Truth And The Intentional Mistake

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Two quick things today, because there is a certain birthday party I must be prepared for. It’s not anyone’s birthday, but we’ve scheduled the party today, which works out well for all concerned.

Right now I’m reading John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, the book the Tribeca-award-winning movie is based on. The premise is good, the story is tightly-interwoven and slow-paced but well done. There are things I don’t like about the book itself. Some of them are translation things, things that you can’t avoid with a book that’s been brought out of another language. Some of the others are stylistic, like the author’s apparent love affair with ellipses. I use too many ellipses myself–my beta has to ruthlessly step on their heads lest they breed–and I understand Lindqvist was trying to capture the way people really talk. That’s the trouble with dialogue. You have to walk that line between how you know people actually talk, with all the ums, ahs, and the things left unsaid, and balance that against what dialogue needs to be, a revealing and unfolding within the story.

It’s a hard act.

Which brings me to the intentional mistake. After you’ve been writing for a while (I want to say ten thousand hours, because I’ve read Outliers recently too, but maybe it’s between five and eight thousand) you start seeing the mistakes a little differently. Once you have the basics down and begin to have a good solid grasp of craft, then you can start breaking the rules.

Just like in life, breaking the rules to break them is a stupid kid’s game with unintended consequences. Knowing the rules and breaking them to effect is something else entirely. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing, one of the only two writing books I will ever recommend.

I am willing to put up with what I see as Lindqvist’s mistakes in this book because he has vouched in other ways that he knows the rules and he’s breaking them for a reason. The rest of the book is good enough that I can overlook the ellipses. There is a lesson in this. Readers are very forgiving if you give them a reason to be. Don’t abuse their trust, and they will follow you down the dark road of a book.

The other thing I want to talk about today is truth. Lindqvist’s book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Some of the main characters are children, but it would never be published as a Young Adult novel.

As a writer getting into YA now, I’m running up against some of the conventions of the genre. Well, not exactly conventions. I am running up against the laudable adult urge to protect the young, and the not-so-laudable urge to censor what is said to them.

In my house, we have a “reach it and read it” policy. If you can reach it, you can read it. If you can’t reach it–get a stepstool! I do not believe in censoring my childrens’ experience with the written word. Are there things I wish they wouldn’t read? You betcha. Do I put those books out of reach?

I do not.

Instead, I keep track of what the kids are reading, and I talk to them about it. The conversations are alternately funny (like when Astronomy Girl ran across a fade-to-black sex scene in a book and asked me what “orgasm” meant) and terrifying, like when the UnSullen was reading Food of the Gods and started asking me about hallucinogens.

Ah, the joy of parenting.

In each case I firmly believe in telling the truth in the straightest, most age-appropriate, and simplest way possible. This is, I think, the best policy. (Obviously, or I wouldn’t be doing it.) The more armed with simple knowledge my young oes are, the less danger there is of them doing something stupid. I mean, we all have lapses in judgment. That is not the exclusive province of the young.

But one is far less likely to have a stupid lapse in judgment if one has been calmly given straight answers. And kids who get straight answers, who know they can go to an adult and ask difficult, ticklish questions, are far more likely to check in when something happens they’re unsure of. Check in, that is, before the situation becomes an unholy tangle.

The best way to protect the young, then, happens to be not censoring the information given to them so much. Kids are smart and they love to learn (until the public school/jungle system beats it out of them, but that’s another blog post). They want to ask adults questions, and they want straight answers. A kid who doesn’t feel alone and adrift is a kid who is going to talk to someone before they go and do something silly, at least most of the time. Age-appropriate doesn’t have to mean “complete blackout of information”.

This is why I’m feeling okay and not so okay about my forays into YA. On the one hand, I feel like I have something of value to impart, a story to share with younger readers. On the other hand, dealing with a lot of forces who want kids kept in the dark about a lot of things–sex, drug use, violence, abuse–for a variety of reasons, whether to “protect” them or because of an adult’s profound discomfort with kids knowing about the darker things in life…well, it gets wearying. The fear in the publishing industry of being “too edgy” and setting off some of the more conservative elements in our society is immense. The writer gets asked to change things, to dial it back and not be so direct. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not.

There’s a fine line to walk there, too. You need to know when you’re too attached to something that doesn’t really move the story along. Conversely, you need to not give in when someone is asking you to bullshit for the sake of selling more books or not pissing someone off. The two are not mutually exclusive, and they’re hard to tell apart.

Telling the truth in this way is difficult. It’s dangerous. But I think it’s worth it. My kids are worth the truth. I think every kid out there is. It doesn’t mean I have to force the knowledge of the darker side of the world on them, but it does mean that I have a trust (I would go so far as to call it sacred) to tell the truth when I’m asked, and when the occasion calls for it.

Why else would I do this job?