HIMYM, Teen Wolf, and the Trouble with Patterns

| Friday, May 23, 2014

It's been a while since I wrote a television and pop culture analysis. Let's change that, eh?

I wrote notes on this months ago, but as is my present MO, I didn't get around to writing about it until now. Let's just pretend for a second that the Season 3 finale of Teen Wolf and the series finale of How I Met Your Mother just recently aired, and let's talk about patterns in our writing and why the choices we make always matter

I hope by now you've had plenty of opportunity to catch up on those shows if you were behind, but if not, you shouldn't continue reading if you would like to remain unspoiled. I'm going to be discussing major plot points at length.


First, let's do a brief Teen Wolf recap: Lydia screamed and cried a lot, Stiles' alter ego was a mega creep, Allison FREAKIN' DIED via sword to the gut, Derek brooded, there was some weird dream stuff, and Kate is back from the dead as an inexplicable new blue werewolf creature-thing.

As you may recall, I've written about Teen Wolf's antagonists before -- specifically, about the tendency for ALL the female antagonists to die bloody deaths while almost every single major male antagonist remains inexplicably alive (or is resurrected or MAGIC-HEALED). The pattern is unmistakeable. I also discussed the tendency of the fandom to lift up the male villains (oh Peter lol you're so SASSY) while throwing pretty frightening venom at the women, especially the ones who sleep with Derek. Anyway, lots more to say, read the other post for backstory if you're interested!

So, you might imagine I was glad to see that they brought Kate back. Finally! A lady villain gets to rejoin the party! Aren't you happy now?

No. No, I'm not. Why? Because the historic pattern of this show still plainly shows a habit of killing off its ladies. Bringing one back doesn't erase the overreaching pattern. You can't stab Allison (the heroine) through the gut with one hand and then pat yourself on the back with the other for bringing back a murderous arsonist who happens to be female an episode later. So no, I'm not happy. I'm not appeased.

In the case of Crystal Reed, who played Allison, one might argue that they had to kill her off because the actress was leaving the show altogether. But that's not really true, is it? They had to write her out, yes. They did not have to kill her. Killing the character was a choice, not a necessity. Jeff Davis has given his reason for choosing to kill her off, but it's still an unsatisfying answer. He argues that the show is "growing up" (which, apparently, means "death happens") and that he could think of no other reason why Allison's character would leave the others behind.

I call bullshit on that, by the way. The season had already gone to great lengths to distance Allison from Scott and crew via new love interests and drastically reducing her screentime, making her seem far less involved in general. She didn't even seem as close to Lydia, her supposed best friend. This explanation is made even LESS credible by the fact that Daniel Sharman, the actor who plays Issac, has also decided to leave the show, and was also left alive... and will supposedly end up in France. Where the Argents have family. Where Allison easily could have gone. Patterns.

In that same article, Davis also addresses the departure of actor Colton Haynes, who similarly decided to leave the show altogether (albeit without warning), and whose character Jackson remains nebulously alive somewhere in London as a result (Haynes was originally intended to return in Season 3). Although Davis admits that they may not have let him live if they'd known of his departure earlier, that doesn't matter. What matters is patterns.

This is why the patterns in your writing are important. Jackson, Issac, and Allison's characters did not live or die in a vacuum. They existed in an overreaching storyline, one peppered with noticeable patterns. Patterns like women dying, fading away, seeing less airtime, or undergoing complete shifts to their character to better serve the plotline of a (male) fan favorite.

Lydia, for example, begins the series as a confident, outspoken, literal genius who wears her sarcasm and popularity like armor. As the show progressed, she became a supernatural being in her own right. For a time, it seemed like her confidence, which was shattered by a werewolf bite, might be restored through her strength of character and desire to protect those around her.

Instead, her character was reduced to a prop. A convenient beacon for "dead body over here." She became "the girl who screams." The camera angles and shots of her in the later stages of Season 3 involved many close-ups of her screaming, crying, tortured face. She spent much of the season half-heartedly trying to solve the "mystery" of what was happening to Stiles (she didn't do much). At least, that's what she did when she wasn't being held captive by Possessed!Stiles and having lots of scared-face close-ups.

These aren't mistakes. They're not oversights. They're writing and directorial choices.

Now let's talk about HIMYM and the series finale that left about 90% of the fandom feeling underwhelmed and betrayed.

I have also discussed HIMYM and why I decided to stop watching at length. Of course, that didn't stop me from watching the Twitter fallout after the finale aired. I admit, I was curious. Not surprised, but curious.

Upon finding out that The Mother finally gets a name in the last episode before almost immediately being KILLED OFF to make room for Ted to have another go at Robin, my first thought was "shocker."

(It was not really a shocker. I was being glib.)

Again, this is where patterns and writing choices come in. If you look at only the first and last episodes of How I Met Your Mother, the narrative actually makes sense. It appears nicely bookended. Ted's just a guy who cares too much and has bad timing.

Instead, the show stretched on and the writing fell into a series of problematic, lazy, overdone patterns. Robin and Ted were together, then they weren't. He was in love with her, now he wasn't. She loved Barney, now she didn't. He gave her his blessing, but he still loved her. It was over, but it wasn't. No really, it was OVER. Except clearly not.

Ted's relationships went from making him sympathetic to making him a callous jackass. Overall, the show's treatment of women grew consistently lazier. It was never the best, but eventually the writing began to ask us to like Barney as a person, rather than a punchline, which meant devaluing his conquests by default. It began making every subsequent girlfriend less of a person and more of a zany, empty shell. A one-off passerby. A "slutty pumpkin" or "crazy-eyed" stalker.

Ultimately, THAT is what made the finale seem like such a punch in the face. Here she was, the titular character, the woman we were supposed to root for. The payoff was finally at our fingertips... only to be torn away, the character forgotten, just another woman in the background as Ted moved on to his "real" love. We were asked to invest in the Robin-Barney relationship (ha ha ha, very funny), we were asked to accept that Ted was going to move on, and then... none of it mattered.

The ending had supposedly been planned from the start, to the point where the actors playing Ted's kids filmed their parts years ahead of time. The writers knew where this was going, and they STILL made the writing choices they did. They had every opportunity to figure out a narrative that would make the ending feel earned, but they opted for slut jokes and repeating Barney's Playbook gag.

