Thursday, September 01, 2011

Pet Peeves in MG/YA fiction

I've been reading to the kids every night, and we grabbed "The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable" by Daniel Gutman because the jacket copy was fabulous.


Well, some day I hope I have his PR team.

The first three chapters were fabulous. Probably because he outright ripped them off from Brandon Sanderson's "Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians." He changed enough that he can't get charged with plagiarism, I'm sure, but not enough that it's not recognizable. He even breaks the fourth wall in  "asides" in roughly the same narrative spaces. One line was a quote from Sanderson's book.

So that's a pet peeve of mine with writers--if you can't come up with your own stuff, what business have you writing?

The book kind of goes downhill after the first three chapters, too. Presumably that's when he stopped copying from Sanderson's book, but I don't know because my copy of Alcatraz had to go back to the library after I'd ready only 3 chapters, so I never finished it.  There is a real danger in starting a book the way both of these start, though. They start on a high--they basically start at the climax and then backtrack, hoping you'll keep reading to find out how that scene ends. The danger of this is that no matter where you start a book, you have to make it build somehow. If you start too boring, you don't hook your reader. If you start too exciting, however, you risk losing them after the initial sequence is over because you have to be able to keep up the tempo you've set for yourself. Sanderson succeeds at this by pulling back on plot but pushing WAY up on character--he gets you off the outlandish climax sequence into a character that is likeable but extremely unique, and the characters that jump in almost immediately are even more unique, so the instant he lets you off one hook, he catches you with another. And he never actually releases the first hook--he doesn't resolve that first scene right up front. He makes you wait for it.

Daniel Gutman doesn't do this.

In fact, as soon as the characters pass the climax point (which they reach at the beginning of the novel still, not later in the book), the start acting in ways that are completely uncharacteristic of junior high kids. And I happen to know junior high kids fairly well--I taught junior high for six years.  So he hooks you with action, then lets you off the hook (completely--resolves the teaser right there), and then creates characters that are only marginally likeable and completely unbelievable--in a bad way.

So that's two pet peeves. Near miss on plotting. Far miss on characters.

I mean, the guy is supposedly writing about genius 13 year old twins, and it's apparent he has no idea what 13 year olds actually think and feel like, and even more apparent that he has neither been nor met any child geniuses. (It particularly irks me to read about child prodigies that aren't. Card nailed it in Ender's Game. Gutman misses. Painfully. So did the guy who wrote "Artemis Fowl." These are people who are imagining what a child genius might be like. And they create caricatures instead of characters, but the authors don't seem to realize that.)

I'll give you an example: the kids jump off a cliff wearing wing suits because some guys are trying to kill them. They've never used wing suits before, but they manage to figure them out, including guessing that there are parachutes and how to deploy them (that's a stretch, especially since he describes in detail how it happened, and nobody would have done that or thought of that). He spends almost a whole chapter describing how cool but terrifying but cool it is to jump off a cliff, fall, and then fly.  Then the beginning of the next chapter happens, and the kids strip off the wing suits and THROW THEM AWAY! And the authors says they hoped never to see them again. What?! No kid would do that. They would do like my kids did the first time they rode a roller coaster. Wow--scary!--can I do it again?! At the very least the wing suits would end up under the bed.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the bad guys up the top of the cliff watch the kids fall, can see where they're coming down, and don't bother to get there.  Huh?

And then, to top it off, the kids get home, eat dinner, and are washing the dishes and one looks at the other and says, "You remember this afternoon when those guys were chasing us and that lady saved us?" LIKE YOU COULD FORGET! Sheesh. A real live kid would have said, "You think she died?" And the other would have known exactly what she was talking about. They would have been reliving that moment--she gets hit by a blow dart and falls, and they jump off a cliff--over and over with a mixture of disbelief and horror.

A couple of chapters later, the author tries to make me believe that the excitement of the last day of school--which he portrays as boring to the protagonists--completely drove that whole adventure out of their minds. Right.

Another example of the author not "getting" brilliant kids? He has the protagonist annoying the health teacher by questioning her lesson (which gifted kids do), but he thinks the kid is doing it just to push the lady's buttons and waste time. While he nailed the dialogue this time, he totally missed the motivations. Most of the really truly genius kids I know do correct people, but motivated entirely by a desire to point out the intellectual errors, or the right way. Not just to be annoying. There are kids who like to just be annoying, but they are usually the bright kids, not the truly gifted ones. Not the ones I've met, anyway.

The other pet peeve that's making the book almost unreadable to me is the parents. In trying to buddy up with and "understand" and "connect" and "speak to" 13 year olds, he spends a LOT of time both openly denigrating parents and making the parents look stupid and worthless. And he goes extra far and makes the dad selfish and rude to the mom, and the mom flaky and rude to the dad. The parents bicker on the page. I'm so SO opposed to teaching kids that parents are dumb and marriage stinks. Especially since in this story, it serves no discernible purpose--it doesn't further the story at all. It's just a device, poorly applied, that is actually damaging. We want to build up families, not tear them down. I don't think you have to reinforce destructive ideas in order to connect to kids. (But, then again, this guy apparently has never really known a kid, so maybe he thinks kids actually think that way on purpose, and I guess he has a terrible marriage and thinks it's okay to belittle women--in fact, the women in the book are disappointingly wimpy and embarrassingly stereotyped).

He also misses the mom's character. He SAYS she runs a website called "Amazing but True" and spends all her time collecting strange true facts to publish. But the mom doesn't respond to amazing  but true kinds of things the way a real fan of those things does. Another flat character that could be round and interesting.

'Nother one: He writes the story mostly from the kids' point of view, but calls their parents Dr. McDonald and Mrs. McDonald. That's just hard to read. Plus, what kids call their parents that?!

Oh, wait, there's more? Yup. It just goes on and on--he calls the parents "Second generation Hippies" but then paints them as worriers, uptight people, hyper-organized sequentials, inflexible (they're ready to call the cops when their kids are half an hour late coming home from school--they're actually camped on the driveway on chairs waiting for the kids to walk in). He says the dad is a 2nd generation hippie, but the guy is the most stereotypical academic historian ever--the kind of guy who writes the histories the second-gen hippies are constantly pushing to rewrite. Apparently has never met a second generation hippie, either.

Oh, wait, more?  Yeah...I'll stop, though. I could go on and on and on with specific examples (he uses cute little breaking-the-fourth-wall asides. It was funny the first time. The third, not so much. The seventh? Oh, spare me!)

Yeah. So don't bother with the Genius Files. 

But do read the jacket copy. Best part of the book by far!

(And do me a favor--if I ever write those kinds of flaws into my books, please tell me so I can write them back out again! I don't want to be embarrassed.)

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