Kill This Character: Sadistically Evil Villain

| Friday, February 24, 2012
Today's Tune: Little Secrets

First, a note: I'll be taking a short blogging break for a week. No posts next week, but I'll be back the following week. Probably. If I get over my jet lag reasonably quickly.

I haven't done a post in this series in a REALLY LONG TIME. No time like the present, yes?

One of the more important ideas to remember in characterization is to avoid cardboard, stereotypical characters. The same old character we’ve seen a hundred times could become someone new and interesting with some artful tweaking. Here I’ll talk about a character that doesn’t work for me, why I wasn’t taken by them, and what would make them more appealing to me. By way of a disclaimer, let me add here that this is only my opinion, of course, and is colored by my own preference. But you should still listen to me because I'm VERY SMART. Onward!

Kill the Sadistically Evil Villain

Who this character is: They're the bad guy. The endgame villain. The one who's behind the scenes doing evil things because he or she is IN LOVE WITH BEING EVIL. There's no real reason for it. They're just bad. Really bad. They enjoy causing pain. They're sick, twisted, sadistic. For kicks. They just hate joy and want to destroy it at any possible opportunity.

Alternatively, they're "just crazy." This is problematic characterization for a number of reasons, but the most prominent is the implication that insanity or mental instability is an inherently bad thing that makes you violent and evil. One does not have to be "crazy" to be a bad person, and having mental health issues does not necessarily make someone dangerous or villainous. Mental illness that results in violence is a complicated, delicate issue.

Why this character doesn't work for me: In essence, this is a stock character created to fill the antagonist role without being fully fleshed out and given a real motivation. They're just baaaaaad. And that's boring.

Having a character who delights in being evil can be a lot of fun if they're fleshed out and appropriately portrayed. More often than not, though, it feels like the author just needed someone to get between the couple or stop the hero from achieving his goal too easily, so they created this character to basically step in and go "MWAHAHAHA LOOK AT ME I AM SO TERRIBLY EVIL AND I'LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY."

So basically they're like an unfunny Dr. Evil.

How to make this character work: For Pete's sake, give your villain some sort of motivation beyond badness for the sake of badness. Preferably avoid using the "they went mad and turned sadistic" trope, too. If they relish their evil, give them a little backstory to support that.

If people enjoy causing pain, there's a reason for that. Explore that reason. Even sociopathic serial killers often have some sort of external motivating factor, but why not push a little further? Why not attempt to make your villain likable, or even sympathetic? There's nothing like getting your audience to feel like they understand what makes the bad guy tick and maybe even feel for him, even if they don't approve of his actions. And hey, there's nothing wrong with writing a Glorious Asshole. Sometimes a character who delights in his asshole status is a lot of fun and makes readers laugh. But that at least involves humor.

There are an infinite number of motivating factors for a villain. Greed. Power. Revenge. Fear. Jealousy. Love. If you want to get really thematic, think about the choices your protagonist has to make, and what would have happened if they'd made the "wrong" choice. Maybe they'd turn out like the villain.

What is a "Call to Adventure?"

| Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Today's Tune: Glass

There's an element of storytelling that's very common in adventure and hero stories. It's something you've probably seen again and again, maybe without even realizing it. It's the Call to Adventure.

Here's an inciting incident that you may be familiar with: the protagonist is just some guy (or some girl). There might be something kind of special about them -- maybe they're really good at math or aces at martial arts -- or they might be an average Joe/Jane. They're living their daily life, whatever that might be. And then they get The Call. It comes in many forms. A literal phone call. Another character telling them they need to come along and help save something. Discovering that they're really a wizard. Some event that shifts their world view so extremely that they can't just go back to the way it was.

When the hero/ine receives The Call, they have two options. They can answer the call, which means the story gets rolling. They can also deny the call, but denying the call is always a bad idea. Why? Well, because when the protagonist of the story denies their Call to Adventure (also known as Call to Action) and tries to return to their normal existence, it means something bad is going to happen in order to force them onto their intended path. Usually it means someone important to them is going to die or something meaningful will be destroyed. NEVER DENY THE CALL.

(As my fiance says, "Babe, if some mysterious guy ever comes up to me and tells me he needs me to go with him and save the world, I'm just going to go, okay? I don't want you to die to further my storyline.")

