Tuesday, February 21, 2012

YA: How Dark is TOO Dark?

Brett here...Today I'm honored to present a guest post by my good friend Alexandra Sokoloff. Alex is a screenwriter and novelist who has made a name for herself in the world of adult supernatural thriller fiction and is now dipping her toe into the YA world. Something, for which, we should all be glad!

Enough from me...here's Alex:

First, I am thrilled to be in the company of the Adr3nalin3 writers. Thank God conference season is upon us and I will get to see all your shining faces soon (hopefully on the dance floor!).

Second, Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!!!!!!!!!

And third. . . oh, God, this is such a dark post for Mardi Gras.

See, the thing is, Brett cleverly roped me into blogging for him by cleverly calling today TUESDAY, not MARDI GRAS. I only realized in retrospect...

But this blog is ABOUT dark, isn’t it?

And nothing in New Orleans (or Brazil) is ever just sweetness and light, right? Well, neither is this post.

We can party in a minute, or two, I promise, but first I actually have a serious question for all you darkside writers.

Is there such a thing as TOO dark in YA?

I know, I know, I can hear you all thinking back at me: Well, Hunger Games is dark. Twilight is – well, at least twisted. The Wicked Lovely series is TRULY twisted, and dark, especially in later books. Beautiful Creatures deals very realistically with teenage depression in a fantastical setting. Forest of Hands and Teeth has ZOMBIES, yo, of course it’s dark!

But fantastical dark, or paranormal dark, or sci-fi dark, or steampunk dark, or dystopian dark, is different from dark as it happens in real life. For example, I love the first Hunger Games, but it’s SO high concept - for once I’ll use the odious “It’s ---- Meets -----!!!!!!!“ paradigm: It’s Survivor meets The Lottery!!!!!!!!

I mean, unquestionably brilliant, but let’s face it, there is nothing that is not Hollywood about it. And Hollywood just doesn’t do dark, these days. Not on a budget over $1 million, anyway, not since the seventies (or unless you’re Steven Spielberg and you’re doing the Holocaust. But that was a while ago, even so.).

The sheer VASTNESS of the Hunger Games setting undercuts the darkness of it. These days, Hollywood is not going to go all the way to the dark side. Sorry, but it’s simply not. Edgy, fine, but Katniss is not going to die, okay? That’s not a spoiler, it’s just the way it is.

And that’s what I’m trying to get at for today’s discussion. Dark in a fantastical, paranormal, dystopian, sci-fi setting, is not the same as dark as it happens . . . in real life.

Now, I’ve read some dark YA. Dark as I am, I tend to seek out the dark. Um, compulsively. And currently, for me, the winner of that particular lottery on the YA front is Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, a riveting and completely realistic exploration of a high school boy who walks the line between high school jock narcissism and sociopathy, and –

Well, read it. It’s not pretty.

Speak is dark, too. Can you believe people have tried to ban this book? Like, let’s pretend rape just doesn’t happen. After all, it wasn’t even a felony for. . . a REALLY REALLY LONG TIME. Oh and especially don’t let teenage girls know how often this happens, with them as the primary target. Although boys certainly aren’t exempt—but that’s even darker to write about, isn’t it? Nobody wants to talk about THAT. But with that monster Jerry Sandusky all over the news, maybe we’ll finally have to.

But this is the thing for me as a writer, writing dark YA. What I write, personally, is a cross between reality and - supernatural, paranormal, horror, whatever you want to call it – it confuses even me. So when I write dark, which I do with my adult thrillers and which I have done in spades with my own first YA, THE SPACE BETWEEN, it’s fantastical, sort of, and supernatural, sort of, and sci-fi, sort of, and horror, sort of - and maybe even paranormal, sort of - but the thing that makes it dark is the reality of it.

A reality so dark that I made this novel my first indie-published novel after - five traditionally published books and four more traditionally contracted books coming in the pipeline. I didn’t even want to try to publish THE SPACE BETWEEN traditionally, because I didn’t want to undercut the reality of it, and I didn’t want to fight with the powers that be about the content, I just wanted to DO it. Because I REMEMBER high school. I had a wonderful time in so very many ways; our school had an awesome theater department and I had some of the best times and the best professional training of my life there. But I remember how – outside theater – how high school really was, the stuff no one really talks about. And I’m not just remembering as a student – I taught incarcerated teenagers in the Los Angeles County prison system before I sold my first film script, when I was just 22 years old, so as a young teacher I was able to observe the darkness of that teen age while I still had all the feelings of BEING that age. And it impacted me, let me tell you.

