Taking most of August off

| Monday, July 30, 2012
As I'm sure you've noticed, my updates over the last week or so have been sporadic. There are several reasons for this, but the big one is that I happen to be getting married at the end of August. Which means preparing for a wedding has taken over my spare time, pretty much.

So! I'll be taking the majority of August and probably the first week of September off from blogging. I may be updating here and there, but I can't make any promises. I hope everyone enjoys the remainder of their summer! Don't forget to be awesome. See you soon :)


Agent Interview: Michelle Andelman

| Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Sorry about the lack of posts on Friday and Monday, dudes... I was on a little away-trip. But now I'm back with something special for today.

I'd like to introduce you all to my literary agent, Michelle Andelman. Michelle is Regal Literary's kidlit and YA agent. She agreed to do an interview for me, and she gave a whole bunch of fabulous, detailed answers about agenting, publishing, the market, the industry, and more! Enjoy!


The Agency-Side Questions

First things first: what sort of work do you represent? Do you gravitate toward certain genres, or do you consider a wide range?

I primarily represent middle-grade and Young Adult fiction. I love working with debut novelists; love the sense of discovery! I consider a wide range, and on the one hand gravitate towards voice- and character-driven realistic Young Adult and middle-grade. Placing work in that vein can be a challenge these days, but I think bold voices and characters stand at the heart of children's literature and I want to remain committed to books that carry them forth. I have some stand-out YA voices on my list; I'd love to find more stand-out middle-grade voices!  I also love novels that incorporate elements of science-fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, and magical realism -- or which collide genres in unexpected ways.

You work with Regal Literary. Could you tell us a little bit about how your agency approaches the business and what might set you apart from other literary agencies?

I feel lucky to be part of the team at Regal. The agency is committed to working with authors doing something innovative, something a little bit different--like Audrey Niffenegger, Daniel Wallace, and Josh Bazell on the adult side -- and we're guided by the sense that deeply unique work can be "big" at market, that there's a hunger for it. I love working at an agency that values and "gets" the offbeat, the quirky, the fanciful when it's twinned with rigor and depth; on account of this sensibility, I think a lot of Regal projects -- across the categories and genres -- share a special energy, an exuberance. It's really inspiring. We're all editorial agents at heart, and work collaboratively, which is lots of fun and ensures a high level of quality for our projects. And, we're proud to provide our authors in-house marketing/publicity support and strong, skilled subrights handling.

Of course, everyone wants to know what you're looking for in your slushpile. What hits your "yes, please, send this to me right now!" button?

I do read the slush! I love uncovering a gem in there. What usually sparkles for me is a well-crafted query letter that highlights what's special about the project--that can mean an author pulling out several outrageously wonderful, intriguing details of the storyworld, character/relationship arcs, or plot, or articulating the "so what" of the story, you know, why readers will care, why the author herself cares. Letters that passionately articulate what you're trying to do catch my eye. I like ambition in my projects and authors! And then I'm  compelled to answer "yes, please" to seeing more if the writing sample--the first 10 pages I always want to see pasted below any query--is as well-crafted, distinctive and gripping. Often a letter itself is promising, but the early pages don't bear my excitement out; I've learned that if I don't spark to the storytelling as immediately as to the concept, a project won't be for me. When I spark to both at the query stage, I know it's off to the races!

On the flip side, what are the things that almost always make you pass on a query or project?

Usually I pass because the spark's not there for me--which is to say, for a subjective reason. This is a subjective business; agents have fairly selective lists in ratio to the volume of rising and published authors out there, and we have to. There are only so many hours in a day, and giving current authors we represent our attention must come first. So, when we find ourselves saying "I've got to fall in love," in order to take something new on, I don't think it's hyperbole! I honestly never want to work on something solely because I think it's commercial and will sell. At this point, that's just not gratifying. I want to feel the writing I'm nurturing and then championing in the marketplace in my bones. I do. Other than the spark not being there, I'll pass if I have reservations about my confidence in successfully placing something, even if I love it: if I feel like there's a good chance editors might come back with the concerns that are often voiced as reasons houses must pass, and I don't think those concerns I'm anticipating could be ameliorated by revision ("it feels too quiet" or "historicals are a real challenge"), or if I see the merits of something and feel a personal tug, but just don't have a clear vision and placement strategy for whatever reason.

If you decide to make The Call, what sort of questions do you like to hear potential clients ask?

I love to find an informed, savvy author on the other end of the line of The Call. (It's The Call as much for agents as authors, by the way -- at least, I'm sure I'm just as excited and anxious and hopeful as the author is in that moment!) I'm looking for a partnership, as I'm sure the author is. So, I want The Call to be open and honest and fun, and to set a tone representative of the sort of working relationship we each want to have. A tall order when all manner of nerves may be getting in the way! But this is all to say that I want to hear potential clients ask smart, thoughtful, meaningful questions that will prompt a discussion as much about my representation style as about their work style, writing goals, and our values. Ask about the nitty-gritty of how our agency handles subrights, what the terms of our agency agreement are, what my submission plans are for your project, but also what drew me to your work, how I react to plans you may have for writing across age categories or genres, how I think of my role as evolving before, during, and after publication.

I know when I queried you, you asked me about some of my planned future projects. Do you like to see that the authors you choose to represent have a plan beyond that first book?

Not necessarily. I do sign authors, not projects -- which is to say I want to see grounds for a long-term working relationship with each author I represent, ideally beyond any given project. So, I want to get an early sense for whether we're compatible in regards to all projects an author may work on for the foreseeable future. For that reason, I may well ask about future projects right up front. But that said, we'll always want to focus on a first project first, and I've taken on writers who only have one novel (but one I feel I can sink my teeth into) and only foggy plans for a future book, or in whom I simply see strong promise for future books.


The Publishing-Side Questions

How do you keep tabs on what editors are looking for?

Several different ways: I'll read the trades to see what sorts of projects are selling, to whom at which imprints, and in what sorts of deals. I'll have coffee, drinks, lunches with the editors who work here in NY, or meet with those who work outside of NY when they are in town or at some of the big book fairs. I'll hear what they're working on, and they'll bring samples of what books they have coming out soon, so I can get a sense for their personal taste and what they're looking to acquire. Sometimes, though, agenting becomes about   thinking outside the box: having a sense for an editor's taste but for what she hasn't yet acquired: what she'll love that can catch her off guard and add something new to her list.

What's your general feeling on the market right now? What's going to be a really hard sell, and what are they snapping up?

We're still seeing trend-driven YA being snapped up, with the trend having morphed from paranormal romance to dystopian to sci-fi, and now to something with thriller elements. Voice- and character-driven realistic YA and middle-grade feel like really hard sells these days, with the refrain for rejections often being along the lines of "I liked X, Y, Z but just don't see this standing out." That said, I think editors really want strong, relatable, contemporary realistic novels -- with humor and heart -- so I'm hopeful we'll swing back on that. I've also been hearing that series structured as straight trilogies feel a little "done" -- editors have lots of these on their rosters -- so fresher approaches to building a series could help projects stand out.

In your opinion, how has the publishing environment changed in the last few years? Have the recent DoJ filings against major publishing houses and HMH's recent bankruptcy filing changed the playing field at all, or is it too soon to tell? What about Amazon's foray into publishing (by buying up smaller publishing houses and starting their own house)?

The "rise of e-books" (deserves quotes, don't you think?) and developments you mention are changing the landscape, no doubt. I think our culture is engaged, via the DoJ filings in particular, in what will be a long-term discussion about the value, protection, and consumption of books as intellectual property. It's exciting to be working in books in this moment. The debate is unfolding, the way we come to and consume books is changing, and while I try to keep abreast of all that, I also try to keep in perspective that what goes into book-making: the author's vision and craft, her collaboration with a publishing team which helps polish and promote the work, and the work's reception by a community of readers which really is connected like never before (book bloggers, critics, reviewers, librarians, teachers, parents, children) -- that's the process I'm proud to be a part of, and where (I think no matter where the cultural discussion leads) the author/agent relationship really dwells.

Do you think we're moving beyond print/ebooks in trade publishing? Will we see more "enhanced" books in the future?

I think we may see the technology open up brave new possibilities for certain types of enhanced books -- books which really truly lend themselves to, and which may benefit the reader by offering "something extra." I think of certain types of non-fiction when I say this: cookbooks, for example, or how-to or other types of instructional/educational books. Really, how much would I love an enhanced version of Mark Bittman's HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING? Certainly we've seen companies experiment with forays into enhanced books within the children's market. But I think "experiment" is the key word thus far. I don't think we've seen anything yet to suggest we're moving beyond the book -- or the immersive experience that a simple book itself offers, which I think readers have a primal yearning for. I mean, I do.

Sommer Leigh asks: "What is your vision for the future of YA/kidlit? Not what's the next trend. I mean, what can we conquer in 10 years?"

In all honesty the one thing I envision, a thing I think we both can and have the ability to "conquer" in the next 10 years as a community of children's/YA literature readers, writers, educators, what have you -- a community dedicated to literature created with the child, the teenager, in mind -- that one thing is a truly diverse body: a diverse body of work, and diverse body of workers. I think as we look honestly at how the demographics of America's student body changes over these next 10 years, we should and can--through efforts of groups like the CBC Diversity Committee, for example--look to consciously bring about a sea change in the scope of what and whom our literature represents, how we can identify, reach, and honor a diversity of readers in our packaging and promotion of books, and in the racial, ethnic, religious, class, and gender makeup of writers and other professionals.

In closing: are their any other words of wisdom you'd like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?

I think writing and publishing are about creativity and discipline in equal measure. I'm truly in awe of the writers with whom I work. They are dedicated to striking the balance between these two. I know how daunting it is, and I just say, draw close the people whom you feel will help you strike that balance and keep working at it!


Why can't my YA character be in college?

| Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Today's Tune: The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed

Regarding THE DISENCHANTMENTS book giveaway: the winner is... thewwritingroom! Yaaaay! Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by and entered :) Now on to today's post.

I see this question pop up again and again: "I've written a book about an 18 or 19-year-old MC in their first/second year of college. I've been told that the voice is very YA, but that it can't be YA if they're in college. Well, why not? Why can't I write college YA?"

First, I'd like to establish that the following post is going to be about why your YA protagonist (aka The Viewpoint Character) doesn't really work as a college student. Secondary and tertiary characters in many YA novels may be older or go to college. It happens. They're not who I'm talking about.

Here's the short answer to the question: because "young adult" is a specific marketing category, and that marketing category is aimed at adolescents aged 12-18. More specifically, it is aimed at people who are still in junior or senior high school (or secondary school). Please note that this does not mean the novel has to take place in or around a high school, just that the age/experience of the characters is pre-university-or-legal-adulthood. If a publisher decides to place a book in the YA category, it's because that content is relevant to the teenage experience in some way.

Here's a longer elaboration.

Yes, usually you are still a teenager when you start university. However, there's a marked difference between still having "teen" after your age and being in the thick of the "teenage experience." The "teenage experience" pertains directly to that sticky time between being a child and being an adult with adult responsibilities. That's the thing with being 18 and up: you are legally and officially An Adult. If you're going away to school, that means you officially have adult responsibilities ranging from getting your own butt out of bed to go to the classes your parents are paying for to working three jobs to pay for those classes yourself. You're no longer legally required to receive an education, so that's on you.

And yes, many college students are still immature, I know. A lot of them still live at home, a lot of them behave like asshats, a lot of them are spoiled Daddy's/Mommy's girls and boys. I know. Doesn't matter. Eighteen-year-old college freshman are not children. Childhood has officially left the building. And that's a big key factor when it comes to YA. Teenagers aren't children, either, but they're still dealing with a lot of themes involving growing up, discovering sexuality, figuring out who they want to be, etc. Although those issues don't magically disappear the moment they turn 18, at that point the next stage of life begins, because that's the way our society works. You go to high school, you get out of high school, and then you go on to the next thing, whether that's college or a career or traveling the world or freaking out or whatever.

So, because YA is marketed specifically toward people in high school or secondary school, college doesn't necessarily speak to them at this stage in their reading life. Sure, a lot of them are thinking about going to college, but the college experience itself isn't something they're going to relate to until they're living it. There's also the fact that college isn't in the cards for everyone, either out of necessity or personal choice.

BUT IT'S JUST LIKE BOARDING SCHOOL!

No, it isn't, or you would have set your YA novel in a boarding school. I guess the important thing to ask yourself is: why college? What is it about college life in particular that you feel is absolutely necessary to this story? Is it the classes? The freedom? The adult responsibilities? What?

That can potentially give you your answer. Books about college-age students exist, but they're usually found in the adult section because they tend to speak more to people on the far side of college than the close side. If your characters are in college because they need to deal with being responsible adults, then they are adults.

BUT *PUBLISHED BOOK* HAS CHARACTERS IN COLLEGE!

I'm not arguing that there are no books about college students. Of course they exist. However, is the fact that the characters are college students mentioned in passing and not really core to the story, or is the story actually about being in college and living college life? Someone being a college student is just a periphery identifier, much like saying, "Toby's in law school." Stories about being in college, on the other hand, are pretty specific. This isn't to say that no book like this exists or that a book like this couldn't succeed, just that the market is very, very narrow.

And, more importantly to the question at hand, none of this makes a story YA.

BUT THERE IS TOTALLY A MARKET FOR THIS! I WOULD READ IT!

So many people seem to get caught up in this idea that because they would read something, or a handful of people they know say they would read something ("say they would" being the operative term), that means it has a market. Just because a dozen books over several years have been published on this subject doesn't mean there's a market. Having a market for something means there's essentially a ready-made audience waiting to consume that thing. When people snap up vampire romance by the millions of purchases, that means there's a market. When people buy out a popular toy at Christmas, that means there's a market. When a certain genre sells consistently well, that's a market. The rest is just guesswork and risk taking. Sometimes it pays off. More often, it doesn't. Some publishers are willing to take the risk with the hope of a high return, others aren't.

This is an argument for a separate marketing category for New Adult/College fiction, not marketing college fiction as YA.

WHAT ABOUT 18-YEAR-OLDS WHO ARE IN THAT IN-BETWEEN STAGE OF JUST STARTING COLLEGE? AREN'T THEY STILL KIND OF YA?

I'm sorry, but the very small cross-section of young college students is just that: a very small cross-section. It's not going to be enough to float the sales needed to increase demand for college fiction. I know it sucks, because some people might really enjoy a book about this kind of thing, but the sales just aren't there. At least, not right now.

BUT ADULTS AND UNIVERSITY STUDENTS READ YA! SURELY THAT MEANS WE CAN INTRODUCE MORE ADULT THEMES, LIKE UNIVERSITY LIFE?

It doesn't matter that people who aren't in high school also buy YA. I'm sorry. The primary YA market is 18-and-under teens and preteens. The reason those stories appeal to adults is because they've been through that stage of life and can still relate to the themes. Young people aren't to the college-and-adulthood stage yet. It's difficult for them to relate. The themes aren't universal. Everyone has to be a teenager, but not everyone goes to college. Even those who do go to college can have vastly different experiences. I'm not saying that teenagers don't read "adult" fiction, because obviously that's not true. I'm saying that type of fiction isn't marketed to them specifically. It's not about the "outside" people who happen to buy into the market. It's about who the market is intended for. And YA is intended for people who aren't to college yet.

BUT BOOKS ABOUT THE SUMMER AFTER GRADUATION!

Still not college. Books like this are the very tippy-top of YA -- that point in the protagonist's life where they're teetering right on the edge of What Comes Next.

BUT MARKUS ZUSAK! 50 SHADES OF GREY! HOLLOWLAND! COMMUNITY! SELF-PUBLISHED TITLES! OTHER EXAMPLE OF BOOK WHERE CHARACTERS ARE 18-22!

These are outliers, guys. These do not necessarily constitute a market. It only proves such books exist. Also, though a lot of the characters in these books are college-age or even college students, the books are not about college life. I AM THE MESSENGER is one of those slippery books that can be marketed as either YA or adult. 50 SHADES is EROTICA AND NOT YA, dudes. I know it found its inspiration in Twilight, but no. HOLLOWLAND is kind of a weird creature because the age of the protagonist doesn't really pertain to the story at all. She could have been aged down two years or up two years and the story wouldn't have changed. COMMUNITY is a television sitcom and, frankly, not relevant to a literature discussion because those markets are completely separate beasts. Et cetera.

I'll give you self-published titles. I have friends who are self-publishing books they refer to as "New Adult," and that's wonderful. That's what's awesome about self-publishing... niche markets can actually do well there! This sort of thing is what self-publishing is FOR! I have no idea about the success rates of such novels. That's a whole separate area of research.

Yeah. Look, I'm not saying that if you're writing New Adult/College fiction that you need to STOP RIGHT NOW or anything like that. I'm not trying to crap on NA as a theoretical category. If that's the book in your heart, then you should absolutely write it. You might find a place for it. I'm purely speaking to why people say that college students aren't YA. If you're writing such a story, you'll have the best luck pitching it as adult or seeking out agents/publishers who are specifically looking for it. If you're thinking of trade publishing, that is. With self-publishing, you make the rules. Which is not to say that route is always preferable or ever easy, as I'm sure any reasonable indie author would tell you.

Do you have any other thoughts or questions on this subject? If you'd like to share your own opinion, please do. This is obviously a big area of discussion. COMMENT DISCUSSIONS ARE GOOD I LIKE THEM.


Comic Con, Characters, and Fandoms

| Monday, July 16, 2012
Today's Tune: Little Monsters

source
Today is the last day to enter to win a signed copy of THE DISENCHANTMENTS, so if you're interested, you better get on that, dude.

So (not being at) Comic Con has given me some time this weekend to think about celebrities and fiction and fandoms (AND I WISH I HAD BEEN THERE SO BAD YOU GUYS KGLOS:"DGYFSDF:SDHFHDS SOMEDAY I WILL BE A REAL NERD AND GO).

 There's a difference between celebrity and character, but when fandoms become involved, that line often gets blurred. Some actors aren't generally ascribed to a particular character, but others will always be representative of a certain iconic character they once played. They are larger than life, more than human. They're the sort of person that if you ran into them on the street, your breath would catch in your throat because you've just run into your favorite fictional character and you feel like they're someone you know personally but have never gotten to see in the flesh.

That has to be a strange, disorienting experience. Actors are forcibly separated from their complicated human selves and thrust into this role. They probably had no idea when they took on the role exactly how the fandom would react, or if there'd even be a fandom. It certainly has its downsides, but there's also this amazing sense of involvement and of being a part of something larger than yourself. I follow Nathan Fillion on Twitter, and I remember him once tweeting about walking down a street and having a man simply nod to him and say "Captain." He was understandably moved by the sentiment. Firefly was something he helped create, that he gave character and voice to, and here it is, many years later, still rippling throughout so many lives.

I've written about fandoms before, and I still like to think about and puzzle out what inspires and grows a fandom. I still think it's largely based around character -- fans must have characters and character relationships to root for. It's even more than that, though. It requires some sort of hook, something about the fictional world or its inhabitants, that latches deeply into our hearts. Seeing ourselves represented, wanting desperately to live in a fantastical world, a twist so clever that we imagine it over and over again. Next, it has to be shared. There's no fandom without, well, fans, and those fans have to be able to connect with other fans and create said fandom.

Fandoms have always existed so long as there's been work worth sharing and fawning over, but technology has made our world so much easier to access. There's no more wondering if you're the only person who loves a thing... you can hop online and find websites and forums and communities dedicated to that thing. You can spend hours comparing notes and building theories.

I can't help but feel this is rooted in a deep human need for stories and imagination. Some people certainly use fiction as escapism, but I think the main thing is that we all just enjoy imagining the world differently. We like to imagine our lives, our world, as its own story. But our story happens slowly. Unbearably slowly. We don't live all the highs and lows of our lives over the course of a season of television or a series of novels. So this is a kind of shortcut; a way to live a legend-worthy existence and share it with other people.

I'm totally rambling, DON'T MIND ME. Sometimes I can't completely organize my thoughts. These are a few random things I was thinking about fandoms this weekend.

What are your thoughts on celebrities, characters, and fandoms?


The Internet is Making Me Sad.

| Friday, July 13, 2012
Today's Tune: Somebody That I Used To Know (cover)

I don't have much to post about today, dudes. The Internet is making me a very sad panda this week (nothing writing-related, don't worry). So I decided to take the night off.

BUT FRET NOT, for there is still a giveaway of THE DISENCHANTMENTS going until Monday. A very sweet, summery read with an edge of salty tears, but nothing too tragic. You'd like it. Spread the word!

I'll have something interesting for you on Monday. Promises.


 

"Smart" Characters & Multiple Intelligence Theory

| Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Today's Tune: Thinkin Bout You


When you write a "smart" character, what does that mean? How do we define "smart?"

Writers often fall back on the idea of the "genius" character -- a character with a ridiculously high IQ who can solve any puzzle and store libraries of data inside their skull. They're the characters who are years ahead of the rest of their peers in book knowledge, but are still taking Algebra and basic English for some bizarre reason. You know... "Mr. Collins was talking about Shakespeare, so I tuned out. I'd already read Shakespeare's entire body of work in the fifth grade. I needed to focus on figuring out the cypher so I could help my love interest build a rocket ship to the moon later."

It seems "intelligence" is often confused with "knows a bunch of facts and stuff." This isn't necessarily true. A character can know LOTS of things and still be a fool. Knowledge and applied knowledge are not the same thing. It's no good to have a character who's incredibly well-read and already took honors biology if there's no real applied use for that knowledge beyond proving that they're a smarty-pants. So they know how to divide by zero. So what? How does that enrich the character?

Just like writing a character who's too perfect, writing a character who's too uniformly and stereotypically intelligent stretches the boundaries of belief and often becomes tiresome. Which is not to say that teenage characters can't or shouldn't be smart. I very much approve of intelligent teen characters. I write them. However, just as it isn't realistic for someone to be beautiful AND a sports whiz AND valedictorian AND a musical prodigy AND the center of the social scene, it's not realistic for a person to be intelligent in all possible areas.

This is where the Theory of Multiple Intelligences comes in. If you'd like to read about it in depth, here's the Wikipedia entry. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that people are intelligent in different areas of cognitive ability, and that excelling in one area doesn't necessarily mean someone is more or less intelligent than someone who excels in a different area. It's basically exactly what it sounds like: the theory that you can be different kinds of "smart."

It's extraordinarily rare (maybe impossible) for someone's brain to function at optimal intelligence in every possible area. Someone who's brilliant at math might be crap at communication skills. A gifted public speaker may be be very perceptive when it comes to other people, but terrible at understanding themselves. This sort of thing also applies to the variety of ways we learn. Some of us learn better by doing, others by watching, and still others by listening.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences lists some particular areas of intelligence -- logical-mathmatical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic. We see some of this already in stereotypical characters, like the nerd who's really good at science but really bad at anything physical. However, there are even more areas of intelligence to consider. Emotional intelligence -- the ability to understand people and gauge their emotional responses appropriately, similar to empathy. The ability to think abstractly about situations, approaching from a different angle to see what others missed. "Common sense." One could even argue for extrasensory intelligence -- the ability to perceive things beyond the normal human senses.

This approach to intelligence is important for character development because it makes you really consider where your character is strong and where they're weak. This humanizes the character, making them more relateable and believable. It also creates built-in conflict. If your character is really good at logic but really bad at social interaction, how does that play out in the story? If they have a knack for understanding people but very poor empathy/emotional intelligence, what does that mean? (It means they're Sherlock Holmes, is what that means).

Consider your super-duper smart character again. Where do they excel? What is the opposing quality to that? Don't go for the easy out (again, stereotypical science geek who's bad at sports). If they're really intelligent in one area, where can they falter that will make for the most conflict in the story? Stop thinking of intelligence as only book smarts and start thinking of the other ways people display intellect. As with anything in characterization, it's all about striking the right balance.

When you think of a "smart" character, who do you think of, and why? Do you feel that they're balanced?


Criticism is Not a Bad Thing

| Monday, July 9, 2012
Today's Tune: Love You Madly

I don't hate you for not replacing the milk. I'm criticizing your inconsiderate behavior.

There's a difference between snark-bashing and criticism. Snark-bashing is the sort of thing that's intended to tear down a work/author with no real discussion beyond "this sucks, this really sucks, this sucks because I said so, and if you like this sucky thing than you are of inferior intelligence because I SAID IT SUCKS." Criticism, on the other hand, is balanced critique of the work that raises legitimate concerns.

Criticism is not a bad thing.

Last week, I led off my criticism of Brave with a little note about how people often view criticism of a piece of media as someone saying that media is BAD and that people SHOULDN'T LIKE IT. That's not the case at all. When I criticize a work, I'm exploring both my subjective opinion ("this just isn't to my taste") and often the socio-political implications of the work. I very much try to avoid implying that something is without-redemption TERRIBLE and that anyone who likes it is a fool, because that's a very black-and-white view that ignores whatever positive qualities a work displays. And trust me, if a lot of people are enjoying a work, it has AT LEAST ONE positive quality. That quality may be snappy dialogue, or clever plotting, or gripping characterization, or the ability to keep an audience engaged page after page. You may have to look for it, but it's there.

Talking about the problematic elements of media does not mean I disapprove of enjoyment of that media. As I've mentioned before, I often enjoy media with problematic elements. I'm very critical of those problematic elements, but I tend to be very attuned to any little throwaway socio-political screwery. Even so, I can still like -- even love -- media that displays these issues.

For example: I really like the show How I Met Your Mother. I think it's hilarious and occasionally heartwarming. However, the show is often GROSSLY sexist. Not just in the sense of Barney's womanizing ways (which are intentionally gross), but in the way the women are portrayed, the way women treat other women and themselves, the stereotypes, and even the way the narrator of the show, who is supposed to be this nice-guy romantic, treats women. (I may write a post about this sometime. Hm.)

