Males and YA Novels

One of the more surprising realizations for me as I began reading and writing in the Young Adult genre was the relative absence of male writers and male readership. By way of explanation, it’s a historical fact that in its nascent years the novel served as a gateway for many female writers to enter into the world of letters while they remained barred from passing through the more highly-regarded literary portals of poetry and drama. As cases in point, think Austen, Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and Mary Shelley – all authors of the early nineteenth century. I cannot name a single female poet or playwright of a measure equal to any of these women novelists until, at least, the second half of the same century. Although it would be a great understatement of the scope of these stellar writers’ works, it is a truth that, to a certain degree, they wrote to and for a largely female audience. It stands to reason, therefore, that the novel, in general and as a result of its feminine origins, has remained a genre of particular favor to women.

The next time you are in a bookstore or library or on a bus, train, or plane, study the aisles in which the males and females browse or the books on their respective laps. I’d suggest that the men you find wandering the bookstore will largely be congregated in nonfiction sections or amongst the periodicals, and those with their noses in a book or magazine will be reading a text mined from those areas. I would argue that the opposite reality will hold true for women readers. They are much more likely to be found amongst the fiction titles and to be reading novels during their commutes or down time. Scientific? Not at all. Overgeneralization? Probably. True? I think so. What does this say about men and women? I don’t know, but if I were a single man, I know where I’d go to find an interesting woman worth dating. And I can’t think of a better conversation starter than, “What are you reading?”

Even still, the discrepancy in the number of female writers of young adult novels compared with males is shocking. For example, I recently joined a wonderful group of YA/MA writers called the Elevensies, all writers whose debut novels will appear in 2011, thus the name. Fewer than ten of the seventy-eight current members are males. As further evidence of the disparity, in the June 27, 2010, New York Times list of Chapter Book Bestsellers (in which YA titles are included), only three of the top ten are written by males; whereas, in the Hardcover Fiction category, the numbers are exactly reversed. From my own experience as a classroom teacher, it is quite common to witness female students carrying YA titles; whereas, the book-reading males (of which there are many more than most people think) are typically tackling more mainstream “adult” titles.

Now comes the “chicken or the egg” conundrum: Do YA authors not write for boys because boys don’t read YA? Or, do boys not read YA because YA authors don’t write for them? Or is there a third possibility? Do boys not read YA because of the paucity of male YA authors? I think that it is fair to argue that the surrendering of the YA field by male writers is the cause of the preponderance of feminine themes and issues, largely reflective of uniquely female sensibilities, in YA titles. Themes that just don’t resonate with young men.

The young adult male reader is a coveted, largely-untapped market for publishers, but it is one so elusive that they have all but given up trying. Without question, there have been many female YA authors who have concocted male characters accurately reflective of the thoughts, desires, and behaviors of real world boys or young men; however, I also believe that, en masse, male authors have failed the generations of young male readers following in their wake. I believe it’s time for more of us men who have survived through our adolescence and into adulthood to enter the lists, armed with hindsight, in the quest to not only engage the young male mind but also to lay it open for the study of the many female YA fans, who in their real lives struggle to make sense of the simultaneously simple yet impossible-to-fathom species known as the “Guy.”

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/So-Shelly-Ty-Roth/dp/0385739583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277759993&sr=1-1; Barnes and Noble:  http://search.barnesandnoble.com/So-Shelly/Ty-Roth/e/9780385739580/?itm=2&USRI=so+shelly; Borders:http://www.borders.com/online/store/Home;  Books-A-Million:http://www.booksamillion.com/product/9780385739580?id=4777602269282; and IndiBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385739580.

The Author and Agent Relationship

When reading authors’ acknowledgements, the blogs of fellow writers, or perusing comments on various writers’ group sites, I frequently make note of the effusive praise and affection these writers heap upon their agents, especially debut authors like myself. It’s not that I’m surprised, after all, agents grant writers’ most cherished wishes and actually make dreams come true. It only makes sense that writers develop such strong emotional ties with their agents. What’s not to love? But I wonder if it’s healthy or if, perhaps, it’s a little misguided.

