Creating themes of substance in New Adult Markets

The New Adult market, labeled the sexed-up version of Young Adult literature, currently carries the burden of proving to detractors that it can also be great literature containing significant and relevant themes. While reviewers have tagged New Adult fiction a “hot new category” but “too sexy” and headlines have accused writers of the genre of putting “smut fiction” on the bestseller list, the New Adult market is simply that – a market. It is not a genre even though it is almost always defined as romance.

According to teacher and writer Ricki Thompson, New Adult benchmarks include

  • point of view characters who are out of high school and looking at the college experience
  • young adults experiencing their first sexual relationship
  • young adults exploring independence that goes beyond the high school and family experience

However the market is perceived, it claims an amazingly large readership that translates into huge profits. But while New Adult novels often contain more sex and illicit behavior, most writers tackle their writing with the clear hope of telling a story that reflects the lives of college-aged teens in a way to help them explore the complexities and realities of life after high school. There are also writers in this market who might have older characters in sexual relationships but who have a lot more going on in their lives than sex and independence. Instead of worrying about the market, maybe writers could expand the definition of the New Adult market to get with strong literary themes. Instead of focusing on romance, we might consider working on a literary narrative which Wade Rawlins, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer describes as “the dirt path that leads us through the impenetrable forest, so we move forward and don’t feel lost.”

I like that idea. In fact I think we might write a novel about a 19 or 20 and 22 year old but let’s explode the NA theme and push those boundaries. Let’s create a character whose post high school focus isn’t on college or that first big job or sex, but someone who is focusing on survival in a poverty stricken urban environment or a rural backroad or in the sort of violence that seems to be prevalent in our culture.

imagesT80DGXQ7

 

 

I like to think that’s who author Jo Knowles is coaching when she says, “Right now,      your words float around this character, sometimes touching her skin. I want to see you use them to pierce her skin, and go underneath it. To give this story depth and purpose, you need to write close to the bone. Be brave. You can do it!” I quote Jo because I believe the writing itself – the craft of filtering through character, pov, voice and tone — raises the bar on New Adult works. But we writers can also explode the genre as agent Donald Maass encourages in his book on craft, Writing the Breakout Novel. There are books out that that achieve this and they can be our models:

Kirkus Reviews describes author Mark Zusak as one of those authors who has pierced the skin of life with his NA character in I Am The Messenger and, in doing so, he has created a substantial theme :

Meet 19-year-old Ed Kennedy who slouches through life driving a taxi, playing poker with his buddies, and hanging out with his personable dog, Doorman. The girl he loves just wants to be friends, and his mother constantly insults him, both of which make Ed, an engaging, warm-hearted narrator, feel like a loser. But he starts to overcome his low self-esteem when he foils a bank robbery and then receives a series of messages that lead him to do good deeds.

Constantly, I’m asking myself, Well, Ed—what have you really achieved in your nineteen years? The answer’s simple.

Jack shit.

The Midnight Coffee Monster reviewed this book’s complex themes, saying, “Reading this book, I scrutinized the way I interact with strangers as well as people I know. The do-good aspect largely sits at the center of why I relish this story, because a number of bad events drop like bombs and, when pushed down far enough, it happens: people lose faith in people and in our ability to pay it forward. Not because we expect the same in return, but because it’s the ‘right thing’ to do.”

So let’s look at more titles on the market that may or may not have been identified as NA that try to make sense of our violent culture:

Scowler. $14.20  Scowler by Daniel Kraus– Billed as “Equal parts haunting and horrifying, this literary horror novel gives readers insight into the mind of a controlling homicidal man and the son who must stop him,” this novel calls attention to domestic violence in an unforgettably chilling tale of a boy whose earlier memories include snipping sewing stitches from between his mother’s fingers and toes to release her from the bed her husband has sewn her to.  Although these scenes are some of the most disturbing you are likely to read, Karen Jensen, a youth services librarian at the Betty Warmack Branch Library in Grand Prairie, Texas, said, “There are hands down some of the most disturbing scenes that I have ever read in ‘Scowler,'” she wrote, “but they moved me to compassion for our main character and his family. I think they also make you think about the cycle of abuse and violence that can happen in the lives of our young people.”