We see this element in play ALL THE TIME. A young farm boy is just doing his thing and then he witnesses ~*MAGIC*~ and someone telling him he's the prophesied savior of all the land, but he says LOL WHATEVER I'M JUST A FARM BOY. And then something evil comes along and kills his dad and burns down his house, shifting his motivation from maintaining normalcy to avenging his loved one and destroyed home. Some museum worker discovers a weird artifact and then a top-secret government organization is trying to recruit them and they go LOL NO WAY I'M JUST GOING TO GO HOME TO MY PARTNER AND NORMAL LIFE. Well, no, you can't, because the bad guys killed your partner and are waiting for you to turn up so they can kill you, too.


If you've watched the show Supernatural, you may not have realized that Sam gets his Call to Adventure in the first episode. He agrees to tag along for one hunt and then decides to deny the call for further adventure. AND WE KNOW HOW THAT TURNS OUT. This is a classic storytelling technique.

Can you think of a place you've recently seen this used? Have you ever used the Call to Adventure?

Finding the Good in Books We Hate

| Monday, February 20, 2012
Today's Tune: We Found Love

Sometimes, as aspiring or published writers, we deal with a lot of conflicting emotions when we read a book that we really, vehemently dislike. There comes this sort of obsession to dissect and destroy. Then it bleeds into criticism of the readers who dared to actually enjoy it. We proclaim that we can't understand why anyone would like it, how any self-respecting reader wouldn't throw it away it disgust. It creeps under our skin and festers.

I'm not talking about standard criticism and analysis, which I think is a valid and necessary part of the literary experience. I'm talking about that nagging voice that comes from a dark place inside us and decries the value of something we find so distasteful. I'm not going to pretend to know where that voice comes from for anyone else, but I know that for me, it often came from a place of boredom, frustration, and sometimes jealousy. I was bored with the same tired storylines over and over. Frustrated with writers who insisted on portraying certain types of people in a certain way. Jealous that something I found so average (or flat-out bad) achieved such high levels of popularity and acclaim.

It's really easy to get caught up in these emotions and use them as fuel to discount a work. It's easy to write off its popularity and fans as empty-headed sheep who don't know what good literature is. Adopting these viewpoints frees us from having to ask ourselves the really hard question, to think about something we hate in a positive light. We can walk away and convince ourselves that we just know better, we just understand more.

We don't have to think about WHY this piece of literature is connecting with so very many people and why it's resonating with them. And not thinking about it or asking that question can be detrimental to us as writers.

It's not uncommon for people to come up with excuse after excuse for the popularity of a book or series. I commonly hear people use marketing as a scapegoat. Well, obviously this is selling so much because they pumped marketing dollars into it! This publicist must be super good at their job, because no one would buy this book if it hadn't gotten this much press!

Speaking as a marketer, I can say that this just plain isn't accurate. No amount of marketing can make the public buy a uniformly bad product. Yes, it increases visibility and spreads the word, which encourages purchases. But some researches argue that extensive marketing is often just as quick to sink a product as sell it. Sure, you'll see an initial boost in sales from people who saw the advertisements and decided to give it a try. But word of mouth is far greater currency, and if the word of mouth is that the thing sucks, then you can stick a fork in it.

It's definitely not wrong to use a troubling book as a springboard to ask bigger social questions (like why young girls are finding such appeal in jerky and controlling male love interests), but there are always positives to be found. By writing off a book without really exploring why it's connecting with its audience, we're doing ourselves a disservice. Learning what exactly about it is piquing audience interest is knowledge we ourselves can use.

I'm not suggesting that we drop everything that's important to us in favor of trying to mimic a bestseller we dislike. What I'm suggesting is using that bestseller as a learning experience. Maybe you can look deeper and find that readers are connecting to certain kinds of characters. Or the rapid-fire pacing. Or emotional highs. Or sexy kissing. You know, whatever.

Sometimes it's better to swallow our pride and stop focusing on our opinion of everything a writer did wrong, and instead explore what they did right. It doesn't mean we have to like the work. We can still find all the problematic elements problematic. I just happen to be one of those annoying people who's decided I'd rather focus on the positive than dwell in the negative.

At least most of the time. Sometimes having a good frothing-at-the-mouth hate-on session with a buddy is a great stress reliever, not going to lie.

What about you, readers? Can you find the positive qualities in a book you hated? Have you learned something from them?