Here's the bottom line: PATTERNS MATTER. Locating troublesome, repetitive tropes MATTERS. When your writing shows a certain pattern -- say, belittling or killing off women -- then every single choice you make either reinforces that pattern or breaks it. You have to break it A LOT to match the number of times you reinforced it.

The lesson here is to LOOK FOR THE PATTERNS IN YOUR WORK. If you tend to kill off characters, who are you killing? How are your people of color being represented (savages, hoodrats, sexual conquests, oppressed people saved by a white person)? Do your LGBTQ characters tend to die or lead tortured lives? Is everyone white, straight, middle class, etc.? Recognize those patterns and BREAK. THEM.

It's a conscious effort. This shit isn't going to come to you naturally. You have to do it purposefully. Maybe it's something you don't fully realize you're doing, so you need to pay attention. It will make your writing stronger, and more importantly, it'll help you avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

To My Fellow Straight White Writers: On Diversity

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hi, fellow straight white writers. Gather 'round. We should have a talk.

Ever since #WeNeedDiverseBooks started, it's had incredible support, amazing feedback, and lots of attention. It's been near-impossible not to at least notice it. Many people have contributed, most positively, some neutral, some negative. I point this out because I want to be clear that the participation has been overwhelmingly positive for the most part, albeit sometimes in a way misses the point a little (or a lot), and that's what I'd like to talk about.

Photo Credit: außerirdische sind gesund via Compfight cc

In the last few weeks, I've witnessed what feels like an excessive amount of straight white people saying the same thing: "I think this movement is good, but I don't know if I can write diversely! I'm scared. Will someone please tell me it's okay for me to try?" Similarly, whenever the subject of promoting diverse AUTHORS comes up, it seems that a straight white person always comes from the sidelines to say, "You mean diverse BOOKS, right? Authorship doesn't matter if the book is good, right? We're still talking about me too, right?"

These questions are most typically posed to marginalized people by privileged people. They are also completely, utterly missing the point. Questions like these take something that is supposed to be about creating large-scale change through the inclusion of diversity not only in books themselves, but in authorship and at all levels of publishing, and flip attention back onto the "plight" of the straight white writer. It's refocusing attention on ourselves. Missing. The. Point.

(Edited to add: I originally only mentioned "straight white" writers in particular in this post, but I'd like to make it clear that this applies to other privileges and marginalizations, as well. This includes, but is not limited to: gender identity, disability, body size, religion, etc. In my head, I thought it'd be clear that this could be applied to other areas as well, but I decided it'd be best to state it outright.)

Furthermore, you are putting your responsibility at the feet of marginalized people when you ask for nebulous "permission." Please stop doing that. It's not an okay thing to do. It is NOT the responsibility of marginalized people to pat you on the back and tell you that you're a good person, you're doing okay, and not to feel bad. Don't put that on them. NO ONE can give you some kind of magic blanket "okay" on your writing, ESPECIALLY when they've never read it.

That's perhaps what bothers me most... asking people to tell you it's okay for you to write something when they have absolutely no context or idea of how you write. They don't know if you're going to research. They don't know if you're going to write stereotypes. The real answer to this question is always going to be I don't know, it depends on how it's done.

It's tiring for *me* to read comments from all my fellow white people hand-wringing about how they're just so SCARED of... something. Criticism, I guess. Being called a racist, maybe? And look, I get it. Criticism can be hard and painful. But in this particular context, we really need to suck it up, because we can't keep asking other people to take that personal burden for us. If it's uncomfortable and irritating for *me* to see this so often, I can't imagine how exhausting it must be for the people on the receiving end.

Similarly, there's another thing I've seen that's really rubbed me the wrong way: straight white people dipping into the conversation to promote their own book(s), often alongside a description that reads kind of like a "diversity checklist." I love diversity! That's why I wrote this book with a black boy astronaut and a blind girl warrior and their gay teacher! Here's the Amazon link!

You guys. No matter HOW you do this, it ALWAYS feels gross. Always. I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just say it: if you are a straight white writer who has written a "diverse" book, #WeNeedDiverseBooks is not the platform with which to promote it yourself. Cut it out. You may feel your intentions are good, but your actions read as self-serving, and just... don't. You're taking space on a floor that isn't FOR you. And yes, I am calling white writers out in particular for this, even though I've seen POC authors doing the same, because you know what? This particular platform was made for them. Not us. Sometimes you need to step aside. This is one of those times.

And look, I get it, being an indie or midlist author is fucking hard and there's a ton of pressure to promote yourself. You want to succeed. You want to survive. I know. This is still not the space for that.

"But that's not fair!" you cry. Well, it's not fair that other people are being shut out of publishing and literary success by an imbalanced system. Their level of unfair trumps yours by about a million-billion. Let them go first.

Your book may be wonderful. I'm not saying don't promote your book. I'm saying don't do it HERE, in THIS particular context. And I don't even have words for the people who are posting books about animals in the tag. You wrote a metaphorical "animals as racism" allegory? SUPER not the place for that.

Now let's talk about one of the less supportive questions that keeps popping up: "You can't FORCE people to write diversely if they don't want to! You're going to DESTROY CREATIVITY by forcing people to write and publish a certain way."

I honest-to-goodness do not understand why people think this is a "mandate" or call for "forced diversity." I don't know why anyone believes that proponents of WNDB want them to do this against their will. I sure as hell don't. What exactly would be the point of expending energy trying to rope in people who are kicking and screaming when there are literally thousands of people who are and will write this way gladly? Why on earth would we want begrudging, imagined-quota-based "diversity" when we could lift up someone writing from their heart and experience?

If you're not interested in this, FINE. Go on and do your thing. Literally no one will stop you. This has never, ever been about you. This is about EXPANDING OPTIONS, not forcing your hand.

Okay, this is long, and I am (mostly) done. For now. If any of this struck you as unduly harsh, then I'll ask you to consider those feelings and roll them over in your head for a little while. I'm not trying to be harsh. I'm trying to let you know that you may have been unintentionally putting yourself ahead of those you claim to be supporting, and now you know. Just think about it.

