Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who Are You Writing For?

This isn't an existential question, like are you writing for yourself, or are you a sell-out? (Both great questions, however, but maybe for another post.) This is a question of AUDIENCE. There are a lot of questions to consider when thinking about who will be reading your novel, particularly if you write YA.

The one I'm struggling with right now is:

Is what I'm writing appropriate for the age group who will be reading my book? Is it appropriate for the age group BELOW the one who will be reading my book?

Do you think it's necessary to consider the age group below the one your book is intended for? Is it their parent's responsibility to keep their children from reading a book that's "too old" for them?

When I was growing up, I read a lot of adult books because there just wasn't the breadth of YA that there is now. I learned a lot more actual facts from books about sex and drugs and relationships than I did from life from age 13-16. Life was full of contradictions, rumors, locker-room boasting. Life was scary. Books were safe.

Today's YA is a different animal from what my generation experienced. There's sex, pregnancy, death, affairs with teachers... a lot more like what kids today experience in school. I've gone off on a tangent here, but these are the kids I'm writing for. I need to remember that.

And I'm going to try not to eff them up any more than they already are.


Corey Schwartz said...

Somehow I am the wrong person to ask, because I was dumb enough to play the Rent Soundtrack with my preschool age kids in the car until they started singing "This is weird. effing weird!"

Krispy said...

Good topic. I think it's a good thing to consider at some point, but maybe not necessary. Like you, I read above my reading/age/grade/etc. level when I was a kid and learned about "real life" issues more from books than from life too. So I think people who want to read above their age group are going to do it, and you shouldn't write down to an age group that you aren't targeting.

I don't know if that made sense. My brain is a little sleepy right now. :P

Falen said...

i dunno, i stand by the fact that it's the parent's responsibility to police their own children. Because you can't please everyone and everyone is at a different point in their development.
Unless we're talking children's books or MG. But YA, i think pretty much eveything goes.

Abby Annis said...

You know what I think, but I will say that I think it's the parents' responsibility to monitor what their children are reading, not the author's.

As long as you are comfortable with what you're putting out there, then you should leave it alone. And I'm not intending that as a guilt-inducing statement. There are some things that can't be changed if they are going to remain true to life and character.

I know that being a parent of two girls in that lower age group you're referring to has had an affect on what I write and what goes into my stories. Knowing they will be reading it someday, I am more conscientious about content than I would probably be without them. But that's because I'm their mother, and I do try not to be contradictory in the things I'm teaching them. Not always successful, but yeah. ;)

So write what you want to write and what your story dictates. And if you don't feel like something should be changed, don't change it. :)

Tere Kirkland said...

Corey, kids are like sponges, right? I know I was. Since I don't have kids, I forget how much they absorb from their surroundings.

Krispy, you are so right about not writing down. That's something else I worry about, which is what keeps me from writing mid-grade.

Tere Kirkland said...

Falen, I agree that parents need to, at the very least, be aware of what their kids are into, whether that's books, games, music, or whatever.

But as a YA writer, do I have a responsibility to the kids who read what I write? Not just to entertain, but to provide good role models? This is what's been bothering me.

Abby, I totally get what you mean. But it's not about compromising my values or what I think will make a good story at this point so much as the fact that I want to be someone that young girls look up to, also. I want the characters in my novels to be the same. I don't want to get so caught up in being an adult with my adult perceptions of the world, that I forget what it's like to be an impressionable kid.

I loved the fact that my parents never questioned what I read, but if I'm being honest with myself, I probably shouldn't have been reading Lasher, or the Valley of Horses when I was 13. That probably had a long-term effect on me. And what I consider appropriate for young girls to read. So I've been doing a lot of soul-searching.

(And most of the words I struck from the manuscript belonged to the Marquis de Sade, not me, so I didn't feel so bad doing it. ;D)

Eric said...

First off, it's not your responsibility as the author to police what children/YA's read. That's their parent's job. I'm a parent, and you can guarantee that I'm well aware of at least most of what my sons read (I have a teenager, so I won't claim 100% knowledge).

As for what your responsibility is, you have a responsibility to keep the writing real. I don't buy into the idea that you need to write characters as good role models. You need to write them with authenticity. The world isn't all rainbows and candy, and there's no reason to portray it as such (unless YOUR world is meant to be that way). Furthermore, YA's can feel and sense a lie quicker than lightning. If you're trying to craft an "after-school-special" character, they'll see it. And just like a reader of any other age, they deserve better than that. That doesn't mean you can't have decent characters, but you don't have a responsibility to guide or uplift your readers. See rule above on parenting.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

de Sade in YA? Well, I see where you might have questions. :D
One of my crit partners brought her 10-year-old to group one night. Luckily, none of us read anything too edgy. The girl loved my mermaid piece, but later her mom asked if there was going to be sex in my story because she hoped her daughter could read it. I felt a little sad to say yes, but I'm writing for upper YA, not MG, so sex exists in this world even though I won't be graphic with it. I think we have to be true to the story and characters but always remember who we're writing for and what our impact will be.
This is a very thoughtful post, and I appreciate your concern about this topic.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

It's good that you are aware of it. That means you're conscious of your target and are doing a good job, Tere. Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the parents, but I think it's something good writers stay aware of. :-)

Eric W. Trant said...

I don't think it matters so much what you write, or what target audience you have, so long as the package is CLEARLY LABELED.

Shrek says Hell and Damn and has a blatant sexual reference in #3.

Madagascar spells the word HELL on the beach.

Every "kids" movie is rated PG. As are the books, as you noted.

The reason is simple: they want to upsale a few age groups, and to do that the book/movie must break out of the G-rating and move into PG, or better yet, snag the coveted PG-13 (as in Avatar, Iron Man, and so forth).

