I’m going to get this out of the way before Wednesday night

I liked The Battle of Five Armies.

No, it wasn't perfect, but even imperfect, I believe it's a better retelling than the original book (as I’ve said before).

And let's be honest: I don't want perfection in creative stuff – I want creative stuff – I want invention and experimentation and the unexpected.

I don't want The Hobbit copy-pasted onto a movie screen and, (thankfully) that's certainly not what Peter Jackson gave us.

  • He gave us love where Tolkien never thought to invest it.
  • He gave Legolas a reason to defy his father and ride to Rivendell in fifty years.
  • He gave the Arkenstone more meaning and more merit.
  • He gave Thorin's line more of the tragic doom that seems to haunt all dwarves, satisfying the expectations set up by the oh-so-dwarvish ending of Desolation of Smaug (something else I talked about already, at length).

I am happy with the movie for all those reasons and a hundred more that I can't list, because I haven't seen it yet, of course.

The things I've mentioned, I trust will be there.

Not hope, the way I hope the next Star Wars movie will be good.

Trust. Belief.

Because Jackson has absolutely earned it.

Markdown Conversions

After I finished yesterday's blog post on my dropbox/plaintext workflow, I realized I'd failed to discuss a really important part of this kind of change: switching your existing stuff over to markdown/plaintext.

I also realized I didn't have time to write another long post today, so instead you get a (second) screencast, focused on getting docx and html pages into markdown.

My Plain Text Workflow

Lately, I’ve had (or created) several opportunities to talk about using plain text file (and markdown syntax) – how great I think it is for writing and (more importantly, really) how perfect it is for making sure your stuff remains ubiquitously compatible and futureproof.

Now, simply saying these things isn’t enough to make everyone (or anyone) suddenly slap their forehead and switch to plain .txt files; to be honest, my conversion wasn’t an overnight thing – yes, I can find plain text back as far as I have files, and even .md (markdown) files from two or three years ago, but in most cases the pattern until recently has been pretty clear: use those ‘primitive’ formats to do some initial work and note-jotting but, once the serious work begins, copy the whole thing into something like Word.1

I’ve changed my methods, though; my outlook has shifted. I’ve started to see more benefits from working in plain text, all the time. Here are the big wins for me:

Universal Availability

I can edit chapters on my phone while I’m at Grease Monkey, poke at them on my tablet while the kids watch Super Why, open them in a half dozen apps on my mac, windows, or linux machines, and (and this is really important) I don’t lose any fidelity or formatting because I opened them in different programs on different platforms.

Imagine what your word document would look like after a few days of bouncing it between “word-compatible” programs on your PC, Mac, Linux box, iPad, iPhone, Chromebook, and Android tablet. Even RTF, which is supposed to be multi-platform, would suffer grave deformations over time, given this kind of abuse.

Because that’s what this sort of situation is for those kinds of files – bouncing them around to different systems and opening in different programs is abuse. (And heaven help you if you want to go multi-platform with cloud sharing on something like Scrivener.)

Text files? Text files don’t care.

Universal Transferral

Eventually, you need to ship, and you probably need to ship in something other than plain text.2 When I need stuff to go out, I can take my lovely markdown-enhanced text and put it out into the world in whatever format is needed.

As an example, I finished an academic paper last week with a couple dozen footnotes and within about four minutes I’d published it with full, pretty formatting to a Word doc, PDF, a forum post, and my blog, again without losing any fidelity in the formatting, without needing to do any additional formatting, and without changing the core document (a .txt file) in any way.

Also last week, I sent my work in progress (which comes in at somewhere north of seven hundred pages) off to a couple folks. One of them got it as a word .doc, one of them got it as an .epub (took me about a minute, total, to create), and when I get their feedback, I’ll be right back to working on the text files. Those other files are just outputs to me – something I create, but don’t work in; like exporting to PDF.

That said, the fact that I can export to Word, or epub, or html, or pdf, or rtf, or odt or… well, whatever… means that the work gets out in the best way possible, right away.

The Challenge

I said something similar to those two points a couple weeks ago on Google+ and Ryan Danks (who’s been struggling with plain text and markdown) said:

Could you maybe do a blog post on your workflow? I think this might help out a lot of people I know who are still trying to find their groove.

