Posts Tagged ‘YA’

It’s that exciting time when I review the list of books I’ve read this year and share some of my favorites. Basically this is an excuse for me to talk about books I love, which is a particularly enjoyable activity. So enjoyable, in fact, that this year I’m going to write two lists: one of the Middle Grade and Young Adult books that I loved, and one of the adult books I loved.

Yes, it was a very good reading year, and I can’t narrow down any further than that.

Today I’m sharing my top list of YA and MG novels I’ve read for the first time in the last year. And it’s such a good list, it makes me happy just to contemplate it.

Honorable Mentions:

Legend, by Marie Lu. YA dystopia
Entertaining adventure story.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. YA fantasy
Very evocative writing, strong settings, enjoyable sense of wonder. I’m not generally a fan of long flashbacks, though.

My Top Ten:

The Skull of Truth, by Bruce Coville. MG fantasy
I heard Bruce Coville speak at a SCBWI conference, which motivated me to try his books. This one is probably my favorite so far. Clean, engaging writing, a fun plot, and I adore the skull character so much.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley. YA fantasy
What stands out in my memory about this novel is its unique voice and its strong sense of setting. Haunting.

Black Heart, by Holly Black. YA fantasy
The third book of a trilogy that always ends up on my year’s best lists. Holly Black brings her story to a close in a satisfying way, and the magic system continues to enchant me.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. YA contemporary
I read this for a book club, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a novel told in a series of letters sent to a stranger, and we get a deep look into the protagonist’s head and heart, cracks and all. It’s one of the best books I’ve read at catching the deep confusion of being a teenager.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore . YA fantasy
This is a complex, layered novel about the recovery from trauma, both of a nation and of a teenaged girl. It doesn’t rush or skirt away from the hard questions.

Every Day, by David Levithan. YA fantasy
The writing is good, but what makes this novel is its central conceit: that every day, the main character (who is genderless) moves into a different person’s body. Fascinating exploration of identity, morality, and love.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. YA contemporary
I wrote about this novel here. I am not the only person who thinks this book is brilliant.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green. YA contemporary
Oh, John Green. This book is also brilliant. The voice, the characters, the themes, the setting. This is a book that rips your heart out and makes you wiser because of it.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente. MG fantasy
This book is both beautiful and clever. It reminds me a bit of the Oz books in terms of its narrative style (omniscient) and sense of wonder, but with more modern sensibilities and better plotting. And it really is so insightful and clever, with a heroine that I want to spend lots of time with. (In fact, I have the next book in the series, it’s a minor miracle I haven’t read it yet.)

A Monster Calls and mask
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. MG…contemporary w/ fantasy elements? You decide.
This book broke my heart. It delivered my most powerful emotional reading experience of the year. It uses the fantastic as metaphor in truly masterful fashion. You want to read the physical version of this book, not the electronic one, because of the beautiful artwork that really adds to the story.

What were your favorite YA and MG books you read this year?


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Last week I read John Green’s new novel, The Fault in our Stars.

This is not a review.

After I had read the first twenty-one pages, I told my husband this was going to be the best book I’d read all year.

A little while later I went to the bookstore and bought the hard copy because if Amazon ever disappears and I no longer have access to my e-books, not having this novel would be a particular tragedy. Also, I wanted to hold the tangible printed version in my hands.

When I was twelve, I started writing a novel from the point of view a girl about my age who had been diagnosed as HIV positive. I didn’t get very far with it, but it has lived on in my mind ever since. So when I heard the premise of The Fault in our Stars, I knew I had to read it. It is a novel from the point of view of a girl of sixteen who has terminal cancer. It is a heart sister to the novel I never wrote, that I couldn’t write, and the fact that it exists makes me breathe more freely.

This novel is not a sappy issue book that makes you want to yell at it as if it is conscious before you hurl it across the room and mope.

This novel is not an easy book to read. I can only imagine what it must have been like to write.

This novel is not perfect. Our protagonist says at one point that the movie V for Vendetta is a boy movie. I completely disagree. Of course, one could argue that this slight blemish makes the book even more perfect.