Even the Potter series and Star Wars picked up on the PG-13 ratings.

In any case, it should be clearly labeled. That's a problem with books -- no rating system. As a parent, I have to guess and skim to see if books are appropriate.

- Eric

JEM said...

Tere, you're on the same wavelength as me :). I just wrote about this same thing today. I worry about what to write and the authenticity of it. I don't really have a good answer for it, but such is life.

Tere Kirkland said...

This is great advice. Eric Uno (because everything sounds better in Italian ;D), you're so right about authenticity. If Holden Caulfield has taught us anything it's that kids hate phonies. I think a lot of the stuff I struck for content, to be specific, some of the things a minor antagonist/obstacle character says, come straight from de Sade's Justine. I've only recently realized this might be a little inappropriate for a high school kid to be reading. (What? A dozen people plus a few agents have read it and nobody's ever mentioned anything until now, hence the sudden interest)

I included the references because I thought they added authenticity to the character, summed up his perspective on why he does what he does. But now I'm feeling like those things were a crutch, like I used his sadistic personality to show his character too much, making him a cardborad sort of character. I've isolated the specific passage and when I subtract anything to do with these references, much of the rest of his dialogue in this scene needs work. It's like I relied on the fluff to make the scene scarier, and I'm not sure it's working. And that's on top of the matter of whether the content is too R rated.

Thanks for your pov!

Tricia, impact, right. This is the word. I'm just embarrassed about how little thought I've put in it until now. Thanks.

Tere Kirkland said...

Shannon, I try to read pretty widely to be aware of what's out there, but I don't always read the books I hear about that push the boundaries of YA, like Tender Morsels or Boy Toy. I've never experienced sexual abuse of any kind, so reading most books wouldn't bother me. But I can't help thinking now of the effect my writing might have on those who have. Which bothers me a lot.

Eric Due, with my luck, It'd be my book that leads to a stricter rating of YA books. It just might be that bad. ;)

JEM, I'm glad I'm not the only one worried about this at this particular moment!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Tere, I came back over to see how the discussion was progressing (it interests me) and I see your response to Shannon. I didn't know abuse was part of your novel, but when it is, you have to sort that out properly if you don't want to negatively impact young readers. If you haven't, you might want to interview a therapist to find ways to do it and offer up some kind of healing or resolution. I don't know from personal experience, but I have heard other YA writers hit resistance when querying.
Or maybe it's not a YA that you're writing. You can write an adult novel with a young protagonist.

Tere Kirkland said...

Tricia, the problem with my story is that any sexual abuse is implied or off-screen, and is not happening to the mc. The bad guys are not very nice, as you can probably tell. But are they too bad for YA? That's the thing I'm not sure about, but I think I can tone down. Still, something that concerns me.


Plamena said...

My opinion in general is that as long as we write at an appropriate level for the age group we're writing for everything should be ok. Right? When I made my comment I meant that what you have in your book might push yours towards the older part of the YA range and I wasn't sure if that's what you wanted.

Of course, I wanted to mention that young readers are very impressionable. I know I was. Books had an EXTREME impact on me. I know I read a few adult books that were done to be flashy and popular but I picked up negative ideas from them about things I didn't have a lot of knowledge in and didn't find out that it was wrong information till years later. And I don't mean morally wrong, I mean just wrong facts that as an adult I would have laughed and shook my head at. And it wasn't just me that was so impressionable. I had a friend (and this really was a friend : P) who told me she had sex at a certain age because she thought that was just the age that it was ok. When I asked her why that age in particular, she said: I don't know, I guess it's because the main character from this book started having sex at that age so I grew up thinking that was the age that it was ok to start..."

Now, I know I'm probably just freaking you out more, but it's important to be aware that books are powerful and that readers are impressionable. (And they don't have to be very young readers. All readers are impressionable to an extent and all the books we read affect us.) And that doesn't mean let's make everything an after-school-special but just know that what you write does have an impact.

As for you being concerned about this topic, that is very good : ) You seem to be coming from both a moral kind of universal obligation to have good role models and also to be realizing that some of the scenes need work. Personally, I think you've already made your main characters good role models, whether you were consciously thinking about it or not. And if you feel that your scenes need work, then they do : P. I think the reason nobody mentioned the de Sade stuff before was because you had adults reading over it and because your book overall is not "dark". It's just a few scenes and they were not very important. I know they moved the plot forward but for me I found them pretty secondary and not where the heart of the story really was. I thought the real "villian" was Pennny and you did her pretty well. As for the Englishman and the other guys, if you want to make them more 3D, you'll probably have to make them more human and able for the reader to identify with them. Although if you did that and kept them as sadistic it would definitely be adult (and not even mainstream adult : P)

Ok, that's all for now. I was just reading over my comment and I hope it doesn't sound pretentious. Either way, I hope it helps : )

Tere Kirkland said...

Plamena, thanks for freaking me out more. ;) Kidding! And you totally don't sound pretentious.

Actually, I'm really glad you came by. I've always thought of Evangeline as Upper YA, but never really thought about WHY other than the fact that the mc is 17-18 in the book.

Whatever I decide that really means to the story, I do think it needs some changes, especially to better flesh out the antagonists. So I'm saving the fille de la garde stuff, maybe for an eventual adult paranormal novel. I don't mind freaking out adults since I can't be blamed for effing them up. ;)


Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Here's the deal, I don't want to write anything that I wouldn't want my own kids to read. I want them to experience a wonderful story that gives them characters that will help them with problems in their lives. A big task, especially since you don't want to come off preachy. But it's a tough world out there. Why not give YA something that will make them feel good and uplifted?

I'm just saying...