The answer, of course, is yes. Sorry it took so long.

1. Dropbox is my Co-pilot

I honestly don’t know what my working/writing environment would be like without Dropbox. It seems like hyperbole to say ”My life would be completely different without Dropbox.” and it is, sort of.

Except that, at the micro-level, Dropbox touches so many of the individual elements that make up my day that I can’t see how, at a macro-level, it isn’t true: a big, big chunk of the stuff that makes of my life would be fundamentally different without Dropbox.

Now, these days, there are other options that give you similar functionality – I could probably manage the same basic workflow in OneDrive or Google Drive or SpiderOak (not iCloud, since I’m using a lot of non-Apple stuff, but lots of other people could) – and that’s great, but since I’m talking about my real workflow, I’ll be talking about Dropbox, and simply trying to point out when and where other options are also available.

My Dropbox


Here’s where I do pretty much all my work.

I want to make this clear: I work inside my Dropbox folder and, while I certainly appreciate that it both backs up and provides versioning of all the files therein, the critical thing for our purposes is this: Dropbox makes sure that everything stays up to date on all my devices.

That’s critical; I need all my stuff to be ready-for-work, regardless of whatever thing I pick up to work on.

2. (Almost) All the Tools, All the Time

Once I’ve got to the point where everything is at least theoretically available on all my devices, step two is giving myself basically the same tools and options.

This is really where the choice to work in plain text pays off, because since I’m working without the requirements and limitations and… fragility of file formats like .doc or .rtf, when it comes to writing and editing, I get full functionality no matter where I am.

I do have to sacrifice a bit in terms of shipping when it comes to different platforms: it’s simply not as easy to export from markdown/plaintext to some other file format if I’m on my phone, for example. I’m sure in three years, it’ll be a piece of cake to export right from markdown to .epub while I’m sitting in the doctor’s office, but at the moment, that’s what I give up, and I’m fine with that; I don’t need to be able to ship every minute of the day.

Come to that, there are tools I like better for different kinds of exporting. Pretty much any markdown editor outputs to html just fine, but rtf and pdf is a little bigger deal, word docx export gets a little more rare, and there’s really only one program I have that’ll go right to epub, no waiting.

Again, I’m fine with that. I’ve looked at the options that were available even three years ago, and I think it’s clear this is an evolving and constantly maturing environment: I expect my options in the future will always be better than they are at this moment, and I’m pretty happy with them now, so I’m very comfortable hitching my wagon to the markdown star.

Anyway: enough talking. Here are some examples of the options I’m talking about.

3. Tools


I’m starting with Macs because (for some historical reasons I’m not particularly interested in) Markdown was taken up by the Mac community sooner than elsewhere. It’s making huge inroads elsewhere, with surprising speed, but Mac and iOS still have some of the best Markdown tools.

My tools:

Markdown Apps for Mac

I’m going to break these down in Right to Left order: nvALT, iA Writer, MacDown, and Ulysses III.


nvAlt is my “Note taking” tool. It opens with a keystroke, and all I have to do to create a new file is start typing: it names the new file the same as whatever I type into the first line, and lets me view both the current file and everything else in the working directory3, right from the main window, like so:

nvALT standard view

The program is compatible with Markdown, and provides a nice preview window that will show you what your text will look like when you export it somewhere…

nvALT with Preview

As an added bonus, if you’re working in this screen and decide you need something more robust, there’s a simple keystroke option that automatically opens whatever file you’re working on inside whatever “bigger” editor you set up as the default, which brings me to…

iA Writer

Probably the easiest way to explain iA Writer is “Writemonkey for Mac, but different.”

iA Writer

It’s set up to be a ‘distraction free writing environment,’ but what it really is is friction free – you just open something and get to work. What it lacks in Writemonkey’s “kick you in the ass to get you writing” features, it more than makes up for with great workflow tools and incredibly robust support for markdown, multi-markdown (footnotes, bibliographies, tables), and both the importing and exporting of files — I’ve been going through some of my old stuff and transferring it from (for example) .docx files to plaintext, and iA Writer has been invaluable for this process: literally all I have to do is drag a Word file onto the iA Writer icon, and I suddenly have a nice, clean text file with all the formatting syntax preserved.

