A Son’s Journey Begins…

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

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Not my usual elfwriter blog post, but…

In a few precious months, my oldest son will graduate high school and leave home. Sure, I could tell you with pride that he will participate in a social justice gap year program prior to going to university, but for the moment, I am just stuck on the idea that he is leaving home. A car advert – father watches son drive very nice car away from the home to… – had me in tears on an airplane.

My son recently read a book that intrigued him and he could not put down. Then he asked if I would buy him a hardcover copy that he could take with him, perhaps share with friends, or reread when he feels the need.

In case you are wondering, the book is called Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by Dr. James Doty, and this got me thinking. All his life I have tried to instill a desire in my son to read. Of course, the more I pushed, the more he rebelled … just like when his darn father was as a kid. But there were times when we bonded over books.

I remember Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, as we stood in line at midnight in Borders waiting for the next book, and the delight when the bookseller, seeing him literally falling asleep on his feet as he swayed and leaned against me, snuck the only autographed copy into his hands. He sleepily declared he would stay up all night reading it, before falling asleep in the car and then in his bed, tightly hugging the book.

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My son holding his autographed copy.

Then there were the Harry Potter series, a rite-of-passage for many parents and children. I am thrilled that we were a family during this exciting moment in time.

And, of course, there was his crucial role in the writing of the Wycaan Master series. He was the inspiration that led me to write the series and for six summers he listened and offered sound feedback around the campfire in the ancient redwood forests.

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Writing the 1st novel – a family effort!

Summer 2015 Reading Book 6

Reading Book 6 in the summer of 2015. End of an era.

But his request is not about the books that were, but the books that are and will be. So I am asking for your help: what are the books that influenced and guided you when you left your parents’ home?

Here are a few from my time at college that I am thinking of including:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Persig.
  2. The Tao of Poo – Benjamin Hoff
  3. Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach.
  4. Iron John – Robert Bly.

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I am particularly interested in books for a young man, but am happy to corollate a list that is more specific for young women as well. Please share the books that influenced you when you were that age in the comments below.

Thank you,

An Apprehensive Father.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Sex or Swords?

I recently finished reading an epic fantasy novel by an author who is perhaps a year ahead of me. He is a couple of novels deeper into his series and seems to have a similar, but not bigger, social platform. 

But his books are selling impressively and I enjoyed reading his work, but there was nothing in the quality of the plot, writing, etc. that suggested why he is outselling me.

There are a lot of things in common between our novels. They are both character driven and, though there is a clear plot arc, you really stay engaged because you are rooting for the characters. There is plenty of action and moral dilemmas. If and when I write a review, and I definitely will because this is so important to the author (hinting here!), I realize that it would be similar to many of the reviews I have received for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree.

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But there are two fundamental differences, perhaps three.

1) His novels are meant only for adults.

2) There is a fair amount of sex.

There is also considerable swearing, but I don’t think someone buys a book because of the swearing. It might deter a few people, but not act as motivator.

These differences lead me to wonder about whether young adults are reading ebooks – which remains the most popular with all struggling authors – and I will examine this next week.

But for now, I want to focus on sex. Let me be honest. I’m very fond of sex and I enjoy reading and writing about it. In my non-fantasy novels, there are probably two graphic sex scenes in each. I believe that the way my characters deal with sex, before, during and after, reveals far more than any long description can ever hope to achieve.

All three books ­– A Gardener’s Tale, The Accidental Activist, and Unwanted Heroes – have garnered criticism from a few reviewers who were upset or disturbed by what they read, but there are many others who mention it positively. There was nothing 50 Shades, or anything violent or forced in these scenes and, in truth, I remain proud of them, even when I know my mother and mother-in-law have read them!

A Gardener's Tale  - new cover

However, what is the place of sex in epic fantasy? The book in question has two sex scenes and neither are particularly graphic or explicit. Throughout the novel there are sexual references but little more than men’s comments or a woman’s thoughts. Both scenes were written well and felt part of the story. Both added to the richness of the characters.

 I have wondered about Game of Thrones, in particular because my 14-year-old is interested in reading and watching the series. I have no doubt that George R.R. Martin wrote what he understood to be sexual mores of that period and I agree that it probably happened as he described, but the sex was clearly not a turn on for me (neither was it for most of Martin’s characters come to think of it).

Much of the sex were men exploiting their power over women and a few scenes are of women who manipulate men to get something they want through sexual favors or binding the men’s lusts to them. All good stuff, perhaps, but not something I want to share with my teenage son.

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I want him to know about sex as something romantic, a bonding act between two people who love each other. I want him to know that anything that is not two consenting adults pleasuring themselves and each other, is deviant. It might not necessarily be wrong, but that is for him to decide according to his values.

In the Wycaan Master series, I touch on many values and morals. I challenge the young adults who read my books to make choices about race, violence, friendships, loyalty, and enjoy it when I hear my son or his friends comment that they are proud/disappointed/upset/ happy about the actions of a character. I like that they feel guilty, understanding and maybe partly rooting for the bad guys. Nothing is ever black or white.

