books

Why All YA Books Should Come With Trigger Warnings.

Recently, I picked up Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire, and I was surprised to see a trigger warning posted not once, but twice, before the first chapter for violence and sexual assault. Along with this, there were helplines listed for these issues as well as an LGBT+ helpline. This was all before I even reached the first chapter.

I’ve read a few books in the past that leave helplines in the back of the book, which I’m always happy to see, along with the occasional age stamp on the back, warning that under fourteens might not be ready for the violence inside. But never have I seen trigger warnings. I’m sure there’s other books that have trigger warnings in them, but this was the first book I’ve noticed it in. Seeing it made me sit up. I was so glad to see it there, presented for anyone picking up the book, so they knew what they were getting into rather than have it sprung upon them when they were least expecting it.

Honestly, it was refreshing. It should become the norm, in my opinion, for all books, but particularly YA. Over the last few years, YA books have been delving into darker topics—which is good. They’re exploring important topics relevant to teens and, representing a wider range of experiences and people. But with these topics can come triggering issues—racism, homophobia, ableism, sexual assault are just some of the few topics that not everyone will want to read about, and not everyone will be able to.

Specifically discussing YA books, why are we not making trigger warnings more common, if not essential? The YA community may have a habit of forgetting that YA books are designed for teenagers and young people, but with that in mind, why are we not protecting them from harmful topics that can trigger them?

When it comes to video games and movies, teenagers legally cannot buy media with themes that are deemed ‘unsuitable’ for them. I don’t necessarily believe that the themes within YA books are unsuitable, but there with the age restrictions on other types of media there is a warning. Books don’t come with that despite the dark and often graphic scenes. There’s no need for age restrictions, but there should be clear warnings so people know what they’re getting into.

The book community has gotten increasingly better at posting trigger warnings when they notice them in books they read, but obviously, these tweets won’t reach everyone, neither will articles or reviews. Many people just jump into the books without looking them up, so they would have no idea of any warnings.

There has been some discussion on Twitter of implementing trigger warnings and of course the classic argument of ‘snowflakes’ and sensitive millennials suggested against it. If there weren’t any warnings before, why would we need them now?

The YA industry has grown considerably in the last decade. It’s truly become a community designed especially for teens and young adults. There were few books designed for this age category ten or twenty-plus years ago. It is still a relatively new, growing form of media. Before the difference between children’s and adult’s book was rather straight forward. Children’s books—while sometimes addressing difficult topics—often steered away from them or did not go into as much detail. With YA books, this in-depth exploration of topics and experiences of teens is rather new. The issues discussed are crucial and important, but can be hard and upsetting to some. So why do people not want to protect children and young people from harsh topics?

While I believe trigger warnings should be applied to all books, YA in particular should take up this issue. People shouldn’t be forced to read something that can bring back trauma or upset them. They should know what they’re getting into so they can decide whether or not they want to read it, or if they’re not comfortable to read it. It should not be a surprise.

The other point people have raised against trigger warnings is that it spoils the book. But these issues—people’s identities and trauma—should not be a plot twist. They can be a plot point and important to the book, but they shouldn’t be the big reveal designed to shock and wow the reader.

Overall, trigger warnings should be more common in books, especially books aimed at youths as YA books are here for teenagers to enjoy, not forced to read topics they’re not comfortable in reading. Applying trigger warnings to the front of books isn’t difficult, it doesn’t ruin the book, and it doesn’t hurt anyone. It only has benefits. If we have content warnings for video games and shows and movies to protect children, why can’t we give content warnings for books?

Side note: pick up Girls of Paper and Fire. It’s incredible!

 

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writing rambles

On Writing Mental Health

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write books about mental health issues if you haven’t experienced them yourself, but maybe you should take a step back before you jump into it.

Actually, I’m going to backtrack. I want you to write more mental health. Especially in YA fantasy, or any story where a character goes through a trauma, there is a certain lack in exploring mental health. That is not to say it’s non-existent, Kit Mallory’s Blackout is an excellent speculative fiction story with incredible mental health representation. Contemporary YA is often better with new releases such as Akemi Bowman’s Starfish and John Green’s Turtles All the Way down. I feel with the increase in the YA community campaigning for diverse books, there are a good few more books exploring mental health than in adult fiction, but there’s still a need for more. More people–teenagers and adults alike–should be able to see themselves represented in texts. And I’m personally sick of seeing white, able-bodied, straight, neurotypical main characters in fantasy books. I know we’re getting better, but there’s still a way to go.

