YA Common Clichés Series: Issue Novels

| Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Today's Tune: Crystal Vases

If you haven't entered for a chance to win a signed copy of BITTERBLUE by Kristen Cashore, you should probably get on that.

This episode of Common Clichés is going to go a little differently than most of its predecessors. That's because this particular subsection of YA is pretty darn specific, so there isn't a huge amount of variation in the topics covered and general structure. Although, frankly, some writers seriously know how to rock an issue novel. They are by no means stagnant things with only so many variations. They can be full of metaphor and incredible prose and experimental storytelling. But there are some common ruts people fall into.

First, let's talk about what an issue/problem novel is. Many novels tackle difficult topics or have subplots dedicated to something you'd find in an issue novel. However, in order for a book to be an issue/problem novel, the primary storyline is about the protagonist dealing with and moving past (or being overcome by) the "problem." These books are about overcoming or being consumed by an issue that a lot of teens face on a daily basis, and the characters and story serve to dramatize the problem into story format. Because of this, a lot of issue novels walk the dangerous line of being preachy "lesson" books. Which brings us to our subjects.

Below are a few traps a writer might fall into while trying to tackle an issue novel.

Subject #6: The Issue Novel

Focusing too much on teaching teenagers the "right" way to act. Many wannabe issue novels end up devolving into this sort of horror show of LOOK WHAT YOUR LIFE WILL BECOME IF YOU MAKE BAD CHOICES. Of course, the "bad choices" are subjective and often steeped in a heavy sense of the author's personal morality. It's always important to remember to come at these issues from a teenager's point of view, not from your distant adult perch of Right and Wrong. If there's one thing young adults are good at, it's spotting when they're being lectured or condescended to. And they tend to tune out.

The protagonist is a goody two-shoes who's tempted by a "friend" to do something Not Good. When this happens, one of the two following scenarios occur: the main character makes some shady choices, hurts someone close to them, then snaps out of it, but not before the "friend" turns out to be a horrible person and an example of How Not To Be. Alternatively, the protagonist themselves becomes that particular life lesson, showing how even a "good" kid can become a horrible human being for making one bad decision.

If sexual abuse is involved, it gets far too intimate and male-gazey, rather than acting as a true representation of abuse and survival. It's very difficult to handle sexual assault well. When you read a sexual abuse scene, it's almost always easy to tell whether the author actually has the experience to draw on, or if they've worked closely with people who have. No two experiences are the same, but there are certain cues you learn to look for. When too much focus is placed on the act itself rather than the fallout, or the scene is set in a way that feels like watching a sex scene instead of a horrible act, it becomes clear that it's been handled badly. This is a touchy topic, because there's no right or wrong way for someone to deal with sexual assault, but there are certain things to absolutely NOT do because they don't ring true and they can be severely triggering.

Believing that the "issue" is enough to carry an entire book. Everybody's already played the deck straight, dudes. Issue novels are very difficult to find a place for because so many of them have already been done and there's little that's new or different about them. As with any other novel, you must have a functional STORY, and it must be fresh in some way. Whether that's voice, structure, approach, character, setting, or whatever, you need to push harder than "Girl falls tragically in love with dying boy." Okay. What else?

Cancer books. Many, many, many people have tackled The Cancer Book. YA Cancer Books can be especially difficult because the sufferer is often so young, with so much potential life yet ahead of them. It's hard to write such a book with the right amount of nuance, and it's nearly impossible to find an approach that hasn't already been done. It can be done, though. And well. You just have to find a way to say what's already been said in a different way, and try not to overdose on tragedy porn. Cancer is a real disease that affects real people. Don't steep it too heavily in theatrics, lest you belittle the experiences of those actually going through it.

Drugs are always bad and will always ruin your life. I'm not gonna lie, it's probably impossible to write an issue novel about drugs without, well, showing the negative side of drugs. But too often, writers reach too far and only show this sort of overblown seedy underbelly of "the drug life" that hedges on the unbelievable. It's difficult for a teen to take criticism of drug use seriously when they're bombarded with ridiculous scenes like people smoking a joint and then immediately leaping into severe heroin addiction. Balance, subtlety, and realism are key.

ALL OR NOTHING. Related to the above, it's really not realistic to take the all or nothing approach to a lot of issues. If you display something like, say, premarital sex as only ever resulting in terrible tragedy, pregnancy, STDs, and death, you're going to have a lot of eyerolls on your hands. It is okay to show that some things can be done responsibly, and it's abuse of those things that's the problem.

Eating disorders are only for vain girls or easily manipulated protagonists with low self-esteem. Oh my goodness, please be careful with eating disorders. Body image is a big, messy, painful subject for teenagers. You do not want to imply that the only reason someone would have an eating disorder is because of vanity. Social pressure, acceptance, body dysmorphia, need for control, and the dozens of other reasons people turn to EDs have nothing to do with superficiality. It is so. Much. More. Complicated.

Suicide is something only selfish people do. Stop. Stop right now. Turn around, go back to Start, and roll again. If you are someone who really believes that people end their lives because they're just too self-absorbed to think of anyone else, you need to check yourself pretty hard. And don't write a book about it. Go read up on the psychology behind suicidal tendencies and maybe, I don't know, read some essays by folks who have been suicidal. See also: self-harm is for attention-seekers. STOP.

Avoid using the issue novel to tell your personal autobiogaphy, or the biography of a friend without their permission. It seems a lot of people have this idea that they can use portions of their own life to write a book, change a few names, and consider it a complete story. They think: "Well, this really happened to me! It was very important in my life! It changed me! Surely it makes a good story!" And you guys, that stuff rarely makes a good story. That sounds horrible, because of course things like this are extremely personal, and when someone tells you that a random series of events doesn't make a good story, it feels like they're saying YOUR LIFE is not a good story. Which is why you should avoid using your life as a story guide. Furthermore, it's a bad idea to use a "friend" of yours and their life as fodder for your story without their knowledge. That's not yours to tell.

I think that's probably enough to go on for now. How do you feel about issue novels, guys? Anything else to add?


{ prerna pickett } at: December 5, 2012 at 9:10 AM said...

I hate when a writer tries to convey their personal belief with the message in their story. Laurie Halse Anderson is a great example of an author tackling an issue with honesty and focusing on the character's struggle and their journey to overcome them rather than send a message.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: December 7, 2012 at 5:31 AM said...

We love issue novels, when they're done right. A couple of us are attempting to write "tough stuff" stories ourselves, so we appreciate your breakdown of the common cliches to avoid. (And we're happy to say that we seem to be doing pretty well!)

It's like walking a tightrope, you know? Gotta strike a careful balance -- can't go too much one way, nor too much the other.

{ Sarah } at: December 8, 2012 at 6:29 PM said...

Yeah. I hate when an author is obviously preaching at me, and I have the feeling teens hate it even more.

{ ashleecowles } at: January 3, 2013 at 5:53 AM said...

I agree that a "preachy" novel is annoying, but is it truly possible for any author to write a story they care about without conveying some of their own beliefs or a "message"? For example, I would say that John Green's books have a very overt message or strong philosophy behind them, but I don't think most would consider them preachy. Anyone else have thoughts on what makes the difference?

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: January 3, 2013 at 7:50 AM said...

Sure, any author's personal feelings are likely to be conveyed in their work, but John Green (since you cited him as an example) and many other authors will tell you that they are NOT their characters, and characters often convey ideals they themselves don't hold. The difference, to me, is in whether your goal is to "teach a lesson," or to tell a story.

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