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Love, sex and gore
. . . forget these old taboos if you want to appeal to the hard-bitten, all-knowing young adult
The problem with most adults is that they conveniently forget that they were teens once. The other problem is that most adults are parents who (quite naturally) like to keep track of (and censor if possible) what their kids are reading, doing, seeing, eating, drinking and so on 24x7, though in this age of the internet and sms, mms and whatever else that's a battle lost. So when you are a writer, who is neither a parent nor has regular day-to-day interaction with teens, and write for that age group, what do you do? How do you touch base, or even think that you're touching base with your 'readership' ? You hark back to the days when you were a teen yourself, no matter how painful and embarrassing that may be. What were the issues that affected you the most, made you react most furiously ? Because no matter what the technology may be today, some fundamental issues and values remain the same; like for instance:
The importance of friendship and loyalty: the rules were and are simple - you did not snitch no matter what the consequences, period. You stood by your friends and family, no matter what. Secondly : you were acutely sensitive to injustice, betrayal and unfairness, actual or perceived. This, especially since adults were busy pouring holy morals into your ears and merrily carrying on as they liked. Youngsters sniff out hypocrisy much quicker than most adults would like them to;like you would a fart in a perfumery.
And then, there were subjects which were deadly taboo: love and sex and violence and drugs and even the use of, what I call, playground language. For kids, you did not write about those things, and (for shame), nor did you write such language.
That's plainly stupid: Teens these days are pretty hard-bitten and in the know. (Remember how, when you were that age, you too swaggered around with the 'been there, done that, ' sneer on your face?) And if you can strike a chord with them by writing about such issues, to my mind, you're halfway home. Only halfway, because how you write is almost equally important as what you write about. Here, the cardinal rule is - you cannot bore your restive reader. No matter what the subject is you have to keep the reader (and teens have notoriously short attention spans) engaged and, preferably, entertained too. There's another trap here waiting to spring because far from being bored by what they write most writers fall in love with what they've churned out. As parents of a lovelorn teen might advise: baby, step back, give it time, are you sure this is not a passing infatuation? As a writer, put your stuff away in a drawer, get back to normal life and read it again after a week or two. Still in love with it? Well then...maybe you can take the relationship forward!
One thing you must absolutely not do is to write down to kids - as if they were half-wits. They will sniff out sanctimony and patronising in a wink - and gag. Of course, they might complain about too many 'big words' being used, but hey what's the dictionary and god Google for?
Every time I finish a manuscript and send it off I wonder... What kind of person is going to read (vet!) this first;does he or (more likely) she have kids for whom the book is meant? Is he or she going to erupt with horror and fling back the manuscript, screaming, 'no way any child let alone mine - is going to read this stuff!' Happily I have to say that these days editors are pretty liberal and tolerant. I did a book on the 1984 riots in Delhi, (Battle for No. 19) which started off with a horrifically violent chapter. It was taken. I did another on female infanticide (Faces in the Water) and it was taken too, without demur. I pushed further and did one on child sexual abuse in the family (Smitten). Much to my surprise it was published too.
One thing I admit being a sucker for, is happy endings. Life often doesn't have happy or satisfying endings, but when you're writing something, well you're in control. I don't think I could end a book that sinks in a morass of misery and despair: what's the point of that? There's enough of that in real life.
(Ranjit Lal is a naturalist and the author of books for both adults and children)
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