Tumblr Rants & New Years

| Monday, December 31, 2012
Today's Tune: Auld Lang Syne

LAST DAY OF 2012, YOU GUYS. IT'S HERE. I don't have a big post planned for today, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to extend a huge thank you to all of my followers, new and old, for hanging around and commenting and generally being an absolute delight. There's such a variety of spunk and brilliance and optimism in my comments, and it never fails to make me smile. This has been a strange and eventful year for me in its own way, and I look forward to seeing what 2013 has in store.

In case you missed it this weekend, I got annoyed with rants in the YA Lit tags on Tumblr, so I wrote a rant of my own, which got reblogged by the likes of Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson and Malinda Lo and Nova Ren Suma and many, many other people. Which made me feel both pleased and absolutely terrified. If you're in the mood to see me pick apart flimsy arguments and get snarky, give it a read.

I'm going to be spending the evening sipping some sparkling wine with my love and probably watching Mumford & Sons and talking about how much our lives have changed and stayed the same this year. I wish all of you a wonderful new year and all of the joy to be had in 2013.

Kisses.


Tamora Pierce, Love, Adventure, and Sex

| Friday, December 28, 2012
Today's Tune: Shameless

Mark Oshiro has been reading Tamora Pierce books over on his Mark Reads blog, and he just started The Immortals quartet. Guys. You guys. I loved those books as a teen. Somehow, I DON'T KNOW WHY, they were the only Tamora Pierce books I read back then. How could this be! They were favorites! I supposed I'd always meant to read the Song of the Lioness quartet, but I never did. Luckily, I remedied this when I read them along with Mark.

The first thing that struck me: wow, Pierce's writing style really improved between her first series and her next. Not surprisingly, as that seems to be a running theme with writers. Not that her style wasn't good (it was), it was just less polished; less experienced. That tends to happen with firsts!

Second thing I noticed: oh my goodness, this (now considered YA) book series from the 80's has more sex positivity in its little finger than 75% of the YA I read now has in its entirety.

That is not to say that there's no sexuality or sex positivity in today's YA -- far from it. Just a few posts ago I wrote about Kristin Cashore's work, which was another refreshing exploration of sexuality and reproductive choice in speculative YA without making it about morality. And there is more and more YA released every day that treats sex in a nuanced, frank, realistic way. The books are out there. This makes me happy.

Even so, as I was reading Alanna's story (which, to its credit, was originally written as one long "adult" novel), I couldn't help but feel the absence of relationships where sex and reproduction are dealt with head on, with no mincing around what a special and precious "gift" virginity is, and allowed several characters to take on multiple lovers with no tragedy or horrible jealous slapfights or implication that they couldn't love each one differently and deeply. The protagonist sleeps with at least three different dudes before she decides to be with one of them. None of her lovers are shown to be mistakes or something she regrets. They're men she cares about, but ultimately two just aren't the right match for her in the long term.

It seems so often we come up against characters that clearly want to be sexual, but a plot device crops up that makes it dangerous to have sex. So, it's not that these characters are making the conscious choice to abstain. It's that they want to boink, but the world will end if they do. Or they'll kill someone. Or themselves. Or their head will explode or something, I don't know. It's a very weird take on abstinence, especially when cut with the idea of "remaining pure." The Book Lantern recently featured a post that touched on this, which I rather enjoyed. It's extraordinarily conflicted. All this buildup, this seething mass of we want to BUT WE CAN'T but it's so hard to resist BUT NO EVERYONE WILL DIE but oh my god you're so hot BUT NO! This ties directly in to the romantic idea that this is their one great love. And hey, some people do have one great love. Many have several.

I'm not opposed to setting some sexual tension on a low simmer that eventually becomes a rolling boil. I'm kind of a sucker for it, actually. Neither am I opposed to abstinence if the abstinence is an actual choice and not something conveniently forced on our protagonist. If at any point in the story a character says they don't want to have sex, aren't ready for sex, or flat-out aren't interested in sex at all, I am fully behind that. It's when sexuality is something dangerous and to be feared because terrible things will happen that I get my hackles up. Such plot elements say nothing about sexual agency or choice. It's the equivalent of "don't do it or you'll get an STD and DIE." If characters choose to remain abstinent for any reason, that is fine. I just want to know it's their conscious decision for their personal and sexual health, not because they literally can't have sex with the person they want to have sex with because meteors will destroy Earth if they do.

While reading Tamora Pierce, one other thing stuck out to me: the concept that a female protagonist with romantic entanglements can want and choose both adventure/independence and love/family. And I'm talking about adventure beyond "BEING WITH YOU FOREVER AND LOVING YOU AND YOUR ROCK-HARD ABS IS THE ONLY ADVENTURE I'LL EVER NEED, BABY!" It's incredibly important to me personally that women retain their own personalities and desires beyond defining themselves as "girlfriend/wife of so-and-so." The adventures don't always have to be epic and sprawling, but for all the talk of "finding your other half," we never cease to be whole people with our own interests and dreams. I want to see those. I want girls to know they can be in relationships (or not) and still do their own thing, and I want them to find partners that support that. And hey, if a woman literally only wants to be a wife and mother and do nothing else, then she should get to do that. I just want the option for something else to be there if she needs it.

This is mostly me extrapolating on a lot of ideas that have been floating around my brain lately. As I mentioned, there are most definitely options out there in YA-land featuring sex-positive portrayals and characters who balance love, adventure, and sex. But, in my opinion, there can never be enough. MORE PLEASE.

What say you, readers? 

 

Happy Holidays 2012!

| Friday, December 21, 2012
Today's Tune: Zombie Christmas

It's that time of year again... time to sign off from the delightful lure of the Internet for several days while I enjoy the holidays with my family. I will be back to blogging next Wednesday.

Wishing everyone safety, happiness, and health this holiday season! I'll see you soon! Kisses!

 

Tropes, Girl Protagonists, and Mollycoddling

| Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Today's Tune: The First Snowflake

Over the past few weeks, I've been repeatedly stumbling onto comments and blog posts about a particular article -- an article I first noticed because it actually linked my Common Clichés series and I started getting a noticeable influx of traffic from the site. This article has inspired some criticism for a particular comment regarding female protagonists being a "trope" in YA fiction. Which strikes me as sort of ironic, given that I said something similar on my Paranormal Romance post, although I'd intended it a different way (and have since changed my mind even on that and gone back to edit it out).

My original comment implied that female protagonists were a "trope" in paranormal romances, and that it might be interesting to see some from a male point of view. However, what I actually meant was that I thought it would be beneficial for some male readers to see realistic portrayals of romantic teenage boys in recent literature without it being a big thing about masculinity. I also encourage GLBT portrayals in YA, so I thought some Queer male-narrated Paranormal might be a fresh change. I'd never intended to imply that we need more boy books because wah wah wah where are all the boy books, because we all know how I feel about that.

Even so, I realized that the way I'd worded it basically sounded very much like "girl protagonists are so cliché!" Which, ugh, no. But since I didn't feel I'd made the point clearly or that it was necessary to have something about girls potentially being clichés floating around, I took it out.

And yet... I can't deny that I used to exist in a mindstate where I was pretty concerned about boys not having boyish books to read. I partly attribute this to the fact that I'm a pretty intensely empathetic person, and I used to do this thing where I'd try to see everyone's point of view, no matter how extreme, in the same light and try to understand where they were coming from. I still do that, to a degree. So when people started going on and on about the lack of male representation in YA, I tried to see where they were coming from and said things like, "Well, yeah, of course teenage boys deserve good books, too." Which I look back on now like hahahaha since when have young white men not been represented in literature what was I thinking.

I also attribute this to the overwhelming pressure on ladies to use softened, coded language and disclaimers when talking about feminism. Ladies, you know what I'm talking about. Whenever we start talking about female inclusion or feminist struggles, some dude (or several dudes) pipes up to say, "Well, I'm not like that. I don't have it easy, either. Why do you have to be so mean and exclusive? [Secret translation: why are you being such a bitch?] I didn't do those things to you. Whatever. Have your little *girl's club*."

