Revising Leah

June 29, 2008

In Defense of Ordinariness

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:24 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I suppose both Leah and The Spring would fall into the “young adult” genre of fiction, given the subject matter of the novels and their intended audiences. I’m fine with that, but my problem is that I haven’t read a lot of contemporary young adult fiction. I’ve read a few stories, but when I read for fun I prefer to read literary fiction (it’s the English major in me), so my idea of young adult fiction runs more along the lines of The Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar or Lord of the Flies. I’m sure that my reading habits have warped my sense of what I ought to be doing if I’m writing in the young adult genre, and I’m sure that my stories don’t conform to the larger trends in the genre already underway. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Leah is a “misinterpretation” of what a novel in the young adult genre should be.

Whenever I come across young adult fiction book reviews or websites devoted to YA writing, I always take time to read the summaries of newly released books. I am curious about what other writers are doing, but more often than not I’m disappointed that my work bears little resemblance to those other stories.

From what I can tell there are three general categories for young adult novels. The first category includes the fantasy/horror/sci-fi books directed to teenagers. Here we have stories of wizards and dragons and vampires. Those kinds of books have never interested me as a reader. (I once tried to read the first Harry Potter book, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter–it just wasn’t anything I wanted to read.) In the second category we find soap opera books, stories where the female teen protagonist just got asked to the prom by the cute quarterback, but then she learns that her best friend has stolen her prom dress and plans to wear it to the prom herself!!! You know, that sort of thing. (Actually, I hate to say it, but The Spring, in many respects, might fall into this category. I’d like to think that my book is a little more substantial, though, but maybe it isn’t.)

However, for “serious” young adult fiction you have to turn to the third category: the “problem” novels. These are stories that feature realistic teenage characters in real-world, and frequently unpleasant, situations. Leah might fit into this sub-genre, except that the problems that I address in Leah bear little resemblance to the problems that are described in other authors’ books. As examples, here are some real synopses of problem novels that have recently been published:

Fourteen-year-old Caitlyn is really excited when sexy, gorgeous Tyler, 16, pays attention to her. She skips class to be with him, and she neglects her beloved art project. She tries to ignore how jealous and controlling he is, even when he slaps her and destroys a piece of her art. She loves it when they make out, but she isn’t sure she wants to go all the way. Then one night he forces her, and suddenly she has lost her virginity. Eventually she confronts the painful truth.

Deanna was 13 when her father caught her and 17-year-old Tommy having sex. Three years later, she is still struggling with the repercussions: how Tommy jokingly made her into the school slut; how the story became legend in her small town; how her father looked at her then — and now doesn’t look at her at all. Her brother, Darren, has mistakes to handle, too: he lives with his girlfriend and their baby in his parents’ basement. And while Deanna’s mother seems numb, her father is perpetually angry and depressed.

Hannah Baker is determined to have the last word — but she doesn’t get it. Before committing suicide, she sends a tape of 13 joined stories to those who she believes were instrumental in her death. One of the recipients is Clay Jenkins, who once had a crush on Hannah; he would have helped her if he could and listens brokenhearted.

Kristina Snow was a 17-year-old with high grades and a loving family. One summer in California with a meth-addicted boyfriend destroys her life. Addicted, she’s raped, and goes back home to Reno pregnant.

Notice a trend? The subject matter of these stories appear to be more in line with the old After-School Specials on TV that once greeted kids with morality tales and public service announcements as they came home from school. My problem with these problem novels is that they tend to go straight for the most sensational plots imaginable. While there’s no question that issues like abuse, date-rape, suicide, and heavy drug use are facts of life that thousands of teenagers have to deal with everyday, these books give the impression that all teenagers are grappling with these issues — but not all of them are. Perhaps I’m woefully naive, but I think that most teenage angst doesn’t come from horrific situations like these, but instead the angst is much more subtle and existential. If I wanted to, I suppose I could write a novel in which Leah Nells is abused by her parents, raped by David Parks, or whose extreme shyness and introversion cause her to attempt suicide or experiment with drugs. But those kinds of sensational plot twists don’t interest me as a writer, and they weren’t the kinds of stories that attracted me when I was a teenager.

I’m much more interested in exploring what I might call the ordinary. What interests me is how ordinary, average people cope with ordinary, average experiences, since it is the ordinary, average experiences that we all have to face everyday. Writers don’t need to saturate a story in melodrama in order to make it interesting. I’d rather explore how the pain and shame that Leah feels about her shyness and how her shyness manifests itself on the first day of school. I’m more interested in writing about how she fails, again and again, to make friends or simply talk to people. I think there’s more drama in a scene where she’s afraid to purchase a book from a garage sale than in a scene where she slits her wrists out of despair. The first scene reflects a reality that readers can relate to. The second scene is Hollywood sensationalism

The ordinary manifests itself in my stories in a couple of ways. In The Spring, most of my characters are among the most forgettable students in the class: the average kids who show up everyday, do their work, graduate with a decent GPA, and go on to live their average lives. Years later, you don’t remember their names. You don’t remember their faces. They were just there, like extras in a movie, while we star in our own supposedly important life stories. But as a writer, those are the people who I find fascinating and worth writing about because they’re the ones whose stories are never told. They aren’t exciting enough, they aren’t melodramatic enough to find their way into other authors’ stories. They’re considered insignificant because they aren’t on the football team or they aren’t acting out in class and causing trouble. But for me, the challenge is trying to find importance in those people considered unimportant, in finding significance in those lives considered insignificant.

In the case of Leah, it isn’t so much the characters as it is the events of the plot that are ordinary. The two main characters, Leah and David, exist at the extremes of the social spectrum. David is one of the most popular boys in the class while Leah doesn’t really belong to any social circle at all — she just keeps to herself and reads. They may not be completely ordinary students, but their story together is ordinary. The climax of their plot line doesn’t involve going to a party, getting drunk, driving home under the influence, and causing a car wreck that results in someone’s death. The climax of their story together involves presenting a history report to their class. Mundane? Common? Ordinary? Of course! but that’s how it should be. You don’t take an unusual character like Leah and place her in extraordinary circumstances; you take her and place her in the most ordinary circumstances you can imagine because it is those ordinary circumstances that readers can most relate to. That’s how readers will be able to form a bond with the character.

I mentioned The Glass Menagerie a few posts ago. Besides the character of Laura, one of the things that I liked about the play was how, at the end, nothing extraordinary happens to her. Her subplot ends pretty much as one would imagine it would end in real life. If Laura were swept off her feet by the gentleman caller, or if she died tragically by her own hand, I think the audience would feel cheated. By limiting myself as a writer to characters or events that are ordinary, I allow myself much more freedom. I don’t have to resort to the sensationalist plots that so many other authors have written.

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