That said, if you haven’t experienced mental health issue and the story in mind solely focuses on mental health when there are ownvoices writers out there with stories to tell, you should take more than one step back. Sometimes people do write decent portrayals, but there’s too many times when mental illness can be depicted one of two ways: romanticised or villainized.

So I’m making a handy little list that you should consider before attempting to write mentally ill characters (or just writing anything at all!):

  1. Writing Traumatising events? Why are these teenagers fighting for their lives, staring down death, losing friends and family before their eyes just expected to jump back up with no suffering? Puberty and navigating relationships at that stage is stressful enough for most, but being the saviour for mankind, seeing creatures you were always told didn’t exist, or going through insurmountable bouts of pain is something else entirely. I just find it so unrealistic that characters going through so much bounce back without a mental scar. PTSD, anxiety, and depression among others are all valid responses to undergoing such events. Explore that! Imagine if you witnessed your friend murdered, you almost died, or the weight of society is in your hands, how would you feel? Life is not so easy as just moving on.
  2.  Is anyone mentally ill? I’m sure this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to do it anyway: not everyone is free from mental health issues. It’s estimated that around 450 million suffer from mental health issues at some point in their life. You might not be aware of it, but chances are someone you know suffers.  So where are the characters, be it protagonist, side, or background, showing characteristics of mental illness? I’m not saying the protagonist needs to put a name to what’s happening–they might be completely oblivious–but people in everyday life can show symptoms of anxiety or depression or any other illness. It can be subtle, or it can be discussed. Either way, it’s there.
  3.  Falling into tropes? I’m also tired of seeing the occasions of mental illness being described as ‘madness’ and that character as being an antagonist, or simply disliked. When writing, be careful not to fall into any harmful tropes. Just because in your fantasy world there is no word for anxiety or schizophrenia, that doesn’t mean everyone should be cruel to them. It’s a fantasy world, people might be more advanced in technology or maybe just understanding.
  4. More than one? It’s probably common knowledge but just because someone suffers from one illness, doesn’t mean they can’t suffer from more. People can have BPD and OCD, for example.
  5.  How far are you willing to go? Not only that, but their portrayals barely skim the surface. They only present the more common – and generally ‘more accepted’ – traits of mental illness.  Sometimes the truth of mental health is that it is dark, it is difficult, and there are ‘ugly’ days (or even a period). Portraying that painful truth is not inherently problematic or harmful (though if it is triggering, you should try to provide trigger warnings)
  6. Seeking help? In a contemporary setting, if you look into the aftermath, or if the character is aware of their mental illness from the start, therapy can be looked into. In other settings, simply talking with friends about how they feel anxious or such can help portray their mental illness. It is important to show healthy coping mechanisms if possible, show support, understanding. Not everyone in the world is understanding, but good friends, being around animals, writing, listening to music are all good coping mechanisms that are easily and often naturally sought out without professional help.
  7. Is it an ownvoices novel or are you a mental health professional? Just because you have experienced mental health issues doesn’t mean your portrayal is perfect. Likely, it’s more realistic. But (especially when writing experiences outside of your own) you should seek beta readers. Even your own experiences can be harmfully represented. Beta and sensitivity readers can help you. In fact they’ll save you and your readers from grief.
  8. So you’ve written your characters, taken research into consideration, avoided tropes, what next? See above! You can never know too much.

As a summary: write more mentally ill characters! In all varieties. Remember they are all around us and the circumstances within your stories can bring issues to the table that may not have been there before. With that said, write them well. Do not condemn them to tropes or the role of the antagonist because of their illness. Look for sensitivity readers, do your research.

 

Uncategorized, writing rambles

Writing Like it’s the End of the World

First blog post! After contemplating starting a writing blog for the last year or so, I’ve finally done it. I suppose I should do an introduction post or something, so here we go: I’m Paige, I’m a twenty-year-old a history student and dog lover. I’m a lesbian unable to escape the emo phase. Oh, and I’m chronically stressed.

If I’m being honest, things are a bit shit at the minute. Correction: very shit. I think that’s whats pushed me to finally start my blog because everything is rather overwhelming at the minute. Between starting my final year of uni within a matter of days, my dog–my baby, my son–in poor health, and a hell of a lot more, writing isn’t my number one priority.

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Here’s my baby!!

