Mental Health and the YA Fantasy Genre

Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve posted here, and I’m sure my poor blog is feeling quite neglected. *pats blog* But after recently reading an indie novel, I was reminded of my YA Fantasy pet-peeve, and I need to rant about it. And what better place to rant than a blog, eh?

I should probably prelude this post by mentioning that I’ve grown up surrounded by mental illness. I have many relatives with conditions such as bipolar disorder, personality disorders, major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. So while I personally don’t have any mental health issues, I’ve become rather sensitive to how people approach topics such as mental illness.

And this leads to one of my strongest pet-peeves in YA Fantasy: When a character from the “real world” discovers magic or other paranormal aspects, and assumes they’ve gone insane. The author then proceeds to send a barrage of unhealthy messages to the reader about mental illnesses.

At its core, there’s nothing wrong with a character mistakenly thinking they’re experiencing things outside of reality. If I stumbled across a wardrobe-portal or a sparkly vampire, my first assumption would be that I was hallucinating. It’s totally natural for humans to try to find logical explanations for illogical events.

But my pet-peeve arises not from this insanity trope, but from the way it’s usually handled by authors. In most YA Fantasy where this trope is used, one of these three things usually happens, and seeing all three of them isn’t uncommon:

1. The character never tells any authority figure what’s going on. This is usually done out of shame–they’re so horrified and embarrassed by their “hallucinations” of paranormal events, that they refuse to tell anyone about it.

2. The character vehemently tries to deny that anything is wrong. Once again, this is usually a result of shame and embarrassment. Instead of approaching the “hallucinations” from a logical standpoint–they need to get help, they need to see a doctor, they need to make sure they’re safe–the character refuses to admit that their “mental illness” is potentially harmful to their emotional and/or medical well-being.

3. When the character discovers that the “mental illness” is actually the result of real magic, they’re instantly relieved. It doesn’t matter that a demon is chasing them, that a werewolf is trying to kill them, that their family is in danger from a vengeful witch. To the character, all of this is preferable to having a mental illness.

These three things send terrible, potentially damaging messages. Essentially, the author is teaching the reader that mental illness is something to be horribly ashamed of, and it should be kept hidden whenever possible. Which is totally, utterly, completely untrue. If you talk to any credible psychologist, they will explain that mental illness isn’t something brought on by personal weakness or deliberate intent. In fact, mental illnesses are just like physical illness in many ways, including that it’s not the “fault” of the patient. And in many cases, mental illness is technically a physical illness on a more microscopic level. The physical lack of certain hormones, proteins, and chemicals in the human body often cause mental illnesses, and many of these deficiencies are related to genetics.

Yet these authors ignore all these facts. Maybe they’re not intentionally spreading a horrible message, but they are. And worse, they’re spreading it to an audience of teens, who often don’t know enough about mental illnesses to differentiate between true and untrue statements. Not only that, but teenagers are also notoriously prone to low self-esteem, which makes it easy for readers to embrace negative perspectives of mental illness. And if this isn’t bad enough, there’s the fact that a huge percentage of mental illnesses begin to show symptoms in the teenage years, and this is a vital time to support a person with mental illness, instead of bad-mouthing their condition.

I know a lot of authors don’t write this trope with the intention of sending a harmful message. I know most of them don’t even realize they’re doing it. But that doesn’t change the fact that mental illness needs to be approached delicately and thoughtfully, whether in a Contemporary Romance novel or an Urban Fantasy. Genre doesn’t matter–mental illness should never be inserted into a book carelessly. It’s not just some convenient plot point or an easy way to ramp up the tension; this sort of illness is a challenging reality millions of people face, and it should be treated with the utmost care and respect.

Okay, so that completes my ranting for the day. Phew! I’d love to hear your personal opinion on mental health in YA novels. How delicately do you think it should be treated? And can you think of any novels that handle the subject exceptionally well?

The Comparison Blues

Writers are well-known for their low self-esteem, and I’ll admit that I’m no exception. In general, I dislike my own writing. There are occasionally days when I’ll look at my writing and go, “Hmm, not too shabby.” But, while I love the process of writing, I generally despise all things I write.

 
In some ways, this is helpful. It makes me look at my novels with an extremely critical eye, and it also helps me embrace critique much more easily. But, in many ways, this mindset just isn’t healthy for me. It took me years to realize this, and when I finally did, I knew I had to change my outlook on writing. In particular, I knew I had to stop comparing myself to successful writers, or I would drive myself insane.

 
I think all writers, including me, have examined the work of famous authors to see what works and what doesn’t. While this process is almost always helpful, what comes next just isn’t healthy. After I examined their writing, I found myself comparing myself to the actual author: John Green has such amazing voice, and I don’t. Patrick Rothfuss can build such amazing worlds, and I can’t. Stephenie Meyer can attract millions of readers, and I never will.