It is, if you’ll pardon me, fucking magic.

(Editing to add: While adding web links through this document, iA Writer gave me yet another reason to love it – it vastly simplifies the process of adding links to a document, and makes writing posts like this one much easier. So much love.)


iA Writer has a very nice preview window, but sometimes I like to work with the preview open all the time in a side-by-side arrangement, and for that I use MacDown.

Also, and this isn’t nothing, I really do like the fact MacDown “color codes” my text while I’m working on it. Ulysses III does this as well, and it’s pretty great for those times when you want to make sure your italics are right where you meant them to be. I imagine this is a slightly bigger deal for developers than writers, but the fact is I sometimes go to MacDown over iA Writer simply because the MacDown screen is more interesting to look at.


For those of you who use Byword and can’t believe I don’t list that in here somewhere, just pretend this entry is for ByWord – the two programs have similar inspirations and ancestors, and feel pretty much identical to me. I just use MacDown because it’s free, and I spent all my App-allowance on…

Ulysses III


How should I explain Ulysses?

Let’s go with “Scrivener, for plain text.”

Basically, Ulysses is a very good Markdown and Multi-markdown editor that is also very good at managing big writing projects. I will provide an example.

When I finished up the first draft of current work in progress, I had a single text file that was thirty-one chapters and about 700+ pages long. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to open the thing up on your phone and scroll down to chapter twenty-three, you know?

What I did once I had Ulysses was take the original file, open it up, then jump to each chapter heading and say “Split the file here.” In the three-panel view in Ulysses, that gave me something that looked like this (click to embiggen):

What a Chapter directory looks like in Ulysses III

And in finder/explorer, looked like this:

What a Chapter directory looks like

Basically, Ulysses chopped the big file up into a bunch of little files that are much more manageable in other programs, while still being treated by Ulysses as one complete meta-entity.

(Those last two files are docx outputs I created for workshop feedback by selecting specific chapters and telling Ulysses to export them to Word.)

The cool thing is the program also lets you fiddle with the structure of the meta-document and then stitch things back together in whatever order you like. Here’s a shot of me rearranging some chapters into a different order, simply by dragging things around in the preview window.

Rearranging Order of Stuff in Ulysses III

It has no effect on the files themselves, except in Ulysses, until I recombine all the files, or export stuff.

And it’s worth noting Ulysses exports are really quite pretty. Here’s the epub version of the work in progress.

Now, Ulysses’ ability to chop up a big project into smaller bits is great – very useful for me, right now – but with a little forethought early-on (or a LOT of cutting and pasting, today), I could have accomplished the same thing with notepad. I’m glad I didn’t have to, but I could have.

The main value of working on things in smaller pieces is more easily navigable files, which are much easier to work on when I’m using my phone or tablet.

So let’s talk about working on a phone or tablet.

Phone or Tablet

Before I get into specific tools, I want to talk philosophy of use.

Here’s the main thing you need to keep in mind when you’re looking at tools to use on a handheld device:

It isn’t about whether the App can open a file of the right type, it’s about whether it can work right inside Dropbox, without downloading files.

Dropbox, as you probably know, doesn’t download EVERYTHING to your mobile devices, the way it does on your laptops or desktops. Instead, it mirrors the directory, shows you what’s there, and only downloads something if you really, really want it.

That’s kind of useless for what we’re doing. I do not want to download a file, fiddle with it, save it, then reupload/overwrite/update the Dropbox version, when I’m working on my phone. I want fast, reliable, and as frictionless as possible; I want Dropbox to be Dropbox.

In other words, I need a program that works right inside my online Dropbox folder, effectively making Dropbox as useful as Google Drive with it’s built-in editor. (And, once again, that’s a lot easier when I’m using plaintext files, and a lot HARDER when I’m using .docx or whatever.)


For Android devices, I use Jotterpad, which pretty much hits every target I place for mobile writing: reliable, edits directly in Dropbox, and understands markdown (all the little formatting buttons it provides format things using markdown syntax).