Kill Switch by Chris LynchIn a starred review, Booklist said of Chris Lynch’s Kill Switch, “Lynch’s writing, parched with desert-dry humor, is so fine that a breakfast table conversation is just as gripping as the paranoia-laced scenes of the trio evading a shadowy doom. A compact, frayed-nerves bundle of brilliance.  This story of a post high school guy who takes a summer journey with his poor grandfather who suffers from dementia only to discover his grandfather has a hidden past as a hitman, made Lynch so curious about the disintegrating tourist town setting of Lundy Lee that Lucky Buoy, his short story in the anthology Things I’ll Never Say is also set here. Lynch told me he’s creating an entire series of short stories set in the town.

 

In fact, anyone who reads orThere’s also a lot of literature out there that’s romance with a twist. The Fault in Our Stars explodes the romance genre when cancer riddled teen Hazel Grace tells a boy named Gus that she’s not a good choice for romance, she avoids sentimentality with her words: “I’m a grenade and one day I’m gonna blow up and I’m going to obliterate everything in my wake and I don’t want to hurt you.” John Green doesn’t play on our sympathies with this romance, surrounded as it is by the ticking clock of death. Instead he digs deeply into the meaning of life for two teens who want to live fully even if it’s only for a little while. In doing so, he captures the immediacy and honesty of their lives and loves as they face death but avoid Gus’s one fear — oblivion.

rainbow rowell – eleanor &In turn, John Green has written about Rainbow Rowell’s unlikely relationship in her novel Eleanor and Park. In a review for the New York Time’s he wrote “I have never seen anything quite like ‘Eleanor & Park.’…Its observational precision and richness make for very special reading.” The novel takes a traditional romance and adds themes of cultural differences and a bit of nerdiness through Park’s half-Korean, comic-book and good music loving character. He describes the effect of Rowell’s evocative language: “The hand-holding, by the way, is intense. ‘Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat.’ Evocative sensual descriptions are everywhere in this novel, but they always feel true to the characters. Eleanor describes Park’s trench coat as smelling ‘like Irish Spring and a little bit like potpourri and like something she couldn’t describe any other way than boy.’

E. Lockhart's jaw-dropper of a There are novels that move even more deeply into moral premises surrounding wealth the greed, like E. Lockhart’s stunningly haunting We Were Liars a romance between a very rich waspish teen girl and the East Indian nephew of an uncle who lacks wealth or stature to such an extent that the grandfather fails to call him by name. The novel unfolds to show readers the horrific consequences of the family’s arrogance and elitism on this third generation.

The novel begins: “Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family….The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. OUr smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.

It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles or our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table. It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.

So much

in love

that equally desperate measures

must be taken.”

 

Bone GapLet’s take a close look at the themes in Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, a novel I’ve been obsessing on because of it’s power and beauty and one I wish I had written. This is the story of beautiful Roza who is kidnapped and the only witness, a 19-year old named Finn who cannot forgive himself for being unable to identify the kidnapper. Finn is just out of high school, contemplating possible college so the NA elements are here. But there is so much more. This novel relies upon magical realism inside a contemporary rural setting while bringing readers a glimpse into survival in rural America, survival of people from other cultures in rural america. The novel contains romance and sex that just sort of happens in an incidental way. When Finn falls for a beekeeper, who also happens to be the ugliest girl in Bone Gap townspeople think he’s using her. She is the one who realizes he thinks she’s beautiful because he has one fatal flaw as a boyfriend. He’s faceblind.

His face blindness is a metaphor for the way so many of us walk through our days completely blind and oblivious to people in our lives and it is a metaphor for how we see the people we come to love.

