Monday, July 26, 2010

May you stay forever young

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is supposed to be 15. And seriously the one thing our genre needs is the youth. It's been heading into the silver age, and rapidly toward the bald and toothless age for years now -- something evidenced by where money is being made: out of hardbacks. They're expensive, not something that your young, experimenting audience is buying. So when they get to being your main source of income... you have a problem - you can come up with all sorts of arguments saying it just ain't so, but, well follow the money. On another list I belong to a rather predictable old chestnut came up from some of the younger writers, who, as something completely original which has never ever happened before, reckoned it was time the old geezers who were blocking up the ladder to the stars get bumped off to retirement so they can rise and bring some young audiences along with them. Some peeps then predictably said it wasn't happening and really there was no greying of the audience, and xyz authors were young and exciting and appealing to the youth... The youths cheered and added a few more names of young Turks appealing to the t'yoof o' today. A happy little bit of stick-in-the-mud un-hip granny-and-gramp writer (you know - old, like... over 40) bashing ensued. They really are terrible and so out of touch, these fossils... should NEVER write teens or YA, yadda yadda....

And then some miserable elderly curmudgeon RUINED the party, by pointing out that of the list of ‘young hip examples' were ALL over 40 when they wrote the books, and several of them wouldn't see sixty again either. I was keeping a low profile but shaking my elderly gray head and thinking that I'd beat the young whippersnappers to death with my Zimmer frame just as soon as I got it out of the kayak. I'd have bitten them too, only I left my dentures drying next to the spear-gun. See... I've read some of the work of the youth who thought they'd attract a young audience. Some of it is quite good. But none of it really appeals to an entire young audience -- I'd say it appeals to that subsection (principally female in their case) young audience who wants to be thought old and sophisticated, and you know, adult (like, you know, like 23). It's got fashion and sex and teen angst (which is pretty much like angst from any age group) and... well that's about it. It's a real audience. And they're reaching it. But it's not ‘the youth'. It's just a fragment of the whole young audience, the wanna-be adult section, who perceive that sort of thing as the essence of adulthood. I'm happy they have writers that appeal. No one ever will get the whole audience, but well, for boys anyway, James H. Schmitz would do better on the appeal. He's been dead some years, and, um, would be little long in the tooth by now. But here is the point: his writing isn't. It's still full of a boyish enthusiasm and fast moving adventure. It's accessible, easy to read, and um... entirely free of angst. There's not much sex or fashion either, actually. And herein lies my theme for today: There are authors who are themselves good at relating to younger people -- I suspect I am one of them, at least for the kids who don't desperately want to be adults, (I dunno. Ask Chris's kids) but who love the joys of fish, mud and a fire on the beach. There are a small subsection of kids 5% of teen males and maybe 20% of teen girls I have huge difficulty talking to. Boring brats trying to pretend to be grown-up without the experience or intellect to make them more than cardboard cut-outs of what they think adult is, IMO. But then I never really got this whole adult bit too well myself, so maybe it's just me. There are other writers who do the teen-angst well - Misty Lackey really gets through to them. It's REALLY truly nothing to do with the biological age of the author.

But that's my two cents. So what does the genre need to get more readers involved in the Golden Age? Sex? Violence? Tech savvy? Adventure? Language? My youthful writer friends say that as by 15 50% of teen girls are sexually experienced it's got to have more sex. Grittier and kinkier they think will work. While I can believe that might have more appeal to that 50%, I would like to add a couple of small caveats - firstly most of us are liars about sex (the average 15 year old pimple-face who tells you he's getting lots is a prime example), and secondly even if 50% is the real figure, if you had to take the kids who will ever read for pleasure and do the same analysis... I think you'll find readers are often in the other 50%... which is why they have time and inclination to read. For some it will be wish-fulfilment. But it is a very broad and segmented audience, a lot of whom did not read Harry Potter for the sex.

So - repeat - how do we get that young audience?

37 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave,

I hope I never have to grow up.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena - this is a compliment - no one would guess that you were old enough to have grown-up-ish kids from your writing. It's one of your strengths.

