The Art of Writing Realistic Young Adult Fiction in a Dystopian-driven World

Because one of my Google alerts is “realistic young adult fiction”, I’m notified when something goes out on the web that deals with that topic. Today, a well-written opinion piece came across from The Valley Vanguard online that was written by Brianna Rivet, a young woman whom I am guessing is a junior at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. (Okay, I’m not a detective, but I get a kick out of putting clues together.) The title of her piece caught my attention right away: Young adult fiction stagnant, troublingly formulaic. I was curious to see her take, as a young adult, on what she considered stagnant and formulaic.

I found her opinion refreshing and “real”.  (Okay, of course, since it aligned with my thinking, I would agree with her. Isn’t that how we all operate, anyway?) But seriously, while I was probably looking for affirmation and validation for the genre in which I write in an era when dystopian and “other realm” stories are at the top of the bestseller lists, I had to agree with her. (Okay, color me green! Yes, those dystopian books that have graced the top of the bestseller list do make me a little jealous.)

Just hear me out…I’m going to guess that 99% of the young adult readers will never be faced with trying to outwit an opponent who is out to kill them before they get killed themselves, or fighting against entities that morph from one being to another. These are nowhere in the realm of reality of what they may have to face in their lives. It’s fun to imagine other worlds and other beings (although, I do get concerned with so much violence in today’s literature and entertainment) but it seems many of them are just trying to jump on the coattails of a few successes. Don’t get me wrong. We do need stories for escapism, but there are other ways to escape into a different world – a world they would recognize.  A world that isn’t so bleak.

I guess when compared to the last decade’s best sellers, I’m a rebel who marches to her own drum. I write the stories I wanted to read as a middle schooler and young adult. (I also taught middle school English for 26 years, so I had plenty of conversations with thousands of readers in my classroom who weren’t shy about telling me what they did and dd not like in the books they read.) They don’t want to feel unempowered when they’re through.

As a contemporary, realistic fiction author, one of my goals with my stories is to showcase real teenagers in real situations that are not ordinary to the majority of teenagers, but are situations they will probably encounter during their formative teenage, angst-driven years. (How was that for a lofty, mouthful goal?) My characters don’t fight off dragons, werewolves, vampires and demons. No, they struggle with real-life issues: the death of a close loved one , a family member with a disability, adoption, a family member with war-related PTSD, new relationships, real-life difficult choices and moral issue struggles.

Realistic fiction can subliminally, or even overtly, give them tools and confidence to deal with real-life situations. I dare say it can give them hope. While the characters in the books are fictional, teens will identify with those who are the same age as they are and in their mind will process their situations as real.

A quote from The Valley Vanguard resonated with me:

“If YA (young adult) fiction starts to challenge young adults to think differently about the world
around them, it could start to bring a real, important impact to the shaping of a generation.”

That quote sums up my goal. I want my books to entertain, for sure, but I also want them to empower readers. And, yes, the teacher in me will always want to make sure readers learn something from my stories. I want to be that writer who has a positive impact “to the shaping of a generation”.

One review on Amazon of my novel Over the Edge is my all-time favorite because, although it’s written by an adult, it proves to me that I have accomplished my goal with that book. Karen Jensen (and, no, I don’t personally know her) wrote:

While I haven’t read many books with autistic characters, this one stood out as amazingly real. Dylan’s brother is a regular kid in many ways, and because Erik is never presented as exceptionally angelic or exceptionally pitiable, Dylan’s quest to look out for him without sacrificing his own interests is gripping.

I kept hoping he’d do the right thing, because he’s a likeable guy, but there were times when it seemed impossible. Again, nothing came across as unrealistic; it was easy to envision every situation happening to real people who might live just down the street.

By the end, I found myself no longer feeling nervous about volunteering for the special-needs students at church. It was so empowering to read about an autistic boy who really IS just another kid with problems that aren’t his fault, and the kind of (good and bad) reactions Erik generates among family, neighbors, and Dylan’s classmates…especially the compelling Willow and the frightening Brock.

SHAZAM! Score one for me! Yippie-ti-yi-yo! Hooray! I accomplished my goal!

As a writer, tackling unique, contemporary subjects isn’t easy, but it is as diverse as the real world. I don’t think there’s anything stagnant or formulaic about it. Why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of that?

Lest it seem that I was doing any genre bashing, I’ll qualify what I’ve just written with these comments. I’m sure most writers write what they like to read.  It doesn’t mean the books I don’t normally pick up aren’t great. It just means they’re not for me…which means, there are probably other readers who feel the same way.

If you’re a writer, here’s my advice: Let your heart and passion flow out through your fingers and into the keyboard. There are readers out there for everything. And may your novel hit the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list – well, that is, after mine has ended its 100 week reign there! <wink>