John Green on The Great Gatsby

| Friday, February 17, 2012
Yeeeaaaah I'm tapped for quality blog material this week, so here's a video of John Green analyzing the first chapter of The Great Gatsby!

Direct link in case you need it.

Female Relationships

| Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Today's Tune: Wannabe

I'm on a serious 90's music kick lately. Not sure what that's about.

Building off Monday's post, I thought I'd talk about female friendships today. I have to admit, I find it incredibly disheartening how infrequently I see a focus on building female relationships in all sorts of media. We're all probably familiar with the Bechdel Test, which largely pertains to film. Unfortunately, I see a lot of the same criteria left unmet in YA. With female protagonists. Written for girls. Written by women.

I adore literature that seeks to explore female relationships beyond the superficial. Sisters, mothers and daughters, friends, girlfriends, or any other female relationship imaginable. It feels like they're so often overlooked in fiction in favor of male love interests or other predominant male characters.

Many secondary female characters (aka, not the protagonist) seem to fall into specific categories. The wisecracking but sidelined "best friend" who all but disappears when Male Love Interest comes onto the scene. The catty bitchface mean girl who hates the protagonist because she decided to exist. The overhanging but useless plot-point of a mother figure. Annoying little sisters. Slutty slut-whores who want to ruin everyone's lives. Cold, aloof, nasty antagonists who usually want to destroy the protagonist because, of course, they want The Love Interest.

The focus always seems to fall toward a lone female character and... a lot of male characters. Or one specific male character. The other female characters flit in and out of scenes, dropping necessary plot points or snarky one-liners before fading into the background. When female characters do have a moment to themselves, it's often devoted to talking about a male character.

This isn't a blanket statement! There are several recent YA releases that relish in building female relationships of all stripes. It's a trend I hope to see more of. I'm tired of female characters who don't interact. I'm tired of female protagonists who find no value in members of their own sex. I'm tired of girls who undercut one another and fight for the affection of a male character. I'm tired of characters in general who exist as props and nothing more.

If you find your female character is the lone lady in an ocean of testosterone, ask yourself why. If all the other females are one-off appearances or dead weight or antagonists, ask yourself why. Why do we spend so much time carefully crafting a half-dozen male characters, but can't be bothered to hone more than one female character? It's not that female characters are more difficult to write, although I hear that excuse AN AWFUL LOT. Maybe, just maybe, it's that we're subconsciously (or actively) valuing males over females?

In the end, writing female characters is very much like writing male characters: you write a person. You write a human being who is shaped by their circumstances. There's no secret code to crack. There are no extra-special complications. A layered character is a layered character regardless of sex.

Let's break that pattern. Let's relish in building female companionship. Women don't have to exist to tear each other down or serve as a conduit to finding a male mate. We matter. We matter on our own, and we matter to one another.

Do you have a favorite female relationship? Any kind! Please share :)

Strong Female Characters and Devaluing the Feminine

| Monday, February 13, 2012
Today's Tune: Stronger

Yeah, Britney Spears is my song today. DON'T EVEN CARE.

So. Strong Characters. In particular, Strong Female Characters. We all have different ideas about what they mean and how they should be represented. I know I certainly have a lot of ~*opinions*~ on the matter.

I am most definitely not the first person to write about this. I very much recommend reading those posts and several others. They all raise a variety of excellent points, some of which I'm going to rehash. I'd like to divide this post into two particular sections of focus: "strong" does not have to mean physical strength, and the erasure of feminine qualities in an attempt to eradicate "weakness."

"Strong" =/= Physically Strong

We're all fully aware of the wide variety of sexy young fictional women who are well-versed in the art of waif-fu and capable of kicking your ass all the way up to your teeth. On the surface, this is an understandable pushback against the frightened rabbit model of female character. She doesn't have to depend on the physical strength of the male hero to save her skin -- she can do it herself. It's a literal metaphor for "being strong." She's actually physically able to fight back.

This tactic in and of itself is not a bad thing. I want to make that clear. I think it's fabulous that it's become acceptable to allow that women can be physically strong. That's not really my issue. My issue comes in when the ball stops at physical strength.