Diversify Your Shelves

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hey do you guys remember that time our hashtag trended in the top spot on Twitter a full two days ahead of schedule because there were so many people behind it? Haha what even.

There was also that time we started getting picked up by blogs and news sites and it started exploding before it even happened, but that's beside the point. Just go check our Twitter feeds, we're wigging out all over the place.

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about PHASE 3: DIVERSIFY YOUR SHELVES! This is the third part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks 3-day event, and will take place on May 3. For all the details, please read the statement below, which was composed by the lovely Chelsea Pitcher!


Today we're revealing part three of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, a project that’s near and dear to my heart! Part three is called “Diversify Your Shelves,” and it’s all about taking a personal approach to promoting diversity in literature.

What, exactly, does that mean? Is this maybe something we’ll do for a week and then go back to buying books by old white guys?

Well, no. “Diversify Your Shelves” is a continual celebration of fabulous diverse literature, by fabulous diverse authors. Checking out what books we have on our shelves, and seeing how we might diversify them, is just a jumping off point.

There's also going to be a “Diversify Your Shelves” chat on Saturday, May 3rd at 2PM EST to discuss our favorite diverse books and authors! Use the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag to join in!

But wait! Why is this so important?

Well, there are lots of people blogging about this more eloquently than I, like here, here, here, and here, but some of my biggest reasons are:

Because, at every conference I or my writer friends attend, there are kids asking why they can’t find books with characters who look like them, either on the cover or in the pages.

Because the same thing happens at book signings, except there the kids are saying they’ve always wanted to get into writing, but don’t think they’ll be successful because they’re people of color.

Because queer kids are still killing themselves over being different (or being told that they’re different) and the greater representation they have in books, the less alone they’ll feel.

Because awesome genres like YA wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t moved away from the old, white dude model of literature and started reading stories written by ladies. Diversify Your Shelves is a continuation of that principle—hearing all stories from all voices.

Because it’s 2014, but we still keep seeing all-white panels at book festivals, or even all-white male panels (in genres vastly dominated by women!) and that’s kind of insane to me. Diversity shouldn’t be the exception. It should be the norm.

And because, at the end of the day, when I look at my shelves, I think:

I can be better.

I can do more.

And I’d love for you to join me.

So, without further ado...

Let’s Diversify Our Shelves!

Here’s how it works: this weekend, May 3rd and 4th, we’re all going to head out to our local bookstores* to pick up books by fabulous diverse authors. (Need recommendations? Check out the May 3rd #WeNeedDiverseBooks chat!) Then, once you’ve returned home, snap a photo of your new diverse book(s)** and post it as a comment below! And if you want to get really creative, you can take Before and After photos of your bookshelves: Before, when they weren't too diversified, and After, when you've added in books by fabulous PoC authors, queer authors, and authors with disabilities! Woot!

This Monday, May 5th, one lucky winner is going to win FIVE BOOKS OF THEIR CHOOSING out of the choices below!!! And every Monday throughout the spring, a new winner will be chosen to receive two fabulous diverse books! Woot!

But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Remember when I said “Diversify Your Shelves” was a continual celebration? That means any time you buy a book from a diverse author, or featuring a diverse character, snap a picture of that book and post it to Twitter with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag! We’ll retweet you, and help spread the word about what diverse books people are buying! And by participating in the “Diversify Your Shelves” movement, you’ll be showing publishers the kinds of books you want them to buy, showing conference organizers which authors you want to see on panels, and helping tweens and teens find representation in books! Which, really, is the awesomest prize of all!

Diversify Your Shelves


*Obviously, not everyone has the money to “Diversify Their Shelves” at this particular moment. That’s okay! Because stopping by the library and having them order a book by a diverse author, or even sending them an email about your interest in diverse books, can make a big difference in the “Diversify Your Shelves” movement! You can even snap a photo of a certain section in your local library, and then snap another one after they’ve ordered more diverse books for you! That way, you’ll not only be diversifying your own shelf, but you’ll be diversifying the shelves for your entire neighborhood! Go, you!

**Don’t worry, e-book lovers! You can totally enter the contest too. Just snap a photo of your reading device with the book’s cover showing (or a screenshot of the purchase), and you’re good to go!

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Introducing Kidlit Revolution

| Monday, April 28, 2014

First things first: if you missed it this weekend, a group of us announced our participation in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative, which is scheduled to happen THIS WEEK, starting May 1st. Please go read this post about it! Also, please go follow the Tumblr! We're already picking up steam, and the project has already been shared by Malinda Lo, Laurie Halse Anderson, Rick Riordan, John Green, and so many more authors, agents, and publishers who are showing their support. We would LOVE for you to join us!

Now, here's an announcement on a related project I've been cooking up with Kaye M.!

We've been hinting at a big summer summer project for a while now and holding out on you while we figured out the grand scope and some finer details. You've been waiting patiently, so here's a post that will hopefully shed some light on exactly what we're doing.

Introducing... Kidlit Revolution!

Photo Credit: Pratham Books via Compfight cc

This is a grand-scale project that intends to take all the words and ideas we've all been throwing around about diversity and turn them into real, tangible action. Kidlit Revolution is about building community, supporting authors who are diverse and are writing diversely, and creating serious ripples in the marketplace that can't be ignored. How will we do that?

Kidlit Revolution will act as a central hub for changing the industry through getting the word out about diverse books that don't have a lot of extra marketing support, but we're not going to stop there. Instead of simply reviewing and talking about these books and then moving on to the next, we're going to present a united front to make something happen for these books.

This is how it will work:

  1. Every week, we're going to feature an innovative, diverse kidlit or YA book that isn't receiving the most effective marketing support. We'll tell you about the selection, the author, and other pertinent information.
  2. Every day for that week, we will initiate a specific call to action intended to help that book succeed. For example: buy the book, write a review, read the book, share the book, ask your library to stock the book, pre-order the book, contact the publisher to say you want to see more like that book, etc.
  3. We will also spearhead more ambitious projects intended to affect the industry, such as requests to split the YA Best Seller List into hardcover and paperback books so it becomes less skewed.

