Special Feature: Writing Teen Characters Is Really Hard–a guest post by Rita Arens

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot, today we are happy to host Rita Arens, author of The Obvious Game, editor of Sleep is for the Weak, and a recent feature of the Friday Fiction Feature. Today she regales us with the trials & tribulations of investing a serious draft with humor & levity.

The Obvious Game 

“Everyone trusted me back then. Good old, dependable Diana. Which is why most people didn’t notice at first.”
The Obvious Game is a journey into anorexia. Diana starts out normal enough, but soon the spiraling reality of her mother’s health and her growing relationship with a high school wrestler cutting weight find her helpless against the new rules taking shape in her mind. Read on to finally understand the psychology of anorexia … and how Diana found her way back. An important read on a complex and confusing mental illness.

Writing Teen Characters Is Really Hard by Rita Arens

Rita ArensThis month I attended the Missouri Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference (SCBWI). I always enjoy writing conferences: They’re filled with a bunch of people who know exactly how difficult intellectually and emotionally it is to write books and then attempt to get other people to read them and maybe even buy them.

One of my favorite breakout sessions at this conference was led by author and professor Cecily White.

During Cecily’s session, we discussed the danger in writing teenagers who are too sullen, because even the most sullen teen doesn’t see herself as sullen. Nobody sees herself as sullen. Not even those of us who are currently punching pillows and hate-watching Real Housewives.

I had this writing-a-sullen-teenager problem in the earlier stages of my young adult novel, THE OBVIOUS GAME (InkSpell Publishing, 2013). My main character, Diana, develops anorexia. I had anorexia when I was a young adult. So I wrote Diana the way I remembered being. And I am not very nice to myself, especially when I remember that time in my life. Thought not autobiographical from a plot perspective, this novel is very autobiographical emotionally (I even set it in the 1990s to frame precisely what that time felt like). I wanted to get at it, exactly at it, and portray the mindset of anorexia authentically.

And my agent said, “At present it’s clear that the manuscript really is unleavened by any form of humor.” (emphasis mine) (he did write that in an email, though)

Writers, saddle up, because the publishing world can be direct.

Yes, THE OBVIOUS GAME is a heavy book. But after thinking and thinking and thinking about how to inject levity into the novel followed by revising and revising and revising, THE OBVIOUS GAME did actually achieve my goal of being traditionally published. (My first book, a nonfiction anthology called SLEEP IS FOR THE WEAK, was traditionally published, as well, but I have self-published several poetry collections and short stories, so I have different goals for different projects.) And! A reviewer addressed the humor directly: “This is a pretty unflinching look at ED and the way it impacts people. Arens really digs into the mindset of ED, the obsession, the logic and illogical. It’s beautifully written, but sometimes hard to read because it’s so meaty. Despite the meatiness, however, there’s a lot of humor in the book, and a lot of hope.” When I read that review, I danced around the room, because dammit see: “There’s a lot of humor in the book.” That humor was hard-fought.

The tool I used to inject the humor was The Obvious Game itself. As I drove to my 20-year high school class reunion with my best friend, I asked her what we thought was funny when we were fifteen. I had wrapped myself so deeply in the hard parts of my novel that I’d forgotten what made me laugh. She reminded me that we used to play The Obvious Game, and I snorted just thinking about it. No matter how bad your mood, you can play The Obvious Game. It requires zero skill. When I got back from that trip, I inserted The Obvious Game and all its ramifications into my novel and resumed pitching it.

There are two important lessons I took away from the experience of writing and rewriting Diana, my protagonist in THE OBVIOUS GAME. 1) Don’t let yourself become so obsessed with being realistic that you write an unsympathetic protagonist. Everyone has some redeeming qualities. Let the supporting characters be really evil if you will, but let your readers like your main character. 2) Draw on life experiences unique to you as you revise. Don’t be so focused on finishing that you write something generic. Write the book, as they say, that only you can write.

What’s The Obvious Game, you ask? You’ll just have to read the book! Here’s the playlist that goes with it, just to get you in the appropriate mood. Each song is off the album named in the corresponding chapter title. SEE WHAT I DID THERE? Nerd out with me, nineties-music lovers.