If you talk like either of the two main characters and/or think about the things they think about, I want to be your friend. We can go to a coffee shop every week and have deep existential conversations in between making ironic statements that have us internally rolling on the floor even though on the outside we only cue our mirth with a certain type of smile. If you don’t live nearby, you should move here. It will be worth it.

Also, when you worry about what your life means or may mean or may not mean, I will hold your hand, if you will hold mine.

In the meantime, enjoy this novel. Its construction is a miracle to behold. It has layers upon layers, a story within a story (and then some). It plays with language. It is a brave book. It talks about things that matter that maybe most people don’t want to talk about, like death and dying and illness and meaning and love that lasts through it all. It does not flinch away.

This book punched my heart even while it fed it. Or it filled it up till brimming even while it broke it.

Thank you, John Green.

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What is that elusive concept in writing known as voice? Plot, character, setting, world building, theme: all of these aspects of fiction, while complicated in their own right, are at least fairly simple to explain as basic concepts. But for me, voice has always been trickier to talk about in an intelligent way. I know it when I see it, but what is it that I’m noticing?

First, I’d like to differentiate between authorial voice and narrative voice. By authorial voice, I mean a way of writing that is unique to the author, so that you can read a story by him and know who wrote it by how it is written. Ernest Hemingway has a particularly distinctive authorial voice. So does Herman Melville. By narrative voice, I mean the voice of the protaganists in the story. In first person, this voice completely permeates the text, but even in close third, the descriptions and prose will be affected by whose point of view we are in. (Don’t take these definitions as a golden standard, by the way; the internet disagrees about what these terms mean, so I’m merely sharing my own personal definitions so we can understand each other.)

When we talk about voice in YA, the voice we are usually talking about is narrative voice, not authorial voice. The narrative voice will change from novel to novel and story to story by the same author (except in series). For example, the narrative voice in M.T. Anderson’s Feed is very distinct from the narrative voice in his Octavian Nothing novels.

What does the world look like through her eyes?

So what aspects contribute to a specific narrative voice?

1. Vocabulary and word choice, aka diction: What is this character’s likely vocabulary? What words does this character use that may be unique to her world? How much slang is used? How can the choice of words reflect this character’s reality?

2.  Range of language: Possibly a subset of word choice. How does this character speak differently to different sets of people? How does this character’s thoughts differ from what he says out loud? Does the range of language change over the course of the story in reaction to external events?

3. World view/perspective and experience: The perspectives of the character reflect themselves in the voice. This includes her backstory, her priorities (look at how obsessed with food Katniss is in The Hunger Games, for example) and views of the world.

4. Psychic distance (a term coined by John Gardner): This refers to the distance the reader is held from the story and is related to POV. In YA, this distance tends to be close and  immediate, which is why first person is so popular in the genre.

5. Syntax/sentence length and pacing/density of prose: YA tends to be less densely packed than some adult fiction; to see what I mean, compare Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner (MG, but still a good example) to his adult The Dervish House, or Paolo Bacigaluipi’s Shipbreaker with his adult The Wind-up Girl. Pacing in YA tends to be on the faster side, although there is plenty of adult fiction that is paced just as fast or faster (and there are the occasional slow YAs). Boy books in particular tend towards the fast paced.

6. Maturation of voice over the course of the narrative: Because most YAs are, at least in part, coming of age stories, the voice generally changes as a consequence of maturation and realizations. The change is often subtle.

7. Emotional urgency: YA highlights emotional urgency. Everything is a big deal or the end of the world because the protaganist lacks the experience to see things differently. Speculative YA often literalizes the metaphor and deals with the actual end of the world or life and death situations.

8. Dialogue: The dialogue in fiction directly illustrates the characters’ personalities and way of speaking. It allows us to experience their actual out-loud voice.

9. Interior monologue: This is a critical component of voice in YA. It is used to convey a character’s reactions, emotions, judgments, perspective, and sense of humor. It shows how a character feels about herself as well as the world around her. It allows the readers to understand and feel for the protagonist. (And according to agent Krista Marino, this is the aspect of voice that is most often missing from YA manuscripts that she reads.)

