So I only got a thousand…

So I only got a thousand words done yesterday, but they're good ones, I think. I'm on the cusp of a decision about the novel, and I'd sort of like to talk about it and get y'all's advice, but it does involve pretty major spoilers for the book, so you might want to skip the rest of this if that sort of thing bothers you.

Here's two big threads in my YA book:

- political: There are two sides to the war going on in the book; one side is numerous, but poorly-equipped and poverty-stricken; the other side has far fewer people, but has limited use of magic (centered in the royal family, of which my protagonist is a lost heir) and somewhat more wealth. Side A sees side B (and I really have to come up with names for these peoples) as brutal invaders. Side B feels culturally superior to side A, and feels like they have the right to rule as a result. There's a lot of rhetoric going on about 'rightful inhabitants', 'pure people', 'culture vs. barbarity', etc. If you were to attempt to map this onto the Sri Lankan civil war, you would not be so far off.

- individual: My protagonist is a lost princess of the royal family; she comes in with massive magical power, and is hailed as a savior. She gets seduced on two fronts, personal and political, to attempt to wed her to their cause. This is successful for a time, but eventually she comes to realize what's going on, that she's been manipulated by people who think they're fighting in a good cause, but that the real situation is much more complex. She actually chooses to step back from her powers, giving up the role of hero. In a way, you could see the book as an argument against the whole hero notion, esp. as it plays out in so many fantasy novels. (Harry Pottter, frex.)

So my question is about the third thread:

- romantic: For my protagonist, romance does not work out well. She is somewhat coerced/seduced into a romantic relationship with the prince, only to find out that he's just using her (with what he thinks of as good intentions, but that's no comfort to her. He's actually in love with someone else, who he feels like he has to give up for the sake of his country). I'm a little worried that this will read as 'girl has sex with boy, gets punished for it', esp. as she is very inexperienced up until this point. But Jed tells me not to worry about it, and she does eventually get to date nice boy who actually likes her, so hopefully that will undercut that idea. But then there's...

- romance #2: My protagonist has a best friend, a sidekick, if you will, who gets separated from her and thus gets a chunk of the book to herself. Right now, what I'd like to do is have her fall for a guy on the other side of the war -- okay, that part's already happened. But then she finds out he's married, which is where I've written up to so far. I have two choices -- one, they become just friends, and the romance thread essentially goes away. Or two, which was my original intent, she gets to know his wife, and falls for her too, and since they come from a culture where multiple wives is common, they see nothing wrong in inviting her to join their marriage. And then she has to decide what to do about it. If she takes them up on it, she'll probably have some sort of discussion of patriarchal assumptions with them, and point out that she's going to want the option of marrying other guys too, if it should come up.

So the question is, does it feel like I'm shoving poly issues into a story where they don't belong, and where they'll overwhelm the political/individual threads, which are much more important to the story, in my mind? I don't want this to be a 'poly' book, in other words -- but it'd be nice for it to be a book in which bi/poly stuff is part of the romantic landscape. Protagonist #1's parents have a v. happy traditional het marriage, which is also what the prince would like with his true love, so there are at least some happy standard models too.

And is all this too much for a YA book of 60-80K?

Do my questions even make sense?

8 thoughts on “So I only got a thousand…”

  1. I didn’t read this post in detail (haven’t yet decided whether I want detailed spoilers or not), but I did read your question, so here’s some thoughts:

    On the one hand, I’m very wary of the “might overwhelm the more important threads” argument. That’s one of the main arguments used by authors who don’t want to put any queer characters at all in their science fiction (“then no readers would be able to focus on the story, they’d be too busy being surprised by the gay stuff!”) and authors who don’t want any messy race issues getting in the way of their fantasy. To me, the main counterarguments are (a) that presumes that your audience is straight, or white, or whatever–some of your readers will be very glad to see people like themselves in your work; and (b) it’s a vicious circle–the fewer stories feature queer characters, the more such stories stand out. Whereas if more people write this stuff, then mainstream audiences will get more used to it.

    But that’s my general answer to the general issue. All that said, I think there is some truth to the original argument: in current American culture, it’s hard to feature anything outside of the dominant culture in fiction without drawing a lot of attention to it. (Not impossible, and I think a lot of people underestimate just how common queer characters in particular have become in mainstream lit and movies and TV lately, but still a balancing act.) And I think it’s got even more weight in the particular case you’re talking about: it’s quite possible to try to address too many Big Issues in a work of a given size. (For example, I remember your pointing out to me, quite rightly, that STD stuff was one thing too many in the short story I submitted for the Blowfish anthology.) And poly stuff is pretty far outside the mainstream, even in science fiction/fantasy circles, especially for YA.

    (I think romance may be one place to look for judging a certain sort of mainstream acceptance. Susan Elizabeth Phillips regularly features queer characters, and has at least a few characters of color, but I’ll be awfully surprised if any poly characters show up in her books.)

    But still. I think it’s possible to do this kind of thing without it overwhelming the more important threads. And I think that “they come from a culture where multiple wives is common” is a key point: if the poly stuff is coming from a foreign/fantasy/alien culture, I think you can get away with a lot more.

    Also, if the marriage happens at the end of the book, I think it can be a decision point. If they invite her and she says yes, then you’re breaking relatively new ground, which is cool; but if your early readers tell you that the poly stuff is overwhelming the other stuff, then you can switch to having her say no, and you’re still covering poly issues without being too threatening to dominant cultural paradigms, though it would be sad for some of us.