Don’t get me wrong; I have profound gratitude and respect for my agent. Without her, there’s a good chance I’d still be an “aspiring writer” rather than a soon-to-be-published author. She proved her acumen by skillfully pitching my work and negotiating a significant advance and a two-book deal with the world’s largest publisher, but she didn’t do it out of the kindness of her heart or for free. It’s important to remember that she had and retains a financial stake in my books’ success, and I don’t begrudge her one penny. She has earned her share. In fact, if her stake was 50%, I wouldn’t complain. Without her expertise and talents, I’d still be writing for free and for my own gratification.

Sometimes, however, I wonder how these smitten authors would respond when their book fails to be picked up or it tanks. What if their agents decide to terminate their relationship, a not infrequent occurrence. Will they be left disillusioned and bitter? Will it be like losing a best friend? A lover? A spouse? How will they overcome such a devastating blow to their careers? Will they ever query again?

In the ten months in which I’ve been represented, my agent and I have built what is largely a business relationship. We have never met in person (She is on the West Coast; I am in Ohio.); therefore, I have never shaken her hand or looked into her eyes. We have spoken maybe five times by phone and have primarily communicated through emails (We’ve actually gone months at a time with nary a word.) – not much upon which to build a friendship. We are certainly friendly, but friends? My friends and those I love, I see frequently and we are in almost constant communication. Our relationship has nothing to do with business, finances, or careers. Actually, I’ve always made it a point to keep my friendships and business relationships separate. They make for a potentially volatile mix.

With that said, over time and, hopefully, after working together to carve out a successful writing career, I hope our mutual appreciation, respect, and trust will evolve into a rewarding and lifelong friendship. She’s a fascinating woman; I would consider myself fortunate should she ever count me among her friends.

It may sound cold and it may not be for everyone, but from the beginning, my mantra has been “Be professional.” It has worked for me, and for now, at least, that’s the type of relationship I desire with my agent. While basking in the warm fuzzies of signing with an agent and selling to an editor, I think it behooves us all to remember that the publishing industry can be as harsh and heartless as any.

Since You Asked . . .

I thought that I’d take few minutes to answer a few of the most prevalent questions I receive regarding my debut novel, So Shelly.

1. How did you come up with the title of So Shelly? (Borrowed from my interview at Trisha’s Book Blog at http://trishasbookshelf.blogspot.com/)

When discussing the life and poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley in my senior English classes, I often found myself referring to his romantic philosophies and naïve, Pollyanna-like endeavors as being “So Shelley” – as in “It’s so Shelley to think that he could change the world through poetry.” From there, the idea of a tragic novel centered on a similar-minded, modern-day, teenage romantic was spawned. I then incorporated the two most famous members of Percy Shelley’s literary circle, Lord Byron and John Keats, as additional characters and the novel was born. Romanticism is, in general, a world view for young people; therefore, the subject matter was a natural fit for a young adult novel.

Wanting a female protagonist, I converted the title character to a girl and changed the spelling to “Shelly.” To be honest, I half-expected the publisher to change the title, but I think they recognized something unique and attention-getting about the title and that it effectively complements the story.

2. “Am I (the asker not the author) in it?”
The answer to this is a little tricky, but unless you were alive two hundred years ago and ran in the professional and personal circles of Byron, the Shelleys, or Keats, the answer is “No.” Also, none of the modern characters are directly based on real people. With that said, however, there are probably bits and pieces of everyone I’ve ever known mixed into the characters who people the novel. I invite you to search for the pieces of you inside the pages.

3. “Does it take place in Sandusky, Ohio (my hometown)?”
Again, the answer is both “Yes” and “No.” The setting is a fictional town, along Lake Erie, in between Cleveland and Toledo. For those of you familiar with Sandusky, it sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, not exactly. Without question, some of the demographics, geological descriptions, places, and social issues faced by the citizens of Ogontz (the name of the fictional town and an early name for, you guessed it, Sandusky) are based upon those of my hometown; however, I have often bent reality to fit the needs of the story. One of my literary idols, William Faulkner continually fictionalized the Mississippi county in which he spent nearly his entire life. The idea of mining one place, without ever exhausting it, has fascinated me since I was first exposed to Faulkner’s work during college. Both of my next two books are set in the same locale.

4. “Are you going to be rich and famous?
The answer to both of these is “It’s highly unlikely.”

5. “Are you going to quit teaching?”
Not in the foreseeable future. I love teaching. I love high school, and I love spending my days with young adults. Many of my best ideas have been and continue to be generated in the halls classrooms, and practice fields of the high schools at which I have taught or continue to teach. High school is a place where dreams are born and incubated. It’s a place of romantic optimism and idealism. It’s the best part of the Yellow Brick Road: the beginning. I can’t imagine not teaching – at least part-time – for a very long time. If, however, the “highly unlikely” (see #4) happens, I reserve the right to change this answer.

