Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teen Feedback at ALAMW 2011

I attended the Best Fiction Teen Feedback Session in San Diego. It was the teens or Neil Gaiman. I don't regret my decision--the feedback session was that good.

This isn't a record of everything that was said; my notes are sketchy and I know I missed some of the best parts because I was laughing or gasping instead of writing stuff down. I won't be listing the exact titles under discussion--in fact I'm going to be deliberately vague on that score. I won't be telling you the names and ages of the speakers. This is just a summary of some of the things I heard that impressed me--things I think other YA writers would find interesting. 

It was a diverse group, and they frequently disagreed with each other. They were perceptive--and blunt. There were some huge bestsellers written by super-star artists on the list, and those books and authors sparked intense debate.  

B is for backstory
It is especially important in fantasy. They wanted it, but too much is deadly. All in the delivery maybe?
C is for character
"I was captivated by the characters."
Several readers referred to books they liked as "character-driven." They were sharply critical of undeveloped characters, especially when there were many secondary figures. They objected to families they felt were inauthentic--and "ignorant adults." There were also criticisms that protagonist's choices sometimes didn't make sense. Another problem, abrupt changes (like character growth) that didn't seem earned.
C is for covers
"The cover is just so random"
The cover should be true to the book inside. They expressed enthusiasm for a wide variety of cover art styles--including illustration, but they were very critical of covers that weren't representative of the story somehow.
D is for design
"The typeface fit the book."
Personally, I enjoy the typography and other elements that make a page a visual experience, so it made me happy to hear that book design matters.  Inclusions, like newspaper clippings, and illustrations are great.
D is for Dialogue
"The dialogue seemed forced." 
That pretty much sums up the problem with dialogue--sometimes it isn't realistic.              

E is for ending 

"Ending? Oh, gosh. Not loving it."

"The climax dismayed me."
They wanted a powerful conclusion. There were frequent complaints about questions that were unanswered. It wasn't a question of ambiguity. It seemed more a matter of wondering why certain plot threads were introduced and then abandoned. 
G is for Gender
"This book is sexist."
"So, so girly. It's unreadable by guys."
First of all, the guys who were there were clearly reading many books with female protagonists. They  were also reading books where relationships were an important part of the story, but a straight-up heavy-breathing romance described as "like watching pornography"--not a winner. (See also romance)
H is for history

Historically accurate language and a first-person narrator create an immersive experience. Don't make arbitrary changes--like moving a story's setting or changing historical facts; that's just puzzling. (They weren't talking about slipstream or alternative histories here, BTW.)

I is for ideas and information

"Astounding. Made us interested in ..."                                                                              

They like learning things or discovering new interests within the context of a story, but when a book crosses the line and becomes dry and didactic--no love for that. A bibliography of sources can be a plus. 

L is for "Literary"
"Loved the vocabulary."
Not only did they use the word literary to describe books they liked, they also talking about style, character-driven stories, and "thoughtful" books.
M is for mystery
"I read it in two hours. The mystery is really compelling"
They like mystery and suspense. They were willing to stick with a "slow" book for the sake of a good mystery.
O is for Originality
"Had a Twilight vibe to it. Not in a good way."
Predictable or "generic"plots were a disappointment.  "Stereotypes of high school popularity"are tiresome. I think you would have a hard time convincing them that anything with vampires in it is original at this point. If there is one thing to strive for, this is probably it.
P is for Point of view
Switching from one character to another can work--especially if it answers questions. It is important that each character's "voice" is unique. On the other hand if there are too many points of view, it can become confusing and "the plot dies." Also interesting: A story told from the perspective of an unlikable character.
R is for romance
"Girls don't get stupid over guys."
There was a lot of enthusiasm for romance, but one book was criticized for including a romance that was "annoying" and got in the way of the main plot. (See also gender)
S is for Sequels and Series
"Good--but not series good."
 They expect a standard of quality across the series. When a book ends, even if it is part of a series, there should be a sense of closure, not an abrupt dropping off. Sometimes it isn't clear that a book is a sequel, and a reader can be confused by all they don't know. (See also backstory)
"Verse adds something here."
Several of the most-discussed books were in verse. In all of those cases, there was a reason that they were in verse rather than in prose.

Books I confess I haven't read that I will after hearing teens talk about them:

The Card Turner by Louis Sacher
Crazy by Han Nolan
Green Witch by Alice Hoffman
Revolver by Marcus Sedgewick

(I hope I kinda, sorta get a pass on not having read these already.)
PS: I didn't put those extra line space in there, Blogger is not my friend tonight.
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