How to Write the Perfect YA Heroine

| Monday, December 30, 2013

Have you been wringing your hands over your YA protagonist and wondering how to avoid a Mary-Sue situation? Are you terrified that you made her too weak, bitchy, straw feminist, "strong with scare quotes," pathetic, slutty, simpering, selfish, annoying, bratty, boring, or whiny? Have you been scouring the internet for that magical list that will tell you exactly what to do in order to ensure she's that heroine everyone's been demanding? You know, the one people will point to and say YES, THIS IS SHE, THIS IS THE PERFECT YA HEROINE?

REJOICE, FOR YOU HAVE FOUND THAT LIST. Instead of telling you everything you SHOULDN'T do, this list will tell you exactly what you SHOULD do. Follow this formula and you will have 100% universally beloved girl protagonist, every time, guaranteed!*

Photo Credit: Guillermo Insfran via Compfight cc

  1. Make her completely sure of herself and fully settled into her personal philosophy and belief system. Every choice should be solid and correct on the first try. Confusion and indecision are the marks of weakness 100% of the time. If you don't have your life completely together by age 17, you're clearly the worst.

  2. If she's pretty, she should definitely know that about herself, but not in a stuck-up way. It's perfectly reasonable to expect every teenage girl to have total body confidence without being a bitch about it. And if she's not pretty, she should still love her body. But not in an unrealistic way, because society.

  3. She should only focus on important things, like the things that each individual reader finds important. Focusing on anything else at any time is annoying.

  4. She should always be firm, positive, and upbeat. Complaining about anything or doubting herself will make her seem whiny.

  5. If she has a love interest, make sure she's only interested in that one person. Feeling confused or attracted to more than one person means she's being selfish or slutty. It's also annoying. She should maybe have sex with this person, but maybe not, because sex is realistic for teenage girls but it also makes them sluts. Your call.

  6. She should be with that person forever, especially if they have sex, because that shows strength of conviction and commitment.

  7. She should break up with that person because teenage relationships are for suckers and thinking about her partner takes up too much plot space.

  8. Actually, maybe she should just be single and proud the whole time, because romance is boring and for losers. It's also annoying.

  9. She should totally be a feminist, as long as it's the right kind of feminist. You know what I mean.

  10. She should dislike feminism because it's not necessary anymore and boys are great. Also, it's obvious that you're just an angry lady author trying to indoctrinate young women with your old dried-up hag ways, so just skip it.

  11. Make sure she's smart, but not unnaturally smart. She can be physically strong as long as it's in a girl way. She should be emotionally strong, also in a girl way, unless that means crying. No crying. Her dialogue should be clever and witty, but not sarcastic or whiny. She should be active and move the plot forward, but not in a way that could be considered selfish, bitchy, or annoying.

  12. Make sure she's a realistic teenager without being a realistic teenager because real teenagers are super annoying and don't you know adults read YA?

  13. She can be superhuman as long as she's not overpowered. That's unrealistic wish-fulfillment.

  14. If she's regular human, she should be human to the Nth power by displaying flawless characteristics, personality, and dialogue. Except not totally flawless. Throw in some flaws, too. But only good flaws. Except not good flaws, because good flaws are too easy. Try some bad flaws. Just not too bad.

  15. In order to avoid accusations of creating an "author cypher" or playing out your own wish fulfillment fantasies, she should be absolutely different from you, the author, in every conceivable way. Physical appearance, hobbies, interests, strengths, weaknesses... make sure nothing reflects you! It'll be difficult not to draw on any of your personal interests or knowledge, but I have faith.

  16. She should be nice to everyone, even jerks, because they're probably just misunderstood and she should be sympathetic to that. She should also be outspoken and clear in all of her opinions so people don't walk all over her, especially jerks.

  17. Make her smile! It ain't so bad! She has it pretty good, post-apocalyptic landscape and people trying to murder her aside! No need to act ungrateful.

  18. She should have a conflict-free relationship with her parents, dutifully following their wishes at all times, even when they're not being very understanding or respectful of her. Backtalk or defiance will make her a selfish whiny brat, especially if the parents are okay most of the time. After all, they're the adults! It's not like there's a psychological tendency for adolescents to break from their parents or anything.

  19. She should always rebel against injustice, as long as she isn't overreacting and being totally annoying.

  20. Definitely discount any racial, cultural, or religious background that may inform her actions. There's only one way to be strong or interesting!

  21. Her gender presentation and interests should reach the perfect balance between feminine and masculine because all girls can be quantified into a single "correct way to girl" as determined by what someone said somewhere that one time.

  22. If she's disabled, she should be inspirational and always think longingly about how she wishes she was like all the other kids. She should be enthusiastic and kind to anyone who's even halfway decent to her, and her disability should be portrayed in a way that makes non-disabled readers feel comfortable.

