Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Dark Side of YA

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!

- Alex


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.

Download now:

Amazon UK
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Amazon IT


Also now available, definitely NOT YA, although it does deal with troubled older teens:

Download now, $3.99

Amazon UK

Amazon DE
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Amazon FR
Amazon IT

(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


chihuahuazero said...

Nice article. One thing that I like about YA that it matures, a good way, year by year.

Also I recently download THE SPACE BETWEEN.

Cheryl said...

I'm excited that you're going to talk about elements specific to YA (because that's what I write!). Looking forward to your insights!

As for book recs:
Have you read A MONSTER CALLS Patrick Ness? The cover makes it look more horrific than it really is, but it does have a dark edge to it. It's about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, and who is visited every midnight by a monster. It's a really well written book.

Maxwell said...

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick is pretty dark, in a semi-realistic way. I only saw the movie, but the book is on my list of things to read. Sharon Stone was in it, but I think it really only Hollywood because somebody blinked. The upshot of story goes beyond the kid buddy movie to not just imply, but state, that each of two kids is only half a person. It's a symbiotic, but non-sexual, partnership of sorts.

It's quite interesting on many levels. I'd call it dark because it runs so contrary to the "every one of you can grow up to be president," mantra we've all heard. Clearly neither of these kids will fully transcend their damaged lives.

Jenni Legate said...

I really liked The Space Between. I thought you did a great job with the physics and the darkness. I also thought it was very topical with so many school shootings across the country over the past decade. It is something teens have to be thinking about, and I thought it was wonderful that you tackled the subject where others might fear to.

Bad things happen in life. We try to protect our kids, but sometimes the best protection they could have is to be able to read a dark subject matter and work out for themselves in the reading what the dangers and pitfalls of a situation may be.

I was an avid reader from an early age, and one thing I really thank my parents for is that they didn't try to censor everything I read. Before I was even a teenager, I remember reading some very adult material off my parents' bookshelf. I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank when I was in grade school - what could be darker than that?

I think teens can handle way more intense subject matter than we tend to give them credit for. And in this country, I think the effort to keep things from being too dark can be somewhat misguided at times. By the age of 15/16, I think a lot of kids have already had some experience of the dark sides of life. When they see older siblings marching off to war, have a friend who got caught up in drugs, know someone who shows up at school with bruises, or watch the news and see the latest school shooting, I don't see how keeping them from reading that subject matter is going to help them sort these issues out for themselves.

So, I applaud you tackling the darkness in your YA novels. I'm glad you have the experience and the guts to tackle the hard subjects and prove the critics wrong!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank you, CO!! Hope you respond to the book.

You're so right about YA maturing every year, I feel exactly the same way. We owe so much to Rowling, it's not even funny.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wow, Cheryl, that sounds fantastic! I love books that make the metaphor real. Thanks, I will get right now it! And please jump in and argue with me about YA. in these upcoming blogs. One of the things that scares me about tackling the topic is that it's just SO vast, and so much of the genre has been generated in just the last 10 years that it's impossible to have read everything that I know I should be reading!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Maxwell, another great recommendation. You describe it so well - and I think that symbiotic relationship is really pervasive in the high school years. Thank you, I'lll definitely check it out!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

JL, thank you - I'm so glad you responded to the book.

I had the same experience with my parents - I could read anything I wanted and I always just gravitated toward the dark stuff because it dealt squarely with things I saw happening around me. It was almost always adult books, though. These days YA is moving into those same subjects, and thank God, because I think creating a false disconnect between reality and what's allowed to be expressed in conversation and on the page can really warp people's consciousnesses.

As a teenager I was constantly having the feeling of - am I the ONLY one seeing this? It was very disturbing.

Dawn Kurtagich said...

Great blog, as always!

I always find Ellen Hopkin's stuff pretty dark, and realistic. Another was "Go Ask Alice".

A YA that was beautifully written but also completely shocking (deals with incest) was Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma.

A Certain Age by Rebecca Ray deals with old/young sexual relationships and was quite graphic at times.

YA is so diverse, but I find that editors are still a bit scared by extremes that are too extreme. It is rare for a house to take on something that risky now, (especially within the US) as editors are being very careful in the books they acquire.

kellye said...


I appreciate you saying that YA isn't a "genre." That's what so many people don't understand, when they start talking about YA as if it's only one thing, for one kind of reader.

Also, as someone who aspires to be traditionally published in YA, I'm fascinated by your decision to self-publish this book after your success with traditional publishing. Of course, it's hard to say whether THE SPACE BETWEEN would have been traditionally published or what, if anything, an editor would have asked you to change. I think it's a fascinating time in publishing now and while I'm not wanting to go go the indie route right now, I never say never. Good luck with this. I've downloaded the book and am looking forward to reading it. I hope you'll post again about your thoughts on self-publishing after you've have some time to see how it goes.

I read a lot, a bit of everything, although I'm not a huge horror fan. Contemporary YA is my favorite. This idea of what's "too dark" for YA--or if there is such a thing--comes up every now and then and is always fascinating. Of course, many teens are reading adult lit, and no one asks if those books are "too dark" for readers.

