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My YA novel just went NA: how much darkness can teens handle?

I’m writing a YA mermaid romance. I’ve been reading up on the competition, and I’ve learned that most YA mermaid romances are pretty light.

They may be a little bit dark – there’s some death and violence – but mostly the protagonist is fighting against a few powerful antagonists. And maybe a slight bit of depressing real world stuff like a sick family member.

Now that my plotting is basically done, I’ve been going through and making my characters more likeable, by making them more real; giving them personality traits and habits, fears and hobbies, passions and beliefs. But I’ve also made them more human: more scared, weak and frail. At the same time, I’ve been adding in some tension and drama.

The first quarter of my book was setting up the conflict and drama. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue, but not that much conflict, other than trifling high school shit. (How can a high school boy with a bat compare to an army of mermaid soldiers?)

So I went back and added some dead bodies.

On my first day of school, the dead girls started arriving. They were found left on the beach, arms neatly folded, like presents Mischief would sometimes leave outside our door: the odd bird or rat. The drowned. No papers or identification. Beautiful young women.

Which made my main protagonist, Clara, go really dark and emo today. How can she enjoy something like her birthday party when there are mysterious dead girls around?

The dead girls came to my birthday party. I didn’t want them to, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind. The pasta was delicious but sometimes, mid-chew, it would taste suddenly like ash and dirt. To cope, I drank. I thought leaving America behind, I’d somehow closed the door on loss and death, and gone through a reality portal; I’d thought somehow Ireland would be green hills and flowers and a fresh start, a chance to start over. But death had followed me.

But how else is she going to process all this death: her own parents just died in a car accident, leaving her orphaned, and she had to go live in Ireland with her grandfather. She’s raging with emotional trauma, and she was sensitive and anxious to begin with. Her therapy is pounding out her thoughts on the typewriter her father bought for her: it helps her process her emotions. She types with no paper, feeding her thoughts to the wind:

I spent months typing things out, eating up stacks of pristine white paper, starting dozens of stories, but by the time I was eleven I’d gotten into singing instead. For years it was just an expensive paperweight and decoration. Then it became a representation of my failure as a daughter: I’d promised him I’d use it, and I imagined the silence emitting from my room was heavy and meaningful. Maybe that’s when I’d developed the habit of writing nothing at all, just spending a little time each day hitting the keys. I stopped using the paper and just used it to clear my mind by typing out my thoughts.

It became a therapy of sorts. I’d purge all my musings, ideas, fears and regrets into the typewriter, and it would punctuate my confessions with the sharp clicking of the metal keys, it gave a very satisfying click, and I adored the subtle give of the keys against the persistent force of my downward stroke. I guess it would be similar to what some people call morning pages, or screaming into a soundproof room. It was a way to purge myself, so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. And I was hopelessly addicted: I’d formed the embarrassing habit of “thinking out loud”—my fingers twitch when I’m processing. The tension will build up until I can release it by working through my thoughts and emotions on the typewriter.

I feel like my world and characters are becoming more real, more unique, more memorable, but the whole thing is starting to feel so hopeless and tragic. They are up against crazy odds, 3 different ancient organizations want to kill them, and even though her feelings for Sebastian (main love interest) are overwhelming at times, she’s smart enough to know running away with him while the world burns isn’t really an option.

It’s starting to feel like a really depressing read, which isn’t something I’m necessarily opposed to (after all, it’s a series: the first book is really just about her learning to trust herself, and having the courage to fight back for what she cares about). I want it to be tragic. I want it to be heartbreaking, in a way that extremely few pieces of literature are these days, and especially not YA literature (except the really, really good stuff).

I guess my main worry was that, if it gets too dark and depressing, if it doesn’t have a little bit of high school fun, humor and games, then teen readers won’t like it… but maybe I shouldn’t worry about that. After all, I don’t want to be another mediocre teen read, something light to pass the time. I want something that is going to strike a chord, something solid enough for adults to enjoy reading without feeling like it’s a guilty pleasure. I want it to be good. I want to take the most superficial, light, silly genre I can think of (mermaid romance) and claim it, redefine it, and tell a tragic mermaid romance in a way that’s never been done before.

Anyway, at this point, I feel like it’s kind of getting away from me. Since this is my first novel, I’ve heard of this happening but never really witnessed the process myself before. All I can do now is write the thing as best as I damn well can, and get it to some beta readers for some serious feedback.

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