As you can see, voice and character are inextricably linked. In order to be effective, the narrative voice must fit the character, sound like the character, and reveal the character. The better you the writer know the character, the more likely an authentic voice will emerge in your work. (Or conversely, sometimes you may grow to know the character through his voice, depending on how you work.) YA voice in particular is very close to the protagonist(s), very emotionally immediate, and reflects the unique experience of a person in her teens. The voice in YA often changes and matures over the course of the story, and spends time focusing on the internal dialogue of the protagonist as well as the external dialogue.

What did I miss? Please feel free to weigh in.

Further Reading/References:

Perfecting Your YA Voice Part 1, by Ingrid Sundberg

Perfecting Your YA Voice Part 2, by Ingrid Sundberg

Evolving Voice in the Young Adult Novel, by Swati Avasthi

YA vs. Adult: Do You Have the Voice?, by Heather Howland

Narrative Voice and Authorial Voice, by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake (This article talks about both narrative and authorial voice, but while I’m a bit unclear as to its actual definitions of the terms, I believe they are different than the definitions I use above.)

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I was talking to a new friend at Epic ConFusion about YA and the difficulties that many newcomers to the genre (especially those writers who started in adult markets) have in identifying it. This may be the reason why we keep getting these awful panels at sf/f cons that devolve into an hour-long discussion trying to differentiate between Middle Grade and YA (even though that is not the topic) or complaining about Twilight (which has gotten to be quite old hat). In an amazing recent SF Signal roundtable (which I hope to blog about more extensively soon-ish), Malinda Lo said, “Perhaps I’m the odd one out, but I guess I don’t think the definition of YA is that hard to pin down. I feel that publishers and the YA community have a pretty clear idea of what it is, and it’s folks who are new to YA who don’t understand and often make assumptions about what it is and who reads it.” Which is exactly the problem: the YA community knows exactly what YA is, but writers from other communities? Maybe not so much.

I’ve spent the last three years reading YA (and a bit of MG on the side) voraciously, and so yes, I have a pretty clear idea of what YA is. I told my friend that many times, the place where writers go wrong when trying to write YA is the voice of their novel. When trying to quantify that more for him, I could only say, “I know it when I see it.”

While it’s nice for me to be able to know it when I see it, that assertion is problematic on a few levels. It means I can say, “No, this isn’t really a YA voice,” but then draw a blank when I have to explain why that is so (not so helpful for other writers, is it?). It also means that I can’t work as concretely on improving my own YA voice. So obviously working to analyze what YA fiction really is and breaking down the different components that contribute to a YA voice is very useful. I’ve always wanted to attend a panel titled “The Differences Between Adult and YA Fiction,” but I haven’t seen it yet. So consider this that panel, and hopefully I can encourage others who know YA well to contribute to the conversation in the comments.

Yay, reading!

So what makes YA different than adult fiction?

1. The age of the protagonist: In YA, the protagonist is almost always a teenager, theoretically 14-18 years old. In practice, I haven’t seen that many 14-year-old protags–they indicate borderline Middle Grade (which is for readers age 8-12, and these kids tend to read up) and tends to read on the youngest side of YA at best. So practically speaking, 15-18. In a novel set in the modern world or its equivalent, the protagonist is always a high schooler. The summer after high school is fair game, but anything beyond that (read: college) is usually not done (which is another post of its own).

2. POV and tense: Arguably the most trendy POV and tense in YA right now is first person present tense (although I’m seeing something of a move away from it recently). First person past tense and limited/close third person past tense are also okay. Omniscient is out of fashion just like it is in adult fiction. Most novels limit themselves to one or two POV characters. If there are two POV characters, they often (but not always) change in alternate chapters. A trend right now is to have one female and one male POV that alternate chapters.

3. Tone: YA fiction can run the gamut between very light and very dark. It’s hard to go too dark, and there are very few taboo subjects.

4. Theme: YA fiction covers many themes, but very often feature some kind of coming-of-age plot. The teenage protagonist vs. society is also very popular (hence the dystopia, for example), as are issues of identity, peer relationships, and romance.