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But what about sex? There are certain hints in my novels that some things are going on, but it is easily missed if a young adult is not thinking about such topics. To write about sex, even in a tasteful youth-orientated way, would strip my novels of being YA (young adult). I would lose the initial motivation of writing to influence a new generation. 

Is it possible to write in sexual scenes in a YA novel? Most parents do not vet a book, trusting that if it has received recognition as YA then it will not include certain things such as swearing, graphic violence, or sex.

I do not want to step away from the target audience that so intrigues me and I am not sure I am ready to abandon them. However, I am frustrated that there are strict boundaries, frustrated that I could convey so much to my target audience through my young characters having or thinking of sexual encounters. I could convey healthy values associated with sex, values that I want to share with my own sons.

So my question is: Can sex be handled within a YA context? Your thoughts?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

 

Winner! My First Book Award

WINNER!!! Announced today: At The Walls Of Galbrieth won the Young Adult category in the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Awards!

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

 

Size – Does It Matter?

So shoot me for false advertising, but I have a dilemma. I shared with you last week in A Tribute to Editors that I have received my manuscript to At The Walls Of Galbrieth back from my editor with lots of cuts and corrections. As I worked my way through, accepting 90% of the changes suggested, I realized that my word count was dropping drastically.

I am about 80% through the novel, which began at 96,000 words and is now down to about 85,000.

Epic fantasy novels are thick tombs, offering the promise to get lost in a mythical world for a month or so. It is not a novel that you can finish in a weekend (unless your weekend is very empty and you are a fast reader).

Even Young Adult books make good doorstops. The Christopher Paolinis’ of this world have proved that teenagers will stick with a long story if it is compelling enough.

So my first question is: Is there a minimum length? When I was shopping the Wycaan Master series, there were publishers who stipulated a word range, often 100,00+. It might be that they expected their editors to attack it with a scalpel, much as my editor did.

My second question regards world building, something we have touched on before at elfwriter. A lot of the scenery description has been edited out. The editor, like many in the writing world, believes that you shouldn’t reveal everything: about a person, room, scenery etc., but allow the reader to create their own image.

Certainly, anyone who has read a book after watching the movie  (or the other way around) can appreciate this.

Tolkien, the master, spent pages describing the forests and the trees. Many of us loved this while others skipped these long descriptions. I wonder whether a young, undiscovered Tolkien would (and please pardon the expression) suffer the long red, sharpie lines through these sections of his work (or the Track Changes equivalent – but that’s not how I think of the old professor).

There is a middle ground. My editor has challenged me to integrate the descriptions within an action scene or as a pivot for a character’s self-reflection. This is a great point and I plan to experiment with this in the future. Do you know of any writers who do a good job of integrating description into the flow of the plot or character development, without it feeling like a ‘description-dump’?

So two questions here: Does size matter? How much description is allowed?

As always, I appreciate your feedback and guidance.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first, which reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012, is due out in January 2013 by Tourmaline Press. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Where is the Moral Line in YA Fiction?

Since I wrote Wycaan Master with my (then) 11-year-old son, I assumed that our story fitted the Young Adult genre. It is a coming-of-age novel, so I never gave it much thought. There is no clear sex or profanity, though race is a big issue in the first book.

Since I have become absorbed in the fantasy genre, I have begun to wonder where the line is drawn. As I continue to write the second and third books in the series, intimacy has developed between characters, sometimes direct and at other times implied. There has been plenty of violence and references to overindulgence in alcohol. Colleagues at my writers group have questioned whether I should be including these themes.

As I began to research this, I found a number of excellent sources regarding YA fiction in general. Heather Dunlevy-Scheerer has written an interesting article about the historical development of YA literature.

She lays out several characteristics that she took from someone called Niday (I couldn’t find a clear reference).

(1) a teenage (or young adult) protagonist

(2) first-person perspective

(3) adult characters in the background

(4) a limited number of characters

(5) a compressed time span and familiar setting

(6) current slang

(7) detailed descriptions of appearance and dress

(8) positive resolution

(9) few, if any, subplots

(10) an approximate length of 125 to 250 pages.

From a brief skimming of the Internet, it seems that the common thread in YA fiction is an adolescent, rather than an adult or child, protagonist. However, the subject matter and story lines of leading YA literature are relevant to the challenges of youth, and more edgier novels include themes such as identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, money issues, race, familial struggles, and bullying.

April Dawn Wells suggests seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.

There are a number of YA novels currently in print that are on the edgier sides, dealing with peer pressure, drugs, gangs, crime, violence, sexuality, incest, oral sex, and female/male rape.

The obvious criticism of these novels is that they encourage destructive or immoral behavior or at least bring them into the adolescent’s mind at too early an age. Countering this is the fact that teens will be better equipped to deal with real-life difficult situations and social issues because they have role models in the protagonists they have followed.

Where is the line drawn in amount and nature of such issues between appropriateness and inappropriateness in young-adult fiction? How can we keep literature as a relevant medium when the exposure of TV, computer games and Internet is almost not monitored and easily accessible? None of these mediums, in my opinion, can offer the depth of thought and emotion that a good book provides.

Now more than ever, YA literature needs to stay relevant. Maybe the adults (including parents of teens like myself) have to accept that we might be more uncomfortable with this than our children.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).