Monday, July 29, 2013

Why is current YA fiction so dark?

The world is a troubled place right now, and YA fiction appears to be enjoying the darkness. No, not just enjoying it - relishing it. Gorging on it. Drowning in it. (I could go on...)

But - is all this dark, violent, dystopic exploration of unhappiness really what the kids are reading? Or is it just what YA writers and publishers think the kids want?  (I don't know the answer - I'm just asking the question...)

I guess I should be happy that the Era of Vampires appears to be waning. Okay, I read the Twilight series to stay current, and although it didn't thrill me the way it did my teenage daughter, I could see the appeal.  Ditto the Hunger Games and its sequels. Engaging fantasy, strong female character, a bit of romance. Before those two entries, kids worked their way through the increasingly dark Harry Potter. And of course there has been a fair share of lightweight Young Chick Lit as well. Trends come and go - we all know that.

But this past weekend I read about the following four YA books, each reviewed briefly on the Books page of the Globe. Here are snippets of the reviews by Globe reviewer Lauren Bride:

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea: "...a grouchy, pollution-sick, slightly frightening Polish mermaid whose broken English is elsewhere peppered with profanity..."

Letting Ana Go by Anonymous: "Following a nameless high-school student for over a year from lighthearted athlete through anorectic compulsion...the diary-entry format could potentially read as a how-to guide for the impressionable without quite giving an antidote or example of how to recover."

When We Were Good by Suzanne Sutherland: "...pitched into double grief...struggling to find her place at punk shows with tough, impressive kids...also finds trouble..."

Rush (Book One of The Game) by Eve Silver: "...electric high-action scenes, a world in peril (this time, by the threat of aliens), and amorphous morality in a broken society..."


Confession: I haven't read any of these books; just the reviews. A little research shows that critics (at least the critics who have blurbed for the books) love them. For instance,  "A radiant hybrid of piercing realism, creeping horror, and heartbreaking fantasy - but fantasy with dirt in its hair and scabs on its knees," says author Daniel Kraus (his own book is called Rotters) about Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.

So am I the only writer (and reader) who thinks the current crop of YA characters and their stories sound (as my teenage son calls it) "messed up"?

Is this really what kids are reading - or is it just what publishers are publishing?

The teenagers I know are intelligent, curious, confused, funny and often under tremendous pressure to perform at school, at home and at all the other activities that fill their lives. Are they really reaching for the darkside? Are they really connecting with and finding pleasure and meaning in reading a book featuring a "slightly frightening Polish mermaid"? Is there anything else out there to choose from? Maybe even something with humour, lightness, hope?

Of course, I may be wrong.

Why is YA fiction so dark? I'm open to enlightenment.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #4: Word choice

Ah! The power of words!

Especially when a writer picks the wrong one...

Infamous? A good way to drive away potential customers...!
In an otherwise engaging brochure for children's toys, clothing and paraphernalia, this goof jumped out like an elbow in the ribs. (Okay, there were actually quite a few editorial misses in this brochure, stay tuned). New pyjamas - great! But kids would probably rather not wear anything infamous (as in, notorious). Famous would be fine, of course.

Words have connotations, and sometimes writers don't pay enough attention to this slippery, elusive side of language. 

For instance, which would you rather hear?

"You look so slim!"

"You look so thin!"

The two adjectives are similar in meaning, but the first suggests a positive appearance, and the second - well, not so much. Thin has a slightly negative tone.

Back to my example from the brochure: Famous means well-known in a positive way, just the sort of word you would like to use to describe your product.  But infamous suggests that something is famous for the wrong reasons. Its connotations are negative. 

Here's another:

Don't over-excite yourself, kids!
If something is overdone, whether it's meat or make-up, it's usually not a good thing. Neither is it healthy to be overly excited. The connotation, once again, is negative. 

The writer probably meant to say something like "I am really excited..." or "I am so excited...." or just plain "I am excited", which would be fine: adverbs are frequently, horribly, misguidedly overused, especially in marketing materials. (Don't get me started on real estate copy writers!)