6. “Is your next book a sequel to So Shelly?
I am currently putting the finishing touches on my second novel. It is not a sequel; however, the setting remains the same, and several of the minor characters return. The idea is to mimic actual high school, where the students move on but much else remains after graduation. With that said, I have begun working on a sequel, just in case sales of So Shelly make a follow-up desirable and because I really love the characters and feel there is more story to tell.

7. “Will you sign my book?”
Are you kidding? How many ways can I say, “I love you,” just for asking.

Those are some of the most common questions posed of me. If you have any additional questions, feel free to pose them in the “Comments,” and I’ll respond either in a comment myself or, maybe, in an additional blog, should I receive enough of them.

The Secret to My Success

My entry into the exclusive world of publication occurred according to the oft-quoted principle “If you love something, let it go,” or in the same vein as finding your lost keys by ceasing to look for them. The first three novels I wrote met only with the many and varying forms of rejections aspiring writers have learned to parse for hidden meanings and motivations. I also wrote each of these novels because I passionately wanted to be an author. Passion is obviously an important element in the pursuit of any goal; however, sometimes, intensity becomes inexpedient to success by creating a massive and nearly unbearable burden of self-expectation. When I began writing my fourth, soon-to-be-first-published novel, my motivation had switched from wanting to be an author to wanting to tell a story. It changed everything.

Wanting so badly to be an author and to enjoy all of the profession’s benefits (status, relative celebrity, income, etc.) lead me to tune in too closely to current trends and to seek and take the advice of far too many readers and experts. The end result was that I managed to wring out of my writing much of what made my style, voice, and stories unique, and the novels that I unsuccessfully queried lacked the necessary uniqueness to be plucked from the slush pile and to hook an agent. Ironically, I was choking the life and potential out of my own work.

When I began So Shelly, I was determined to complete it my way. The odds of it being agented, based upon my previous tries and the dismal success rates of aspiring novelists, were infinitesimally small. It wasn’t difficult, therefore, to convince myself that, if I was going to fail, I would do so following my own instincts. Clearly, I had nothing to lose. That attitude proved to be freeing for me. By not letting go but loosening my grip on my dream, I felt no pressure. I didn’t need to be an author. I already had a teaching job and life, in general, that was fulfilling and that I loved. As a result of this shift in focus, during the process of writing So Shelly, I had more fun than during the penning of all of my previous novels combined, and I landed an agent and a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Imitation is suicide and envy is ignorance.” I think aspiring writers are often hindered by the imitation and envy of published authors (I know I was.). In so doing, they unintentionally sacrifice the very elements that provide them at least a “puncher’s chance”: their individual take on the world and their means of capturing it in their unique voice.

If any of this applies to you, as a writer or in the pursuit of any goal, consider rediscovering the joy inherent in the endeavor that originally inspired your dream by returning to you and finding contentment in the journey rather than the often unreachable destination.

10 Best Moments (So Far)

A list of my Ten Best Experiencs as an Agented and Soon-to-be-Published Author:

10. The countless congratulations and well-wishes I’ve received from family, friends, and
even strangers.
9. When I told my parents about my book deal.
8. When I interviewed with Linda from Layinda’s Blog.
7. When I interviewed with Sarah Weber from the Sandusky Register.
6. When I got the first payment on my advance.
5. When So Shelly became available for pre-order on every major online bookstore.
4. When I received the final book jacket for So Shelly and saw my name on the cover.
3. When I received “The Call” and offer of representation from my agent Kathleen Boyle at Veritas Literary Agency.
2. When, after nearly five months of a grueling editing process, my editor at Random
House/Delacorte, Michelle Poploff, signed off on my final revisions with, “A terrific read! We’ll take it from here.”
1. When Michelle, my editor, greeted me for the first time with the words, “Welcome to Random House.”

Those are my favorite “pinch me” moments so far. I look forward to re-imagining this list as So Shelly continues its journey to the shelves of a bookstore near you. For my fellow writers, I’d love to know your best moments, real or imagined.