If you're like me, which I know many women are, you've been raised on a steady diet of "don't make people feel bad; always be polite and nice because no one likes a RAGING FEMINIST BITCH." Which is the only kind of feminist, I guess? So we learn to preempt such accusations of meanness and exclusivity with disclaimers like "I know not all men are like this! I love men!" or "It's really important to consider how this affects boys, too!" It's really not that surprising that this eventually blends into constant handwringing and trying to "include" boys and advocate for more male presence, because heaven forbid anyone think we're a horrible exclusive girl's club of man-hating feminist bitches. Or something.

Here's the saddest part: this IS about men and boys, too. It's about them because upholding stringent gender roles harm people who are not biological cisgendered males, and they encourage (mostly straight white) boys to continue to believe they are owed space everywhere, and any space that's taken up by someone who isn't them is an encroachment on something that should be rightfully theirs, which in turn creates feelings of anger and resentment. This is patriarchal masculinity at its finest, and it inspires pain for everyone involved: women because we always have to nod our heads and say "yes yes yes, of COURSE you matter, of course you do, you poor baby" lest we be branded misandrists, and men because they are not learning that it is okay to not have representation in every single space ever, and that's not going to hurt them and could in fact teach them a good deal about empathy.

It bothers me a lot that we keep asking the question "what about the boys?" When really we should be asking "what about everyone who isn't straight, white, and middle-to-upper-class?" You want to talk about lack of representation in YA? Let's talk about the people who are actually severely underrepresented, maybe.

Anyway, here's my point for those still tuned in: I can understand why this mindset exists and keeps coming up over, and over, and over again. I understand why many female writers keep saying "yes, absolutely, boys TOTALLY need more facetime in YA." I don't agree with it, but I understand it, and although I'll criticize it to my dying breath, I usually find it difficult to hate on. When your choices are "mollycoddle the dudes" or "be accused of exclusive bitchism," it's little surprise that many opt for the former. Which is to say nothing of potential internalized misogyny, but we'll skip over that for now.

I literally still have to stop myself from going back to pepper in reassurances that I'm not talking about NICE men. Because let's be real: actual nice men know who they are and what they're about, and they can handle criticism of patriarchy. Much like white people who take mortal offense to criticisms of whiteness, dudes who get really insecure whenever anyone's discussing the general concept of patriarchy are showing their stripes.

What do you think, my lovely readers? Even my lovely readers who are also dudes.


Adventure Time: Queer Relationships in Youth Media

| Monday, December 17, 2012
Image by vern-argh
Today's Tune: I'm Just Your Problem

As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty big Adventure Time fan. I think it's a fabulous show for all its mixed humor that can be enjoyed across audiences both young and old, for the fact that it doesn't treat children like they're stupid, and for the sometimes surprisingly nuanced themes the show incorporates. Most people don't expect to get body-checked by themes like losing a loved one, loss of self, depression, pregnancy, or non-hetero sexualities when watching a cartoon aimed at ages 6-11, but they're most certainly there. And I cannot express to you how much I adore that this is a thing that happens.

When it comes to queer themes in particular, this show has explored the possibility of homosexual relationships existing in the land of Ooo in very subtle ways, but ways that aren't denied. In a recent season of Adventure Time, there was an episode in which the character Marceline sings a song and (as she is wont to do) ends up slipping in lyrics implying deeper feelings than she typically lets on for the character Princess Bubblegum. You can view the scene and listen to the song here. Now, it's not obvious from the song itself that the implication is romantic feelings -- it could just as easily be about feeling like her sometimes-friend doesn't value her. However, there was a very clear indication on the part of a behind-the-scenes video that maybe there was more going on there.

In more recent episodes, the sexuality of the characters has been even more openly embraced, particularly with Finn's blossoming relationship with Fire Princess, Lady Rainicorn's pregnancy (Jake is the father), and a recent episode where Finn receives a bag full of mini-versions of all the characters and proceeds to toy in their relationships (as well as imply the Ice King and BeeMO, one male and one sexless, might make a good couple). In all of these relationships, the main focus is on like/love and companionship, rather than sexual desire. With the exception of implied sex between Jake and Lady, (YOU STAY AWAY FROM TIER 15!), the show's relationships remain largely in the realm of subtext, rather than actual text. Even so, it raises a lot of hackles.

Adults have a way of ascribing adult readings to things that children consume. On the topic of the queer subtext present in Adventure Time, not to mention other cartoons with ambiguously queer characters, many adults tend to freak out. The claims are that presenting non-hetero relationships as normal will somehow corrupt children or convince them to choose gayness or... something, I'm still not entirely sure what the arguments are. As pointed out in the op-ed I just linked, this projects the idea that who you're attracted to or fall in love with is only ever about sex. It strips relationships down to sexual contact and not much more, pursuing the idea that you can't expose a child to the concept of homosexuality without them immediately wanting to go out and have a bunch of homosexual sex because... reasons. Because apparently heterosexual people can be in love and want other things from their relationships, but homosexual couples are only interested in getting it on.

This is exactly why it's so important for these relationships to exist in media for children. Portrayals such as those in Adventure Time show us that not only are these types of relationships acceptable, they're not something that can be boiled down to dirty, filthy sex. They're complicated, and confusing, and caring, and full of feeling. They're about like, and love, and companionship. Sexual activity is only a very small part of attraction and relationships, and that goes for ALL relationships. We're perfectly fine with feeding children a steady stream of G-rated heterosexual love stories that don't involve sex, because it's universally understood that hetero love isn't just about sex. But flip that around to a non-hetero relationship, and suddenly it's SEX SEX SEX CORRUPTION AND SEX.

Many people don't like attributing sexuality to media for young people, because there's this idea that sexuality and attraction are the same thing as sex, as though sexual contact is the only possible expression of sexuality. This isn't accurate. Many people already know who they're attracted to at a very young age, and it has very little to do with sex at that point. It's about who you want to be around, hold hands with, laugh with, love with. These are healthy, happy relationships first and foremost, which may or may not eventually involve sexual activity in some form. Don't we want that for our youth?

What are your thoughts, readers?

  

Critique of Kristin Cashore's YA Fantasies

| Friday, December 14, 2012
Today's Tune: Barely Breathing

Now that the BITTERBLUE contest is over (congrats Anna!), I wanted to get back to discussing Cashore's novels. Overall, I found all three to be feminist-leaning and sex-positive, not to mention enjoyable in the same way I enjoyed Tamora Pierce as a teen. Okay, I still enjoy Tamora Pierce. You know what I mean. I'm saying that I liked them. I'm prefacing with this because this is going to be a criticism post, and I want to make it clear that I'm coming from a place of love, since I believe it's possible to really like something and still acknowledge that it's imperfect. Also, SPOILER WARNING for all of Cashore's books.

OKAY? Moving on!

I do have to give Kristin Cashore props for being incredibly classy about criticism of her work. We hear so many stories (which actually aren't THAT common, but make a big impression when they happen) of authors who can't handle criticism of their work AT ALL and throw tantrums or demand that everyone shut up and only say nice things. Cashore, on the other hand, got some flak over disability politics in her first book, GRACELING, and she took it like a champ. She didn't throw a fit or tell anyone that they just didn't get it. She listened, considered the criticism, educated herself about those points, and resolved to try to remedy her missteps in her later work. So she gets a shiny gold star from me for that, because everyone messes up, and if you're able to take criticism and grow from it instead of pouting about it, you're a winner in my book.

The topic of Po's disability and his "magical cure" were definitely points that I took issue with, and have been discussed at length by others who are likely much more qualified to talk about it than I am, so I'll leave it to them. Suffice to say there's kind of a theme in fantasy to "fix" people with a disability through magical means, or otherwise imply that they're not living as full of a life as an able-boded person. Which is crap.

I noticed that Cashore's writing style improved over the course of her novels, which really isn't unusual. GRACELING's prose felt dry and occasionally stilted to me, but I noticed this less and less in the companion novels. Katsa also lost me a bit toward the end of GRACELING when she got pretty epically overpowered and ran through a deadly blizzard with no real ill effects because her super power is survival or whatever you know how it went. It felt like too much to me. I like my protagonists to pay the price for dangerous choices because I'm a rubbing-hands-and-cackling villain that way.