  23. If she's dealing with depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses or trauma, she should stuff those issues down inside and carry on with a smile and a righteous fist of righteousness in the face of her trials. If the reader has no idea that she's having these problems because she's displaying zero annoying outward symptoms, you've done it right!

  24. She should be able to shift and change to match the expectations of anyone who picks up the book.

  25. Have you considered making her NOT a girl? I hear boys are just easier to relate to and male anti-heroes who murder people in twisted ways are super interesting, so maybe you could try that instead.


* Not actually guaranteed at all.

** On the off chance that it wasn't clear, this post is a joke. The entire concept of being able to write a teenage girl that someone won't criticize for being too blah-blah or not blah-blah enough is a joke, honestly.

*** Which is not an argument that all YA heroines are written flawlessly or above criticism; just an illustration of the impossible standards we often hold them to.

How to #Hashtag Like a Boss

| Thursday, December 26, 2013

I'm most likely preaching to the choir with this post, since most of the people who read this blog are pretty social media savvy. However, in my line of work, I do still see a whooooole lot of people who just do not understand hashtags. This post is for anyone who needs some help with that little # symbol.

Hashtags were originally popularized on Twitter, but they're used on a TON of social media sites. This post features general advice on how to use them, but every site is different and I encourage you to learn the culture of each, as well as its best practices. You'll find hashtags on Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Facebook... even LinkedIn tried it for a while. However, not all hashtags are created equal. More below.

Photo Credit: Stuart Chalmers via Compfight cc

DON'Ts

1) DON'T use super general hashtags like #sale, #book, #contest, etc.

Why? - Because they're pointless. The point of tagging something is to increase the likelihood that relevant users will discover it. First, tags like these are just too broad -- what kind of sale, book, or contest? Who is it relevant to? Second, so many people and bots are using tags like these that you'll be immediately lost in a sea of spam and irrelevant information. Third, NO ONE follows these tags because there's no point in monitoring a tag that will likely be 90% spam. Similarly, it's not very effective to use your city's name. If people want to do a local search, they'll search by location, not hashtag.

2) DON'T use a bunch of hashtags in a row.

Why? - It's irritating and spammy. It's unlikely your post applies to all the tags you're giving it, so don't. Select a few of the most relevant tags. I suggest 2-3, possibly 4 at the absolute max (for Twitter). With a site like Tumblr, five hashtags is perfectly acceptable. The exception to this rule is if you're being silly by making up your own jokey hashtags for comedic value.

3) DON'T hop onto a popular hashtag with an irrelevant post.

Why? - It's rude. Think of it like bursting into an ongoing conversation with a non-sequitur, or coming up to diners chatting on an outdoor patio and shoving a flyer in their face. A number of big brands have gotten burned doing this. An example would be Kenneth Cole, who has a habit of interjecting sales-y tweets into serious political discussion, like the Egyptian rebellion. He does it intentionally for brand attention -- so he says -- but it just makes him look like an asshole. You're not getting exposure by doing this, you're just being a jerk.

4) DON'T bother using hashtags on Facebook.

Why? - Read this article. It'll tell you exactly why. In a nutshell: Facebook is not a good medium for the hashtag. For Facebook stuff, it's best to research Facebook-specific marketing, which is very different than most other social media sites. There are other sites where hashtags are less effective -- Pinterest uses hashtags, but they don't work as well as they do on other sites.

5) DON'T talk from a pulpit.

Why? - The point of hashtags is organization and discussion. This doesn't apply to every medium -- Vine, Pinterest, and similar aren't really "discussion" sites -- but for mediums like Twitter and Tumblr, you'll want to actually participate in the discussion and respond to other people. Don't just spout off your Very Important Thoughts and then go away. Read what other people are saying, reply, favorite, discuss, participate. This is a good way to find like-minded people to follow who will often follow you back. Remember... social media is for being SOCIAL.

DOs

1) DO some research and find relevant hashtags.

Why? - People create hashtags to organize and follow specific topics and conversations. The most effective hashtags are usually unique, so browse people you know, organizations you follow, and do some Googling to find hashtags that apply to the things you post. You can often find weekly or monthly chats to get involved in this way.

2) DO pay attention to which hashtags see healthy activity.

Why? - There are a lot of specific hashtags out there, but not all of them are very active. You want to find tags that see a good amount of use, but not so much that you'll just get lost in the shuffle. Experiment.

3) DO watch for timely and trending hashtags.

Why? - Some hashtags are temporary and see a brief burst of use, typically during breaking news or planned events. Your trending hashtags are usually tailored to your location, interests, and the people you follow, so check them out and see if there are any conversations you'd like to participate in. When you go to a conference or event, check ahead of time to see if there's an official hashtag to use. This is a great way to make some new connections. Just remember to stay on topic.

