(This post grew out of a discussion on my friend Livia’s blog.)
In recent years, there’s been a lot of chatter about attention spans. Increased television watching among preteens has been blamed for a rise in ADD/ADHD. Parents are encouraged to read to younger children, or get older kids reading as a first step in engaging their minds. But what if the books we so blithely hand around don’t engage? What if they’re too fast, too short, too thoughtless?
Many modern YA novels are quick to start the action. A monster chases the hero into a dark and broody forest. A heroine discovers a door is not simply a door. Characters are introduced at the cusp of change rather than the beginning of their stories and readers are plunged into the conflict feet first. Is this a good thing? Do we miss out a deeper, richer reading experience by choosing books that start in the middle?
Some time ago, I read an article purporting that the best way to get published was to write a novel the way Michael Bay writes movies:
Introduce every man character.
Introduce love interest/sexy character.
Blow stuff up.
Blow stuff up.
Blow Stuff up.
Put love interest/family in danger.
Blow Stuff Up.
Introduce giant robots.
Blow. Stuff. Up.
And it’s true. Novels written with this sort of structure – YA and adult alike - sell. Action and danger are exciting. Living vicariously is fun. But not all fast-paced novels are action-packed. The majority are plot-driven–we continue to read because we want to know what happens next. Character growth and change are incidental, things that happen as a result of the conflict and its resolution. And while a strong, authentic voice is certainly appreciated in such a novel (in any novel), it’s secondary to a tight plot.
Part of the reason so many YA novels are written with the action up front is expectation. We–authors, agents, publishers–assume all teens have short attention spans, so we write and publish with that in mind. Conversely, teens are used to reading books with an immediate, in-the-moment-of-change start, and to some extent, have come to expect them.
And that’s okay. To me, the key is not so much that teens are unwilling to read the lead up to a transformation because it’s not important. A teenager’s whole life has been spent leading up to the penultimate transformation–the shift from child to young adult. While most teens aren’t dealing with some of the issues presented in YA novels (wizard school acceptances are remarkably rare in real life), they know what it’s like to not fit in, to feel used or unappreciated &c. because it’s part of the adolescent condition. Asking them to read detailed backstory is almost like asking them to watch home movies, or listen (again) to a particularly embarrassing childhood story. ??Fairy tales also do this – we, the reader, are often told little about the main character. Sure, we know she’s a princess, or he’s a woodcutter’s son with an evil stepmother. Sure, we know they’re rich/poor, happy/unhappy. We’re rarely told about the years leading up to the story; many fairy tales don’t have character names. Why? Because this is extraneous information–the change, the journey, is the important part. Fairy tales are for the every man, the every woman. I am always the princess/woodcutter’s son/dwarf with a chip on his shoulder. Names and details are distracting. The lack of set up doesn’t make these books less engaging or less relevant. It may even make them more so.
Of course, this doesn’t mean all young adults read fast-paced books, or that all character-driven YA books are plodding. (S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is an excellent example of a novel that burns the candle at both ends.) But slice-of-life novels with a full backstory tend to be issues books. These are not novels meant to be read on a plane or waiting for a bus. These are novels intended for savoring, musing, even dissecting, best read under a favorite tree or snuggled up in a cozy chair. Good examples are issues books (Dreamland, Sarah Dessen, Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher) or belonging books (Dark Dude, Oscar Hijuelos, Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta and, of course, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.). Are readers more satisfied by these books? Do they yield a deeper experience?
The simple answer is “it depends”. Such books may be deeper in the moment–it’s easier to consider what’s happening and why when a character isn’t in imminent danger. The majority of character-driven YA is also set in the real world, meaning that the real teen life parallels are a lot more transparent. The story takes longer to start; we spend more time with a character before they reach the moment-of-change. We get to know the character, decide if we like them, decide if we’re like them. Do we need to go through these steps? Probably not – the best writers use action to illustrate character. But backstory gives us context–it gives us a road map littered with signs pointing toward the moment-of-change and handy little sidebars about why characters act as they do. Without a grounding in family relationships, Dark Dude makes little sense; without an understanding of the rules in Looking for Alibrandi, the story is whiny, the main character self-indulgent. Skilled authors, however, give us all the information we need in an unobtrusive way. Reading about the Josephine Alibrandi feels much like chatting to a friend over coffee; following Lia (Wintergirls) as she pieces together her friend’s death is almost like mourning ourselves.
