6 Depressing Realities Of Writing Young Adult Fiction
Between when we invented the wheel and when we invented the Vine, young people used to read books. And they still do, this generation more than any other in history by any measure. They read other stuff too (you might even be reading words on a screen right now), but it's novels that add Mentos to the Diet Coke of our youth's imaginations, sometimes leading to billion-dollar theme parks.
Writing that stuff seemed like a pretty weird job, so we talked to Katie Taylor and Jack Heath about their time penning fantasy and sci-fi for teens. They told us ...
Covers And Titles Are Often Shameless Lies
There's an old saying about judging a book by its cover; we're not sure how it goes, but it doesn't matter because titles and covers both appear to be generated completely at random. At least, in the world of Young Adult novels. Jack named his latest book The Librarian. At the publishers' request, it became Double Agent. A little editing later, and the title was Escape From Besmar. A little more, and that was subbed out in favor of the catchier Springheel. At one point, the title was Black Sheep. Then Three Bags Full. Then Three Bombs Full. Then, at last, they settled on a title that pleased everyone: Switchblade.
The book is currently available under the title The Cut Out.
The cover process is even more inscrutable. When Katie put out her first adult book, a friend drew the cover with her approval:
For the U.S. release, this cover replaced it:
Griffin is now the name of the mysterious stranger riding the mythical creature.
More commercially viable? Probably. But less accurate -- there's no sexy-muscle-guy griffin-rider in the book. There is a griffin (spoiler), and there's a guy, but he's pale and black-haired. "Clearly, the only reason they put said guy there is because he looks hot," says Katie. "I refuse to believe that it's impossible to find a stock photo of a skinny guy with black hair."
Another book came with a sexy blonde on the cover. Katie reminded her publisher that the main character is brunette, and a teenager, and they relented and switched it:
"We reserve the right to draw the griffin as sexy as possible."
With another trilogy, Katie gave in to marketing and specifically wrote a character as a sort of "Tudor-era Germany's Megan Fox." Want a sexy image for the cover? Fine, publishers. Go nuts. And yet the eventual cover was:
It's less professionally elaborate than some other covers (hands up if you think you can mock that up yourself using Microsoft Word), but it was a breath of fresh air. And it came almost certainly thanks to Twilight, which had sold well recently with minimalist cover art. Katie calls the Twilight covers "beautiful and intriguing" ... which, considering the stories, makes them the most dishonest covers of all.
The following cover, from a previous publisher of Jack's, is now the laughingstock of his office. "The random stock photo of a running dude," he says, "doesn't seem to represent any particular character."
"And this man has never had to go to the bathroom so badly."
For more famous authors, this is a nonissue. If you've read a Stephen King novel recently, did you even notice what was on the cover, other than the words "Stephen King"? "Any fancy art would just be a distraction from name, which is the reason you buy the book. By contrast, my name sometimes hasn't appeared on the cover of my books at all."
"Hey, Jack, what if you changed your name to Replica? Just think it over."
The Fans Are Crazy (Or Some Of Them Are, At Least)
Every artist gets weird fan mail -- any population contains a certain percentage of unstable folks. But when you're writing specifically for a group of people who haven't yet developed social skills? Shit can go off the rails.
The strangest fan mail Jack ever received read, simply, "Mr. jack sir, a cat will blink when struck with a hammer." It had no relation to anything he'd written. It was weird. It was even weirder than all the death threats he was getting.
"'I'm going to crush your skull with a hammer.' See, now that's just concise, clean writing."
Now, the death threats were probably just jokes. These were fans, or possibly just one fan, threatening to kill him unless he wrote another book for an existing series. But though he laughs at the messages today (his wife, not so much), they shook him up at the time. He became a shut-in and anxious around new people. And whether or not the fan was serious about murder, someone appeared to be very serious about what book they wanted. So Jack spent a year adding a fourth installment to his Agent Six trilogy, even though his publishers seemed very reluctant about the whole idea. Hey, it's better than winding up like that guy in Misery.
