Why I Write Junk

I read my first Shakespeare play when I was eleven. My family took a day trip to Hay-On-Wye, the famous city made almost entirely of used bookstores, on the border between England and Wales. In a dusty old shop, I found an antique copy of All’s Well That Ends Well still with uncut pages. It had never even been read! On the long drive home, I hunched in the corner of my seat, tearing open each page as I got to it, devouring the story the way my dog devours his breakfast.

For years, I was in love with Bertram. This may explain a little something about that abusive boyfriend in college… but I digress..

As a teenager, I read War and Peace end to end, mostly for the bragging rights. Ultimately I was pretty ticked off that Natasha got such rough treatment.

In college, I read the predictable roster: Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, most of Shakespeare’s plays, all of Homer, and so on. For fun, I read To Kill a Mockingbird (several times), A Separate Peace, Kurt Vonnegut, and yes, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and the entire Dune series as well.

I went to graduate school and studied the Greek classics, in their original languages: Homer, Aeschylus, Xenophon, Thucidydes, Plato, Euripides, Sophocles, Sappho.

So forgive me if I’m a bit of a snob, but I don’t think my book quite measures up.

It’s a story about a bunch of kids, written for kids (with my kids specifically in mind), and worst of all, it’s in English. 20-21st century MODERN English.

As if that weren’t bad enough, I’ve been working pretty hard to make it actually marketable. A hack, I believe, is what we call it in the literary world: A person who writes for money and not just the art of it. That’s me.

And you know what? I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with library shelves filled with mostly “mediocre” work that doesn’t “measure up.” At least those authors are trying something, writing something, speaking their piece, telling their stories. Which is more than 99% of the people in the world who think they have a story to tell and might want to be writers–but never actually finish something. Maybe what’s stopping them is thinking they have to do something “great.” Well, if that’s you, don’t. Don’t let it stop you.

Sure, some of that “mediocre” work is going to be forgotten in a few years, a few decades, a couple centuries. Most of it, by then. That’s okay.

Here’s a picture for you. One kid. He’s about five feet tall and kind of scraggly. There are holes in his shoes. His mom doesn’t have a lot of money, but lucky for him there’s a library right down the street, and its shelves are packed full of books–worlds upon worlds of magic, and zombies, and kids with super powers. Most of those books are pretty mediocre, but he doesn’t know that yet. He just likes to read.

Belmont LibrarySo every week, he fills himself up on books and stories. By the time he hits junior high, he’s read plenty of junk and a few good classics too. He’s starting to develop taste. By the time he’s a senior in high school, he’s visited so many worlds he’s long ago lost count. It doesn’t even matter that his backpack’s been repaired three times and his shirt is some hideous orange thing Mom picked up at Goodwill. It doesn’t matter that nobody in his family has ever been to college. He knows what’s out there. And he knows he wants it.

Maybe someday that kid will walk into the library and check out my book. Maybe it will be only one of hundreds he reads that year. Maybe he won’t even remember it later. You know what? It doesn’t matter. Because for the length of the two hours or four or six that he is reading my book, he gets to live in my world, the world I created just for him. That’s an honor I’m willing to work for, even if it’s the only honor my books ever receive.

How to Write a Blockbuster YA Novel

I am woefully behind the times in my reading. Ask me about the classics, and I’m all over it:

  • Sophocles (check)
  • Thucydides (indeed)
  • Aeschylus (yup)
  • Vergil (certainly)
  • Homer (you bet, and I even know this is out of chronological order)
  • Plato (uh-huh)
  • Xenophon (in Greek, love him–have you read his bit on horse training?)
  • Shakespeare (duh)
  • Milton (of course)
  • Chaucer (in the original Middle English, yes)
  • Too many to list (you betcha)

What about novels, you ask?

  • Mark Twain 
  • Hemingway
  • Jane Austin
  • Charles Dickens
  • Eudora Welty
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Heinlein
  • Lovecraft
  • Philip K. Dick
  • Harper Lee
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

Now ask me about anything written in the past ten years, and, well, look:

  • Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter
  • Um.
  • Twilight (hangs her head in shame…)
  • Uh.
  • That’s it.
  • I think.
  • WAIT! The Magicians. Of course.
  • Yup.
  • That’s it.

twilight poster_9

I can’t un-read Twilight alas, but I can do penance by reading a whole bunch of other recent YA titles. My Amazon bill has grown ridiculous. But that’s okay, because I’m about to get rich. Because it turns out you don’t need to be original to write a blockbuster. All you need is a recipe. And I have the recipe.