FIRE actually ended up being my favorite of the three novels. While Katsa was very much portrayed as this kind of emotionally distant badass with very specific reproductive decisions, Fire was portrayed in a more traditionally feminine light while still being a badass who makes specific reproductive decisions. Like. I don't know if I can express to you guys how much I appreciate femininity not being treated like something stupid and boring, and being shared jointly with strength of character? I love it a lot. A L O T. Bitterblue shared this, as well. She was very much a "proper" royal lady, but she had her cleverness and awareness, which was fabulous.

I also have to give a nod (and a slight frown) to the sexual positivity of Cashore's novels. I feel like this is one of the few YA series I've read (again, Tamora Pierce comes to mind) that allows for its characters to be sexual beings without making it about morality or purity or anything of that nature. Not only that, she incorporates birth control and reproductive choice. These are subjects I want to see broached MORE in YA, without making it an issue novel about Good Decisions. These topics can and should exist in speculative fiction. My one big qualm is Katsa's first sex scene in GRACELING, mainly because ugh I really hate the first time = blood and pain trope, guys. But, you know, I can get around it in favor of the larger themes of sexual freedom, health, choice, etc.

And speaking of sexual themes, this brings me to my one major sticking point with the books in this series: the rape. You guys. There is a lot of rape in these books. Granted most of it is implied and off-screen, but even so, there's a lot of it. The villains in the novels (both fathers of two of the protagonists) are portrayed as these sort of blanket-evil, born-sociopath dudes who really like raping women. Or making other people rape women through mind control, which is extra fun.

I think by now I've made it abundantly clear that I am incredibly picky about the depictions of rape in my fiction, and one of the tropes I have a really hard time with is this implication that rape is something that is done by obviously evil, sociopathic, mustache-twirling villains. See also: torture is never enough. It has to be rape. Especially if the woman needs to be "broken." Strong female character? Evil male character needs to knock her down several pegs through bodily violation, obviously. The whole thing just rubs me horribly the wrong way. And this is tough, because rape has most definitely been a tactic of abuse and control for as long as humans have been humans, so it's not necessarily unrealistic. Even so, I feel like "villain = rapist" is a trope too often leaned on to prove how really and truly eeeeevil they are, and also neglects to give credence to the fact that many rapists aren't obviously villainous.

I feel like it perhaps adds to the misrepresentation surrounding rape to portray rapists as 100% evil villains. I AM NOT SAYING RAPISTS SHOULD BE SYMPATHETIC. GOD, NO. But rapists can be, and usually are, normal people. Rape culture is extremely pervasive and extremely destructive. The culture itself is what lends otherwise "nice" and "normal" young men into situations where they rape a woman and don't even bat an eye about it because they don't think of it as rape. I don't know. I suppose I feel that girls and women often expect rapists to have obvious "I'm an evil creep" vibes, because the media tends to portray them that way. And then they're assaulted by a friend, or boyfriend, or neutral acquaintance, and it leads to all sorts of feelings of confusion and guilt because why didn't they know he was a bad man? Is he a bad man? Did they make a mistake? He seemed so nice!

Ahem. Yeah. I have problems with many, many, many rape portrayals in many, many, many novels. I accept that it's largely personal for me, but I also feel that we should examine the way we use sexual assault to further storylines. It's important to consider where we're putting the focus -- is it on OMG RAPE! SO HORRIBLE! or is it on the effect the assault has on the victim? Why are we choosing rape, specifically, rather than some other action used to set a character back? Is it entirely necessary to have a male character try to "break" or harm our female characters through sexual assault? Why?

I think sexual violence is an extremely important topic to explore, because it's still so very ingrained in the daily existence of so many people. I'll never be an advocate for a ban on rape in novels, or anything like that. SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson remains a book very close to my heart. I just think it's so important to ask ourselves why, why, why we need it to be a part of our novels.

And... those are my (mostly critical) feelings on Cashore's novels up to this point in time. Again, there are a lot of things I enjoyed about the novels, and overall I think they're wonderful books that I tend to recommend regularly (with some warnings where necessary). As always, I like to explore every part of everything I read.

If you've read Cashore's novels, what do you think? What worked and didn't work for you?

 

Guest Post: Avoiding Genre Stereotypes by Lydia Sharp

| Wednesday, December 12, 2012
I have a special post for you today, guys! The lovely Lydia Sharp, whose blog you should very well know, recently celebrated the release of her new novella, Twin Sense. She's touring around the blogosphere being all smart and stuff, and she's written up a nice guest post for us. Enjoy, and don't forget to check out her book/author info at the bottom of the post!

***

Avoiding Genre Stereotypes (but only if you want to)

by Lydia Sharp


Before I get started, here is my disclaimer. There is no answer to the issue I’m about to discuss. There is no right or wrong. Mine is just one opinion, and shouldn’t be taken as anything more than that.

The advice given to writers to avoid character stereotypes is given so often as to be a cliché itself. But what about avoiding genre stereotypes? What do I even mean by that?

Since my newest book is a rom-com, I’ll use that as an example. What standard elements do you expect to see in a romantic comedy? The first thing that pops into my head is a quirky female lead. And this female lead must choose between a new love interest and her old/current love interest (who is often made to be the obviously wrong choice), or between this new person and her career/family/friends/lifelong dream (which she will end up, somehow, miraculously, gaining both of them in the end anyway).

Is there anything wrong with this setup? Not inherently, no. It has a track record of success. And there is also nothing wrong with a reader, or a viewer in the case of films, expecting to see some version of the above scenarios when they pick up the newest rom-com release.

This is where it gets tricky, though, because certain genres have certain, valid expectations from their audience. But what if you’re like me and you like to change things up? What if you like taking a basic formula and putting your own twist on it? What if you are genuinely sick of seeing only hetero couples in romance? Because seriously. They dominate like whoa. Gay characters seem to only have a place in rom-coms as the flamboyant sidekick, or the sensitive male shoulder to cry on without risking sexual tension with the female lead.

Short answer, you trust your gut. You do what you want to do, while also understanding that it very likely won’t be popular. Once you accept that, your boundaries can freely expand.

Have you read the book or seen the movie version of The Object of My Affection by Stephen McCauley? It’s a good example of a romantic comedy that broke all the rules (published in the 80s, no less). So yes, it can be done and can even have a measure of success. But first you have to be confident in your decision to take a risk.

In Twin Sense, I kept some of those basic rom-com elements and changed some others. The lead is a quirky female, but she is also bisexual. Her current boyfriend is not an obviously bad choice, their personalities mesh quite well and he’s an overall good person. The new love interest is ~gasp!~ a girl. And they don’t go through a typical “I hate you, now I love you” arc, like the one used in You’ve Got Mail. This new LI is also not a bad choice--they start out as friends--hence the conflict of “who will she choose?” is actually a real internal struggle for the MC.

Although this story is labeled LGBT, there is no flamboyant gay boy sidekick. That stereotype makes me… ugh, I just can’t. So the main side characters I chose were 1) the womanizing straight boy (which is usually reserved for the love interest or the current bad-for-me guy), and 2) a very unsupportive, short-tempered “friend” (which is usually reserved for the girl who pushes her way between the MC and the LI--for no reason other than that she is just so much of a slutty bitch she can’t help herself).

Therefore the MC in Twin Sense does not have a realization chat during a girls’ night with her friend/s, like you often see in female-driven romance. In fact, her realization chat happens with her single-parent father--another genre twist. A parent who understands? Unheard of in YA!

Even with these character flips, the story still adheres to a standard romance structure. In that way, my hope is that it will appeal to people who like the genre but are looking for something different.

I do the same thing with all of my stories, not just rom-coms. The novel I’m querying (as well as the one I just started writing) has a very strong romantic thread that drives the plot, but… wait for it… wait for it… it is told from a singular MALE point of view. Not surprisingly, the number one comment I’ve received for this ms is that romance with a male narrator is a tough sell.

Did they say it is impossible, though? No. No, they did not.

I know it isn’t standard, so it will be tough to push into the market. Yet I wrote it anyway, and am still trying to sell it anyway. Because I believe certain story molds are successful for a reason, but I also believe there is room to reshape that mold.

What do YOU think?