Some authors straddle the line between character-driven and plot-driven books. Many do it with a cheat–a fast-paced prologue that’s actually an action scene from the end of the story (all eyes on you Michael Buckley). Others use a variation of the Michael Bay line, using physical aspects of a character or a character’s world to show change (Kaimira: The Sky Village is a pretty good example). Tamora Pierce achieves both by winding two stories into one–the first two books in her Beka Cooper series could be untangled to make four. Phillip Pullman starts the His Dark Materials series with a lot of action (The Golden Compass) then dials the pacing back to ruminate on religion, love, and duty (The Amber Spyglass).
Do you prefer fast-paced YA? Character stories? What are your favorites?
Inkpop had a soft launch in late 2009 and currently boasts more than 10,000 members ages 13 and up, and 11,000 written submissions, which include novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. An editorial board of Harper editors will review the top five member selections each month, offering feedback on their work as well as, potentially, the possibility of publication.
As a marketing ploy, inkpop is clever – it encourages teens to look for HC books, keeps tabs on current trends (Angels? Possessed Puppy-loving Poets? Daleks?), and gives editors the chance to jump on the next Christopher Paolini. As a slushpile, it’s genius.
2010 has seen the death of the slush pile. It’s been coming a long time–savvy writers have spent the past few years tracking down agents rather than editors. Social networking has continued the trend, with writers in all stages of their careers friending industry insiders in the hope of picking a few tips. Editors, though less disadvantaged by the new closed house policies, are now dependent on agents to find fresh, new voices.
Enter inkpop. The big question, of course, is would a virtual slush pile be less labor-intensive than an IRL one? It depends. The beauty of re-envisioning the slush pile is that it’s essentially a do-over – a chance for houses to evaluate why the old system wasn’t working and put new structures in place.
Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, says it best,
“As with all of our online consumer programs, the concept of community-building is aligned with our ongoing corporate digital marketing efforts to cultivate a two-way dialogue with our readers. Inkpop provides us with an interactive platform to engage directly with our audience, encourage a passion for writing, and discover new trends and opportunities in this growing and important community.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, there are a number of reasons publishing houses have been giving their slushpiles the flick. The cost of maintaing slush-readers – a mixture of interns and junior editors – is up top. So why not pass the burden of reading on to those with the most to gain?
Websites such as Verla Kay’s blue boards and Critters.org are proof that many aspiring authors are willing to put in the hard yards. Writers routinely swap industry tidbits and critiques. Focusing on science fiction, fantasy, and horror manuscripts, the Critters Writers Workshop was established in 1995. The site now boasts 10,000 members, and claims to have served in excess of 250,000 critiques. There’s no fee to join, though Critters requires members to complete a certain number of critiques each month.
Inkpop takes the idea further. Members are required to submit a minimum of 10,000 words (40 standard manuscript format pages) to the site, if not the whole book. While this may not mean the entire work gets read, it gives submitting members the chance to get feedback on the work in context. This sort of big picture editing can be invaluable. The top 5 submissions–as determined by a ranking process–are read by editors. Those members who consistently pick submissions that make the top 5 are dubbed “trendsetters”. Trendsetters replace the junior/associate editors in the slushpile chain, giving HC a way to find standout writing that may not have made it into the monthly top 5.
“What sets inkpop apart from other writing communities is the Editorial Board,” Kat Musallam, an inkpop user told WSJ.com. “Other communities only have that writer-reader interaction, but to have a panel evaluate your work is something that we writers-especially those who aren’t so familiar with the publishing world-can only dream of.”
Why the 10,000 word minimum? From the Inkpop FAQ,
“No one can support or honestly recommend a book if they can’t read a good amount of it first.
