Friday, February 22, 2013

Simple vs. Simplistic: In a Glass Grimmly and Me

Stretching out far, far into the distance was a line of towering white cliffs, undulating in and out before an endless expanse of the purest, deepest blue she could ever have imagined. The white cliffs, a thousand feet high if they were an inch, were topped with green tufts of high grass. Below the cliffs, between them and the pure blue sky, ran a long, smooth cloud beach, against which the blue of the sky gently broke like waves. (In a Glass Grimmly, by Adam Gidwitz, p. 83)
sorta, kinda like this...
Once upon a time, I too went to a writer's conference. For an extra $10 (give or take) I entered the first chapter of one of my novels into a contest. There were several categories I could enter, including fantasy, science fiction, mystery, women's lit, historical...and children's. Now I'm not going to go into a long irritated rant about how YA and Children managed to get lumped into one category. Ridiculous, IMO. Ridiculous enough that I didn't think to enter my solidly YA entry into the children's category, but into the fantasy category. Now, the lovely thing about that extra $10 was that my first chapter would be critiqued by three people, one of whom was guaranteed to be an actual agent or editor who worked in the genre.

Well, it would have been lovely, except that the first critique, while not unkind, managed to cut me to the quick. I can't tell you why it hurt so bad. I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances, like jet lag and having been rejected by my dream editor that self-same day. I didn't keep it, so I can't quote it word for word, but it said something like this:  "This writing is too simplistic for this category--it seems like this would have been a better fit for the YA contest."

In one fell swoop, he had insulted not only my writing style but my intelligence AND my reading choices. I, who had always prided myself on my scintillating vocabulary, and who had worked so hard at improving my sentence structure, had been judged simplistic. Did that also mean that the books I chose to read somehow required less intelligence than "grown-up" books? (Well, frankly, yes. Sometimes. But not usually!)

In the days since that writing conference, another genre has gained in popularity: middle grade. In A Glass Grimmly, which I quoted at the start, is a middle grade book. It is filled with words like: precipitously, cerulean, primordial, reverberated, gelatinous, darkling and viscera (don't ask). Some of the sentences are simple, and some are complex and wonderful.

 To state it simplistically, YA and middle grade are not defined by the complexity of the writing. Rather, they are defined by the ages of the characters. Therefore, complex books like The Book Thief and The Fault In Our Stars are considered YA, right alongside Twilight, because they have teenage characters. Trisha wrote a great post about the evolving dynamics of YA here.  Middle grade books generally have younger characters, and there are some policies about romance (specifically the lack thereof.) The topics covered in both categories are often deep and complex. For example, In a Glass Grimmly tackles topics like: Are strength and courage the same thing? Are parents always good? If people do not accept you, are you a worthwhile person? And the one I personally struggle with: My children love this book, but should they really be reading it if it contains sentences like: 
The last one convulsed on the floor, screaming in pain, as blood bubbled up out of his body like a hot spring and flowed all over the floor in crimson waves, eventually lapping up against the throne's legs like water against rocks on a beach. (p. 191) FYI--I skipped this particular sentence when we read it out loud.
So, if I disagree with my anonymous critiquer's assertion that YA writing is by definition less complicated than adult writing, then what is left is his allegation that my writing is simplistic. It probably is. I dislike writing that thinks too much about itself. I enjoy straightforward writing, suffused with occasional gorgeous, complex descriptions that propel the story forward. I write the same way, except that I might not have mastered the "gorgeous, complex descriptions that propel the story forward" bit. I can keep working on that, but now, at the end of this blog post, I realize that it seems silly to try and make my writing more complicated just for complication's sake. But let's rename it. I absolutely prefer the word simple over the word simplistic. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I write YA.

So, my writing style aside, what do you think? 


  1. Melanie, I don't know what that critique was supposed to mean and it seems likely the person giving it didn't either, because YA is not simplistic (nor is your writing, but that's beside the point). I believe it's important to be gracious with every critique, but to also know the signs of "this person is not going to be helpful" and that was a glaring sign right there :)

    1. That's a very good point, Sarah. Even if I wasn't in a place where I could find the critique useful, I do appreciate the person's time. He/she was probably swamped with manuscripts and on a deadline, and I know the comments were well-intentioned. Sometimes people can hit sore spots we don't even know we have. :)

  2. My guess is that your story had the tone and voice of YA and the critiquer recognized that and didn't know how to describe it. Which could be seen as a compliment because it was YA, right? Maybe? :)

    Here are my thoughts about a simplistic writing style.

    1. Sometimes simplistic writing fits the tone and voice of a story. Sometimes that is just the voice of the narrator, and sometimes it is simply because the story has a fast pace and too many lengthy sentences can slow it down. Writing a story that flows well with shorter sentences and a more simple vocabulary isn't any easier than writing a story with strings and strings of long complex sentences and a vocabulary that sends its readers to the dictionary four times per page. Writing is hard no matter what style you use.

    2. I've seen complex, beautiful writing in all types of books in all genres and all age levels. Even some picture books have amazed me with the poetic language. I've also seen simple but brilliant writing in all types of books in all genres and all age levels, including adult.

    3. Some people have their preferred writing styles and think everyone should write like them and enjoy the style they enjoy and the stories they enjoy. You do not want these people to be your betas. Not sure if this critiquer was, but he/she could be one of those.

    4. All of us have our own unique voice in writing, and we need to develop that voice and embrace it. There is nothing wrong with a simplistic writing style and there is nothing wrong with a complex writing style. There is something wrong with trying to force your voice into being something you are not. Readers can tell when a writer is trying too hard. You need to be you when you write whatever that style is.

    5. Melanie, from what I've read of yours, I don't think you have a simplistic writing style, not that there is anything wrong with that. :)

    1. First of all, this made me very happy. I judge how successful my blog posts are by how thoughtful the comments are, so thanks!

      It all comes down to our voice, doesn't it? Finding it, loving it, nurturing it, and not trying to turn it into something its not. Thanks MaryAnn!

  3. What Sarah said. And anyone who thinks YA is simplistic should be forced to read The Fault in Our Stars. That is all.

  4. I've read interviews where authors were annoyed to be placed in the YA category, because they felt it dumbed their book down, or made them appear like less of a writer, but I see nothing small about writing for teens. The emotions, situations, and even psychological sub-text are usually more intense. Teenagers as readers are experiencing things for the first time. As characters, their choices have more consequence than if an adult had the same decision to make. I always felt that YA was more vivid, and just as complex, as any adult novel. The style is different, but that can be said about any genre, or even author to author. It annoys me when literary snobs degrade an age group because they think it's not worthy of adult readership. I don't know if that was the critiquer's problem--I'm sure they were trying to help you in their own way, but I'm not sure the went about it very well.

    Great post. :) I like simple loads more, too.

    1. Well said, Trisha. As a reader of YA, I completely agree. Think of the decisions we had to make as teenagers and young adults. It's crazy what a huge impact those decisions make on the rest of our lives. Of course books about that time period are going to be intense!


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