Slow Down!

Today’s article is aimed primarily at readers and writers of novels and confronts a trend in fiction that I find disturbing. I refer to pacing. I’ll give you a few seconds to nod and to express your commiseration . . .  Okay, I know, not the sexiest of blog topics, but one that gnaws at me nonetheless.

 This problem is especially acute in YA literature. The assumption of editors and far too many writers is that readers – due to their constant mouse-clicking on the internet, their incessant pressing of the fast-forward button on MP3 players, and their perpetual rifling through television channels with the remote control – have the attention span of an ADHD-afflicted gnat. They assume that fictional prose must follow suit by constantly pushing the pace of plot at a breakneck speed out of the fear that a paragraph of prolonged description will completely discombobulate our surface-skimming readers. I say, “Nonsense!” Most readers are smart and capable readers. I think that most readers want the depth of understanding that, sometimes, requires a narrative to slow down and provide detail and reflection. Good writing is like good pitching: one must change speeds to be effective. A good hitter then, like a good reader, learns to anticipate and welcome the change of pace.

 I’m often dismayed when I flip through the pages of young adult novels and many works of pulp fiction to find nothing but dialogue and paragraphs of no more than two or three sentences. That model is insulting to readers and limiting to me as writer. This prose style does allow avid readers to pour through an unbelievable number of novels in a very short time, which, I guess, is good for book sales; however, what is lost? I find it hard to believe that much is genuinely felt, that much is deeply considered, or that much is effectively retained by the reader as the result of such a reading experience. We, as authors and editors, do little to foster readers capable of plumbing the depths of serious literary fiction when all we offer them as young readers are “page-turners” and “beach reads.” Then, we bemoan its following the footsteps of poetry on the road toward extinction.

 My final analogy is more adult in nature. The array of fiction should mirror the array of alcoholic beverages available to those who imbibe. Some are meant to be thrown back with a shot glass; others are intended to be and best savored by sipping from a wine glass. The world of fiction, especially YA fiction, is in need of more of the latter.

Interview at Wastepaper Prose

I’m honored to be included in Round Three of the “Author Insight” series at Wastepaper Prose. The Q and A appears one question at a time on Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next few months. Check it out at http://www.wastepaperprose.com/

Update and a Short Story

Like all of you, I’ve been extremely busy preparing for and enjoying the holidays. On top of that, I was swamped with reading and grading papers as my the semester came to a close on the five college classes I teach. In a two-week period, I graded nearly 140 term papers, ranging in length from two to twelve pages. I’ve also been doing as much pre-publication promo ast possible in anticipation of So Shelly’s February 8th release, and after receiving some agency edits, I’ve been doing some major re-writing of my second novel that is due to my editor at Delacorte by January 15th. This second novel, tentatively titled Crusaders, (In case you didn’t know, it’s very common for the publisher to replace the author’s working title with one of its own.) is really coming together. It shares the same setting and several of the minor characters from So Shelly, but the plot is not a sequel. I’m very excited about it, but the earliest it will hit shelves is Spring of 2012. If Shelly does well, it may be pushed back – I can only hope.

 It’s strange how the publishing industry works. I don’t have the first book on shelves, yet my second novel will be in my editor’s hands nearly a month prior to the first one’s release. When anyone asks me about my book, I usually have to hesitate and remind myself that he/she is referring to So Shelly. Since my head space is currently occupied by the characters and plot of book two, it takes me a few minutes to get my head back inside Shelly in order to talk about it intelligently. Before I received by deal, I had no idea of this publishing practice.

 To further complicate matters and muddle my mind, I’ve also been “picking at” a third novel. Should So Shelly sell well and just in case a demand exists for it, I’ve been working on an actual sequel. Ashley at Books Obsessions was kind enough to request a short story for her “Winter Extravaganza” promotion on her web site. The one I contributed  could very well end up as a chapter in that sequel. The events of the short story pick up six months after the those of So Shelly. I thought I’d include a link to Ashley’s page. Hopefully, it will serve as a sort of “flash forward” and whet your appetite for Shelly. It’s title is Cor Cordium (Latin for heart of hearts), and, like Shelly, some of the events are based on actual and legendary occurrences in the characters lives. You can find it here: http://www.booksobsession.blogspot.com/

In Defense of SO SHELLY

 One of the most compelling, yet controversial, draws of So Shelly as a YA novel is its brutal honesty regarding sexuality. Trust me, during the writing, I agonized over the inclusion of every such scene, and now, as the release date nears, I’m growing increasingly nervous over readers’ responses to them. The majority of these scenes were the necessary outgrowth of using the controversial Gordon, Lord Byron as a central figure.

