Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Naughty List, a.k.a. Does No One Know How To Drive?!

While turning the contents of my brain upside-down to try to find a topic to write about (ideas flow so readily when I'm working, not so much when I actually sit down), I came across a tweet that made my day.

@editrixanica: RT @kate_mckean: Least favorite words in YA/MG queries: car crash, angels, orphan, boarding school, ordinary girl/boy, lesson, zoinks. #pubtip
Heck to the yes.

For a little background, the aforementioned editrixanica is actually Anica Mrose Rissi, an executive editor at Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster's YA imprint). She's a pretty cool lady, and she retweets a bunch of news from different YA authors, so following her on Twitter is a great way to keep in the loop. The lady she is retweeting is Kate McKean, an literary agent at Morhaim Literary Agency. These ladies between them have a ton of experience in the market, and I'll be willing to wager that they've seen it all.

Now look at that list. I can hear the protests forming already.

"Car crashes? What's wrong with car crashes? You're supposed to have drama in a story, right? I guess I could change it to a horrific plane crash, but that just doesn't seem realistic."

"But public schools are just so boring. Boarding schools are classy, and they live there, too, so we don't have to mess with any of that boring home stuff."

Just stop. All of the words/phrases in the list are most often used for one of two reasons: as a lazy shortcut, or solely as a buzzword. Take car crash, for example. Using a car crash as a plot device is a way to signify drama. There's going to be angst here, gut-wrenching angst! Maybe the protagonist lost someone dear to them, or maybe they personally are going through some kind of debilitating physical loss due to injuries sustained in the crash, or maybe they were the ones that caused the crash and are therefore wrestling with guilt and/or sustained rebellion in the face of the consequences.

All valid in their own way, but oh my gosh, it's so DONE, people! And why are all these people such crappy drivers? Most often, car crashes are just a simple way to kill off parents. I mean, who wants something as boring as parents in a YA book? [Insert eye roll here.] So then we get into orphan territory, which is most often used to dispose of interfering families or garner interest using a scrappy Oliver Twist-like protagonist. Boring.

Same thing for boarding schools. The parents are still alive but conveniently pushed out of the picture so that the hero(ine) can gallivant around, solve mysteries, and complain about uniforms and rich kids. Also, boarding schools often lend an exotic European feel that Americans eat up.

Ordinary boy/girl is often a lie, as the protagonist soon finds out that (s)he is the Chosen One/Foretold/Secret Princess/Demon Spawn. Basically, it says "I'm boring, just like you, until I'm not!"

Lesson means you're going to have a moral crammed down your throat while reading. What teen is going to go for that? It's like telling a toddler in advance, "I'm going to give you really icky cough medicine now, oh boy oh boy!" We prefer our morals hidden in the lasagna, not set aside on the special eggplant and spinach platter, thank you.

Angels are this season's vampires. 'Nuff said.

As for zoinks... either the ladies have a secret hatred for hippies and talking dogs, or they are understandably weary of over-the-top quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness.

I may not be an agent or an editor, but as a bookseller, I do see my fair share of books, and these well-worn roads get old awfully fast. You see, when an idea is used too much, it's no longer fresh. It's a cliche, stale and flat. The zing is gone. Unless one of these ideas is doggone central to the book, such as car crashes and orphans in The Beginning of After, it's best to be skipped entirely.

And why not? There's an entire freaking world just teeming with ideas ripe for the picking. That's how the angel fad started, after all. Someone, somewhere, really enjoyed paranormal books but decided the vampire/werewolf fad had been stomped into the dust. So go out and find your own substitute. Unless you can take on an old idea in a breathtakingly ingenious way, you're only shortchanging yourself.

Don't believe me? Scroll back up and look again to see who was ragging on these tired cliches. Powerful women in fields integral to the book industry. And if they feel this way, you can bet there are others.

At the very least, give your poor local bookshelver a break. If I have to stock another vampire or dragon book, I'm going to pluck my eyes out.

What do you think of Ms. Rissi and Ms. McKean's list? Do you agree? Disagree? Why? What would YOU add to the list?