They were terrible. Man, they were bad. I also wrote fanfic, which I think was actually a better use of mI started writing books when I was thirteen.
They were terrible. Man, they were bad. I also wrote fanfic, which I think was actually a better use of my time - I learned so much from writing fanfic. And I think the reason why my fanfic was better than my original ninety-page "novels" was because, at thirteen, a person simply does not have the range to write with enough nuance, restraint, or sociological knowledge.
The biggest thing I've learned since I started writing books almost ten years ago (oh my god, now you can guess how old I am! Japes) is that the most important thing, barring anything else, is an understanding of human psychology. I don't mean that a person has to trawl through four years of a psychology degree and read medical journals from Harvard; that's not the sort of psychology I'm talking about. What I mean is that a person has to have taken a certain number of steps, and met a certain amount of people, and been involved in many different social scenarios, to properly understand how to write actual people.
This probably seems like a really simple concept: Kiki, don't talk shit, obviously a person has to meet people in order to understand how they work. Yes, but think about that. I want to preface the next paragraph with a disclaimer: I don't mean to offend any teenage writers out there. Or, for that matter, any teenagers. Teenagers are the heirs to our planet and I write for them. I write FOR THEM. Teenagers are complex and brave and being a teenager is incredibly hard, and it only gets harder from thereon out, because after the teens does not come a plateau. After the teens comes the fucking twenties, man, and getting through that shit is like walking through an endless snowstorm that you're inappropriately dressed for. If I stood in front of a panel and had my twenties graded, I'd probably hit a borderline C-.
But I have to say this, because I was a teenage writer: teenagers, more often than not, don't have the range to write books. Especially books about weighty topics such as mental health and suicide and love and hope and redemption. "Love" is the worst one, because too many people treat it too simply, like narratives on immortality. Love and immortality are subjects that human minds have not even begun to scratch the surface of. Love in particular is a topic that still bewilders us completely, and when we pretend to understand it, that's when we all fall down. (This sounds really cheesy and also very sarcastic, but guys, I'm being serious. For once.)
There are some exceptions, of course, but they belong to the most exceptional teenagers, like Malala Yousafzai. But the average teenager is not equipped to deal with these sorts of topics, and they shouldn't be expected to. In the small window of time that it takes to transition from being a teenager to being an adult, a person's view of the world, and of psychology, changes drastically. Teenagers look towards themselves for insight into human behaviour, because of course they do. Someone who is still forming, both socially and biologically, is of course looking inwards and not outwards. But looking outwards is absolutely vital, because that's how a better understanding of humans works. It's how you create a narrative that isn't filled with people who are exactly the same as you.
I may have cheated; I had a few experiences that forced me to grow up fairly quickly. I had shite parents - like, properly shite parents. Several family crises ensued, of the sort that children ought not to be exposed to. When I was fourteen, my parents split; when I was fifteen, my mother decided that some of us were moving to Canada, so I went too, because I was a minor. Those were dark times for me (I know that this, again, sounds sarcastic, and it would sound even more sarcastic if I were speaking to you, because in my accent everything sounds sarcastic. It's not meant to be) and I dealt with feeling of extreme social anxiety, isolation, and went so far as to harm myself. I finished high school at seventeen - a year later than I would have if I'd stayed in the UK - and went straight into full-time work. When I was eighteen, I was stalked home from work late at night, and threatened with rape. When I went to the police about this, I was gaslighted. Still eighteen, I started getting tattooed, because it made me feel - and still makes me feel - extremely happy with my own skin, after years of hating myself. Throughout all of this, I was still writing.
When I turned twenty, I couldn't take it any longer, and I flew back to Scotland alone. My relationship with my mother is irreparably damaged. I remember sitting in the Halifax airport, during my layover, sobbing openly by myself while other people in the waiting area stared at me. I have cried at a lot of airports.
When I got back to Scotland, I started living with my sister, and I felt healed. She is my best friend, and I don't know what I would have done, or would do, without her. I started travelling, spending every penny I had, and maxing out my holiday hours at my new job, which I sort of hate and sort of don't, but that consists of me talking on the phone non-stop to hundreds of different people from hundreds of different walks of life every week. I made friends, proper friends, the kind of friends I have never had.
When I was twenty, I started writing a new book. The first drafts were shit, like all first drafts are shit. But I had come a long way, physically and emotionally, and after writing a lot of insulated, overdramatic crap, I finally figured out what it means to write what you know. It means a lot of things, but to me it means fusing hundreds of hours of written-down, traditional research with your own personal research, at ground zero. I had done enough of that, apparently, because this book was something special. Something different.
I queried for some time, many of the responses fair critiques that I took wholly on board, and used to improve my craft. Some of the critiques were hilarious (one that always sticks in my mind is someone telling me to swap a very layered gay character with strong ties to the plot out for his intentionally bland straight brother who was largely irrelevant, because including the aforementioned gay character was apparently "random". Okie-dokie) but I stuck at it, worked and slogged and worked, and I signed with an excellent, enthusiastic agent in late 2015.