***

Lydia Sharp is a novelist and short fiction author who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. Then she got tired of finding sand in her clothes so she moved further inland, but she'll always call Ohio home. Laughing is her favorite pastime. Kissing is a close second.

Here is the blurb for her new novella, Twin Sense, which can be purchased from Amazon, B&N, and Musa Publishing:

two boys + two girls = one big mess

As girlfriends of the Taylor twins, Layna and Sherri have only been friends by association. But when Sherri breaks up with Keith (for real this time), and Kevin gives Layna a promise ring (whoa, what?), Layna's whole world spins off balance. She avoids Kevin's unwelcome pressure to commit by spending more time with Sherri.

Without the twins around, Layna and Sherri are tempted to go beyond friendship status. Then Keith tries to win Sherri back, and Kevin apologizes for rushing Layna. Now she's stuck inside a double-trouble love quadrangle that has her reaching for the consolation cheesecake. The only way to sort out this mess is to make an impossible choice—between the one she wants and the other one she wants—or she might end up with no one.

Find extras and the other links on her blog tour here!

 

How I Met Your Mother: Cuddly Sexism & Enjoying Problematic Media

| Monday, December 10, 2012

Edit: If you enjoy this post, you may also enjoy my other HIMYM post, which I wrote about one episode before I decided to give up the show for good.

HIMYM and Enjoying Problematic Media

A while back, I was writing a post about something-or-other and I mentioned that there's a lot of problematic media out there. Like, a lot. So much problematic media. So very much problematic media that if your goal was to completely erase media with any hint of problematic content from your consumption, you'd be left with a very slim list of "acceptable" media to watch. Which is incredibly horrible, but that's another post. Anyway, while I was discussing that topic, I brought up How I Met Your Mother, which is a show I watch and find generally entertaining and occasionally heartwarming, but which I recognize is also exceedingly, incredibly problematic.

Here are a few of my favorite examples of problematic storylines that work their way into the show:

- The "Nice Guy" Who Destroys Relationships in Search of "The One" Woman Who Will Complete Him (and Give Him Babies)

- Cool Ladies Are Bros You Can Have Sex With

- Career Women Are Secret Hot Messes

- Your Female Friends' Bodies Are Acceptable Bargaining Chips for Bets (It's Okay, They're Bros, They're Cool With It)

- Dudes Can Have Commitment Issues, but if a Lady Needs Space, MAN WHAT A LIFE-RUINING BITCH

- Dudes Can Be Obsessed With Marriage and Babies and it's Sweet, but Ladies Are SO CRAY-CRAY

- In Fact, Women Can Literally Have "Crazy Eyes"

- Women Are Also Fiscally Irresponsible Shopaholics

- Accomplished Women Are Threatening

- Pregnancy and Motherhood Make You Dumb and Horrible

- Manipulating, Intoxicating, and Lying to Women for Sex is Something to Ignore or Even Support (WINGMEN! LADIES WHO ARE ALSO WINGMEN!)

- If Women Are Stupid Enough to Fall for This Lie, They Basically Deserve to Be Used

- Basically Everything Barney Does Ever

- Being Forcibly Raised as a Gender Other Than the One You Identify As is HILARIOUS

- Gay Men Love Hitting on Straight Dudes!

- Female Bisexuality or Lesbianism is a Joke, or Something for Male Titillation

- Everyone in NEW YORK CITY is White, Except Sexual Conquests


And that's just a sampling.

HIMYM is a show that's guilty of something I like to think of as "cuddly sexism," or sexism that's softened and portrayed as okay because the 1) the perpetrators are actually really nice guys who don't really mean it except for when they're using and losing one-off conquests, and 2) it's brushed off or perpetuated by the female characters themselves, so it's clearly not THAT sexist. Since this show is a comedy, sexist acts and comments are portrayed as humorous, and therefore automatically something to not take seriously. We're told time and again that the male characters are good husbands, good boyfriends, good friends, good dads. So obviously when they do or say something grossly sexist, it's okay because JUST JOKES, GUYS (except for when it isn't). If the female characters are giving them a pass, so should you!

This sort of thing can get really upsetting to watch, because it's making light of something that a lot of people (myself included) actually deal with in real life, and in real life, it's not funny. It's not amusing to have a man buy you drinks with the intent of getting you drunk and taking advantage of you because to him, you're just a thing to put his penis in. It's not entertaining to have your sexuality questioned or used as an excuse to ask for -- or demand -- a threesome, as though it's a performance for someone else's enjoyment. It's not cute to be repeatedly looked over for promotions or opportunities because you're assumed to be less ambitious, less intelligent, or on the "mommy track." In fact, it sucks when society and your guy friends and other women are all telling you, directly or indirectly, that you need to stop being so damn female and start acting like a BRO, you silly bobble-headed screechy GIRL.

Every once in a while, the writers also like to throw a little "reverse sexism" into the mix, like the recent episode entitled "Twelve Horny Women" (really), where twelve women are serving on a jury and are easily swayed by the attractive male attorney showing off his butt, or pecs, or biceps. But see, this isn't sexism at all because the ladies are objectifying the DUDE, see! It's in no way implying that women are always turned on and easily manipulated by a hot dude's ass! This has nothing to do with women being too silly, stupid, sexually confused, or needy to serve on something as important as a JURY!

Ahem. Yeah. So, the show is problematic.

And now I'm sure you're thinking, "Wow. Why do you even watch this show at all?"

I do have to admit, the recent seasons have worn my patience pretty thin, especially after the way they treated the character Lily throughout her pregnancy. Even so, I was brought into the show because much of the humor really is funny, the chemistry of the cast is generally spot-on, and there are some wonderfully heartwarming (and heart-wrenching) moments of friendship and love.

This is where we get to the other point of this post: enjoying problematic media.

Everyone has their own levels of tolerance for their media intake. There's a balance; a point where the problematic elements outweigh any benefit of entertainment you get from watching the show. Some things may be particularly triggering or angry-making, and they alone are enough to give a quick "nope" stamp. Other shows may straddle a line between really progressive, quality entertainment speckled with some aggravatingly problematic stuff. Legend of Korra was one of these for me. There was so much about that show that I truly enjoyed, but there was some really crappy junk going on there, too.

I'm an analytical viewer. I can't consume a piece of media without viewing it critically and noting problematic themes. Some may argue that this means that I can't enjoy anything ever because I can't just "let it go," but I find the opposite to be true. It's very important to me to be able to recognize harmful social stigmas so I can consciously combat them. Just because I realize it's there doesn't mean that I can't also notice and appreciate the things my entertainment gets right.

That's ultimately where enjoyment of problematic media rests. Too often, people house themselves in a nice little fandom bubble where any naysaying whatsoever is met with choruses of HOW DARE YOU and YOU'RE JUST JEALOUS and LA LA LA LA LA. This is an attitude that equates even the slightest criticism with "I hate this and I hate you for liking it and neither it nor you should exist." It's as though it's impossible for certain fans to understand that you can like something, REALLY REALLY REALLY like something, and still recognize that it's not perfect and some of the themes it expresses are pretty messed up.

There isn't much (or any) perfect media out there. It all has its issues, and it's fine to enjoy it despite those issues. But it's also important to be able to recognize and acknowledge those issues so that you're checking yourself on becoming complacent in perpetuating similar crap. You can understand the flaws in something and still think that something is worth your attention and adoration.

Find the problems, acknowledge the problems, and help make your media and your fandoms better, all while continuing to enjoy your favorite things.

How do you find that balance, guys?

The Idea That Beauty Equals Goodness

| Friday, December 7, 2012
Today's Tune: Hopeless Wanderer

Only a few days left to snag this lovely signed copy of BITTERBLUE by Kristin Cashore. Get it while it's hot. Or something. (Also, had to disable anonymous comments, sorry. The spam was out of control.)

There's this insidious thing that happens in novels and on television, and I started to notice it as a teenager. It didn't always happen, some books were better about it than others, but it seemed like far too many had a dynamic that made me uncomfortable even before I realized what was eating at me so much. After reading a lot of books and a lot of essays of analysis about those books, I finally realized what bothered me.