5. Genre: The most popular genres right now are paranormal and dystopian. The dystopias are beginning to show more sf-nal elements (yay for YA in space!), but dystopias and post-apocalypses are still the most common. There are also the high fantasies and the historicals (historicals w/ fantasy elements are probably more popular than the straight ones). In contemporary, we have the “issue” books, the romances, the thrillers, and the just plain contemporary books.

6. Boy books vs. girl books: I hate that this divide exists, but it does. Boy books usually have a male protagonist, and get readers of both genders. Girl books are more likely to have a mostly female audience. Boy books tend to be more externally focused, plot focused, and full of action. They often read a bit younger to me than girl books. Girl books tend to be more internally focused and usually include a romantic element. Some books lie somewhere in the middle and are particularly awesome. For example, John Green tends to write contemporary novels with male protags who are more internally focused, and The Hunger Games has a female protag and is full of action; there is a love triangle, but it’s not the primary focus of the story. (This is also its own blog post, and a super touchy subject, so keep in mind I’m doing a fast and dirty summary, and there are many exceptions. That being said, people in the industry do talk about “boy” books, so it’s a reality in the marketplace right now.)

7. Narrative Voice

We can see from looking at the above list how critical narrative voice actually is. YA is basically a teenage character reflected in the narrative voice of the novel who is embroiled in a plot that is relevant to them. Krista Marino says, “An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.” It follows, then, that a YA novel is filtered through the immediate viewpoint of a teenager. And so much of how that viewpoint is expressed is through voice.

Next time, I’m going to break down voice into various aspects so we can hopefully gain a better understanding of what it is and how it contributes to that YA feel of “I know it when I see it.” In the meantime, please feel free to comment below and tell me your opinion: what I missed, what I got wrong, examples in current YA novels, questions, etc.

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A friend of mine wrote me awhile back and asked me if I could write a post about resources for the YA writer. I’ll admit, I was stymied. In spite of the fact that I began writing in the YA genre, and as such it is my first true literary love, I realized I didn’t know nearly the number of resources that I could spout if he had asked the same question about speculative fiction. There is SCBWI, of course, the teenlitauthors yahoo group (although it tends to get a bit bogged down with congratulations and personal news), and Vera Kay’s Blueboards (where I’ve rarely been active). I’m sure there must be how-to-do-it books on YA (mustn’t there?), but I’ve never read them. Likewise, there must be various relevant blogs, but the few truly YA-focused ones I used to read are rarely if ever updated anymore.

Meanwhile, YA continues to be hot, hot, hot, even while agents and editors are cautioning writers that there is a glut of YA, and maybe writing some quality MG wouldn’t be a bad idea right around now. They say this at conferences, in any case, but I’m still hearing stories of agents recommending that their actual clients write YA, even if they’ve gotten their start in writing for adults. (Which incidentally tends to make me cringe. I understand intellectually that there is more money for fiction writers in YA, and the sales might be easier to make due to the aforementioned hotness, so it makes sense from a business perspective. But I’d like to think there’s more to writing YA than just good business sense; that it’s the end result of receiving a calling, of having some kind of affinity to teenagers, of what kind of stories a writer deeply desires to tell. I’m not saying a writer can’t write both YA and adult fiction–I do that myself. I just want it to be a case of good business uniting with a true interest in writing for teens. But I digress.)

I could write another whole post on the differences between the speculative and YA communities from where I sit (and maybe I will), but the fact remains that I don’t have a treasure trove of resources to share. Instead I will give three pieces of advice (which you can take or leave), advice that unfortunately does not offer any shortcuts but has helped me learn more about YA in the last three years than anything else.

READ YA. Read a lot of it. Read MODERN YA written and published in the last ten or so years (at least some of which has been published in the last three years) so you know what’s going on now instead of what was going on when you were a kid (trust me, unless you’re close to being a teenager yourself, it is different now). Read some MG (Middle grade) so that you understand the difference through examples instead of relying only on my handy-dandy list. Read different genres of YA; you might only be interested in writing science fiction YA, but read at least a few paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary novels as well. Read a few of the really “girly” book series so you know what’s going on there. Read the blockbusters of the field. I don’t care if you don’t like Twilight; if you want to write YA, you should read it anyway (at least the first one) so you can understand what about it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time and understand the ripples it generated (and still generates). Likewise, you should read The Hunger Games, and even though much of it is MG (in my opinion), you should read at least some of the Harry Potter books. Then go read some obscure titles no one has heard of.