Author Kekla Magoon says of New Adult themes, “I would even like to see more books reflecting the college experience for teen readers. Are those books automatically NA? I’m not sure. I remember reading a series of YA books in high school that were about a girls’ dorm, and girls experiencing their freshman year of college. I’m sure it was mainly fluffy and chick-lit-ish, not very literary, but I enjoyed reading about that age group. When high schoolers move on to reading adult books, I’m not sure it’s because they necessarily need or want higher level reading, but because they want to read about adult perspectives and adult experiences. The same way that middle graders will read up to YA a lot of the time. So, there is a gap where YA readers could be looking to older characters, but still getting the same type of engaging story. NA classification tends to be so much about sexual content, but I think it does have potential to be more than that. I’ve not really thought of myself as writing NA in the past, though. I can just see potential there for something I might try in the future–a YA style book but with the type of content that is more often found in adult books…. It strikes me that there could be a lot of room in NA for different writing styles and characters who encompass a range of ages, and, yes, room for incorporating “edgy” content that manifests in lots of different ways.”

There are crossover novels that deal with war and tragedy

  • All the Things I Cannot See
  • The Things I Never Meant to Tell You

Janis Joplin: Rise Up SingingMy own nonfiction was called into question as having themes that were too adult for young adult audiences when Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing was published. It didn’t take me long to realize that my most recent anthology, a collection of stories about secrets, would reveal that teens keep extremely adult secrets. The book, Things I’ll Never Say, Stories About Our Secret Selves,  is being marketed to teens 14 and above because it deals with mature themes like teens protecting their hording or alcoholic mothers, gender issues, teens attempting sexual relationships with Things I'll Never Say: Storiesteachers, and teens who refuse to take responsibility for their sexual behavior. While not labelled NA, the book which is recommended for teens over 14 doesn’t feel very YA to me either. But most of the stories fail to resolve easily. I think they keep the reader engaged, wondering and sometimes haunted, long after the story ends.    There is Kekla Magoon’s story of Sally John who returns home via the subway, a metaphor for how she also lives under her father’s roof, filling up on rich foods to make him happy, but hiding her bulimia in “For a Moment, Underground.”

My own story, “We Were Together,” captures the story of Luke who loves girls so much he gives his girlfriend herpes. But it’s a bit more layered in the way the main character Luke must figure out how he will face or hide his secrets within complex family relationships. Luke says, “I wonder how the truth would change the way my mom loves her boy.”

For instance, in erica l. kaufman’s “Three-Four Time” we meet Imogene who returns home from marching band practice to pacify her drunken mother by dancing the waltz to a Meatloaf song. Imogene who tries to protect her sister from her mother’s alcoholism, says, “Her waltzes always have style although her arms are getting bonier, tattoed with smudgy bruises and raised, welted burns. She tells everyone she’s clumsy but she looks pretty coordinated now, waltzing around our tiny living room.”

A Chesire, Connecticut Library blog discusses the issue of the New Adult market’s effect on book selection. The blogger wrote, “In general the ‘New Adult’ label is now applied to books with main characters between the ages of 18 and 25 as they face the challenges of leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices. The books are typically about characters in the transition of becoming an adult while society still seems to consider them children. Some of the books in this category are still accessible and appropriate for teens, while others have more sexual content than most parents would be comfortable with their teens reading, and some have conflicts and situations have little interest to those that have not faced similar issues.  The majority of books currently being released under this label seem to be contemporary romance, but this is not a requirement of the genre.”  The blog points out,  “Many books have cross over appeal but do not get the chance they deserve because of the labels or marketing that are attached to them.” While this librarian uses the term genre for a work that clearly defines market, she brings up an important idea. If we categorize books too narrowly, they’ll miss their audience. This segues into what writer and librarian Ann Matzke, said while speaking about how libraries shelve books and how their patrons make selections. She said too many books fail to reach their audience because market labels limit placement on bookstores and libraries. I think she’s right and I also think we writers need to write stories that speak to our interests and themes.

The World Needs Poetry: A conversation with E. Kristin Anderson

06_mcu_tree_-_small

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently, E. Kristin Anderson and I had a bit of a discussion about the importance of poetry for all writers and readers. I think the value of her poetry is that it allows readers to come in more closely to a moment or image with emotionally resonant responses. So I asked her to answer the big question — does the world need poetry? Her responses are below:

Can you tell a bit about your chapbook?