 
Thinking like this comes naturally to me, but it isn’t as easy to stop doing. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, and it’s not like I could just flip a switch and stop. But, after some thinking, I realized some things that made me reconsider the way I compared myself to other writers.

 
1. People don’t pick up my novels to read John Green.

In other words, if people want to read a John Green book, they’ll pick up a book written by him. When people choose to read one of my novels, they expect to find a unique voice. My unique voice.

 
No, my writing isn’t nearly as good or deep or emotional as John Green’s. But, in some ways, I think being different is a good thing. After all, if I didn’t have a different voice and outlook, then everything I wrote would feel old and over-done.

 
2. I’m not nearly as good as Patrick Rothfuss, but maybe someday I’ll come close.

I don’t think writers ever stop learning. I’ve talked to experienced writers and beginners like me, and everyone seems to agree on this point: There’s always more to learn. Whether it’s about writing itself, or the publishing industry, or marketing–the learning just never stops. Since I’m still a teenager, and since I plan on writing until the day I die, I figure I have about 60 years left to study my craft. And that’s plenty of time to develop some skills, right? So I don’t feel like I need to panic about all my inadequacies quite yet.

 

3. Maybe I’ll never have millions of readers like Stephenie Meyer, but that doesn’t matter much.

This is perhaps the most important thing I realized: It’s my love for writing that counts. Yeah, having a million readers would be nice. But what’s even nicer is that I get true joy out of my craft. Even if I had no chance of being published, I would still write. Even if I couldn’t show my work to a single soul, I would keep writing. And, personally, I think that sort of love is what gets writers places. I could read every writing manual on the planet, but if I didn’t have passion for the craft, my work would still fall flat.

 
So, after realizing all these things, I feel like I can read “The Fault in our Stars” without banging my head against a wall about my own, er… faults. What about you? What are some things that help you stop the comparison-blues?

NetGalley for Indie Authors

For years, NetGalley has been an invaluable tool for traditional publishers. All they have to do is upload one of their books into the NetGalley catalog, and the company distributes it to potential book reviewers. It’s an easy, fast way to reach book reviewers.


Just a few months ago, I thought NetGalley was off limits to indie authors. Luckily, I was completely wrong. NetGalley recently opened its doors to indie authors with two available plans:

 
— $400 for one author and one book. The listing stays on NetGalley for a full year.
— $300 per author for a co-op of 20 authors. The books and authors can be switched out as many times as necessary, and the listings stay on NetGalley for a full year.

 
There’s also the option to join a co-op for a limited time. This isn’t a service provided directly by NetGalley– organizations like Patchwork Press offer this. Because books can be switched out, more than 20 authors can take part in the co-op throughout the year-long period.

 
What this means for indie authors if that you have the option to test the NetGalley waters and post your book on their website for less than $300. I just teamed up with Patchwork Press to post my novel “Counting Shadows” on NetGalley for a two month session. In total it cost $80, and I was able to easily pay through PayPal.

 
So far, the experience has been wonderful. Patchwork Press is extremely organized and efficient, and now all I have to do is wait for the reviews to come in. I’ve been told to expect about 50+ reviews, which is an astonishingly high number, given the price I paid. To compare, my favorite book blog tour company, Xpresso Book Tours, offers a 40-review tour for $150.

 
There are, of course, differences between a book blog tour and a session with NetGalley. For one, a blog tour gives you the ability to connect directly to the readers, and communicate with them during the tour. Also, NetGalley listings don’t include buy-links, and there is no promise that the readers will include these links when they post their reviews. One more thing I should mention–blog tour reviews are usually posted on multiple sites. Reviewers for NetGalley only have to post their review on the NetGalley site–all other sites are completely optional.

 
So is it worth the $80? I don’t know yet. My book has only been up for a few hours, so it’s way too soon to tell. But I’ll write up another post in a month or so, and give an update on how the NetGalley experience has worked for me.

 
In the meantime, here are some very helpful posts about other authors’ experiences with NetGalley:

Susan Kaye Quinn’s experience: http://www.susankayequinn.com/2013/05/netgalley-for-indie-authors.html

Keary Taylor;s experience: http://www.kearytaylor.com/2013/02/the-netgalley-low-down-for-authors-and.html

 

Coming Out of the Writers’ Closet

Some people are totally comfortable having their friends and relatives read their writing. I envy those people big-time. Personally, it scares me every time I hand over a piece of my writing to someone I know well. To the point where I wrote two entire novels before I told my family I was even interested in writing.

 
Now, I can give my writing to my CPs, and they’ll tear it to pieces. I’m fine with this. I actually enjoy this process most of the time. But when it comes to friends and family? Nope. I always feel like I’m going to throw up when I hand over a piece of my writing.

 
I know I’m not alone when it comes to this particular fear, so I thought I’d write a post about how I personally deal with it.