It often seems that people writing these sorts of kickass Action Girl heroines fail to allow for any character development beyond her ability to totally wail on the bad guys. She shows little emotional development, little internal strength,and few genuine flaws to complicate her character. Writers lean so heavily on proving how STRONG she is that they make her close to perfect. She crushes the affection of men and rarely has her own heart broken because she's a STRONG LADY. She wins all the fights because she's a STRONG LADY. She's a super genius and a wealthy heiress and skilled in electronics and computer hacking and vehicle maintenance because she's a STRONG LADY. You see where I'm going. There are no complications. No holes. No substance.

We need more realistically built female characters. They can have superpowers or heavy artillery if they must, but they should also have emotional arcs. Realistic motivations. Genuine character flaws. Relationships with other women that don't always involve talking about men.

My other issue is the tendency to make these super-strong heroines a certain physical type. Mainly, they're slender, petite, young, and very stereotypically attractive. As one of the previously mentioned articles states, her pretty face is never marred, despite the fact that she gets the CRAP BEAT OUT OF HER. She's not represented as a realistically physically strong body type. She's rarely large, overweight, or broad shouldered. Look, I am a petite woman who has taken martial arts. In a fight, I might be able to do some moderate damage and get away. But get into a real knock-down drag-out fight? No. I am secure enough in myself to admit that I cannot overpower most large men based on weight difference alone.

I'm not saying it's impossible for a small woman to be a powerful fighter, but I don't have a problem saying that I am not that woman. Even if I trained to be a boxer, I wouldn't be that woman. It's very clearly indicative of our culture that we don't usually cast physically strong women as anything but young and sexy. We do it because of the pressure to "give people what they want." To give them sexually available, pretty, skinny young ladies. Ladies (cisgendered) women want to be and (cisgendered) men want to be with. It's ridiculous and exclusive.

And because I know people out there always like to go DAMN FEMINISTS WANT EVERY WOMAN TO BE A FAT UNATTRACTIVE SEXLESS HAG WHO WEARS BURLAP SACKS, I'll just clarify that YES OBVIOUSLY, THAT'S WHAT I WANT. IF YOU ARE NOT A TOTAL UGGO YOU CAN GTFO. Sarcasm. No. I'd just like some variety, is all. Also, stop equating "fat" with "bad/unattractive," IT IS REALLY OLD.

Anyway, this all sort of ties in to my next point.

Feminine =/= Weak, Masculine =/= Strong

Part of the push toward the Strong Female Character includes a push toward devaluing the feminine in favor of the masculine, even while keeping the ladies gorgeous and perfectly coifed. The characters I refer to are often the only valuable female character in a sea of male characters. They rarely interact with other women, let alone are good friends with any. Because other non-strong women are just so boring and useless, you know? They can't be bothered with normal female friendships and support. They're too busy proving that they're one of the guys.

We see this not only with the physically strong ladies who know how to hack computers and spit after taking a shot, but with other lone wolf female main characters. They don't want to be around other women because other women are vapid, frivolous, stupid, pathetic. Not like Female Main Character. She just gets along better with men. Because she's more like a man. Because men are better. Can you see the issue here?

When writers are creating these Strong Female Characters, they are doing so by devaluing the feminine. She doesn't know anything about makeup or fashion (despite the fact that she's always both made-up and perfectly dressed). She doesn't care about relationships, she just wants to bang and run (despite almost always falling for the male hero). She's cold and sarcastic, because emotions are for wusses (even though she'll openly weep when the hero nearly dies). It's contradictory in every sense, but these are still the words that spill out of her mouth. Everything considered stereotypically female -- emotion, frailty, maternal instinct, talking things out -- is considered useless. In order to be "strong," she has to shed all these useless things and be one of the dudes.

This is why I love characters like The Bride (Kill Bill, pictured above), Faith (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Sarah Conner (Terminator). They hit all the buttons for physical strength and attractiveness, yes. However, they're allowed to be female. Strength is not something solely found in masculinity. They're mothers and scared teenage girls with mommy issues. They act on emotion. They cry. And they fight. They don't fall into some neat little masculine-or-feminine box.

None of us fit into those boxes. Women don't exist on one plane, men don't exist on another. We are blends of our experiences and personalities and choices. Our strengths come from everywhere. So do our weaknesses. Well-rounded characters are not created based off of some cookie cutter trait. They're built from scratch and molded by background.

How do you feel about Strong Female Characters? Who are some female characters that you find both strong and well-rounded?