Recipe for a Blockbuster YA Novel

  • Take one gorgeous but troubled female teenager who has no idea she’s beautiful, and put her in the center of the plot
  • Mix in insecurity, self-deprecation, and a selfless desire to please everyone at her own expense.
  • Add one gorgeous but troubled male teenager who is inaccessible due to a bad-boy reputation, his community/school role, or his own dark secrets.
  • Mix in a large pinch of “why do I like him?” angst.
  • Add a crisis that throws them inadvertently together, often in close physical proximity, and mix well with breathlessness each time their skin touches.
  • In another container, mix together a large quantity of possessiveness, controlling, and jealousy, add carefully to the male teenager, and disguise it with the sweetness of I Love You.
  • Gradually fold in a good reason why they can’t be together, that inevitably boils down to “I’m afraid I’ll hurt him” (because of her special talent, because the bad guys are after everyone she loves, because she also loves someone else, because she always hurts everyone she loves, or similar–you get to be a little original here if you want, but don’t go too crazy.)
  • Add heat.
  • When plot reaches a full boil, place a decision in the hands of female character–on the one hand, she can be with the boy forever; on the other hand, she can do something selfless that will serve to separate them forever. It’s okay if this one is a stretch, as long as she definitely has to choose and there is no middle option.
  • When she chooses the selfless act, remove story from heat.
  • When male & female settle out separately, leave them in proximity, but not mixed.
  • Cover with a cloth and leave to ferment. Will they end up together or not? That is the delicious finish everyone craves. Don’t answer.
  • Wait for film deals to roll in, along with riches.

Try it and let me know how it goes.

By the way, my WIP doesn’t follow this formula. There’s very little romance, way too many main characters, and not nearly enough teenage angst. They’re too busy trying to not be eaten or tortured to be overly concerned about pimples. Is my book YA? I’m no longer convinced.

Also, I’ll probably die poor.

Candidate #4: The Summer I Met Mercy

This one isn’t new to the blog, but I want it considered, so I’m offering it again. This one’s YA (young adult), straight fantasy a la Neil Gaiman (if you like Neil Gaiman it’s JUST like him, otherwise NOTHING like Neil Gaiman (JAIMIE)) or, I don’t know, kind of magical realism-ish.

It’s also shorter than the others, so here’s more detail (skip if you don’t want intro spoilers). It’s set in modern-day Southern US (my backyard, to be precise, except not really my backyard), a first-person coming-of-age story with a dark (horror-ish) twist. All evidence to the contrary, this is not a vampire story. But you may figure out pretty quickly that Mercy is not exactly… normal, either. She wants something the MC has, and the MC wants something she has… and the trade may not be all it seems.

If this is your first visit to my blog, you’re probably confused. This should clear things up.

You can also review the first three candidates here:

Slave Chip

Relief: A Place to Back Up

The Red Girl

The Summer I Met Mercy

Nobody knew where she came from. I didn’t know where she came from. She was just there one day, down by the community lake, picking at the mud between her toes. Why she would do that when she was covered in mud from head to foot is anybody’s guess, and I didn’t ask. Just stood there gawking at her. Her hair was so caked it looked like it was made of mud, just long gobby strands of filth tangled with pond algae, and her arms were too long, her fingers too long, but the most notable thing about her was that she was naked.

She looked up at me and smiled, an ordinary, girl-next-door smile, and she was quite pretty, for a stringy 15-year-old, even if her teeth were rather large and white and pointy. Even if she was quite, quite naked. Not that I could see anything, not with her bent over her legs like that.

We became good friends, Mercy and I, that summer that my parents were separating, that my world was crumbling.

More than friends, actually. She was the first girl I ever kissed. She was clean the day I kissed her, and clothed. I never did see her naked again, in fact, not that day and not any day after. But I did kiss her. My first kiss.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Weirder. Much weirder. She drew the tip of my tongue into her mouth with a sucking sensation, and then bit it, sucking continuously, her teeth scraping along every inch as my tongue went deeper. It hurt but not enough to make me want to stop. Not even as much as the throbbing in my groin hurt at that moment, and I didn’t want that to stop either.