Friday, February 17, 2012

Keeping It Real, Staying Within Bounds

Hey guys! Today we're joined by YA author, Kira Harp!

Kira has been telling stories since she was old enough to put words together, but never thought about writing as a career. Real life had its own adventures, with forays into psychology and teaching and then a biomedical career and children. Then several years ago, her husband gave her a computer. And her two girls were getting older and developing their own interests. So she sat down and typed out a story. Or two. Or three.

She currently writes constantly, read obsessively, and shares her home with her younger teenager, her amazingly patient husband, and a crazy, omnivorous little white dog. She can be found on her author page on Goodreads. She has two recent YA stories, Intervention, and The Benefit of Ductwork. Both were published by Featherweight Press in January 2012, as part of the Helping Hands line of books with the profits going to LGBT charities.

Hi, I'm Kira Harp.  I'm the author of a couple of young adult stories, and under a different pen name I've written a few adult gay romances.  Ralph, who has edited my young adult work, was kind enough to let me come on his blog and chat. Or ramble. Or pontificate.  You decide.

As I get deeper into the YA novel I'm currently writing, I've been thinking about the differences between writing for the adult romance market and writing for young adults.  And as a moderator of the Goodreads Young Adult GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) book group I also read other authors' books, trying to decide where they fall on the dividing line between YA and adult reading material.  And boy, is that a challenge sometimes!  I don't want to keep a good book off our YA site.  But I do have limits, even if it takes some work to define them.
The first basic element is explicit sex content.  That would seem to be simple, but it is sometimes the most difficult line to set.  Teens have relationships and they have sex.  A good book about teen characters rarely can avoid that issue, and particularly not a GLBTQ book.  After all, it's the emotional and sexual desires of the characters that define their GLBTQ identity.  A book where no character under 18 can possibly have sex will be rejected by teen readers for being out of touch with reality.  However I've read books where sex scenes involving an older teen are explicit enough for me to feel voyeuristic and uncomfortable.

I think the most critical thing is the feel of the scene.  Do we feel the emotions, the tensions and anxieties and love, or guilt because there isn't love?  Great.  Do we see the actual mechanics and imagine the specific physical sensations?  Too much.  Does it seem hot or erotic?  Definitely too much.  In my own work, I want the reader to be in the character's head for the emotional journey but not the physical one.  It's a difficult balance to achieve – the question of when to fade to black.  But choosing well is essential to make a book appropriate for teen readers.

Strong language is more of a personal-preference issue to me.  I've sat on a bus next to a group of fourteen-year-old boys, and I guarantee you there is no swearword I can think of that they do not know.  And use.  In fact, f***ing has become the all-purpose adjective and adverb for American teen boys, as far as I can tell. 

At the same time, some young readers are uncomfortable with strong language.  Also language is an easy weapon for parents or school-boards to use on a book they want to ban.  Instead of saying, “We want this story about gay kids out of our school” they can say, “Just look at all these obscene words.”  Chris Crutcher wrote The Sledding Hill partly so he'd have a book with no swearing in it, so if they wanted to ban it they would have to admit why. 

For all those reasons, I do work on a balance between having my characters sound real when they drop a hammer on their foot, and yet not overstepping the bounds of YA comfort.  Ralph and I take swear words out, modify them, find euphemisms, laugh at our euphemisms,  and put the originals back in.  It is a challenge all out of proportion to just writing twelve words in a sixteen thousand word manuscript.

Beyond those two content issues there is the question of tone.  YA almost by definition has at least one young adult main character.  Making a teen boy (who is not allowed to use the f-word) sound real is hard for me.  My adult characters tend to be mature, introspective and loners. (I leave you to guess why those are easier for me to write.)  Finding a young adult “voice” that is real, sympathetic but not too perfect, and interesting, is my goal. 

Ralph as my editor helps me realize when I have strayed. (I get little notes - “ I don't think young guys have used that expression since the 1980's.”)  I also try to find the right emotions.  I want to reflect the intensity with which I remember reacting to everything as a teenager. The way time could stretch and shrink drastically depending on the feelings involved.  The way one small thing could seem as huge as a mountain.  The mixture of impatience and anxiety with which I looked ahead to adult life. Even more than adult books, I think teen books are about getting the emotions right, and true and real.

Why does it matter whether it feels real to teenage readers , as long as the story is entertaining? To me it matters because I believe YA literature is more important.  My adult stuff entertains.  If someone is touched by it, that's wonderful.  But I know as a teenager, books were far more to me than entertainment.  The best books reached out and touched something inside me.  They were my solace and my refuge, my source of different world views, my mirror that sometimes showed a geeky, unattractive,  solitary girl as the heroine of her own story. They kept me going.  They were my friends.  I want to write books that have that connection in them. 

As the author of adult romance, I want to give readers a few hours of wonderful entertainment.  As a YA author, I want to write friends.

Thank you for your wonderful post, Kira! If you guys want to know more about Kira you can find her on Goodreads or leave a comment for her here!


  1. Kira,

    Thanks for the insightful post. I agree that YA lit is so terribly important! And striking a balance must be overwhelming at times!! I particularly enjoy your YA "voice"--as someone who works with teenagers--I often find you are spot on!! Thanks for sharing your stories with us!

  2. Great post, Kira. Finding that young adult voice definitely isn't easy sometimes. As for sex in YA, I think it's possible to create realistic characters in a realistic, romantic story without sex, but you have to have a good reason behind it. Otherwise teens might call BS.