I actually have two chapbook projects that I’m hoping to share with the world. My first chapbook, A GUIDE FOR THE PRACTICAL ABDUCTEE, is fresh off the presses from Red Bird Chapbooks. It’s a collection of poems about unusual creatures and paranormal phenomena. UFOs, Ouija boards, unicorns, a jackalope infestation. It’s all there.

I also have a book forthcoming this fall from Finishing Line Press called A JAB OF DEEP URGENCY. This chapbook collects thirty poems I wrote for Found Poetry Review’s Pulitzer Remix project in 2013. All of the poems are erasure pieces created using pages from Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. I’m actually doing a pretty neat promotion for this book – anyone who pre-orders can get an #UrgencySquad kit, including pages from the book I used to create my chapbook, newspaper articles, magazine pages, some fun swag and a crash course on found poetry.Anderson_Kristin_Cov_(1)-RGB
How did you come to poetry?

You know, that’s such a hard question for me to answer. I think the first poems I probably read were by Dr. Seuss and Louis Carroll and Shel Silverstein, which – as I’m sure you, Ann, will agree – are not to be discounted. But the first “grown-up” poetry I encountered was by Emily Dickinson. I remember begging my mother to buy me her collected poems anthology, which was sitting in stacks on a remainders table near the register at our local bookstore, in South Portland, Maine. I spent a lot of time convincing myself (and, eventually, my poor teachers) that I was named after Emily Dickinson. So while I can’t quite remember when I started writing poetry, I do know that I’ve always been attracted to it.

Do you have a favorite poetic form you use?

I’m terrible with meter, so I can tell you flat out that anything metrical is my least favorite form to use! Other than that, I love trying new things. This past April I participated in Found Poetry Review’s Oulipost project, which had daily prompts (incorporating found texts, of course) that included things like writing sestinas and irrational sonnets (oh, you must google this one, it’s so fun!) and many other forms that I may have avoided my whole life without the prompts and the peer pressure. So right now I’m definitely attracted to the idea of writing more found sestinas. That said, my current favorite form is found poetry. Particularly erasure. I’m working on a full-length manuscript of poems written using text from fashion and women’s interest magazines. Some of these pieces will be printed in Cicada magazine, most likely the November issue, though it hasn’t been confirmed. The editors at Cicada have been so encouraging about this project – it makes me feel like found poetry connects with readers more than I ever thought!

 

Can you tell readers a bit about how writing poetry paints your world?

I’m not so sure that it changes my world so much as it changes my work. I think that as a poet and a novelist, I’m finding that poetry turns up in all of my work. Not necessarily in the literal sense – though I have a tendency to quote Miss Emily D. in novels – but I think that part of the reason that I write short YA manuscripts (under 60k) is that poetry taught me to be choosy about my words, and to be concise.  I think it also helps me in my position as a freelance editor and writing coach. I can tell a client “go read this book of poems.” And the client might wonder why, since they’re writing a memoir or a sci fi adventure, I’m telling them to read William Matthews or Louise Gluck. But…it’s about language. It’s all about language.

 

And, damn, when I read, I want to treasure all these little phrases. I sometimes put post-its in the books I read so that I can come back to favorite pages later. And…use them for found poetry. J

 

Does it change you emotionally?

I think all the work we do changes us emotionally, whether it’s carpentry or retail or making coffee or writing books. The people we interact with, the internal monologue we have running through our head as we put hammer to nail – our world comes back at the end of the day and makes us go, “huh.” And perhaps writers and creative types are a little more sensitive to this. We’re looking for it, so that we can put it back into our art. But I’m not a particularly emotional writer, if that’s what you’re wondering. I’m actually the opposite of folks who eat their feelings, too. When I’m depressed, I stare at a wall and forget to eat. When I’m emotionally charged, I can’t focus enough to put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard). It has to simmer and process.

How do you hope it affects your audiences?