This is a very, very simplified version of what we're planning, but it gives you the overview. The primary takeaway is that we are uniting with a common goal to create real change. By creating focused, tangible goals instead of spreading ourselves thin with generalized "awareness" campaigns, we're going to make something happen.

We can't do this alone! The success of this project will rest with the community we build. If enough of us band together to take a stand, we CAN change the industry. We CAN prove that these books can succeed with the right backing. We CAN make sure every kid sees themselves in the pages of a book. We will need the support of people at ALL levels, from readers to publishers.

No matter what happens, we will keep pushing, because these books deserve to be seen.

There are a million more questions to answer and a million more details to hammer out, and we're hard at work building a supportive team of people who will hopefully be able to tackle these challenges. We know that when it comes to the business side, money is going to be what speaks loudest, and we're taking that into account. Our biggest hurdle right now is building a community that's united and powerful enough to make this ambitious idea into a reality. We're going to need a lot of people, but we have faith!

What can you do to help?

Pledge to support this project in whatever capacity you can. Spread the word. Help us make connections with the right people as we build momentum. Be willing to put aside ego and give the floor to others. Dedicate yourself to making real, lasting, positive change in the industry we all love.

This is going to be big. Welcome to the Kidlit Revolution, launching this summer!


| Saturday, April 26, 2014

This announcement was crafted by Ellen Oh and the other members of this initiative. Please share, tweet, Facebook, Tumbl, and otherwise spread the word! Let's make this HUGE!

Recently, there’s been a groundswell of discontent over the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The issue is being picked up by news outlets like these two pieces in the NYT, CNN, EW, and many more. But while we individually care about diversity, there is still a disconnect. BEA’s BookCon recently announced an all-white-male panel of “luminaries of children’s literature,” and when we pointed out the lack of diversity, nothing changed.

Now is the time to raise our voices into a roar that can’t be ignored. Here’s how:

On May 1st at 1pm (EST), there will be a public call for action that will spread over 3 days. We’re starting with a visual social media campaign using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. We want people to tweet, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, blog, and post anywhere they can to help make the hashtag go viral.

For the visual part of the campaign:

  • Take a photo holding a sign that says “We need diverse books because ___________________________.” Fill in the blank with an important, poignant, funny, and/or personal reason why this campaign is important to you. 
  • The photo can be of you or a friend or anyone who wants to support diversity in kids’ lit. It can be a photo of the sign without you if you would prefer not to be in a picture. Be as creative as you want! Pose the sign with your favorite stuffed animal or at your favorite library. Get a bunch of friends to hold a bunch of signs. 
  • However you want to do it, we want to share it! There will be a Tumblr at http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ that will host all of the photos and messages for the campaign. Please submit your visual component by May 1st to weneeddiversebooks@yahoo.com with the subject line “photo” or submit it right on our Tumblr page here and it will be posted throughout the first day. 
  • Starting at 1:00PM (EST) the Tumblr will start posting and it will be your job to reblog, tweet, Facebook, or share wherever you think will help get the word out. 
  •  The intent is that from 1pm EST to 3pm EST, there will be a nonstop hashtag party to spread the word. We hope that we’ll get enough people to participate to make the hashtag trend and grab the notice of more media outlets. 
  • The Tumblr will continue to be active throughout the length of the campaign, and for however long we need to keep this discussion going, so we welcome everyone to keep emailing or sending in submissions even after May 1st. 

On May 2nd, the second part of our campaign will roll out with a Twitter chat scheduled for 2pm (EST) using the same hashtag. Please use #WeNeedDiverseBooks at 2pm on May 2nd and share your thoughts on the issues with diversity in literature and why diversity matters to you.

On May 3rd, 2pm (EST), the third portion of our campaign will begin. There will be a Diversify Your Shelves initiative to encourage people to put their money where their mouth is and buy diverse books and take photos of them. Diversify Your Shelves is all about actively seeking out diverse literature in bookstores and libraries, and there will be some fantastic giveaways for people who participate in the campaign! More details to come!

We hope that you will take part in this in any way you can. We need to spread the word far and wide so that it will trend on Twitter. So that media outlets will pick it up as a news item. So that the organizers of BEA and every big conference and festival out there gets the message that diversity is important to everyone. We hope you will help us by being a part of this movement.

When Authors Become Stars: Celebrity and Fandom

| Friday, April 18, 2014

Last week, I was watching discussion between some friends unfold and decided that I wanted to write up a post about something I've been meaning to discuss for a while: the incredibly complicated intersection between authors, books, media, celebrity, and fandom.

This isn't something that is easily distilled. I'm going to do my best, but this is an enormous conversation with a million different factors, and one person can't possibly cover all of it. So let's view this as a starting point to a much larger discussion. I want to lay my thoughts on the table, start to organize them, and invite other people with other insight to give their thoughts, as well. I'm not going to have the insight of, say, a publisher, or a multi-published author, or the person in charge of marketing in the current media landscape.

So let's start with the idea of the celebrity author.

I'm pretty sure every writer who's making a solid go of it can relate to the following conversation: "Oh, you're writing a book? Are you going to be famous?" The general public has this idea of what being an author is like, and that idea is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, John Green. Household names. Movie deals. Millions of fans. Placement in the fabric of pop culture. It never quite registers that people who fit this bill are few and far between, given the literally thousands of books published every year.

JK Rowling, from the Harry Potter Wiki

It used to be something to laugh about for the most part. Oh, ha ha, people think we're movie stars when we're really introverted nerds. Most of us don't make nearly as much money as they think we do, and we're not nearly as famous. We just want to write our books, not constantly bask in a spotlight.

Enter the upsurge in the popularity of children's books, YA, technology, and the internet fandom machine.

Being a "star" is no longer a joke -- it's an expectation. Kidlit and YA authors can relate to this especially well, I think. So much of an author's marketing rests on their own shoulders. It's not enough to make some appearances at your local bookstore and do a few school visits. You have to be constantly on. You should be on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and maybe even YouTube in addition to your regularly-updated blog. People don't just need to like your books anymore. They need to like YOU.

Talk about crushing pressure for a group largely made up of introverts who don't always do well with public speaking or being constantly "on." Time and time again, authors have literal nervous breakdowns and health issues from the combination of wearing themselves thin and forcing themselves into the spotlight in addition to the actual, you know, massive job of creating novels.