In which I tell you about my first kiss.

| Friday, February 10, 2012
Today's Tune: Lovefool

I stare into the mirror at a girl I don't know. Her blond hair is twisted back into a bizarre knot-thing. She's dressed in black head to toe. Her lips are painted dark purple-brown and her blue eyes are surrounded in eyeliner.

I feel like an idiot. A weirdo. A pretender. My best friend, Cassie, insists that I look older and amazing. She dressed me, after all.

Cassie's been to lots of movies by herself, but not me. My dad doesn't much like letting his 13-year-old daughter go out without supervision. His eyes pass over my makeup, my hair, my clothes. He doesn't say anything, though. He doesn't know there will be BOYS at this movie. He's probably just silently thanking the Patron Saint of Overprotective Fathers that I'm wearing a high neck and long sleeves.

The theater is seething with people. I see a handful of popular girls from school and dip my head. They wave to Cassie and don't even look at me. The sickly yellow glow of the lobby lights spreads across the pavement as we stand in line for tickets to see Bevis and Butthead Do America. Not my first choice, but certainly the cooler pick.

Kyle and Jaime walk toward us and slip into line nearby.

We're filing into the theater, almost to the front row. I purposely fall behind and let the boys enter the row first, followed by Cassie. She's my buffer. She's always been my buffer.

The movie starts and I'm instantly bored. I laugh when I'm supposed to laugh even though I don't find it especially funny. Mostly I whisper to Cassie. Then she and Jaime start to whisper.

An elbow finds my ribs and a voice finds my ear.

"You should kiss Kyle."


Jaime's whispering to Kyle on the other side. I can't make out what they're saying past the "heh heh heh's" and "huh huh huh's" coming from the surround sound.

Kyle leans around and looks at me. He doesn't look excited or lecherous or flirty. He looks like his friend is telling him to kiss a girl and he doesn't know how to say no.

Cassie, on the other hand, sounds thrilled. "Your first kiss! Come on, do it!"

Our buffers lean back. Kyle and I try to find the other's eyes in the dark. They're watching. Our friends are watching.

So we lean across two laps and give each other a peck on the mouth, immediately retreating to our respective seats. My heart's pushing blood through my body like it thinks I can't get enough. Butthead fills the screen in front of me. I can't stop thinking about my lips. They tingle.

"Not like that."

I look at Cassie. I don't know what to say.

"A real kiss. With tongue."

With tongue? That is so not what I signed up for.

Cassie and Jaime crawl to the row in front, then turn around to watch us, the movie forgotten. Kyle doesn't move at first. At Jaime's prompting, he scoots over to the seat next to me and rubs his hands on his pants. Is this really happening? This is not at all the way I pictured it. I wonder what Kyle's thinking.

In the same instant, like we resolved to get it over with at the same time, Kyle and I lean in and there is a tongue in my mouth. It's weird. Not bad-weird, just... weird. And then it's over.

Our friends turn around, giggling and obviously pleased with themselves. We don't say anything. Our eyes are glued to the screen, where Bevis is doing his Cornholio bit in the White House. My whole body feels tight. I'm very aware of Kyle's every movement next to me.

I'm so aware that I feel the warmth of his hand several seconds before it touches mine. He wraps his fingers around it. I chance a glance at him. He's smiling.

And there, in the dark, with my black clothes and my knotted hair and my purple-brown lipstick that left a smudge on his mouth, I'm smiling, too.

We hold hands all the way out to the parking lot. Jaime and Cassie let us go off ahead. The light out here is brighter, cleaner. More like starlight.

Kyle's still smiling. We lean in again. This time, no one's watching.


TRUE STORY, you guys. I bet you cash money all of these people happen to pick today of all days to read my blog and rib me about it. Also, SORRY DAD. Happy Friday!

February Answers

| Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Today's Tune: 5 Years Time

Thanks for the questions on Monday! Aaaaand here are your answers. THE ANTICIPATION. I BET IT'S KILLING YOU. By the way, if you have additional questions, feel free to ask them in comments today. I'll try to swing by and answer at some point.

And now! Questions!

What are you currently working on? Are you editing your novel with your agent, or working on something new?

