I usually try to keep books and especially any sort of book reviewing out of this blog, because that isn’t what it’s about, but there comes a point where you’ve really got to do some background research on the stuff you’re trying to write (ideally, this point comes before you start, but better late than never). And looking at the product I’m nearing completion on (“completion” being a first draft, an alpha version if you will, still subject to heavy revision before even my editing group sees it), I’ve been thinking that it’s worth revisiting the young adult fantasy novels of my childhood. I don’t like the classification all that much, but I need to be honest with myself — it’s likely to weigh in somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 words in the finished form, the protagonist is 17, and it’s about fairies. At some point, I am probably going to have to convince a publisher that this thing is marketable to teens and tweens (and precocious single-digit readers like I was when I picked this sort of stuff up).
So I’ve been making some trips to the public library, and no doubt getting funny looks from the librarians as I clean out the shelves of YA fantasy novels (many of them targeted at girls). I’ve been limiting myself to things that I personally enjoyed growing up, trying to see what it was about those particular titles that made them stick in my memory enough for me to recognize them ten or fifteen years later. I want to know what made them good. And the first return to the fantasy stories of my childhood, mostly because it was the first I recognized on the shelf, is that forerunner of inspirational, gender-bending stories: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna (specifically Alanna the First Adventure, a title that cries out for punctuation if ever there was one, but there’s no comma or colon anywhere that I can find).
I’ve resisted (after a few drafts) the temptation to summarize the plot, post lengthy excerpts, or anything along those lines. It’s a blog about writing, not about reading books, so the final goal here is to tease out the very basics of what worked and what didn’t — I’ll sneak in as much explanation as it looks like I need to, but hopefully, we can focus on the writing techniques and not the specifics of plot and world-building.
The Good Points
Alanna is, appropriately, almost entirely about its titular character. There isn’t a whole lot going on outside of her growth and development (including the physical parts, since it’s a book about a young girl disguising herself as a boy), so when we’re interested in that, we’re interested in the book. If the character starts to get boring, so does the book — but at least in this first one (it eventually became a series of four), that almost never happens.
If Pierce has a greatest strength, I think it’s her pacing abilities — she adds something to her central character exactly often as needed, never going longer than a fairly young reader’s attention span before giving Alanna some new and interesting development. Her bag of tricks is fairly standard — new sword, undiscovered magical powers, adolescent fears and the biological horrors of puberty — but she knows when to pull something out of it and when to let things ride for a while. The story is broken into seven chapters; six of them are within fifteen pages of one another in length (the outlier weighs in somewhat longer than the others, but contains what I would consider to be two major plot points or changes in the main character, while the others have one each). It’s steady, measured, and clearly a conscious choice, rationing the exciting things out evenly throughout the book.
Alanna‘s other big selling point as a YA book is mostly thematic, and benefits from comparison to its literary peers. It’s a very classic coming-of-age novel, condensed and simplified to a neat arc of just a few major events, and gets the added benefit of what was a very strong feminist message for 1983. Gender-bending fantasy may have come a ways since then (some might say too far, to the point of sheer gimmickry), and you can’t get away from the fact that the strong, independent female lead can only be that way when she’s disguised as a boy — but still, it all boils down to “anyone can be anything they want, if they don’t let anyone tell them otherwise.” Which most books for the general YA market are going to encourage in one way or another, but it’s the whole point of Alanna; there isn’t much to the book that isn’t someone becoming what they want in the face of adversity. Thinking back to the frustrations of my early teenage years, I assume that’s still an inspiring theme for young’uns.
The Bad Points
I’ll try not to alienate too many readers and their fond memories of Tamora Pierce here; try to remember that it was enough of a childhood favorite for me to turn to it when looking for ways to improve my own product! But the book does have some flaws — many are minor (and probably symptomatic of it being a first novel); a few are glaring.
Most critical, to my mind, is the relatively late addition (more than halfway through the book) of an antagonist that doesn’t really get any explanation or development until the second book in the series. By the end of the book, there’s still just a general sense of “hey, this guy is up to no good.” Instead of developing the primary antagonist, Pierce puts in a set of demons for the protagonist to fight with no explanation at all — in the last chapter, there is suddenly a city full of demons, which Alanna has to go clear out. Why they’re there, or why it has to be her, no one seems to know. The city itself crops up in mystic visions throughout the book, but those have the ring of something added in after a few revisions to them — if the showdown was planned from the start, one can’t help but think that there would have been a little more discussion of what the heck is going on with this demon city thing. Instead, it just appears, the demons get knocked over, and Alanna moves on to the next book in the series.
We could argue that the awkwardness with the antagonists is just the result of it being planned as a series. I find it awkward even with the rest of the series taken into account, but saying we let it slide, the book still suffers from a narrative laziness that I didn’t notice when I was ten (or however old I was when I picked it up): the third person omniscient narrator skips from one character’s head to the next literally between sentences, so that in one paragraph we will hear about both what Alanna is doing and thinking, and then what someone else is thinking about that. It can make for some awkward moments where things are clearly being laid out for narrative convenience — at times I wish she’d be a little wordier, and use some personal actions or speech to shift the perspective more naturally.
I think the key things I took away from this re-reading was that YA fantasy needs some things simplified — character development has to be direct, and follow some pretty clear causality. There’s less room for the kind of nuanced, adult relationships where people gradually change over time and no one necessarily knows why — if a character adds a new emotional direction, there should probably be a directly-traceable cause for it. The language Pierce uses is also much more simplified than my structure tends to be, with far, far less semicolons, parentheticals, and em-dash abuse.
Of course, I’m not trying to write Alanna. Someone already did that, much to the improvement of my YA years. But that’s what I’ll be taking away from that reading…and stay tuned to see further dissection of your childhood favorites as I look at a few others in the coming weeks!