Although scenes of a sexual nature involving minors do occur in the narrative, they are never meant to be gratuitous, nor are they intended for simpleminded titillation. In order to understand the inclusion of such scenes, however, it is necessary to reserve judgment until completion of the novel and the reading of its afterword, especially in order to witness how Gordon’s sexual psychoses and perversions emerged as the result of his own having been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. It is an ironic yet well-established fact that the victims of abuse often become perpetrators of the very acts from which they were once made to suffer. To remove these scenes as they pertain to the Gordon Byron character would have been to render his behavior incomprehensible and unforgivable. He would appear as simply evil and misogynistic rather than as the complex and compelling figure that emerges in actual history and by the novel’s end.

From a historical basis (although it’s important to bear in mind that the novelization of the character allows for certain liberties to be taken), there is consensus among literary scholars that Byron was abused by his nanny, May Gray. On the record, Gray was dismissed when Byron was nearly twelve years of age for physically beating Byron and for “consorting with Company [men] of the lowest Description” while he was in her charge. Byron, himself, many years later and in reference to May Gray, confided to his friend John Hobhouse that she came into his bed and played “tricks with my person.” This information is derived from Leslie Marchand’s highly-regarded, three-volume biography of Byron: Byron: A Portrait (1957) and from the one-volume condensation of this seminal work published in 1970. These historically-based incidences justify, even necessitate, the inclusion of such scenes in So Shelly.

The fact is that humans are sexualized creatures from a very early age, a fact with which teenage readers are quite aware, yet they grow confused by the adults (including authors) in their lives who gloss over sexual themes and incidents or, even worse, flat out ignore them because of their own discomfort with the topic. This squeamish ignorance on the part of adults only exacerbates the sexual dysfunction with which far too many Americans are raised and unnecessarily burdened as a result of this “head-in-the-sand” approach to confronting issues of sexuality. In my core and as a result of many years spent in classrooms with brilliant and sensitive and curious teenagers, I assert that young readers are ready for and in need of the frank treatment of sexual themes and situations in young adult literature. As an author and teacher, to not provide this avenue for discussion and discernment is to commit an egregious disservice to these young thinkers.

I fully expect many readers and reviewers to respond harshly to the thesis of this essay and the content of So Shelly. I am acutely sensitive to the concerns of those who feel that So Shelly pushes the limits of acceptability in regard to its honest treatment of sexual themes and scenes; however, I am a thousand times more sensitive to the real want and need of young adults to be provided with challenging works of literature that stretch their abilities as readers by presenting real world issues and occurrences in an honest and open manner.

A Good Question

The following question was recently posed to me by a YA blogger. The entire interview will be part of a SO SHELLY blog tour set for early February; the places and dates of which I will share at a later date. I thought it was an interesting question whose answer I could share here and hopefully whet some appetites for the tour, the entire interview, and SHELLY’s upcoming release.

Q.: You say you’re always “a teacher.” What do you hope readers take away from reading SO SHELLY?

If pressed for a moral, I’d say SO SHELLY is a cautionary tale against the dangers of self-absorption, especially as realized in Gordon’s (Byron’s) sexual carelessness and in Keats’s self-pity and preoccupation with death. I’d like for older readers to see how self-absorption also causes each of the main characters’ parents to fail to properly monitor and guide their children’s choices and behaviors.

 I’d also love it if readers caught some of the spirit of Romanticism as revealed in the values of the main characters, such as freedom, rebellion against tyranny of the body or mind as exercised by social institutions, individualism and nonconformity, passion for living spontaneously and in the immediate moment, concern for social justice, and an appreciation for the power of emotion.

SO SHELLY also explores themes related to such issues as racism, the class divide, sexuality, suicide/death, abuse/violence, and religious faith.

 This is going to expose me as a geeky English major, but from a literary standpoint, I hope that more astute readers will appreciate the layers of symbolism, satire, irony, and meta-textual commentary, but it is not necessary to recognize any of this in order to enjoy the story – I hope.

