I’m delighted to welcome author Christina Hoag as my guest on Being Anne today. Christina is the author of two novels – Skin of Tattoos, a literary noir gangland thriller, and a YA romantic thriller, Girl on the Brink. Today Christina has written a fascinating piece about the boundaries – and challenges – of writing YA. Over to you Christina…
There’s no question that YA is the genre du jour. Literary agents and editors all seem to be seeking the next big thing in young adult, especially the “crossover” novel that can hit both the teenage and adult markets.
So when I started writing my novel Skin of Tattoos it seemed to me a no-brainer to make it a YA book. The book is a thriller pivoting on the rivalry between two street gang members in Los Angeles. Since gangs are primarily composed of young men, many of them teenagers, it seemed to be a natural fit for YA. Great, I thought, I can jump on the YA bandwagon. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, either writing the book or selling it.
First, in writing YA, authors must keep in mind the limitations on a teenager’s life, namely they generally live with their families and have to answer to parents. The author must account for these family characters in some way and establish their relationships with the main teen character. Specifically, the author must invent excuses for the parents not noticing the behaviour of the teen that generally makes the conflict of the plot.
I notice a lot of YA books have the teen (girl, more often than not) alone with a divorced or widowed parent, which makes the mum or dad conveniently more distracted or absent-minded, leaving the teenager to get on with the plot. A lot of teen protagonists are also only children, another handy mechanism that eliminates the need for the author to deal with sibling relationships. Although these scenarios certainly occur in real life, it’s probably not quite as often as in YA fiction. Authors must also keep in mind that friends are hugely important in adolescence so friends must play a major role and those relationships must be established. Likewise, teens are not adults. They are subject to school rules and a different set of laws, which may affect the plot.
Elements such as profanity, obscenity, drug use and sex must be considered. The author can include those things but she must consider her goals for the book. If she wants to sell into school libraries and cast a wide net for readers, which would include adults who buy books to give to teens, she may not want to include the racy stuff. On the other hand, teens themselves may actually be drawn by the edgier, grittier and more realistic content.
YA books also have a more uniform style. They are overwhelmingly told in first person, mostly present tense, in a day-to-day fashion so the reader feels a part of the protagonist’s life. The voice must also be right. A certain tone of snarkiness in interior monologue and side comments seems to be what agents and editors like although in reality teens don’t talk like that as often as books would have you believe.
YA is overwhelming a girls’ genre. Visit a bookshop’s YA section, you’ll see most titles are romance-oriented or otherwise female oriented with girls on the cover. I didn’t initially view this as a hindrance. After all, my teenage son had often complained to me that he didn’t like reading books because he couldn’t find any action/adventure books more suited to boys. I figured there must be a market for boy YA.
But the truth is not really. Agents and editors are looking for what sells, and that’s by and large girl YA. Nevertheless, when I sent out my manuscript, I got nibbles and a few bites, and eventually I landed an agent. (That’s the subject of another blog post!) The book, however, didn’t move. To make a long story short, I parted ways with that agent and then I saw what I needed to do: make Skin of Tattoos an adult novel. I upped the age of my protagonist, Mags, by a couple years, to twenty, and suddenly he was freed of the constraints and limited world view of a minor, yet still young enough to have issues with his family and make the boneheaded mistakes that youths make as they enter adulthood. As a writer, it was like shedding shackles.
Mags instantly became old enough to have a level of awareness about himself and the world. He could come to terms with his family problems with the emotional depth that a teen likely wouldn’t have. It made his character, the main plot and the family-issue subplot that much richer.
After much revision, I got a deal with a small publisher, and Skin of Tattoos was finally released to the world last August, after a winding path to publication. Moral of the story: thoroughly research your genre before you sit down and write!
Enjoyed that, Christina – thanks for joining me today! Let’s take a closer look at Christina’s books…
When Cyco Lokos gang member Magdaleno (Mags) Argueta comes home to Los Angeles after serving prison time for a robbery, he wants nothing more than to start a new life. However, there’s one obstacle he has to overcome first…his old life.
Mags tries to let go of his bitterness–he was framed by Rico, the new leader of the Cyco Lokos–and stay out of gang life for the sake of his Salvadoran immigrant family and his girlfriend Paloma, but trying to integrate into society after a stint in prison doesn’t come easily. Faced with low job prospects and Rico’s demands to help the Cyco Lokos make money, a broke and disillusioned Mags makes the only choice he can.
However, Mags soon discovers that loyalties have shifted, including his, and being a part of the Cyco Lokos with Rico in charge is far more dangerous and uncertain than it used to be. With his sister pregnant by a rival gang member and his own relationship with Paloma, his best friend’s sister, a violation of gang code, Mags becomes caught in a web of secrets, revenge, lies, and murder that might ultimately cost him everything.
Sometimes the one you love isn’t the one you’re meant to be with.
The summer before senior year, 17-year-old Chloe starts an internship as a reporter at a local newspaper. While on assignment, she meets Kieran, a quirky aspiring actor. Chloe becomes smitten with Kieran’s charisma and his ability to soothe her soul, torn over her parents’ impending divorce. But as their bond deepens, Kieran becomes smothering and flies into terrifying rages. He confides in Chloe that he suffered a traumatic childhood, and Chloe is moved to help him. If only he could be healed, she thinks, their relationship would be perfect. But her efforts backfire and Kieran becomes violent. Chloe breaks up with him, but Kieran pursues her relentlessly to make up. Chloe must make the heartrending choice between saving herself or saving Kieran, until Kieran’s mission of remorse turns into a quest for revenge.
About the author
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories.
Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a gangland thriller. Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.