Crooked smiles and other weirdly specific YA cliches

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Woollybear

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Fun to see this thread pop back into activity. I think these meaningless little body actions are related to something that dawned on me the other night, while reading a dual POV story in which each POV was written by a separate author.

Here's what i realized: One author uses actions that only involve body parts. (She popped her head into the room and said, ...) The other author never does this. There is action, but it is purposeful and involves some meaningful prop or other. (She brought her knitting into the room and sat by the fire.) In addition to not being empty action-for-the-sake-of-action, the second author seems less concerned with conveying emotion through action, and more concerned with developing who the character is. What are her interests, what is she prioritizing in this moment, and so on.

But when it comes to conveying the emotion, with knitting, for example (but it works with anything), now you can show nervousness in a new way besides lip-biting. She dropped another stitch. "Damn."

And ditto on disliking the I exhale with relief, not realizing I was holding my breath. No one thinks that. No one spends time thinking that. They just get on with the thing that they are now determined to get on with.

I exhale and take a deep breath of stale basement mustiness, (or whatever, fresh cut grass, WD40, etc) would be better imo. It conveys the same emotion to me, but adds context and color of setting.
 
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Cobalt Jade

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And ditto on disliking the I exhale with relief, not realizing I was holding my breath. No one thinks that. No one spends time thinking that. They just get on with the thing that they are now determined to get on with.

Yes, yes! This drives me buggy in first person present. "I grimace." "I rub the strap where it cuts into my shoulder." "I blew on the hot soup to cool it." No one's inner narration runs like that.

Forgive me, innocent writers of Authors Water Cooler, I've even avoided critting first person present SYWs, just because this drives me insane and I can't cope.
 

Sage

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Yes, yes! This drives me buggy in first person present. "I grimace." "I rub the strap where it cuts into my shoulder." "I blew on the hot soup to cool it." No one's inner narration runs like that.

Forgive me, innocent writers of Authors Water Cooler, I've even avoided critting first person present SYWs, just because this drives me insane and I can't cope.

Out of curiosity, are you annoyed when the narration says, "Sarah rubbed the strap where it cut into her shoulder," or is it just the first-person POV? I'm wondering if you need the first-person narration to be stream of consciousness for it to work for you, or if you really think that I wouldn't notice that a strap was cutting into my shoulder and therefore rub it, or not notice that the soup is hot and therefore blow on it?
 

MaeZe

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Yes, yes! This drives me buggy in first person present. "I grimace." "I rub the strap where it cuts into my shoulder." "I blew on the hot soup to cool it." No one's inner narration runs like that.

Forgive me, innocent writers of Authors Water Cooler, I've even avoided critting first person present SYWs, just because this drives me insane and I can't cope.
I'm with Sage here, why is this inner monologue in quotation marks instead of simply first person narration with the inner monologue reserved for direct thoughts?

Maybe it's an issue in present tense?

I have a first person narrator, past tense. But it appears I'll need a good editor to tell me where I've slid into third person accidentally in a few of the narrated parts.



Love those observations, Patty.
 

Cobalt Jade

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Out of curiosity, are you annoyed when the narration says, "Sarah rubbed the strap where it cut into her shoulder," or is it just the first-person POV? I'm wondering if you need the first-person narration to be stream of consciousness for it to work for you, or if you really think that I wouldn't notice that a strap was cutting into my shoulder and therefore rub it, or not notice that the soup is hot and therefore blow on it?

It's the phrasing of the stream of consciousness, and its presentation. So many first person POVs just change the 'she' to an 'I' and the verb to present tense to move from third person into first person present, at least in some YA I read (where it's been popular for the past decade or so) as well as a lot of unpublished stuff I crit.

For example:

"Sarah rubbed the strap where it cut into her shoulder." Nice beat and tells the reader she's wearing a pack that might be too heavy or ill-fitting.

"I rubbed the strap where it cut into my shoulder." eehhhh. If this was a story I was telling, I'd phrase it "The pack was too heavy and the strap cut into my shoulder." Because... there's no need to put the "I" front and center because the reader already knows the narrator is telling the story, if they've been reading for more than a few sentences. As the first sentence, it would work/

"I rub the strap where it cuts into my shoulder." Again, we're already in the reader's head. We know we're the "I". The narrator would tell of the strap cutting first, not the fact they rubbed it. "The strap cuts into my shoulder and I rub it."

So says I, others may have a different take on it.
 

Fuchsia Groan

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OK, here's one I've noticed over the years that's probably has more to do with the marketing than the writing: Books where the person on the cover looks suspiciously like the author. The new PBs for Ember in the Ashes and The Boyfriend List spring to mind, but I swear, once you see it you can't not. (This might not be just a YA thing, but since that's the genre I'm most exposed to these days)

Haha, I see this, too. I don’t know if it’s a real thing or just confirmation bias operating. The cover of my new book has a face on it, and sometimes I find myself actually wondering if she looks like me, which is probably some kind of horrible narcissism. (Well... we both have brown hair and wide-set eyes, anyway.) But I’m not the kind of author whose face you’d use to market a book.
 

Kjbartolotta

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Haha, I see this, too. I don’t know if it’s a real thing or just confirmation bias operating. The cover of my new book has a face on it, and sometimes I find myself actually wondering if she looks like me, which is probably some kind of horrible narcissism. (Well... we both have brown hair and wide-set eyes, anyway.) But I’m not the kind of author whose face you’d use to market a book.