Here’s Jotter looking at my Writing folder inside Dropbox:

Jotter, looking at Writing directory in Dropbox

Here’s the view of the nvALT directory…

Jotter looking at nvALT and individual files

And this is working on edits, in portrait.

Jotter doing edits


I don’t work on any iOS devices at this time, but I know iA Writer has an iOS version (my daughter has it on her iPad) and I’ve heard very good things about Drafts – just make sure it works inside the online version of your cloud service (iCloud or Dropbox or whatever – Drafts does), or (at worst) actually downloads full versions of the drive down to the device, and you’re good.

Online Tools

There are a number of online Markdown editors, especially awesome when you’re working on a Chromebook (because Google Docs get a disappointing ZERO on markdown support), and for those I use the same criteria as the mobile devices: I only use something that syncs with and effectively works entirely inside my online Dropbox drive.

My current favorite is Dillinger, which syncs with Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and GitHub, pretty much giving you full markdown writing functionality wherever you’ve got web access. Here’s Dillinger asking which file to open in Dropbox:

Dillinger looking at Dropbox

Plus, if you don’t have another option, it provides a pretty good list of export options, if you can’t ship any other way.

The writing interface with Dillinger is also good, with a solid preview window that’s pretty much just like any other markdown editor app on a desktop.


Speaking of desktops, here’s what I use on my Windows and linux machines.

First, MdCharm, which was originally built for Linux and ported to Windows. I like it because I can use it on multiple platforms, the “project” window that lets me use multiple directories and my working space (it makes it quite compatible with the stuff created by Ulysses), and it has good options for importing and exporting.

One of the other things I like about MdCharm is its longevity – it’s been around long enough to still describe itself as a “wiki editor” that “now supports Markdown” — that’s a program that’s been around the block a few times, and it still actively supported. Good stuff.


Finally, there’s Writemonkey, which I put to use when I’m doing first drafts. It’s a great program that is absolutely one of the best for getting me to sit my ass down and WRITE, but the problem is I do a huge amount of my first draft writing on my macbook air now, so this program doesn’t see as much use has it has in the past (my current WIP was pretty much all written in Writemonkey, but it may be the last big story that is, unless the developer creates a Mac version, or someone else makes something very much like it).


So that’s my workflow. Rather than try to sum it up, I’m going to leave this as is and put it up where people can ask questions and get clarification.

Hope this helps.

Edit to add:

Here’s a quick video tutorial to illustrate some of the things I mentioned above.

  1. The exception to this has been my long-form writing of first drafts – almost all the stories I’ve written in the last decade and a half have been written in text, mostly thanks to Writemonkey and other similar tools. ?
  2. Just try submitting stuff to a publisher in anything but Word. End. Of. The. World. ?
  3. The only real downside to nvALT is the fact it’s only able to see a single directory, and that’s where it has to work, so I have an nvALT directory in my Dropbox folder, just for this thing, and don’t especially like it. ?

The Great Age Equalizer: An Examination of the Resonance of Fantasy and Science Fiction with Young Readers

[[Sometimes, I find myself writing full-on academic papers on literary stuff. Sometimes (even more rarely) I feel inclined to share them. This is one of those times. – Doyce]]

For nearly fifty years, publishers, libraries, and even readers of mainstream fiction have readily separated their stories into “adult” and “child” subsets (often depending entirely on the age of the protagonist as the key distinction). By contrast, modern science fiction and fantasy resisted this trend for several decades; both genres perpetually seen as accessible to younger readers or, less charitably, too childish for serious adults. I would like to examine the evolution of the “Middle Grade and Young Adult” subcategories of fiction, and how the themes intrinsic to fantasy and science fiction strongly parallel those of mainstream middle-grade and young adult, thus appealing to readers of all ages. I believe these common themes in fantasy and science fiction neutralized the demand for “Middle Grade” and “Young Adult” designations for decades past their common usage in other genres, while at the same times painting these genres as “childish” or “not real literature,” despite a broadly diversified field with major influences on global culture and thought.

