When I was twelve, I fell in love.
No, not with a person . . . I was late to that particular party. Instead, I fell in love with a book . And an inappropriate book at that—a gaudy genre book, with romance and adventure and—gasp!— science fiction !
My mom, who’d been trying to get me to read Books For Nice Girls, was appalled. My dad was amused, since he was the science fiction fan in the household. He had never tried to get me to read anything, just left books out he thought I might find interesting. A much better strategy, as it turns out, than my mom’s “You must read this because it is Good For You!” approach. (An even better approach: he began to hide them in drawers, so I had to look harder for them.)
The book in question was, in retrospect, not a great classic of literature. It wasn’t even really a very good book. But none of that mattered, because at age 12, I didn’t have much of a discerning eye for such things, and the only thing I cared about was that, suddenly, I cared . Passionately. So passionately I wept when I imagined the depth of the main character’s pain. In short, that book taught me how to project myself so fully into an imaginary situation that I felt very real emotion. And I was hooked.
I remember how book-mad I was about this story. I read it cover to cover at least a dozen times. I tried to find other books by the same author (and failed; she only wrote three in total and two were impossible to find). I wrote down all the character names and wrote little backstory information on them (some of it totally made up). I read the book out loud onto audiotape, dramatically. I dressed up my discarded Barbie dolls and acted out the Important Scenes. I wrote to the publisher and asked if I could please have a poster of the cover because I looooooved the book so much.
Obsessed? Little bit, yeah. I even found myself making crossword puzzles out of the names when I was bored. In church .
I look back on that as the moment where I realized that books were like friends I’d never met before. I credit that book, and the author, for opening up the world to me.
Fast forward many years. I was writing adult Science Fiction/Fantasy (SF/F), and I loved it. I’d accidentally found myself in a brand new subgenre: urban fantasy. And I happened to be writing something offbeat from the usual tropes, so I stood out. Sales happened, to my shock. I mean, I love it when people buy my books, I just honestly never expect it.
And then my publisher cautiously broached the question of whether I might like to write for young adults. Now, mind you, when I was falling in love with books, there wasn’t much for (a) teens and (b) girls in general . . . particularly not in SF/F, which I liked more than anything else. There were female characters, but they were generally the passive elements of the story, not the active ones. I’d learned to blow right past that, but still, on some level, it made me sad that there weren’t too many female main characters being portrayed that appealed to teens in the paranormal/SF/F area.
I was so surprised to discover that there had been a complete sea change in teen literature during my absence—an amazing one. It wasn’t just that there was more being written for the audience, it was what was being written. Strong stories. Great characters. Action, adventure, science fiction and fantasy and paranormal, oh my!
I was pretty excited to jump in.
About the time I was writing my first Morganville Vampires series, a book came out that got some buzz. It was also about vampires. You may have heard of it. Little thing called Twilight . So naturally, on the recommendation of a bookseller, I picked it up. It wasn’t popular yet; it was selling well but hadn’t become the tsunami of popularity it would become. So I was on the leading edge, I think.
And you know what? I liked it. I thought it was a pretty good story. In my mind, I saw Bella as the traditional kind of Gothic literature heroine. This was an unabashed romance story with a vampire twist, and yeah, she wasn’t quite as assertive as others, but you know what? There’s a spectrum of characters. Not every character needs to fall on the fringes. She was kind of . . . normal, thrown into an abnormal situation.
People often react with disbelief when I say I understand why teens, particularly early teens, fell so hard in love with the book, but I go back to the beginning of my story: you fall in love with a book. Not always the most appropriate book . And that doesn’t really matter, because one book is not the defining element of your life. As you go on, read more, refine your viewpoints and your tastes, you may not like Twilight as well. You may love it. You may look back on it with sentimental fondness. Or you may be appalled you ever read it.
And all of those are okay .
It’s popular to hate Twilight now and, by extension, perhaps all teen-oriented vampire stories (a big mistake, and I am not talking just about my own works; there are some amazing books out there, believe me). In fact, some extend this disdain to all YA literature .
Which is just utterly absurd. The work being done on the YA shelves is, of course, a spectrum— some you’ll love, some you’ll hate, some you’ll golf clap and forget. But right now, it’s where genuinely fresh stories are shining through. Does it push the envelope? Yes. All genres have edges, and all edges get pushed. If they don’t, the genre becomes stale and people feel they’re reading “the same old thing,” until someone comes in and blows up the walls and suddenly there’s a gold rush to explore the new territory. Witness the recent revival of the traditional epic fantasy series, which is surging ahead with glee (and shattering many of the traditional tropes).
So it’s not too surprising that YA authors are also seeking new territory to claim for themselves. Sometimes, when you write an edgy epic fantasy, like George R. R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire series, you get acclaim and awards. Sometimes, though, when you push the envelope in teen literature, you get outrage instead. Witness the recent spate of articles in the mainstream press, such as Meghan Cox Gurdon’s June 2011 Wall Street Journal article with the provocative tag line, “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence, and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?'”
The distressing thing is that it isn’t true . Yes, there are books that show abuse, particularly child abuse and sexual abuse, because those are issues that teens face in their lives. And violence was certainly everywhere in my neighborhood and at my high school when I was growing up. Drug use was something she didn’t mention, but it certainly was prevalent even when I was a teen. Ditto drinking. Ditto cursing. And you know what? Nancy Drew didn’t exactly prepare me for the moment when someone I trusted went too far (in whatever way) on a date.