C Kelsey said...

Growing up is for boring people.

Anonymous said...

Animals. Cats, dogs, horses. Rats and bats with very rude vocabularies. I have yet to loan RB&V to a kid who didn't love it. Mercy Lackey is stuffed full of critters, or former humans in horse form. Andre Norton, my own teenage read of preference, had lots of animals.

I think teens are poised in between childhood and that scary place called adulthood, and need to take a canine or feline friend along on a mental trip over the maturity escarpment.

MataPam

Synova said...

The only old idea is the one you had when you were 18.

SRSLY.

Synova said...

I agree with including animals.

I'd also say family or even (gasp) a guardian. Security. Power.

Adventure, yes.

People (adults) got freaked out by Edward guarding (stalking) Bella, but Harry Potter also had guardians, sort of. That old "my real parents will suddenly show up and I'll find out I'm a princess" thing. Percy Jackson had secret guardians. A secret guardian that was an animal would be perfect. There are guardians and secret guardians in a whole lot of anime, too.

Family or loyal friends, lots of examples of close relationships and belonging.

And power. Again, Harry Potter and any number of others. Luke Skywalker. Golden Age SF hyper-competent wiz kids. Someone like Wen Spencer's Tinker. A shape changer or vampire or someone with magic power is a powerful person. Even if the POV is a normal human the power of that human is measured by the monsters she defeats or the powerful man she tames. (Bleh on the last one, but it's true anyhow.)

Not sex. Power.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sigh. I don't aspire to write YA. I didn't read YA. Well, not as YA. It wasn't labelled. Sure I read Have Spacesuit. And -- as an adult -- I consume my share of Diana Wynne Jones. When PTerry wrote his juveniles there was a full out scrum in the hallway over whether the kids or I read it first. (Yes, I won. Age and guile beat youth and innocence everyday of the week and twice on Sunday.) I -- magnanimously -- let them read Harry Potter first, mostly because they were really young then. But then I got it.
But I didn't read those books because they were YA. I read them because they were good books.
My kids seem to follow the same pattern, too. Everything goes into the maw, including for the younger one, recently, a rather indigistible account of Caesar's campaigns. (He says he's trying to figure out how the republic became an empire.)
So... How do you attract a young audience? Search me.
Some pointers, though -- the more ossified a field becomes, the more it says "this you can't read; this is not good; this has been done to death" the more it totters towards old age. Mystery is older than SF. In any mystery con we ARE the whippersnappers. Baen is by far the youngest of the sf population -- i.e. the people at the cons that are heavy-baen are younger on average than the people at other sf cons. Or at least the people at other sf cons who aren't there to game. And romance is the youngest. When I get fan letters from romance readers (Mostly for Darkship Thieves, but sometimes for the Magical British Empire) they are twenty or less.
What have I done to appeal to them? Search me. Other than "I didn't talk to them as though they were vapid, and I presented serious subjects, such as one thinks about when very young." Of course this is NOT what the gatekeepers think appeals to the young.
I THINK my ideal age of readers is late teens to mid thirties. I think. I could be completely wrong. At any rate, I can't write fashion and I'm drawers at writing sex, so I don't know what I could do to appeal more to the young. Eh. Perhaps I was born to be midlist.

warpcordova said...

Well... as a writer, something inside screams "Cheat!" when it comes to the Golden Age of SF. Why wait until they're 15? Why not cheat and subvert them earlier and as they get older they stick to the SF and become more interested in the classics, like Heinlein? Most 15 year olds know who the current authors are, but have little idea about who inspired their favorite authors...

Anonymous said...

Sarah,

I have pointy shoes, too. Mind you, I'd have to dig deep into the depths of my closet to find them, so don't make me do it!

Hmm, Harry Potter and Pterry both have a lot of animals. I think my first reaction may be right on.

MataPam

Anonymous said...

