I have YA on the brain.
I did an event in Long Beach this weekend that was very YA-centric. I'm also excited that RWA has asked me to do a Screenwriting Tricks workshop for their national conference in Anaheim with a specifically YA focus. So of course I'm going to be experimenting on - I mean, running things by - you all - as I prep for that workshop.
Honestly, the key story elements we're always talking about here are the absolute same for any genre. And YA isn't even a genre, it's really an umbrella for EVERY genre, but with a particular age level in mind (um, vaguely).
But there are some focuses (foci?) that are specific to YA that I'm looking forward to spotlighting, and issues about writing YA that I'm looking forward to exploring, and I'm going to be hitting those in the next couple of months, in no particular order, as is my wont.
And at least for me, the very first issue has got to be -
Is there such a thing as TOO dark in YA?
I know, I know, I can hear you all thinking back at me: Well, Hunger Games is dark. Twilight is – well, at least twisted. The Wicked Lovely series is TRULY twisted, and dark, especially in later books. Beautiful Creatures deals very realistically with teenage depression in a fantastical setting. Forest of Hands and Teeth has ZOMBIES, yo, of course it’s dark!
But fantastical dark, or paranormal dark, or sci-fi dark, or steampunk dark, or dystopian dark, is different from dark as it happens in real life. For example, I love the first Hunger Games, but it’s SO high concept - for once I’ll use the odious “It’s ---- Meets -----!!!!!!!“ paradigm: It’s Survivor meets The Lottery!!!!!!!!
I mean, unquestionably brilliant, but let’s face it, there is nothing that is not Hollywood about it. And Hollywood just doesn’t do dark, these days. Not on a budget over $1 million, anyway, not since the seventies (or unless you’re Steven Spielberg and you’re doing the Holocaust. But that was a good while ago, even so.).
The sheer VASTNESS of the Hunger Games setting undercuts the darkness of it. These days, Hollywood is not going to go all the way to the dark side. Sorry, but it’s simply not. Edgy, fine, but Katniss is not going to die, okay? That’s not a spoiler, it’s just the way it is.
(Check back at the end of this month - I'll definitely be breaking down the film after it premieres!).
But that’s what I’m trying to get at for today’s discussion. Dark in a fantastical, paranormal, dystopian, sci-fi setting, is not the same as dark as it happens . . . in real life.
Now, I’ve read some dark YA. Dark as I am, I tend to seek out the dark. Um, compulsively. And currently, for me, the winner of that particular lottery on the YA front is Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, a riveting and completely realistic exploration of a high school boy who walks the line between high school jock narcissism and sociopathy, and –
Well, read it. It’s not pretty.
Speak is dark, too. Can you believe people have tried to ban this book? Like, let’s pretend rape just doesn’t happen. After all, it wasn’t even a felony for. . . a REALLY REALLY LONG TIME. Oh and especially don’t let teenage girls know how often this happens, with them as the primary target. Although boys certainly aren’t exempt—but that’s even darker to write about, isn’t it? Nobody wants to talk about THAT. But with that monster Jerry Sandusky all over the news, maybe we’ll finally have to.
But this is the thing for me as a writer, writing dark YA. What I write, personally, is a cross between reality and - supernatural, paranormal, horror, whatever you want to call it – it confuses even me. So when I write dark, which I do with my adult thrillers and which I have done in spades with my own first YA, THE SPACE BETWEEN, it’s fantastical, sort of, and supernatural, sort of, and sci-fi, sort of, and horror, sort of - and maybe even paranormal, sort of - but the thing that makes it dark is the reality of it.
A reality so dark that I made this novel my first indie-published novel after - five traditionally published books and four more traditionally contracted books coming in the pipeline. I didn’t even want to try to publish The Space Between traditionally, because I didn’t want to undercut the reality of it, and I didn’t want to fight with the powers that be about the content, I just wanted to DO it. Because I REMEMBER high school. I had a wonderful time in so very many ways; our school had an awesome theater department and I had some of the best times and the best professional training of my life there. But I remember how – outside theater – how high school really was, the stuff no one really talks about. And I’m not just remembering as a student – I taught incarcerated teenagers in the Los Angeles County prison system before I sold my first film script, when I was just 22 years old, so as a young teacher I was able to observe the darkness of that teen age while I still had all the feelings of BEING that age. And it impacted me, let me tell you.
So my first and only-so-far YA is dark in a way I was just too uneasy to unleash on traditional publishing. It’s not like there’s no hope in it, I swear! In fact, because of the subject matter, there are so many potential endings, light and dark, I’m going to have to make the whole thing a trilogy. But I did not want anyone telling me you CAN’T DO THAT, and I truly believed that was what would happen. I’m a hopelessly right-brained person in reality but I had to research and come to some understanding of advanced algebra, probability, and quantum physics just to make this book a reality, and I knew going into it that the scariness of the science involved could make it a hard sell, let alone the themes of school shootings, sexual harassment, sexual predators, mental illness, PTSD, dwarfism, some pretty brutal bullying and teenage sex. But no one was going to tell me I couldn’t do it, and the miraculous thing is, these days, we authors don’t have to worry about people telling us what we can and can’t do.
And so far, so good. The book IS too dark for some people but it really lights others up with its subject matter, fascinating dreamworld and emotonal reality.
So my questions for the day are: Do you ever worry about writing TOO dark? Can you give me examples of YA books that are so dark that you are shocked they were ever published?
Or – tell me how was your high school? Light? Dark? Grey?
And please, if you know any – give me good examples of YA horror. I’d just like to know!
The Space Between - $2.99 on Amazon and Nook
Sixteen-year old Anna Sullivan is having terrible dreams of a massacre at her school. Anna’s father is a mentally unstable veteran, her mother vanished when Anna was five, and Anna might just chalk the dreams up to a reflection of her crazy waking life — except that Tyler Marsh, the most popular guy at the school and Anna’s secret crush, is having the exact same dream.
Despite the gulf between them in social status, Anna and Tyler connect, first in the dream and then in reality. As the dreams reveal more, with clues from the school social structure, quantum physics, probability, and Anna's own past, Anna becomes convinced that they are being shown the future so they can prevent the shooting…
If they can survive the shooter — and the dream.
"Alexandra Sokoloff has created an intricate tapestry; a dark Young Adult novel with threads of horror and science fiction that make it a true original. Loaded with graphic, vivid images that place the reader in the midst of the mystery and danger, The Space Between takes psychological elements, quantum physics and multiple dimensions with parallel universes and creates a storyline that has no equal. A must-read. " -- Suspense Magazine.
Also now available, definitely NOT YA, although it does deal with troubled older teens:
Download now, $3.99
(Remember, you don't need a Kindle; you can download a free Kindle app to your PC or Mac or i pad or phone).
An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem to solve a series of Satanic killings.
"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn't-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended." - Lee Child
"Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones." --- Library Journal
"Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they've devoured the book." --- Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars