Exploring the Horror Genre

| Friday, September 28, 2012
Today's Tune: The Invasion From Within

Horror is apparently on the rise in fiction. Or something? I don't know, people say weird things about trends! But as such, I thought today I could talk about the various types of horror! Because not all horror is created equal, you know. Also Halloween is coming up and stuff.

First, let's talk about what distinguishes a horror novel from a thriller novel, though they may seem similar. Really, it's in the name -- "horror" is intended to illicit feelings of horror (duh) and terror, while "thrillers" illicit thrills and suspense/anticipation. Now, this isn't completely cut and dry, as many horror novels rely heavily on the aspects of a thriller to function. Things like unexpected plot twists, fast-paced action, heightened suspense... all aspects of a thriller. There's just a difference between, say, a spy thriller and a horror thriller.

People enjoy horror for a number of reasons. Sometimes we just like the rush of adrenaline we get. Sometimes we want to explore things we're afraid of in a relatively "safe" way (through a book or a film in the safety of our living room). Sometimes it's a certain fascination with the gross or the macabre. Or sometimes a tale about fear is linked inextricably to deeper elements we want to explore about ourselves and the world around us. It's a very powerful emotion, fear.

So let's talk about a few different styles of horror!

Psychological Horror - This type of horror definitely borrows from the thriller line of thought. It's about creepy ambiance and slowly building terror in the reader without actually letting them see the thing they're so afraid of. It makes them question what's real. These are stories where there may not be much blood or death, but people are terrified out of their wits by something they don't necessarily face head-on. This is the type of fear that's inside your head. A lot of writers use psychological horror as a metaphor for people who are afraid of things much closer to home... or even afraid of themselves.

Paranormal Horror - This is about ghosties and spirits and things that go bump in the night! Ghost stories often fall in line with paranormal horror. These are tales about the things that still haunt us even after they're dead and gone. It usually involves anything that's Not Of This World.

Creature Horror - Kind of a sub-section of paranormal horror, but more specific. The antagonist for these stories is a creature. A monster. The Thing, It, Cujo, Alien, giant toothy worms, you name it. It's an actual physical (non-human) being that's stalking and killing the characters, and it must be defeated. This can range from very superficial (scary, gross critter must be destroyed!) to a complex metaphor about the monsters inside ourselves.

Demonic Horror - Another sub-section of paranormal horror. I separated this one out because stories like these typically involve a person, or people, who have been possessed by some sort of demon. Perhaps even the Devil himself. There's a duality between wanting to save the possessed person and banishing/destroying the being inside them. There's an element of fear that even the people we love may hurt us or change beyond our control. These stories tend to be heavily steeped in religious imagery for obvious reasons. Demon pregnancies are also a popular (and problematic) trope.

Gothic Horror - Ah, good old gothic horror. A classic style. This type of horror relies heavily on ambiance and romantic ideals (though not necessarily romance). These are the literary stories full of gorgeous prose and tortured souls. Heavily steeped in Victorian flavor, you'll often find themes of descending into madness, dark family secrets, and confronting literal and figurative demons. Think Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelly, Dracula.

Slasher Horror - If you imagine the stereotypical horror movie with a teenage girl running from a guy wielding a big knife, you have the basic idea behind a slasher. This is a (usually) human antagonist, typically a serial killer with a fixation on the protagonist. It's a pretty standard plot -- killer is on the loose, characters start dropping like flies, big showdown with protagonist, killer is destroyed or put out of commission, protagonist lives, hooray. This standard model can be played with in an infinite number of ways and lots of the massively cliche (and sexist/racist) tropes can be turned on their heads.

Body Horror - This sort of horror is about a person's body being Enemy Number One. Their own flesh and blood turns on them, transforming them into something else, slowly degrading, or otherwise causing horrible mental anguish. Body horror is also known for being kind of, well, gross. Flesh melting, bones breaking through skin, nails falling off, all that fun stuff. You know when you read something happening to a character and it just makes you want to curl into a ball and cry because you don't want to feel the empathetic horror and pain at what they just physically went through? Body horror. This is stuff like killer diseases, chemical warfare, The Fly. The psychology here is in expressing our fear over our own fragile and ultimately decaying bodies, losing ourselves, or being trapped inside something that will cause us pain and eventually die. Of course, there's also the idea of our body becoming a weapon to protect us from harm, which can be another form of body horror.

Gore-Shock Horror - Hypothetically, body horror could be tied into gore-shock, but gore-shock is not really about focus on the body as the antagonist. Gore-shock is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: gore so vivid and visceral that it shocks you. Horror and gore are not synonymous, but when it comes to gore-shock, it's all about the gore. Gore to the point of it practically being paint on a canvas. Blood, guts, flesh, limbs, eyes... you name it. It's here in full, over-the-top glory. I often think of it as "comic book-style" gore, or the type of gore that's obviously done for artistic flare instead of reality. You typically find this in film rather than fiction, as it's very visual, but that doesn't mean there aren't some mind-boggling attempts out there in the literature world, graphic novels in particular.

Comedic Horror - Horror doesn't necessarily have to scare you or gross you out. It can also make you laugh. There's a small cross-section of writers who use horror as a medium for comedy -- playing with tropes, poking fun at convention, or being plain silly. This can be anything from a horror-esque plot with its teeth taken out to openly lampooning tired horror tales. It's all in the voice and the characters. Character reaction can make or break a story like this. Think of Shawn of the Dead and the way character reactions are very matter-of-fact. Oh, there are dead people out there? They're trying to eat us? Are you quite sure? Let's throw things at them.

There are a variety of other horror options to explore, but these are the ones I'm most familiar with. They don't have to be kept completely separate, either -- they're often blended to great effect. The very best writers can illicit multiple reactions in one book: fear, suspense, laughter, surprise, sorrow.

Are you a horror fan? What's your favorite type? Anything else to add?

 

Sometimes Stories Aren't Yours - Writing Oppressed Classes

| Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Today's Tune: How Will I Know


This is a difficult topic to write about, since I typically try to avoid telling people what they should and shouldn't write. There are a lot of extenuating circumstances involved here, and almost anything can be done by anyone so long as it's done well. But of course, that's the caveat -- it must be done well. And "done well" is one of those nebulous terms that not everyone is going to agree on. Where one person may think something was handled beautifully, another will find a dozen issues with it. Granted, it's different if a white lady writes a book about racial oppression and other white ladies say YAY while many people of color go WTF. When you incorporate the fact that some people are just plain ol' blind to certain points of view, intentionally or not, it can get pretty messy.

Before I continue rambling and you stop reading because you don't know WTF I'm talking about, I'll clarify. This is going to be a post about how you don't get to have every story. As in, there will be some stories out there that you may not have the skill, knowledge, or insight to appropriately tackle. At least, not yet. Perhaps not ever. And I can already picture people getting all blustery about this, but just hear me out. This is not about you not being a good enough writer to write good stories or anything like that. It's mostly about believing we can tell a story about a character whose experience we don't properly understand or empathize with.

So: this is not me saying that you can't tell the story in your heart about a girl who falls in love with a spider-person and has adventures. This is me saying that if that girl is a gay person of color and you are not, you may be doing things you didn't intend to do out of ignorance or misunderstanding. And ignorance and misunderstandings are not protection from valid criticism.

If you're reading this, I assume you're familiar with the Internet, which means you probably heard about the Save The Pearls debacle. If not, here is a rundown and here is the post I made on Tumblr in response to it. In that post, I touched on some points I'll be reiterating here. Here is another very interesting book you should read (at least the first few points), particularly if you're white. I'm singling out whiteness in particular because, well, YA is overwhelmingly white and this is not a secret.

Okay, so, everyone has already raked Save The Pearls over the coals multiple times (fairly, in my opinion), so I'll spare you criticism of the work. I will, however, use it as a discussion jumping point. The reasons people took issue with the book/series/concept are myriad, but what it fundamentally comes down to is this: someone attempted to write a story that they didn't have the right skill level and/or viewpoint for, and because of that, they made a whole hell of a lot of offensive mistakes. And no, it was most likely not intentional, but even having good intentions doesn't mean that something is free of troubling themes or problematic language. Even if it wasn't her intent to hurt people or perpetuate stereotypes, it still happened.

A while ago, I wrote a post on different spheres of existence, which is still something I think about. Now, I'd add even more to that kernel of thought, like the concept of kyriarchy (the idea that oppression is not linear, but multi-layered, and that even oppressed classes can have privilege over other oppressed classes). Using my examples, it's the idea that although my hypothetical friend Donnie is a man, I still maintain privilege over him because I am white and he is not. His maleness does not give him privilege over my whiteness.

I used those spheres to show how although we might never be able to truly understand what it's like to live as someone from another "sphere of existence," we can still find a common thread of experience. I've since come to understand more fully that that's still a really simplified view of things. It's really not about trying to say, "I'm just like you! I understand!", which is reductive and untrue. It's about empathy. It's about having other people in your life and actually listening to what they have to say about their experience. It's about having empathy for their point of view and what they go through. It's about always learning to be better, to find for ourselves all the things we weren't taught. It's about not exoticizing or romanticizing another experience, especially an oppressed experience. And it's about doing that without the persistent need to have OUR voice heard and OUR opinion validated.

Because that's the thing: there are some stories we can't tell. Writing a reverse discrimination story as a member the privileged class is one of those stories. Stories in which the lives of an oppressed class are heavily romanticized and not properly represented is another. For example: writing a story set in China where all the women are delicate, identical geisha-like figures wearing kimono and everyone's a ninja. No. Very obvious culture mix-ups combined with inappropriate representation. And yet you'd be amazed how many people make these sorts of painfully obvious goofs that could have been avoided with a tiny bit of research.

WE HAVE THE INTERNET NOW GUYS. NO EXCUSES.

This is the way a lot of privileged classes view writing oppressed classes -- as long as they write "nice" characters who are good people, then they're doing a good thing and a few fudged facts or lack of research won't matter. They don't need to do research because they think they already know how to represent a group of people because... well, they just KNOW. And as long as they make the oppressed group pretty or powerful, it's fine.

Nope. Not how it works. This attitude is the sort of thing that portrays all African people as impoverished and all Asian women as demure flowers and all GLBT folks as flamboyant or promiscuous. This attitude makes minorities into figurines to be manipulated, not well-developed individual characters. The missing voice is the voice of the represented people themselves. If we want to know what living as a minority is really like, we need to listen to THEIR point of view. Not their supposed point of view filtered through the majority.

I'm most certainly not saying that men, white people, or other privileged classes should never attempt to write minority characters. I think it's incredibly important to diversify our storyworlds and stop representing places like NYC and London and San Francisco and THE FUTURE as being 90% white. But I am saying that sometimes a story is just not ours to write. And that bothers people, especially members of privileged classes, because privileged people are frankly not used to being told that they can't or shouldn't do something. It's the same reason people fight tooth and nail for the "right" to use pejorative slurs with impunity. How DARE you tell me that I shouldn't use a certain word!!! The fact that I'm hurting someone doesn't bother me as much as the fact that you're calling me out for using a slur! Guys. See this post about how words are NOT just words; they're ideas.

The fact is, this stuff is embarrassing and unsettling, which is why people don't like to hear it. It's not fun to hear that maybe the fact that you're white or male or Christian or straight means that you've been blind to things you do that have been perpetuating systemic harm on other people. You didn't mean to! You're a good person! You're just trying to appreciate other people by writing about them! Well. I know this kind of sucks, but just because you try to be a good person doesn't mean you don't occasionally screw up without meaning to.

So what is there to do? How can we make sure we're being flawlessly perfect in our representations of other people?

1.) We can't. Not 100%, anyway. You can only do the best you can. And I do mean the BEST you can. If someone calls you out, listen before defending.

2.) Don't believe that trying to do something well is the same as doing it well. I'm not talking quality here, I'm talking knowledge and research. Do not half-ass your representations of oppressed classes. Don't assume you know how to represent them because "we're all human" (reductive much?) and "color/sex/religion/etc. doesn't matter" (yes it does). Do not get all your research from Wikipedia and third-party discussions. Read what the people themselves have to say. Listen to their words.

3.) Understand that there are some stories you can't tell.
You have to know that no matter what, there are some stories and some characters you just can't do proper justice. You might think you adore Japanese culture something fierce, but that doesn't mean you can accurately portray it without dipping into the Stereotype Bin. You don't get to tell every story, guys. Sometimes a story belongs to someone else.

4.) Just THINK.
Listen. Research. Don't focus on all the superficial, cute, romanticized elements of something. Understand the history of what you're tackling, and for the love of everything good, teach yourself why it's problematic to make your male Asian character a desexualized nerd or refer to your world's lesbians as Carpet Bags. Basically, don't be a doofus. And have other people read your stuff. People who will take you to the mat if you do something questionable.

None of this is intended to make anyone feel crappy because of who they are (unless you're a crappy person, in which case, FEEL CRAPPY). However, it's important to understand why you can't just write a story about a culture you don't know much about besides what you've seen on TV or heard from friends. Ultimately, you're the one who has to decide if you can tell a story well. And even then, you must be prepared for some blowback, and accept the lumps if they're earned.

So. Yeah. THESE ARE MY MANY THOUGHTS ON THIS SUBJECT. What are yours?

Last day for a free book!

| Monday, September 24, 2012
So sorry for the lack of a "real" post today. I will make it up to you on Wednesday!

This post is mainly serving as a reminder that the contest to win a signed copy of UNDER THE NEVER SKY is ending at midnight (PST) tonight! Make sure you enter and/or spread the word if you haven't yet! It's open internationally, even.

I feel really weird writing a blog post this short because normally I am so endearingly long-winded, but whelp. Them's the breaks today. See you later this week!




What's the deal with series, anyway?

| Friday, September 21, 2012
Today's Tune: Bedlam

I just want to make it clear, up front, that I don't have ~*secret insider knowledge*~ about this. It's just my pet theory. I could be totally wrong. But I don't think I am because I am usually right about ALL THE THINGS, naturally!

Anyway: it's pretty easy to walk into the YA (and even the Early Readers or MG) section and realize that there are a lot of series out there. Trilogies are supposedly the big thing, but really, it's any series. To be fair, it's not like series are a new thing. Fantasy and science fiction have been doing series books for an awfully long time. But what's the deal? Why does it seem like series are so popular and encouraged?

Here are my theories.

Most authors don't get "discovered" and become popular off of their first book. They usually have to release several books before their readership grows to a point where people are recognizing their name in the bookstore as an author they enjoy. As such, you don't see a lot of breakout success stories with standalone novels by newer authors (authors with several books under their belts, perhaps, but not newbies). Standalone books also have the issue of being, well, standalone. A reader doesn't need to buy more than one. If they like the author's style, they may try some of their other books, but there's no reason out of hand to buy more than one.

Series authors, on the other hand, have these things naturally built into their book deals. Instead of one standalone book every few years, they're releasing series books probably once a year. They're getting that whole "multiple books" thing done more quickly. If readers get invested in one book of the series, they're likely to want to continue. That means built-in book sales. It usually takes a new series a few years to really pick up speed, but once the readership has grown and word of mouth has spread, the sales and popularity escalate rapidly. You have the "been there since the first book" audience, and then you have additional reader numbers that grow with each subsequent book. New readers can't just pick up the latest release. They have to start at the beginning (usually). With series, readers typically know exactly what they're getting -- a world and characters they already know they like. Not like picking up a new standalone and not knowing if they're going to like protagonist Joe Blow more than protagonist John Doe.

Some people like familiarity. They like community. They like the feeling of already being a part of something. That happens in series. It also happens occasionally in standalones, but it's a lot more rare. There's something sort of appealing about being able to get MORE of a book you enjoy. It's all very commercial (you're unlikely to find many literary series), but that's kind of the point. Series books are good for sales.

So what does that mean? Write series to be successful? Standalone novels aren't worth it? I don't think so at all. I just think that when it comes to younger readers (and older readers, honestly), many tend to gravitate toward series because of the accessibility, familiarity, and immersion. None of that means that standalone novels can't also be incredibly successful, or won't find readers. In fact, I think there's a special place for standalone novels for those readers who don't want to invest a bunch of time in an overlong series, or who enjoy a lot of variety in their literature.

What do you think?

 

Why can't my YA novel be over 100K words?

| Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Today's Tune: Do It Anyway

This is a question I see over and over and over and OVER AND OVER again from people dipping their toes into the YA sphere. Writers want to know if their YA novel can be over 100,000 words long. Most people will tell them it's not recommended (agents have repeatedly said so), but there are always a handful of folks who say, "Ignore all that because X book and Y book and Z book were all over 100K and they went on to be HUGE. Write as many words as you want. If it's good, someone will take it anyway."

This is... not the best advice. It's not WRONG. It is true that in some select cases, literary agents and editors have taken on debut YA novels upward of 120-150,000 words. It does happen. However, people who tend to spout this line of reasoning often edge around some pretty important differentiating factors.

Most YA novels that clock in at 100K or more are not debut novels.

Look, if you do very well with your first book or two and/or you have an extensive following? You can do things that other authors don't get to do. Like write really long books. When you're a brand new baby author, your publisher doesn't know what kind of bet they've made yet. They don't know if your 180K tome is going to sell like hotcakes or flop and lose them a bunch of money. So they tend to start smaller. Long books cost more money to make and can be more prohibitive for some readers. If it turns out you're the kind of author that the readers gobble up, you get more leeway. A lot of those massive books you see on shelves? Usually not from a first-time author.

People like to quote massive bestsellers when making this argument. But here's the thing: MASSIVE. BEST. SELLERS.

You guys. Massive bestselling books do not count when it comes to "writing rules." I know everyone likes to talk about how they're the exception and look how successful they were anyway, but that's because they're exceptions. Not rules. You'll notice a lot of people pointing at Twilight, City of Bones, Eragon, Divergent, etc. as debut YA novels that broke the 100K marker and went on to sell loads. But these books? All super popular. All sold well worth their weight. No, the publishers didn't KNOW that would happen, but publishers do occasionally know how to make a good bet. These were good bets. You'll also notice how their size crept up as they sold more and grew in popularity, not before. And sure, the authors may have bent the rules and written past the "recommended" amount. It DOES happen. But it's not common. It's usually better to assume you're just like everyone else, not one of the super special exceptions.

Also: Cassandra Clare had a large following before publishing her debut. Christopher Paolini had previously published his book and seen some success with it. Twilight... well, it's TWILIGHT and basically immune to all of the rules. Veronica Roth's debut didn't start out that big (more on that later). Seeing a theme?

Longer books usually, USUALLY, tend to be a symptom of overwriting in unpublished writers.

I'd like to emphasize, once again, USUALLY. I'm not saying that unpublished writers never write awesome lengthy books. But, especially with people who haven't been in the game long, big books tend to mean more exposition, longer-winded description, lack of editing, and prose that hasn't been trimmed properly. It's actually very easy to write a super long book. You sit, you write everything that comes into your head, and you don't stop. Learning to distill your prose into its strongest state and cut scenes you love because they don't serve the greater story? That's the hard part. You have to make sure that every. single. word. serves a purpose. If you or your readers are skimming because you don't need to read every word to get the point, it's time to revisit those words with the delete key.

Longer books also usually tend to be in the genres of Fantasy, Paranormal, Science Fiction, or Dystopian. Genres with a lot of worldbuilding, that is.

Know why Fantasy novels tend to be bulkier than Contemporary novels? Because the audience needs to be introduced to a world unlike our own. A lot of the text comes from creating the environment and introducing the beings that fill the world. These are things you can't just skim over, at least not if you want your audience to understand what's going on. When your Contemporary novel starts creeping up in word count, it's often because you're trying to cram too much in there. Pick your plot thread and stick to it. Don't meander.

Many of the larger YA novels on shelves didn't start out that big.

Books change during professional editing. Word counts change. Editors themselves may decide that an area of a novel needs to be fleshed out more. That's their call. If the book's working as is but could use a little more this or that, an editor who decides to take it on will let you know. So a book that looks big now may have started out a whole lot slimmer.


So, yeah. This is why, whenever people ask this question, I tell them it's in their best interest to try to keep it below 100K. No, I can't say whether or not your book is a special debut that can get away with a larger word count. It very well may be. All I can tell you is that large books may not be what they appear, and it's probably a good idea to hedge your bets and write a kickass 90K book rather than a might-be-kickass 130K book that could get rejected out of hand because agents go WHOA THAT'S HIGH. I mean, I figure that if agents are repeatedly telling you to avoid doing something, you should probably avoid it. These people are not clueless. They sell books professionally. Their opinion may be worth heeding. You can always save your bigger books for further down the line after you have a debut under your belt.

At the end of the day, it's always your call. If you feel really strongly that your book is as good as you can make it and that every word counts, then go for it anyway. The worst anyone can say is no.

What are your feelings on the 100K benchmark for debut YA novels?



Virginity Tropes Like Woah

| Friday, September 14, 2012
Today's Tune: Like A Virgin

I have a book for you! It's good! And signed by the author! You'll like it! Click here!

So here's a topic I've been pondering over for a while but never really got around to sitting down and writing about: virginity tropes.

If you are a Westerner (as in, you are a member of Westernized culture, not like you are a cowboy), you are probably familiar with the way our culture -- particularly American culture -- gets super confused about sex. The demand to be both sexualized and virginal is extraordinarily high, particularly for young women. It seems like girls rarely get a chance to think about and decide what THEY want. Society's already right there telling them to be more this, less that. Half of the voices are screaming that they be sexually available and that their bodies are public property, the other half are yelling at them to keep their legs closed and stay "pure." Oh, and that it's their fault if some guy got too handsy, of course. Sometimes these voices even come out of the same mouth. Talk about confusing.

Today I wanted to explore the many little ways in which writers (of books, television, music, fan fiction, and more) reinforce the idea that virginity is equal to goodness, that sex is something that can "ruin" a girl, that it's supposed to be a gift given only to certain special people, and basically that a girl's sexuality doesn't really belong to her. It belongs to the man (it's always a man) she decides to "give" it to.

Before I continue, I just want to make something clear: I am not opposed to abstinence as an option for sexual health. Not at all. One of my points with this post will be to talk about how sexuality belongs to a person, and one way many people choose to own their sexuality is by remaining abstinent until a certain point. Whatever reason a person chooses to remain abstinent is their concern and theirs only. Whether they choose to have sex with one person or one thousand people, the most important thing is that it's what they decide. The key to this is flipping the coin to the other side -- if abstinence is a reasonable option for expressing sexuality, so is becoming sexually active. Neither option is superior, and one should never be used over the other as the standard of how girls and women should make their sexual choices.

EDIT: (I also wanted to add that if someone doesn't want to have sex AT ALL -- if they're not interested in it or choose to remain celibate indefinitely for whatever reason -- that is also a perfectly normal way to own one's body and sexual self.)

So let's talk about some virginity tropes that we regularly see in media for young people, shall we? SEXAY.

Good female characters are virgins. Bad female characters are "sluts."

You'd think people would get tired of this trope, yet it persists. The protagonist and many/most/all of the "good" characters, the ones we're supposed to like, are virginal. Maybe they've made out or participated in some heavy petting, but they haven't had The Sex. Not even The Oral Sex, because GROSS, right? Meanwhile, the "bad" girls, the mean ones you're supposed to hate, are repeatedly described in such loving terms as sluts, skanks, hobags, etc. Because, you see, only trashy mean girls have "meaningless sex" or give blowjobs.

So let's get this straight: unless you have a very specific and special kind of sex, than you are a gross Slutty McSlutbags. It's not possible for a girl to be both sexually active with multiple partners or with someone that they don't want to date and also a good person. I hope it's obvious why this is problematic, but in case it isn't: sexuality is not an all or none deal, and it in no way applies to a person's moral fiber. And this is not about having sexually experienced protagonists -- YA is largely about firsts, including first sex. It only becomes an issue when there's a theme of virginity being for "good girls" and sexuality being for "bad girls."

Guys aren't virgins. At least, they aren't confirmed virgins. Unless they're holding out for the protagonist.

Oh look, a double-standard! Shocking! For some reason, writers like to make a point of their female characters' virginity while completely ignoring exploring the boys' sexual history. It's either assumed, or outright confirmed, that penis-carrying members (lulz) of the population are sexually experienced. If a point is made to establish a MALE character's virginity, it's usually with the express purpose of showing how romantic he is and how he purposely waited for "someone special" (aka the protagonist), or it's used to ridicule him.

A girl's first sexual intercourse is painful and almost always bloody. There's also mention of tearing, pinching, or breaking.

This is a difficult one to overcome. On one hand, many girls and women have experienced painful first intercourse. Some hymens are more closed than others, sometimes you're very nervous, sometimes you're both kind of clueless and figuring it out as you go... and sometimes all your life you've been led to believe that the first time you have sex is supposed to be painful, so you just go with it. Here's the thing: intercourse is not supposed to be painful. Not your first time, not your six hundredth time. Uncomfortable or weird, maybe, but not PAINFUL. If intercourse is causing pain, something isn't as it should be.

This is a lie that we are STILL telling young women through their media. First intercourse is described as pinching, burning, hurting. There's blood. Characters say "yeah, it hurts, but it's a GOOD hurt." Not too long ago, I read a series that's considered pretty feminist and sex positive, and the protagonist STILL had ouchy-bleedy first-time sex. Teenage girls and YA authors: properly stretched hymens do not break. I repeat, THEY DO NOT BREAK. Except for some rare cases where a doctor and minor surgery may need to be involved, hymens are supposed to STRETCH, not break. This idea that if a woman is experiencing pain during her first time, she's just supposed to push through it? That if you don't bleed due to a torn/broken/popped "cherry," something's wrong with you? Really not accurate. First intercourse is often awkward or uncomfortable, but I wish we could stop perpetuating the idea that a certain amount of pain or bloodshed is just the norm and should be expected. If there's blood, then something's WRONG, not right.

Anything but penetrative heterosexual sex "doesn't count" as sex. But it can still make you a slut!


There's a YA series floating out there somewhere with a protagonist who balks at the idea of giving boys oral sex and actually thinks something along the lines of, "Only desperate girls will let themselves be USED that way," implying that giving a guy a blowjob is essentially the same thing as letting him use you as a sex doll. This is another head-scratcher. When we talk about virginity, we're typically talking about penetrative sex. You can apparently still be a virgin while giving and receiving oral or digital (hand) sex. But not really. Because sexual activity, even if it's not intercourse, is still slutty. Or something.

There's also this idea that if lesbians decide to have sex, they're not having "real" sex. This is a very straight-and-narrow (pun intended) view of sex and virginity. When you think about it, what exactly IS virginity? Lack of sexual experience? An intact hymen (and what's the equivalent for guys)? Not having penetrative sex? Keeping your body free of the taint of sexual desire? It's very unclear. People have very different definitions of virginity. And that's the thing... virginity is really just a construct. An abstract concept. You've either had what you personally feel is sex, or you haven't. There's no ultimate qualifier, no "test." Basically, it's trying to build a wall around sexual experience that can't really be built. Which brings us to...

Virginity is a quantifiable thing that you can lose, give as a gift, or have stolen from you.

"Losing your virginity" is common vernacular, and the way most people tend to describe the first time they have sex. It the media, virginity is a THING, something tangible that you can keep locked in a box or give away like a prize. It's valued, sought after, idolized. Think about this for a second. Think about this idea that an abstract concept -- an experience -- can be considered an actual object. Something a person can be gifted, can keep forever. That's really pretty messed up. The very language and metaphors we use to describe virginity imply that it's ultimately something that's taken away from you, never to be returned. Something that you have to keep carefully hidden away until you find the right person to "give" it to. Something that can be violently ripped away from you.

This set-up is just full of guilt-inducing and disturbing imagery. Someone else has a piece of you FOREVER. And just... no. The first time you have sex is just that... the first time you have sex. It may be very memorable to you and an experience you remember fondly (or prefer not to remember at all), but it's built into some sort of idolized THING, even though I can almost guarantee you that you will have much, much, MUCH better and more memorable sex than that first time. And this is not to suggest that first times should be a throwaway. Just that the fact that we put such immense pressure, weight, and imagery on it is... well, it's messed up. This is not a carnival teddy bear. It's your sexuality. It always belongs to you.

Girls are sexually naive and need to be shown the ropes by a guy. If the girl initiates sex, if she tells the guy what she wants, she needs to be shut down and shown the "right" way. For her own good!

This ties directly into the idea that guys (even inexperienced guys) just know more about sex and desire than girls do. Hell, they know more about the girl's own desires than she does. If she takes the lead and says she wants sex, and she wants it THIS way, the guy has to deny her, because he knows best. He's supposed to be the aggressor, not her. If she says she wants it rough, he acts shocked and tells her that he won't do that to her because he "doesn't want to hurt her."

This is often framed in a way that suggests that Boys Know Best and that they're trying to protect their delicate, innocent little flower of a girlfriend. It's pretty rare for a male character to say, "No, I don't want to, I'm just not ready," which would be a perfectly reasonable response. Instead, it's more like, "No, YOU aren't ready. I won't do that to you." Just one more way to take a woman's sexuality out of her hands and put it in the hands of men. It all comes back to the idea that men are sexual beings while women just put up with sex to please them. For a girl or woman to be a sexually realized being on her own is, apparently, ludicrous.

Rape isn't high-stakes because of the trauma it inflicts or the commentary on a sexually violent culture, but because it could, HEAVEN FORBID, relieve a girl of her precious virginity, which must be protected at all costs.

If you see, read, or hear a rape or attempted rape scene where the main takeaway is that the highest stake was a character's virginity, than that writer has written a rape scene wrong. If the attempted rape scene was also used as a method of ensuring the male love interest saves the victim in the nick of time, thus also protecting her virginity, then it's a double-whammy of suck. If it's framed in a way that implies the girl would have become corrupted or rendered impure by such a violation, KILL IT WITH FIRE.

Rape is not sex. Rape is the use of sex as a weapon. It's intended to humiliate, disempower, or torment the victim. Sexual violence has no place in discussions about purity or virginity, especially since, as discussed above, virginity is an abstract concept. For someone's first sexual encounter to be framed in the context of a sexual assault has much further-reaching connotations than simply being horrified that someone would steal their virginity away before they could give it as a neatly-wrapped gift to Hottie Love Interest. It's fairly unusual for a woman to come out of a sexual assault thinking, "Oh no, my virginity has been tragically stolen!" or "Whew, still have my V-Card!" No. Such an experience will likely have a lasting impact on the victim's psyche and sexuality. To layer on top of that this idea that a rape has stolen something irreplaceable from them or rendered them impure is, frankly, abhorrent. Assault victims need to hear that their body and sexuality still belongs to them, not that they've been broken.


Ultimately, whether someone chooses to identify as a virgin or not, whether they choose to remain abstinent or not, comes down to personal choice.

I maintain that virginity is a social construct without much concrete meaning, but I still think the definition is personal and what you choose to make of it for yourself. Sexuality comes in a multitude of expressions, and to vilify some while lifting up others misses the point entirely and continues to breed a culture where girls believe their sexuality is not their own, that it's normal if sex hurts or they don't really enjoy it, and that feelings of desire are wrong. These social attitudes won't change until the media does. So where will you start?


Why Lady-On-Lady Hate Makes Me Sad

| Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Today's Tune: Basket Case

There's a contest running right now to win a signed copy of Veronica Rossi's UNDER THE NEVER SKY, you know. Just BTW.

So I mentioned last week that I'd read a blog about how to be friends with another women, and it makes many good points. This is a topic I think about a lot, being both a woman and a former girl who at one point totally bought into the idea that girls are this monolith of vapidity and shallowness and anyone male is better by default.

I've since changed my mind. A lot.

You'll often hear some variation of the following come out of young women's mouths: "I just don't get along with other girls. They're catty/boring/airheads/attention-seeking/competitive/bitches/only want to go to the mall and talk about nail polish/et cetera ad nauseum. See, I like KUNG-FU MOVIES and VIDEO GAMES, not makeup and unicorns. I get along better with guys. They're so easy to hang out with and there's NO DRAMA EVER. Guy stuff is just more INTERESTING to me, you know? I just don't understaaaaand other girls."

First: there is absolutely nothing wrong with unicorns and anyone who hates on unicorns is NO FRIEND OF MINE SO STEP OFF. I mean, it's a freaking horse with a horn that can IMPALE YOU. If you don't find that impressive, you are clearly a fool.

Second: I couldn't see this for what it was when I was living it, but now that I'm more removed (and frankly way more involved in social issues and being a real live woman), I see this for what it is. It's internalized misogyny, ladies. Not only that, it's self-hatred. When you truly believe that ALL or MOST or even MANY other women are *insert all negative stereotypes about women here* and that you alone are unique because you are more "like a guy" and like more "guy" stuff, which is better and more interesting than "girl" stuff? You are hating your own sex/gender. You are divorcing yourself from anything that might be considered feminine and seeking approval from men in the context of maleness. You're saying "even though I identify as a woman, I'm not like a WOMAN-woman. I'm like a *cool* woman who likes non-womanly things."

At its core, this attitude is just one more way people and society tells us women are stupid, unnecessary, boring, frivolous, nasty, annoying, like meaningless things, etc. When young women buy into this line of thinking, they're buying into the idea that in order to be "better," they need to identify with guys and like "guy" things.

But what are "guy" things, exactly? Comic books, cars, anime? Video games, nerd culture, not wearing makeup? Science fiction and action movies? These are some of the most-cited preferences I hear from girls who state that they're "just more interested in guy stuff." The thing is... I know A LOT of women who enjoy this stuff. Girly women. Tomboyish women. Gay women. Straight women. Just women. They like this stuff. This is not "guy" stuff. But for some reason, it seems like everything that is deemed nerdy and/or "cool" (possibly both?) seems to be heavily implicated as a male interest. "Most girls" apparently only like things like makeup, gossip, boy chasing, going to the mall, etc.

It's like there's this set up dichotomy: either you're a super girly-girl who only cares about how she looks and who she's dating, or you're a "cool" girl who likes "interesting" (read: boy) things. This is not reality. When we start viewing a group of people, ANY group of people, as a lump of stereotypes with a few breakouts, we're ceasing to view them as individuals. And that's what women are. We are not a seething mass of perfume and pink with a few oh-so-daring guy's girls who deign to break away. We are people. We are individuals, with individual interests in a wide variety of topics.

Sure, some women are assholes. This is not news. You get any group of people together, and a certain percentage of them will be assholes. This is true of men, women, and aliens from outer space, probably. But when we buy into the idea that the assholes represent the entire (or "most of the") population, we're buying the party line of "this group is less than this other group." We're buying that men are just... better.

This is why I practically screech with joy when I see a positive female relationship represented in literature or film. Too often, the lives of female characters are centered around one or more males. Other female characters are peripheries or enemies. They either fade into the background in favor of male characters, or they're bad. Bad, bad, bad. This ties into the same idea -- it's just BETTER to be wanted and accepted by a dude. Ladies are just... into shopping and giggling. They're a fun decoration, but you don't want to focus on them.

It just makes me sad. I get so sad when I see yet another female protagonist who has no real female relationships beyond lip service. The "best friend" turns jealous or fades away completely. The mother is absent or cruel. The antagonist is the school's Queen Bee who hates the protagonist for existing. Any new girlfriends fade in and out with little significance or just want to buy things and paint nails.

There's nothing wrong with having boys or men in the lives of women. Brothers, fathers, boyfriends, guy friends... still important. But they shouldn't be the focus, the be-all and end-all. They shouldn't replace all female relationships. We shouldn't perpetuate this idea that "most" women are a monolith of snide remarks and mall shopping and clothes. If you are a unique woman with unique interests, you can bet there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, MILLIONS of women who are like you. Trust women. You don't have to trust the assholes, but you should still trust women. You are one, after all.

(P.S. - Every time I hear a woman say that they like hanging out with men more than women because there's "no drama," I laaaaaaaauuuugggghhhh. Oh. Four brothers and male friends all my life, dudes. No drama my girly butt.)



Win a SIGNED copy of UNDER THE NEVER SKY!

| Monday, September 10, 2012
Today's Tune: Stars

THIS CONTEST IS CLOSED. Thank you for participating!

I think it's about time for another book giveaway, don't you? Yessss.

Last time I gave away a contemporary novel, so how about a little science-fiction-slash-dystopian flavor this time, eh? I have here a signed hardback copy of Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi. It could be yours!

Win a signed copy of Under the Never Sky!

Here's the description of this book from Goodreads:

WORLDS KEPT THEM APART.

DESTINY BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER.

Aria has lived her whole life in the protected dome of Reverie. Her entire world confined to its spaces, she's never thought to dream of what lies beyond its doors. So when her mother goes missing, Aria knows her chances of surviving in the outer wasteland long enough to find her are slim.