That's not to say that many writers (myself included) don't LOVE to do this stuff. My love of Twitter and Tumblr knows no bounds. We're making friends, hearing from fans, bonding, sharing, and it's all great. That's not the problem. The problem is the level of exposure.

Now let's talk about fandoms, particularly fandoms that contain vast quantities of children and adolescents by design.

When a writer's just starting out, their audience is small. Every scrap of praise is cherished, every negative comment cutting. For those who grow their fanbase into something bigger, everything else grows, too. The support is louder, the negativity sharper. When you reach a certain level, the fandom based around your work (or, in some cases, YOU) becomes its own beast. People believe you're so big and have so much money (har har har) that they can say incredibly cruel things and it shouldn't "affect" you anymore.

(Don't mistake this for me saying everyone needs to play nice. I'm not talking about one-star reviews or criticism, I'm talking about THIS AUTHOR IS A TALENTLESS UGLY COW AND I HEARD SHE DRINKS BABY BLOOD AND SHE'S A HORRIBLE PERSON AND IF YOU DON'T HATE HER GUTS THEN YOU'RE HORRIBLE TOO type stuff.)

Stephenie Meyer on the red carpet at the Breaking Dawn premiere, from Zimbo

Your loyal fandom rushes in to defend your honor, going for the "haters" with teeth bared and a massive wall of support at their back. When that fandom is made up of young people, the ferocity is often compounded. When people are still young and developing into the people they'll become, the world can be very black and white, with very little nuance. You are my friend, or you are my enemy. Good versus evil. Right versus wrong. My love for this thing makes it flawless, and anyone who questions it or finds it flawed must be destroyed.

This isn't something that goes away after adolescence -- we all know plenty of adults who still live by this mindset -- but it's heightened during childhood and our teen years when EVERYTHING is heightened.

Now let's talk community and responsibility.

Fandoms are, ultimately, community. I completely believe that young people often do well with community and support from their peers, and I think community can be important. Vital, even. Today's spread of information and ease of communication makes it possible to connect with people on the other side of the planet over something you both love, and that's astounding and beautiful. It makes complete sense that passionate young people are finding one another and forming these bonds. They're doing incredible things with their passion.

The thing about communities is that they're formed AROUND something, and in the case of fandom, that something is often a piece of media, which is ultimately tied back to that media's creator. In an environment where YA authors are becoming celebrities, willfully or not, that comes with some incredible opportunities... and some important responsibilities.

There's no doubt in my mind that many kidlit and YA authors had no idea what they were getting into. They never expected to be a household name, or somebody who could fill a conference hall. For the biggest "stars" in the industry, I imagine the pressure and exposure is beyond intense. They never asked for this kind of responsibility, this kind of power.

But they have it.

John Green on the set of The Fault In Our Stars, from LA Times

So, where is the line, here? When fandoms start growing, no one can control who joins (though they may try). At a certain point, you'll have all sorts in the ranks -- kind and cruel, thoughtful and reactionary. People who will go for the jugular for any perceived offense, believing themselves to be coming to your defense. In some contexts, this is welcome. Of course it's wonderful to have people stand by your side and tell some asshole journalist to actually read the damn book instead of mouthing off about the sorry state of YA, which they don't read wonk wonk wonk.

On the other hand, when you know a segment of your fans is behaving badly, what's your responsibility there? Certain fandoms are well-known for swarming a perceived "threat" and issuing everything from anonymous insults to full-scale threats of violence. We all talk about how this sort of activity is never okay, but some stay mysteriously silent when their own fandoms are participating in this behavior.

I don't expect anyone to catch every instance of their fans' misbehavior and call it out individually. That's not feasible. I also understand that there may be significant pressure not to "alienate" fans. But when we know this kind of stuff is happening in our community, in fandoms centered around our work who view us as a sort of figurehead or friend, I think we do have a responsibility to issue some general commentary. We should say "if you're doing this, you need to stop" and "I do not support this behavior, ever, and if you're doing it on my behalf, I'm not okay with that." As the comic once said: with great power comes great responsibility, and even if we didn't ask for it, we must wield it wisely.

We need to recognize our power, even when we might think we don't have much. When your support circle numbers in the tens (or hundreds) of thousands, you have power. When so many eyes are on you, valuing your opinion, it's essential to make sure they know that even stanning for something they believe is right can get out of hand, and help them learn to recognize when they're getting out of line.

It's not about controlling every arm of our audience (which is impossible), it's about understanding the power of our words for the people who look up to us, and letting people know what you are and aren't about. Silence often speaks louder than words. They may be responsible for their own actions, but we are responsible for our reactions.

Like I said, this is an unimaginably huge, complex issue. There are too many factors to count. This is one part the culture of forcing people into the spotlight in order to be "successful" and one part creating powerful communities for children and teens and one part love of writing and a hundred parts of something else. I don't have any answers.

But I hope we can talk about it. What do you think?

The Nice Girl Gets Friendzoned

| Monday, April 7, 2014

This is going to come as a revelation to the entire planet, but it's an absolutely true fact: ladies are also victims of The Friendzone. Actual true story! As a teenager, I was a serial Friendzone resident. I had sadfeels and books of poetry and really emotional music and a journal and everything.

Of course, I didn't think of it as The Friendzone. I thought of it as "getting shot down by my crush, which really bummed me out, so I usually found a new crush." I was also a serial crusher. I didn't even have a set type. My fragile little teen dreamer heart would flit from skater boy to WAY too-tall jock to drama geek to the kid from summer camp to goofball musician to gamer nerd to you get the picture.

I had Big Plans for each of these crushes. They were always The One. The movie played in my head, influenced by a million romantic comedies where some sort of obstacle keeps the couple apart but you know they'll be kissing all up on each others' faces before the credits roll. It never played out that way. I tried every trick in the 80s-90s teen movie playbook. Notes intricately folded into hearts as only a 14-year-old girl can fold. Mix tapes. Terrible drawings. Scavenger hunts. Gifts. Public displays. Private displays (not that kind). I was goddamned ADORABLE.

