Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making a Killing in YA

Having learned nothing from my last foray into young adult literature, I've decided to try it again. As part of my prep, I'm raiding the library for the current popular sellers, to see what I'm up against. Ye godz. I am seriously going to have to up my game if I want to compete in this market.

For the moment, it appears the Twilight/paranormal and Hunger Games/distopia fads have run their course. What I'm seeing a lot of now is otherworld fantasy, sort of Game of Thrones lite with a bit of the X-Men thrown in (the kids in some of the books have superpowers). This makes reading them like old home week for me. I grew up haunting the Science Fiction section of the bookstore, which is where these would have been shelved back when I belonged to their target demographic. In those days books for tweens and teens consisted primarily of contemporaries and mysteries. Those of us with a penchant for weird read Lord of the Rings, and Stephen King when he showed up. Then Harry Potter and Twilight came along, and all of a sudden YA was a thing. And here we are.

So I'm in Barnes & Noble skimming through Throne of Glass (somebody else got the library's copy) and I notice something interesting: the protag, a young woman constantly referred to as the best assassin in her world and a total badass, never seems to kill anybody.

Come to think of it, the whole point of Hunger Games was two dozen teenagers turned loose in a huge arena to kill each other. How many did Katniss kill? One, I think. She may have shot some guy. Mostly she ran and hid and let them kill each other. Katniss was not a killer, and no fool.

The publishers of these books, however, I have to wonder about.

In following the Game of Thrones formula of intrigue and nasty doings in a high fantasy setting, coupled with the call for kickass ladies fueled by Hunger Games and Divergent, publishers are putting out stories of teenaged assassins and swordfighters and rebels against the (adult) government and presenting them in a light that makes them look heroic. Maybe not the best of ideas. I have to question the marketing strategy of glamorizing killing to a segment of the population known to take deadly weapons to school and bully classmates into suicide.

Somebody else must have brought this up at a board meeting, because these teenage killers don't enjoy what they do. It wasn't even their choice: they were forced into it by evil adults. Even though they've been trained from childhood to kill, they usually don't. The greatest assassin in her world spends a lot of her time knocking people unconscious. As soon as they can, they leave the profession and become—I dunno, maybe a housewife. All these chicks have boyfriends, killers like themselves.

This dilemma—we wanna read about tough teenage girls, but kids killing others is wrong—can lead to absurd and even frustrating situations, like the assassin mentioned above. If she doesn't off somebody, she's liable to look like she's all talk. But do you really want your 14-year-old daughter "watching" a 17-year-old slicing people up? Getting the idea that's a good thing? We must protect The Children!

That's one way around the problem. When these kids do kill, it's justifiable. Nobody's going to blame Harry Potter for magically blasting Voldemort. On the other hand, Harry was 17-18 years old by Book 7, pretty much an adult. In the Percy Jackson series, Percy's only 16 in the climactic novel. He doesn't kill the bad guy. The secondary bad guy has a change of heart, offs the major bad guy, and then dies a hero. In the Throne of Glass series, Celaena finally does kill somebody, but it's the wrong guy. She was tricked by the head of the Assassins' Guild. There's a man who seriously deserves to get a knife in the gut. Will she do it? She'll be over 18 by the end of the series, so probably.

It helps that these books are set in fantasy or future worlds that have nothing to do with our modern reality. Different worlds, different times, different societies. Same old sexist attitudes, but that's a different blog. It's okay for kids to be trained killers in these books because the stories take place somewhere else and not in middle America. Don't try this at home, kids! Or at school.

As for the hundreds of innocent techs, scientists, military grunts and support crew who perished when twentysomething Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, it's best we don't think about them. They destroyed Alderaan; I suppose they had it coming.

For the book I'm fiddling with, I won't have to worry about any of this. My story is set in modern America, so showing kids who kill is out of the question. My protag doesn't need to kill. She's a shapechanger. She can knock grown men out with the best of them. My biggest problem will be matching the quality of the writing in similar YA books currently on the market. I've definitely got my work cut out for me.


