Jun 10, 2010

YA - What To Do With the Parents

I recently entered a contest where the first few pages of my novel was critiqued by an agent. I've had this novel read by my critique group, several writing friends and the editor of a publishing company and not one person made a comment on how convenient it was that the main character's parents weren't around. This agent did and HATED IT.

The novel is BLOOD BOUND, a YA paranormal romance where the main character's father died when she was four and her mother ran off with her flavor-of-the-month boyfriend. This happened about six months before the story begins, leaving a 17 year-old alone. This is important, not because she needs her freedom, but because it's necessary for her to feel abandoned. It's part of the plot. It's also important that her mother chose that kind of lifestyle because Kira (MC) has watched her mother go through men like candy her whole life and because of it, Kira has chosen to be chaste and hold herself to higher standards than most girls her age. She wants ONE man and that man to be her mate forever. GO OCTAVION! (the hunky hero)

Also, as the story develops, Kira's independence is pivotal to some choices she makes, one of which thrusts her into another world. Having no ties to this world makes that choice believable.

So, when I read this agent's comments I was a little upset at first. I thought I'd have to recreate the entire story if this is how ALL agents feel. But then I thought of some other books I've read, one of which was made into a movie . . . Where the Heart Is. You might remember it as the girl who lived in Walmart and had her baby there. I believe it was based on a true story, so maybe that's where I went wrong. There's a saying that goes: "The difference between Fiction and reality (non-fiction) is that Fiction has to be believable."

So, I'm curious how you deal with the parent issue in your YA work. It seems like almost every book I read, the parents are always gone. Either they work too much, or are irresponsible, or don't care or travel afar. Aren't those ALL cliche? Tell me your take on all this. I really want to know.


  1. The parents can either be at work all day. Especially if it's a single parent. Or my kids magically entered a new world and the parent's didn't.

    There can be an absentee parent- like always gone dating or alcoholic etc...

    There are easy ways around this. You could have your girl's mother still be around, once in a while, but totally unconcerned about her daughter.

  2. I have also seen discussions about this trend in YA (conveniently missing parents). One series that comes to mind where the parents are not only present, but very concerned about their boy, and even quite supportive is "The 13th Reality".

    It makes me wonder a little bit about my books. I need to be sure I am not killing off any more parents. :)

  3. Hm, good thoughts. I think for me, it depends on WHY the parents are absent. If it feels like the author just trying to get them out of the way so the teen can run off on cool adventures, I can tell and it irritates me.

    If there's a reason that makes sense within the world of the book, I don't usually think about it. For example, in the Uglies series, Tally's parents aren't around much (though they do make an appearance) simply because of how the world is structured.

    I have read some recent YA where the parents are a part of the book, like The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Feed. It was pulled off well, though I understand why in many YA's the parents are absent.

    Though I haven't read your novel, it sounds to me like your absentee parent situation could work! Good luck!

  4. I don't think there's anything wrong w/ having the parents conveniently gone. even if they're not gone, unless the YA book is about teen/parent relationships, their presence isn't highly noted anyway.

    I think this was just one agent's personal preference. I would just make sure she's got some legal guardian. Unless she's hiding from DHS (which is possible), they're not going to let her raise herself. Maybe that's what the agent meant.

  5. I have to say I agree with the agent. Now remember, I don't know the full storyline - but just because the mom is boy crazy doesn't mean she has to be negligent with her daughter - leaving her behind. There are plenty of stories that have the mom present who the kids hate the stream of guys that come through their home. So for me, there has to be another compelling reason why she leaves her daughter behind - an addiction, she blames the father's death on the daughter and can't stand to see her, thinks of her daughter as competition with her men, etc. But it has to be a good strong motivation.

    Once that's in place, I think she could easily be an on-again, off-again mom. Sometimes she's around, sometimes she's gone for one, two or ten days at a time. Kira just never knows. And the mom is just like, "Oh you're here. Why isn't the fridge stocked?"

    So for me, I think I want to see more from the mom's side and why she makes her choices.

  6. I would say it depends on whether or not this agent is important to you. Do you want to change the story based on one agent? The premise behind your book makes sense - so how can it be cliche? I keep going back to Elana (179 query letters-she's my hero and I don't think she know it. LOL) She received ALOT of no's and I'm sure they weren't all pretty, right? Chin up. =D

  7. It could just be the agent's perspective. Maybe she's seen too many stories with conveniently absent parents for it to come across as believable. To me, your situation as described is utterly believable. I had a friend in that same boat, except his dad went to prison--he didn't die.

    In mine, Krystal's father died when she was 7, but her mother slowly went blind. Her mother never overcame her blindness or her grief at losing her husband, and pretty much withdrew from her family. This left her oldest son in charge of the family and the farm and her daughter in charge of the "women's work." Krystal is responsible for her mother in many ways, rather than the other way around. This provides an interesting dynamic for her character.

    I like Melissa's suggestion, where mom is around sparsely, so the child is essentially on her own but mom does have a presence in her life.

  8. Warning statement: This is all my opinion and, if you're like others, it will be ignored.

    I think the mother shouldn't run off with the flavor of the month. But that she should always be gone. I.E., there is evidence that she occasionally comes home, but never when MC is there. Mother conveniently gone (what you want) but still exists (what agent wants).

  9. The truth is if a parent is physically present, but not emotionally connected to their child, you still have plenty to work with on abandonment issues. And mom can still go through men like candy--so you don't have to change that aspect of your MC's belief system. :)

  10. Well here's the thing... while those might be serious cliches, you still have parents around. Lack of supervision is optional, but the parents are THERE. I mean, "Where The Heart Is" is a good story, but you don't ever hear what happened to her father. The mother shows up because she knows she can get some money out of the deal. But who's to say that her father wasn't there and died later on? I love that movie. If she does mention the father, I don't recall, but that would be something. You are given the option of at least thinking the father was around, even if he wasn't an integral part of her life.
    So to have parents conveniently off doing their own thing or having passed on seems to leave the YA out there in limbo. If the parents are there, but don't care, there is still a parent there. And most parents, in real life, even if they don't care or are too busy, if something were to happen to their kid, their protective instincts do kick in and they'll step into action.
    I read "Wake" and didn't like how the mother was an alcoholic and not always around, but near the end, the girl's mother said something to her daughter, letting the girl know that while she may be unavailable emotionally and physically.. mentally she still cared. Perhaps that is what this agent didn't like?

  11. Remember that reading tastes and everything are very subjective. I know there are issues with absentee parents in YA story. But there are also very real-life scenarios in which these circumstances are happening.

    I have a more simple solution, maybe. Since your book is a crossover anyway, why not make the MC 18 instead of 17--thus giving the mom a reason to disappear, since her daughter is officially an adult? And also, whoever suggested that she's a threat to mom because she's younger and becoming beautiful (even if she doesn't know it) is a believable thing too. Use both together, and it's solid.

    Not that it wasn't solid before. You need to do it how it has to be. You'll find an agent. I know it!

  12. I read a book called the secret circle where the girl has freedom from parents because the mother isn't so interested in the stress of raising her daughter, then goes into a coma like trance for the rest of the story and the grandmohter is there for part of the story then later she dies. She is off doing her own thing most of the time anyway. Or you could have her shipped off to a school somewhere where her parents aren't involved in what she is doing at the school. I read a book Eternal where the girl just dissappears and you never hear about her "mortal" parents again...published book I might add =0) Good luck! You book sounds great!
    Debbie Davis

  13. Hmm. Maybe if you have a scene showing the Mom leaving. Make it believable, the circumstances, the emotions... a memory or flashback or just the opening scene, and then fast forward to now. Maybe you could even drop in some sort of clue about how that event would change everything (a key to the paranormal part)?
    It's tricky, what to give for an agent or publisher. The fact that you're asking for ideas says you're open to possibilities.

  14. Wow! You guys have left some really great comments. They've all got me thinking about what to do next. I think I'll wait until I hear from a couple more agents. If I get all rejections or no requests for partials, then I'll go back and do some major rewrites. I may do as Nichole suggested and make her 18. This novel was originally adult and I'm pitching it to YA with the possibility of being a cross over into NEW ADULT. In the original version, Kira was 21. So, I'll just have to keep playing with it and see what happens.

    Any other ideas are more than welcome. Thanks again.

  15. Having read the story, I actually liked the mom abandoning her the way she did because it made Kira's reactions more believable to me. Plus, I love a wounded character that has a chance to grow and has to fight for trust and love. Kira does that and for me, it worked.

    I can't speak for agents but I can speak for myself and well, I guess I just did. ;)

  16. I agree with your idea of pitching it more and see if you get similar responses. Because it is very subjective. It sounds like the abandonment has a big part in who your character is.

  17. You are right, having absent parents is cliche, but you need her to have that feeling of abandonment! You can mention this in her internalization or during dialogue sometime in the beginning when they are up in the mountains taking photographs.

    Have the Lydia say with concern as she quickly shoots her a glance from her camera, "Aw, are you thinking about your parents again?"

    Kira blushes. "Is it that obvious?"

    Lydia gives her a sad smile. "I must confess that I don't know how it feels to be so alone--my parents are so around. C'mere..." She gives Kira a tight squeeze.

    Kira sniffs. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Lydia. I mean, you're all I have."

    LOL. Something like that. ;)

  18. I understand that Kira's mother is gone because it is necessary for your MC to feel abandoned, and that it is necessary for Kira to choose to be chaste and to want one man. The mother is promiscuous. Promiscuous persons are completely unreliable, undependable, selfish, vain, impetuous, self-absorbed, immature...need we go on? She has no thought for her daughter and is too caught up in her own desires (and activities) to listen to her daughter or even take notice for one second of her. It makes complete sense to me that this character is gone without even a goodbye to her daughter and maybe not even a note; just one day her clothes and makeup are gone from the house. Even though Kira knows this side of her mom the pain is still excruciating--and it will be for years to come. Does that memory ever leave? Does that rejection ever fade into acceptance?

    Maybe you need to be slightly rougher in regards to Kira's flashbacks of her mom, or maybe show a few more break-down moments of Kira, or make the moments you have even more emotional to convince the agent that your plot is correct. It sounds good to me. Now how do I sign this anonymous?

  19. Emotional abandonment can be as devastating as physical abandonment--and less 'obvious' to those looking in from the outside: "She may have lost her father but at least she still has her mother."

    In fact, someone dealing with emotional detachment/abandonment issues with a parent might have a hard time convincing others just how devastating it is when the parent is present--and this would certainly be impetus to escape or find a way out, at any cost, considering the pain of living with someone who is ultimately 'unreachable.'

  20. My novel is for 4th to 6th graders, roughly 11 to 14. It’s paranormal adventure. I needed the parents gone for good to show how bad the bad guy is and introduce the woman who will teach them how to survive in their new life as children vampires.

    Mother and Father die is chapter five at the vampire lord’s hands (or is that teeth?).

  21. Am I a bad friend or a poor rememberer, I don't recall anything about what I read (3 months ago) with Kira's parents being gone-I only remember Kira and her friend being attacked on the mountain.

    Did I read a different portion?

  22. Christine--congrats on getting an agent's attention. I think there are some great thoughts here and I'd just add that maybe if you could insert a few scenes where the mom is coming back and forth it would make the whole abandonment issue more realistic.
    But do what feels right. I remember a certain book--it sold a few copies--called Twilight...hmmm, the mother was conveniently gone there too. :) But it was done in a believable way and Bella's mom still showed up here and there in the story.
    Good luck!

  23. The trend has been that parents in Middle Grade and Young Adult need to somehow be absent so the MC is forced to act and react on their own. Perhaps this is a swing back from that extreme. ??