STEEP YOURSELF IN TEEN-NESS. If you haven’t spent any in-person time with teens since you were a teenager yourself, it’s time to change that. I don’t care how–you can hang out with a family member, volunteer, teach a class, offer to mentor a teen writer. If all else fails, you can scout out where the local teens hang out after school, go there, and shamelessly eavesdrop. You can watch TV shows and movies targeted at teens (just NOT during your writing time, please): Buffy the Vampire Slayer is old school but still helpful, and lately I’ve been spending time watching Veronica Mars, Glee, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl (and I’m sure there are others). I don’t watch these shows thinking they are necessarily a realistic representation of teenage life, but to watch for more widespread trends: how do relationships/hook-ups work now? how do teens use technology? what are the latest fashion trends and the current slang? how do the characters speak to each other? what issues tap into today’s teen experience that might be a little different from your own teenage years? Sure, if you’re writing a far future dystopic novel, today’s slang might not be so relevant, but it’s still important to try to understand how your readers see themselves now.

REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE. Not just the clichés, and not from a superior, “now I’m a wise and mature adult” perspective. How can you understand as deeply if you’re looking down at someone? No, exercise that empathy muscle and try to remember how you actually felt: the frustration of not having complete power over your life, even if you were spending a lot of time watching adults royally screw up; the surging hormones and confusion when trying to deal with lust and affairs of the heart; the uncertainty of not knowing exactly who you were and how you fit into the larger world (or perhaps bending self perception of who you were to fit into a fantasy); the endemic unfairness; the world-crushing importance of everything going on in your life; the huge milestones bearing down on you, one after another (and whether you looked on them with excitement, horror, or a co-mingling of the two). And then remember that all of the above plays out differently for different people, both in terms of which ones are relevant to each person and what’s going on inside versus the show they’re putting on for the outside.

That’s all I’ve got. If you know of any YA resources I didn’t mention, please give them a shout-out below. Also, if you think all a modern YA writer needs to read is the juvenile Heinlein oeuvre, tell me that too because then we can have a truly epic argument.

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I’m freshly back from the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, where, as expected, I had a lot of conversations about writing. And even some conversations about writing YA (aka teen fiction). At one point, I said, “One of the most critical things in a YA novel is to get the voice right.” And my friend said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m pretty sure I got it right. My protag is a whiny teenager.” The conversation quickly moved on to other subjects.
However, this reminded me about one of my pet peeves regarding would-be writers of YA. Why is it that so many of them assume that all (or even most) teens are so easily characterized as consistently whiny? And inevitably, if they’re not whiny, they must be snarky. Or ideally both whiny AND snarky.

Why, if these writers have such a low opinion and one-dimensional idea of teenagers as whiny butts, are they writing teen characters for a teen audience? Why? Please explain, because I fail to understand how this would be fun for either the writer or their prospective readers.

Yes, teenagers can be whiny. Some teenagers whine a lot. But you know what? Sometimes adults whine a lot too. Believe me, I’ve listened to them. Sometimes even I whine more than I should. But some teenagers rarely if ever whine, and some teenagers only whine sometimes, and some teenagers whine mostly to their parents. So if you want to write a teenage character who happens to be a very whiny person, fine, but that doesn’t mean you’ve nailed the elusive teen voice. If anything, it means that you’re going to have to be careful that your character doesn’t become really annoying to your readers. Because guess what? Teenagers can be annoyed by whining too.

As for snark, well, I like it as well as the next person. It’s entertaining, it’s funny, and a snarky character can be very engaging and likeable. But not all teenage characters have to be snarky. Depending on their backgrounds, their environments, and the stories you want to tell about them, it might even be impossible for them to be snarky. And adding more snark is not necessarily the way to go either (a lesson I have learned the hard way). Too much snark and a character might just be plain mean. Not to say that you can’t have mean characters, but you want to write a character mean because you’ve decided they’re going to be mean right then, not accidentally because you’re piling on the snark in an effort to be funny or edgy or have “an authentic teen voice.”