So my first and only-so-far YA is dark in a way I was just too uneasy to unleash on traditional publishing. It’s not like there’s no hope in it, I swear! In fact, because of the subject matter, there are so many potential endings, light and dark, I’m going to have to make the whole thing a trilogy. But I did not want anyone telling me you CAN’T DO THAT, and I truly believed that was what would happen. I’m a hopelessly right-brained person in reality but I had to research and come to some understanding of advanced algebra, probability, and quantum physics just to make this book a reality, and I knew going into it that the scariness of the science involved could make it a hard sell, let alone the themes of school shootings, sexual harassment, sexual predators, mental illness, PTSD, dwarfism, some pretty brutal bullying and teenage sex. But no one was going to tell me I couldn’t do it, and the miraculous thing is, these days, we authors don’t have to worry about people telling us what we can and can’t do.

And so far, so good. The book IS too dark for some people but it really lights others up with its subject matter, fascinating dreamworld and emotonal reality.

So my questions for the day are: Do you ever worry about writing TOO dark? Can you give me examples of YA books that are so dark that you are shocked they were ever published?

Or – tell me how was your high school? Light? Dark? Grey?

And please, if you know any – give me good examples of YA horror. I’d just like to know!

Thanks for having me, and Happy Mardi Gras! Laissez les bons temps rouler!!!!

- Alex


The Space Between

Sixteen-year old Anna Sullivan is having terrible dreams of a massacre at her high school. Anna’s father is a mentally unstable veteran, her mother vanished when Anna was five, and Anna might just chalk the dreams up to a reflection of her crazy waking life — except that Tyler Marsh, the most popular guy at the school and Anna’s secret crush, is having the exact same dream.

Despite the gulf between them in social status, Anna and Tyler connect, first in the dream and then in reality. As the dreams reveal more, with clues from the school social structure, quantum physics, probability, and Anna's own past, Anna becomes convinced that they are being shown the future so they can prevent the shooting…

If they can survive the shooter — and the dream.

Based on the short story The Edge of Seventeen – winner of the ITW Thriller award for Best Short Fiction.

$2.99 on Amazon.com




Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks so much for having me, Brett - I decided to make the book free today on Amazon so anyone who's reading today can just download at will!


Jordan Dane said...

So excited to have you guest with Brett, Alex. I love your post too.

I had the pleasure of judging your award winning short story that THE SPACE BETWEEN is based on. Loved it. As I recall, I scored your entry higher than Stephen King & others must've done that too since you won.

From what I've heard & seen & read from teen readers, most publishers wouldn't go dark as some teens would like, especially the big 6. Glad you are dipping a toe in dark waters. And thanks for the freebee today. Can't wait to read it. I've tweeted your post & today's giveaway. You honor us by being our guest--and you bring gifts. Nice.

Something I'll throw out for discussion since you're publishing this book is that there seems to be a disconnect between digital books & teen readers. PW & other publications have brought up several reasons why digital books haven't hit gold with teens yet. The cost of ereader devices, the fact that ereader devices aren't allowed in schools for textbooks yet, and that teens don't read off their phones even when the app is free--these are some of the reasons. I think digital books will get there with teens & the trend is growing, but kids still love holding a book in their hands & seeing the cover that way.

But maybe darker books than what publishers & libraries would offer might be a reason for digital downloads, especially on their phones. The only real question would be--how do they buy & pay for it online? Answers will come on all this, but we live in interesting times for publishing.

Thanks for being our guest, Alex. And good luck with your first YA.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Jordan - I didn't know you were one of the judges that year. Well, thanks!! It's not often I'm going to hear "better than" and "Stephen King" in the same sentence, but I'll take it!