While I don't have loads of writing experience, what I do have leans heavily toward young adult and children. Not children so much anymore, but most of my protags are teenagers and the writing can arguably be called young adult. Lucky for me, a LOT of sff
is built around young adult. It's just that the good stuff gets enjoyed by adults, too. I think that's the key to writing for serious money when you write young adult.

What I have learned that works for me:

1. You can handle any subject matter for young adult and damn near it for children if you do it right. Nothing is off the table, even if it's just alluded to in the text. I was published in Child Life some twenty years ago with a story about a girl with terminal cancer. I like to think that it was delicately handled.

The only thing best left off the children's table is sex and sexual abuse. It's a hard sell. It does sell well however in YA. I was quite shocked at some of the books that Erica (18) was reading a few years ago. Rape, incest, sexual abuse, etc.. A lot of it was included in fantasy, though some was mainstream.

2. Young adults are very savvy. You can't pander down to them or pretend they don't know things.
Our youth of today grow up very fast. Or the ones who don't like to pretend they do.

3. They also care about their characters, and they must feel real to them. They, more than any other group of readers IMO, want to experience the story. I think this is a side effect of being young. They are actively looking for experiences, and reading gives it to them. They don't have the years of experience that us oldsters have. Love in a space opera is still love. Revenge in an urban fantasy is still revenge. You get the point.

4. They do love the worlds written. They get really tired of this world sometimes (don't we all?) and others fascinate them. For instance, I couldn't figure out why Twilight was so popular with the young set. None of the teenagers I know actually like Bella. They find her whiney and reactive instead of proactive. They like her world and the other characters therein. They love the conflict raging around her and, quite frankly, it mystifies them why the vamps and the werewolves have her in the middle. They find that in and of itself fascinating.

As you can tell, coming-of-age novels are my favorite. I think discovering how the world is instead of how we wish it were is fascinating because it's different for every person. There are however common strands that we as writers can weave into our stories.

Linda

Ori Pomerantz said...

I suspect that the generation gap we're experiencing is about as bad as the one between late hunter/gatherers and early farmers. Most of my early struggles were related to getting information in one way or another. My kids grow up on the Internet.

My oldest is halfway to 15, so I can't help you there, but I suggest you watch some of the TV they watch. Well, not necessarily TV. Probably youtube.com more than anything.

Jim McCoy said...

Honestly, I think if you want to attract YA readers the best way to do it is to try to attract the gamers. I know this is going to be unpopular to a certain segment of the SF audience, but I think it's necessary. For example:

As a teen I played a lot of Battletech. I ran a campaign with a couple of my friends after school. I now own every BT novel ever published. Some authors are better than others, but I've enjoyed them all. Halo has a set of novels, as does Wing Commander. I haven't read those, but then again, I don't play those games. I just don't have time anymore.

Fantasy works the same way. Dungeons and Dragons has lured many people into reading fantasy literature. Every D+D campaign setting has it's own set of books. I don't read all of them (there are too many and I have only so much money and room on my bookshelf) but I don't think I've ever read one I didn't like. This is how I discovered Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. They are the best fantasy authors every IMHO and I've read all of their other stuff too.

The key here is to try to draw the young adults in using these types of licensed properties and then hope they branch off into something else. I'm half convinced that Mercedes Lackey did a Wing Commander novel just because she was hoping for a cross-over audience. I could be wrong here, I've never had the chance to discuss it with her, but I'd be surprised if that weren't the case.

Jim McCoy said...

PS Didn't someone else mention that the youngest people at cons were the gamers? That just adds to my argument.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, I noticed the animals thing as a broader trend and um, used it. Not confined to teens IMO.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - as someone who still does a lot of stuff that is apparently reserved for kids I agree... on the other hand there is fine line between childlike and childish which I hope I've most grown out of.

Dave Freer said...

Synova - power is a good point. And, er, these days a supportive family might also come under the list wish-fulfilment fantasy for a lot of kids. I think most of us have a need for that even if it's no longer PC to admit it.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, read any good sex and fashion scenes in DWJ or Harry Potter? You do appeal strongly to younger readers. And if a book isn't good enough for me, it's never going to be good enough for my kids

Dave Freer said...