…We (HarperCollins) firmly believe that writers should be judged on the quality of the work they produce, not on their ability to pitch, market, or publicize themselves. Personal recommendations are by far the most effective way of building support for a project, and writers on inkpop stand to gain the support of a community of readers who are really motivated to spread the word about the best new writing. But they can’t help you unless you’re prepared to show them what you’ve got!
If this weren’t enough, houses could monetize the service (though inkpop is free) – the number of attendees at high-priced conferences is a testament to how much many would-be authors are willing to pay for a shot at publication. But paid models can be dicey–there’s a reason reputable publishers and agents say money should flow to the writer. A less-inclusive means-based set up also runs the risk of alienating for-the-love writers.
Fortunately, inkpop isn’t in it for the money. From the site,
“HarperCollins hopes to find talented writers that they can sign up for their traditional book publishing programs—they’ll read the most popular projects each month as part of this search…We don’t feel that our current, closed “slush pile” system is fair to authors themselves, nor do we believe it is giving us the best chance of finding the brightest new talent. inkpop is a genuine attempt to find a better way to determine the books on our shelves, and it hands selective power to the readers who will ultimately be buying them”.
Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon and Schuster, says the death of the publisher’s slush pile accelerated after the terror attacks of 9/11 by fear anthrax in the mail room. Online services cut the risk–the twin issues of viruses and hackers remain, but these are a given in the web business. Publishers, agents, and anyone with a website–even Google–run the risk of being hacked with every tick of their CPU.
A side-benefit of the virtual slushpile? A clearly stepped out process for getting work onto an editor’s desk may also cut down on the number of unsolicited emails cluttering said editor’s inbox.
Years ago, I sent a teleplay to Chris Carter of the X-Files. I was twelve, and didn’t really understand how the industry worked. A couple of months after I’d dropped my oft-revised (thanks, Mrs. Vickers, for teaching me the importance of the second, third, fourth, and fifth draft) story into the mail, I received a kindly worded letter from the studio informing me that, due to copyright restrictions, they were unable to accept my work. My hopes of breaking in were dashed, but it wasn’t all for nought. Chris Carter had scrawled “thanks” at the bottom, then signed his name in bright blue ink. (And yes, I still have it.)
The point is, even before the interwebs, copyright was an issue. Now, publishing houses and studios have to be proactive about avoiding lawsuits–and cutting down on unsolicited material is the cheapest, easiest way to do it. Inkpop, however, has the standard online waivers in place, and encourages its users to keep an eye out for any copyright issues.
Worried about other users stealing work? HC has thought of this, too, and disabled the cut, copy, and download functions on the site. This may not prevent Daleks from stealing your work, but I’m sure HC is on it (I’ve heard rumors of virtual staircases). Posting the 10,000 word minimum may help discourage thieves.
Although such a venture seems weighted toward writers, said platform gives houses a chance to go beyond the standard conference talks. Instead of being limited to a list of what a house is looking for, do’s and don’ts of the query letter, and miscellaneous newbie questions (“Why did x-editor-at-y-house never respond to my phone calls even after I sent them a muffin basket and a box of Godiva’s best?”). Inkpop is a good start–hopefully HC will take it to the next level with editor wish lists and ask-an-editor forums. Authonomy, based on the inkpop platform, is currently in beta. All “non-illustrated manuscripts, both fiction and non-fiction, are eligible for the site”.
Will other houses try something similar? Maybe. Several genres are suited to the platform, though YA is easily the most inclusive. Katz (on WSJ.com) says, “Teens are a key consumer group with significant financial impact. Teen fiction is one of the most robust and fastest-growing categories in publishing today.” A science fiction and fantasy version of inkpop could be a hit for another house–Tor has been ahead of the curve with regular newsletters, online only material, and more. Could a virtual slushpile be in their future? I hope so.
In the meantime, I’m headed over to inkpop for a bit of a stickybeak.
What do you think of inkpop? Would you submit to a virtual slushpile?
Edit: Some sites are listing inkpop as a teen-only community, others list it as all-inclusive. From the inkpop FAQ:
Everyone age 13 and older is welcome to join inkpop to submit writings and critique and rank the work of other inkpop members. As for geographical location, you can live anywhere in the world—whether you’re from Austria or Zimbabwe, we welcome you to inkpop.