Writer Wednesday: YA Writers Can Learn from “Easy A”

I loved the movie Easy A, not only because it was hysterical, but also because there is a lot YA writers can learn from this movie.  A lot, in fact, that many writers can learn from it.

Here is a flick where they pull from an old classic (The Scarlet Letter), and toy with all sorts of clichés, all while creating something entirely new and fresh. And if there’s something the world of YA needs, it’s new and fresh.

This post kinda ties into my Agent Monday post on originality. From the writer’s point of view, I’m always trying to think original. It’s tough. There’s a ton of stuff that’s been done and overdone.

In the world of contemporary YA, that includes stuff like high school with its hot jocks, snotty cheerleaders, cafeteria tables divided up by cliques, gossip and reputations ruined, distant parents, dead parents, crazy parents, loss of virginity, finding your self-worth, the ditzy best friend, the sweet nerdy guy who comes to your rescue in the end. Etc. etc. etc. (as Yul Brenner would have said).

So what do you do? Ignore it all? For me, it was important to have bits of these elements thread into my novels but to approach the subject of a teen coming into their own in a unique way, in a world that I made real.  In What I Meant… that meant that the Indian-American family dynamic added its own humor, pathos and heart and that it wasn’t the daughter’s virginity that was in question, but the history of an adult’s… In Over My Head, it meant that the snotty girl was a threat, but also was complex. And that a college aged guy brought into question what was mature, what was real love, and when did we truly grow up. In Drawn, it meant pitting a normal teen existence against a backdrop of abnormal and even psychic occurrences, and having my heroine find meaning in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.

So what’s Easy A got to do with it?  Here’s a movie that acknowledges every cliché “in the book” and makes fun of it, even runs with it.  It starts off with the heroine talking about her sad existence and then saying, “Blah, blah, blah. So original.” And you know you are in for some fun. Lots of familiar stuff. You’ve got rumors (that she’s a slut sleeping with all the guys in the school). You’ve got mean girls (the snotty super religious chick who is out to “save” her, but really just wants to take her down). You’ve got the gay student who is being bullied. You’ve got the nerdy guy who helps her save the day in end (Lobster Todd – who wears a stuffed lobster on his head in his restaurant job, and sings the longest birthday song EVER, with lots of hep-hep-heps in it). There are references to cheesy 80’s flicks…and a dance number is included. But it all works.

They even make fun of product placement in movies.  For some bizarre reason, a Quiznos restaurant mascot is in the midst of the zealot anti-slut mob amid all the hateful posters being waved. He yells, “Eat at Quiznos!” Our heroine says with disgust, “Not now, Quiznos Man.” And he shouts back, “You’re a slut!”

Okay, can I just say that every time I walk by a Quiznos, I now mutter, “You’re a slut!”?

See, the heroine isn’t really sleeping with anyone, she just gets roped into lying about it.  First she jokingly says she did to appease her ditzy best friend. Then the mean girl overhears and spreads the word. Our heroine is labeled as a slut and starts being treated differently (she’s reading The Scarlet Letter in English, BTW).  So, what the heck, she starts dressing the part. She’s mad. Then she gets roped in to lying about having sex with a gay friend to protect him from homophobes who have been hassling him, and before you know it, it’s open shop. Every tortured nerd is appealing to her kindness to help their sad images through lying.

It’s poignant. And it’s hysterical too. And the religious group creates a lynch mob, and it all spins out of control… Here’s a flick that uses every cliché, makes fun of them, and also gives us a fresh look too.  At how girls are viewed. At how that overweight kid really feels. At how being kind to someone can actually hurt yourself.

And I appreciate how some clichés are avoided, and how some characters can run deep. Her parents are kooky and original and funny, but they are there and they are supportive and they love our heroine. They don’t pry too deeply, and they tell her, “you’re going to be just fine.” In YA lit, that’s something you don’t see enough of.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we writers need to know our genre clichés. We need to know how avoid clichés, how to spin them, and even how to make fun of them. It’s about keeping it fresh.

Hep hep hep!

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Agent Monday: Haven’t I Seen this Before?

So sometimes, well, many times actually, I open up a query in my inbox and think to myself, “Self? Haven’t I seen this before?”

And sometimes I literally have seen it before. Folks think they can send the same exact query every few months because, hey, the agent reads hundreds and hundreds of these and won’t remember. Perhaps the writer has heard stories of writers doing this very thing, and one time getting a rejection, but the other time, getting a request and then getting representation. Wahoo!

Writers, please don’t do this.  I for one actually remember my queries.  And if I’m not sure? There’s a function in my email that enables me to search you out by your email, or your book title, or your name…even by key words in your query.  And when I find a writer, who I’ve already taken my time with by reading their query and responding to it, now trying to scam me, I’m not going to be pleased at all. I even had one writer use a different email address and change her book title. Not cool, guys.

But believe it or not, this is not what this Agent Monday column is actually about. Today I want to talk about the overused ideas that I see. Stuff that everyone seems to be writing about. I’m seeing a ton of YA’s where for some bizarre reason a teen is dropped off for the summer or the year at a grandparent’s house, and there they discover secrets and of course a cute guy, etc.

I’m seeing a slew of women’s novels where the woman’s left her husband or he’s left her, or he’s died, etc. and she picks up, to the shock of her family, and moves to some remote rugged coastal home and buys some run-down hovel…and the rugged handyman, who is crusty but hot, well, “fixes” her.

I’m seeing spin offs of The Hunger Games. I’m seeing vampires and zombies. I’m seeing teens who suddenly discover they have special powers or are part of a curse, and must harness these powers, etc., to save the world.

I’m seeing a bunch of novels about orphans in the 1920s who must go across the US (always heading West) to find the only family they have left (or something like that), and along the way they ride the rails and they meet other ornery kids, some of who become friends and travel along, and of course, there’s a ratty but lovable mutt trotting by their side.

These are just but a few examples of the “types” of stories I see over and over again. How does this happen? Okay, the vampire stuff I understand, but the rest? Writers are creative people. They work alone. They are not exactly looking over each other’s shoulders copying from another writer’s manuscript.

I think part of the problem is that we are all human, and as humans we share common experiences and archetypes that resonate with us all. You can argue that there are only so many stories to be told, but I say phooey to that. You each have an original voice and point of view to share.

If you write something, even if it is perfectly polished, and I’ve seen something like it before, I’m not going to represent it. It’s that simple.

So how does a writer know if they are being original or not? Well, reading plenty definitely helps. It helps you know the genre you are targeting and prevents you from reinventing the wheel. But it doesn’t open your eyes to what’s sitting in every agent’s inbox right now (stuff that you won’t find on the bookshelf because it’s just too obvious in some ways).

I think the answer may rest with you as a writer, not taking the first idea the grabs you, or even the third, but forcing yourself to dig deeper. In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, he has an exercise that addresses this. Maass has you make a list of things that can happen in your book’s scene.  Then he makes you list even more.  And he tells you to take the very last thing on that list and run with it.

Think about that.  There are a slew of obvious things that bubble up in our minds when we write…things that the reader can quickly think of as well. But some of our favorite works have taken twists we didn’t see, or were set in unexpected original worlds or circumstances, or have characters so memorable they stand out in our minds even now. These factors, combined with your own original voice and point of view, result in something fresh.

Something red hot I’ll want to read.

Something that definitely won’t make me say to myself, “Haven’t I seen this before?”

In this week’s Writer Wednesday post, I’ll continue this conversation about originality, talking about what we can learn from the movie Easy A.

“The Bucket List! The Bucket List!” (If you don’t know this line, then go rent Easy A NOW.)

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.