No, not with jackets and sweaters. With crucial elements of STORY.
Last month, Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management chatted with the Young Adult online chapter of Romance Writers of America. She had lots of interesting information for new writers about social media, advances, foreign rights, etc.
The moderator asked Jaffa what she was seeing too much of right now. Her response included this significant bit: “I also see a lot of middle grade centered around issues… Bullying is a real problem for today’s young readers, and it’s important that middle grade novels are true to the issues they face, but it becomes problematic when your manuscript is A Book About Bullying, if that makes sense. It needs more layers.”
The “Issue” Book
Lots of teens enjoy issue books and lots of authors are right now trying to fill that need. But writers who forget that the best books are “about” characters may have a hard time selling to agents and editors.
As I see it, there are two separate problems here. One is easier to fix than the other.
The first problem lies in the way an author answers the question, “What is your book about?” A book that’s “about” an issue should rightly be nonfiction. In fiction, an issue like bullying may play a pivotal role as a component of Conflict. But it’s only one component of the overall story. Other necessary components include sympathetic characters worthy of being called the story’s heroes, the goals (both story goals as well as personal goals) that are central to the lives of those characters, an interesting and believable setting, conflict that stands in the way of both kinds of goals, choices and sacrifices the characters must make to achieve those goals, and lessons learned (the theme of the story).
So when an author answers the inevitable question, the answer should address as many of those components as possible. For example, you could say your book is about Ben, a 14-year-old boy who wants to be a dancer. Ben’s classmates and his 18-year-old brother constantly make fun of his goal, growing more derisive the more successful he becomes. When an opportunity arrives to audition for a Broadway play, the teasing reaches a new high and Ben decides he must find a way to either silence the bullies or give up. But the easiest way to silence them is to become just like them.
Fixing this first problem is really just a matter of thinking hard about your story realizing there is more to it than just an issue.
But if you think analyze your story and find it doesn’t have much more than one thing going for it, you’ve run into the second problem. The one that’s harder to fix. It lies in finding and adding enough substance (layers) to the basic issue problem to make the story interesting to readers.
How do you do that? Well, you can start with your characters. Of course you have a bully and a victim. Now readers may sympathize with a victim, but they want him to triumph in the end. So you have to layer in his inner strengths, revealing his inner hero. What makes him keep going? And of course, what makes the bully act the way he does?
What else is going on in the lives of these two characters… events and conflicts that make the bullying worse or better? Layer in at least one other major conflict.
What are the weaknesses and strengths of the hero and the bully? Layer in the perfect combination to make it hard for the hero to conquer his fear and anger, and yet possible for him to do it. If the bully is going to learn something, layer in the personality traits that will allow that to happen. Let us see all these personality characteristics in action.
I think you see what’s happening here. It’s a story “about” bullying that’s getting all dressed up with someplace to go.