You bring up a hugely important point about YA readers and digital books. I know my mother wouldn't have shelled out for an e reader when I was 16, so I see the dilemma. But since this book is plenty old enough for adults, maybe what I need to do is concentrate a little more on that market, first, and wait for teens to catch up. I can be patient that way! We're all figuring this thing out as we go.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, and - I'm really glad that your perception is that teens would like darker. I certainly craved it and sought it out when I was that age, so it makes sense to me that there IS an audience for that kind of dark.

Jordan Dane said...

Exactly my point for a promo queen like you. Freebies might be good to get the word out but even if teens want to read on their phones with free apps, how would they pay online without credit cards? So focusing your efforts, in a broader fashion, might be more effective.

I really think elements of horror can be a draw too. Love that you're doing this. Very cool, girl.

Jennifer Archer said...

Hi Alexandra! Thanks for guest posting on our blog and what an intriguing subject! When I was a teen, I was very drawn in by dark stories. The darker the better, and the more real the better. I imagine plenty of teens today feel the same. I look forward to reading your book! And Jordan, you bring up a topic that's been on my mind. Maybe teens will save bookstores! But how to get them to read ebooks, too. Hmmm.

Jordan Dane said...

Alex--there are dark forums where teens post discussions & their writing too. My niece (who wants to be a writer) told me about the ones she's a member of. The writing is closer to horror & very graphic & atmospheric. Right up your alley. I used to write on fanfiction.net & saw the same thing. Dark & slash are nothing new to younger readers, but self-pubbing gives authors a chance at reaching an audience. Maybe what they're calling THE NEW ADULT market, college age kids. They have credit cards & new jobs.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jennifer, what YA books did you read as a teen? I was well into adult horror and dark thriller writers when I was just a kid because my Dad had all those books all over the house.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jordan, I'll have to check out more sites like that. I'm so enmeshed in my new adult books (writing two at once, not a good idea...)

Jordan Dane said...

Writing two at once? OMG, you are a crazy woman, but then again, I already knew that.

I thought I could slip in a teen book while I wrote my adult ones, thinking they'd be shorter. But my brain doesn't DO short easily. Still, it's something I'd like to try...eventually.

Lea Nolan said...

Great post, Alex. I can't wait to read The Space Between. I've been reading a lot of dark MG lately because my WIP is a dark MG. There's not too much out there but one, The Toymaker is especially creepy and violent. Another, The Black Book of Secrets is also pretty dark, especially when you consider the audience is made up of 9-13 year olds.

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Joelene Coleman said...

Precisely why I'm publishing my own dark YA, to prevent someone from changing my dark to "shades of gray" and vanquishing the emotion. Dark YA - one of the best written dark "Boy Toy" by Barry Lyga (teacher sexual predator of young boy-told through victim POV when he's 17); shade lighter: Sarah Dessen's "Dreamland" (physically abusive boyfriend); and one I didn't care for, but touted as dark was "Thirteen Reasons Why." Thanks for a great post and I'm picking up your YA.

Sonya said...

I'm looking forward to reading The Space Between! I remember in high school (too long ago to count) that there issues with drugs, sex acts (and that was just on the bus!) and all sorts of tough issues. One girl was raped when I was in high school. I never forgot that.

As a teen I saw and heard things that were very graphic. But I think a lot of parents back then and even today think of high school as a place to go to learn when in reality, it can be a place to SURVIVE.

Cat Winters said...

A great post, Alexandra! When I was writing my upcoming YA release, I said to an editor at a conference, "The book gets a little violent at the end. Is that going to be all right for YA fiction?" Shortly afterward, I read the 3rd installment of THE HUNGER GAMES and felt a little embarrassed for even asking that question. I felt like my book was a Disney film compared to Suzanne Collins's carnage.

Now that I've sold my novel, I've learned that some of the editorial changes I'll be making will involve the story getting even darker. Like you said about your own novel, "the thing that makes it dark is the reality of it." My book also crosses into the realm of the paranormal, but I think some of the scariest parts involve the non-paranormal elements. The world can be dark for teens, and I don't think it's such a bad thing for us authors to show kids how to deal with the darkness.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lea - thanks so much for those suggestions, I'll look for them! Most of my dark reading as a teen was adult books, but there was Lois Duncan and Madeleine L'Engle, a huge influence.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

J., thanks for the suggestions! I did read 13 Reasons and didn't think it was all that dark, either, so will definitely check out the others. And thanks for checking out the book!

