Last week I read a great article about the difference between writing YA and writing for adults by Diana Wynne Jones, a well-known speculative fiction writer (she wrote the book that was turned into the movie Howl’s Moving Castle — very different works, but I liked both of them very much).
I am still struggling with The Goal. I tend to write coming-of-age stories where the whole point is that the protagonist finally figures out what his/her life goal is going to be. I never seem to know what the goal is going to be until the end of the first draft (if then). The trick I’m learning now is to take that goal, and weave it into the story from the beginning in a coordinated manner for the second draft.
This gets me down, a little bit. Technically, it’s all backstory. The character’s life begins when s/he knows what s/he wants to do, and starts doing it. But attending grad school seems a lot more boring and ordinary compared to getting stranded in Tokyo and figuring out that one wants to attend grad school.
I start to think that maybe I’m more suited to Young Adult (YA) writing – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that I’m afraid my characters are late bloomers, too old to be New Adults, too immature to kick ass like a paranormal romance heroine. Then again, it might be just second-draft jitters where everything sucks, sucks, sucks (except it really doesn’t – it just feels that way). This is a bad reason to categorize a story into a certain genre . . . . But enough angsting from me!
Either way, the writer needs to know what the goal is, even if the characters don’t.
Please take a look at the article, and tell what you think. Do you think writing for YA and for more adult genres has the distinctions that Diana points out? Are there other important differences? What YA traits would you like to carry over into adult writing? (Or vice versa if you write for young adults.)
I don’t read YA myself, but judging from that book about the fairies we read in class, I forget the name of it now, I don’t think you’re wrong in what you’re doing: the protagonist struggling to discover her life goal. In that book about the fairies, while the protagonist did struggle to figure herself out, there was also a lot of conflict with the antagonist along the way.
The book we read in class is Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely. It’s the first book of a series. That one is mostly about the heroine’s discovery of her life goal, but in the rest of the series she negotiates a complex political world. The only other YA I’ve read is Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series, which does something similar (love these books). From that limited sample I agree with Diana Wynne-Jones that they’re not an armchair ride – they challenge the reader to use their problem-solving skills at a sophisticated level.
Don’t forget- the Big Goal doesn’t have to start off the book every time. Agnes and the Hitman does not start with “keep the house, hide the bodies”, but with “do not let man with gun steal the dog.” Small, immediate goals that drag your character to their Big Goal are completely usable plot arcs.
There’s also a number of negative goal/wrong choice beginnings- The Matrix has Neo trying to stay in his cubicle farm job, Aliens has Ripley trying to duck the visit to the planet, Indiana Jones and Bond are always completing a mini quest that has nothing to do with the main plot to get us into the world…
Conflict can start small. Goals can meander a little. So long as everything builds a foundation and drives the character forward into the Big Goal and Big Conflict.
It could work that your character’s first goal is Vacation in Tokyo, which becomes Get Home From Tokyo, which fails, and becomes Find Way to Fill Time in Tokyo, and finally Do Grad School. And remember that goals can be something like Return to/ Find /Make a Home, which would work as an overarching Big Goal, to have and enjoy a place that is Home, even if the definition of Home has to change.
Even on the books where the Big Goal is clearly the same from beginning to end, I like when the meaning twists- like The Scorpio Races. Sean wants to win the race, until winning would ruin everything, and Puck wants to keep her family together, until she realizes it will break her brothers’ hearts. That’s strong conflict- do you keep chasing that Big Goal, or do you give up on the Big Goal and try to stay true to the real core of the ideals that drove you to your Big Goal in the first place?
At least, I hope small, stacking, shifting goals becoming a Big Goal works, because that’s what I find myself doing in my books….