  2. I’m a little hesitant to respond to this, because I’m not a writer, and I’m not really part of your target market, either. However, for what it’s worth, my instinct is that the poly subplot is too much for a short YA novel. I think it’s fine if you want to set up your background culture so that it includes egalitarian polyamory along with (or instead of) traditional marriage, multiple wives, etc. However, if egalitarian polyamory isn’t standard, and if your character is going to have to get into discussions of patriarchal assumptions in order to get the kind of relationship she wants, I think this needs to be central to your story. I really don’t think it can just be a subplot for a sidekick character.

  3. Hmm, if you had asked me before I read your blog post “if Mary Anne asked you if she should put poly relationships in her YA fantasy, would you say yes?” I think my answer would have been “hell yeah!” On general principles, I think challenging the reader is a good thing, writing what you’re passionate about is a good thing, specific choices bring freshness, etc. etc.

    However, having actually read the post, I am not so sure. I don’t have any general sense that “poly is too much” or “the mainstream readers have enought to deal with, poor dears.” My unease stems instead from too factors:

    1) The whole “why, we have multiple wives in this culture — that’s just like poly! We’ll all get along fine!” aspect gives me great unease, especially, as you say, in a subplot. I mean, it might work. There’s definitely a great work of fiction there somewhere. But I think that the positioning of it — in the middle of the plot thread about the sidekick falling for folks on the wrong side of the war, in a YA fantasy, etc. — it does begin to feel like overegging the pudding. Not because poly is strange or odd or complex, but because, if you’re going to portray that realistically, it’s an immense set of struggles and challenges. It isn’t going to be one conversation about expectations.

    I’m not saying there aren’t people who are, perhaps, living in what’s effectively an egalitarian poly way in the midst of polygynous traditional socieites. There probably are, and more power to them. But in many ways polygynous traditional societies are only superficially similar to egalitarian poly, and on average, confusing the two is a good way to get stoned to death.

    It sounds like, plot-wise, you’re setting up for where your sidekick comes and says, “I’ve fallen in love with the other side.” It could be a guy, a girl, a couple, whatever, but basically she’s found her bliss and that escalates the political problem.

    On top of that, though, you have a situation where the couple is saying “hey! we like you! want to join our normal, conventional marriage in the normal, socially acceptable manner approved by the sages?” and she’s saying “hey! I like you too! but, check this counteroffer! let’s live a closeted life of what your neighbors would regard as horrifying sinfulness!”

    I love the set up, but I’m not sure it fulfills the role you want it to in the larger plot.

    (Also, she not only is going to have to talk to them about patriarchal expectations — they might have to talk to her about the neocolonialist “wait, I have a better way of life which you will of course be gleeful to accept once I explain it to you!” thing.)

    2) Also, you seem uneasy about it yourself. If you were like “omg, this is crazy but I am so excited about it!” then I would be on board.

    All that said, if I am mistaking caution for lack of enthusiasm and you DO want to go there– go there!

    Why not write it as a short story, then integrate it if it works, or cut it if it’s too crazy? 🙂

  4. Hi Mary Anne! Thanks for sending me a link to this entry — glad I didn’t miss it!

    The folks ahead of me have made excellent points. I’m still finding my way in the YA novel arena, but here’s what I would consider:

    Does this subplot feed into the overall theme of your book? It seems like you already have a lot going on in this book. If you can use this thread to reflect or foil or enhance your theme, then I’d probably keep it. If it adds all sorts of other unrelated themes, I’d probably lose it. Don’t let the discussion muddy the focus of your book, in other words.

    However, I think you can still keep the poly aspect in, if you want. I read lots of books where such things were just givens. She wants to have a relationship with this family — make the issue the fact that they’re on the other side of the war; make the threesome aspect a non-issue. (That only works if your society is different than ours, of course.)

    I encountered this in a lot of Mercedes Lackey books, actually. Characters would talk about life partners and gay relationships were handled with exactly the same matter-of-factness that hetero relationships were handled.

    It’s not realistic, but it did affect me in a different way — and probably more positively — than a discussion would have.

    Let us know what you decide!!

  5. Thanks, everyone — this is all really helpful. I see what you’re saying about just dropping it in the background and not having it be an issue, but I guess where I’m getting hung up on that option is that I *am* modelling the society on semi-ancient Sri Lankan society and the conflicts therein. So it feels a little weird and misleading to portray one side (the sort of vaguely Sinhalese side) as practicing modern poly. Although, now that I think about it, maybe it’s just as misleading to portray them as having a tradition of polygyny, which I have no evidence for actually existing historically. Is that bad too? Ugh.

    I know it’s fiction, and fantasy, and never in the book do I even actually say Tamil/Sinhalese, but it feels like cheating a bit, to steal the resonance that I want on the political front and then create a very different social/marriage culture. Argh. I don’t know. Thoughts?

  6. I think if you are not writing a historical ficiton (i.e. making up a new culture by using this past culture that you are familiar with as a jumping off piont) then your fine. After, any fantasy culture is modeled off of an existing culture in some way – even if in opposition. But if you are writing a historical ficiton piece, then I think you have to be more true to reality because even though it is fiction, people expect the historical aspects to be accurate. (For many people thats why they read historical fiction – a fun way to learn about the past)

  7. Mary Anne, I think that even if it’s fiction, if you are brave enough to be getting in there and writing a story with a somewhat allegorical relationship to a real-world conflict, you are right to be wary of balance; and making one side of an apparently premodern culture somehow practice egalitarian poly might be just the kind of thing that might cross the line and screw up the balance. Trust your instincts here.

    I think if you do it, you have to do it honestly — exploring the real implications, as you feel them, of what the proposed behavior would really entail in the culture in question — not taking any easy shortcuts or being too nice to your characters. That could end up being an exhilarating, fresh aspect of your story. Or it could end up mushrooming into a huge distraction and stealing focus from what the book is really about. It is your call whether it’s worth it to do the experiment and see how it goes.

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