I just hope that it DOES affect my audience. And…I hope to HAVE an audience. I did this fantastic school visit via Skype with a school in Seekonk, Massachusetts last fall. The entire school had read my first book, Dear Teen Me, so I’d offered to Skype in for free. It was fun! And, to my utter surprise and joy, an English teacher told me that she’d found some of my sci fi poems in online journals and shared them with her class, and that they had questions for me. I almost cried. People read my poems. Wow! And I told her and the students that the questions were theirs to answer, no matter what I had to say. Their truth, in regards to reading my work, would be different from my truth, and that’s the beauty of literature. Of course, I did tell them that I’d never personally seen a UFO. Because that was a question that I could answer with absolute truth. Ha!

Why does the world need poetry?

The world needs art. I think art is the great equalizer. It gives us a lens with which to see each other. One book I always love talking about is ZLATA’S DIARY by Zlata Filipovic. I read this book in 6th grade, and it’s the personal diary of the author, a teen in the midst of the Bosnian war. That book made me feel like there was a world outside what I could see and touch every day. That there were people just like me who looked different and spoke a different language but who wanted and felt and loved the same as me. It made me a world citizen. Art does that better than any news program ever could.

Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” I think of poetry as an opportunity to educate the heart. And that leads me to ask you why do people need poetry?

See above. People need poetry because they need art. And they need art because it makes them feel – whether it’s a TV show or a movie or a poem or a James Patterson novel. It makes them feel and it makes them think. It takes them away from what they see in their life, or perhaps takes them to their own life and makes them feel less alone. All these things are a reason to need poetry and art.

How do audiences respond to poetry?

I’m still trying to figure this out! I’m fortunate to be surrounded mostly by bookish, artsy folks. And I don’t know how audiences at large respond to it. I’m hoping to find out by snagging some school visits this year. I’ll report back after reading my poems aloud to teenagers. J

How should they respond?

I don’t think there’s a “should.” At all. I think as long as people are being genuine, that’s plenty good and fair.

Why did you choose to publish a chapbook?

 I think that chapbook publishing is part of the path of being a “professional” in poetry. It’s a part of your resume. But it’s also something that’s easy to consume for readers, which I like. I also think that I’m more of a chapbook poet than a collection poet. The best chapbooks, in my opinion, have a sense of theme or sequence. That’s extremely difficult to carry for sixty or a hundred or more pages. And there are so many wonderful chapbook publishers out there. I was excited at the opportunity to work with them. I’ve learned so much from my experiences with both Red Bird Chapbooks, who published ABDUCTEE, and Finishing Line Press, who are putting out URGENCY in October.

Unlike self-publishing with prose, chapbooks are perceived as a strong option to get your poetry into the world. Why publishing a chapbook a good path for so many poets?

I haven’t self-pubbed yet, though It’s not outside the realm of possibility for the future, should I write something too weird to find a publisher. I think part of what makes self-pubbing a chapbook more workable is that the audience for poetry is so different from commercial fiction. You’re already marketing to a niche audience, which I think is where self-published fiction and nonfiction works best as well. Plus, chapbooks are so small and bite-sized. You could perhaps compare it to traditionally published authors who started out (or supplemented their list) by self-pubbing a short story or novella.

In general, though, I think chapbooks are a great path for poets. They give you a bit of a platform to stand on, a sales record, even, for when you’re ready to pitch your full manuscript, or when you’re sending work to harder-to-get-into magazines. We’ll see how this works out for me in the coming months!

Which three poets have influenced you most significantly and why?

This is hard for me! I’ve read so many wonderful poets over the years. Emily Dickinson is an obvious choice, though I wasn’t aware of how much she informed my work until maybe a few years ago. Her work is darker than it appears at first glance, and I love all the layers she works into each piece. I was talking about this – influential poets — earlier with a friend. William Carlos Williams was an early influence of mine (college, I guess, so not too early). And not in the way I thought he was at first. He wrote about the every day. But he also wrote about the messed up stuff. And my friend was saying that he managed to have a positive vibe about his work, despite the simplicity and the messed up observations. And I like that. Louise Gluck will have to be the last one. She really gave me a sense of what it is to write in both your own voice and the voice of a character. I read THE WILD IRIS for a class in college and was totally wowed. “Pomegranate” is a poem – I can’t remember which collection it first appeared in – that really struck me. The voice is both Gluck’s and Persephone’s. Amazing.  And, if I might add a novelist, Francesca Lia Block, though also a poet, has influenced my poetry more through her novels than through her poems. Through her simple, elegant, fearless language. I strive to write like her (while also writing like me) every day.

