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April 18, 2006

A YA Thing

Marissa Lingen has some thoughts on my entry yesterday about ambitions, and puts it into the context of YA writing:

And I've never taught physics grad students, and I've never written a doctoral-level monograph in history; but I would bet you good money that at least some of the difficulties in doing those things are not greater than the difficulties in teaching freshman physics lab or writing a history text for fourth through sixth graders but rather are different difficulties. Don't believe me? You can go ahead and explain pogroms to a 9-year-old audience in words they understand, that will get the concept across with due gravity but without scaring the kid so badly that they have nightmares for weeks about man's inhumanity to man. Also perform this task in less than 200 words, and also make sure that the words you choose will not offend parents, teachers, librarians, etc. either by their explicit nature or by their coy omissions. And remember that yours may be the very last reference to the subject they see until they take a history course in college, if ever. See what an easy romp that is -- why, it must be! It is for the sweet little childrens!

Mrissa points in the direction of a larger truth, which is that writing for any specific audience requires skills that don't always make themselves apparent on the casual read. However, writing for kids in particular is not easy, I'll bet, for all the reasons Mrissa notes above: Not only to you have to satisfy the kids as readers, you also have to walk the tightrope satisfying the gatekeepers to the kids: parents, teachers, school boards and assorted busybodies who will aim to ban your book even though they haven't bothered to read it. All of which makes YA lit even more full of hoops which must be jumped if one wishes to play in that arena. The only thing you get out of it as a writer is that if you're lucky, you're creating a lifelong reader through your work.

As it happens, not long after I finished Agent to the Stars I took the excess momentum I had after that and banged out several chapters of a YA attempt. Among other things, it convinced me that writing YAs was not just a happy side lark; if you're going to do it, do it right. My friends Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier are examples of that; they both write YAs that I'd rather read more than a lot of adult novels that I've come across, because the work and skill is there.

The YA I began remains unfinished because -- obviously -- I have lots on my plate now as it is. I'd like to return to it one day (or start a different one), but I'd need to be able to make time to devote to it. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to post up the first chapter so those of you who want to see it can have a look. How is it? Eh. I liked it at the time (and I still like the overall story), but the better part of a decade on I can see quite a few things I'd choose to work on before it made it to release. It's not nearly as good as Scott and Justine's works, which comprise the quality benchmark to which I would need to aspire before I could feel comfortable doing YA.

It's not horrible, mind you. It just needs work. But, as I said, it is a useful reminder to me that YA is work if you want to do it well. Perhaps it'll be a useful reminder to you as well, should you feel that Young Adult writing is less craft-intensive than any other sort.

The chapter starts after the cut --

The Durant Chronicles: Crisis at Tlada
Chapter One

Margaret Durant, Consul of the Terran Commonwealth, former Senator from the planet Acadia, Undersecretary for Xenomorph Relations, diplomat and Ambassador without Portfolio, leaned over the railing on the bridge of the TC Capital Ship Odysseus. She stared into the inky blackness of that separated the Odysseus and Tlada, the planet that showed itself, a glowing blue and yellow crescent, some 500,000 kilometers to starboard.

Someday, she thought, I’m just going to have to toss my kids out into that without a spacesuit.

“Where are the twins now?” She asked Lieutenant Greene, her attaché.

“They’re in the lift, with Chief Engineer Chandra and Ensign Hewlett,” he said. “Should be here in a minute or so.”

“Do me a favor,” the ambassador said, “and make sure I don’t strangle them both when they arrive.”

Lt. Greene, who was nearly two meters tall, grinned. “I think I can manage that, Ambassador,” he said. “But I don’t think it will have to come to that.”

“You’d be surprised,” the ambassador said.

“It can’t be that bad,” Lt. Greene said.

“Mr. Greene, my purpose on this mission is to keep two ancient enemies from lapsing back into a centuries-old war,” the ambassador said. “I can’t very well do that if the Odysseus is blown up because my children were fiddling with the engines.”

“They’re only kids,” Lt. Greene said.

“You’re just saying that because they’re not yours,” the ambassador said.

On the far side of the room, the door to the lift slid open, discharging four occupants. Two were dressed in the white-with-blue-trim work uniforms of the Terran Navy. The older of these, a small man with dark skin, wore the rank of commander—Chief Engineer Chandra. The other, younger, taller and blonde, was an ensign—Hewlett, the young woman who discovered the tampering. And the tamperers.

