Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sequel Syndrome and Death of the Standalone Novel

You see the publishing deals announced, new books that will flood the market next year and the year after that. So-and-so garners a two-/three-/four-book deal with a series that will change the way you look at such-and-such genre. You sit back in your chair and sigh.  Just the thought of another series in this polluted book industry makes you squirm -- or want to tear your hair out.

Personally, I think it's the Hollywood sequel syndrome that's rubbing off on the publishing atmosphere.  If something works once -- or there is enough belief that it will work once -- why can't it work again?  James Bond.  Star Wars.  Indiana Jones.  Transformers.  Pirates of the Caribbean. All of these movies have a franchise that built up with each movie.  Look at even the likes of Avatar and The Hangover: they were so monetarily successful that sequels were announced in their wakes.  Hollywood wants to milk the franchise cow for all it's worth, so of course they jump on anything that can potentially bring in even more cash the second time around.

Literature as a whole has been a carrier of the series syndrome for a while now.  Urban fantasy, crime, mystery, and romance novels oftentimes thrive on series.  It's not rare to see one novel spawn four to nine (or more) sequels if a series proves to be successful. (Just yesterday, I started reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians and was surprised to learn that a sequel is forthcoming. I felt a bit cheated since I had truly believed the novel to be standalone when I first picked it up to read.)

My focus, however, is young adult literature.  I read it.  I discuss it. I write it.  YA is tricky because it often has two slants to the series syndrome: either sequels are announced after a seeming standalone has been successful (not entirely uncommon) or a story is pitched as a series and sold as one without even knowing if the first will be successful in readers' eyes or not (the usual).  

Now, I wouldn't feel bad about series if it didn't seem so apparent that many are just churned out to make money and less because they have long, encompassing tales that are worthy of more than one book.  More and more, the standalone novel is becoming obsolete in YA unless it's a contemporary story.  Now some of us readers covet the one-book gems we can find because we are so disillusioned by the word 'series' as if it has lost all meaning to us -- and, to some extent, it has.

I remember the days when just the fact that Harry Potter was going to be seven books was astounding -- and very welcome -- in my reading life.  However, not all books can be epic as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or any other series that has legions of fans for good reason.  If a story has trouble finding purchase and good storytelling in one book, then why are authors and publishers kidding themselves that it is worth the effort of more than the standalone?

I understand the thought behind sequels, I really do.  Publishers believe that readers, if fully engaged and invested, will follow a series to its triumphant/bitter end (and pay for each book along the way).  But publishers forget that readers can become bored and irritated, can shake themselves of the series syndrome, and may even look at the series in question and think, "Why do I like this again?" or "This is getting a bit ridiculous, isn't it?"

It's one thing for series to be planned and pitched in multi-book format -- but do I really want to read book after book where the sequels seem to be tacked-on fluff?  (Many of you are familiar with the 'second book slump,' I'm sure, where the second novel in a trilogy often seems more like filler than anything else.)  I don't believe authors should prolong their stories if there isn't a story worth stretching into a series.  Honestly, I think some YA series would have profited from staying standalone.

But I guess here's the heart of the problem:  many publishers are in it for the money and not for the meaning, and the authors follow suit, wanting to please and release their novels out into the world.  Book after book clouds the market, and then everything's lost to dust and decay.  It doesn't help anyone that we, the readers, are becoming pessimistic and looking at everything with wariness and distrust.

Now, what I want is to follow an author to the triumphant/bitter end of a story because I have faith in him/her and his/her storytelling skills.  Take, for instance, Melina Marchetta:  even if it were announced tomorrow that her next novel were about a traveling band of circus performers who masqueraded as superheroes at night, I would still read it.  Why?  Because I have faith in her ability to tell a riveting story no matter the setting, the characters, the topics, or the messages. That kind of faith isn't built with cheap tricks, flimsy fancies, or large publishing deals; it's built painstakingly over the course of each novel, each page read, each bond formed.  That kind of trust doesn't build up over night.  It's earned with time.