Warpcordova, yep. By the time they're 10 I wantthem starting on rattling good (sf) yarns.

Dave Freer said...

Linda I'd have to agree that talking down is a disaster area. Still happens a lot.

"Our youth of today grow up very fast. Or the ones who don't like to pretend they do."

Um. They don't like their friends to realise that they're not. But certainly I find among my younger acquaintances a yearning for a less grown up world too.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, I seem to spend a lot of time -- instructing climbing, taking kids diving, doing the Robinson Crusoe bit on the beach (my kids have just come through this age, and we were a magnet for all their friends, it seems)and one thing I may reassure you on, while your son/daughter may be more internet savvy... the kids of today differ not one hell of lot from the kids written for by Mark Twain. The same basic things - adventure, love, fear etc still push and pull their levers.

Dave Freer said...

Jim - you have a good point about the gaming!

Anonymous said...

You're right, Dave. Just because the kids all have to grow up and deal with this stuff earlier doesn't mean they like it. It's sad when senior girls in high school feel "left out" because they're not pregnant.

But they want the worlds in their books to be real, so the worlds must keep up with the times in that perspective.

I've noticed though that teens don't mind watching dated movies. Erica and her friends adore movies like "Lost Boys" (80s), "Dazed and Confused" (set in the 70s), and "Hairspray" (set in the early 60s). But would they read a dated book? A lot less likely IMO.

Linda

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I agree completely that it is the author - regardless of age - that makes good YA or children's writing. Some writers have a gift for it, and manage to keep part of themselves back in that youthful frame, right up until they give up the mortal coil. Take Roald Dahl for example. His books are absolute genius, but he looked like some crustly English lord of the manor.

I don't think the answer is more sex or violence. Its just a good story, and letting the people who can write well in YA have a shot at getting their work out.

Is it that the jaded Gatekeepers are too busy looking for post-modernism? For complex takes on old themes and 'new' forms (that inevitable fail as stories IMO), and that they miss the revitalised takes on older stories that WORK. This comes back to Mike's post.

And my children would definitely agree you can relate well to kids! Its a shame you can't read them stories every night:)

Brendan said...

How do get YA audiences? Write stories about them.

Look at Marvel and their mutants, each new generation gets a new batch who start off discovering and learning about their powers at the same time they are having to deal with all the things they are growing into on a day to day basis. I always thought having the outbreak of superpowers as a teen was a conscious decision by writers since it threw another issue at people who were already having problems dealing with just normal growing up. The story is the new complication in an already complicated life and how the heroes succeed/fail on a day to day basis where success and failure can mean so much more.

Kate said...

I'd go with a very small set of things:

No talking down

Emotionally honest (not angsty - but don't go glossing over the 'bad' either)

Look at everything as though you've never seen it before. This is probably the real key - whatever they pretend, teens mostly haven't seen too much of the wide world out there, and want to - and they want the good bits. The adventures, the proper endings, people who feel real doing things that feel real.

Of course, that would never make it past the gatekeepers, who are still trying to figure out why Harry Potter did so well. It breaks all their 'rules'.

Synova said...

I was at the bookstore and noticed a YA elf romance series that said outright that it blurred the lines between passion and pain. The first sentence of the book was something about loving someone despite the blood and injury from their last meeting.

What my almost 16 year old *wanted* (no we did not buy the elf book) was Patricia Wrede's next "13th Child" installment.

Or something with dragons.

I don't remember what sort of relationships were in Jo Walton's "Tooth and Claw" but I don't remember being horrified, so I think I'll dig that out for her and see what she thinks.

Chris McMahon said...

My favourite book series from last year was Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. I booked one of these through the library, but could not find it in the YA reserved shelf. When I went looking for it, the helpful librarian said. 'Oh, that's not YA. That's Junior Fiction.'

So my favourite book from last year was Junior Fiction. Go figure.

PS: Matapam, this very much figured the relationship between the central figures and their animal friends.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I just finished The Maze Runners by James Dashner a little while back. I had bought it on my nook for Erica, but then I read it. Turned out to be a marvelous young adult science fiction mystery. He really kept you guessing. So, yeah, one of the best books I read this year was also a YA.

