01 July 2008

Cory Doctorow: Nature's Daredevils: Writing for Young Audiences

from Locus Magazine, July 2008

I know, at the end of the last column I promised that this issue I'd talk all about Macropayments, but that was before I found out that this was Locus's special young-adult SF issue, and as I happen to be on tour with my first young-adult SF novel, Little Brother, I think I'd better put off Macros for a month a talk a little about what I've learned about writing for young people.

First of all, YA SF is gigantic and invisible. The numbers speak for themselves: a YA bestseller is likely to be moving ten times as many copies as an adult SF title occupying the comparable slot on the grownup list. Like many commercially successful things, YA is largely ignored by the power brokers of the field, rarely showing up on the Hugo ballot (and when was the last time you went to a Golden Duck Award ceremony?). Yet so many of us came into the field through YA, and it's YA SF that will bring the next generation into the fold.

Genre YA fiction has an army of promoters outside of the field: teachers, librarians, and specialist booksellers are keenly aware of the difference the right book can make to the right kid at the right time, and they spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to convince kids to try out a book. Kids are naturals for this, since they really use books as markers of their social identity, so that good books sweep through their social circles like chickenpox epidemics, infecting their language and outlook on life. That's one of the most wonderful things about writing for younger audiences — it matters. We all read for entertainment, no matter how old we are, but kids also read to find out how the world works. They pay keen attention, they argue back. There's a consequentiality to writing for young people that makes it immensely satisfying. You see it when you run into them in person and find out that there are kids who read your book, googled every aspect of it, figured out how to replicate the best bits, and have turned your story into a hobby. We wring our hands a lot about the greying of SF, with good reason. Just have a look around at your regional con, the one you've been going to since you were a teenager, and count how many teenagers are there now. And yet, young people are reading in larger numbers than they have in recent memory. Part of that is surely down to Harry Potter, but on this tour, I've discovered that there's a legion of unsung heroes of the kids-lit revolution.

These are booksellers like Anderson's of Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. Anderson's operates a lovely bookstore, the kind of friendly indie shop that we all have cherished memories of, but that's not the main event. They also have a "book fair" business that is run out of a nearby warehouse. This involves filling trucks with clever, rolling bookcases that snap shut like a cigarette case, each one pre-stocked with carefully curated titles. These are schlepped out to schools across the Midwest, assembled in impromptu school-gym book fairs. This matters. It matters because you don't go to the bookstore until you already know you love books. You need a gateway drug to get you hooked on the harder stuff. Traditionally, this was the non-bookstore retailer, the pharmacy, the supermarket. That was before distributorship consolidation took place in the wake of the rise of national, big-box retailers like Wal*Mart. The contraction in distribution led to a massive reduction in the number of titles stocked outside of bookstores across the land. Even as the bookstores got bigger and more elaborate, the vital induction system of finding the right book on the right spinner rack at the right age was collapsing. We know what happened next: the collapse of the midlist, massive mergers and acquisitions in publishing, the shuttering of many longstanding careers in the field. So when Anderson's pulls up a truck outside your school and puts the books right there, where you can't miss them, it starts to take back that vital territory that we lost 20 years ago, starts to bring kids back into the faith.

Writing for young people is really exciting. As one YA writer told me, "Adolescence is a series of brave, irreversible decisions." One day, you're someone who's never told a lie of consequence; the next day you have, and you can never go back. One day, you're someone who's never done anything noble for a friend, the next day you have, and you can never go back. Is it any wonder that young people experience a camaraderie as intense as combat-buddies? Is it any wonder that the parts of our brain that govern risk-assessment don't fully develop until adulthood? Who would take such brave chances, such existential risks, if she or he had a fully functional risk-assessment system?

So young people live in a world characterized by intense drama, by choices wise and foolish and always brave. This is a book-plotter's dream. Once you realize that your characters are living in this state of heightened consequence, every plot-point acquires moment and import that keeps the pages turning.

The lack of regard for YA fiction in the mainstream isn't an altogether bad thing. There's something to be said for living in a disreputable, ghettoized bohemia (something that old-time SF and comics fans have a keen appreciation for). There's a lot of room for artistic, political and commercial expectation over here in low-stakes land, the same way that there was so much room for experimentation in other ghettos, from hip-hop to roleplaying games to dime-novels. Sure, we're vulnerable to moral panics about corrupting youth (a phenomenon as old as Socrates, and a charge that has been leveled at everything from the waltz to the jukebox), but if you're upsetting that kind of person, you're probably doing something right.

Risk-taking behavior — including ill-advised social, sexual, and substance adventures — are characteristic of youth itself, so it's natural that anything that co-occurs with youth, like SF or TV or video games, will carry the blame for them. However, the frightened and easily offended are doing a better job than they ever have of collapsing the horizons of young people, denying them the pleasures of gathering in public or online for fear of meteor-strike-rare lurid pedophile bogeymen, or on the pretense of fighting gangs or school shootings or some other tabloid horror. Literature may be the last escape available to young people today. It's an honor to be writing for them.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


At Thursday, July 03, 2008 3:27:00 AM, Anonymous Niall said...

YA SF is gigantic and invisible. The numbers speak for themselves: a YA bestseller is likely to be moving ten times as many copies as an adult SF title occupying the comparable slot on the grownup list.

Is "SF" here used to mean science fiction specifically, or to mean both science fiction and fantasy?

At Saturday, July 05, 2008 6:13:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Wheeler said...

It's indisputably true for science fiction -- Scott Westerfeld, for example, outsells any "adult" science fiction writer and nearly all media tie-ins.

Fantasy for adult readers does sell much more strongly than science fiction for the same audience, so the comparison isn't as stark, but, still, the #1 YA fantasy writer (J.K. Rowling) probably outsells the #1 adult fantasy writer (Robert Jordan) by close to that margin.

At Monday, July 07, 2008 7:45:00 AM, Anonymous Niall said...

Thanks. A follow-up question, if you have time: On average, do sales of YA sf and YA fantasy show the same relationship as sales of adult sf and adult fantasy?

At Friday, January 09, 2009 8:22:00 AM, Blogger myerman said...

Yes, yes, I was thinking about Scott Westerfield. When I was reviewing books at SF Site lo these many years ago, I got to meet him in NYC (April 2001 I believe it was). He had a great pair of novels out in Adult SF, but it wasn't until his Uglies/Pretties/Specials series that he started to make the ridonculous bucks.


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