The problem is, writing is usually my coping mechanism. Both a healthy and unhealthy one. When stress gets too much, I leave my world and problems for that of my characters. But it also means I dive into writing and ignore my other needs. And with everything go on at the minute, I can’t just ignore my dissertation or mental health to write even though writing less comes with its own problems: feeling like I’m falling behind. Falling behind who, you might ask. I have no idea. I’m not in a race, but I’ve noticed it’s a common feeling among us writers.

So, for my first post, I want to talk about the pressure we put on ourselves as writers: the unfair deadlines, the way we compare ourselves to other writers, and how likely we are to burn ourselves out. I know this is a well overdone topic at this point, but I’m trying to become self aware by not ignoring this issue and setting myself more reasonable goals. So this post will be split in two: first, the ways us writers can be cruel to ourselves and then how we can combat that.

I’ve been taking my writing seriously for the last four years. That’s when I realised that I didn’t just love writing as a hobby, it was something I wanted to take further. I was good at it and it made me happy. Never, not once, did I dread writing. Even when I was writing a terrible scene or editing the same chapter for the fiftieth time, I wanted to write. Whenever I wasn’t writing, I was itching to start that new project or jump into revisions.

What I’m saying is I never took breaks. Never.

Maybe it’s tied into my anxieties. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome; I see people throwing that phrase around a lot at the minute. If I’m not writing, I’m wasting time, losing time.

It’s not like I’m forcing myself to do something I don’t want, because I do, but whenever I do something else—even read—I feel like I’m falling behind. Panic overcomes me and I can’t concentrate on a damn thing. So I keep setting myself these deadlines. New Year’s resolutions and semester goals. In 2018, I want to get an agent. This semester, I want to get an agent/publish a short story/write X amount. Most of the time, they’re unrealistic goals. Querying and editing takes months if not years and, logically, I know that. But my brain is a siren, screaming failure every time I can’t live up to my unreasonable expectations. It’s constantly telling me: you’re running out of time!

A lot of people have this problem; I’ve seen the breakdowns of trying to finish work in time for certain pitch competitions or compare themselves to others on Twitter who get agents or book deals, while they get rejections. Every one tells you to remember most people only post the successes on Twitter, not every rejection, but it’s hard when you’re watching people take leaps forward while you’re still crawling.

So we make this impossible deadlines, write until we burn ourselves out, and then lose the energy to write. With that comes the feeling of failure, of failing behind, of running out of time. We then force ourselves to write more.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Not only that, but so much of my mental health is tied to productivity. Being productive makes me feel better, more in control. But with that comes the suffocating feeling of failure when I take a day off or simply can’t do things. It means I never look after my mental health—I don’t have the time. Or so I think.

Instead, I keep writing like it’s the end of the world, keep setting impossible goals and standards, even though I know my time will come. It might take years, and that’s okay because there’s so many factors in the publishing industry that are out of my control.

But I love writing, I love creating stories and characters and worlds, so I’m making this first post a way to set goals for myself—possible goals and combat this feeling of running out of time:

  1. Take Breaks: whether from writing or from social media, breaks are important. Not only can you burn yourself out from writing, but you can emotionally burn yourself out from comparing yourself to other writers. We all want to cheer each other on and we all are genuinely happy for our writing friends’ achievements. But there’s no denying how social media can be a constant reminder of people moving forward while you feel like you’re stagnating (you’re not, it’s just that cruel Twitter lens). Writing breaks are just as important. You need to step back to edit your work. You need to refill the creative well with reading, sleep, and anything in between. Most of all, you need to take care of you–see friends, have a mental health day, binge that show you’ve ‘not had time for’.
  2. Stop setting myself impossible goals. I know what I’m capable of and I shouldn’t see my successes as targets to beat. Think of it this way: the smaller you make your goals, the more chances you have of succeeding and celebrating! Yes, I want an agent and to publish a book. Eventually. With an industry with so many variables, putting time constraints on these goals will only lead to being disappointed.
  3. And lastly, just write for myself before I burn out and forget why I ever loved writing. It can be a hard one when you want to peruse a career in this field, but at the end of the day, remember why you started writing–not for anyone else, but for you and your love of words. Of course, there’s always going to be hard parts of writing that you dread (synopsis writing, UGH), but if something becomes too draining, take a step back and write something enjoyable. Something for you.

And those are my goals (and tips!) for writing while going through a hard time. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, too busy, or any of the ways I described above, take a step back and think about those three goals. Be kind and reasonable to yourself, and be your biggest fan.