Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Problem with Writing a Problem Novel

Problem novels have a lousy reputation, especially amongst adults. Which begs a few questions for which I, in my delusions of grandeurs(DoG), will answer. (See the trick here is that I pose questions that I know the answer to. Pay no attention to man behind the curtain.)

First, what are problem novels? In YA, they’re novels in which the characters of the novel try to cope with issues like rape, domestic violence, homelessness, alcoholism etc.

Why are they so seemingly unpopular? They are accused (and some times rightly so) of being preachy and overwritten, cleaving to a particular perspective (see the comments section) or providing little real characterization where the author uses the characters as props.

But the real problem with problem novels arises when the author tries to give a solution, wrapped in a neat after-school special bow.

Consider Blackbox by Julie Schumacher (more on her later, including an interview). This is a novel that absolutely refuses to provide a quick and easy solution. Or Godless by Pete Hautman.

So, what does that mean for those of us who love to write these dreaded novels? We can use the Schumacher/Hautman/ [insert many other names here] model: Refuse to give into the temptation to tell your reader what you’re story is about. Sound like familiar writing advice? Well, it is quick combination of “Show, don’t tell” and “Trust your reader.” If we do it for adults, then we definitely owe it to teens. Teens are reading to, in part, develop their own perspective on the issues, not to adopt the author's.

In my DoG, here are some things pay close attention to:

  • Your ending: have you given a moral to your tale? Have your earned your ending?
  • Your language: who is talking? The author or the character?
  • Your characters: are they ever a tool or have you given them true autonomy to drive the story, even if it is in a direction you didn't want/expect?

To paraphrase Laurie Halse Anderson (who seems to get a lot of ink in this blog), the job of a problem writer is to pose the problem and let the readers discover the solution.