Book Review of the Sweet Trade

Hard working authors deserve a lot of credit, and it’s my goal to provide reviews from time to time in this space. One type of novel I especially admire the young adult novel that crosses over to adult novel. The Sweet Trade by Debrah Strait is an historical YA novel that grown-ups can relish, too.

The Sweet Trade flies open mid-action and the pace never flags for a second. It’s fierce, fast, fun, unsettling and riveting, with a wild cast of intriguing characters and a sense of historic truth. In one aspect, the novel is a coming of age tale set in a fascinating era of nation-state conflicts at sea and the role pirates played in a war-related economy. Hard-driving, hard-striving main character Dirk sets the bar high in battle and in romantic endeavors, so naturally conflict abounds. On a deep level, the novel explores one man’s battle to preserve decency, loyalty and his very humanity in a trade where both honor and dishonor are dangerous things. When an author does the work of vast research, meticulous character development and intricate plot weaving, the reader can simply enjoy the journey. The Sweet Trade is a delightful sail on fair winds and a following sea. Give me the sequel now.

Can you let your YA character go?

Teen characters that YA authors create are like teens spring-boarding from high school to college. They begin their journey at one level of maturity. They end after a lot of growth at another. A good test of whether the novel is nearing completion is the main character’s growth. If that teen, new adult or young adult character no longer rolls her eyes in contempt and disdain for authority, or if he changes from a dangerous risk-taker into a think-before-acting person, growth has been achieved. The conflicts of  the first chapter, first scene have been outgrown. The character is able handle situations that formerly would have baffled her or him.

There’s power in acceptance

Teens get a big reward response from being accepted by their peers, partly because they are members of a ‘tribe’ going through similar transitions at the same time, and partly because the shared experience helps them learn and practice new, increasingly more adult roles. Writers of young adult fiction understand and utilize the strength of this positive emotion of acceptance.

Teen autonomy propels YA plots

When you are writing fantasy, science fiction or historical young adult fiction, you get to delve into the norms of the world you have created, its location, culture and time. Teen characters are always trying to gain and assert autonomy. What’s fun is to determine what that means in their world. Parents in late 19th century American frontier might react one way when their teen corrects them for making a mistake, while authorities in a future world might respond entirely differently. When teens blurt out opinions, when they stand up for what they think is right or fight against what they determine is wrong, plot-moving conflict comes naturally.

When all else fails, ask the YA character

As a writer of young adult fiction, I want to create characters whose identity development is heading toward healthy, or veering off toward unhealthy, or anywhere on the spectrum in-between. In my YA plotting process, I create what-if scenarios. If my plot outline offers a particular character a choice, I write a scenario that, no matter how difficult the decision, the character takes an appropriate action and as a result is gifted with a new sense of self-trust. Then, I try the opposite, and let the character’s most immature, self-serving, base self run riot. Lastly, I ask the character what he or she intends to do, and sometimes dialogue flows or the character takes a fork in the road that appears not to adhere to my plot outline. I run with the change, at least for a while. Sometimes, the characters know exactly what they are doing. Yes, this is more work than following the outline without deviation. But who wants obedient characters?

YA fiction, teens, and social anxiety

Like teens, writers of YA fiction have to understand social anxiety.

If it is true that teens’ social anxiety increases as their ability to ‘try on’ other people’s feelings increases, then being a teen requires adaptation at every turn. As soon as you becomes self-aware, there’s that new worry of wondering what the rest of the world thinks of you. Capturing that teen perspective is a balancing act for the writer of YA fiction.

YA fiction answers, “Enough about me. What about me?”

Why are teens self-absorbed? Because they are teens. As one wise counselor from a Native American community explained to me, the teen years are the shortest period in a person’s development, and they are years jam-packed with growth and change. Those years are all about practice, practice, practice for adult life. Teen characters’ voices reflect their limited self-awareness, and their volatile reactions.

Climb in the way-back machine to write YA fiction

For YA fiction, here’s an approach I am taking to heart. My choices of words, the structure of sentences and even paragraphs need to reflect the age and level of maturity of the main character(s). As the characters change and grow, the complexity of the sentences can grow. But their youth limits their world view. So I’ve been working on using sentences that are declarative. Short. The rhythm of the language reflects the characters’ thought processes. Thoughts seldom–okay never–move in a straight line. Emotions can be explosive, or flighty, or hesitant, depending on the character’s temperament at the time. Pacing changes with the characters’ activity and the pressures they confront.