Alas, the loves of my adolescent life would all give the same answer: no. Sometimes accompanied by laughter, most often accompanied by "but we, like, have such a good friendship, though."

(I eventually stopped crushing on little assweasels and moved on to crushes who actually kind of cared about my feelings a little bit.)

Allow me to share my pain, so you might understand that your whiny ass is not alone in your tortured youthful lack of love.

Photo Credit: i.am.rebecca via Compfight cc

I am 11 and in lust with this dork who really wasn't that impressive in retrospect, but by sixth grade standards, he was a stone fox. I spend hours carefully selecting songs that are rife with meaning, like Spiral Staircase's "More Today Than Yesterday," and record them onto a mix tape. Carefully, with the help of my friend, I plan it so I can sit next to his desk during an educational film and slip the tape inside. I wait. Absolutely nothing happens. Completely ignored. I will never love again.

I am 12 and this bleach-blond skater kid is the love of my life. He's actually a terrible person, but his HAIR and his LONG SHORTS and his SQUEAKY PRETEEN LAUGH, you guys. I think I'm going to be real cute and smart this time. I write nine riddles, one for each letter of my name, and sneak them into his backpack. He figures it out on like the third riddle, at lunch, and proceeds to show his entire crew of little junior high gargoyles, who all point and laugh. My heart is a cavern filled with tears and regret.

I am 16 and this guy on the swim team with me is really IT for REAL. This crush is long and agonizing, overwhelming 2.5 years of high school memories. We're in the same classes, we're on the team together, we're both smart and kind of dorky. He's really good-looking, I am... a teenage girl with dyed strawberry blonde hair, but we have THINGS IN COMMON. It's going to happen this time. I'm going to write a heartfelt note saying all this really deep stuff. He's going to understand. We're going to make out and it will be awesome. I hand him the note and back away to a safe distance. He reads it. His friends all read it. They say "you should say yes, dude." I hear them. VICTORY IS NEAR. He comes to me later as I'm holding my breath and vibrating in my flip-flops, and he says, "I think we make really good friends." I AM NEVER GOING TO GET LAID, EVER.

I am 18, it's two weeks until my university's summer break, and one of my new college friends is the hottest guy in the universe. Like, STUPID hot. He is the skater boy, the funny guy, the musician, and the gamer all rolled into one. He is The Supreme Guy. And we're friends! It's all falling into place. I'm pretty sure he knows I'm bonkers in love with him, but I'll try to play it cool anyway. We're hanging out at a friend's. I've had half a wine cooler and I am THE BRAVEST. We walk back to our dorm in the beautiful movie-set night. I ask to come up. His roommates are out. I'm wearing my leather pants and I'm on a wine cooler high and I know this is it. So I tell him. He's SO HOT and perfect and hilarious and I just want to know if I can please, please kiss him? Just one time?

And he has this LOOK, this sad look, and he says he can't. It would RUIN OUR FRIENDSHIP. But look, he'll give me a hug! It's okay! We're still friends! Cheer up, buddy! My heartblood is dripping down his walls as he rubs my back. Everything is destroyed.

Photo Credit: i.am.rebecca via Compfight cc

Don't worry, everyone. I'm not going to leave you with blue tubes from all these missed opportunities. The girl in this story does eventually Get It. She Gets It Good. Just not with these guys.

Here is the moral of the story: just about everyone gets shut down by (someone they think is) The One. I'm making light of this stuff because it still causes me actual gut-wrenching embarrassment and pain, and it's easier to pretend it was all silly teen crush stuff even though it felt like it was breaking me at the time.

The takeaway is that you move the fuck on. Yes, this shit made me one hell of a sad panda. I felt angry, frustrated, drawn and quartered. But it's life. You're not the only person to experience this phenomenon. Your pain is not unique. Instead of lashing out and lamenting about how your affection should AT LEAST result in some quality dry humping, buck up. If they said no the first time, they're DEFINITELY going to say no after you keep whining about it for a year. Find the person who actually gives a shit.

Speaking of which, let me play you out on the good stuff.

My husband and I had a long, sexually tense, flirtatious courtship in which neither of us made a solid move for like, TWO WHOLE MONTHS. It was torture. He finally asked me out, but still wouldn't make a move because he -- guess what -- wasn't sure if I just wanted a friend.

So I invited him over for a movie night and we stayed up until 4AM talking and sharing music and when I thought I might actually explode from the tension, I kissed him.

He kissed back. He kissed back hard.

Romance vs Love Stories - The Good and the Ugh

| Thursday, February 27, 2014

A few months back, I was browsing Tumblr (because when am I ever NOT browsing Tumblr) and managed to catch the moment John Green first put up the freshly-released poster for The Fault In Our Stars movie. Internet squeeing ensued, and I thought it was a nice poster, as far as movie posters go. I'm not exactly a movie poster connoisseur, but you know, I thought it looked okay. Okay? Haha see what I did there I'm so clever.

ANYWAY. While I was admiring the poster, I also noticed the tagline beneath the title. It's riiiight there if you look at a larger version of the image, and this is what it says: "One Sick Love Story."

If you've read the book and know what this film is about, it's a 100% logical tagline. The characters are sick! And they fall in love! Clever! But that part isn't really what caught my eye.

It was the use of "love story."

Now, I'm just using the TFIOS poster as an example. It's certainly not a unique example, and no one connected with the book came up with that tagline. That's the film industry. But seeing this phrasing did remind me of something else.

Not long ago (almost a year exactly, in fact), Nicolas Sparks gave an interview in which he expressed an opinion that he's expressed several times before. You can read the whole interview here, but I'll quote the part I'm referring to below.

"Q: You once said the difference between a love story and a romance is that “love stories must use universal characters and settings.” What did you mean by that?

Sparks: 'Universal' means you feel as if they are real. You feel like you can know them. I don’t write stories about astronauts or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or millionaires or movie stars. ... [People] relate to these characters, they begin to root for these characters and by the end they are moving in sync with the emotions of these characters. You need to do all of these things well to have a love story that works."