The Evolution of Adolescent Publication

The reader should not imagine I am implying that books specifically written for young readers are in any way a new phenomena. Such a statement is, of course, ridiculous: reading material printed specifically for children dates back as far as 1440 and the creation of hornbooks, and includes such classics as The Jungle Books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, and Charlotte’s Web.

But these stories, wonderful as they are, stand alone in a forest of fiction written for adults. In their time, they were exceptions that proved the rule: no subset within the publication of fiction was categorically dedicated to young readers until relatively recently. Until then, many of the books most popular with child readers were written and published for adults, and include classics such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Treasure Island, and The Hobbit. (Not coincidentally a science fiction, adventure, and fantasy story, respectively.) [Crowe, Tunnell][#history]

It wasn’t until the publication of The Outsiders in 1967 that a formal definition of young adult literature began to emerge. What separated S. E. Hinton’s story from the books people in this age range read prior to that point was simple: it was a book about young adults and written for young adults. Previously (and even contemporaneously, as with The Chosen, also published in 1967) books with young adult characters were not written for that age group [Wells][#wells].

This change was both a good and bad thing: good in that it began the shift in perception that would lead publishers to treat non-adult fiction as a special and noteworthy thing, bad in that the strong initial influence of The Outsiders and the simplistic criteria of “written about kids, for kids” led to a general guideline for identifying children’s, middle-grade, and young adult fiction based solely on the age of the protagonist, and ignoring any other factors that might be as important, or even vastly more important.

This isn’t to say The Outsiders flipped a switch and publishing suddenly perceived a new category of fiction: it took several decades for this subset of literature to reach the point where the work being put out by publishers consistently satisfied its intended audience. In mainstream Young Adult fiction, the 1970s were overwhelmed with “single problem novels”, dealing with problems young adults faced, but often in an unsatisfactory or simplistic way. The 1980s saw a boom in romance and horror fiction, but it wasn’t until the 1990s and the rise in “middle grade” literature, which expanded the publishers’ perceived audience, that YA authors were free to tackle more serious subjects and to introduce more complex characters and considerations of ambiguity. [Cart][#cart].

The Long Battles within Fantasy and Science Fiction

The genres of fantasy and science fiction had no similar watershed moment, triggered by the release of an “Elves versus Dwarves” version of The Outsiders. Luminaries in the field continued to write what they had always written, and paid no particular attention to the intended reader’s age, though they suffered no lack of popularity with young readers: Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which was published only two years after Hinton’s classic, won the Hugo and Nebula in 1970, and remains popular with readers of all ages; Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, published in 1977 (when mainstream young adult fiction struggled with mediocre “problem novels”) features a young boy in a military organization and explored themes that simultaneously appealed to young readers and even today make it suggested reading for many military organizations, including the United States Marine Corps. [USMC][#marines]

Lacking an “Outsiders moment,” these genres were able to produce stories free from strict categorization of adult versus non-adult, which allowed each story to find its best audience on its own merits.

Rather than needing to age-market their books, writers of science fiction and fantasy instead struggled with the perception that all of their work was unsuitable both for children and adult readers: in the first case, too dark or dangerous for the young…

… one friend of mine said, “I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten yeas ago (1964), I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.'” [Le Guin, Dragons][#lgd]

… while too whimsical for adults.

“A great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.” [Le Guin, Dragons][#lgd]

This paradox has plagued science fiction and fantasy writers for decades – critics dismiss the genres as vapid or trite, while at the same time denouncing them for the potential harm they can bring to impressionable younger readers introduced to serious topics before they are ready. It is not a recent development: Baum argued for the importance of imagination and the fantastic in the first introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and Tolkien addressed the question in his essay “On Fairy Stories” decades before Le Guin wryly argued the critics were correct, but confused: the stories were both whimsical and dark, in exactly the way that made them perfect for both adults and children.

