At least, if you're planning on drawing boys (especially reluctant ones) into the read, going toward the edge is frequently necessary. Because all boys do play on roofs, and build forts and have dirt-clod wars, and shoot birds with slingshots. That's just how it goes... and that's why I said the other day that older boys enjoy reading about things that can sometimes make adults feel uncomfortable.

They like the edge.

The thing is, though, that if you're a writer and you start laying out a story that goes toward the edge, you can make some critical mistakes and lose your reader and not even know it's happening.

Here's why:

I'm going to start the explanation with another quote, this one from Pablo Picasso: "Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art."

I love that quote. So, the first big mistake I'm talking about is starting off like you're heading toward the edge and then holding back, and doing it in an obvious way that ignores or diminishes essential human characteristics of the readers you hope to reach and the characters you create. Now, I'm not talking about a no-holds-barred, see-how-offensive-you-can-make-your-prose mentality here, but something that skirts honesty is, well... sucky.

Because teenage boys know what's going on... and they know what you're supposed to be saying when, in fact, you're avoiding it. Parents: take a clue. This is a HUGE mistake in communicating with your teens, so why would an author employ the same saccharine method in constructing his work?

Second big mistake of those who would steer toward the edge: the flawless protagonist. I've said before that one of the reasons I like writing novels with young characters is that readers are far more tolerant, forgiving, of flaws and misjudgments from young characters than they are with adult protagonists. Having a protagonist who shows occasional frailties and makes incorrect choices, at least for me, draws me into empathy with the "hero" of the narrative, because I, as a reader, can identify with personal flaws.

Well, I certainly had enough of them when I was growing up. Still do.

And, definitely, all the characters in my books make mistakes... even the characters you're supposed to be rooting for the most.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of "edgy" YA books out there that make those two big mistakes: first, holding back on getting near the essential risk-taking and, in doing so, failing to honestly present the "holistic" experience of the age group; and, second, expecting readers to fully empathize with and root for a robotic protagonist who doesn't have any chinks in his armor. You know... the kind of kid you'd want to beat up if you were in school with him.