Sunday, October 4, 2009
Writers Workshop Follow-up
In my last post, I mentioned that our own Sarah Hoyt had been in town to conduct a writers workshop. Not only was Sarah her usual entertaining self, but she imparted some great information. Most important of all, she made those who attended think about what it means to be a writer and how far it goes beyond just sitting butt in chair and writing. We're writers, publicists, mail clerks, accountants and chief cook and bottle washers to name a few. However, as Sarah pointed out, one of the most important things we have to do is know who our market is when we're writing a book, not only with regard to what agent or publisher we're trying to "sell" it to but also with regard to who our reading public will be.
Needless to say, that got everyone thinking, most especially those who are writing for the juvenile and young adult readers. In discussions between sessions, the conversation continued, usually between the workshop participants. One thought the only difference was the language used in the books. Another felt that you had to write the situations in a more simplistic style, not only using less challenging vocabulary but also a simpler sentence structure etc., and then a third felt you should only tackle the really difficult social/ethical/moral situations in books set for the "young adult" readers.
What made me think about this particular topic again was a conversation I had at dinner with several librarians the other night. One works at a junior high school library. The other two at the local library in the children's and youth section. We'd been discussing some of the books that have come out over the last few years and the increasing numbers of junior high and high school kids who are reading for pleasure -- and how the summer reading lists have, for years, done their best to derail this whether those putting together the lists mean to or not.
By way of illustration, when my son was entering the sixth grade, he was given a list of fifteen or so books, of which he had to read twelve. The topics of the books, all of which were fiction, ran from drug abuse to abandonment to rape and incest to sports and vacation fun. Well, needless to say, since reading had been used as a punishment by a teacher several years before and my son still had not rediscovered the joy of reading he'd felt before then, we chose to read the "lighter" books first. The problem came when we had to choose one last book to complete the required number. The book we chose seemed innocent enough. From the cover illustration to the inside flap description and even the on-line reviews, it appeared to be nothing more than a nice little gothic ghost story. Perfect for a boy about to go into the sixth grade. Right?
WRONG! Most of the book was exactly that. The author lulled you in with an easy style and lush descriptions that appealed not only to my son but to me. Then, without warning, she yanked the rug out from under you and yelled "Gotcha!". The nice ghost story suddenly had a very graphic attempted rape scene followed by an equally graphic murder scene. There was no rhyme or reason for it being there, and most certainly not for it to be as graphic as it was. For those twenty pages or so, the author forgot her audience and went from writing for middle schoolers to high schoolers and adults.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating denying that bad things happen to people in books written for middle schoolers. What I am advocating is that we keep in mind who we're writing for and write appropriately. Just as I wouldn't expect an author trying to sell an inspirational novel to fill it with f-bombs, I don't expect an author writing for middle schoolers or younger to put in graphic sex scenes or more graphic violence. The key is, read the market. See what is on library and bookstore shelves for that age group. That is part of the research we have to do as authors.
How important do you think it is that authors tackle the "issues" of the day? For you parents out there, do you want the summer reading lists to be filled with books dealing with nothing but the "social issues" or should there be a mix of the "socially relevant" books and those that are just "fun" reads?