I want to be that kind of author, who builds relationships with her readers through each word, each character, each painstaking novel -- and I really wish more authors and publishers would see that that's what really matters.  It's not the money or the hype since all of that fades eventually.  What will endure are the stories that can stand the tests of time,  and it won't matter if the books were series or standalones:  what will matter is that they were great and that we will remember them for their greatness.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Disillusioned, Disturbed, Dystopic...


Have you ever seen those pictures of a mama duck with a row of ducklings behind her? Small mirror images just trailing along behind the leader, struggling to keep up and eager to play in the big leagues. That’s the YA industry for you. Stephenie Meyer wrote a paranormal romance book that blew all the paranormal romances that came before it out of the water. Suddenly, a million aspiring writers across the globe had a sparkle in their eye (pun intended!) and a dream of making it big overnight. And the road to their success? Paranormal YA novels!

Then came Suzanne Collins. Being a lady of considerable vision and talent, she took a step off the beaten path. Instead of writing about vampires or fairies or werewolves, she decided to write a book about a grim, bleak future where society as we know it had broken down. Her dystopic idea, in a genre that had a sad lack of them, exploded sensationally onto the YA scene. What could all the little ducklings do but follow?

And thus was born the vision of the future – the dystopia.

Dystopian fiction, while somewhat novel for the YA genre, has quietly flourished in adult literary circles for a long time now. Remember the horrific Airstrip One of George Orwell’s 1984? And the pseudo-peaceful consumerist society of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? The collective irrationality and repression of Ayn Rand’s Anthem?

I’ve always had a special fondness for dystopias. There is nothing more effective in getting a person to think of the consequences of their actions than a bleak portrayal of the results in the future. Dystopias are amongst the most difficult worlds to build because they require rationalization on not only a physical level, but an ideological one. Dystopias are a distorted reflection of our world, our worst nightmares clothed in fiction. They hold up a mirror to our actions and force us to think beyond the now.

Most dystopias use social and governmental controls as a means of oppressing their population. Why? Perhaps because the abuse of power and authority is one of our greatest fears. Because every single one of us knows the power of peer pressure, the force of the hive mind beating against the individual. Because so much of our daily lives are controlled by the government, and by society’s expectations of us. This is one of dystopian fiction’s primary goals – to pick up on our greatest fear, and make us face it.

But apparently, this is not the objective of the breed of YA dystopias. YA dystopias, shockingly, are all about tru wuvv. They are about falling in insta-love with some random teenage boy whose face flashes on your computer screen for a second. They are about dithering between you ‘ideal Match’ and your, I repeat myself, tru wuvv. They are about the power of the first kiss and its ability to enlighten you about the true ghastliness of a loveless society. Please, give me a break here.

A dystopia, like any other form of speculative fiction, needs strong worldbuilding to base itself on. 1984, Brave New World, they were all set in a specific part of the world, yes, but they gave a clear idea of what the rest of the world was like. This seems to be too much work for YA dystopian writers, however. They end up either conveniently sinking the rest of the continents, leaving only America’s East Coast intact, or sometimes, not even bothering to speculate about the rest of the world. And even in their little slice of dystopia, the what, how and why of it is explained unconvincingly, at best.

Let’s take that new favourite dystopian trope – The Virus. In Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, the men die at twenty-five, and the women at twenty. Every single one of them. Now, can you name me one single virus in the history of mankind that has afflicted every single person in the world at a specific age? I don’t mean ‘during adolescence’ or ‘in their sixties’, I mean ‘on the dot of twenty and no longer’.  Similarly, in Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, all people over the age of eighteen are struck by a virus that renders them infertile. Why eighteen? Does the virus sit around with a little chronological clock saying ‘bada BOOM, you’re eighteen, no more babies!’?

And then there is the behaviour of society at large. All of us intellectual types like to tell ourselves that people are sheep. You show them where to go, and they do it without questioning. But is this really true? Doesn’t the fight against apartheid, the uprising against Mussolini, all show us that if you oppress people enough, they will fight back? That even in societies where people are conditioned to believe in the greater good and the absolute nature of the State, there are subversive free thinkers? And yet, for some reason, in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, everybody seems to happily accept that love is a Bad Thing and line up to get rid of it. Because all we need to live happy lives is a lobotomy or a collection of little colored pills.

The realisation of the controlling State in these dystopias is abysmal, to say the least. Even dictators need a reason, a rationalization for their actions. When Hitler was dumping the Jews in gas chambers, he truly believed in the racial superiority of the Aryans, and their suppression by the Semitics. But really, what would a government achieve by making the suppression of love its primary, if not only, goal? What is the motivating factor behind a State that plays Matchmaker for its teenagers? What is the big deal behind making every teenager undergo cosmetic surgery to become ‘Pretty’?

And then there is the big one. The subliminal messages underlying the creation of a dystopian society. Freedom of thought and action, abuse of power, censorship, the conflict of the individual versus the collective. Obviously those messages are now passé. The new objective of YA dystopian fiction is to GLORIFY TRU WUVV. Yes, it’s all about teenage angst and star-crossed love. Write the standard love triangle, shove it in a futuristic society where true love is forbidden, and earn your million-dollar paycheck. I think perhaps one of these days, I will write a dystopian novel about the bloodsucking publishing industry.

This is not to say that the current crop of YA dystopias is all bad. In fact, despite some truly abysmal world-building, Lauren DeStefano’s ‘Wither' does a great job with the characterization and atmospheric prose. And more importantly, it doesn’t sink the plot in favour of wangsty romance. Neither does Megan McCafferty’s 'Bumped', a very clever satire on reproductive choice and the loss of innocence in today’s children. However, with more and more authors jumping on the dystopian bandwagon (Stacey Kade of The Ghost and The Goth fame just announced a new dystopian series to be released in 2013), I foresee a long and torturous death for the true dystopian novel. Much like Bram Stoker, I imagine George Orwell and Aldous Huxley turning in their unquiet graves as the love triangles take over the world. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

This is why you are not doing vampires right (part 1)

Ever since the unfortunate glorification of Twilight, the paranormal romance genre began to take on vampires in hopes of duplicating Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, who for some reason is one of the best characters of the 2000s. Now Twilight in general, and not just with Edward, has managed to create a very... special... kind of vampire. These vampires don’t burn in the sun, or need to feed on human blood, or sleep during the day, or have any interesting aspects to them. Instead, they sparkle in the sun, and seem perfectly fine with drinking animal blood. Also these vampires are in general just wusses. They whine about being ‘monsters’ all their eternal lives and don’t even bother to make their peace with this fact. Only the evil vampires kill humans, but apparently only evil vampires do that in Twilight. Only evil vampires seem to have the vampiric instincts. But that doesn’t matter either, because the evil vampires are one dimensional and uninteresting.

Now to clarify what exactly the point of this rant is, well the point of this rant is thus: ever since the Twilight vampires appeared, the vampire genre has now been sparkled up with shallow, mythologically-incorrect creatures that are so far beyond what a vampire is meant to be that it’s not even funny. What’s worse? These vampire pussies are being compared to the classics like Dracula, Lestat, and are considered to be THE vampires now instead of the traditional (By the way, traditional doesn’t mean you have to include capes and turning into bats). That’s right, people actually now complain about vampires drinking human blood, and burning in the sun, and being scary in general,  because apparently that’s not what vampires are supposed to be now. Me and my wonderful girlfriend Space ferret, who is a vampire guru, have decided to sit down together and educate the masses on what vampires are meant to be. There will be a long list and long rants so this topic will be split into different parts. 

 

What people need  to understand about writing vampires is this: when you write about vampires you are going down a well-worn path and with doing that there are a few established rules. That's not to say that you can't be creative, rather on the contrary, but there a few things you HAVE to include, concepts you MUST grapple with whether its a traditional vampire, nosferatu or modern. 


Blood:

In the current YA books, you rarely see vampires drinking blood anymore. In Twilight you only see vampires drinking animal blood and for some reason or another managing to keep healthy and sane, and in other books like Marked and Evernight you don't see vampires needing to drink blood at all. Well okay, Evernight had it a little, but only a little. And that little was not enough. Vampires NEED to drink blood. Blood preserves and heals, keeps them hydrated, and that’s what keeps them alive (depending on your interpretation: either it keeps them alive, or healthy or it keeps them beautiful and sane). Vampires need human blood. Human blood supplies vampires with the nutrients that they need, which they can’t find in animal blood. If you're a Vampire Chronicles fan you would know this is dealt with pretty well in Interview with the vampire, when Lestat describes animal blood as helpful for surviving in emergency situations, but it's not something you can live on as a vampire. Human blood is a must for vampires. It’s not a choice and you can’t just change it. That would be like not having your human character eat food and just drink water. No, we NEED to eat food, so our body can get nutrients, vitamins, et cetera, and just in general survive! It’s like saying “OMG I don’t wanna hurt plants or animals so I’m gonna eat the dirt instead!!!” 


Sunlight:

Sunlight is a harder aspect of vampirism to grasp, because there are many different levels to it. For example Bram Stoker's Dracula didn't even burn in the sun, and there is a term for vampires who can go out in the sun called 'Daywalkers' (or half breeds). It's not wrong not to have your vampires burn in the sunlight, but you have to make sure your explanation as to why makes sense. And please, PLEASE, don't do sparkles. If the vampires in Twilight just claimed the burning in the sun to be a myth then we would have no problem, but there is no explanation as to why they sparkled like a disco ball. Well there is one, which is that Stephenie Meyer had a dream about a sparkling vampire. But that's dream logic. Dream logic is not logic. And you can't use it to justify something. 


Too much emo:

"WAAAAAAAAAAAAA I'm a monsterrrr and WAAAAAAA I need to drink blood to surviveeeeee!"

"Don't come near me, I'm too dangerous! Even though I love you." -stalks- "Didn't I tell you I'm too dangerous????? ILOVEYOU!!!" -stalks some more- "I'M DANGEROUS!!! I LOVE YOU! STAY AWAY FROM ME!!!!1111"

Okay, a whiny vampire only works if you're Louis. But that's only because Anne Rice puts variety in her vampires. But in the current YA vampire books we see waaaaaaaaaay too much whining, and it's every single vampire character (except some of the villains). Whining is not the way to make a vampire humane, and it's obvious it is intended to be as such. It's overused, it's boring, it gets tiring after a few seconds, and you just want them to shut up. If you do want to make a humane vampire the trick is to make them humane within their own culture. No matter what vampires will always be killers, always be hunters and always be the predator to humans, but there are distinctly more humane vampires than others. We see a good example of this in the Vladimir Todd chronicles when Vlad is given a choice to take part in a vampiric sport which involves herding, terrifying and eventually killing humans just for the fun of it. Sure there is a basis in food but there is also this element of doing it "for the hunt". A humane vampire opts out of this practice.  Yes the vampire still kills to live, but still they can choose not to torment humanity just because they are able to. Show a vampires humanity through their actions (if you must), and not what they complain about. A vampire's humanity is often shown by the way they treat their victims. However not every singe vampire is humane, and it's not necessary that only the evil vampires are not humane. Vampires are meant to be morally ambiguous. It's not a simple 'Good or evil' situation. Within vampires there is always a shade of grey, but that can be made interesting. Don't be lazy because it might be too complex. 
 

Food. Yes or no? (By co-blogger Space ferret)

Okay, there a lot of different opinions with this one, many authors choose to tackle it in different ways. But I think for logical answers, the best way to explain this is by treating vampires as if they were a living species and imagining what kind of digestive system they would have. Being a person who has given this a lot of thought and bored people to tears with rants, I have come up with two different systems that could be used.