Savanna Kougar said...

Interesting, Pat, very interesting, and thanks for past look at this genre. I doubt I could pen that sort of YA title because ultimately it makes no sense to me... and it feels like an evil force is at work behind the publishing scenes...

Regardless... oh, certainly, I could write the super powers heroine and hero... and they might have to eliminate an enemy, or kill to protect themselves or others... children do use guns to protect themselves and their family, and they shoot for real... so, what's the difference???

What am I missing here?

Pat C. said...

Adult paranoia. Kids want to read about characters their age being badass. Parents don't want their kids reading a violent book or watching a violent movie and then go pull off a Columbine. Publishers want to ride the money train created by Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight. Game of Thrones is popular. Game of Thrones is violent. Publishers want to rake in the dough without boring the readers with tame plots and bland characters, or alienating the parents who are buying these books for their kids with too much underage violence. It's a really narrow tightrope everybody's walking.

I've seen Terminator 2 over a dozen times, but never noticed this one bit until somebody pointed it out: 13-year-old John Connor never fires a gun. He holds the guns and loads the guns, but when the shooting starts it's the grownups who wield the guns. This was writer/director Cameron's decision. John's the one who tells the Terminator it's wrong to kill people.

Early in his career Stephen King wrote a number of non-horror novels under his pen name, Richard Bachman. One of those novels dealt with a disturbed high schooler who shoots his teacher and takes his classmates hostage. This was written in the 1970s. Since Columbine and similar incidents, King has asked his publisher to take that book off the market. I think it's the only one of King's books no longer in print.

Yeah, kids in real life shoot to defend themselves. That's what adults are afraid of.

My book isn't set in a fantasy milieu. It's set in modern-day America. That's why my 16-year-old female MC won't be killing anybody. I don't want my book rejected by publishers afraid of some parent complaining.

She gets shot in the head in the first chapter, though. It doesn't affect her because she's an alien. Hell, she could be an adult of her species. Think that would make it okay?

Savanna Kougar said...

Okay, I think I'm following you on this, as far as the parents' motivation, etc. Interesting about Terminator and Connor. Although, I have to say I'd want my 13 year old to pull the trigger, and mean it.

Just too bad, the kids at Columbine weren't armed like used to happen in schools when there was rifle training, and rifle teams... and children brought their guns to school as a normal thing to do.

That said, I won't be writing a YA that follows that strict 'formula'. 'Course, if I write one, I'll bypass the publisher, and let the chips fall where they may... if parents don't buy it, or let their kids buy it... well, so be it. Not to mention all those vid games where children can kill at will... the ones DARPA created behind the scenes to train kids how to fight and kill automatically... yeah, that's documented fact.

Anyhoo, if I had the time, I'd do an experiment by writing a 'justified' killing YA. I mean, say you were living on the frontier, you'd damn well want your child to be able to defend themselves, kill when necessary.

I'm not advocating killing, however. Just the opposite. I'm all for love and peace, and everyone having a wonderful life. However, in this world self-defense is necessary at times. And the better you are at it, the less of a target you will be.

It's kind of like being targeted by a bully. I had a few experiences where I was targeted, although most of the other kids knew better. The bullies never ever won with me. I wacked one with his toy rifle... took it away from him and slammed him in the gut with it. Never a problem after that. In fact, he became my friend.

Whatever, I've rambled on enough... thanks! for the explanation, Pat.

Pat C. said...

But a book set on a "frontier" would have to be either a historical/Western or fantasy/SF (other world or planet), not contemporary America. The problems arise because one segment of adults is marketing these books to modern-day American teens, whom another segment is trying to teach that violence, especially armed violence isn't a solution.

I have nothing against kids defending themselves, armed or otherwise. I'm questioning the writer's/publishers' choices to make their teenage female leads assassins (definition: somebody who kills people for pay) and then effectively pull their teeth by not letting them kill except in controlled circumstances (the target "had it coming"). I've been through this already with Sergei. He was supposed to be a killer for hire, but you ladies all fell in love with him so I had to make him a good guy, or at least an antihero. I think he's killed one person since I introduced him, the guy who was trying to kidnap two little kids. You didn't even want him killing the bear. I'll have to get around to his story someday. It should be a doozy.