 
1. I always explain that the opinions in my writing don’t always reflect my personal opinions.

 
My family is Catholic. I am Atheist. This is the main reason I waited so long to tell any of them about my writing. I have characters in my writing who not only use magic, but who believe magic is a powerful healing tool. I’m sure most people know how Catholics usually respond to books with magic–when I was young, I was forbidden to read Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, Harry Potter, and many other novels. I have relatives who actually believe J.K. Rowling is a possessed worker of the devil. Basically, in the Catholic Church’s opinion, magic is a terrible and evil thing. In my books, it’s a good thing to have. You can see the conflict right there.

 
When I first gave my mom one of my novels, I was utterly terrified that my parents were going to make me stop writing, and haul me off to an exorcist. I repeated about twenty-bazillion times that it was a fantasy novel. Yes, a FANTASY novel. As in, I don’t believe anything in it is actually real.

 
Luckily, no exorcisms followed. My mom actually enjoyed the novel, and she was perfectly okay with my explanation of the magical elements. But had I not taken the time to explain that vital fact–that my characters’ beliefs don’t represent mine–then things probably wouldn’t have gone so smoothly.

 

 

2. I tell them there’s no need to finish it or tell me what they think.
Whenever I hand my writing over to someone I know, I always say this. If they enjoy my work, then that’s wonderful, and I’d love to hear their thoughts. But if they find it offensive or terrible or boring, then I don’t expect them to fake a smile and tell me it’s great. This seems to take a lot of pressure off people, and makes the whole experience go smoother.

 

 

3. I just say no. 

Sometimes, I just have to tell people that they can’t read my writing. Period. No exceptions. If I believe that my writing might harm the relationship I have with them, then I just say no. It’s not worth losing a friend of relative over something as trivial as a piece of writing. And it’s also not worth the nerve-wracking feeling of worrying how that person will judge me. In cases like this, I just tell people no. They might think it’s rude, but I’d rather be considered rude than a worker of the devil, or worse.

Nine Writing Lessons You Can Learn From Cats

1. Every realistic character needs a dark side.


2. It’s often the tiny things that make great stories.


3. Characters have to fail, or else it isn’t interesting.


4. Sometimes, it’s best to summarize.


5. Every author, even the best of them, will get told “no” at some point in their career.

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6. Small things in the story can have big impacts.


7. Even the worst villains have a personality beneath all that evil.


8. Proper research makes a story feel more realistic.


9. Mustaches make every novel better.

More Books on Eating Disorders, Please

Just earlier this year, I was about 30 pounds underweight. I have two medical conditions that affect my stomach in various ways. Basically, I get extremely nauseous every time I eat, and I have a lot of severe stomach pains. As you might guess, it’s incredibly difficult for me to keep on weight. Yesterday I went shopping, and I was able to fit in a size 4 pair of jeans without them slipping off my waist. I almost screamed I was so happy.

 
My BMI (Body Mass Index) is now just barely within the “healthy” range. The fact that I’m no longer a walking skeleton is something I’m so, so grateful for.

 
But other people seem to think differently. The other day, I had someone in my charter school class say to me, “Wow, you’ve gained weight.” I was about to start gushing about how happy I was, when she added, “You know, my friend has this super awesome diet she uses to stay skinny. I could tell you about it, if you want.”

 
My jaw just about dropped to the floor. I don’t remember exactly what I said in reply–I was in total shock. But I have no doubt that I wasn’t very pleasant.

 
The sad truth is, when I was 30 pounds underweight, I was constantly getting told how “beautiful” my figure was. Practically every girl I knew “wanted my figure”. Even adults would gush about how “lucky” I was to be so skinny.

 
It’s not easy to make me mad. But these “compliments” almost put me over the edge. There is nothing beautiful about every single one of your ribs showing. No one should want to feel light-headed constantly. And there’s not anything lucky about throwing up at least twice a day.

 
Unfortunately, we live in a world with unrealistic expectations of beauty. To put it frankly, this has got to stop. It’s not healthy, and it’s not right. There are thousands upon thousands of people out there with eating disorders, all because of our culture’s bizarre interpretation of beauty. People are dying because of this so-called beauty.

 
Despite all of this, there are only 77 YA books in Barnes and Noble’s book catalog categorized as “Eating Disorders”. This is out of over 67,000 YA books they have cataloged.

 
Fortunately, some of those books are fantastic resources. My favorite on the subject is WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson. Unfortunately, there’s a painfully obvious lack of books on this topic.

 
I’m not sure why this is, but I am sure of one thing: We need more books about eating disorders. There needs to be more awareness about the conditions, and people need to become more open to discussing the topic. Publishing more books about eating disorders would be a big step in the right direction. It would provide people with the knowledge they need to maybe save someone’s life.

 
Yes, they’re usually depressing. Yes, they’re heavy topics. But that doesn’t mean eating disorder books should be left unpublished.

 
To end this post on a positive note, here is a link to a list of YA books about eating disorders. This is the largest list I could find, and there are only 106 books. But it’s a start, and I encourage you to read at least one of these books. You never know how it might change your life, or the life of someone else.