Okay, housekeeping first.
(1) I’ve been gone. Life in the 2020s is sometimes a challenge, but it’s better than the alternative, right? (2) Also, my site broke, so when I was ready to post, I couldn’t. (3) And also, I had a number of ideas for great posts, but I didn’t write them down, I’m not a spring chicken and because of (1) and (2) above, I’ve forgotten them. Here’s hoping they’ll come back.
But here’s what’s on my mind today, and yes it really is about my journey on the road to rewriting and re-releasing my books. Most of my time—what little I’ve had for writing—has been spent on “the beginning.” I’m constantly checking my thinking—it’s important to me to get this right. (Soon, I’ll be setting alpha readers loose on the first fifty to eighty pages. I’m excited about that step. It kind of makes things real.)
Conventional wisdom on opening your YA book has changed…or has it?
Prefacing this with a short, simple, direct sentence. I’m no expert. Still, join me for a look at a subject that has me, I’ll confess, a little sore.
Go back fifty, a hundred, a hundred fifty years, and you can find books that open with lots of description. Examples include: Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, both published in the 19th century. I admit I have believed that book openings have vastly changed over the last centuries, even decades, but after a little research, admittedly just skimming the top, I’m not so sure.
All that flowery language
Jenny Phillips, a blogger and entrepreneur, whom I won’t call a zealot though the tag crosses my mind, has argued in a video (https://youtu.be/0qI1-pGiqJ0) that not only have books for young people changed, they have stopped helping young people learn, and in fact harm their brains—stunting their academic development, encouraging—to paraphrase—lazy thinking, instant gratification, and an inability to think analytically. Later, she gets into equating the absence of “God and faith” from current middle grade books with lack of benefit—and harm done—from reading. I dismissed the latter instantly, as I don’t share her religious beliefs and later in the video it appears that fostering religious training—some would say brainwashing—may be her real aim.
But I looked into the first point, which is about books and writers and readers—my world.
Her examples of “good” books written over a century ago include the two I named under the last heading. I’m not putting those books or others like them down. They’re beautiful, and when I was a child I thought Black Beauty was the most wonderful story in the world. But after praising these earlier books for their complex sentence structure and descriptive openings, Phillips goes on to decry books written today. She gives some examples of best-selling books that have spare writing, direct language, shorter sentences such as we might use in daily speech, and a lack of flowery ornamentation. (She doesn’t ever name these books or the authors in the video, simply calling them “best-selling” books on Amazon in 2019.”)
A dearth of literary devices?
She proposes that these 2019 books are inferior. Why? Because they don’t utilize complex sentences, challenging vocabulary, sensory language, or poetic devices.
While it is true that the opening sentences she used as examples are straightforward, I argue that they do indeed use poetic devices, such as “beats,” parallel structure, and more. And she offers no indication as to whether the rest of the books’ content might wander into more complex sentence structure and utilize vocabulary that challenges children. And who said short sentences can’t be evocative?
No mental challenge?
As to complexity, what makes blogger Philips think there’s no complexity of thought in a paragraph that uses a number of short sentences? A reader must organize the thoughts expressed in their minds, relate the sentences one to the other, analyze conflict and and agreement, and form impressions of the situation, the environment, and the character(s). It may be a more challenging process at times to do that mental work given less, rather than more, to chew on.
Is it even true?
Even a superficial survey of literature from the 19th and earlier 20th centuries (which is frankly all I’ve done) shows that plenty of well-read books from those eras, including those written for young readers, opened with personal, direct language, sometimes even first person. Moby Dick (Melville), Treasure Island (Stevenson), Island of the Blue Dolphins (O’Dell), Ramona (Hunt), Where the Red Fern Grows (Rawls), even Little Women by that same Louisa May Alcott who wrote the (lovely) florid opening of Under the Lilacs.
Were there books with ornate, descriptive openings in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Absolutely. Are there books with more ornate, poetic, vocabulary-rich openings today? Yes. For just one example, read the gorgeous opening of Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Were such book beginnings more common in that time? Probably. As I’ve said, my research is superficial. Even though I started down this road because of my desire to make the best possible opening to the revised Key of Behliseth (Book 1 of The Sun Child Chronicles), I have no desire to delve deeper into the subject. There is no need.
Because I think Phillips and those who think the way she does about the written word miss the most important points: 1) readers, and 2) truth.
What do the figures show?
I’d argue the most important question about current middle grade and YA offerings is, “Do they get read?” This post (https://www.thebalancecareers.com/the-young-adult-book-market-2799954) says YA books published more than doubled from 2002 to 2012. The trend has continued, say a number of sources. The pandemic has pushed it along, with juvenile fiction overall leading the pack in increased print book sales (https://www.thebalancecareers.com/the-young-adult-book-market-2799954). Adults read YA books and even middle grade, but young people are reading too, and they become those adults looking for a good YA read. Just search on Facebook for groups focused on YA fiction and you’ll see what I mean.
What has “truly” changed?
I’ll argue that the real difference between the way earlier novels for young people were written and current trends is the world they reflect, the world young people live in. For most folks living in the 2020s, life doesn’t proceed at a slow, predictable pace with a few high points and low points over the course of months or years. Young people have to learn about the world fast—too fast, perhaps, but that’s the reality. In a world where information is cheap and plentiful and not always trustworthy, young readers need to relate. The characters in their books are of prime concern, and that’s where most book intros begin, these days—right smack dab in the middle of the character’s world, and usually their problems. Meeting these characters, diving straight off into their fictional lives, gives a young reader a chance at learning empathy as well as new truths about themselves, others, and the world they must live in. Flowery language at the beginning is less likely to engage today’s young reader who, let’s face it, lives in a fast world. They can’t reap the real benefit of reading fiction if they don’t read it.
Truth in fiction
The number one prime concern—and benefit—of fiction, in my opinion, is the reader’s recognition of truth. Apparently it’s not my opinion alone…
“Fiction is fact distilled into truth.” —Edward Albee
“The aim of fiction is absolute and honest truth.” —Anton Chekov
“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” —Stephen King
And finally, since this blog is supposed to be about Lou Hoffmann books, some words on truth from Key of Behliseth— “Truth is truth no matter what world you’re in.”
Thanks for joining me on this slightly intellectual (I won’t say “stuffy) comparison of writing then and writing now. I hope you enjoyed it at least a little. Next time, something completely different. 🙂 I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment here or find me online.
On Twitter, I’m @Lou_Hoffmann