Then Aria meets an outsider named Perry. He's searching for someone too. He's also wild - a savage - but might be her best hope at staying alive.

If they can survive, they are each other's best hope for finding answers.


To enter to win this book, all you have to do is comment on this entry with your email so I can contact you if you win. That's it! I'm not a fan of making people follow me on social media if they don't want to, so it's not a requirement. However, if you feel like poking around my other posts or my Twitter account to see if you like me, I'd love that too! I like friends. I'd be very grateful if you'd spread the word about the contest, as well!

This contest will be open for two weeks and will close at midnight (PST) on September 24th. The winner will be selected by random draw. This time around, I'm happy to send worldwide, so international readers, you're in :D

Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you :)

 

How to Be Friends With Another Writer

| Friday, September 7, 2012
Real blog post today, heck yeah! Although I am totally and unapologetically stealing this idea from Jezebel's list of How to Be Friends With Another Woman (which should be required reading for ladies, particularly ladies who claim every other lady is awful and men are way better by default, BUT THAT IS ANOTHER POST FOR ANOTHER TIME).

Without further ado, here is how to be friends with another writer.

1. Soul search and figure out if you're really ready for writer friends. What stage are you at in your writing life? Are you the type of person prone to extreme jealousy? Is it going to make you feel bad to be friends with someone who's clearly ahead of you, or someone who may get the agent/deal/success first? If those sort of things will make you miserable and bitter, you're not ready to be a good friend to other writers. Think about it for a while.

2. If you honestly can't stand someone's writing, don't agree to critique for them. You're not doing them a favor. If they have miles left to go, let them down gently, recommend something that will help (books, blogs, conferences, etc.), and tell them they're off to a great start. You may feel bad or they may be hurt, but trying to critique something that you hate or that isn't ready means your heart won't be in it and it will show. It won't help them.

2B. And if you're in over your head because they're more advanced than you anticipated, be honest. Tell them that it's beyond your critique level, but you're happy to be their cheerleader.

3. Don't belittle or dissect writer-friends behind their backs. If they're friends, they're friends for a reason. Likewise, don't claim to never have a cross word to say about another writer/reviewer/successful author/etc., because you'll be lying. Just don't do it to the people you're supposed to support.

3B. If you do want to say some not-so-nice things about other writers/reviewers/authors, do so in private among like-minded friends. And if you're making someone uncomfortable with your snarking, stop. Note that snarking a book and snarking an author are not the same thing.

4. If a friend hits a success milestone and is over the moon about it, be happy and supportive for them. If you're in a dark place and you can't feel that way, take a break and go elsewhere until you feel like you're in a better headspace. Jealousy is normal, but don't let jealousy turn into bitterness. See #1.

5. Hope for the best for your friends, because happy and successful friends are great to be around, and their attitude (and maybe a little of their luck) may rub off on you.

6. Don't form a coalition of Trade vs. Indie/Self-Publishing. Both have their merits and their pitfalls, and the decision to go with either is highly individual. Avoid surrounding yourself with "friends" who try to convince you one is clearly superior over the other.

7. Be honest, but tactful. Sometimes the best thing to do for your writer friends is to tell them that their manuscript just isn't working. It's rough and painful, but not as rough and painful as spending months or years on something that will eventually flounder. Tell them the truth firmly, but don't crush their spirit. Unless they're the sort of friend who can handle sarcastic jabs and give them back.

7B. If they're not ready to hear that and insist on sticking it out with their crappy manuscript, then let them do their thing. It's a decision they have to come to themselves. That doesn't mean you have to agree to hang out with it, though.

8. Have a well-stocked supply of booze and/or chocolate on hand for late night chat sessions or crying jags.

9. Laugh together, dudes. If you can't make each other laugh and have a good time, then what's the point?

10. Surround yourself with writers who can make you better. Who challenge you, expect things from you, and support you. Don't be satisfied with yes-men and people who will only squee and bow before your brilliance. Sometimes that stuff is just what you need to hear, but you also need people who help you grow. And you need to be okay with that.

11. Don't throw your successes in your friend's face. If you're doing well, feel good about that, but don't turn all of the talk onto yourself. It's okay to be proud of your achievements -- you should be! It's not okay to pat your friend on the head when they lament their umpteenth rejection and then blather on about your cover reveal. This doesn't mean you can't talk about that stuff, especially if they ask. It just means it shouldn't be ALL you talk about.

12. Don't forget to connect about something other than writing once in a while. Sure, it's probably why you found each other in the first place, but you should have at least a handful of other topics you can chat about when you're done writing and critiquing and reading.

13. If you're getting tired of answering your friend's eight billionth email dissecting the form rejection letter from so-and-so agent, just try to stick it out. Remember that one of these days, it's probably going to be YOU filling THEIR inbox with your weird writer neurosis.

14. Become friends with people who get you and get your writing. Likewise, you should get them and get their writing. When you're both humming the same general tune, you'll make better music together.

15. Talk each other down from making an ass of yourselves online. Whether that's responding to a bad review, getting upset over some negative press, finding a mean blog post, or whatever... friends don't let friends post on the Internet mad.

16. Write on!



Easing back into things.

| Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Today's Tune: Book of Love

So August was a busy month! I'm here to let you know I'm ready to start easing back into blogging. Nothing too heavy today. Just a picture of my most recent shenanigans. Enjoy ;)

Real post on Friday, promise!

Photo by Lucky Shot Studios

 


 

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