So I will defend to my last breath books that deal with the kinds of things teens may encounter. It’s even better, of course, if they never encounter them, but there’s something to be said for advance knowledge. We have afterschool specials about “The more you know,” don’t we? Why is it okay for grade school, but not for high school?
But the question that’s being asked now, of course, is how much is too much ?
And I think from an author’s standpoint, it’s very difficult to tell that, because all cultures are always in motion. What was daring 50 years ago may be quaint today. The pendulum swings both ways, too, because some things that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in literature of the 1950s and ’60s wouldn’t dare be published today in their original form, because of changing expectations and cultural acceptance. Hence, the outcry to remove acknowledged classics from libraries because they’re no longer acceptable.
So all we can do in this business is trust ourselves, and tell the stories we want to tell. I think most YA writers are aware that we’re going to have to sit behind a table or stand in front of an audience and in some way justify our decisions. We’re going to have to look into the eyes of an eleven-year-old who is heartbroken that we killed a beloved character, or a mom who is upset because our books used inappropriate language. We understand that there’s something incumbent on us that may not be there in other markets. Those boundaries are hard to define, but they obviously exist when you read the criticism being leveled.
How will we adapt to that? I don’t know. Certainly the YA literature being developed for the movies will be a test of the genre; with films like The Hunger Games showing both the creativity and challenge that authors are bringing to the shelves, there may be a wave of enthusiasm, or a firestorm of protest. Whatever comes of it, we will press on. It’s what we do. It’s book love , only this time from the other side of the page.
And I do love it, truly.
What keeps me going is the delight of doing the work, and the enthusiasm of my readers . . . and that is amazing . I still write urban fantasy, and I adore it; my readers are fantastic people, and very supportive, but adult readers are typically more restrained in their approval. Remember how I talked about my obsession with that first book I loved? That’s my YA audience. They write me long, long, long letters and emails. They draw pictures. They make videos. They show up in droves at events and signings, and scream and jump and hug and take photos with me. They make every minute of those early mornings and late nights getting the work done mean something special.
It humbles me to realize, as I do daily, that somewhere, someone is reading one of my novels—probably one of the YA novels—and it is blowing their head wide open and introducing them to the power of words. Then I recall that my first book-love wasn’t very good, and maybe mine aren’t much better; I leave that to other people to judge, frankly, because that way lies author madness. It still pleases me to think that I stand in that special and amazing place in some person’s life out there . . . their first book love , whatever they may think of it later in life. Doesn’t get better than that.
What amazes me is how many emails and letters I get telling me that my books did something for the readers—helped them deal with bullies, or make better grades, or cope with their bad situations. Then there are all of the letters I get saying that not only have I inspired them to read, but to write . . . and I get a lot of those. There is a whole generation of teens fired up by the great flowering of teen lit, and those teens are our next wave of great authors. I think that’s truly, tremendously exciting. Watch out, world. Ten years from now, you are going to be blown away, again.
I often get asked by teens who write to me what kind of advice I have for new writers, and I’ll go ahead and share it here as well, because I think it’s timeless advice (handed down to me from the very smart people who came before me):
Yes, I still have mad book love. I read constantly. And I love going to work. As for my process specifically, I have office hours. I write during daily, standard hours (mine happen to be early mornings). I have work space, headphones, a playlist for each and every book, a coffeemaker, Internet access, and that’s pretty much all I need. I can take everything I need with me in a single computer bag (well, except for the coffeemaker, but sacrifices must be made). I use Scrivener as my main word processor for my first and second drafts, then Word for copyedits, then my proofs generally arrive in Adobe Acrobat. I like Macs, and my little workhorse of a Macbook Air is a jewel.
I spend an average of 8 hours a day writing, then another 4 hours doing other things, like updating websites, blogging, answering email, designing promotional items. In all, it averages about 12 hours a day, with very few days off, but because I arrange my hours to have afternoons and evenings free, it’s a little like having a weekend every day.
I think my life is pretty balanced. I travel a great deal and make lots of appearances just now; I spend about three to four months out of the year traveling, speaking at conventions, doing signings, giving lectures. When I can, I travel with my husband, who’s an artist; because he doesn’t fly, he forces me to slow my roll a little bit, take the train, drive, not be so frenzied to get there . We enjoy the journey, which is nice.
It’s kind of an ideal life, for the moment. It won’t stay this way; nothing does. In the next few years, my popularity will either grow or decline; either one will dictate what I do next. But I won’t stop writing until someone makes me.
Because I have, now and always, crazy mad book love. And I hope you do, too.
Rachel Caine is the author of more than 20 novels. She is the author of several series, including the Weather Warden series, the Outcast series, the Morganville Vampires series, and the Revivalist series (August 2011). She was born at White Sands Missile Range, which people who know her say explains a lot. She has been an accountant, a professional musician, and an insurance investigator, and until recently carried on a full-time secret identity in the corporate world. She and her husband, fantasy artist R. Cat Conrad, live in Texas with their iguanas, Popeye and Darwin, a mali uromastyx named O’Malley, and a leopard tortoise named Shelley. Learn more about the author at www.rachelcaine.com ; www.facebook.com/rachelcainefanpage ; and www.twitter.com/rachelcaine .