Margaret regarded the tamperers with a mixture of affection and exasperation. In a way, it was her fault—she was the one who demanded they come to Tlada with her. “It’s a cease-fire now,” she told their father, her husband. “They can explore the ruins of Dollecti first-hand, which no one but the Tladians have done for decades. Besides, I never see them. It’ll be good for me to spend time with them.”

“They’re going to get bored on the Odysseus,” her husband warned. “It’s not designed for a pair of 14-year-olds. Especially these 14-year-olds.”

“I can keep them out of trouble,” the ambassador said, confidently.

“I’m going to remind you that you said that,” her husband said, and went back to his painting.

Inwardly, the ambassador winced. He would remind her, too. And he’d enjoy doing it.

The tamperers watched their mother watch them. The boy squirmed slightly, and subtly tried to slide out of the grip of Chief Engineer Chandra, who had his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Chandra noticed the attempt and clamped down harder. The boy sighed and became still.

The girl didn’t squirm. She stared straight her mother, with a slight smile on her face. She knew, more or less, what her mom was thinking, and she had a good idea that their mother would let them stand there for a few seconds more for effect, letting the weight of her exasperation squash them just a little before she began to speak.

Not yet, not yet...The girl thought...Not yet. There. Now.

“Will,” The ambassador nodded to her boy, and then turned to the girl. “Ariel. So, tell me. Did you two give any thought to what you were going to do after you blew up the ship? It’s hard to follow up something like that.”

“We weren’t going to blow up the ship,” Ariel said. “We were trying to fix it.”

“Fix it? Really,” the ambassador said, dryly. “From what I understand, realigning the engine’s plasma generators while they are active and online generally has a tendency to do something else entirely. Is that correct, Chief Engineer Chandra?”

“It is, ambassador,” Chief Engineer Chandra.

“What does realigning active plasma generators do, Mr. Chandra?”

“Usually, it floods the engine room with warp-grade plasma, instantly vaporizing the back third of the ship, and causes the rest of the ship to shatter due to rapid and catastrophic depressurization.”

“A rather drastic fix, isn’t it, Mr. Chandra?”

“I’d say so, Madam Ambassador.”

Will muttered something.

“Speak up, Will,” The ambassador said. “It won’t do us any good to have you mutter into your neck.”

“I said that we weren’t realigning the plasma jets,” Will said. “I’m not stupid. We were recalibrating them.”

“The distinction escapes me,” the ambassador said.

“Ensign Hewlett gave us a tour of the engine room last week,” Will said, “and I noticed that the plasma generators were only at 93% efficiency. When I told her about it, she just shrugged and said that that was about where they should be. But if you recalibrate the generator, you can increase efficiency by another two or three percent, depending on outside conditions. Recalibrating’s not a big deal—it’s just software fix. A couple hundred lines of code. It doesn’t actually require repositioning the jets. And it doesn’t cause the engine room to flood with plasma or anything.”

“We tried to give them the recalibration information yesterday,” Ariel added, “but they wouldn’t give us the time of day. When we finally did get hold of Chief Engineer Chandra, he gave us a brush off and told us he was too busy to deal with us.”

“We were busy with spinning down from faster-than-light speed,” Chandra said.

“You were having lunch,” Ariel said. “And you barely looked at the simulation we showed you. So we showed it to Ensign Hewlett, and she refused to do anything either.”

“So we figured, if they were too busy to do it, we would just do it ourselves,” Will said.

“And the fact that the engine room is a restricted area didn’t say to you that this might not be such a great idea?” the ambassador said. “Speaking of which, how did you get into the engine room at all?”

“I saw Ensign Hewlett punch in the code,” Ariel said. “We just punched it in when we came back.”

Beside Ariel, the ambassador saw Ensign Hewlett blanch. Everyone who had access to the engine room had a separate access number, a random string of numbers 15 digits long—long enough to keep someone from randomly punching the number out, and generally long enough to avoid someone memorizing it even if they see it punched out. The fact that Ariel or Will remembered it had caused Ensign Hewlett to assume she had been careless with it. The ambassador knew otherwise.

“If I may,” Chief Engineer Chandra said, “Your childrens’ recollections are a little off. We didn’t discard what they showed us out of hand. What we had said to them was that we were aware of the inefficiencies in the plasma generator, but that was within normal operating parameters. In fact, 93% efficiency is exactly normal.”

“But it could be more efficient,” Will said.

“Yes, but that’s not what we want,” Chandra said.

“Well, that makes no sense to me,” Will said, a bit snobbishly.

The ambassador caught Will’s tone. “Will,” she said, severely. “Please outline your formal training in engineering and spaceship engine construction.”

“What?” Will said. “Mom, I’m fourteen. You know I don’t have a degree in anything yet.”

“Ariel? Any qualifications?”

“I’ve read books,” Ariel said, somewhat defensively.

“How nice for you, Ariel,” the ambassador said. “Mr. Chandra. Please tell us your training and service record.”

“Certainly,” Chandra said. “I did undergraduate schooling at the Nehru Technical College in New Delhi, graduate and doctoral work at the California Institute in Technology, during which time I was also enrolled in the Naval Engineering Corps. I served my first tour of duty on the Aquamarine, and a subsequent tour on the Ben Franklin, before I came to serve on the Odysseus as Chief Engineer. I’ve been at this posting for seven years.”

“Ensign Hewlett, your training and service?”

“Undergraduate and graduate work at DiFranco University on planet Columbia, ma’am,” Hewlett said. “This is my first posting.”

“Ambassador, my young colleague is being modest,” Chandra said. “What she has neglected to tell you is that she is also the recipient of a Gold Scroll from governing board of the Society of Engineers. She was awarded the scroll for her thesis work on plasma generators. There were several thousand applicants.”

“Indeed,” The ambassador said, turning to Hewlett.

“Oh, yes,” Chandra said. “We’re very fortunate to have her posted here. She’ll be a Chief Engineer long before I was.” Beside Chandra, Hewlett turned a deep shade of crimson.

“So, to recap,” the ambassador said. “On one side we have Mr. Chandra and Ensign Hewlett, who between the two of them, through training and experience, know just about everything there is to know about starship engines. And on the other, we have Will and Ariel Durant, fourteen years old, who by their own admission know next to nothing. Hmmm. Lt. Greene,” The ambassador turned to her attaché, “if you had a choice of whom to trust with the engines, who would you choose?”

“I’m pretty sure I’d go with the Chief Engineer and the Ensign,” Lt. Greene said.

“You’re sure?” The ambassador said, waving at her children. “These two do seem fairly sure they know what they’re doing.”

“As did I when I was fourteen years old, Madam Ambassador,” Lt. Greene said. “Which, unfortunately, only reconfirms my first choice.”

“There you have it,” The ambassador said, letting her hands fall. “Independent third party verification.”

“Madam Ambassador,” Ensign Hewlett said, “To your children’s credit, their recalibration program did increase the efficiency of the plasma generators—“

“Yes! Thank you,” Ariel said, as if that solved everything.

“— But the issue is not the generators in the first place. It’s the plasma conduits, which funnel the plasma into the engine core,” Hewlett said. “The material the conduits are composed of is mildly reactive with the plasma. By working at slightly less than total efficiency we can keep the conduits from corroding for a greatly expanded length of time. Which is why we don’t operate at total efficiency.”

“I see,” The ambassador said. “How long would it take the conduits to corrode if plasma were going through it in a pure state?”

“It depends,” Ensign Hewlett said. “For the conduits that we use on this engine, it’d probably be four or five months.”

“But,” Chief Engineer Chandra said, “the conduits on the Odysseus are due to be replaced. In fact, we’ve scheduled for maintenance here at Tlada.”

“So there was a chance that the ‘improvements’ my children had made could have ruptured a conduit, thus causing the destruction of the ship.”

“An extremely small chance,” Chandra said.

“But a chance, nonetheless.”

“Yes, Madam Ambassador,” Chandra said.

“Will? Ariel? Any last words?” The ambassador said.
Will looked over to Ensign Hewlett. “Why didn’t you tell us about the conduits before?”

“You didn’t ask,” Ensign Hewlett said.

“It’s not Ensign Hewlett’s job to explain why you shouldn’t break into the engine room to fiddle with a starship drive, Will,” the ambassador said. “You should know better than that. You too, Ariel. You are the children of an ambassador for the Terran Commonwealth, exceptionally educated, versed in the customs of our seventy worlds, and—though you wouldn’t know it at the moment—fairly gifted in mind. I’m having a hard time believing that we’re even having this conversation.”

“We were only trying to help,” Ariel said.

“Blowing the Odysseus into microscopic fragments doesn’t help any one,” the ambassador said.

“There was only a small chance of that,” Will said.

The ambassador sighed, and gestured out the window to the planet Tlada. “This is a small chance, Will. This planet and its people have been at war with the Nulgan people for longer than our Terran Commonwealth has existed. Since before humans even had space travel. Now we’ve persuaded them to put down their arms long enough for us to attempt to broker a peace. For the first time in centuries, here’s a small chance. I—we—should be spending time preparing for this. Instead I’m discussing the merits of not blowing up a starship with my children. Can you see how the casual observer might regard this as a waste of my time?”

Will ducked his head down. “Yes, mom.” Ariel searched out a spot on the far wall and tried not to notice her mother’s displeasure.

“Lt. Greene,” the ambassador said. “You’re versed in the Naval Uniform Code of Conduct, are you not.”
“I am, Madam Ambassador.”

“What is the usual penalty for falsely using entry codes, tampering with starship engines, and jeopardizing the safety of a capital ship and all of its crew?”

Lt. Greene grinned and folded his arms. “Mostly, those folks get shot.”

“Oh, come on,” Ariel said. “We didn’t know what we were doing was wrong.”

“That would be cold comfort for 400 crew members who would have found themselves suddenly floating in space,” the ambassador said.

“You want I should gather up a firing squad?” Lt. Greene asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” the ambassador said. “Or even legal, since these two aren’t actually in the Navy. Mr. Chandra, was there any permanent damage to the engines or its systems?”

“No,” Chief Engineer Chandra said. “Ensign Hewlett isolated the recalibration and purged it out of the system before it could take effect. There was no damage to speak of.”

“That’s lucky for you, Will, Ariel,” the ambassador said. “If you had actually done any damage to this ship I would have had you both locked into your quarters until we got back to Earth. As it is, you’re going back to your quarters and staying there until we’re ready to shuttle down to the surface of Tlada for the first round of discussions.”

“When is that going to be?” Ariel asked.

The ambassador nodded to Lt. Greene. “Probably around 1500 hours tomorrow,” Lt. Greene said. “Though it might be later if the Tladian leader requires a more detailed briefing, or if the Tladian space command requires an inspection of the Odysseus. If that’s the case, it could be a couple of days.”

“Aw, mom,” Will said. “We’ve reserved the simulator for later tonight. We were planning to run the Jovian Sky Surfing program. It was the first time we’ve gotten to use the simulator.”

“Suffering makes you holy,” the ambassador said.

“If we’re confined to quarters, does that mean we don’t have to do studies?” Ariel said, hopefully.

“Nice try,” the ambassador said. “But no. I’ve instructed Fayn to tutor you in your quarters. Now get, both of you. I don’t want to see either of you until tomorrow at the earliest.” She dismissed them. Will and Ariel slunk off, dejected, to the lift and disappeared.

The ambassador turned her attention to the crewmembers. “Mr. Chandra, Ensign Hewlett,” she said. “You have my most humble apologies for the behavior of my children. I promise that if they come within 100 meters of the engine room, I’ll have them hog-tied until we get back home.”

“Thank you, Madam Ambassador,” Chandra said. “We appreciate your promptness in dealing with this. You can tell your children that they’ll be more than welcome back into the engine room...after they’ve gotten their degrees.” He smiled, nodded to the ambassador and the others, and headed back to his engine room. Ensign Hewlett remained standing there, a pensive look on her face.

“Is there something else, ensign?” the ambassador said.

“Your children....” Hewlett began, then collected herself and started again. “Before I removed their program from the engine’s computer, I got a look at the code, Madam Ambassador. From a systems point of view, it was quite elegant—better than some professional coding I have seen. And that from people who have spent years grappling with engines.”

“It’s kind of you to say that, ensign,” the ambassador said. “I think my kids are pretty sharp, too. Of course the problem is not that they’re smart, but that they’re not nearly as smart as they think they are. It’s led to interesting events, like the one we’ve had today.”

“So this isn’t the first time they’ve done something like this?” Ensign Hewlett said.

“Not even close,” the ambassador said, and nodded to Hewlett. The ensign returned the nod and left.

The ambassador sagged just slightly. “God,” she said. “If this is the trouble they’re getting into up here, I’m almost frightened to take them down to the planet.”

“I don’t know how much worse it gets than almost destroying a starship,” Lt. Greene said.

“Well, look at it this way,” The ambassador said. “Up here, they’ve got just 350 meters worth of ship. Down there, they’ve got millions of kilometers of planet surface. What are the odds, do you think?”

“Maybe we should hog-tie them,” Lt. Green suggested.

“Don’t be silly,” said the ambassador. “They’d just think of it as a challenge. And when they got out, we’d all be in trouble.”

Posted by john at April 18, 2006 04:21 PM

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Scott | April 18, 2006 05:32 PM

Only marginally related... sometimes, a YA books is really what I need...
Last week I caught, out of the corner of my eye Boogiepop and others on a shelf at my local big-box bookstore, and based on my fondness for an anime that was based on those books, I decided I'd peek inside and see how it was.

I hadn't read a novel in a single day for a very very long time, but it was just the thing to clear from my mouth the sort of sour moldy flavor that the second half of Zelazny's Amber books gave me (Yay Corwin's story, Boo Merlin's).

Yay translations of YA books!

Susan | April 18, 2006 06:02 PM

You know, I'm nearly finished writing a doctoral-level dissertation in history, and just last week I finished doing some freelance writing for a high-school history textbook, and I can absolutely confirm that they're just different types of difficult. (I have no substantive point, sorry. Just the observation.)

Martin Langeland | April 18, 2006 09:03 PM

So what's the sthory from Will and Ariel's point of view? Or is this an adult story? I'd like to read either. Thanks. John.

Stan | April 19, 2006 09:02 AM

I haven't written any YA or children's books, but I've gotten a little bit of insight from being the husband of a children's librarian.

In many ways, creating books (including writing, art, marketing, etc) for kids and teens is more complicated than for adults. It's very much a case of knowing your audience to do well. Of course there is a bunch of hack writing in the field - dumbed down stuff with a brand attached (e.g. Barbie books) and many of the older series don't have the quality of current work. But to get noticed without being part of a brand package, you have to know your stuff.

You have to take into account interest level, what sorts of things they like; which is similar to knowing the likes of any niche market. Then there's reading level, making it of medium difficulty to the age group (too simple for an age makes it feel like they are being talked down too).

The tricky bit (alluded to by John when he mentioned gatekeepers) is that the reader and purchaser are different people more often than not - either an adult purchases a book as a gift or the kid finds a book and asks an adult to buy it. So, the concept and packaging has to appeal to both adults and kids.

John Scalzi | April 19, 2006 09:06 AM


"The tricky bit (alluded to by John when he mentioned gatekeepers) is that the reader and purchaser are different people more often than not - either an adult purchases a book as a gift or the kid finds a book and asks an adult to buy it. So, the concept and packaging has to appeal to both adults and kids."

Yup. The other day we were at the bookstore with my neices and one of them picked up a "Gossip Girls" book. That book didn't exactly go over well with the older generation.

Tim Morris | April 19, 2006 09:10 AM

Will and Ariel!? LOL.

Otherwise, kind of building on Susan's comment -
I read a lot of YA stuff as my various kids became YAs and the ones they liked best (when they'd bother to tale to me about them) were the ones that kept the POV focused on the YA protagonist(s). I think you would really grab a typical young adult reader if you started with Will and Ariel and what led up to their interview with Mom.

John Scalzi | April 19, 2006 09:32 AM

Heh. You know, I'm not actually looking for constructive criticism at the moment. If I do revisit this particular story, I do have a lost of things I'll work on (although the opening here is not one of them, for various reasons), but the purpose in putting this up is not for feedback, just to show that this is what my attempt at YA looked like, and how it helped me see that doing YA is harder than it looks (which of course makes sense -- things that are done well generally look like they're easier than they are). But thanks.

-dsr- | April 19, 2006 12:37 PM

I see that you named your young delinquents Will and Ariel Durant. Isn't that a little icky for siblings?

John Scalzi | April 19, 2006 12:45 PM

Hey, I didn't name them. Their mother did. And in any event, I doubt either will grow up to be historians.

I've mentioned before that I'm bad with names. In this particular case I looked over to the bookshelf. Bam, done.

MAB | April 19, 2006 05:10 PM

Speaking of GA school bans:


> WINDER - A pair of Apalachee High School parents
> successfully petitioned the Barrow County school
> board to ban an essay and classroom discussion
> that compares the killing of a pig in the novel
> "Lord of the Flies" to rape.

[. . .]
> School officials still are assessing whether to
> tear the essays from existing editions of the
> books or purchase new copies of "Lord of the
> Flies."

Zack | April 20, 2006 12:59 AM

I understand why you feel that this needs work, but nonetheless: It made me laugh.

Hao Ye | April 20, 2006 07:32 AM

"California Institute in Technology"?!
I hope that's on purpose. At least we know the chief engineer is qualified...

John Scalzi | April 20, 2006 09:51 AM

Heh. When reading non-copy-edited writing, one makes allowances for copy errors.

Leszek Cyfer | April 29, 2006 01:18 PM

I got caught, and felt sorry not being able to know what happened later.

In my opinion that sums it up - this is a good piece, though kids might feel bored by long litany of official titles of lady ambassador.

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