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Guest Post: Lisa Schroeder on Alternate Formats in Contemporary YA Fiction

Alternative Formats in Contemporary YA by Lisa Schroeder

Some things in life are exact. Baking great grandpa’s favorite cookies from a recipe that’s been passed down through generations. Planting bulbs in the fall so you’ll have flowers that bloom in the spring. Balancing a checkbook. Writing, however, is not one of these tasks where there is a step-by-step process that gets you guaranteed results. Creativity does not like guidelines. It does not want to have a “right” way and a “wrong” way. Instead, it wants a thousand possibilities, at least.

That’s the beauty of writing, really. It is an art, like painting or making music or sculpting clay. Would anyone ever say to an art student – you must draw with a black pencil? Or to a musician – you must play with a piano?

And although writers aren’t told there is only one way to write a novel, I think it can be a difficult decision to do something outside of the norm.
Sometimes, however, an author feels strongly that a story would be better served by something other than one point of view, or a straight timeline, or traditional chapters, and so, she chooses to take the path less traveled.

I think we see alternative formats in contemporary YA especially because in today’s world, many teens don’t want a “right” way and a “wrong” way to live. Whether it’s their interests, their sexuality, or even their world views, things often aren’t black and white. There are choices. Sometimes, lots of choices, and so, it makes sense to me that contemporary young adult novels would push the boundaries, not only in exploring tough topics, but also in exploring different formats for the storytelling itself.

As the author of four verse novels for teens, I get asked over and over again, why? Why write in verse? I have given different answers over the years. Sometimes I say it’s because it creates an atmosphere I can’t get with prose. Sometimes I say it’s because it gets at the heart of the emotional story. And sometimes I say, because that’s the way the story wanted to be told.

The truth is, I don’t even think about why I’m doing it, really. All I’m doing is trying to tell the story that is in my heart the best way I can. If a story wants to be told in a sparse, poetic way, then I’m going to honor the story and tell it the way it wants to be told. Some people are turned off by this format, some think it’s a stupid gimmick, some think it’s not poetry at all, some HATE VERSE NOVELS WITH ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS IN THE WORLD. I know these things all too well. But I also know that every week I get letters and e-mails from teens who say, “I usually hate to read, but I love your books…”

I think it’s important for people, and adults especially, to not be too quick to judge the alternative formats we see in YA novels. These alternative formats speak to the way teens live and communicate. As YA author Stasia Kehoe said in this great blog post ( novels), “I live in a world of Twitter (haiku?), of texts from my teens, of vlogs and cartoons, of compact little Facebook status reports. I live in a world of cool fonts and snarky signage. I live in a world of rap music and catchy advertising slogans.”

Shouldn’t contemporary YA authors be allowed to play with their stories the way teens love to play with words and images on tumblr? Because when an alternative format works, it can really make an impact.

One of the books my now 15 YO reluctant reader son read and enjoyed last year was CRACKED by K.M. Walton. CRACKED is a book with two points of view, Victor and Bull. Whenever an author decides to do more than one point of view, she’s taking a risk, because the reader is going to want a good reason for doing so. In this case, it works well, because Victor is the victim and Bull is the bully. It’s fascinating to see things from Bull’s viewpoint, to see how he came to be the way he is.

I recently read Matt de la Pena’s novel I WILL SAVE YOU, and Matt chose to tell the story by alternating between the past and present day, something I do as well in my upcoming novel FALLING FOR YOU. There’s a lot of tension in a book written this way, but that’s why it’s so great. At least I think so. Others may become frustrated and want to throw the book across the room. Only certain stories are going to work this way, and the reader has to put a lot of trust in the author, because answers to questions don’t come for a long time about what exactly is going on. The whole time the reader is thinking, the payoff better be worth it. I thought the ending to I WILL SAVE YOU was brilliant, and I didn’t see it coming.

Every time an author writes a novel in an alternative format, he/she is taking a risk. There is more to pick apart. There is more to criticize. “It would have been better in regular prose” some people say about my verse novels. Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll never know, because I chose my path and I followed it and it got me to the end of something I was proud of and something I was happy to share with others.

It’s not always easy being the author who does something different. But writing a novel is never easy. We do it the way we choose to because our creativity whispers to us, I like this. Keep going. If there is one voice the author must listen to above all else, it is that one.

As readers, I say let’s be glad there are choices. Let’s be thankful we have authors willing to take risks. And most of all, let’s celebrate and respect differences.
Lisa Schroeder is the author of five YA novels, all with Simon Pulse, including THE DAY BEFORE, a contemporary novel which was a 2012 Oregon Book Award finalist and a 2012 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Realistic teen fiction is on her list of favorite things, right up there with cupcakes and the TV show Friday Night Lights. Look for her new contemporary YA, FALLING FOR YOU, coming 1/1/13. You can find her on the web and on twitter at @lisa_schroeder.