Friday 27 May 2011

The Tight Rope Walk
of Edgy Teen Fiction
by Sara Grant

When I start a new novel, one of the first things I do is write a one- or two-page proposal. It includes my working title and a movie-style pitch (Willy Wonka meets Jack Bauer – that’s not my pitch, but maybe it should be. A kick-arse chocolatier? Hmmm...). I also create a short synopsis and brief character sketches for my main characters. And I include a few lines about why I feel compelled to write this story. What will keep me interested for the next months and, if it’s published, maybe the rest of my life?

So in my initial musings on what I’ll affectionately call Book3, I noted that my main characters would uncover plans for a horrifying and-yet-to-be-determined event. I wanted said-event to be original, shocking and significant. I considered an idea that came to me after 9/11 – a type of terrorist attack. (An idea that I can’t bring myself to mention in this blog for fear of giving budding terrorists any new nasty ideas.) Beads of sweat began to form on my forehead. Even if I had something interesting to say, a compelling story, and a new twist -- did I really want to add to the culture of fear and violence? 
I'm not sure I can write that book.

Photo by Kristin Smith
Writing edgy fiction for teens can be a tight rope walk. I want to write authentic, issue-based stories that ask difficult questions, but another part of me feels a sense of responsibility to protect my teen readers.

Unlike writing fiction for an adult audience, I’ve also got a series of gatekeepers who stand between me and my reader. Even if I’m comfortable with the issues and antics in my story, teachers, librarians and parents might not be.

And it’s not always the big issues that can off-set this delicate balance. What about characters that don’t wear seatbelts or condoms, smoke cigarettes or drink to excess? I’ve got great ideas for silly pranks that might not always turn out well. I have an obligation to readers to write the most honest and interesting story I can. But I must admit I sometimes feel the desire to write “don’t try this at home”.

The bottom line for me: I’m a storyteller – not my readers’ parents, teachers or ministers. My job is to keep them engaged in the story and, I hope, make them think about something in a new or interesting way. But I have limits and so do my gatekeepers. Writing on the edge is about striking a balance – while remaining true to yourself and your story.

Anyone fancy a tango on the high wire? I think it might be easier than figuring out Book3...

DARK PARTIES -- a dystopian novel for young adults -- by Sara Grant will be published by Orion in October. Find out more about Sara and her book at


  1. Good post Sarah and a more and more difficult balance to achieve. I have kids riding motorbikes without helmets in my next book. That's caused a lot of problems and its still not quite resolved.

  2. I know exactly what you mean. My next book involves a game of truth or dare that goes badly wrong. The whole time I was writing it I was worrying that one a readers might try one of the 'dares' and I'd get sued!
    Should we be worrying that our writing will give people ideas? Is that our responsibility? Shouldn't we be able to rely on our readers having the sense God gave them? That they've been brought up sensibly enough that they won't start imitating art? And at what age should writers stop worrying about it? Do crime writers worry that they're giving ideas to potential murderer's? I doubt it. So at what age does the writer's responsibility end? I don't know. Wish I did ...

  3. Interesting post and a subject I keep coming back to myself.
    The YA book I've written and another two I have ideas for are definitely 'edgy' and I constantly battle with my own doubt about how much I should or shouldn't censor. But then I think the audience deserves something truthful.
    I suppose, for me, as an unpublished author I have the luxury of writing what I want and I won't know if anyone wants to publish it or not until I send it out - so the first person I should be truthful with is myself.

  4. Great post, Sara.

    I agree that YA readers deserve truthful stories about real life - and real life invariably involves characters, events and behaviour that don't fall within the limitations of "safe" subject matter - so how can truthful YA fiction?

    That's not to say that we should push the boundaries of gritty, edgy YA fiction under the argument of "it happens in real life, why not in fiction?" There's a lot that happens in real life that, even as an adult, I would not want to encounter in a novel.

    But I do feel that we should trust and respect YA readers more - they are exposed to a lot more "edgy" material online, on TV, in film and even in the news than ever occurs in YA fiction.

    Our job is to write exciting, involving stories to the best of our abilities, and whilst it is tempting to self-censor in the hopes of protecting our readers and appeasing the gate-keepers, perhaps we should give them a bit more credit.

    After all, extremely edgy fiction does get through the net - Melvin Burgess, Kevin Brooks, Laurie Halse Anderson to name a few - and YA fiction is all the richer for it.

  5. I completely agree with you, Sara. It is not out job to 'parent' our readers, or worry that because we may write about characters who behave badly that we should worry our readers might want to follow suit.

    But at the same time, I feel writers of teen fiction do bear a certain responsiblitiy to their reader in terms of age appropriate content and sensitivity to particularly edge subject matter, obviously for readers under 12 this is more important.

    Parents and the gatekeepers have a huge say in this, but far less than the publishers of teen and YA fiction. I have to say that I have been horrified at the way some publishers have no problem pushing books which are clearly not well written and completley unsuitable for kids under 14... Do I sound prudish? Maybe, but graphic, gratuitous sex and violence seems to be okay when they're part of a huge best-selling book phenomena.

    At the end of the day, like you Sara, I hope to write books for teens that are 'edgy' and relevant, but mainly hugely satisfying.

  6. Crikey! Someone please remind me not to write anything on my computer without my glasses on! Just put them on after posting that comment to read it through and noticed the typos! Apologies...

  7. Sara, this is a really interesting post. I feel that for books I may write or books by other authors, the acid test is ‘Would I be okay with my teenage son reading this?’ If my answer is no, then I’d need to look at why. Young adults deserve a wide range of fiction. Stories that deal with grittier, more unsettling issues are an essential part of this. After all, teenage years can be tough: often, highly charged, confusing, embarrassing. You can feel like nobody understands you, and you often don’t understand yourself; ecstatic one minute and morose the next (actually, that last bit sounds a bit like the menopause). So, books that tell great stories that are also challenging (but not gratuitous content) can potentially help to make more sense of feelings, provoke thought about thorny, but important issues and reassure that others are going through the same anxieties as you, as you pick your way through the minefield that is being a young adult.

  8. Great post, Sara. I think in the end it comes down to good writing and honesty.

    I'm a big fan of gritty YA fiction, but I've thrown away a few books in my time because I felt the author was trying to be shocking purely to get the book talked about and sell more copies. On the other hand, I've read books that have dealt with some very hard, even horrific issues, managing to raise questions and present the truth, but doing so in the context of the stories and its characters.

    I've always believed that books can give children and young adults an awareness of the wider world and introduce them to some of its less appealing aspects. Stories dealing with mankind's cruelty and folly are important in building a world where people don't continue to make the same mistakes. If handled properly and with skill, surely we can write about anything. The tricky part is in the writing!

  9. Interesting post! The Young Adult age group is 12-18, right? I can see where a writer may feel a sense of responsibility but what about television writers? Ever seen the latest version of 90210? It shows teenagers living alone, drinking, drugging and having sex. Why is it that book writers have a heavier sense of responsibility than TV and movie writers?

    If anything, it should be the other way around. If a 15-year-old sees a pretty girl having a few drinks on TV, it'll have a bigger impact than reading about it.

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