THE OBVIOUS GAME Playlist

Chapter 1: Pride by White Lion (1987) – When the Children Cry

Chapter 2: Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses (1987) – Welcome to the Jungle

Chapter 3: Scarecrow by John Mellencamp (1985) – Small Town

Chapter 4: True Colors by Cyndi Lauper (1986) – True Colors

Chapter 5: Can’t Hold Back by Eddie Money (1986) – Take Me Home Tonight

Chapter 6: Hysteria by Def Leppard (1987) – Hysteria

Chapter 7: Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction (1988) – Jane Says

Chapter 8: Just Like the First Time by Freddie Jackson (1986) – Have You Ever Loved Somebody

Chapter 9: Use Your Illusion by Guns N’Roses (1991) – November Rain

Chapter 10: Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf (1977) – Bat Out of Hell

Chapter 11: Head Games by Foreigner (1979) – Dirty White Boy

Chapter 12: Faith by George Michael (1987) – Monkey

Chapter 13: Cuts Like a Knife by Bryan Adams (1983) – Straight From the Heart

Chapter 14: Double Vision by Foreigner (1978) – Hot Blooded

Chapter 15: Disintegration by The Cure (1989) – Fascination Street

Chapter 16: Poison by Bell Biv DeVoe (1990) – Poison

Chapter 17: Achtung Baby by U2 (1991) — Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?

Chapter 18: Nevermind by Nirvana (1991) – Smells Like Teen Spirit

Chapter 19: Listen Without Prejudice by George Michael (1990) – Something to Save

Chapter 20: Out of Time by R.E.M. (1991) – Losing My Religion

Chapter 21: The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby (1986) – Mandolin Rain

Chapter 22: Infected by The The (1986) – Out of the Blue (Into the Fire)

Chapter 23: Strange Fire by Indigo Girls (1989) – Strange Fire

Chapter 24: Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos (1992) — China

 

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Friday Fiction Feature

FictionReboot2Hello and welcome back to the Friday Fiction Feature! This is Tabatha here again, this time here with a confession: I lied. I know last week I promised you a feature on Death, but it’ll have to wait another week (don’t worry, I hear he’s very patient). So, in leiu of post-apocalyptic (get it? cuz last week was end-of-the-world books? nevermind) gallows humor, we’ll be going back to the Fiction Feature roots with some Young Adult fiction. This week’s lineup features young adults overcoming the vast array of issues facing their generation: romance, weight, necromancers, stepmothers, and rude squires (really it is a tough age folks).

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Fraction of Stone (Fraction #1) by Kelley Lynn

Fraction of Stone (Fraction, #1)Just to make sure you don’t feel too out of place, I’ve decided to start this week’s feature with a small apocalypse to tie the two weeks together and make you feel more at home. First on the list is Fraction of Stone, the story of a teenager fighting to overcome one of the most trying issues facing teens today: angsty wizards. (Ok fine, they’re also dealing with relationships and catastrophic events, but doesn’t high school sound much more fun when it’s got things like angsty wizards?!).

Wind tunnels, torrential rains and earthquakes tear apart Casden. The cause of the world’s imbalance is unknown, but the mounting occurrences suggest there’s little time before life ceases to exist.
Rydan Gale and Akara Nazreth are the only humans with the ability to wield magic. The tattoo on their necks and the discovery of an ancient book, dictate they are the key to the world’s survival.
But the greatest obstacle for saving mankind isn’t the bizarre creatures, extreme betrayals and magic-fearing men hunting them.
It’s that Akara doesn’t believe the world is worth saving.

The Obvious Game by Rita Arens

The Obvious GameBecause I promise I do take teenagers and their problems seriously, our next selection is a more realistic take on the high-school years with The Obvious Game

“Everyone trusted me back then. Good old, dependable Diana. Which is why most people didn’t notice at first.” The Obvious Game is a journey into anorexia. Diana starts out normal enough, but soon the spiraling reality of her mother’s health and her growing relationship with a high school wrestler cutting weight find her helpless against the new rules taking shape in her mind. Read on to finally understand the psychology of anorexia … and how Diana found her way back. An important read on a complex and confusing mental illness.

There Comes a Prophet by David Litwack

There Comes a ProphetOf course this is a exploration of the world of fiction, where teenagers have all the same concerns, questions, and troubles as their real-life counterparts, but are not always able to give those issues the attention they deserve because of obnoxious distractions like dystopian governments that don’t care how cute that girl slated for reeducation is. Such is the case in There Comes a Prophet where our troubled young protagonist barely has time to figure out what his questions about girls are before he has to rescue the one he likes (possibly like-likes, it’s too early to say).