The result, Dead Man Running, sold 60 copies. "Not 6,000," he clarifies. "Sixty." He knew more than 60 fans personally. "Even die-hard fans often borrow books rather than buying them." The lesson: Even vocal people represent no one but themselves. Learn to respect the silent majority.
Which is why your death threats to George R.R. Martin haven't accomplished shit.
Lone screamers sometimes have a point, though. One time, Katie gave a free copy of her book to an aspiring author, who then wrote a mocking running commentary of it -- in the comments section of her blog. Years later, she found herself browsing his blog and saw him railing against the plot twist in another of her stories. She dismissed the complaint as moronic ... then thought some more about it and ended up changing the entire ending of her book series accordingly. "All because of one whiny, butthurt 'fan,'" she says. "Maybe he accidentally helped me, but I'm sure as sunrise not going to thank him for it, the tool."
You Sell A Persona As Much As You Do Your Books
The socially awkward tend to love writing. Hiding behind your words means in theory you never have to show yourself to anyone. But if you really want to get a following, be prepared to put yourself out there and give people something worth seeing. In Jack's case, this means TV publicity, where the segments wind up hilariously fake. "The crew needs footage of you doing writerly things for editing purposes," he explains, "but there's only so many times they can use that 'writer hunched over a laptop' shot, so they start staging things to make it interesting."
He curls up with his own book for the camera, something all authors do in their spare time, apparently. He poses with a pencil, an object he otherwise hasn't touched since high school. While on tour, he was once interviewed on a set that was played up as his actual living room. Framed stock photos represented his family and friends, and he held a mug of boiling water, so the camera saw a steamy cup of writerly coffee.
He actually doesn't do much brainstorming under overpasses.
Jack started writing young, at 19. After he was well into his 20s, his publishers were still trying to advertise him as a teenage wunderkind. "This trick is easy to get away with," he says. "'Oh, the bio we have on file must be out of date. We'll get around to fixing it. Someday. Maybe.'" Katie started at 18, and her publisher focused on her age as well, but others suggested sharing her Asperger's to pass her off as "an Inspirational Figure to other 'sufferers.'" She hated that idea. And then there was the boyfriend who said she'd sell more if she lost some weight and did her hair better. "I told him to fuck off," she says. She has since lost weight and changed her hair.
And we guess that means we need to address the fact that ...
The Industry Can Be Pretty Sexist
... as can any industry, notes Katie, not wanting us to exaggerate this issue just for the hell of it. Still, there aren't too many jobs where you find yourself using your initials instead of your name to hide what sort of genitals you're packing. As you might have heard, an Englishwoman called Joanne some years back decided to write under the name J.K. Rowling because boys wouldn't read books by a woman. And though she went on to become one of the best-selling authors of all time, gender barriers didn't magically vanish, so Katie today publishes her books under the name K.J. Taylor.
Her publishers agreed with her decision. "I'd written a fantasy story 'with muscle,' which men would like to read, and they wouldn't pick it up if they knew the author was a girl." Later, with sales lagging, her agent suggested it was time for a new pseudonym altogether. "I caved in and said that I should just pretend to be a man next time. Even more sadly, my agent agreed that would probably work." Apparently, female fantasy books are supposed to only be about princesses and sparkly unicorns. ("Well," she says, "OK, I actually did include unicorns. But they're ZEBRA unicorns!")
Cracked's Official Editorial Policy is that unicorns are badass.
Katie knows lots of female fantasy authors (more than male), but you wouldn't guess that from media coverage. Statistically, it's split about even, but men get reviewed much more. At one Comic-Con panel, she was the only woman among seven writers. Sitting at the end of the table was her choice, but we'll let you watch it and judge for yourself if she's being treated any different from the others there.
Jack says that when he panels with women, he always gets the first questions, even when he's the least accomplished writer there. And his books about male protagonists always seem to outsell his female-led ones. His publishers first took him on so they could "crack the teenage boy market," and from what he's seen from his time working bookshops, parents invariably buy their boys books about males, written by men. The publishers don't have some evil plot to brainwash young minds -- it's just inertia. Nobody wants to rock the boat, and the market says male shoppers want to know that located several inches under the author's keyboard is a fully functioning dong.