Jordan Dane said...

I enjoyed THIRTEENS REASONS WHY for other reasons. Mostly author craft of Jay Asher writing the audio narration, flipping to the past, while staying in the present. I didnt consider it dark at all. It only dealt with the dark social issue of suicide. he was more aimed at the hook of the book, which is the idea of audio tapes getting sent to the 13 people responsible for suicide girl making that decision. An telling it through the head of the one innocent boy was well done.

But dark? No.

I think social issue books should be raw with honesty and no censorship if they are to ring true.

Halse Anderson's WINTER GIRLS was a darker version of social issues because of the spiraling nature of the girl in her head as she suffers through her eating disorder. Not an easy book to read for many reasons, but good.

Paula Millhouse said...

Wow, Alex - great to see you here.
I got a copy of the book this morning and look forward to looking at it.

Maybe I had my head stuck in the sand way back in the dark ages when I was a teen, but I didn't like scary stuff, especially not horror.

Now that I'm a big girl, I work as a Family Nurse Practitioner and I have alot of teens in my practice. I think it's good for me to know what they want to read, because I want to talk straight to them about real life issues, and sometimes I find they open up to me better if they know I get where they're coming from.

And, because I'm interested in writing for this market, the best thing to do is read widely.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Sonya! I couldn't agree more than HS is often more a place to survive than to learn. I feel like I lived in a completely different world than the adults, then, and they didn't seem to have any idea of the stuff that happened. It never occurred to me to say, though.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

>>I don't think it's such a bad thing for us authors to show kids how to deal with the darkness.<<<

Cat, no kidding!!! I couldn't agree more. I had no idea how to deal with some of the things I saw around me when I was a teen, and pre-teen, too. It's amazing to me the curtain of denial that still goes on with adults; it's as if you forget how it was when you hit a certain age. But authors have to remember EVERYTHING, and tell it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

>>I don't think it's such a bad thing for us authors to show kids how to deal with the darkness.<<<

Cat, no kidding!!! I couldn't agree more. I had no idea how to deal with some of the things I saw around me when I was a teen, and pre-teen, too. It's amazing to me the curtain of denial that still goes on with adults; it's as if you forget how it was when you hit a certain age. But authors have to remember EVERYTHING, and tell it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank you, Paula! A lot of women don't like to read horror and I totally understand why - we have to live with danger and the potential of horror every day.

For me, reading and writing horror on my own terms is empowering - it's about good triumphing over evil.

Paula Millhouse said...

Sweet, Alex. I love that. It's about empowerment.

And you and Cat are so right - there's so many parents/adults that won't discuss hard issues with teens - they're either so embarrassed about their own issues, or they think if they start a dialogue with a kid it's like giving them permission to "be bad".

Let's not talk about it and then it won't exist...

What is up with that age-old generation gap?

I guess that's why God made authors.

Cat Winters said...

"What is up with that age-old generation gap?

I guess that's why God made authors."

Wise words, Paula.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

It's like the 12-Step programs say: "Denial is not just a river in Egypt."

Every time we see something like a sex abuse scandal or child abuse scandal in the schools (and we have one in spades in So Cal right now, unbelievable...) I just sit back and marvel.

I knew SO much about the abuse going on at my high school. How could the teachers not? I seriously don't get it.

Anita Grace Howard said...

This book sounds amazing! And wow, I'm so impressed by your intitiative, and taking your career to the next level so you didn't have to sacrifice story. Isn't it wonderful that ebooks have offered authors such an amazing opportunity! I will be reading this! Reminds me of Nightmare on Elmstreet, but with a punch of reality, which makes it SO much more terrifying.

Lithia said...

Wow, The Space Between sounds awesome! And now I just HAFTA google "Chris Lynch's Inexcusable"!

Really good and thought-provoking article, thanks for sharing! :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anita, it is just the greatest thing about e books. I think once we've all calmed down a little about the sheer moneymaking potential we're all discovering, we'll start to realize how much CREATIVE freedom we have now.We can take the chances that indie films used to take, for example, as opposed to mainstream Hollywood movies. It's fantastic!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lithia, thank you, hope you respond to the book! And yes, Inexcusable. Really provocative look at a critically important subject.