Perhaps these terms are mere shorthands that we fall back upon when trying to communicate about our writing. But I’d encourage writers who are trying their hands at YA (and more and more of them are, given its hotness in the book marketplace) to develop a more nuanced view of the teenagers they are writing for and about. I’ve worked with a lot of teens over the years, and you know what? Some of them are super sarcastic, or complain a lot, or are scattered and irresponsible. And some of them are brilliant and talented and working really hard and rising to the challenge of coping with difficult circumstances. All teenagers have some combination of positive traits and drawbacks, just as all adults do. But when they think about themselves, do you think the first word that pops into their heads is “whiny?” I doubt it, but perhaps they would be justified if the first word they think about adults is “condescending.”

Our job as YA writers is not to condescend but to understand. And in my mind, that’s a very big difference.

Disagree with me in the comments, or chime in and tell me that I’m not the only writer who thinks this way.

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Why I Write YA

Ooh, it’s reader question time! I adore good reader questions. Derek asks, “I’m rather curious about the distinction between YA and “regular”/adult fiction writing.  What makes you prefer one over the other?” (He actually asked a couple other really good questions about YA too, but I’m going to save them for another post.) I have blogged about why I like to read YA, but not why I like to write it. One of my first reactions was that I don’t necessarily prefer writing YA to writing adult fiction, but then I thought about it some more, and yeah, I kind of do prefer it. We will pass very quickly over my one attempt at writing an adult novel, which was an unmitigated disaster, and take a look at my short fiction, which I write to sell to so-called “adult” markets. Even so, most of my short stories include characters who are kids, teens, or college-aged. Not all, but most.

I think the reason for this preference is that I love teenagers. A lot of adults look at me kind of funny when I make statements like this (especially if they are parents of teenage children), but there it is. I think teenagers are great. I love teaching teenagers; as a group, they have consistently been my favorite age to teach (and I add preteens into this group, so think ages 11-18 or so).

Teenagers are so inspiring to me. They have most of their lives in front of them, and they genuinely believe they can accomplish great things. Many of them are passionate and smart, ambitious and driven. Sometimes they are complete wrecks, but they haven’t ossified into their wreckitude.  They also haven’t developed the thicker persona that so many adults have, so they feel very, very real. They’re in the thick of trying to figure stuff out, complicated life stuff, and their emotions are flying all over the place, and who knows how it will all end up? Teenagers are exciting.

In a typical conversation with a teenager, they’ll talk about their friends and some recent friend/boy drama, or they’ll talk about school work. They’ll talk about their interests with huge amounts of enthusiasm once they’ve gotten comfortable with you. They’ll talk about their plans and/or dreams for the future, they’ll talk about the problems they’re having with their parents, they’ll talk about prom (or fill-in-the-blank Big Event). They laugh a lot and still know how to be silly. Sometimes they cry too, because they’re not all about keeping up that perfect veneer. Sometimes they’re flaky and irresponsible, but they’re still learning so at least they might not be forever flakes. They literally vibrate with possibility.

Contrast that with adults, with whom I might normally converse about the weather, or health problems, or their crappy jobs, or home improvements, or “what do you do for a living,” and really the only question remaining in my mind is, why don’t more people prefer teenagers since they are obviously so much more interesting? I’m the kind of person who is always changing and afraid of stagnation. I’m not saying I always like change, but I’m fascinated by it and ultimately see it as a positive thing. I get excited when other people are changing too. And pretty much all teenagers are changing, whether they like it or not.

Luckily I know many interesting adults too (and no, I’m not just saying that), but I find the teenage years to be of inherent interest and inherent conflict. And inherent conflict and characters in the throes of change theoretically lead to riveting story; it’s a little more complicated than that, obviously, but it’s one of my strongest reasons for liking to write YA.

What about you? Why do you like to read and/or write in your genre(s) of choice?

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