Choose your words carefully, writers. If you don't, you may be expressing the exact opposite of what you intended!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #5: Subject verb agreement

Oh dear. I hate these mistakes.

But you would think an author - a professional writer - would know better, wouldn't you? Or that the editor in charge of publishing this writer's guest column in the newspaper would take a good look? Apparently not. Even the most experienced writers make mistakes. Read on.

Subject-verb agreement is a very simple concept:

Singular noun takes a singular verb:

The man reads.  He reads.

Plural noun takes a plural verb:

The children read. They read.

Problems arise when additional words are placed between the subject and its verb:

The man travelling with a pile of suitcases and two teenagers reads.

"Teenagers reads"?  Our ear picks up that the verb doesn't sound right next to the plural noun - but the noun teenagers is not the subject of the verb reads. The subject of the verb is man.

And that's exactly the problem that arises in this excerpt.

The subject of the sentence is surgeon, and its verb is state (circled in red).

But wait a minute... The ship's surgeon state...?

The phrase talking of novels separates the noun from its verb. And because the last word of the phrase is plural, the writer chose a plural verb to follow....


Why? Because the verb state doesn't belong to the noun novels; it belongs to surgeon. Yes, the singular surgeon. Take out the modifying phrase and the subject-verb relationship becomes clear.

The ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, states that...

(I've added the required comma, too. I mean, how many ship's surgeons were there, anyway?? Don't get me started...!)

Which all goes to prove that even the most accomplished writers make mistakes. Editors, please take note!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Ashes: Cricket has a language all its own

Yes, but what does it mean??

My day job (well, one of them) is Coordinator of Web Content Services for the Canadian Curling Association. This means that from September to April, I write about the sport of curling - a lot!

A month ago I posted a story to my blog Grassroots Curling about the strange and wonderful words and phrases we curlers use to describe the action in our sport. (Here's a link to that post: Curling lingo: Anyone ready to weagle? if you're interested). It was inspired by comments made by a friend of mine during the 2010 Olympics about the indecipherable commentary from the announcers and players at the curling competition in Vancouver. The curling lingo made her laugh out loud.

Okay, I get it. The trademark "Hurry haaaaard!" has become the poster child for funny curling phrases. But you know what? I believe lingo belongs on the Fun Side of language. When a group of communicators - be they curlers, or politicians, or pipe fitters, or knitters, or musicians...well, you get the picture - gets together and talks about their enterprise, magical things happen. Individual words are thrust together in the most extraordinary combinations, taking on new meanings. And in many cases, completely new words are created.

I was reminded of the joys of lingo as I was reading about The Ashes, the famous cricket contest between England and Australia that takes place every other year. My friends in the UK assure me that this year's first Test match was unusually exciting and close. All I know is this: when I read reports about the games, I am confounded. And impressed. And delighted.

"Century partnership?" "Drinks break?"
I love this passage: it's language at its most creative and meaningful, even if I don't understand any of it. These words, put together this way, make perfect sense to cricket fans everywhere: a secret code. And if I want to, I can put in the effort and break that code too. And isn't that what language is? Coding and decoding, using specific words put next to each other, just so?

One day, I might even be able to speak Cricket as well as I speak Curling. Long live lingo!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing for a cause: Medieval Mystery by Zachary Collins

I came across this story on the weekend: an 11-year-old boy in Guelph, Ont., is distributing one of his self-published books (created with the aid of his art teacher) and donating all his earnings to charity, in this case, Free the Children.

Here's the brief story that appeared in the Guelph Mercury. You'll notice that the story includes links to Zachary's Facebook page with more information about where to find the book. (Sorry - if you don't live in the Guelph area, you might be out of luck. As far as I can tell, Medieval Mystery isn't available online).

What a terrific feel-good story! Inspired by the work of this Canadian-based juggernaut charity run by the Keilburger brothers (another couple of creative kids, by the way), this creative kid turns his school project into a force for good.