4) DO create your own unique tags.

Why? - If you're becoming an "influencer" in your sphere and want to host your own discussion, create your own tag. You can visit this site to check whether your tag is already being used, and get some tips on building your own tag. You can do this for events, discussions, online seminars, community, jokes, spur-of-the-moment fun, whatever. Get creative. The best hashtags are short, specific, and easy to remember.

5) DO learn about the different mediums.

Why? - Hashtags function generally the same way on different sites, but each unique property has its own culture. Hashtags that work well on Twitter may not work as well on Tumblr or Instagram. The mediums are different -- discussion vs microblogging vs photography. Familiarize yourself with the most effective ways to use each.


A few more specific tips: Test the waters to see which tags have the biggest positive impact and response rate for you. Make friends and pull them into the discussion when possible, which livens things up and gets your name in front of more people (though that shouldn't be the end goal... just a bonus). In general, TALK to people and FOLLOW users who interest you. Use sites like TweetChat to follow conversations with more ease. Aim for creative over sales-y. Remember Tumblr only tracks the first five tags on ORIGINAL posts, not reblogs, although it still uses reblog tags to organize posts within your blog and to flag things for Tumblr Savior. Find the balance between tagging people to get them involved and annoying them with too much pestering. Find site-unique tags like #CatsOfInstagram and #LNV (Late Night Vine).

Most importantly, the best way to learn how to use hashtags is to start doing it and have fun. The biggest rule is to use common sense and do what you can to avoid being an annoying jerk, which is pretty easy to manage with minimal effort. With enough practice and trail & error, you'll figure it out.

YA is for Girls!: Gendered Marketing in YA Literature

| Monday, December 23, 2013

Not too long ago, there was a post circulating on Tumblr (surprise!) that was rehashing the argument that YA is heavily marketed toward the female population and how that's harmful to boys and male authors, blah blah blah, we've all heard it before. The argument keeps coming up, despite the fact that it's been repeatedly dismantled.

Every time this argument resurfaces, it almost always references the talking point that YA books just look too damn girly. Girls in dresses, cursive fonts, pastels and pinks, etc. Although this isn't entirely true (recent cover trends vary widely), this time I started thinking about things from a marketing perspective. The reality is that there is a whole lot of feminization on the covers of YA novels. It's something I wanted to explore.

Around this same time, I came across two very interesting articles about how video games became a male-gendered product (long, but SO worth the read) and a breakdown of how gender-targeted marketing happens and why marketers have long avoided marketing certain products to girls and women despite their obvious interest. Here's some bonus reading on a recent interview with Paul Dini in which he discussed the cancellation of superhero cartoons because too many girls were watching the shows. Yes, really.



These articles got me thinking about how this applies to YA books. Although I think this gendered marketing in YA is less of an issue at present (cover trends have come a long way since the Twilight Boom), the perception of YA being largely "for girls" has not gone away. Also, while I do think cover trends have evolved significantly, I don't want to discount that there most definitely is a certain kind of femininity being sold on YA covers.

First, I'd like to discuss two points brought up in the marketing article linked above:

  1. Once a demographic is selected, marketers use established tropes to "put down" people perceived as outside the market -- in the case of the article, men are given the spotlight while women are pushed into background/subservient positions. See also: this product is for "cool" people, not nerds.
  2. Once a male-gendered market has been established, if marketers decide to target a female market, they do so by relying on stereotypical gendered tropes -- taking the "boy" product and slapping pink packaging on it.

Tying into both the gendered marketing of video games AND this feminization of a "male" product, here's a video on the Ms. Male Character trope. That entire series is fantastic, by the way.

Okay, fine: how does this all tie into the YA section? Well. Let's take everything we just learned from all of the aforementioned articles and apply it to YA.

Many people cite Harry Potter as the formative series that kicked off the YA boom as we know it today. I do think that many children grew up (and grew with) the characters of Harry Potter, leaving many teens and young adults ready to find the next series. A middle grade series written about a young man, originally targeted toward young men, that became a huge runaway success across age and gender lines. Then -- and here's the important part -- came Twilight. The book saw a similar level of runaway success, but found its market primarily in girls and women.

This, in my opinion, is where the split happened. Teen fiction, which was a thriving but quiet section of the bookstore, suddenly turned into Girl Books. YA fiction became synonymous with Twilight and dozens of other paranormal romances. When The Hunger Games began to gain traction, it was often reduced to the "romance" between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, despite that romance actually taking up fairly little of the series. Much in the same way Romance and Women's Fiction get kicked into their own sections, YA became the section you sneered at if you were too cool, too clever, or too sophisticated for something so girlish and pedestrian.