I've never been a big fan of Sparks' quotes dictating the difference between a "romance" and a so-called "love story." He's always had a thing for separating his work from the romance label, insisting that he writes "universal" stories, not fantasies. It's clear that he has a certain perception of Romance as a genre, and that perception is also shared by much of the public -- romances are fluffy, fantastical, meaningless little throwaway stories for people who want to escape reality. Those people, of course, are usually women. Big words coming from someone who heavily utilizes romantic tropes and whose primary readership is women.

There's also the wonderful not-so-subtle implication that Romance novels don't feel real, don't convey genuine characterization, and aren't relateable. It brings up the image of Fabio dangling a swooning maiden off of his arm and staring into the sunset while simultaneously dictating that fantasies are meaningless and empty, not something that "real" people want.

This isn't an uncommon stance. When people hear "romance," they think of pulp fiction. Dime-store bodice rippers. Vapid rom-coms starring some young starlet with minimal acting credit. Simpering teenage girls giggling over boy band stars. Bad dialogue, barely-there plots, and junk food fiction for uncritical minds.

It doesn't end there. It bleeds into romantic subplots, romantic scenes, romantic moments. A book can be chock full of action, but if characters take a moment to steal a kiss, people wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes, declaring the scene unnecessary.

Or at least, they do with CERTAIN books. You know the ones I mean. Those friggin' GIRL books. Gross. Women, it seems, cannot write love stories."Love stories" are LITERATURE, even for someone like Sparks, who most people don't leap to when they think "literature." We can tie back around the The Fault In Our Stars, which has been declared far and wide a literary masterwork of YA darling John Green, full of poignant metaphor and clever one-liners. Although it relies heavily on romantic tropes -- indeed, our two lead characters' romance is a major driving force of the plot -- you will rarely hear anyone refer to it as a (GASP) Romance with a capital "R."

To be fair, there is a technical reason for this. Romance as a genre generally requires a HEA (Happily Ever After) in order to qualify by genre standards, so when we have a romantic story that ends... not quite happily, it can't typically be placed in the genre. However, for this argument, it's not about genre standard, it's about public perception. The general public is lightning-quick to slap a "romance" label on anything written by a girl/woman, starring a girl/woman, in which that girl/woman maybe kisses a boy, regardless of plot or outcome.

This is about the idea that certain "love stories" are poignant explorations of the human condition, while others are to be chucked onto the pile of candy fluff and sad lady dreams. This isn't even about content -- many, many, many female writers create emotive, literary, gorgeous novels that incorporate romantic tropes, and those novels are time and again passed over or written off as fluff. It might be the misleading cover copy, or the soft pastels, or the fact that it's covered in lady feels. Whatever it is, the general opinion is clear -- "love stories" are good stories, and romance writers do not write good stories.

Ultimately, when men write about love and sex and passion, it means something. We respect it, or at least give it a fair shake. It's interesting. It's human. Even when they write from the perspective of a woman, they still manage to capture that SOMETHING, somehow. When women do it, we focus too much on the fantasy. It's too twee. The writing's not strong enough. There's something missing. It's not "good."

Heaven forbid it end happily, too. Endings in which love prevails and the couple closes on a happy note apparently aren't realistic. Realism must involve pain, misery, and death. Which precludes romance, naturally. Romance is, after all, a mere fantasy.

Though somehow we never seem to muster the same derision for dark, gritty, male superhero power fantasies. You know, like Batman. Hm.

In the same breath that we keep telling lady writers to push harder and kick their romantic darlings to the curb, we also call them cruel for taking the path so many male writers take. You killed someone the heroine loved? How could you? How needless. What melodramatic manipulative nonsense. Young women don't want to read about doomed love! Not from you, anyway. Maybe you should make sure the guy lives in the end, just to be safe.

This is so layered. It comes from so many angles. "Real" literature versus books-to-sneer-at, rejecting romantic relationships as something that brings a story down, refusing to give female-written work a chance if there's even a hint of romance, lauding men's work as literary genius while women's work is swept aside to make more room on the shelf, yada yada ya. So much.

In summary... I call foul, as I typically do in these situations. There's so much more I want to explore about how we perceive romance according to gender, genre, and approach, but this post is already unwieldy, so. It's a multifaceted issue, and one I'll likely explore in more depth in future posts.

In the meantime, I recommend you go read The Sky Is Everywhere or If I Stay or Eleanor and Park or something.

The Frozen Girl: Visual Cues and Evil Femininity

| Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This post has been a long time coming. I originally wrote notes on it weeks and weeks ago, back when I first saw the film Frozen. At one point, it WAS timely, I swear. I wanted to write about the sisterly relationship and feminism and criticism and all that stuff, but many people already got there before me, and have said it much better.

Like, you know, this essay by a Saami author discussing Frozen's missteps with Saami culture, or this post with a reimagined POC cast. Or this post about its progressiveness, which has some iffy points and some great points. There have been posts reading Elsa as queer, many feminist essays, squees about the incredible sisterly love, and a pro-con list from Bitch Magazine. Please ignore me as I gnash my teeth in frustration over here about the whole "omg annoying love triangle ugh" bit.

All of this to say that this is already heavily mined territory. People have come at Frozen from all sorts of angles. So, instead of adding to the pile of stuff everyone's already said, I'm taking a different tack. I'd like to go in a direction inspired by the little girl who was sitting in front of me in the theater.

If you're reading this, I'm assuming you've seen the film. So imagine sitting in the theater during "Let It Go," the much-lauded ballad during which Elsa sheds her restrictive past and truly acknowledges her emotions and desire for freedom at last. She unleashes her full power, sending snow magic over the mountain and building a glittering palace of ice. She literally lets down her hair, changes into a flowing icy dress, and somehow gets some darker eye makeup.

In the brief quiet as the song ended and the door slammed shut, the little girl in the seat in front of me turned to her mother and whispered, "Did she just turn bad?" (Mom responded, "Keep watching and find out.")

Naturally, this set the wheels in my head turning. It wasn't an absurd question -- she was probably about five years old and had likely been raised on a steady diet of Western animation. After all, Elsa was allegedly slated to be the film's villain, but the decision was thankfully reversed. It stands to reason that some of those lingering threads would remain to cast an unclear light for a little girl who's used to a certain kind of story.