Linda

Brendan said...

So what age grouping does Juvenile fiction sit in?

I am guessing most of what I have that I have been categorising as YA will probably end up being Juvenile Fiction in that case. And to tell the truth, mostly, they are really my favourite books.

The Boy Problem asks why boys don't read YA.

The problem we're talking about is fairly simple: boys don't read YA. This isn't an issue of "boys don't read"--we're not talking about these boys. We're talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why.

Mike said...

Oddly, I think there might be a clue in an old painting that they showed on TV here recently. It apparently was done in Europe when people were still dreaming of Ponce De Leon's fountain of youth, and what it shows is a square wading pool sort of fountain, with various nude figures walking in the water -- with older folks outside, waiting to get in. But as the commentators pointed out, the nude figures, while apparently sized for children, are shown with adult figures. Most would have fit into any adult orgy scene just fine, except for their comparative size. While the commentators weren't sure whether this was a poor artist or some kind of artistic statement about the magical fountain of youth, I do seem some relevance here -- don't treat your young audience (and characters) as simply small adults. That doesn't mean writing down to them, but recognize that what drives youth -- their fears, their desires, etc. -- are not necessarily the same as adults.

And have a glass of water.

Dave Freer said...

Linda, my experience with girls and their reading is limited but 'But would they read a dated book? A lot less likely IMO.' does not seem true of a lot of sf and particularly fantasy. - I can't say LotR has gone out of fashion, or that my boys did not love Schmitz and Laumer. Perhaps it's more true of contemporary fiction. It can't hurt in sf/fantasy... so long as it doesn't date itself. Given the lag phase in publishing/writing fashions and language are almost certain to 2-4 years out - on the release day

Dave Freer said...

Chris - I suspect the gatekeepers often have very little idea what appeals to the audience they should be buying for - an audience that is neither jaded, nor like them. It takes a very special writer to writer for younger audiences and an even more special editor to pick them. Your kids, BTW are a great tribute to you and Sandra. We'd have them here any time.

Dave Freer said...

Brendan, yes YA/teens want heroes they can identify with (and wish-fulfil fanatasies with). And often that means kids who are having a rough time and beat it - either by some new 'power' or sometimes through brains. That's what drew me to Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn - without making an obvious point of it, Twain let them use their wits to solve problems bigger than themselves. :-) It is harder and may be less gratifying than superpowers (says Dave whose teen hero in his first book has 'super-powers')

Dave Freer said...

Kate: 'Look at everything as though you've never seen it before.'

that's very insightful!

Dave Freer said...

Synova - there is definitely an element of pushing the boundry (and IMO it's not one that needs pushing.) Unfortunately Chris is right - many of the buyers are jaded and looking for shock value. Bleah.

Dave Freer said...

Yes, just what is 'juvenile fiction'?

Anonymous said...

gatekeepers? HAH, BULLSHIT. I know a simple answer. GET YA OUT OF ITS 'WITCHES, WIZARDS AND WANDS' PHASE. lets see some ya authors DO ya the same way that GRRM, SCOTT LYNCH, JOE ABERCROMBIE reinvigorate the fantasy genre. how about a more pessimistic outlook (cause honestly, its hard to be happy-go-lucky in a society like this). darker, more grim fantasy worlds. harsher violence (hey, ive read a book where A LOT of heads get lopped off). sex scenes? maybe. not to explicit but visceral enough. and last but not least WHERE IS THE GORE. now i dont mean shock value for the sake of it but when there are characters caught up in bleak situations, THRER SHOULD BE GORE. oh, and did i mention authors need to be more brave in killing off their charactors. AND NOT HAVE HAPPY ENDINGS *stares at potter 7*

oh and rowena, i have a question of interest. sword and sorcery and the YA genre. can S&S be adjusted to the YA mindset and if so, what type of YA fantasy (series, stand-alones, novellas, ETC) would qualify as S&S.