Given the hard work that goes into writing a book, I admire teenager authors who are willing to tackle it. I did, and it was exhausting. But write what you know is, contrary to many think pieces that refute it, extremely important, and it also relies on knowing outside of your small circle. And the opportunity to step outside of that circle is a very difficult thing for the average teenager to access.
I can't say a lot about this book that hasn't already been said. The maturity level of the writing, plot, and character development leaves a fuckload to be desired. It's a book that doesn't really know what it is, doesn't know how to pace itself, and doesn't know what it's trying to say. I doesn't know the nuances of mental illness, of how not to use characters as plot devices, of how to legitimize statements like, "I feel like I might be the only person with a consciousness, like a video-game protagonist, and the rest are computer-generated extras who have only a few select few actions, such as 'initiate meaningless conversation' and 'hug'". This is either a very tongue-in-cheek reference to teenage hubris, which I doubt, since this book takes itself laughably seriously, or an actual observation from someone who has absolutely no awareness of anything that is happening around them. This attitude, holier-than-thou, is never countered. There is a small sentence at the end in which the protagonist states "each person is a whole person" but how is this something that needs to be realized? And this follows a problematic half-plot in which a Manic Pixie Dream Boy saves the protagonist from her completely unfounded pessimistic view of the world.
Unfounded, because Tori is not suffering from a mental illness. The symptoms simply are not there. Rage against me if you wish, with regards to this statement, but it's a fact. Tori is dealing with strong feelings of low self esteem and anxiety, but these are circumstantial issues, and she functions extremely highly. The social anxiety I dealt with was crippling - it was not a mental illness, but a symptom of my circumstances, and I was not equipped to do half of the things that Tori does. I could not go to parties. I physically could not converse with strangers. I physically could not dress myself up, go to a restaurant, and spend an evening socializing. I physically could not bring myself to do these things, and some of my thoughts oscillated briefly around suicide, and I did not have a mental illness. I was suffering from circumstantial issues. Circumstantial issues like these can be devastating, and shouldn't be belittled, but call them what they are. Treat them how they need to be treated.
Do not insult people who are dealing with mental illnesses that affect every facet of their lives, that prevent them from living their lives, that affect their ability to function, with this sort of uninformed ignorance.
(This is why the insertion of suicide at the end of this book, during the ridiculous climax, felt so jarring and out of place. One, because it didn't gel with anything we already knew about Tori, and two, because it was handled so pathetically. It was so unbearably blasé. One second we're teetering on the edge of a rooftop, the next, we're sharing a joke about it, and Tori tells us it was accidental. Listen, if you don't know anything about suicide, and how sensitive a topic it is, then don't even go near it.)
The issue with parents in his book is never dealt with, either, though I was waiting for it to happen; I might have given it another star if it had been in any way expanded upon. In one scene, Tori screams at her mother for not ironing a skirt for her, and when her mother refuses, because she is working from home, Tori concludes that her mother doesn't care about her and nobody cares. This is a girl who is sixteen years old and has two functioning arms that can iron her own fucking school skirt.
It's this sort of entitled, pathetic, self-absorbed behaviour from the protagonist that makes her impossible to sympathize with. I used to go out with a guy who said, "I sometimes wonder if I'm the only living one and everyone else is a programmed robot" and I was so profoundly hurt by this statement that I cut him completely out of my life. Drastic, maybe, but this sort of self absorbed, socially blinkered outlook is not charming or relatable. It's the exact opposite. It's overwhelmingly immature, like this book.
This book just does not know what it's talking about. It's contradictory; nobody twigs that Ben Hope is dealing with internalized homophobia and people need to be helped through that. Nobody joins the dots between Becky desperately wanting to be popular, and how we've all felt that way at some point, therefore not cutting off her relationship with Ben following an incident that she doesn't fully understand. Tori hates her mother for absolutely no reason whatsoever, totally dehumanizing her, choosing to be willfully ignorant of the fact that her being able to come home and do nothing, have a constant supply of the food and drink that she wants, and go to a grammar school, is due to her parents working and caring about her wellbeing. Smaller children can't be expected to understand this, but Tori is sixteen years old, and considers herself an authority on everything. She is not expected to get a job, or do anything she doesn't want to do, or be independent in any conceivable way. When she's on her way to a party, her mother drives her there and asks her if she wants some money, and apparently this makes her the worst most uncaring mother who has ever existed.
This book is overwhelmingly white, and these characters are overwhelmingly privileged, and the amount of discourse around these issues in YA today means that it's not good enough to simply argue, 'I didn't know'. You did know. We have come far enough that this total blindness towards privilege is not acceptable anymore. This book tried at diversity with its gay characters, but it has no idea how to even scratch the surface of issues like internalized homophobia, and both of its out gay characters were convenient plot devices there to fuel the protagonist's angst.
This book failed for me, in pretty much every way. It was melodramatic, socially blinkered, absurdly self-serious and self-important. The constant references to media and pop-culture were absolutely agonizing, and left the book feeling intolerably dated. I'm definitely not the intended audience, but I don't think that as a teenager this would have been the sort of thing I'd have identified with in any way. I do applaud the author for succeeding at such a young age, but that comes with a price tag....more