What are you working on now?

As I mentioned above, I’m working on a full-length manuscript – my first, really, in earnest – of erasure poems using fashion and women’s interest magazines, as well as a few teen mags. I can’t wait to see the excerpts in Cicada this fall!  My favorite magazines to work with have been Teen Vogue, Glamour, and Nylon. Nylon was a fave mag of mine as an older teen/college student, so it’s cool to work with. The writing is excellent. And Teen Vogue is just so smart, which I didn’t expect…and which I don’t think many teen mags get credit for. Harper’s Bazaar and Allure are runners up. My initial thought, when I started this project, was that I would take something thought of as vapid or even sexist and turn it on its head. But I’ve ended up reading some really smart, fun articles on favorite musicians, lipstick (!), skin cancer, the fascination with virginity and wedding dresses…it’s pretty cool. Also, I’m pretty sure my mailman is judging me for all these magazine subscriptions. Maybe I’ll give him a copy of the book if and when it comes out!

If readers want to purchase one of your chapbooks, how do they do so?

Both chapbooks are available, at this time, exclusively from the publisher. You can buy A GUIDE FOR THE PRACTICAL ABDUCTEE at Red Bird Chapbooks, via this link: http://www.redbirdchapbooks.com/store/p153/A_Guide_for_the_Practical_Abductee_by_E._Kristin_Anderson.html You can pre-order A JAB OF DEEP URGENCY from Finishing Line Press. https://finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?products_id=2133&osCsid=2kp98qbcdartjm6o9juck3cu26

 

And, after you do so, I hope you’ll forward me your receipt. Anyone who pre-orders URGENCY becomes a member of the #UrgencySquad – a quite elite group of artists who will receive a kit with which to make found poetry, some swag from me and other experimental poets, instructions and info on found and erasure poetry, and some sweet, sweet confetti. You have to send me your receipt, or some proof of purchase, to get the kit — so don’t forget!10350348_774874947372_765382247972051995_n

E. Kristin Anderson grew up in Westbrook, Maine and is a graduate of Connecticut College. She has a fancy diploma that says “B.A. in Classics,” which makes her sound smart but has not helped her get any jobs in Ancient Rome. Once upon a time she worked for The New Yorker magazine, but she soon packed her bags and moved to Texas. Currently living in Austin, Kristin is an online editor at Hunger Mountain a contributing editor at Found Poetry Review. Kristin is the co-editor of the DEAR TEEN ME anthology (Zest Books, 2012), based on the website of the same name. As a poet she has been published worldwide in many literary journals from the UK’s Fuselit, to Cordite in Australia to the US’ Post Road and the Cimarron Review. Recently she’s graced the pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and she has work forthcoming in teen magazine Cicada. Kristin is the author of two chapbooks of poetry: A GUIDE FOR THE PRACTICAL ABDUCTEE (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and A JAB OF DEEP URGENCY (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press, 2014). She hand-wrote her first trunk book at sixteen.  It was about the band Hanson and may or may not still be in a notebook at her parents’ house. She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com.

 

Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing = Big Book at EXPO

Posted June 6th, 2010

Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing was named one of the big books of the show at Book Expo 2010 in New York.  The book will find its way to store shelves on October 1, 2010. It’s hard to believe that it’s been so many years since I first heard Janis on the radio and then watched her climb to fame.

While I was a young teen, I used to sit in my bedroom and write poetry (pretty bad poetry, but you have to start somewhere) and crank my stereo so loud I managed to shut out the rest of the world.

I couldn’t get over Janis’s voice. But her personality and stardom had an impact. She demonstrated independence and unique style. I copied both. In choosing to write about Janis, I wanted people to see that we don’t always have to run in a group, we can make individual choices and we can celebrate our unique talents and ideas.

I hope the attention that Janis is getting reflects all of this. But stay tuned……..