“Fantasy is the great age equalizer; if it’s good when you’re 12 it’s quite likely to be just as good, or better, when you’re 36.” [Le Guin, Dreams][#lgdr]

No Such Thing as Coincidence

It’s difficult if not impossible for any reader familiar with contemporary publishing to miss the fact these arguments (and criticisms) are remarkably similar to those leveled at Middle Grade and Young Adult writers and books today [Monseau][#monseau]. In almost every case, the top modern YA authors face marginalization and outright dismissal from “serious” critics for the same reasons (inappropriate themes, or jejune writing – the critics still can’t seem to decide [Gurdon][#wsg]), and have found themselves forced to justify their own work in the court of public opinion [Johnson][#yasaves] [Drew][#drewpop], as in this passage by Shedrick Pittman-Hasset, which could just as easily have been written by Ursula Le Guin in the mid-1970s.

The darkness exists. Always has and, [insert appropriate deity here] help us, always will. That we are now able to speak of it in the presence of those that have actually, or could actually experience it is a Good Thing. For those that have spent time in the dark places, these books demonstrate they are not alone; that with strength and perseverance, they can emerge and be free. Those that have not walked that dark path gain a degree of perspective on their own problems and also move away from the “blame the victim” mentality that often goes hand-in-hand with silence. As one fellow author brilliantly put it “We need to see someone be strong when they face their demons, so we can be strong when we do.” [Pittman-Hasset][#ph]

These commonalities between modern YA, and speculative fiction going back over a century point to clues that reveal the reason why science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream middle-grade and young adult publishing all produce stories popular with adolescents, while at the same time attracting both the scorn and censure of so-called serious critics.

The Elements of Adolescence

Adolescence can be characterized by a few key themes. Gisela Konopka of the Center for Youth Development and Research at the University of Minnesota developed a statement on the concept of normal adolescence in 1973. Out of her research with young adults, five key concepts emerged: an “experience of physical sexual maturity,” an “experience of withdrawal of and from adult benevolent protection,” a “consciousness of self in interaction,” a “re-evaluation of values,” and “exploration and experimentation” [Konopka, 298-300][#kono].

Examining these five elements as they relate to adolescent and adult fiction is enlightening.

Sexual Maturity

It’s not difficult to see the draw of this topic in fiction; “sex sells” has become more of a punchline than a guideline, but in the realm of adolescent fiction, the approach is more nuanced, and may often be one of the primary themes of the story, explored with care and consideration (rather than a way to spice up up chapter three).

“Can I hug you?”

“Do you want to?” said Bod.


“Well then.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t mind if you do.” [Gaiman, 254][#ggyb]

It’s obviously no more difficult to find examples of protagonists exploring sexual maturity in science fiction and fantasy; the surprising thing is that the topic is often handled with just as much consideration, if not in fact a sort of circumspect care.

“Then, Eowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the sun yet shines, I could see you still.” [Tolkien, RoK, 238][#tolkienrok]

Withdrawal from Adult Protection

This theme is one we have revisited often in our study of Newbery award winning books. It is, if not ubiquitous in adolescent fiction, nearly so. Poor Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time must step away from the safety of adult protection no fewer than five times in a single story, leaving behind her mother, Mrs. Who, Aunt Beast, her father and, finally, rejecting the ultimate all-encompassing adult protection personified by IT [L’Engle][#wrinkle].

Among science fiction and fantasy ostensibly written for adults, perhaps one of the most definitive stories of the withdrawal from adult protection comes to us via the classic Ender’s Game, in which Ender Wiggin is not only taken from his family and forced through a constantly escalating spiral of adult responsibilities, but ultimately reverses the adult-child protection dynamic by saving all of humankind (and sacrificing his childhood in the process) [Card][#enders].

Consciousness of Self

This concept might be difficult to define or to identify examples, were it not such a critical element in young adult fiction. The realization that you are an individual being – someone and something separate from your family and friends – is a lightning strike of awareness, and any story that truly represents adolescence will encounter it.

Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman essentially opens the book with Alistair’s moment of clarity and consciousness, bought with the life of a boy named Luke Drake, when Alistair was only three years old.

The memory of Luke may very well be my first memory. Still, it’s not like those soft and malleable recollections we all have from our early years. It’s solid. I believe in it, as much as I believe in my memory of a few minutes ago. [Starmer, 6][#starmer]

It’s fair to say that the exploration of consciousness of self is one of the core callings in science fiction; it is hardly difficult to find examples of this exploration in the genre, especially in the classics of the early twentieth century, such as Asimov’s Robot series. But within my personal timeline, the definitive example is a short story by Robert Heinlein entitled Jerry Was a Man[Heinlein][#heinlein], in which the question of the sentience and free will of a genetically modified chimpanzee is decided in a court of law. In many ways, it set the bar for the search for the meaning of consciousness in a genre uniquely equipped for the task.