By the way, that guy who shot up the church in South Carolina is 21 years old. Bet they're looking into his reading/movie preferences even as we speak.

Savanna Kougar said...

Yeah, I was just using the frontier idea as a way to illustrate a point ABOUT contemp America, and how far we've fallen, as far as being able to defend ourselves from the bad guys/gals.. even in fictional books. In England you can't even fight back if someone attacks you in your own house... WHAT IS THAT ABOUT???!!!

No, I understand you were discussing the dichotomy of assassin teenagers who aren't allowed to kill... I'm not going for that, imo, idiot-crap *two plus two equals five* propaganda... that's why I wish I did have the time to write an experimental YA.

As far as Sergei, the problem was, you wrote him too heroically... you didn't make him a truly horrific villain... say like a Disney classic, old-style villain... which I'm now boycotting Disney because, imo, they've completely gone over to the dark side. But that's another issue.

Of course, Sergei deserves his story, alright!

As far as the poor kid who *supposedly* shot those nine people [blessingS to their loved ones, this is so horribly sad] ... they've got him convicted before his trial... well, gee, surprise, surprise the kid was on this big-pharma psych drug that causes amnesia, and makes people highly suggestible ***HEADLINE: Charleston Shooter Was on Drug Linked to Violent Outbursts ~ Paul Joseph Watson | Dylann Storm Roof was taking habit-forming drug suboxone.*** Also, if anyone wants an indepth analysis of what most likely occurred, look up the black minister, Rev. Clenard Childress... HE IS AMAZING!!!

And yes! Likely they are looking up his reading/movie preferences... but, hey, the Prez already called for more gun control, the usual big push whenever the media-op happens.... never mind, Chicago is a gun-control city [no guns for you, unless you can pay off the city or get them from the mafia], and something like 14 black people were killed on the same day... and this killing happens nearly everyday... WHO is speaking up for these victims? And their right to bear arms for protection???

Pat C. said...

It was the cookies, wasn't it? Never show your bad guy with a weakness for cookies. Got it.

For what it's worth, Undertaker has been portrayed as evil incarnate throughout most of his career, and the fans adore him. Go figure.

If I shot up a church, you better believe my Stephen King collection would rate a couple inches in the story, along with all those '80s violent action movies. The romance novels? Probably not. Or that DVD of "The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie." People don't fit into pigeonholes as neatly as the media wants them to.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lol... it was the whole Siberian Tiger WWF package, the cookies... and you could just sense an inner core of integrity and goodness... besides, assassins, if their targets are truly evil... well, who cares??? Not me.

It's no different than Dante, or any of the alphas in the Peak, having to kill, if necessary, to protect their pack, to protect everyone in Talbot's Peak territory.

No, people don't fit neatly into the media's pigeonholes... I not only feel for the families of those who were murdered... but this kid, you can just look at him, and know he's been terribly, horribly abused... and I don't necessarily mean by his parents. And the medical drugs he was on, no wonder he went 'suggestible' insane.

Savanna Kougar said...

p.s. I spent last evening improving the look of our covers on the sidebar... did you notice?

Pat C. said...

Looking good! I should add the MLK cover to the SSS blog. Couldn't hurt.

This whole discussion makes me want to check out the compilation paperbacks of recent Batman storylines. Bruce, it seems, had a son with the daughter of R'as al Ghul, one of his most dangerous enemies. Teenage Damian Wayne has been raised by assassins to be an assassin. Then they send him off to live with his dad, a crimefighter who doesn't kill or carry a gun because gun violence killed his parents and destroyed his life when he was Damian's age. Talk about your family drama.

Savanna Kougar said...

Yep, you should!!!

Oooh, yes, a most excellent plotline. And one likely to grab a lot of teenage readers, imo.