I recently read a list of things not to have in your YA novel, because they’re so common they’re considered clichés. A car crash and a dead mom were right up there at the top. Cringe. Got both in my new book, How to Tend a Grave.
As a reader, I say death to clichés. So as a writer, I try very hard not to use clichéd phrases, character traits or plot points. I will cut every mop of dark curls and shock of white hair to the quick, and allow only one eye roll per chapter. I like to think of my work as a cliché-free zone. But when I did a bit more research online, I found that I had indeed committed a few cliché crimes in the past.
OMG, how embarrassing! I’m not going to tell you what I’m guilty of – I’ll just say that my current death cliché might well be my worst offence.
Strangely, I didn’t set out to write about death. I wanted to write about teens who vandalize cemeteries. Graffiti I can kind of understand – I think in some cases it’s even an art form – but why would a kid desecrate gravestones? I figured that my character would have to be out of his mind with grief and rage to do that, so he must have lost someone very important to him. What if his mom had been killed in a hit-and-run?
As the story developed, it became obvious that to help him heal, my character would need a love interest. Now where could he meet a girl who might understand what he was going through? At the cemetery where his mom is buried of course. And why would this girl be there? Oh, right. Because she’s lost somebody too. What if she’d been pregnant and miscarried her baby? So now I had two deaths in a book that began without any.
By the time I realized I’d written myself into a death trap, my book was already under contract and edited. And then, just before it was released, things got – as they tend to do in YA fiction – way worse. I read a PW Children’s report on Bologna 2012, which mentioned someone calling this “the year of the dead people,” and also referring to an editor asking if anyone had any “beautifully written novels that don’t have dead people in them?”
Enough. I get it. There’s a whole lot of death in recent contemporary YA fiction. Everybody’s jumping on the death bandwagon. But so what? Adult books are full of death too, and nobody seems to mind or even mention that.
Death is pretty universal, after all. It’s not just a trend, like YA covers featuring single word titles and impossibly beautiful young women wearing gorgeous dresses. Death is not a cliché. It’s, you know, epic.
And that’s why, even if I could rewrite my book, I wouldn’t take the deaths out. Okay, I might lose the car crash – there’s probably a more original way to kill somebody off. But I wouldn’t change the fact that one character has lost his mom and another her baby. Because books about death – whatever age they’re for – aren’t really about death at all. They’re about life. Real life, like we all face every single day.