It's important for me to be able to balance my critical mind against my enjoyment of the show. I'm not the kind of person who can just ignore problematic themes and elements. Every time the show does something gross, I notice. Every time women are portrayed as catty shopaholics, or having "crazy eyes," or ditzes who can (and should) be easily tricked into sex and then tossed aside, or a male character gets to learn a lesson and grow while a female character is the bad guy or the butt of the joke or forgotten completely... I notice all of these things. I'm critical of them.

So how do I balance the analytical assessment of my media intake without driving myself completely up a wall and hating absolutely everything?

I accept that criticism is not a bad thing. That noting and admitting that your preferred media has problematic elements doesn't negate any positive qualities it also offers. While I may cringe at yet another portrayal of a woman being relegated to the role of "stupid-but-hot pair of breasts whose name the narrator can't even be bothered to remember," I can still appreciate the heart, humor, and friendship portrayed on the screen. It doesn't excuse the problematic elements or make them okay. In my opinion, it's important not to let popular media get away with bullshit representations and perpetuating stereotypes. Unfortunately, if I decided to walk away from anything with even the slightest whiff of problematic content regardless of the work as a whole, my media intake would be very slim indeed.

This standpoint isn't perfect. After all, where do we draw the line between when the negative elements overwhelm the positive and render a piece of media too problematic to be allowed a pass? That's a subjective viewpoint. There's also the question of whether or not anything can ever be truly above criticism, and the reality is no, it can't. No matter how even-handed the portrayal or tightly-written the plot, literature (and other media) remains a subjective art. What speaks to one person won't speak to another, what bothers one person another won't even notice.

Still, I find it necessary to bring any issues to the forefront for discussion. If unpacking the "hidden" context in popular media helps people to better understand and identify problematic content, that's a good thing in my book. The goal of criticism is discussion and betterment. It's not a tool of "ruining" or belittling someone's work. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

I can't help but feel, sometimes, that we make a habit of surrounding ourselves in cotton balls and bubble wrap because it's comfortable. When you're that comfortable for long enough, the slightest disturbance is enough to make you cry and whine and want to burrow deeper. Even though we're hearing things that aren't really all that mean or are based in a pretty solid argument, we're so unused to having to deal with it that they immediately become Enemy Number One. Even if they had some nice things to say, even if they made a good point.

It's not fun to hear that you might have made a mistake. It sucks to feel exposed and like you're being called out on something you didn't even realize you might have done wrong. The immediate instinct is to go nuh uh, you're reading too much into that, that's not what I meant at all! Many people like to ignore the criticism, hope it goes away, or even lash out against it. However, many times, if we swallow our pride and try to step into the critic's shoes, we might learn something about ourselves that maybe isn't all that great, but that we can improve upon.

When we stop viewing criticism of our work, our favorite TV show, our favorite book, as a personal attack on us and our preferences and start viewing it as a tool for growth, we can become stronger. We learn to recognize when our brain is straying down well-worn pathways and taking easy shortcuts.

Criticism is not a bad thing. We can learn to understand that criticism of a work does not mean that work is bad, or that the critic is saying it's bad. We can enjoy media with problematic content as long as we're willing to accept that the problematic content is there. Nothing is ever perfect. If we were all holding out for perfection, we'd be in permanent stasis. Imperfect is okay. Always striving to be better is ideal.

I can't help but admire Kristin Cashore, who was called out on her lack of sensitivity to disability politics after GRACELING came out. Spoiler ahead: in her book, one of the main characters loses his eyesight. However, he has a Grace (super power) that makes up for his lack of sight and then some, so he's essentially unhindered by this development. This is a problematic (and common) trope in fantasy novels because it gives someone a disability and then an immediate "solution" for that disability without their having to learn to live as a disabled person. It implies that disabilities need to be fixed. Cashore certainly did not intend this message when she wrote the book, and she seems to be a kind and sensitive person. However, when called out on it, she took it in stride and used it as a learning experience for her future work. I'm sure that criticism must have hurt, that she must have felt embarrassed and upset, but she pulled through it and learned from it.

What are your feelings on criticism? Do you often feel yourself getting defensive over your work, or do you try to take it in stride? Defensiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing -- when we feel strongly about something, we want to defend it. It's just when that defense turns into disregarding any good points that it becomes an issue.


It's Not in the Script

| Friday, July 6, 2012
Today's Tune: You'll Find A Way

First, allow me to give you a wave in the general direction of this blog post where you can win a signed copy of Nina LaCour's THE DISENCHANTMENTS. Go! Fight! Win! Maybe not fight. But win!