TICK-TOCK is definitely taking up the bulk of my creative time at the moment. I recently finished a major revision pass for my agent and got it back to her, and she's writing me a few additional notes and we're going to do another (much smaller, hopefully) pass. Other than that, I'm working on the synopsis for Book 2 (more on that later in this post!), and occasionally playing with my "fun" project, which is a YA post-apocalyptic (I know, I know, that's why it's "for fun"), which is something like Waterworld meets Escape From LA meets something with sisters who love each other very much.

Also, what's the song you've been listening to the most, recently?

Way more LMFAO than I'd care to admit. The fiance has had their singles as brainworms for the last three weeks, so they're getting a lot of play around here. For me personally, I've been listening to "Dead Hearts" by Stars. A lot. So much so that it's probably going to be Book 2's theme song. Which sounds depressing now that I think about it.

I'll ask a related one--do you see Tick Tock as the first in a series, and if so, are you working at all on a sequel?

I can't get too much into this for now (FORGIVE MY SECRECY), but yes, there is a sequel planned for TICK-TOCK. It's currently in the planning/outlining stages and coming along nicely.

In a favourite author interview of mine, between JK Rowling and Oprah, Rowling comments at one point, "This is probably true of all writers, but sometimes I know what I believe because of what I've written." I've noticed there are a few themes that I've subconsciously worked in to most or all of the stories I've written so far. Do you find themes repeatedly crop up in your stories (or you deliberately work them in), and if so, what are they?

NICE. This is a big question. The short answer is yes, I definitely do have themes that I notice crop up in my work. Some I intentionally work in, others pop up on their own. The most obvious theme is feminism and creating empowered roles for females. They come in a variety of types -- science nerds, superpowered fighters, clever mechanics, sassy fashionistas -- but the common theme is that they have independent streaks and support themselves and one another.

Other themes in my work include broken families and/or building new families, finding hope/freedom, loss, friendship, literary or historical references, and moral gray areas. This all ties in to both my background (child of divorce, eternal optimist, personal loss) and my personal philosophy (knowledge is good, the world is vast and beautiful, nothing is black and white). There are probably many more that I don't even notice.

What do you think about the possible power imbalance in a relationship with an age gap in YA novels?

Oooooh, GOOD question. I will admit upfront that I am biased between age gaps of more than a few years in media for adolescents. My reasons for this are personal and have a lot to do with watching friends be taken advantage of and personally experiencing predatory behavior from significantly older men, so, there that is. I don't like to make blanket judgements on teenagers' maturity, because I am an advocate for the power and intelligence of teens and I think they're more capable than they're given credit for a lot of the time.

With that said, I do think there are different levels of experience and that the stage of life you're in has a lot to do with that. I was a different person in middle school than I was in high school. I was different again after a single year of college. Being on your own and having even the illusion of adulthood does a lot to change a person. It gives you insight you didn't have before, and it makes it possible to use that insight for evil, if I may be so melodramatic. You understand the mentality of younger teens because you've been there, and you can use that to your advantage.

ANYWAY BLAH BLAH BLAH. To answer the question at hand, I do have issues with wide age gaps portrayed in a positive manner in YA. Like, I don't know, young men who actually have 100+ years of experience and wisdom finding an equal partner in a teenage girl and claiming that they've "never met" anyone with her maturity/selflessness/bravery/whatever? I'm sorry. I don't buy it. At all.

Look, I completely buy the concept of "old souls" and that some people display wisdom beyond their years. I think there's reality behind teenage girls dating "up" because the men a few years older have a different maturity level. However, I have deep-seated personal issues with someone significantly removed from the teenage sphere taking a romantic interest in teens. I find it creepy and predatory. It feels too much like an interest in a mature body and a not-fully-mature mind. Too much opportunity for imbalance there. And yes, that applies to older, wiser men who still look like 17-year-old boys.

On the flip side, I thought the trope of much-older romantic interest with much-younger girl was handled very well in DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE because (SPOILERS) Karau is herself an old soul -- literally. She's reincarnated, and her memories are returned to her. Thus the age/experience imbalance is rendered moot.

WHEW. DID I ANSWER YOUR QUESTION? Obviously I have a lot of FEELINGS on the issue.

Thank you all so much for your questions! Feel free to ask more in comments if you'd like.

February Q & A!

| Monday, February 6, 2012

It's that time. You know, time for that thing I haven't really made into a thing yet. Braining is hard on Mondays.