I swear it sounds crazy but now I can't unsee it.
 

Will Collins

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Lip and inside of cheek chewing is definitely one. :)
 

Woollybear

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What CobaltJade says sums it up for me, too. One reason first person triggers me is because the whole dang thing is inside the MC head--there's no breathing room, it feels so demanding of my psyche. First-person stories that do work (for me), which are easy enough to find, seem to have the sorts of adjustments in their writing that CobaltJade suggested.

I sit down and pull out my laptop and I begin to write. I thought I wouldn't get a chance to work on my novel today, but I finished the dishes in record time, and I got the laundry squared away too, so... Yay, me! I check the clock. I thank God it's a Tuesday because my husband won't be home until after dark. I breathe a sigh, loving that he's in a bowling league. I get extra writing time this way. I roll my head around once to the left, then I roll it to the right, because I think staying relaxed is good, and I begin to work on chapter four, which I titled "Me, me, me."


^^LOL that's how some of them sound to me. If no other change was made to that but to change 'I" to "she" it would still be obnoxious, but not to the same extent because it isn't trying so hard to insert itself into my psyche. I'd have enough distance from the MC to simply dislike them for their self-absorption, instead of feeling that I am supposed to identify with them.

Making the kinds of change that CJ suggested with the strap/backpack is a great way to knock down the sense that this character only thinks about themselves.
 
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Chris P

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A lot of the things described on this page (unnecessary first person, odd internal thoughts to describe things or explain why "I'm" doing something) are elements I associate with inexperienced writers in general rather than YA specifically. This is so totally unfair to YA writers! I don't know what to make of this. I can't say YA readers are by definition inexperienced, and therefore YA writers write this way, because that's not fair either. Perhaps I'm not familiar enough with the genre to separate inexperienced writing from YA-specific tropes.
 

pharm

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Agree that these tics and tropes span numerous genres and market categories.
 

Fuchsia Groan

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Yup. Getting inside your protagonist’s head is a skill. The writers who start every sentence with “I” in first person aren’t really any different from the writers who filter every sensation through their POV character in third person (“She heard a banging noise. She turned around.” instead of “What was that banging noise? She turned around”). Perhaps I’m less sensitive to these writing faults than most, but I don’t see them as unique to YA or to first person. I don’t see it as verboten to describe any action in first-person present, either; yes, it’s an artificial construct, but so is all the detail of first-person past tense (who ever remembers that much?). Like every construct (which all fiction basically is), it can be done well or poorly.

My writing is naturally very spare. I’d rather have you intuit a character’s physical reactions than describe them to you. But I’ve consistently gotten crits from agents and experienced writers that told me those physical reactions were necessary, especially in a thriller. I’ve been told my characters read as emotionless sociopaths because of their lack of reactions. So now there’s a certain amount of hearts pounding and throats tightening in my prose. I don’t love it, and I try to find alternatives when possible, but it seems to be what readers want to a degree. On the plus side, writing this way has made me way more conscious of how my own body reacts to anxiety and stress, which is helpful in dealing with them!
 

Woollybear

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Agreed!!!

Not limited to YA, at all!

:)
 
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pharm

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Yup. Getting inside your protagonist’s head is a skill. The writers who start every sentence with “I” in first person aren’t really any different from the writers who filter every sensation through their POV character in third person (“She heard a banging noise. She turned around.” instead of “What was that banging noise? She turned around”).

Why you gotta call me out in public like that, friendo?
 

MaeZe

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A lot of the things described on this page (unnecessary first person, odd internal thoughts to describe things or explain why "I'm" doing something) are elements I associate with inexperienced writers in general rather than YA specifically. This is so totally unfair to YA writers! I don't know what to make of this. I can't say YA readers are by definition inexperienced, and therefore YA writers write this way, because that's not fair either. Perhaps I'm not familiar enough with the genre to separate inexperienced writing from YA-specific tropes.
Yes, thank you Chris.

And it's not just first person either. My book is first person, YA, and it doesn't sound like Patty's example at all. There is not all that introspection. My character isn't constantly in a self-absorbed internal monologue. Some first person is more narration than inner monologue.

That said, we all have our preferences and pet peeves.
 

Sage

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Or raising a single one. I'm not sure I see it a lot in published books, but in beta reads, for sure
 

MaeZe

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I'm having a hard time finding alternatives to smiles, sighs and raised eyebrows. I have an occasional wink and lower lip biting. None of the smiles are crooked.
 

Woollybear

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I see some authors opposing the action with another action, and this works nicely:

She suppressed a smile.

He forced a laugh.

To her horror, she felt herself nod at his words.

...that kind of thing. Seems to buy a little more mileage from the staple actions.
 

Sage

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Lip biting is still an epidemic, but I will admit that I see it as much in adult books as I do in YA. Including classics. I listened to the Odyssey last year and wondered if it was the modern translation that had characters biting their lips, or if it's a trend that hails back to the first written novels.

Big difference between YA and the adult novels where I've found lip-biting is that in adult books it's like 1, maybe 2 times in the book. In YA it's occasionally dozens of times in the book.
 
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Elizabeth George's book Write Away