The YA Gap

Young adult novels in publishers’ catalogs are typically advertised as “12 and Up” or “14 and Up.” As they appear on the shelves in Young Adult sections of libraries and bookstores, there is often no label of age appropriateness at all. After much thought and much debate – here on my blog with my writer-friend Linda –  if I could make one change in the Young Adult publishing industry, it would be to create one more age category of readers and to place age-appropriate labels on the covers of books in the YA category.

 The blanket categorization of “Young Adult” is simply inadequate for the diversity of YA texts. My concern is that too wide of a maturity gap exists between a fourteen-year-old reader and older readers of young adult books, including the ever-increasing number of adults who are embracing the YA genre. The experiences, stresses, and immediate concerns of this latter group differ greatly from those of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds. This wide age range makes it difficult for writers, like myself, who wish to target the older, more mature readers of young adult novels. It often results in a “dumbing down” and a censoring of material which these readers rightfully find insulting. The fact is that the issues, themes, and events of interest to this group are not always relevant to or appropriate for younger teens. Granted, everyone matures at a different rate, and chronological age may not be accurately indicative of one’s life experiences, level of sophistication, and maturity. Therefore, some fourteen-year-olds are capable of handling novels intended for more mature readers. In general, however, they are not.

In an ideal world, parents would monitor and even preview the books that their children read and intercept those that were deemed beyond their child’s scope. We don’t, however, live or write in an ideal world. Instead, teens and their parents blindly trust the age appropriate designation to be an accurate representation of books’ suitability, which, in most cases it is but, certainly, not in all. An additional age grouping, perhaps “16 and Up,” could be added to represent YA books that address issues of a more “adult” nature, such as sexuality and violence, and those that make regular use of explicit language.

 The fact is that young readers almost always “read up,” so, regardless, books in the “16 and Up” category would still most likely find their way into the hands of the more curious readers of the younger set. It’s a time-honored tradition to “sneak-read” contraband books. If placed on the covers of books, this new age grouping and the others would, however, prevent unsuspecting readers and their parents from being duped into picking up a novel with adult situations against which they were not warned and for which they are not mentally or emotionally equipped.

 At the risk of turning away two years worth of potential book buyers and as a gesture of full disclosure, I did not write So Shelly with fourteen and fifteen-year olds in mind. It is specifically targeted at “mature young adults” and the crossover adult market. If that costs me sales, I don’t care. I, and I wholly believe my publisher, would rather not offend one too young reader or his/her parents than sell a thousand additional books. I have a fourteen-year old who has been told he will have to wait to read my novel.

 This conclusion has not been an easy concession for me. If you follow my blog at all, you know that I am a staunch defender of free speech and an enemy to censorship of any kind. I so fear the descent down the slippery slope begun when even the slightest hint of external restriction is placed on artists. This issue of labeling YA books, I believe, thanks largely to Linda, is a different matter. It is simply a matter of clarity and disclosure.

Top Ten Moments – Part 2

Last summer, I posted a List of my Top Ten So Shelly Moments as of that point in time. If interested, you can find it in June’s postings. I promised then that I would concoct another list as Shelly continued her march towards publication on February 8, 2011. Here’s that updated list:

10.         Any of the number of times that someone has asked me if I’d be willing to sign their copy.

9.            Any of the number of times that someone has told me he/she has already pre-ordered Shelly and how much they can’t wait to read it.

8.            Any of the number of times Shelly has become available in international online bookstores.

7.            Receiving a Christmas card from my editors at Delacorte/Random of an awesome watercolor painting of Broadway.

6.            When I saw Shelly featured in a Random House catalog for buyers at the Frankfurt Book  Fair.

5.            When I was included in Random’s “Fresh Fiction from New Voices” promotion.

4.            My inclusion in the popular “2011 Debut Authors Challenge” hosted by The Story Siren: http://www.thestorysiren.com/2010/11/2011-debut-author-challenge.html

3.            When my web page went live: http://www.tyrothbooks.com/

2.            When my Advanced Readers’ Copies of Shelly arrived in the mail.

1.            My trip to New York City and Random House Headquarters.

That’s the new list. With So Shelly less than two months distant, I hope to be able to revise this early in the next year.

Visit my web page at www.tyrothbooks.com

Process

If you’re like me, you love to listen to or read discussions of the writing process. Continually, I’m amazed at the number of and divergent ways in which authors approach and produce their works. I think, at least in some way, all artists seek the magic formula, that one Yellow Brick Road of methodology that leads unfailingly to the zone, or groove, or pocket that they can only occasionally conjure. Call it inspiration, your muse, or mojo.

