So a couple of weeks ago I was at work, chatting with my boss, and he revealed to me that a co-worker whom he knows much better than I do has just self-published a YA novel, orderable online. My first impulse was to run and accost this co-worker, whom we shall call R (and whom I hardly ever see in the ordinary course of business), and talk to him about writing for kids, and our respective experiences, and what led him to self-publish, and yadda yadda. And then perhaps I could interview him for this blog. But then I realized I should read the book first, shouldn't I? So I asked my boss, who owns a copy but hasn't yet read it, to lend it to me, which he did on Friday, and now I've read it. Hence the title of this post.
First off, it's not a YA novel, it's a middle-grade novel. Which is fine. Because it's just my boss who used the phrase "young adult," and he doesn't know squat about writing for kids, so I can't blame R for that - there's nothing written on the book itself to indicate grade level. The premise is very interesting: a young teen boy and his family are in the process of living through a form of apocalypse which I will not specify for fear of identifying said book to anyone who reads this. But trust me, it's a BAD apocalypse. And the boy and his family, along with their besieged community, are attempting to survive it as best they can.
The writing is good. And so is the setting: R clearly did his research homework. And he got the voice of the boy protagonist exactly right. And he's created believable secondary characters. But there's no plot. By which I mean: the book begins during the siege, and continues through the remainder of the siege, and ends with the community's rescue by an outside force. The protagonist does his part as circumstances allow, but his actions effect no change in the overall situation. Mostly, he reports lucidly and well about the deteriorating conditions in which he's living, and wonders when, or if, the nightmare will end.
It's not enough. it's not a novel. And, reading it, I suddenly stop fixating on my inability to get my own books published, and become aware of how much I really do know about writing books. Fifteen or so years of attending writing classes and SCBWI conferences and workshops, and working with my wonderful critique group, has taught me A LOT. I know (and this one is from Sesame Street - I can hear the song running through my head) that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I know that the action must build toward a climax, followed by a denouement. And I know that in writing for kids, one must have a main character who is not simply buffeted by fate; he or she must, in some way great or small, seize the initiative and make something happen. And R's main character, whom I like so much, doesn't do that. The adults do all the planning and organizing; this boy serves as a witness and a reporter. It's not enough. This isn't a novel.
And it makes me feel really depressed. For one thing: there goes my fantasy of having a fellow YA writer to commune with at work. Oh, I'll go talk to R, and tell him about all my positive reactions to his book, but I'll be holding back what I really think, because the book is out there already and any constructive criticism from me would be useless at this point, even if he had any interest in hearing it. And I definitely can't interview him for this blog, because here I've gone telling this blog what I REALLY think, so I can never let R have access to it.
And okay, here's the other thing I'm depressed about. After thinking about the book itself, I return to fixating about me me me. I've written four actual novels, none of which may ever see the light of day unless I, too, follow the self-publishing route. Whereas R has written one not-exactly-novel, and it's OUT THERE. Anyone on the planet can buy it and read it. R doesn't know many of the basic principles of writing a novel, and yet he has something I don't have. And I can call this emotion of mine sadness, because that sounds so much better than envy, but really, who am I kidding?
So, to summarize: OH SHIT. How come R's protagonist gets a deus ex machina and I don't? Where is mine when I need one?