How to Write About Tough Topics in Young Adult Fiction by Charlotte Young

Charlotte Young How to Write About Tough Topics in Young Adult Fiction


There are plenty of tough topics to write about and the YA fiction shelves, whether wooden or virtual, are spilling over with stories about subjects such as suicide, rape, bullying, sexuality and mental illness, to name just a few of the hard-core, neon lights of ‘tough’.

How to speak authentically about what can bring us to our knees? And what about the flip side of these dark themes, experiences that are far more desirable but nonetheless, moments that can render us equally vulnerable? Intimacy, love and connection … In our fast moving, cyber focused lives, these can be pretty tough topics to write about, let alone navigate in real life.

Real life though, is what it comes down to and unless the experience has been lived, either first-hand or up close and personal, through a deep and real understanding of another’s experience, I for one wouldn’t go there as a writer. Plenty of authors do and do it very well but, when writing about tough topics, I need to have some kind of grounding in the experience to feel like I’m making an authentic offering to my readers.

The biggest no-no, when it comes to writing authentically about edgy issues, is trying to educate and enlighten. I learnt this the hard way when I dared to take my two-year old manuscript into a Year 10 English class. Their teacher had offered me five weeks with her group, to workshop my latest novel, “Ora’s Gold”. This was both thoroughly terrifying and edifying! I learnt in no uncertain terms how my target audience were a lot smarter, tougher and more together than I had given them credit for. First though, I should probably fill you in on some back story.

I used to work as a birth attendant, here in Melbourne. Birth is one of those things you don’t give much thought to until you find yourself (or your partner) pregnant. Mostly it’s portrayed in a stereotypical way, with the woman lying on her back, seemingly disempowered. My experience of birth has been quite different and, I admit, I wanted to shine a light on some of the issues involved in birth. Yes, I was trying to enlighten. This was where I started. Big mistake! The Year 10s were actually quite gentle as they held up a shiny mirror with ‘Your agenda is YOUR agenda’ written all over it. Sure, they were interested in loss of rights, freedom and control over women’s bodies but they weren’t interested in my message-driven mission, which was basically telling them how to give birth. Back to the drawing board I went.

Then there was the sex scene. The rather graphic sex scene. There’s only one and it shocked me when I was writing it. Did I really want my family reading this? I still don’t like that thought. But I was so involved in Ora’s journey by then that I couldn’t stop. Later, I had to think long and hard about whether to keep the scene or not; my manuscript assessor advised that the school librarians wouldn’t take kindly to it and, as a result, probably wouldn’t place it on their shelves. The story will be deemed more suitable for New Adult (NA) fiction. The difference though, is that unlike many of the characters in NA, Ora is a strong and independent protagonist with more to think about than just romance. This is perhaps why it’s all the more shocking to read about the way she shares herself so intimately. How vulnerable she is prepared to be. This unusual ‘reveal’ felt too important to strike out so that it would fit neatly and primly into YA.

So there I was, with the Year 10 class, having to eye-ball 16 fresh faces, as we all shifted uncomfortably in our seats, skirting around this sex scene. And here too, was the other reason that I decided to hang onto it. I was struck by how much we—adults, society, parents—skirt around sexual intimacy. Sex scenes? No problem, they’re all over Netflix and free-to-air, but intimate sexual moments that are about the genuine pleasure of the female protagonist and haven’t been subjected to the usual pornification? They are few and far between. The mainstreaming of the porn industry has changed the landscape and experience of how young adults first encounter sexual content and sadly, most of it isn’t real. And it certainly isn’t intimate.

I confess, during the class, I couldn’t go there in terms of discussing all of this, the writing was still too new. And my dynamic, creative openness was cowering under my seat, desperate to flee the classroom. Later, in the safety of online communication, I received some important feedback from the students, mostly about how Ora needed to be a little more cautious initially, physically, which was great advice from the young to the old! It was refreshing and daunting to hear I still had a way to go with making my character more real.

So when it comes to writing about tough topics in YA, there are three main things I’ve learnt: first, write about what you know. Second, be acutely aware of your agenda, if you think you do not have one, think again! Either dump it all together or strip it right back so that the desire to give voice to an issue only lives in the bones of the story; it needs to be submerged deep in the flesh and blood of the characters and their stories. Character and story need to come first. Finally, get some YA feedback along the way. Those generous Year 10 folk made my story all the richer with their knowledge, reflections and insights.

Charlotte Young Ora's GoldOra’s Gold 

What would you do if the authorities had control over your body?

Australia is ruled by the SIF. The Special Investigation Force controls everything. Water, food, fuel … women’s bodies.

18-year-old Ora’s decision to move in with her aunt is a bad one. She’s just landed herself in the middle of nowhere with a deluded activist who wants to change the world, one illegal birth
at a time. Sooner or later someone is going to die and Ora doesn’t know where to turn.

The beach is her only sanctuary and it’s here that she meets Jake, thoughtful and experienced, who encourages her to live a little. So why is it that as soon as she starts to have some fun, everything goes dangerously wrong?

A gripping coming-of-age adventure that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

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About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.