For me, my best periods of creativity come in elusive and short-lived bursts. When they arrive, I feel as if I’m not writing so much as channeling. It’s like the story already exists “out there,” and I’m merely the conduit through which it arrives and is given form. There are actually times during re-readings when I wonder, “Where did that come from? Did I write that?” On those occasions, I wonder if I can even take much credit for what I produce.

I anticipate that after SO SHELLY is published readers will wonder and some will even ask about the plot choices I made in composing the novel, and I will be forced to shrug my shoulders and admit that I didn’t actually make the choice. It happens that way in the story because that’s the way it came to me. I don’t mean to use this explanation as a cop out, as a way of avoiding responsibility for several scenes that will certainly be viewed as controversial by many and as inappropriate by some. But the story had truths that I merely reported; to not do so with absolute honesty would have been cowardly. It was the story I had to tell as much as the one I wanted to tell.

To some this will sound strange. Others will know exactly what I’m talking about. In no way do I mean to belittle or deny the importance of hard work or the genius of artistic craftsmanship. Most often, my time tapping out words is more about discipline and drudgery than inspiration, but, as a writer, I live for those rarified moments when flow, cohesion, and meaning merge and I lose myself in the process.

In Defense of Free Speech

This week the USA Today reported what for me and for all who support free speech is a troubling trend. According to the report, there has been “an uptick of organized efforts to remove books” from schools and libraries. Obviously, the targeted books are those which some self-righteous, self-proclaimed guardian of public decency has determined to be offensive or to contain “inappropriate content.” This article inspired me to dust off an op-ed piece I wrote for the local paper a few years back, when several libraries in my community were being similarly pressured. Below is my response in its entirety.

               It  was with great dismay that I read the article “Are these books for children”? in the Register of Feb. 11. With what is a heartfelt yet misguided conviction, a group calling itself Grassroots American Values has called upon the Huron, Sandusky, Elyria, and Lima public libraries to relocate to the adult section several “disturbing” texts from the children’s section.

               The expansive public library system in the United States, which places an amazing and eclectic accumulation of information and ideas at the fingertips of any citizen with the wherewithal to seek it, is without precedent or parallel in the history of the world. The greatest strength of this system is the free flow and exchange of ideas it allows and encourages; this flow and exchange is fundamental to our free and democratic nation.

               Should these libraries bow to the self-righteous demands of a vocal minority, such as Grassroots American Values, it will be one small step in the direction of fascism, even in our small corner of America. With what claim to legitimacy has this group established itself as the definers of “disturbing?” Should we remove all “disturbing” art from the world’s museums, movie screens, airwaves, and libraries, little of the universally recognized pieces of artistic genius would survive the purge.

               It is a fundamental element, even responsibility, of the artist to disturb the collective consciousness of society. Only through such agitation is a society able to define and continually re-evaluate its culture. In this light, it was equally upsetting to read the list of the ten “most challenged books,” which are regularly targeted for recall from schools and libraries.

               This list contains several provocative works of exceptional literary and social merit. Several of these “racist” texts are, to the contrary, treatises that reveal the evils of racism and the ignorance of those who subscribe to such perfidious thinking. Only our inability as readers to recognize irony and the subtleties of satire causes these texts to be misinterpreted and sometimes tragically banned.

               The greatest disservice we could do our children is to imprison them in a culture of ignorance and intolerance by denying them access to the sublime array of literature, art, and lifestyles available for them to choose during their transitory trip through life. In a world divided by self-righteous justifications for hatred of those of contrary world views and lifestyles, I dream of one united in its dedication to the principles of forgiveness, peace, and love.

               Naïve? Absolutely. But if I don’t imagine and share it, I doom my vision to the ash heaps of good intentions that line the pathways to hell, and I tacitly align myself with those who talk of forgiveness yet harbor vengeance, with those who talk of peace yet monger war, and with those who speak of love yet restrict that love to only those of likeminded philosophies.

               The onus now falls on the shoulders of the targeted libraries to display the resolve to resist such narrow-minded thinkers and purveyors of hatred masked in religious and political conservatism.

               I’m happy and proud to report that at that time the targeted libraries stood firmly on the side of free speech. I can only hope that this current wave of book banners will meet with similar freedom-loving Americans.

Visit my author’s page at www.tyrothbooks.com