Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Where do you draw the line? by Savita Kalhan

There was a time when books written specifically for teenagers and young adults in the UK were virtually non-existent, when certain subjects were considered taboo, and when a writer knew that if they explored certain situations their book would inevitably be rejected and deemed to be ‘not suitable’ for that particular publisher’s list.

Much has changed over the last fifteen years, partly influenced by the US, which has in many ways led the way in the development of teen/YA literature, and its explosion over the last decade.

What were considered taboo subjects are no longer taboo. Every aspect of teen/YA life, including questions of sexuality, self-harming, anorexia, bulimia, peer-pressure, assault, rape, drugs, to name some, have now been written about and published in the UK.

So yes, you can virtually write about anything for the teen/YA market now. But do you draw a line somewhere, or not? And is that line drawn because of the gate-keepers and publishers, or is it a personal line?

Personally, the only line I draw takes into consideration the story and the readership. Uppermost in my mind is staying true to the characters in my book and the situation they find themselves in, and I’ve learnt through experience that as far as my readership is concerned, as long as the story works and is a good read, less is actually more.

My novel, The Long Weekend, is about two eleven year old boys abducted after school by a paedophile. It’s a thriller. It isn’t graphic in any way. That was where I drew my line. I knew some ten year olds might pick it up, and some did, and while the story did make it clear that abuse was taking place, this was very much ‘off camera’ – so no graphic descriptions, in fact no descriptions of sexual abuse at all. Some older teens, young adults and even adults found it intensely scary because their imaginations took over from where I stopped. What wasn’t written down in black and white provided the extra fear element.

My next book, AMNESIA, is another thriller. It will be published by Frances Lincoln in spring 2013. Did I draw any lines in the writing of it? I think I’ll leave that question for another blog...

I’m sure the question of where to draw the line applies not only to teen/YA fiction but for writers of fiction for younger children too.
So have any of you drawn lines? And if so, where do you draw them?


JO said...

I don't write for teens or young adults - but still agree that your decision has to be based on the needs of your characters, and your readers.

I think graphic descriptions of sex or violence are rarely warranted anyway - suggestions are far more effective than going into the plumbing. Readers bring their own imaginations and experience to the narrative, so older readers are bound to read more between the lines than the young.

As for avoiding 'difficult' subjects - young people watch TV, films, find all sorts of things online. Writers who avoid the unpleasant risk being thought of as out of touch with the preoccupations of the young.

Savita Kalhan said...

I agree, Jo, there is no need for graphic sex or violence in teen fiction. And, yes, difficult subjects no longer have to be avoided in teen fiction. Although there is still definitely a place for teen fiction which doesn't necessarily explore difficult issues. I think being relevant to teen/YA experience is key.

Michele Helene said...

Great post Savita and much food for fault. My current WIP is 8-12 so I kept my potty mouth very much in check. Otherwise like you say the characters lead the way.

Sita Brahmachari said...

Really interesting piece. I think you are right. It's how the story is told and if not too graphic, it's then up to what the reader can bring to the work... and that can vary according to their maturity and is in many ways self monitoring.
Thanks for this Savita.
And look forward to reading this.
Sita Brahmachari

Savita Kalhan said...

Michele - thanks! Apart from the potty mouth (!), is there anything else you would draw the line at, bearing in mind that, worryingly, lots of 9 year olds are now reading books like Muchamore's Cherub series?
Sita - great to see you last night! Yes, with teens and young adults it is definitely self-monitoring, which is how it should be. Looking forward to Jasmine Skies.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

The Long Weekend is a brilliant novel and all the more scary for what was is suggested rather than shown. I am looking forward to Amnesia. I did rewrite a plot once after interviewing s young girl who shared her experiences of living with HIV to me.

Rosalie Warren said...

Very good question, Savita.

I'm currently wrestling with it as I write about a young girl who has depression and related problems, for a novel that will be aimed at 12+ or possibly 11+. At present I'm doing a first draft - just getting to know my character as I write. The hard part will be in the editing...

I think I would draw the line at anything that condones or appears to condone behaviour that is dangerous to oneself or others. How easy it is to identify this line remains to be seen - I'll let you know how I get on.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I think the line has to be very definitely drawn in picture books for the young reader. That doesn't mean you can't touch on subjects like divorce or death but they just have to be exceptionally sensitively handled. Does torture or rape belong in a picture book... after all it happens in real life... definitely not. I think as writers we learn to draw the line instinctively when we are in tune with the person we ourselves were at the age the book/reader is directed at. Put yourself into the head of the reader and remember what you needed or wanted to know at that same age.

Savita Kalhan said...

Lynda, thank you!
Rosalie, best of luck with your story. I'd love to know how you get on.
Dianne, yes, I entirely agree, it does very much depend on the readership and rightly so.

Michele Helene said...

I tend to read blog posts when the kids are eating lunch , but your question made me think so much that I will blog a response. Thank you for the very thought provoking blog post and questions.

Nicky Schmidt said...

A very interesting post, Savita. I find I let my characters guide and drive me and because they're at the upper end of teen/YA (ie 18) there's little they feel they can't get away with. That said, I find I draw my own lines. I haven't done graphic scenes of either sex or violence, though my last ms dealt with both. I think, as you say, less is more, and much can be left to a reader's imagination and generally with far better effect.