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What My Love Story Taught Me About Fictional Love

Today is Chris and mine’s 4-year anniversary.

Despite our rough patches (our called-off engagement, our subsequent breakup and reunion now 2 years in the past), we are still happy, in love, and planning to stay together for the rest of our lives. Breaking up was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, but it also taught us something about commitment, quality of life, and the sustainability of love.

In the end we decided there was no one else we’d rather be with. In fact, the day I wrote this we spent our lunch break attempting to nap together, but laughing too hard to settle down for the whole hour. Chris is truly my life partner; we plan our finances together, we pursue the same goals, we remodel the house together, we grocery shop together… I’m very lucky to be able to say my boyfriend is also my best friend.

Being in love as a teenager, and then morphing into this type of adult love, gave me new insight into fictional love stories, especially in YA. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Love at First Sight: I see this one complained about very frequently. Readers and reviewers say, ‘Ugh, so suddenly she meets this guy she’s instantly attracted to and can’t stop thinking about? Puh-LEEZE!’ And to this I say, ‘You’ve been in love before, right?’

LAFS exists, definitely. Sure there are lots of relationships that started as friendships and slowly burned towards romantic feelings. But for everyone I can name in my personal life, they met their significant other and were instantly attracted and interested.

My grandparents had LAFS (while my grandmother was engaged to another man, no less!), my parents had LAFS (my dad ran across this huge bar and parking lot to talk to her after one glimpse of my mother), and I had one.

My love story is well-documented so I won’t repeat it here, but I remember those feelings very clearly. Dazzlement, anxiety, desperation, fear… I would have done some crazy-person things to ensure I got to continue to talk to Chris the first time we met.

So I do definitely believe in Love At First Sight, and I will defend it in YA stories. I want my characters to have that same hope coupled with doubt that I had, but underneath I want them to have an instant attraction to this person. A connection. A spark. Even if they both have to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, there needs to be a reason for these two strangers to start to care about each other, or else frankly often we’d have no story.

Sustaining Love: The problem with LAFS is that those stories can easily be all about the courting stage: Oh wow, they like each other! Oh no, there are obstacles! Will they get together? YES, they got together, hooray!

…Now what?

It’s absolutely fun to write about butterflies, tingling, and desire. Fun to go through it, fun to recall it, and fun to read about it. But for longer stories, eventually the two characters will have to settle down into day-to-day life with this love interest, and some stories just can’t survive that.

I see this happen a lot in book series. At the end of the first book, the characters get together. Yay! Then in the second book, circumstances arise that tear them apart. Will they get back together? Can they reconcile? End of the second book comes and YES they can and they did! Hooray!

But again… now what? That story isn’t about mature love. It’s about going through those butterflies and tingles again. It’s about desire, and ache, and blossoming relationships.

You know what I love? When characters maintain their relationships and have to deal with real challenges, but get over them together as a couple without being broken up.

One of my favorites here is in the Kushiel’s Dart series. After the two love interests get together, their faith in and support of each other helps them overcome the challenges of subsequent books. They spend a lot of time apart, but aren’t broken up, just supportive from afar. I liked seeing that MC go through personal challenges and missions, while desiring to get back to her life partner.

The Hunger Games is another example. Spoilers for those who haven’t finished the series!  I felt like the third book especially demonstrated Katniss with more mature-like relationships with her love interest. She and Gale partnered on various projects and missions. They trusted each other. They depended on each other. They had an unresolved romantic tension, yes, but I felt like their friendship could have easily transformed into a sustainable romance. In the end, of course, we learn along with Katniss that Gale’s actions have made him ineligible to be her partner, but then we get to witness another mature relationship between her and Peeta. It’s summarized, but we see them working together, supporting each other, and eventually guiding each other through parenthood.

Because I have lived through a relationship that started off with fuzziness and butterflies, and evolved through tribulation into a sustainable romance, I like to give my characters the same experience. I want the person they end up with to be a compatible life partner for them. Not someone to oggle at forever, but who they can talk with, laugh with, and work with. Someone they understand, but more importantly, someone they enjoy.

Even as a writer, even with 4 years to think about it, I am still unable to define exactly what it is that makes me love Chris. There’s just something about him I find fascinating and enjoyable. He’s not the same type of person as me. We often don’t think the same. Our ideological values are often different. But I love to hear his thoughts and get his opinion. Even the minutiae of his life is interesting to me, because it comes from him.

Chris delights me. It’s that delight I try to give to my characters… someone they bond with and enjoy, who can grow with them, and challenge them.

True relationships aren’t based off infatuation, but deep caring and a dedication to the long-term. And that’s what love has taught me :-)

<3, Savannah

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Why YA?

Every now and then you see an article crop up on the difference between YA and Adult; not just the technicalities, but the possibilities present in each genre. Today I’m adding my own voice to the discussion, based on some deep thinking I’ve done lately about YA.

I never used to call myself a YA writer, and not only because I didn’t know what YA was. I honestly thought I was an adult writer. Then I went through a really hard process where I had to fit NAMELESS into a single genre, and I’ll be honest, for a time I really struggled with what it meant for a story to be YA and have a YA voice.

Then came the sleeping beauty retelling. By this time I’d read enough YA, including the fabulous stories by my debut writer friends Kat Zhang and Susan Dennard. I didn’t see YA as a category for kids anymore. YA isn’t just sloppy paranormal romances and high school gossip books. YA has depth. Adventure. Freedom. And I found my YA voice through Rose, who taught me how to re-approach NAMELESS and rework it into the tone I needed.

Why do we write stories about teens? From an outsider’s perspective it might seem strange and/or creepy: what are grown men and women doing fetishizing the teenage experience? But then it occurred to me: We write about teenagers because they have a freedom that adults don’t have.

Yeah, adults can vote and legally drink alcohol and have the legal capacity to sign on the dotted line, but that’s not freedom. If Amanda, the 32-year-old marketing assistant with a husband and two-year-old child opened her closet one day to find a magical world asking her to come on an adventure this very second or never get the opportunity again, what would she do? She would have do decline.

Adults have responsibilities. They’ve made promises. Amanda can’t abandon her husband, her child, her job, her mortgage, her dog, etc., and go on some magical adventure.

But Kristen the teenager can. Sure, she’d miss her family and boyfriend and struggle to get back to them, but what does she really give up if she plunges through that portal? Kristen could hitchhike across the country, sign up to be a crew mate on a deep fishing boat, or join a team of deep space volunteers.

Adults may not like to think about it, but teens have a freedom adults do not (Not to say adulthood doesn’t come with its own freedoms. For example, I think it’s way more fun to be an adult than a teenager, in a non-magical setting). Teens have not yet tied themselves down.

Plus they’re the best-looking they’ll ever be, and their bodies typically don’t have chronic pain that would get in the way during escape scenes.

The kinds of stories I write (thus far) involve adventure, and coming into your own and figuring out how to love. Teens are doing all this for the first time, when everything is new and exciting and meaningful. Is it any wonder they’re more fun to work with?

I do plan on writing adult books (in the distant future, lol), but for now I’m happy and proud to call myself a Young Adult writer.