Anyway.

My significant other and I recently started watching Teen Wolf. We're finding it weirdly addictive, even though it's incredibly predictable and basically exactly what you'd expect from a show about teenage werewolves.

It's the characters. It's got to be.

But anyway, as I mentioned, we're enjoying this show for the brain candy factor, regardless of its cliche-tastic plot lines. And while we watch, I've noticed we have the same exchange over and over again.

"Okay, that guy was his ride. Why is he just going to stick around in the woods instead of leaving with him? There's no reason for him to stay there."

"Because it's not in the script."

"That guy has the stare-and-brood down. Surely he realizes he'd be less conspicuous if he just acted like a normal person instead of the creepy guy staring at you from the corner of a raging party."

"Yeah, but that's not in the script."

"WHY DOESN'T ANYONE JUST SAY WHAT'S GOING ON INSTEAD OF ACTING ALL CAGEY ABOUT EVERYTHING."

"It's not in the script."

I imagine you're seeing a pattern here. When I use the phrase "it's not in the script," what I'm really implying is that the story has reached a point where I'm pulled out of my immersion and reminded that I'm reading/watching a work of fiction. It's the point where I can see the strings and know exactly where the writer's going with this. The spell is broken.

We often hear people say something "pulled them out of the story," and this is essentially the same principle. When dialogue is stilted, or a plot turn is super predictable, or something about the story just doesn't quite make sense, then your audience is reminded that they're reading words on a page, not surrounding themselves in a story. And sometimes that's okay; sometimes people don't mind a cheesy, predictable world as long as there's something else keeping them entertained.

Still, it's an important question to ask yourself: are you letting your cards show? Are you forcing your characters and dialogue and setting into a box they don't really fit into? Are you letting your need to script each scene get in the way of genuine interaction and organic plot development?

Are you okay with going off script every once in a while?


I'm American! It's a holiday!

| Wednesday, July 4, 2012
First: I'm hosting a book giveaway! Go comment on this blog post to be entered to win a signed copy of Nina LaCour's THE DISENCHANTMENTS. Worth it.

Next: No usual post today, because it's American Independence Day! So we're going to do what we apparently do best... grill things and blow stuff up. Prettily. In many colors.

If you are in dire need of a blogging fix, allow me to direct you over to YA Highway and We Heart YA, which are always fun hotspots of YA activity. HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY EVEN IF IT IS JUST ANOTHER DATE ON THE CALENDAR TO YOU.

*waves a sparkler*

*safely*


Win a SIGNED copy of THE DISENCHANTMENTS!

| Monday, July 2, 2012
GIVEAWAY IS OFFICIALLY CLOSED. Thank you to everyone who entered!

Let's start this week off with a giveaway, shall we?

I'm lucky enough to live in an area that gets a fair few cool authors through my local indie bookstore, so I try to keep a few signed copies on hand at any given time for my lovely readers. I've decided it's about time to let one loose into the wild.

So, without further ado: leave a comment on this blog post to be entered to win a SIGNED copy of Nina LaCour's THE DISENCHANTMENTS!

Signed by the author!


Here's the blurb from Goodreads:

"Colby and Bev have a long-standing pact: graduate, hit the road with Bev's band, and then spend the year wandering around Europe. But moments after the tour kicks off, Bev makes a shocking announcement: she's abandoning their plans - and Colby - to start college in the fall.

But the show must go on and The Disenchantments weave through the Pacific Northwest, playing in small towns and dingy venues, while roadie- Colby struggles to deal with Bev's already-growing distance and the most important question of all: what's next?

Morris Award–finalist Nina LaCour draws together the beauty and influences of music and art to brilliantly capture a group of friends on the brink of the rest of their lives."

Here are the rules for signed book contests on my blog: leave a comment that includes your email address so I can contact you if you win (only open to USA and Canada... sorry!). I'd also really appreciate it if you publicized the contest via social media (Facebook, Twitter, your blog) so that word spreads!

That's it! You don't have to follow my blog, or Twitter, or send me photos of your firstborn dressed like your favorite character, or anything like that. Although I'd love it if you did! Well, maybe not the pictures of children part. I love followers, but I don't like to, you know, make you do it in order to get something.

So there you have it. This contest will run for two weeks. It ends at midnight PST on July 16th. Good luck!

  
 

Copyright © 2010 maybe genius