Limit—“a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible.”
This month, here on YA Outside the Lines, we’re supposed to blog about limits, and I have strong views.
They’re not the woo-woo sparkly rainbow variety you might expect from a fiction writer in Berkeley. (“There are no limits!” He shouted mindlessly, before tripping on the curb and shattering a tibia.) They’re more complicated and perhaps more helpful.
Limitations—constraints if you will—sometimes make your life as a creator easier, because they give you form: a sandbox with borders instead of the vast, paralyzing sea of endless possibilities.
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations”—Orson Welles
“And yet the absence of Orson Welles hasn’t limited art much at all”—The Universe
So, for example, if someone says “stick in a poem” you might freeze up, but if they also tell you to rhyme the first, second and fifth lines with each other and the third and fourth, then a limerick pops out easily, with that little ripple of the subversive or humorous implied with the form:
There once was a writer named Dean
Who stared at a blank blog-post screen.
So he stuck in some verse,
Which might make it worse,
But less painful than writing in scenes.
But not too many limitations. One reason I like writing fiction for young adults is that the guidelines of YA are incredibly loose: It’s a story featuring protagonists of roughly 13-18 (usually 14-17) where the protagonists have some agency and work to solve their own problems, told from the perspective of their current age (not with the benefit of a misty distance of now-that-I’m-all-grown-up-I-know-more.) Typically, the story ends with at least some note of hope or optimism. (There are exceptions. *Cough* Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. *Cough*)
You can write in any genre or sub-genre, from contemporary realistic to mystery to fantasy to steampunk or, really, anything. And, if in addition to writing the story, you want it published by one of the larger publishers, it typically has a romantic subplot or at least romantic rooting interest with some chemistry. (Very broadly defined to include, for example, the platonic relationship between Maddie and Verity in Elizabeth Wein’s wonderful Code Name Verity.)
You should read this book. You’re welcome.
Constraints can help you get started. Or can give you something to push against, to resist, to expand the boundaries of what’s possible. One of my favorite writers is A.S. King, who writes luminously weird, fierce, feminist, surrealistic YA books, including Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, Everyone Sees the Ants, Reality Boy, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, As I Crawl Through It, Still Life with Tornado, and Dig, which comes out in March.
On her own blog, A.S. King wrote about how waiving her middle finger at constraints—in the endless lists of “shoulds” floating out there on the internet on how to write YA books—gave rise to her breakthrough (and Printz-award finalist) novel, Please Ignore Vera Dietz.
You should also read this book. Again, you're welcome.
Her blog, of course, is a much better read on that topic:
Write that YA book from the perspective of your main character in her teen years? Sure. But in Vera Dietz there are also chapters in the form of flow charts from her dad, in the voice of her dead friend Charlie, and from the perspective of a pagoda-shaped building in town. (!) And in Glory O’Brien the protagonist is a teenager, but after drinking a liquified bat she gets glimpses of the future, so she also tells us how she expects to die later in life. Heck, in Still Life with Tornado, the main character’s older and younger selves show up, and she has to deal with them.
Looking at books that ignore or subvert rules—which are usually just guidelines and sometimes inaccurate shorthand that doesn’t reflect a deeper understanding—is a great way to learn the real underlying principles of storytelling. And breaking rules yourself is a great way to learn the real limits. You learn them in your bones, and you pick up some mad skills by compensating for doing things the hard way.
When I was in my early 40s, I took up ski racing, and for a while I was spectacularly terrible at it. I made all the usual mistakes, plus some that no one else had even considered. (Of my helmet-gate-clear technique in GS, one guy said, “I’ve coached at every level from kids to the World Cup, and I’ve never seen anyone ski like that.” He didn’t mean it in a good way.)
What, me worry?
But I learned from the many equipment-flinging collisions between my ideas and the real world.
I now race in something much closer to the mainstream template of fast, but I also have crazy recovery skills you only get from having used them on great regularity at high speed because of prior bad habits.
That is, however, the long way, and you do spend a lot of extra time bouncing on ice crystals.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m having trouble with the current novel I’m writing, which is completely different than my debut—different point of view, different main character gender, different genre within YA, different almost everything. It’s teaching me, because I’ve made the conscious choice not to lead with what I’m best at, so I have to use some different muscles. But there are some things that have to be there for it to work—the protagonist has to want something (desire, goal) for important reasons (stakes) and encounter opposition and difficulties (conflict.) I’m still working on that, and I’ll let you know later this year if I can make it work, because—well, sometimes you need a time limit.
May we always have something to push against.
Dean Gloster received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2017. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's and Jesse Andrews's .” Dean’s novel in progress is about a 16-year-old boy reeling after the unexpected death of his older brother, who gets a sketchy summer internship, only to find that it’s with Death herself.
Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster