The Devil's Only Friend

I just finished reading THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND by Dan Wells. For those of you who enjoy the TV show The Following or are fascinated by serial killers, I recommend reading this series by starting with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. This story really stands out from others because the protagonist is 15 in the first book, which just adds a whole other level of creepiness to the story. Love it.

So let’s talk about the interesting things Wells does in this book. John Cleaver is a brilliant protagonist. While he is incapable of feeling empathy for those around him, he excels at figuring out how people think and using that against them. That’s how he thwarts the antagonists in the story. As such, John has to make many plans and then execute them flawlessly. All while trying not to give in to his dark nature.

With characters who are in this constant state of planning, there are a couple general methods writers use to make the execution of the plan interesting to the reader.

The first is to list out all the details of the plan for readers to see. This shows the character’s genius. But then, when it comes time to execute the plan, rather than bore readers by showing the plan that was just explained to them, something has to go horribly wrong. The plan has to change quickly, and that turn of events not only amps up the tension, but is great at making a book unputdownable.


Movie Fanfare

The second method is to simply not tell the reader the plan. Then when everything goes according to plan, it is still interesting and exciting because readers didn’t know the plan in the first place.

Like every time this chick


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outsmarts this guy.

Sherrif Don Lamb

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The third method is a little different, but it basically involves telling the reader the plan, without telling them the intended outcome.



And Dan Wells uses all three of these. Then on top of it, he breaks the rules to achieve his own desired outcome.

In some of the first pages of the book, John lays out his plan. He and his team are going to take out a bad guy, very simply but effectively. The plan really only has about three steps to it. The steps are laid out, then they’re performed perfectly, and the outcome is achieved just as they wished it to. But rather than this being boring, it was actually perfect for what I assume Wells was trying to achieve. He’s showing readers how these characters work. They’re a new team, but they’re really good at what they do. They make a plan, and the plan works. (It also helps that the plan and execution of that plan were quick, maybe just a couple pages. As a reader, I didn’t have a chance to get bored, and it was great for character development. Having every scene do more than one thing is very beneficial!)

But then, when it comes time to take out the next antagonist, things go wrong. This team that’s proven to be so effective and thorough messes up, and bad things happen as a result. The element that makes the plan go wrong hits you harder. You’re angry by the wrongness of it. After all, you’d just learned how effective the team is. You were wowed by their awesomeness.

Because of the consequences of this plan going wrong, John doubts his team. He thinks he’d be more effective if he didn’t rely on others. So he starts to make plans on his own. John will tell you what he wants to achieve, and then you learn how he gets there as he does it. There’s a new killer in town. John wants to communicate with him, but he has to break away from the team to do it. He strikes out on his own, and you don’t know how he’s going to do it until he’s already doing it.

And then my favorite part of the story happens at the very end. John is backed into a corner, you don’t know what the best possible outcome is for him. Can he even survive it? He starts carrying out a plan, but where is the plan going? What the heck is he doing? The tension builds and builds as you painfully wait for the consequences of the plan. But then, when it happens…it’s beautiful. So satisfying and fulfilling.

This character’s methods never get boring. Because even if it’s the same brilliance, there’s a different way for Wells to manifest that brilliance to manipulate the reader’s reactions to it. And it’s awesome.

As writers, it’s a good idea to be aware of these methods of executing plans within our novels. Whether we’re following the rules or breaking them for specific reasons, it still pays to know what else is being done out there.

I’m an Adult, and I Read YA

The other day I was talking to this guy. He tells me that I should read more sci-fi. I say, “Okay, can you recommend a good YA sci-fi for me?”

His response: “I don’t know about a YA sci-fi, but you could try [x book]. It’s an easy read.” (Emphasis added.)

And as Sarah so eloquently put it last week, “I have words.”

I am an adult. I’ll even go so far as to say that I am an intelligent adult. I don’t read YA because I need an easy read, and the fact that anyone would suggest that we read YA for this reason is just downright insulting. The fact that this person would insinuate that YA books are easier reads than adult books tells me one thing: this person has never read YA.

Because YA books have just as complex vocabulary and sentence structures as adult books. The characters are just as round, the world building just as vivid, the stakes just as high, the conflicts just as intriguing.

You know where I think YA most differs from A? The pacing.

YA does without all the fluff. Fluff’s not necessarily bad. It’s good to feel immersed in a world. To know the backgrounds of all the characters. To visualize the scenery as if it’s on a screen in front of you. Adult does a very good job of this. But YA tends to tell the readers only what’s necessary. It keeps things to the point and tends to have faster pacing as a result. You can say that this is the case because teenagers have shorter attention spans and authors need to hook them in faster, but I don’t think this is the case either. I think it’s just nice to read books that stick to the exciting bits you need to know and do away with the fluff.

There’s the short answer for why I read YA and how it differs from adult, but I’ll go on. Because I can.

Sure, YA books have protagonists that are teenagers, but as I said before, the stakes are just as high. The fate of the world is still on the line. But because it’s a teenager instead of an adult facing the problem, well, I find it even more fulfilling when the good guy saves the day. How exciting would it have been if Dumbledore killed Voldemort instead of seventeen-year-old Harry? What if it had been President Coin who had inspired an entire nation to rise up against its corrupt government instead of sixteen-year-old Katniss? Not as interesting, is it?

As a reader, I like to see lots of character growth. While there’s plenty of this to be found in adult, I think you can find even more of it in middle grade and YA. Because so much of our development happens during these years. Is a fifteen year old not vastly different from a sixteen year old? Whereas a twenty-eight year old hardly differs from a twenty-nine year old. Our teen protagonists can undergo so many changes throughout these years. It’s fun to read.

And reading about these younger years is interesting because of the struggles encountered during this time: first love, defining who you are, deciding whether your beliefs are worth fighting for, figuring out the adult you want to be. These are the years where this happens. This is where people start to think for themselves and become separate from their parents. This is a fascinating time in every person’s life.

Really now, would so many adults read YA if it was more childish and less intellectual? Most teen books are written by adult writers. You can learn just as profound of concepts and morals from YA as you can from A. As I said before, it can be even more inspiring and profound because it’s a younger, less experienced protagonist taking on a serious threat.

I say to you, random man whom I had a conversation with, go read some YA. Heck, I can recommend some good sci-fis for you. Because I have read some! Go read these:

Ender's Game Cinder_Cover Divergent Hunger_games legend Possession Steelheart The-Host

Go do some reading. Then just try to tell me that YA is an easy read.

How Young Adult Lit Isn’t Killing Adulthood

It seems like every couple of months, someone comes around to shame adult readers of YA for their choices in entertainment. When I heard about the most recent iteration of this—an article written by A. O. Scott in The New York Times last week—I sought out the article with a certainty that it would strike up enough rage for me to rant about in a post. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good rant? But then I read the article and the rage-monster inside of me never surfaced—instead my intellectual monster did—and she’s been rather dormant since I graduated nearly two years ago—so instead of amusing angry ranting, you’re about to get amusing intellectual ranting. Still with me? (Probably not, but I swear it won’t be boring, folks!)

The central premise of “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” is that American culture is killing adulthood—and it has  been for a long time. Even our canonized literature mocks the establishment of adulthood and society by heroizing boys and men who traipse around outside of society to have adventures (see Huck Finn, Moby Dick, the awful Leatherstocking Tales, among others). And looking at these books, most of which I studied in pursuit of my undergraduate degree, he makes a good point. The American literature canon is filled with countless works about exploring the unknown or going on great quests and adventures and generally shirking societal duty.

But at the same time, he kind of misses the point—and that’s what I want to talk about here. He describes current American adulthood and the YA genre—along with a handful of TV shows and dudebro comedy movies—as a sort of modern day Fountain of Youth. People aren’t growing up anymore. We’re growing older, certainly, but we’re not becoming adults.

Of course, anyone who’s even tangentially familiar with the great “Are Millennial the worst generation ever? EVER?” debate is familiar with this and I could probably paper your walls with a lengthy treatise on why this alleged eternal childhood of the Millennial is complete and utter bull crap, but now is not the time nor the place.

Instead, I want to talk about why Mr. Scott has got it wrong when it comes to YA.

So let’s lay out some facts for full disclosure. One: I’m an adult. I’m twenty-four, I’m married, I’ve graduated from college, and I pay taxes and my own rent. I think that unequivocally makes me an adult. Two: I adore young adult fiction. Three: I was an English major back when I was in school, so it’s pretty much second nature for me to break apart literature and examine it from all angles—even the literature I like. Even when I want to, I can rarely read things purely for pleasure. A part of my brain is always processing and deconstructing what I read.

I like to think that I’m the antithesis of what Mr. Scott thinks a YA-reading adult is.

Mr. Scott essentially describes YA literature as “literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality.” Included with this comparison is the assumption that those things are bad, but I’m just going to come out and say that they’re not. What’s bad about having stories wherein boys go on adventures and learn things (because in the YA I’ve read, at least, the learning things is always a crucial part of the story)? What’s wrong about stories about “female sentimentality” wherein girls talk honestly and openly about things that important to them? (And let’s not get me started on the raging misogyny in the assumption that anything that talks about “girl issues” is inherently ‘lesser.’)

I can see why these stories might not be for everyone, and I can see why some adults might eschew YA lit in lieu of something they feel more able to relate to, but let me be clear: YA is not mere escapism, nor is it a glorification of eternal childhood.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at one of the central facets of YA literature. In pretty much every YA book you’ll read, there’s an absence of adults. Adults pepper the background, of course, but they’re usually the antagonist, set dressing, or they’re there to impart vital information before dying. This lack of adults is essential to the genre because it forces our teenage protagonists to assume adult roles. (For an example of what happens when the adults don’t take the backseat, see Avatar: The Legend of Korra.) YA literature is full of teenagers who have to step up and save the world—or piece their lives back together in the case of contemporary YA—because the adults, to whom that role “rightly” belongs, are gone or incapable of filling that role. Harry has to defeat Voldemort alone because his adult mentors have died (and because the megalomaniac adult of Voldemort is hunting him down). Katniss must overthrow the government because the adults involved want to replace one corrupt government with another. Keladry of Mindelan (of my favorite Tamora Pierce books) must take a stand and stop the bullies and protect the small because the adults around her certainly aren’t doing it. Hazel Grace Lancaster must cope with the all-too-adult realities of love and death.

YA, at its heart, is not about teenagers enjoying their responsibility-free lives. It’s about teenagers having to step up and assume adult responsibilities because the adults around them are absent or incompetent.

At the end of his article, Mr Scott alludes to the idea that we’re having a “crisis of authority,” and that phrase struck me. YA fiction is about a crisis of authority. Everything from “teen girl problem novels” to the swamps of dystopian fiction are about navigating the waters when the authority figures you thought you could trust are no longer there for you. And you know what? That’s an important lesson for everyone to learn—for the children who have been let down or abused by the adults who they should have been able to trust, for the recent college graduates who are trying to find work and stability in one of the worst job markets this country has ever seen (especially when we’ve been told all our lives that we can do whatever we put our minds to), to the middle-aged adults who also face economic instability and a government that’s so self-destructive that it can’t really offer anyone anything.

We are having a crisis of authority—but that’s why we need YA literature more than ever.