But this is a post about marketing, and marketing took this perception and ran with it. Much in the same way Nintendo held a small summit and determined boys were just more interested in video games, the YA book market showed that women and girls were the ones buying the most books. The covers began to morph into the stereotypical YA cover we think of today, with a pretty white waif in a dress looking passively into the distance. If a book had even a whiff of romance about it, the cover gave the impression of sexiness, relationships, and drama. Even one of the most well-known and beloved YA fantasy series featuring a female protagonist -- a series that is known for being multi-faceted and full of adventure -- received a rebranding that made it look like any ol' book with a love triangle.

What effect did this packaging have? The effect of reestablishing YA books as feminized. Using familiar, well-worn gender tropes to say "these books are targeted to girls." Very specific types of girls, too -- girls who are thin, white, cisgender, and heterosexual. It's selling the most widely accepted version of what femininity is supposed to look like according to dominant societal pressure, and it's doing it by using the very same basic tactics we see in the little girls' toy aisle. Pink, pastel, princess, passive, safe. A feminized version of the stuff you'd find in the boy's section. Or, in the case of a bookstore, the SFF section.



I like to think that this tactic is changing -- recent cover trends shows as much. There's more experimentation, more variety, different approaches. The current market is still far behind for all its postulating about diversity, but it's working on it. Even so, the perception after only a few short years is that YA books are still feminized, still for girls, still nothing a teenage boy would ever be caught dead reading.

So, let's talk about the boys. We saw in the linked articles above that there's often a concentrated effort on the part of marketers to exclude people from participating in the products. So, could it be argued that boys were intentionally excluded from the YA book market, at least initially?

Yes and no.

It is true that many book marketers made a specific choice to package books to appeal to a female market. No argument from me there. By making this choice, they understood they were excluding most of the male market. However, we need to understand the much larger social context that goes behind this decision.

All of the statistics show a reading decline in adolescent men. This isn't because of girly YA books -- this is because they aren't picking up books, period. As a marketer, while I don't agree with it on an intellectual level, on a capitalist level, I understand why it would make sense to market YA novels to girls and women. They are the purchasers. But does this have the same implication as targeting video games or comic book movies to men and boys?

No, it doesn't. Here's where the social context comes in. Male-gendered marketing seeks to devalue women and raise up men in a way that makes the product desirable in the context of patriarchy, which says men are superior to women. It takes an entire product -- video games -- and makes them "for men" by applying patriarchal tropes, such as the product making you stronger, cooler, or more sexually desirable to women. It largely eliminates women in positions of power or equality from the packaging. It says this product was made for men and is used by men, and women who use it are outliers or fakers. If they decide to throw women a bone, they'll release a pink version. All of this despite that fact that statistics show almost half of gamers are women.

In the case of YA book marketing, it's still in line with patriarchy. It's selling a very narrow, very intentional ideal of femininity. The feminized covers still portray girls in passive positions, and if a boy is shown on the cover, he's typically shown in a position of equality or even superiority. Notice this example, where the boy on the cover is in a matching position to his female counterpart and is displaying a more aggressive stance, as opposed to the poster for Mallrats, which is an intentional mimicry/mockery of comic books where the women are literally passive and clinging to their men. YA marketing is dedicated to a single section of the bookstore, as opposed to marketing that says, flat-out, "books are for women." The product doesn't seek to raise girls above boys, and it still plays on feminized tropes -- girls prefer pink, cursive, and pretty dresses.

The context is much bigger than "boys can't read YA books because they'll get beat up for reading girl books." It must take into account that boys are picked on for reading almost ANYTHING, let alone something with a "girly" cover. Of course, we mustn't forget that girls are also picked on and slandered for liking anything too "girly," from makeup to Twilight. This is a giant cocktail of systemic patriarchy that dictates that reading is a passive activity, and passive activities are feminine, and femininity is a bad thing, especially for a boy. It is still a very serious problem that boys (or their parents) seem unable to read from a female perspective because it's just "too hard" to view the world through a lens that isn't their own.

This post isn't intended to crap on marketers. I'm a marketer, so I understand how the game is played. Relying on existing tropes gives you the bottom line you need to keep your job. It sucks, but it's the facts. Nonetheless, it is absolutely vital to keep the criticism of those tropes alive, and to buck them when you can.

This also isn't commentary on the content of YA novels; it's commentary on their packaging. I'm not advocating a complete packaging change or removal of girls from the covers of books with female protagonists. Girls deserve to see themselves on the covers of books, and boys shouldn't fear ridicule for reading a book with a girl on the cover. It's an issue that won't be solved in a day, but one to work toward.

So, in conclusion, the question remains: the chicken or the egg? Is YA literature feminized because of its packaging, or does the packaging reflect its perceived femininity? I think it's probably a combination. What do you think?
 

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