It's the correlation of physical beauty with goodness, and physical unattractiveness with evil. Of course, I'm referring to a very specific sort of "beauty." More on that in a moment.

Many people have discussed this topic at length, and I encourage you to read up more about it after you're done with this post. This is a topic that I feel very strongly about bringing to the forefront and making people think about. It's one of those things that's easy to let slide and not examine very closely, and that's what makes it so dangerous. We are constantly being fed this idea of what beauty is, and that it's our ultimate goal to achieve this sort of beauty, and if no one ever talks about it and refutes it, those ideas remain unchallenged in our mind. This is an especially dangerous issue for young people, because this is what they're being fed while they're still formulating their own personalities and ideals.

I know you guys know what I'm talking about. How many times have we read an MG or YA book and found that all the "good" characters are described as physically attractive, while the antagonistic or "bad" characters are unattractive? And it's not just "pretty" or "ugly," either. It's a very specific kind of pretty or ugly.

"Good" characters aren't just generically pretty. They have clear skin. Flawless hair. Unnaturally gorgeous eyes. They're not just good-looking. They're perfect.

They're also usually white, able-bodied, healthy, and thin. They may have other signature features that code them as a very specific kind of "pretty:" the kind of pretty that allows no room for the slightest physical variant.

Now let's think of "bad" characters. How often to we read about the "skanky" girl who wears trashy clothes and too much makeup to distract from her horse teeth? Or the "catty" girl who's a little overweight? Or the evil aliens that are little more than shriveled slime creatures? The mad scientist who's confined to a wheelchair? The once-beautiful young man who was horribly disfigured, which reflects the blackness in his soul, or whatever? The one Black character in the whole book, who happens to be the turncoat who ruins everything?

This is not an accident. This is social conditioning at work. Most readers will notice that the main characters are pretty, but they may not notice that they're rarely anything other than the societal beauty "norm." It's not enough to check yourself on making all the good guys unnaturally attractive and all the bad guys creeps with lanky hair and bad breath. You also have to be mindful of whether you're constantly portraying beauty and goodness as something that is straight, white, able-bodied, and thin. Is this the only thing (or the major thing) that qualifies as "beautiful" in your world? Why?

It's not enough to have a token minority sidekick character who hangs out with the good guys. We need to break down this idea that only a specific sort of person is worthy of a starring role. And I know I'm treading on thin ice, since I'm a super-white lady and it's not as though I'm hurting for representations of myself in leading roles. Even so, it's important for all of us to seek to break down the reasons why we always reach for a certain kind of character when we're picking sides.

Having a diverse cast is a good thing. Portraying a variety of people can have an incredible impact on those who are desperate for some positive representation. As always, I don't suggest jumping in without research because someone told you that you should, but I do recommend sitting down with your work and considering why you made the choices you did, even if they were subconscious. We need to find it in us to allow for different sorts of people to share the spotlight, and do so without constant angst about their "imperfect" physicality. Not everyone wishes they were a skinny white girl with a "normal" body. They just wish that they could see someone more like themselves.

Food for thought. What do you think? Do you notice these sorts of patterns in the books you read?


YA Common Clichés Series: Issue Novels

| Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Today's Tune: Crystal Vases

If you haven't entered for a chance to win a signed copy of BITTERBLUE by Kristen Cashore, you should probably get on that.

This episode of Common Clichés is going to go a little differently than most of its predecessors. That's because this particular subsection of YA is pretty darn specific, so there isn't a huge amount of variation in the topics covered and general structure. Although, frankly, some writers seriously know how to rock an issue novel. They are by no means stagnant things with only so many variations. They can be full of metaphor and incredible prose and experimental storytelling. But there are some common ruts people fall into.

First, let's talk about what an issue/problem novel is. Many novels tackle difficult topics or have subplots dedicated to something you'd find in an issue novel. However, in order for a book to be an issue/problem novel, the primary storyline is about the protagonist dealing with and moving past (or being overcome by) the "problem." These books are about overcoming or being consumed by an issue that a lot of teens face on a daily basis, and the characters and story serve to dramatize the problem into story format. Because of this, a lot of issue novels walk the dangerous line of being preachy "lesson" books. Which brings us to our subjects.

Below are a few traps a writer might fall into while trying to tackle an issue novel.

Subject #6: The Issue Novel

Focusing too much on teaching teenagers the "right" way to act. Many wannabe issue novels end up devolving into this sort of horror show of LOOK WHAT YOUR LIFE WILL BECOME IF YOU MAKE BAD CHOICES. Of course, the "bad choices" are subjective and often steeped in a heavy sense of the author's personal morality. It's always important to remember to come at these issues from a teenager's point of view, not from your distant adult perch of Right and Wrong. If there's one thing young adults are good at, it's spotting when they're being lectured or condescended to. And they tend to tune out.

The protagonist is a goody two-shoes who's tempted by a "friend" to do something Not Good. When this happens, one of the two following scenarios occur: the main character makes some shady choices, hurts someone close to them, then snaps out of it, but not before the "friend" turns out to be a horrible person and an example of How Not To Be. Alternatively, the protagonist themselves becomes that particular life lesson, showing how even a "good" kid can become a horrible human being for making one bad decision.

If sexual abuse is involved, it gets far too intimate and male-gazey, rather than acting as a true representation of abuse and survival. It's very difficult to handle sexual assault well. When you read a sexual abuse scene, it's almost always easy to tell whether the author actually has the experience to draw on, or if they've worked closely with people who have. No two experiences are the same, but there are certain cues you learn to look for. When too much focus is placed on the act itself rather than the fallout, or the scene is set in a way that feels like watching a sex scene instead of a horrible act, it becomes clear that it's been handled badly. This is a touchy topic, because there's no right or wrong way for someone to deal with sexual assault, but there are certain things to absolutely NOT do because they don't ring true and they can be severely triggering.

Believing that the "issue" is enough to carry an entire book. Everybody's already played the deck straight, dudes. Issue novels are very difficult to find a place for because so many of them have already been done and there's little that's new or different about them. As with any other novel, you must have a functional STORY, and it must be fresh in some way. Whether that's voice, structure, approach, character, setting, or whatever, you need to push harder than "Girl falls tragically in love with dying boy." Okay. What else?

Cancer books. Many, many, many people have tackled The Cancer Book. YA Cancer Books can be especially difficult because the sufferer is often so young, with so much potential life yet ahead of them. It's hard to write such a book with the right amount of nuance, and it's nearly impossible to find an approach that hasn't already been done. It can be done, though. And well. You just have to find a way to say what's already been said in a different way, and try not to overdose on tragedy porn. Cancer is a real disease that affects real people. Don't steep it too heavily in theatrics, lest you belittle the experiences of those actually going through it.

Drugs are always bad and will always ruin your life. I'm not gonna lie, it's probably impossible to write an issue novel about drugs without, well, showing the negative side of drugs. But too often, writers reach too far and only show this sort of overblown seedy underbelly of "the drug life" that hedges on the unbelievable. It's difficult for a teen to take criticism of drug use seriously when they're bombarded with ridiculous scenes like people smoking a joint and then immediately leaping into severe heroin addiction. Balance, subtlety, and realism are key.

ALL OR NOTHING. Related to the above, it's really not realistic to take the all or nothing approach to a lot of issues. If you display something like, say, premarital sex as only ever resulting in terrible tragedy, pregnancy, STDs, and death, you're going to have a lot of eyerolls on your hands. It is okay to show that some things can be done responsibly, and it's abuse of those things that's the problem.

Eating disorders are only for vain girls or easily manipulated protagonists with low self-esteem. Oh my goodness, please be careful with eating disorders. Body image is a big, messy, painful subject for teenagers. You do not want to imply that the only reason someone would have an eating disorder is because of vanity. Social pressure, acceptance, body dysmorphia, need for control, and the dozens of other reasons people turn to EDs have nothing to do with superficiality. It is so. Much. More. Complicated.

Suicide is something only selfish people do. Stop. Stop right now. Turn around, go back to Start, and roll again. If you are someone who really believes that people end their lives because they're just too self-absorbed to think of anyone else, you need to check yourself pretty hard. And don't write a book about it. Go read up on the psychology behind suicidal tendencies and maybe, I don't know, read some essays by folks who have been suicidal. See also: self-harm is for attention-seekers. STOP.