Let's not forget the encouragement and assistance he received from his art teacher and probably his parents as well. A team effort, for sure. Well done, Zachary!

Screen capture from the article

Monday, July 8, 2013

The writer goes to the office - and stays home

Like many writers, I work from home. And I love it.

But that's not the case for everyone who follows the home-office path. A recent article in The Globe and Mail explores the challenges faced by those of us who find the lure of the non-commute appealing.

There are pitfalls, of course, as this article outlines:

Considering a home office? Take my advice

For many, it's the lure of the couch, the appeal of not having to change out of pyjamas, the proximity of the kitchen.

For others, the home office is a disaster: too lonely, too many distractions, too unproductive.

This is what I love about working at home:

1. My turf, my rules. I can make tea when I want. I can work anywhere I want. I'm the boss when it comes to time management. Flexibility. Freedom!

2. My own sounds. I have an inconvenient sensitivity to sounds. In a previous job, I worked in Cubicle Land, and it was hell. Too many overheard phone conversations, too much chatter, too much crappy radio blather from that one guy who just had to have CoolMusic 105 playing in the background. Kill me now! I do have a dog that barks rather too much, but other than that, I can control the sounds (or lack thereof) in my workspace.

3. I am a very disciplined worker, so productivity is not an issue. And even when the siren call of Facebook or Twitter or email calls, I indulge, and then I get back to work. My work patterns were often disrupted in previous work environments outside my home - mostly by other people. Go away! I'm working!

One of my workspaces:

My daughter moved out and I quickly took over her room. It's nice
to have a room with a door that closes, especially for
conference calls, or when I need to remove myself from the sounds
of the noisy world around me.

Another of my workspaces:

Sometimes, especially in winter, I move everything to this wonderful
desk in the living room. It's warm there, and the windows
let in the best light. It's a bit out in the open, so it has
to be a day when others are out and the house is quiet.

And then there's this one:

Close to the kitchen (kettle & tea), with the cryptic in safe
proximity on the counter behind my chair (for breaks).
The dog likes it too ("Let me out!" "Let me in!" and repeat....)

And this one, perhaps my favourite:

Not going to lie - it's pretty sweet to work out
under the gazebo on a warm summer day...

Yup. Working at home works for me.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Facts & Arguments revisited: Writing for free?

I continue to be amazed at the number of hits this blog gets thanks to a piece I posted in 2010 (yes, three years ago!) about The Globe and Mail's Facts & Arguments essays, for which the writers are not paid. It's a tired topic, but every time I think it's finally dropped off the horizon, there's a flurry of hits that show up in my statistics and leave me shaking my head.

Here's a link to that post: Facts & Arguments: Why I can't send my essays to The Globe and Mail, and why you shouldn't either

It's a hot issue for writers - not being paid. The F&A situation is particularly disappointing because there was a time, pre-2009, that the essay writers were paid: $100 for each 800-word essay. But, for whatever reason, the editorial decision-makers changed their policy (a cost-cutting measure?) and turned the F&A page into a freebie.

Some of the essays that get published are terrific. Some of them aren't. Too many fall into the "me, me, me" category, and quite a few can be filed in the "dead relative" department. Some are so badly visioned and written that I wonder how they made the cut.

But then, I'm a professional writer who writes for a living. Just like Margaret Wente, and Ian Brown, and Peter Cheney and Roy McGregor and Sarah Hampson, and any number of other writers whose work appears on the pages of the Globe and Mail. I suspect many of the essayists who see their work on the F&A page are not.

Perhaps these contributors work in professions where not getting paid for their services is acceptable. Writing personal essays is just a hobby, after all, right?

The Globe's stance appears to be that contributors should feel it's reward enough just to see their essay in The Globe, read from coast to coast. Sorry, but that sounds like arrogance to me. And here's the kicker: the writer isn't paid, but the illustrator is.

I'd love to contribute my writing to The Globe, just like all the other professional writers who make it one of the best reads in Canada.

But shouldn't I be paid, too?