On the 24th, I participated in a workshop helmed by Keith Gray, a UK young adult author from Random House whose books have gone on to win or be shortlisted for a number of awards. The whole thing was headed by Bocas Lit Fest and the Burt Code Association. The only major writing workshop I had previously attended was a three-month course by Elizabeth Nunez, which drastically altered my writing style and perspective.
Keith Gray with a display of his novels and collections.
The first thing that struck me about Keith was that he seemed nervous. This didn’t make me question whether or not he had done this before, because, even as a teacher myself, I get the jitters every time I have to walk into a new class. I found him endearing, perfect for “workshop” personality and mentality, where motivation trumps criticism and where hope must conquer doubt, even just for a few hours
I attended the workshop because even though I’ve already published a children’s book and penned a handful of manuscripts involving serial killer philosophy, existentialist meta-fiction and criss-crossy Caribbean drama (who says any of them are as good as their descriptions sound pretentious?), I’ve never written something young adult. This wasn’t me trying to challenge myself to take on every strange genre, but for me to strategise a proper capture-the-flag on a genre that I want to be a part of. The rest could wait.
I was ready, quite excited to absorb everything that I could. Because, see, the problem was: I couldn’t properly define what the young adult genre was. It seemed to branch off in so many ways and hide itself in other niche genres. Dystopian. Science fiction. Fantasy. Contemporary fiction. Of course, I knew they all tied together with similar themes and tropes: youthful protagonists, coming-of-age, conflict like crazy, and mostly safely tying everything together in the end.
I think Mr. Gray summed it up nicely when one of his opening statements was, “Young adult is not so much a genre as it is a movement.” Now, that made sense to me. Genres are usually well-defined. Movements shift with the seasons and time. That made it click for me immediately. It is a forward movement, of course, but along different tributaries. A movement to get teenagers interested in literature. A movement away from the true time-wasters, and towards actual construction and inspiration.
However, what would separate a young protagonist in young adult and one in adult fiction? Gray suggests hindsight. Young adult (YA) fiction deals with that jumbled mess of hormones, hatred and happiness that is the teenage years, as told from that point of view. Adult fiction is the telling of the same thing, but from hindsight - where it already makes sense in context. YA is the journey to that ‘sense in context’.
Dialogue is perhaps the most difficult aspect to realistically create in YA fiction. Too many characters speak too properly, Gray suggests, and many of them may have brilliant dialogue but would unfortunately make 15-year old girl characters sound like 40-year old men. We studied an excerpt of one of his published short stories, and discussed the elimination of adverbs and dialogue tags (said, replied, etc.) Some of this was material that was redundant for me, but was still crucial for the topic at hand.
Then we got to the biggie that had been bugging me: Cursing. The F-word. The F-bomb. Gray actually opened the workshop by reading two letters he had received. The first was from a concerned parent, citing his book as trash that would inevitably corrupt the youth and a plea for it to be pulled from libraries. The second was from a young teenager, who had had thoughts of suicide slowly dispelled after reading the same book. It was an effective prelude to this next talking point.
The first letter was from what Gray playfully termed a “gatekeeper”. Being a children’s author and performing at several readings, I’ve had to reassure parents that the book has no cussing or sex or, well, rudeness, before they would buy it. One very dedicated primary school teacher I had met claimed to turn down a few books for his storytelling sessions due to their graphic content (I can’t speak, as I haven’t read the book.) The whole point was that, even though children’s and YA is a lucrative market, it’s typically not the target audience that purchases the work. It’s the parents, teachers, guardians. Gatekeepers.
Putting fuck, shit and cunt in your book, especially in copious amounts, raises the red flag for the gatekeepers. Without any Parent Advisory sticker (thank God) to go on, you could get away with it. But a quick Google search and word-of-mouth can quickly dissipate your luck in that department. While YA books generally have less cursing, sex and absolute disregard for authority than other books, they find themselves quickly banned at record rates. Gray reminded us that shock value does not sell a book, however, and that it was important not to overdo it. But to always be mindful that the pious bunch will always have a problem with marketing curse words to innocent teenagers.
At the end of the day, it is the gatekeepers that buy the books for the teens and the children. Something that one must always, always never forget. Would we be willing to risk it? Me, personally? Probably not. Not for my first YA manuscript. Maybe for my third or fourth.
Throughout the workshop, Gray had us do an activity that he called an instant poem. Freeze a moment of an event and then jot down the colours, scents, emotions, characters and outcomes contained within that smidgen of time. The characters we had to use were partly from the imaginations of others, and from our own minds. At the end, we had a fully fleshed character sans cliche and sans cardboard cut-out archetype. While the activity sounds simple here, Gray was very mindful of every aspect of the vision we had to come up with. And while it wasn’t anything totally new to me, it did introduce me to a new method of overcoming mundane and tired description.
At the end of it all, I and my girlfriend, Portia (who was also in attendance), talked about it at length. We both agreed that it greatly motivated us. I bought Gray’s book, Ostrich Boys. And I got his signature.
Later that evening, I had to do a reading from an anthology that was recently published. Gray was present, and he congratulated me on my accomplishment.