Avoid using the issue novel to tell your personal autobiogaphy, or the biography of a friend without their permission. It seems a lot of people have this idea that they can use portions of their own life to write a book, change a few names, and consider it a complete story. They think: "Well, this really happened to me! It was very important in my life! It changed me! Surely it makes a good story!" And you guys, that stuff rarely makes a good story. That sounds horrible, because of course things like this are extremely personal, and when someone tells you that a random series of events doesn't make a good story, it feels like they're saying YOUR LIFE is not a good story. Which is why you should avoid using your life as a story guide. Furthermore, it's a bad idea to use a "friend" of yours and their life as fodder for your story without their knowledge. That's not yours to tell.


I think that's probably enough to go on for now. How do you feel about issue novels, guys? Anything else to add?

December Book Recs

| Monday, December 3, 2012
Today's Tune: January Wedding

Hello! Are you a Kristin Cashore fan? Then you should definitely go check out this post and comment to win a signed copy of BITTERBLUE.

Anyway. I've had a little more time than usual to read, so I recently read a pair of books that I'd like to recommend because I enjoyed them very much.

First, let's talk about THE UNNATURALISTS by Tiffany Trent.


I have a special place in my heart for YA Steampunk, given that I've written some of my own. On the surface, it seems like a pretty narrow genre, but in reality, there's quite a lot of variation to be had. It can range from very scientific in nature to very fantastical. Sometimes there's magic, sometimes not. It's typically set in London or another European setting, but there are a number of authors who are exploring colonialism and the effect of the British Empire in other areas of the world, and it's all fascinating. This particular book happens to be set in the alternate world of "New London" and blends steampunk technology with natural magic into this sort of paranormal-steampunk-fantasy hybrid. The world building is lovely, and the story moves along very well and may resonate with you if you're into natural world vs. industrialism sorts of storylines.

The narration style is something I don't think I've seen before -- alternating POV, with half the chapters in Vespa's first-person narration and the other half in third-person narration following Syrus (Vespa is our MC, Syrus is a pre-teen boy who's seeking her help). It takes some getting used to, but weirdly, it worked for me. The story can be a little hard to follow at times and the romantic subplot was just okay, but overall, I thought this was a wonderful book that will speak to steampunk and fantasy fans alike. Plus... POC main character AND POC on the cover!

I recommend.

And, of course: DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT.


Oh, Laini Taylor, how do you brain. DoBaS is the sequel to her wonderful DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, which came out last year. It's quite possibly one of the best sequels/middle-of-a-trilogy books I've read in... maybe ever. Where many such books suffer from "sagging middle" syndrome, or the feeling that they're just passing time until the big finale, this book manages to be so full of story and plot that it's practically bursting.

I had a few small qualms with DAUGHTER, primarily in the pacing and the last third of the novel. Overall, I found the book a gorgeous and unique read, and though I love Taylor's prose, the last third of DAUGHTER dragged a bit for me. Taylor has a habit of beginning to build a mystery, then dropping enough information to reveal the end of a plotline so you know what's coming, but then continuing to slowly feed you the plotline anyway even though you already know how it's going to end. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. In DAUGHTER, the last third didn't work for me because I'd already figured it out and there was another plotline I wanted to get back to, but I had to wait through a (very long) flashback in order to get to it.

In DAYS, I didn't have this issue. The same tactic is used, but I felt it was used more successfully. Taylor weaves so many subplots together so deftly that you barely notice she's doing it. We're introduced to new characters who are so fleshed out that you feel as though you've known them all along. The emotional crescendos are awe-inspiring and crushing, and the stakes are very real. All of this on top of Taylor's masterful, colorful prose. These books are a joy to read (when you're not gasping or tearing up. Oh, whatever, they're a joy even then.).

I highly recommend.

What have you read lately, my wonderful readers?




Imposter Syndrome

| Friday, November 30, 2012
Today's Tune: Don't Leave Me

I'm offering up a signed copy of Kristin Cashore's BITTERBLUE. Y'know. If you're into feminist-ish fantasy. Go here.

If there's one thing I think a lot of us can relate to, it's Imposter Syndrome.

Sometimes it starts all the way back in childhood, or during our tumultuous adolescence. We kind of stumble along, trying to find that perfect elixir of cool or smart or interesting or maybe just a person who doesn't get singled out, but you feel like you're doing it all wrong. You're just kind of going through the motions, doing the things you think you're supposed to do, pretending you meant to do it all along. And somehow, other people buy it. Maybe they start looking at you like you're worthy of notice, like you're doing something right, and you feel this unfathomable pressure to keep up the act. So you do it.

Fast forward to young adulthood and adult-adulthood. No matter how much older and wiser we get, it seems that a lot of us (especially we emotional artsy types) still feel like we're just faking it. We don't believe enough in our own abilities. Even if we ace every test, excel in every game, receive accolades from every job, we still feel like we're faking it. There's this looming sense of panic, like everyone's waiting for you to screw up so they can go HA! HA, I KNEW IT, I KNEW YOU WERE AN IMPOSTER.

It doesn't matter how much you know. Doesn't matter how much you do. You still feel like that awkward kid who's just kind of guessing at everything (educated guesses though they may be) and hoping it turns out for the best. When people start coming to you for advice, or telling you they admire you, or saying they love your work, you sit there going AHAHAHA WHAT? ME? NO. YOU MUST BE MISTAKEN. I KNOW NOTHING.

Here's a secret: you're not the only person who feels that way.

In fact, most people feel that way.

There's this lie that people tell, and it's a lie that says everything will eventually come together and you'll have it all figured out. But that's not what happens. The thing about life is that there's no final level; no tidy cut scene at the finale. You keep on growing and learning and changing until you finally get hit by a fireball and die.

And you know better. I know that I'm a thinker and a planner, and I know I carefully consider things and try to put out good work. I know that other people appreciate it. I know that I'm not completely lost on the topics I talk about. Even so, I still harbor that sneaking suspicion that I only think I'm putting out good work, that other people are only being nice, and that for everything I know, there are a million things I don't.

What's a person to do?

Keep on keepin' on. Teach yourself to believe that when multiple people are telling you that you do something well, they're probably not all lying to you. Have faith in what you know, and be willing to learn the things you don't.

And remember you aren't alone.

 

Rhizome Storytelling

| Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Rhizome Storytelling
Today's Tune: Closer

Don't forget to comment on this post for your chance to win a signed copy of BITTERBLUE!

So, who knows what a rhizome is? Show of hands. If you're a gardener, you might have a better idea than most. If you took my ridiculously abstract post-modernism class in college, you might have some idea how it relates to storytelling. This is going to be a super watered-down version of that same idea.

Here's what a rhizome is: it's a specific sort of plant stem that grows underground in a sort of horizontal structure, and it usually has nodules. From those nodules, it releases shoots upward and roots downward. If you cut it into pieces, in theory, each nodule should still be able to keep producing on its own.

You know these plants. These names may be more familiar to you: ginger, iris, turmeric, asparagus. If you look at any ginger "root" that you buy from the store, with its branching nodules, you're looking at a rhizome. Some species of tree even grow this way, with a vast underground root network, making them all part of the same plant.

And now you're probably wondering what this has to do with storytelling. I'll tell you.

Imagine that your story has a root, a core. It's a strong thread that weaves through the entire length of the story, perhaps never fully visible, but working as a support system for all the other threads you weave into and around it. You can think of it as a theme, or a heart, or whatever. However you picture it, it's the most fundamental part of your story. Without it, the whole thing falls apart. That's your rhizome.

Now imagine that from that core, the shoots and roots of your story grow. The characters, plot events, setting, language. Even if you cut it up and spread it out, it's all part of the same original plant. But the core is hidden below the surface. Your readers can't necessarily SEE that it's all part of the same plant. Not at first. They see a shoot here, a shoot there, a shoot waaaaay over on the other side of the yard. It isn't until they view it from a distance, until they dig their fingers into the dirt and uncover the rhizome, that they realize how it all comes together. When they uncover the thing that everything grew out of, they can't imagine it any other way. This was the way it had to be.

This sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice, it can be very difficult. It's easier to think of a story in simple, linear terms, and that isn't a bad way to write. Not every story needs to be woven together this tightly. But it is something to keep in mind. If you've uncovered the rhizome of your story, how can you better mold your plot elements, and even your word choices, to be branches of the whole, rather than separate flowers? Flowers can be beautiful on their own, and there's nothing wrong with a garden full of them. Still, it's an interesting challenge to imagine how you could craft your story into one giant interconnected organism.

Food for thought. Ginger, nom nom nom.


 

Win a Signed Copy of Bitterblue!

| Monday, November 26, 2012
Today's Tune: Winter Song

This contest is now CLOSED. Thank you to all who entered! And the winner is... Anna Hutchinsin! Congrats Anna!



Happy post-holiday weekend, for those who were celebrating. If not, then... happy post-weekend! I've got a winter-ish contest for you, because this book feels very "winter" to me.

Here we go: I got to see the lovely Kristin Cashore at my local indie bookstore a few months back, which means I got to have my copies of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue signed. It also means I got an EXTRA copy signed, and that copy is looking for a home. Preferably the home of a fantasy booklover who's into Kristin Cashore, but you know. Any happy home will do!

While I do have some qualms with Cashore's work, which I can elaborate on some other time, I find her books to be generally very female-centric and sex-positive. These books overflow with wonderful and varied characters; the fantasy world is well-realized. If you're a Tamora Pierce fan, you may dig these. Each book works as a standalone, but they're all companion books and work best when read together. Bitterblue is technically the sequel to Graceling, though you wouldn't be lost if you read it without having read Graceling. Basically, if you like fantasy and you like girl characters and you like feminist-flavored fiction, these will probably be up your alley.

Win a SIGNED hardback copy of BITTERBLUE!

This is how to enter: leave a comment on this post with your contact email address so I can get in touch with you. Comments without emails will not be entered. That's it! I don't like to make people follow me unless they want to, so... if you enjoy my blog or Tumblr or Twitter, feel free to follow me. If not, then no worries, you can still enter. This contest is open internationally, so if you're not in the USA, you can still enter! The contest will run for two weeks, closing at midnight PST on December 10th. The book is a new hardback copy of Bitterblue signed by Kristin Cashore.

If you can, I would really appreciate it if you spread the word on your social media accounts!

And that's that. Good luck!


 

c u r l.

| Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Today's Tune: King and Lionheart

Sorry guys, I'm seriously drawing a blank today, so I'm just going to direct you to a poem I wrote in college that I posted on Figment. I like Figment. It's fun. You should join so we can hang out on yet another social media platform. YEAH.

No post for Friday, as it's a holiday weekend and I'm guessing that I'm going to be doing a lot of eating and sleeping because that's how I roll. If you're celebrating this weekend, I hope you have a wonderful time! See you Monday!

 

Dissecting a Successful Online Marketing Campaign

| Monday, November 19, 2012
UPDATE: Comments have been disabled on this post due to absurd amounts of "business guru" spammers. Sorry.

For those of you who aren't aware, my "day job" is in Internet marketing. I like to tell people that I Facebook and Tweet for a living, because that's easier than explaining the much more varied nature of my job, which often includes researching and analyzing marketing efforts to understand why people are connecting (or not).

This weekend, I came across one of the most interesting and effective campaigns I've seen in a long time. It was for a new Cinemax show, but I think you could take a lot of these same techniques and apply them to other types of marketing (like, say, book marketing). Although the vast majority of authors don't have the capital to pull off this level of marketing, there are still some takeaways that can be applied to a different, much less expensive campaign.

First, in order to get a better idea of what I'll be talking about in this post, you may want to go check out the promo. It's a five-part "test" that will take you maybe 15-20 minutes to do, and it involves sound, arrow keys, use of a mouse, and a webcam (which is optional, and you aren't actually being "recorded" even though it suggests you are). Many people only play through the first part, but I suggest doing all five. Just click "Deny" during the webcam phase and you'll see the same content, just without messing with a webcam. Unless you want to... it's kind of fun. ANYWAY. If you're able to, go check it out.

Okay. Now I'm going to talk about what makes this promo so dang effective!

Graphically and Visually Appealing

People DO judge books (and websites, and new television shows) by their cover. This site incorporates a lot of high-end graphics, animation, and video. It's very *pretty* and interesting to look at. It appeals to the abstract-loving part of our brains. The first test is given through a series of pictures and brief statements, which makes the user think about the questions in a different way. It's not always feasible to get a super fancy cover for your book (and it's not always your choice), but it's important to put at least a little effort into thinking up a visually appealing design, even if it's not flashy. A cover like this is a world away from a cover like this.

Interactive

This campaign is highly interactive. It involves a series of tests for the user to do, where they get to actually participate rather than sitting back and watching something. It's also creatively interactive, which I'll get into a little more later. Anyone can throw up a multiple-choice test or simple flash game. These games, however, are interesting, different, and personal.

Personalized

Whoever designed this thing did an incredible job of making it personal for the individual viewer. The first test, the personality test, sucks you in by letting you know it's going to analyze whether or not you're "normal." People don't like to be normal. They like to be special (more on that later, too). At the end of the test, you get one of several possible descriptions of your personality which appears to be surprisingly accurate (we could get into the way these things ALWAYS seem frighteningly accurate, but not today). This leads you into the next test, where you have the option of connecting with your Facebook account and seeing a series of picture tests using your own pictures, which creates another impression that these tests are tailored TO YOU. In the final test, you get the biggest and most personal reveal (which I won't spoil for you). Again, these are big-money options that probably aren't available to a small marketing budget, but you can still get creative with this.

The Viewer Gets Something Back

They incorporated this early on with the personality test. The user gets a reward right away for that test -- a personal "reading" of their personality. We love hearing things about ourselves, so it's pretty effective. As the tests progress, the user gets rewarded with progress graphs, additional tests/games to play, and at the very end, a personalized badge with their name and picture on it (if they connected through Facebook).

Mysterious Without Making You Wait Too Long

It isn't obvious right away what this test is for. At first, it just seems like another online personality test, albeit an abstract and interesting one.The mystery builds with each test (WHAT am I being tested for?!), but the tests aren't lengthy and you don't have to wait very long to get answers. This is important. People like a little mystery. It keeps them coming back for more. But they don't like it when it takes too long to receive a reward for their patience.

Variation

The tests mix it up quite a bit. You get a personality test, a speed test, an "ability to lie" test, a logic test, and more. It keeps the user guessing, which means they're interested enough to keep moving down the funnel. What's next?

Share Buttons

After each test, there are share buttons so you can "share your progress" with your friends on social media. Presenting these in key places (after you've finished what was probably an interesting test and received your reward) means that you're more likely to share and spread the word.

Makes the Viewer Feel Important/Special

As you go through each test, you're presented with a graph that shows you're in the top percentile of the population. With every test, you become more and more special. At some point, you start seeing videos of a pretty woman who seems to be speaking directly to you, letting you know that you've done well or that you're becoming a part of something important. At the very end, you're granted entry to an incredibly elite group. It's pretty simple psychology: play on people's innate need to feel unique and important.

Makes the Viewer Invested Before Hitting Them With the Big Push

Along with feeling special and important, all of these elements combine in a way that makes the viewer invested in seeing their end analysis. You've told them that they're in the very top percentile of the population, you've had them take a very personal test, and now you're ready to reveal their final result and tell them what this was all about. THEN you hit them with the promotion for the show you're pitching. After they watch it, they receive their final test result and realize that none of this was arbitrary; it was all connected. Hopefully, if they connected properly, they don't only feel like the show looks kind of interesting. They feel like they're a part of this world. They need to see how this is all going to play out.


These were the elements that leaped out at me while playing along with this campaign. It's very effective and very well done. It was also probably very, very expensive. But you don't need to have a huge marketing budget to take these same general ideas and apply them to your project. Consider the ways you can illicit these same feelings in people without having the big, flashy website. What do you come up with?

Have you seen any effective ad campaigns lately, readers?
 

How to Blog With Time Constrictions

| Friday, November 16, 2012
Today's Tune: Hold On, Hold On

So here is a thing I'm asked on a semi-regular basis: how do you work full time, write, AND keep up a blog 3x a week?