“But what are we without dreams?”
A thousand years ago the Darkness came—a terrible time of violence, fear, and social collapse when technology ran rampant. But the vicars of the Temple of Light brought peace, ushering in an era of blessed simplicity. For ten centuries they have kept the madness at bay with “temple magic” and by eliminating forever the rush of progress that nearly caused the destruction of everything.
A restless dreamer, Nathaniel has always lived in the tiny village of Little Pond, longing for something more but unwilling to challenge the unbending status quo. When his friend Thomas returns from the Temple after his “teaching”—the secret coming-of-age ritual that binds young men and women eternally to the Light—Nathaniel can barely recognize the broken and brooding young man the boy has become. And when the beautiful Orah is summoned as well, Nathaniel knows he must somehow save her. But in the prisons of Temple City he discovers a terrible secret that launches the three of them on a journey to find the forbidden keep, placing their lives in dire jeopardy. For a truth awaits them there that threatens the foundation of the Temple. But if they reveal that truth the words of the book of light might come to pass:
“If there comes among you a prophet saying ‘Let us return to the darkness,’ you shall stone him, because he has sought to thrust you away from the light.”

Root Bound (Emma and the Elementals #1) by Tanya Karen Gough

Root Bound (Emma and the Elementals, #1)In Root Bound we see yet another troubled teen who is unable to deal properly with her bullies, her social position, or her nomadic father because some brownies (definitely not the junk food, probably not the girl-scout) can’t deal with their own pesky goddesses without her help. Oh well, maybe Hades will give her some good tips for dealing with upperclassmen.

“A lighthearted, whimsical confection that will delight both kids and their parents’ inner child.” -Kirkus Reviews
How far will you go to find your way home?
Emma and her father are always on the move, travelling from place to place as her father’s work demands. Their new home, however, is different. There’s a frightening woman who lives down the hall: she bears an uncanny resemblance to a witch. A mysterious light comes from her apartment, and a small boy seems to be trapped inside.
School in this town is no happy place either, with an odd principal and a gang of girls who make tormenting Emma their special project. And strangest of all is the fact that there seem to be brownies – basement brownies, in the air vent in her bedroom.
Haunted by visions of her mother, Emma travels through the brownie burrow to the valley of Hades to visit with the goddess Ceres, following a series of clues that lead her across the sea of memory to the centre of the world.
There, on an inhospitable rock floating in a sea of steaming lava, Emma must find a way to release her mother from the sea of memory and restore magic to both the brownie burrow and the human world above.

The Tale of Mally Biddle by M.L. LeGette

The Tale of Mally BiddleThe stories we’ve shown you above all have one approach to the teenagerhood: trying to do something about your evil stepmother and that cute boy/girl/vampire in History, but getting interrupted by that troublesome outside world. The Tale of Mally Biddle shows another approach: trying to focus on your adventures and being interrupted by things like rude boys and-much worse-cute ones.

When Mally Biddle agreed to spy upon the King of Lenzar and his overbearing knights she knew she was heading into danger. She didn’t know she’d find a family unlike any other.
Posing as a servant in Bosc Castle, Mally serves tea and restocks the fires for the most dangerous men in the kingdom. Her goal is to learn the truth of what happened sixteen years ago, when the infant princess met her death … a death that has more questions than answers.
Along her search for the truth, Mally meets the energized Lita Stump, the strict and matriarchal Meriyal Boyd, and the opinionated Archibald Diggleby. Then of course there are the knights: Sir Leon Gibbs who is slicker than a greased hog, Adrian Bayard, hot tempered and violent, and the worst of the lot: Sir Illius Molick, Captain of the Knights. And then there is Maud, a mysterious woman who just might know everything…

The Grave Winner (The Grave Winner #1) by Lindsey R. Loucks 

The Grave Winner (The Grave Winner #1)Now, as we all (vaguely) remember, the issues we talked about above (girls, boys, angst, step-parents) are all the things we had to deal with as we escaped…I mean progressed through high school. But The Grave Winner shows Young Adulthood more the way we expereinced it: as a death-defying adventure where you are always confused, the enemy is hard to make out, and you’re pretty sure the prom queen has to be some kind of evil. (Just because the most dangerous parts took place in Geometry did nothing to lessen their life-or-deathness!).

Leigh Baxton is terrified her mom will come back from the dead — just like the prom queen did.
While the town goes beehive over the news, Leigh bikes to the local cemetery and buries some of her mom’s things in her grave to keep her there. When the hot and mysterious caretaker warns her not to give gifts to the dead, Leigh cranks up her punk music and keeps digging.
She should have listened.
Two dead sorceresses evicted the prom queen from her grave to bury someone who offered certain gifts. Bury them alive, that is, then resurrect them to create a trio of undead powerful enough to free the darkest sorceress ever from her prison inside the earth.
With help from the caretaker and the dead prom queen, Leigh must find out what’s so special about the gifts she gave, and why the sorceresses are stalking her and her little sister. If she doesn’t, she’ll either lose another loved one or have to give the ultimate gift to the dead – herself.