First: if you are so inclined, you can check out the hashtag #agentday on Twitter and follow agent Mandy Hubbard as she live-tweets an average day in the life of a literary agent. Some other agents may jump in, too.

Next: today is a "question and answer" day. You may ask me anything in comments and I will answer! Within reason. As always, I won't be answering anything too personal or gross. Otherwise, ask away! Writing/reading/publishing questions are always welcome, but I'm also happy to answer anything about life, love, the universe, and otherwise.

I'll answer in a new post on Wednesday. Have an awesome week!

Spheres of Existence: Writing Other Experiences With Integrity

| Friday, February 3, 2012
Today's Tune: All My Best Friends Are Metalheads

Today's post may feel a little complicated. STICK WITH ME, GUYS, STICK WITH ME. There are diagrams!

When I was studying postmodernism in college (HOW PRETENTIOUS DO I SOUND RIGHT NOW), we did a lot of outside-the-box-thinking (duh, amirite). The course was all about approaching traditional thinking in non-traditional ways. I wrote this ridiculous paper about language and how the shattering of linguistic structure removed someone from time and how that related to schizophrenia in Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY and it severely broke my brain. But I got an A!

(okay shut up show-off)

ANYWAY, we also had this unit relating to postmodern anthropology and we did an exercise where we thought of different sorts of existences as spheres that overlapped or were separate from one another. Or maybe we didn't do that and that's just how I choose to remember it because that's how my brain works. THIS IS POSTMODERNISM. YOU NEVER KNOW.

Since college, there are few lessons that I repeatedly revisit in my mind more than that one. Whenever the subject of "writing what you know" comes up, or white authors writing minority characters, or straight/cisgendered writers taking on QLTBAG (Queer Lesbian Trans Bisexual Allied/Asexual Gay) characters, I reflect on that day in Intro to Postmodern Lit and those spheres of existence.


Here is a very, very simplified version of what I'm talking about. Let's use me as an example. I am a straight white woman. I am many other things as well, but for simplicity's sake, let's stick to those three descriptors. If I were a Venn diagram, I'd look like this.

These are my spheres of existence. Each sphere represents experiences that are unique to my particular outlook on life, both as an individual and as a member of each group. My views of the world are influenced by the fact that I exist in the US as a straight person, a white person, and a female person. Obviously culture, country of origin, religion, social status, and so many other factors can compile to completely alter those experiences in myriad ways, but as I mentioned before, we're keeping this simple for now.

Now, let's look at my completely-made-up-she-does-not-really-exist friend, Tanya, as if she were a Venn diagram.

Tanya is a lesbian Latina woman. This one isn't entirely accurate as a Venn diagram because obviously all lesbians and all Latinas are women so technically the circles should be inside the woman circle BUT THAT WOULD MAKE THIS VERY VISUALLY COMPLICATED SO LET'S JUST GO WITH IT. Now, let's look at my Venn diagram and Tanya's diagram together.

As you can see, Tanya and I share a sphere. This means that although we have lived completely different lives and have different experiences, on some level, we have both shared the experience of existing as women. Because of this, there will be certain universal outlooks we both understand because we've both lived them. However, Tanya has spheres that I will never have, and vice versa. I am not a lesbian or a Latina. Her universal outlooks shared with other lesbians and Latinas are not a part of my sphere and never will be. They are separate from me.

Now, let's look at my also-totally-made-up friend, Donnie.

At first glance, it may seem like Donnie and I have little in common -- there are some pretty wide gaps between the black/white experience and male/female experience. Donnie does not have the outlook granted to Tanya and me by nature of our being female. However, Donnie and I ARE both straight. That is our shared sphere. It's not much, but it's something. Straightness is such a universally accepted "norm" that it can be difficult for us to even view it as a specific sphere because our outlook is so colored by privilege that we can almost deny other outlooks exist. But it's still something.

This next bit gets very complicated, because now we're getting into certain spheres having more weight than others. Does a minority experience trump a majority experience? Does race trump sexuality? Does biological sex trump race? How do each of these individual spheres react when combined with another sphere? Gay black men have a different experience than gay white men. It's all very cultural and social and confusing and complex.

And perhaps the most important question of all: WHAT IS MY POINT, HERE?