Here is the answer.

I don't write fiction every day.

I know there are about a bajillion writerly blogs telling you the YOU MUST WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY WITHOUT FAIL if you want to be a really for real really real writer. Well. Maybe if writing is your full-time job, that is accurate. It probably is accurate. Of course you'd write for X hours a day if your job is being a writer. But some of us, myself included, are not at the point in their lives where their full-time job is writing fiction. So I write when I have the brainpower and energy to do so. That usually means a few hours a week sometimes after work, plus weekends. I work in (mostly) creative marketing, which means a lot of my brainpower is dedicated to being creative and writing for clients that are not me throughout the day. When I get home at almost 6PM, my creative mind is pretty fried. So sometimes I just let it rest. That's okay.

Every time I have even a shadow of an idea that might make a good blog post, I write it down.

For a while, I kept getting caught in this place where during my work day, I'd think of something that might be good for my blog, and then I'd go, "Oh, I'll remember it." Nope. I could never remember it. Because, you know, work and life and distractions and stuff. So I got into the habit of writing down a quick note every time I thought of something that might be a good blog idea. I have a document on my desktop and many, many notes on my iPhone. I use an app called Evernote that I like because it lets you add pictures and location and all sorts of stuff to your note. Anyway. WRITE DOWN THOSE IDEAS. They're great when you sit down at your computer to write a post and then just stare at the screen like, "I have no idea what to write about." BAM. LIST OF POTENTIAL POSTS.

Farm your readers for ideas.

It's not something I like to use too often, but it's very handy sometimes. Once in a while, I'll sent out a social media blast (usually on Twitter) asking my readers what they'd like to see on my blog. It's a double-whammy, because people are telling you what content they'd like to see from you (increasing the likelihood of views), and they're giving you blogging ideas. Win-win.

Start a series.

I have a few series that I add to every now and then, and some of them have gained quite a bit of traction and are popular with regular readers and random Googlers alike. They serve multiple purposes. They're something familiar that regular readers recognize and like. They're a ready-made group of posts under the same tag that someone can click and read through in succession. They all have the same format, so they're easy to replicate, and if you choose well, you'll have something with a number of different topics that you can revisit.

Use Google Analytics to see which of your posts are popular AND which searches people are using to stumble on your blog.

This is more of a tactic for gaining clicks and reads, but it's also handy for thinking up content. If you're not already using Google Analytics to track your blog's stats, you should start. The Blogger analytics are okay, but not great. It's a pretty easy process -- sign up, get the analytics code, then insert it into your blog's layout code. You can find instructions for your particular platform through Google. By monitoring which posts are your most popular, it can give you an idea of where to focus. For example, my posts about pop culture and film/television (Doctor Who, Adventure Time, The Fifth Element, etc.) tend to get the most attention. That gives me a direction to aim for. Searches are fun, too. Sometimes people find your blog through very strange means, and sometimes they're looking for something in particular. In the latter case, it might give you an idea that will fill that void.

Don't get too verbose.

I know this is like lololololol coming from me, since I tend to be super verbose. But you don't need to write a super lengthy post every time. Sometimes it's okay to keep it short and sweet. In fact, it's preferable to most readers. Lololololol sorry guys.

Compilation posts, or reposts.

I don't do this often, but it's something I keep in my toolkit. Sometimes you just don't have the bandwidth to write your own new content. In times like these, it's okay to scope out your favorite blogs and write up a "best of" post linking to their much more interesting and creative content for the week. It's also okay to dig up an old post of yours and post in again (just let people know it's a repost). If it's been long enough, you likely have new readers who haven't seen it before.

Take breaks.

Sometimes you're just tapped the hell out. That's fine. It happens. Life, work, obligations, and all that jazz get in the way of blogging. I go through periods where I just need to get away and deal with other things and recharge my creative batteries. That's cool. Go for it. Your readers will understand.

Keep a schedule.

It helps me, personally, to have a structured schedule to stick to. This may be a personal thing, but I find it's much easier for me to keep up my blog when I pick a schedule (M-W-F) and discipline myself to keep it up.

Pre-write.

Don't wait until the last minute to write your posts. I always write my posts at least a day early. This post? Writing it after work. It eases the stress, pressure, and guilt. Plus I'm on the Pacific coast and I get up like three hours later than the rest of you, so it's nice to be able to pre-schedule my post to go up earlier.

Contests.

When in doubt, throw up a contest. Again, this is something I don't like to use too often, because it's basically cheap one-time hits. People come to get the free stuff, and then they go away. But contests are easy, content-wise. You say "hey I'm having a contest," you show off the prize, you give the rules, then you post.

YEAH. These are my keeping-up-a-blog-even-when-you-have-a-full-time-job tips. That includes mothering. Mothering is serious business. Editorial calendars can help, too. Look them up.

What tips do you recommend for keeping up your blog, guys?
 
 

The Performative Nature of Teens

| Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Photo by Summer Skyes 11
Today's Tune: I Will Wait

Often when talks of teenagers come up, particularly teenage girls, people feel the need to express just how dramatic and sensitive teenagers are. Everything is so monumental, so personal. They also like to go on and on about how kids these days demand so much attention and turn to things like social media and blogging to gain some sort of recognition for existing. Or something, I don't know.

Basically, in my mind, it boils down to people 1) forgetting what it was like to be a teenager, and 2) believing that adults as a whole have "grown out" of the craving for attention or "drama." To which I say lolololololol right.

I will admit that the nature of growing up in the quickly developing landscape of social media and the Internet is very interesting to me. My day job involves working closely with social media and figuring out how and why people respond to the things they do, so it's a very relevant topic in my life. Personally, I think social media is both fabulous and frustrating. Fabulous because it can create communities and give people access to information and support systems they'd have a lot of difficulty finding before, and frustrating because although it can connect so many wonderful people, it also gives voice to the multitude of craptastic, troll-y people who exist in the world.

And I feel like this ties directly into being a teenager in this world.

As those of us who work with and write for teens typically understand, experiences are such a very big deal because they're new. After you've reached adulthood and presumably had a number of life experiences under your belt, sometimes repeatedly, they've clearly lost their newness. But when they were brand new, they were a big deal. And because those experiences are so fresh, so raw, it makes you feel like you're alone. You're unique in a sea full of strangeness.

This powerful feeling of individualism can lead to wanting to express yourself, to becoming desperate to find a kindred spirit. You want to speak, and you want to be heard. Young people often feel ignored, by adults and their peers. So where better to turn than the Internet community, where you can reach out into the great blue something and have people find you, hear you, and respond to you?

It makes for a potent cocktail. As I mentioned, people often describe teens as "dramatic," as though they're performing their emotions for an audience. In reality, it's usually less about putting on a show and more about wanting to be heard and understood. When you turn to sites like Tumblr, you can find that in spades. Yes, teens (and adults, let's be honest) can find an audience there, and the inclination to "perform" for that audience can be high. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing. It's all part of the pain of growing into adulthood -- it helps you find a voice, a passion, maybe even a calling. It helps you feel appreciated and less alone. Teens who feel like outcasts in society (gay/lesbian teens, trans* teens, disabled teens, POC teens, etc.) can find incredible support systems that they might never have had years ago. That's pretty amazing.

Whenever I hear people my age (BECAUSE I'M SO OLD, GUYS) or older bitching about how "these kids" won't get off their damn phones or blogs and go outside once in a while, I kind of roll my eyes. They don't understand that this is where people (not just kids) are finding community these days. I've met some of my very best friends over the miracle that is the Internet. People that I'm incredibly close to and talk to on a daily basis. People who came to my wedding. But we leave miles and miles, sometimes countries, apart. We never would have found each other were it not for coming together in an online community, talking until someone found us and liked what we had to say, and connecting with each other.

So, yes, sometimes the actions of teenagers can see over the top and melodramatic. Sometimes it feels like they're performing. But 1) this is not symptomatic of adolescence alone, and 2) so what? Maybe it's more important to understand why this is what's connecting with them.

What do you think, readers? How do you feel about teenagers, social media, and the Internet at large?



 

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