Beck McDowell is a YA author with emphasis on the Adult in Young Adult. She loves intelligent books with strong plots and quirky characters written in simple, creative language. Her young adult thriller THIS IS NOT A DRILL (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Group) launches Oct. 25, 2012. It's the story of two teens who must protect the first graders they tutor when a soldier, returned from Iraq and suffering from PTSD, opens fire in the classroom when not allowed to check out his son. You can visit her website at www.beckmcdowell.com.
Alternating voices are big in YA right now. My theory: the vast resources of the internet allow us to see both sides of every story. We’re less likely to take an issue at face value without examining the other perspective. We want more information – a good trend. It’s actually tricksy (wink to Gollum) to keep two versions of the same story straight. It’s easy to slide into the wrong character when you’re absorbed in a plot point.
I always knew that THIS IS NOT A DRILL would have two storytellers. The idea for the book came partly from a conversation with my (then) 2nd grade nephew. He told me they’d been instructed – if they heard gunshots or danger in the hall when they were in the bathroom – to stay put, to sit on the toilet and pull their feet up so any intruder who entered wouldn’t know they were there. It broke my heart, the thought of him huddled in a stall, alone and afraid! But maybe this expanded version of the “Stranger Danger” talk was a good idea.
So I knew that part of the book (in the guys’ bathroom) called for a male narrator. But I felt I needed a female to comfort the 1st graders and draw the story of what happened in Iraq from the troubled solider. (I’m no slave to stereotypes – I know guys who’d be great at both, but the Jake who appeared in my head wasn’t one of them.)
I loved the challenge of tapping into the different rhythms of the two genders’ speech patterns and making each voice distinct. As a teacher I spent years listening to male students -- and I’d written a non-fiction Katrina story with a guy protagonist, so I’d had some experience. It was really fun for me to see the completely opposite approaches Emery and Jake took to the emerging crisis.
There were other reasons for two voices in THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Although the two teens ultimately work together to help the children, they have conflicting perspectives of their messy break-up from the past. I knew readers would want to hear both sides. I also hoped including Jake’s voice would draw more male readers to the novel (although I’m often more interested in the guy perspective than the girl one.) Finding books guys would like was one of my favorite missions as a teacher.
Each story is different; a writer knows instinctively how it should be told. My next novel (just sold to Penguin!) is told from only one perspective because it’s kind of a love triangle, and I want the reader to figure out what each guy is all about along with the female character who’s getting to know them. And then my current work-in-progress is likely to fit better into alternating viewpoints, although it’s in early stages right now. I’m excited to see where it’s headed; I’ll keep you posted.