My point, in harkening back to postmodern anthropology, is the oft-given advice that writers need to "write what they know." Here is a great essay where the author boggles when her (white) friend states that she'd never attempt to write another race out of fear of committing some unintended slight or act of horrible racism. This isn't an uncommon position. Other spheres of existence are so complicated and difficult to breach exactly because we are inherently outsiders. The common postmodern criticism of anthropology is that it's impossible for someone removed from a culture to write about that culture with full comprehension.


There is criticism of that criticism that states what a great loss it would be if everyone chose to stick to their own spheres, and that in reality, all writing is done from the standpoint of one person writing about the standpoint of another. Otherwise we'd all be writing memoirs and little else. In the end, we are all writing from our personal experience, and all of our writing will be shaped by that experience. It's all subjective.

Now, the solution isn't to rush in and write about whatever race/sexuality/culture/whatever that we want with abandon because IT'S ALL SUBJECTIVE ANYWAY. The spheres of existence still apply and should be respected. As long as we go in with intellectual honesty and the understanding that although we can empathize with another sphere, we are not a member of that sphere, we can begin to build the proper respect and represent that sphere with integrity. The Wikipedia entry mentions a few target goals: including the opinions of the culture being studied (find betas representative of the sphere you're portraying and listen to them), a sense of relativism (avoid "othering" another sphere; truly try to understand their outlook), and rejecting "grand" theories about that culture (think critically about stereotypes).

My point in showing the sphere overlaps above is to illustrate that we do share certain experiences with other people, and we can connect that way. That bridge can lead to a better understanding of other spheres. Shared experience breeds empathy, which results in a better understanding overall. Find those connections. Nurture them. Step into someone else's shoes, as they say. You're never going to be able to see the world the exact same way they do, but you can try to understand how and why they see things that way.

There are always those who are going to be critical of the way we choose to represent spheres we do not belong to. There are numerous minority characters in my work, and although I attempt to be as even-handed and empathetic as possible while creating realistic characters, there are still those who would say I've done it incorrectly or even offensively. That's perfectly fine. I am approaching something outside my sphere and I might be doing it wrong; such reactions have merit. However, I won't be held back by the fear of what might happen. I think it's too important to reach outside ourselves and push for diversity (in all its forms) in our literature.

(At the same time, it's important for us white chicks not to pat ourselves too hard on the back for being so ~*culturally sensitive*~ and stuff, which is a whooooole other topic).

If you've made it this far, I have to applaud you and say thanks. I appreciate you taking the time to read this, I honestly do.

I'll end with a summary: Writing about spheres of existence beyond our own is valuable and necessary. However, to do so, we must embrace intellectual honesty and understand that we need to represent them with the appropriate integrity, respect, and research. All writing is subjective, and we cannot please all the people all the time, but we can do our very best to ensure we write with a genuine heart.

Now, like, go have a good time or something. IT'S FRIDAY, YAY!

What is a "meet cute?"

| Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Today's Tune: Doctor Jones

Yes, I'm playing cheesy 90's Danish pop today. DEAL WITH IT.

Anyway, today I thought I'd talk about the Meet Cute, which is a term you may or may not have heard before. If you write romance or are writing a heavily romantic subplot (or even a mildly romantic subplot depending on your style), you may be incorporating the Meet Cute without realizing it.

Here's what a Meet Cute is.

In romantic comedies (or just romances in general), the two predestined lovers cross paths. When they do so, the result is usually some sort of embarrassing, awkward, or humorously mild catastrophe. It's a way of smashing the two characters together in a way that will somehow entangle them later. The idea behind it comes mainly from film, where writers/directors have only about two hours to build audience investment in a romantic relationship. They need to bring the characters together and lay groundwork immediately.

A Meet Cute comes in many forms. Some of the more popular Meet Cutes involve two people who insult each other (intentionally or not) and hate each others' guts at first, two people who bump into each other and learn something about the other because they drop something they were holding, or two people who are interested in other people in the beginning and somehow end up scheming to get the objects of their affection. Cue ending up together instead.

These and similar situations are very common in the world of romance. They serve a purpose. However, many are cliched, overdone, and rush things too quickly in the direction of insta-love. The nice thing about the literary medium is that we can stretch things out and let a relationship build slowly and organically without rushing to slam the couple together in ninety minutes.

If you're writing a romance or romantic subplot, how does your couple meet? Is it a Meet Cute, or is it natural? Have you seen any Meet Cutes that you really enjoyed?


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