Conquering the YA Blues

Not long ago, I was in a local bookstore browsing titles by Suzanne Collins and Sarah Dessen when a sales clerk, without a hint of irony, suggested that it was a shame that these authors were shelved in the Young Adult section. Her implied meaning being that Collins and Dessen were too good to be sentenced to the ignominy of a YA designation. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that I am an author of young adult fiction myself; instead, I bore her unintended insult and slunk out of the store with a renewed case of the YA Blues. In retrospect I should have informed her that like Trix cereal, YA is for kids but adults love it too, but, then again, she should have known that already.

I did not begin my authorial career purposefully writing YA. It was only after receiving a rejected partial from an agent, in which she suggested that my work seemed more suited for that genre, that I began to write in the young adult category. Of course, I balked. “I don’t write for kids,” I insisted to myself. “I’m a writer of serious fiction.” However, after further considering the agent’s advice, the number of canonical literary pieces with teenaged protagonists I’d already read, and my career positioning as a high school teacher, I saw the wisdom of her advice and relented. Since then, I’ve signed with a different agency and have sold the two YA novels that I’ve written since her observation.

Despite the pride I felt for my book deal and the profound respect I had garnered for the texts and authors of YA fiction as I researched the genre, I have to admit that, until recently, when asked what kind of novels I wrote, I hesitated to describe them as YA, or I did so with an apologetic tone – as if it was only what I was doing until I could become a “real” writer. I eventually realized that this self-deprecation made me a contributor to the lack of respect given to YA fiction. To make it worse, I was the most pernicious sort of contributor: a hypocritical one. I was profiting monetarily, professionally, and personally from the very genre I was subtly sabotaging.

The good news is that I have conquered my doubts of the legitimacy of young adult literature. Now, when asked, I proudly wave its banner. Although I write very edgy YA, hoping also to attract an older crossover audience, I’m quite comfortable with the possibility that my novels will be read exclusively by teenagers, for it was as a seventeen-year old that I fell in love with the novel form. It’s a love that has kept me walking the aisles of libraries and bookstores ever since and, ultimately, inspired me to take a stab at writing a few of my own. What an invaluable service to lovers of books everywhere an author who lights that spark in a young mind and inspires the young reader to continually seek out increasingly challenging and sublime texts provides.

I’ll admit that I occasionally succumb to the YA Blues, but never for long. The cure is always the same: I pick up another Dessen, Collins, Asher, Green, Bray, (insert your favorite YA author here), novel, and I realize what a talented club of “serious” writers we lovers of YA fiction are fortunate to call ourselves members of.

The Glacial Pace of Publishing

For me, one of the most surprising aspects of the publishing process has been the slow pace at which it moves. It was almost exactly eight months ago that I agreed to a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte; it is almost exactly eight months from now that my debut novel, So Shelly, will hit bookshelves.

One would think in this time in which we have grown accustomed to instant access and to immediate gratification, sixteen months would not be required to take a book from acquisition to publication. The fact is that for many books – especially those driven by events, trends, or celebrity – this timetable is greatly expedited in order to take full advantage of an interest level and/or platform that may come with an unpredictable or limited lease.

Although agonizing at times, I’ve come to appreciate the methodical pace set for the publication of my book. Firstly, it’s vital that we get the first one right if we expect to build a devoted readership. During the nearly five-month editing process, there were several major plot and character overhauls that needed to be performed and countless tweaks and adjustments. A truncated editorial period and the pressure it would exert would not have provided the time necessary to make the required revisions. Secondly, I interpret the publisher’s desire to move slowly as an investment of their valuable time and energy in my book and my career. Clearly, they do not want to take shortcuts that may result in a book that does not present me or them at our professional best. And, thirdly, since my second novel has a deadline a full month prior to the release of the first, this pre-publication period has provided me ample time to work on that second novel prior to whatever craziness will ensue upon the publication of the first (e.g. promotions, readings, signings, etc.).

Bringing the story, which sprouted in my imagination going on three years ago, to market is not as simple as uploading this blog article. The process thus far has required the talents of my agent, my editor and her associate, a copyeditor, and a design team. During the second half of the process the ball will be picked up by the sales staff, production, publicity and marketing, distributors, and ultimately booksellers. Clearly, (bad pun alert!) “A tome can’t be built in a day.”

In the future, I’m sure I will reflect on this period and marvel at how quickly this time passed. Until then, I’ll take the days one at a time and try to soak in as much of the experience as I can.