Disney stories in particular tend to have a specific structure to them. There's a good guy and a bad guy, and the bad guy is the one who typically isolates themselves and gets all those obvious "bad guy" visual shortcuts loaded onto their character design. You know what I mean -- darker color palettes, heavy eye makeup, likes to hang out in shadows, very thin and emotive eyebrows, all that stuff.

That little girl got me thinking about how we perceive "badness" in women, and how young we start to learn those cues. An older viewer can watch that scene and understand the lyrics, realize the optimistic nature of that scene, and understand that Elsa is celebrating her freedom, not singing a villain's song. This young viewer, however, just saw the isolation, the clothing change, the loose hair, the cocked eyebrow and smile. To her, this indicated that Elsa might have "turned bad."

I don't think that a five-year-old child was making complex connections like "she's breaking free of preconceived norms and taking her life into her own hands, and that makes her a BAD GIRL!" No, I think it's much more general than that. It's the visual cues. Disney villains tend to stick to specific formats. The lines of their faces and bodies are sharper. They're often either rail-thin or very fat (and if fat, shown to be fat due to living in excess). Their clothing or color palettes are markedly different from the hero's, often skewing darker. Their eyes are hooded, their makeup dark. Even the men occasionally don eyeliner.

Speaking of male villains, this is a great post illustrating the ways in which they're often made effeminate, "camp," or "sissy," which are all coded stereotypes for gay men. But I digress.

Filmmakers rely on these cues often. Color theory is heavily utilized in film, comics, and many other visual mediums. It's shorthand for conveying information to the audience quickly -- this is your hero, this is your villain. The problem is that this shorthand is often conveying some pretty negative stereotypes. In the case of women, "evilness" is conveyed through choice of clothing, makeup, and attitude.

The sweet, innocent heroines typically wear very little or no makeup, allowing their natural beauty to charm their suitors. They're young and are clothed in simple outfits or bright, happy colors. They're charming, kind, accommodating, surrounded by friends. This has very sloooooowly been changing with newer additions to Disney's canon, but the history is still there.

Villainous women, on the other hand, are typically older -- once you reach a certain age, it seems innocence and charm no longer apply. Their outfits are elaborate, dark, sharp. They're often shown all alone save for a possible trusty evil sidekick or two. Introverts? Nah, they're clearly alone because no one likes them!

This sort of media message can sow a lot of not-so-great seeds in young minds. Certain kinds of femininity are good, others are bad. Heavy makeup is a bad thing. Good people are surrounded by others, bad people are alone. You can make assumptions about people based on what they look like, not who they are. Certain fashion statements and mannerisms indicate a person should be distrusted. 

This is a hard-line pattern that kids learn young in the media, and it can be very hard to shake. It seems small, but it's quickly and easily compounded. Colors are powerful.

So thank goodness Frozen took the direction that it did. This was the first Disney film that really caught me off guard with regard to villain because they completely flipped the script. The isolated woman with the purple eyeshadow got to be free AND a hero, and the perfect Prince Charming type who seemed so endearing turned out to be a snake in the grass. That little girl needed to see that she can't rely on visual cues to tell her what good and bad really looks like.

We still have miles to go, but Frozen was perhaps a small step in the right direction. It wasn't perfect -- there was still a marked lack of notable female characters vs male characters (yes, the snowman and reindeer count as male characters). A subverted love story, but ultimately a heterosexual happily-ever-after anyway. The constant refrain of "omg so crazy" used for laughs when Kristoff tries to introduce the trolls. Speaking of the trolls... kind of weird.

Even so, there was a lot to love. A beautiful sister-sister relationship, fantastic music, surprisingly un-Disney-like plot twists, and some really cute lines. I hope that little girl left the theater with a lot more questions for her mother.

Writer Twitter Bios: Translated

| Friday, January 24, 2014

Twitter attracts all sorts of writers and writerly folk. Get enough together and you start to sense a pattern. Have you ever wondered what your writer's Twitter bio says about you? Then you've come to the right post.

* A note: this is intended as lighthearted humor, not mockery. There are many different stages to writing and publishing, and they're all valid. Hopefully we can all see ourselves somewhere in here and have a good chuckle.

** Also all usernames/personas are totally made up. Except for one. You'll know which one.

Translation: Pretty much as advertised. You're a newer writer who's probably just getting started on your journey, and you're really excited about where it's going to take you. That's awesome!

Translation: You're still not comfortable calling yourself an author yet, but you're working on it. Keep going. I'd tell you the confidence comes with time, but let's be real, we're writers. We're forever chasing confidence.

Translation: You're very much enjoying the absolute freedom that comes with self-publishing whatever you want, whenever you want, on the schedule you set. Livin' the dream indeed.

Translation: You're posting a whole lot of work over on Amazon and you heard that Twitter was really kickass for selling stuff and you're wondering if anyone's interested in buying a book or ten. You also use TrueTwit validation service. #mostamazingbookanyonehaseverwritten #buyitnow

Translation: You are super into literature and literary everything and you're very smart and people should probably listen to your insider insight because you know your shizz. You're also really into Popular Television Show and like to squee about it once a week with your followers.

Translation: Gonna go out on a limb here and say you're a book blogger.

Translation: You're indicating to everyone that while you're not yet published, you've still got chops and might be worth their time. OH GOD PLEASE LOVE ME PLEEEAAAASE LOOOOOVE MEEEEEEE. (Your illustrious blog host may resemble this one. A smidge. Just a little.)

Translation: You've leaped the big hurdle and made it to the almost-published stage. You have a really real book that will be a real thing at a very real time sometime in the nebulous future. People may want to pay attention to you for real now. OH GOD PLEASE LOVE ME NOW PLEEEAAAASE THE ANXIETY OH GOD.

Translation: Congratulations, you've finally settled into and are comfortable with your identity as "author." You probably have several books under your belt, you think it's pretty reasonable to admit that you'd like it if people actually read those books, and you actually enjoy hanging out on Twitter and just being you.

Translation: You're pretty big shit, but you're trying to be cool and not brag about it. You may get to go on book tours where people actually pay to see you, but you know, whatever, you're still just a person. Thank you, thank you!

Translation: You're Stephen King. Bio? Why?


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