Re-evaluation of Values

To be completely honest, searching for this element of adolescence in fiction, while certainly important, is almost cheating: every expert on the structure of story can agree (where they agree on little else) that the protagonist’s re-evaluation of values is an intrinsic part of the conclusion of a story. It can be a private thing, as with Miranda slowly letting her relationship with Sal change in When You Reach Me, or powerfully defiant in Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, “the revolution”.

I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere. And maybe for a short time,
we are a part of that history. And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.

We walk slow toward the park where I can already see
the big swings, empty and waiting for me.

And after I write it down maybe I’ll end it this way:

My name is Jacqueline Woodson
and I am ready for the ride. [Woodson][#woodson]

Among the genres of fantasy and science fiction, these moments are no less important, and form some of the most memorable scenes in our favorite books, as in this conclusion to Ready Player One.

“I’ve really missed you, you know that?”

My heart felt like it was on fire. It took a moment to work up my courage; then I reached out and took her hand. We sat there a while, holding hands, reveling in the strange new sensation of actually touching one another.

Sometime later, she leaned over and kissed me. It felt just like all those songs and poems had promised it would. It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning.

It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS. [Cline][#cline]

Exploration and Experimentation

As with the withdrawal from adult protection, this element is almost ubiquitous in adolescent fiction. From camping out in a museum in The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler to Fiona’s life in Aquavania in The Riverman to Meg learning to “tesser well” in A Wrinkle in Time.

Likewise, the genres of fantasy and science fiction seem to embody exploration and experimentation like no others, and at more levels: certainly, the protagonists of the stories embrace this idea, but at a more meta level the readers themselves are exploring – wandering the halls of Castle Amber, walking the paths of Mirkwood, sailing starry skies on Barsoom, or diving into the endless digital seas of OASIS – all worlds beyond the norm, beyond those we might find in tamer, mainstream fiction. And this says nothing about the authors of these stories: it is called speculative fiction, after all, and its creators are experimenting almost by definition.

Bringing the Five into One

In lay terms, these five elements are, of course, most easily and simply expressed as “coming of age,” perhaps the definitive theme of adolescent fiction, but also one at the core of fantasy and science fiction.

“The most childish thing about A Wizard of Earthsea, I expect, is its subject: coming-of-age. Coming-of-age is a process that took me many years; I finished it, so far as I ever well, at about age 31; and so far I really feel rather deeply about it. So do most adolescents. It’s their main occupation, in fact.” [Le Guin, Dreams][#lgdr]

Even setting Le Guin aside, it’s a simple matter to prove that science fiction and fantasy writers have always seen these elements as important to the types of stories they were writing.

Tolkien suggested that fairy stories allow the reader to review his own world from the “perspective” of a different world. This concept, which shares much in common with “consciousness of self”, “re-evaluation of values” and “exploration and experimentation”, Tolkien calls “recovery,” in the sense that one’s unquestioned assumptions might be recovered and changed by an outside perspective [Tolkien][#tolkien]. Susan Wood, in her introduction to Le Guin’s The Language of the Night, wrote at length on the “necessity for internal exploration, provided by fantasy, to produce a whole, integrated human being.” [Wood][#wood]

Let us, as a further example, consider a simple hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins arrived on the literary scene in 1937. At the outset of his tale, he leaves the safety of the only home he has ever known (the home built by his father and mother) and steps into the larger world by signing up for a mysterious undertaking with the potential for great reward and great risk. Before he can do this, however, he must (with the help of a strong nudge from an old friend) take a hard look at his life and realize that, deep in his heart, he longs for more; only then can he race out his door without his handkerchief or any other proper preparation, and into a grand adventure There and Back Again.