When I got my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, we had to write a critical thesis on some aspect of the literature. I focused on YA with rape as a theme, and used SPEAK and INEXCUSABLE, as well as EVERY TIME A RAINBOW DIES by Rita Williams-Garcia and TARGET by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson. All four are excellent, told from various perspectives. In TARGET, a teen boy is the victim of a rape.

Patricia McCormick's CUT and Cheryl Rainfield's SCARS both deal with cutting . . . and there are many more high-quality YA novels that deal with difficult, dark, real-life issues. Some have said that Robert Cormier was the first to write YA without a happy ending--The Chocolate War—and many of his other books. He once reportedly said: "I write for the smartest reader I can think of. That reader just happens to be 16." I agree.

No matter how dark a book is, I think an element of hope is essential (and, to me, also realistic). One of the reasons have no interest in reading Franzen's FREEDOM is that it sounds like a long book about a bunch of misanthropes, which doesn't sound fun, entertaining, enlightening or interesting to me.

Another issue for me in looking at dark YA is this: Does "the darkness" (for lack of a better word) occur organically and is it integral to the story? If not, cut it. Authors have to guard against censoring themselves, but I also think there comes a time (late in revision) when it's good to ask some questions about the story, and if possible tweaks might make the book accessible for more readers. (Of course, the answer might be "yes," and a writer still might not want to do it,, for a variety of good reasons. I just think it's good to consider this.) Obviously, each situation is individual--as is each book and each reader.

By the way, I'm a big Chris Lynch fan, and he includes necrophilia in another of his books. (ICEMAN, I think?) Thanks for a great post!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Dawn, you've summed up what most authors I talk to think is the core issue on the darkness question: that editors are reluctant to go all the way to the edge, just given the whole state of publishing right now. But as a kid I would have DEMANDED the edge, so - we'll see.

Thanks for all the great suggestions! You guys are really expanding my reading list!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wonderful post, Kellye! I've read most of the books you're talking about except for TARGET, which I really need to check out.

I mentioned this to you yesterday, but most of my author friends are publishing direct to e these days as well as traditionally publishing, and more and more are foregoing traditional contracts altogether. I've always been a big believer in diversity of income streams and doing both indie publishing and traditional publishing makes total sense to me.

Of course, that's easier to say once you have several books under your belt. When you're talking about a FIRST book it's a really, really hard decision.

Stephen said...

YA is a tough one for me as I am trying to determine whether to change the characters of my story to fit in the market. Currently, my first main character is stranded on the other side of the world due to a technological disaster, and wants to get back home to his wife. My second main character is his wife, and I also write from her point of view and the travails she goes through as she survives the disaster. I wondered if I have a larger market(ie YA) for my novel if I make the second main character the husband's son, not the wife.

kellye said...

Eeek. I should have proof-read my comments! (Gotta love a good editor, right?) Target is a really great book, and I have enjoyed her other books, too.

I used to be a full-time freelancer (nonfiction for adults) and I agree with you about the importance of difference revenue steams, AND your point about how it's a difficult decision for someone starting out. It's good that authors do have more options these days, I think. And despite the craziness of publishing right now, I do feel more excited than fearful about what the future will hold in terms of different ways that writers can tell their stories and reach readers.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, the first consideration ALWAYS has to be - which is the better book? If you're not feeling good about writing the wife's story and you feel you would do better writing it from the boy's POV, by all means. But writing to the market is suicide. NO ONE knows. What do you FEEL?

Of course I like the Odyssey references, btw!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Good grief, Kellye, I think we ALL have to forgive typos on the Internet. Hopefully people forgive mine...

You SHOULD be excited about the possibilities. We all should. It's a wonderful time to be an author. Better than it ever has been. It's the golden age.

Stephen said...

Hi Alexandra,
Thanks for the tip. The wife feels more natural for me, and it didn't hit me until now that it's like the Odyssey! BTW, love reading your blog posts.

Holly Y said...

I am working on a historical YA. Again, how realistic to make the past is a big question. On the one hand, I want to show readers that the past was a dirty, icky, smelly place without a lot of protections for children. On the other hand, too much realism will make some people think I made stuff up. Sigh.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, it's totally The Odyssey! Which is great for you. Reread it and GO for it, is what I say.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Holly, myself, I would go for the dirty, ugly, smelly reality of it. Which I can't say is the COMMERCIAL option.

I am always wondering, though - how much might Dickens have changed the world, how much more civilized we might be, if he'd been true to the reality of the sexual abuse, physical abuse, EVERYTHING that you know was going on that never quite made it into his otherwise very realistic novels.

Angie McCullagh said...

Fabulous post! I'm a YA writer, though not particularly interested in the super dark or the super high concept. I do think darkness has its place in YA, just like the cotton candy chick lit has its place. YAers need a breadth of choices from which to choose. And I'm glad you went indie with The Space Between. That's where it's at.

Anonymous said...

My high school experience was definitely gray. And I think it's important to have dark material out there. Reality is dark. It's not all sweetness and light and rainbows and kittens. If it was, then a lot of art wouldn't exist.

I don't write YA and what I do write tends to be more gray than black, although my current WiP is trying to fight me on that. But if someone says something YA is "too dark," then it's like they're saying that kind of stuff doesn't happen to that age group. And it does. All the time. Denying its presence in fiction cheapens the fact of its actual existence.

I so hate censorship.

Great post!