The Money Is A Crapshoot
Katie's latest royalty check was for $3.06.
That's not even enough to buy something to drown your disappointment with.
This is not because she is a complete failure as a writer, and it doesn't mean she's now struggling and burning her own manuscripts for heat. It's just what happens when publishers offer the author an advance and then deduct royalties from that amount until they are paid back. Advances can be a huge relief for writers and a huge loss for the company if, to take a totally hypothetical example, an author spends a year on a book that sells 60 copies. Other times, advances can pay the company back big.
Let's talk about Twilight. (We know it's highly controversial to criticize Twilight, particularly multiple times in one article, but we are bold and wish to take a stand.) Twilight's author got an advance of $750,000, approximately 100 times what Stephenie Meyer was expecting as an unknown, first-time author. "The theory goes," says Katie, "that since publishers were looking for something big to follow on from Harry Potter, they latched onto Twilight as a potential heir to the mega-selling throne. Accordingly, they paid a ludicrous amount for it in order to send a message to the publishing world that this book was going to be a Big Deal. Sadly, it worked." Similarly, a couple years ago, a first-time author scored an insane 1 million pound advance. You've likely still not heard of her. Her book series is about witches.
Does this continue to not ring bells?
Jack, who's from Australia, was pumped when American publishers offered him a $30,000 advance for a trilogy. Then negotiations stalled the deal, and two years passed with no word. Finally, he was stunned to receive fan mail from the U.S. -- this was his first notification that his book was being sold here. "By this time," he says, "I was living on kangaroo meat (very cheap) and the biodegradable foam packing peanuts my books were shipped in." He got that advance in the end. But as language fans know, "in the end" is the exact opposite of what an "advance" is supposed to be.
Everyone Steals From Other Books
For Jack's first book, he lifted the main character out of Final Fantasy VIII, dropped him into the plot of Metal Gear Solid, and set the whole thing in the universe of Alien. After that, it was time for him to just sit back and see if anyone would call him out and trace his thievery. "Imagine my relief," he says, "when the book was published, and I was accused of stealing the whole thing from Maximum Ride by James Patterson (a book published one month before mine)."
Which just combined Maximum Overdrive with an Alice Cooper song.
Katie spotted another author's book that, as she puts it, was just Star Wars set in Middle-earth. That filled her with some righteous indignation, along with the envy writers often feel when someone is more successful. Call it plagiarism or call it a crossover fanfic, but that book was no real novel in her eyes. So she wrote her own fan-fiction ... of that book. Not because she liked it but as a reversal of it, to show what happens when you explicitly use someone else's characters and world but come up with a plot that's your own.
Then she liked the result so much that she nixed the connections to the old book and made it an original work, like a not-terrible version of the origin of that best-selling carpet catalog Fifty Shades Of Grey. Later still, at a convention, she found herself talking about the book to an audience ... and to her right, talking after her, was the writer of that other book. He turned out to be a nice guy.
A $aint, really.
And if some guy did stick Obi-Wan and Tolkien into his book and readers know that but like it anyway, so what? Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings might have been some of the most influential works of the last century, but that doesn't make them original, and you can easily trace where they got their ideas. Imitating the greats is how you learn, whether you're writing a book or practicing the guitar. Everyone ultimately wants to make something groundbreaking, but on the way there, you might have an easier time of it if you bulk yourself up with the shoulder pads of giants.
Despite the quirks, Jack loves his job (and his agent, who keeps it profitable). Follow him on Twitter. Katie "K.J." Taylor is now busy churning out new books with ludicrous speed (her record is a 100,000-plus-word manuscript in four days). Her official website is KJTaylor.com, and she can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, despite years of vowing never to appear on either. Ryan Menezes is on Twitter as well, where he writes nothing of lasting significance.
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