Put another (much more boring) way, he experiences withdrawal from benevolent protection, a consciousness of self in interaction, a re-evaluation of values, and a great deal of “exploration and experimentation.” He is, in short, coming of age, and his story continues to resonate with readers of all ages, but most especially those going through the same sort of things in their own lives – children.

At the beginning of the story, Bilbo is fifty-five years old.

By our modern standards, this could not possibly be a story meant for children, nor was it published for children at the time.

It was published for readers, and found those who needed and wanted it most.

The Critical, Yet Censured, “Kiddy Story”

Here, then, is part of the secret of a story’s appeal to young readers, and one reason why adolescent subsets of science fiction and fantasy did not gain real momentum in publishing until the late 1990s and early 2000s: these are stories that already speak to the core experiences of adolescence; that resonate with younger readers; that create an “age barrier” so permeable as to be virtually non-existent.

In the same way that speculative fiction has always attracted younger readers alongside adults, more and more young adult and middle grade stories attract adult readers alongside children. That both categories uniformly earn the scorn of serious literary critics is more a judgement on the critics, than the stories.


“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature – you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.” [Gaiman][#gaiman]

As Ursula Le Guin might say, a story doesn’t have to be about real things to be about true things. This is the secret to the all-ages appeal of science fiction and fantasy – stories for adults that appeal to children, and (in the case of these newer adolescent categories) stories for children that entice all but the most jaded adult: truth. Science fiction and fantasy always, from their very inception, focused on themes that lie at the heart of the adolescence. For this, they have have always suffered casual dismissal, and enjoyed heartfelt adoration by those readers able and willing to recognize the wonder, whimsy, and (above all) childishness of their lives.

That they now have allies and companions within the mainstream is, in the opinion of this newcomer to young adult fiction, wonderful, hopeful news.

[#cart]: Cart, Michael. “From Insider to Outsider: the Evolution of Young Adult Literature.” Voices from the Middle 9.2 (2001): 95-7.

[#cline]: Cline, Earnest. Ready Player One. Random House. 2011.

[#drewpop]: Drew, Bernard A. The 100 Most Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.

[#enders]: Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor. 1977.

[#gaiman]: Gaiman, Neil. http://neilgaiman.com. 2003.

[#ggyb]: Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. HarperCollins. 2008.

[#heinlein]: Heinlein, Robert A.. “Jerry Was a Man”. Assignment in Eternity. Fantasy Press. 1953

[#history]: Crowe; Tunnell. A chronology of history and trends in children’s and YA literature. 2012

[#kono]: Konopka, Gisela. “Requirements for Healthy Development of Adolescent Youth.” Adolescence 4 (1973): 291-315.

[#lgd]: Le Guin, Ursula. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons”. PNLA Quarterly 38, Winter 1974

[#lgdr]: Le Guin, Ursula. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” Algol 21, Nov 1973


[#monseau]: Monseau, Virginia. Responding to Young Adult Literature. Boynton/Cook Publishers. 1996.

[#ph]: Pittman-Hasset, Shedrick. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Darkness. June 5, 2011.

[#starmer]: Starmer, Aaron. The Riverman. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2014.

[#tolkien]: Tolkien, J.R.R.. “On Fairy Stories”. Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1947

[#tolkienrok]: Tolkien, J.R.R.. Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin. 1955.

[#wells]: Wells, April Dawn. Themes found in young adult literature, April 2003.

[#wrinkle]: L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Macmillan. 1962.

[#wood]: Wood, Susan. “Introduction” The Language of the Night (Le Guin): 17.

[#woodson]: Woodson, Jacqueline. “the revolution”. brown girl dreaming. Penguin. 2014.

[#wsg]: Gurdon, Meghan. “Darkness Too Visible”, Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011.

[#yasaves]: Johnson, Lucas J.W.. The YA Saves Phenomenon. June, 2011.


The image below is a shot of a Dropbox directory with every one of my blog posts since 2001, each saved as a separate plaintext file, properly dated and titled.

All done with the wp2md python script, and one command that took 20 seconds to run.

Well, one command and twenty seconds, once I fixed the errors being generated by iTunes and Facebook plugins. (I am Jack's complete lack of surprise.)


So happy right now.

Screenshot 2014-11-26 10.15.22.png
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