1. The "digestive" Vampire.
This is a system where vampires have a digestive system much like our own, and the blood is needed for the different components in order to get various nutrients. The idea is that the blood is broken down into its basic chemicals and absorbed and used as nutrients. This leaves open the idea that vampires could possibly take in other forms of food or preferably liquid (because I imagine a vampires digestive tract may look a lot like that of a honey or nectar feeder) to supplement the initial blood. Though the nutrients in food I imagine are by no means optimal for a vampire. Therefore if a vampire ate food or drank something it would have to get rid of various toxins that would start to build up in their systems, so as a result you get a horde of vampires who need to make use of bathrooms. The distaste many vampires have for food, specifically the concept that regular food tastes roughly like charcoal, would then just be attributed to changed taste buds. Overall solid foods  are not ideal for a vampire. They will have trouble eating solids, not because they can't chew it, but because they can't digest it as well. Ideally you need to puree anything you're going got feed a vampire, unfortunately this gives a pathway to things such as the beef-smoothie but they're actually realistic.


2. The "Transfusion" Vampire 
This is a system is where a vampire does not technically have a digestive system, but rather a large and elaborate cardio-vascular system that allows for the introduction of new blood. 
It goes like this: Vampire drinks blood - Blood runs into something I can only describe as a "holding cell" as its cleaned of toxins such as various kinds of drugs including alcohol, caffeine, etc - after the blood is cleaned it is then slowly introduced to the vampires own bloodstream, the earlier mention toxins are then released from the body through a vampires hair and nails. 
Now you're asking "well how the hell does that affect my vampire?" Well quite simply my dear Watson. If your vampire has one of these systems and then through an accident (by forgetting) or sheer stupidity decides to try and eat normal food or drink a normal drink (including water) they could very well die in the next 48 hours from it. Your vampire would become horrifically ill very very quickly  because you've essentially injected them with puree cheeseburger, which will eventually float  to their brains and other internal organs and wreck all kind of havoc unless it is removed from the vampires system ASAP. In this map your vampire would not have a bladder and have no use for a bathroom except for maybe if they ate normal food and needed to violently expel it as quickly as possible.
Either way having vampire eat food or not eat food is really the author's choice but if you are going to have a vampire going through the KFC takeout make sure to explain WHY they can eat food, and if you are going to go through with an eating vampire keep their food simple. No matter what they're built to take simple nutrients, not an all you can eat curry buffet. 

Guest Post On YA Highway

This time I actually guest posted on YA Highway. It's a pretty awesome blog run by a group of authors. Among them is Kody Keplinger, author of The Duff, and Kirsten Hubbard, author of Like Madarin. But I'm sure you guys already knew that. Anyway, you can find the article here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Interview With Hannah Moskowitz, Author of Invincible Summer

I'm not a big fan of Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance, so when I read Phoebe North's review of Invincible Summer I knew it was a book that I'd enjoy. Although the cover is misleading--it makes it look like a Sarah Dessen knock-off even though it's more like a John Green book--I decided to give it a go. No offense to any Sarah Dessen fans out there. I like her books too, but you have to admit, they are rather repetitive.

Anyway, after I finished Invincible Summer, I wanted to know about the process behind the book. That's where this interview comes in. Hannah Moskowitz was nice enough to go back and forth with me on some questions I had about the book, so here's the interview below.

Me: As of late, many female authors are trying their hand at writing male narrators. Unfortunately, the boy often comes off as sounding too feminine or too sex crazed. As a female, how hard is it to capture the voice of a male narrator? What tips would you offer to females writing teenage boys?

HM: Writing as a boy has always been easier for me, but that doesn't mean I'm an expert! Some people find my male voices believable and some don't. But that's true with every author, I think. I've read men doing male voices that I didn't believe, too!

I think, on a grand scale, the gender of the narrator is such a small thing. If you are a girl who wants to write a boy, go for it! You're just as capable of doing it as anyone else--moreso, because this is *your* character. You're not writing a boy; you're writing your boy.

So you don't have to worry about making him sound dramatically masculine if that's not his style, nor do you have to pretty him up to try to make him more accessible to female readers. Just write your character. He has way more important things about him than his gender, anyway.


Me: While we're still on this topic, were there any specific characters you based Chase on? Or was he a spur of the moment creation?

HM: Nope, Chase was totally new. He's less masculine than Jonah (my narrator in BREAK) is, so he has a very different kind of voice.

Me: In my review of Invincible Summer, I refer to Melinda as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Do you think of her as such?  When writing an unattainable girl, do you have her entire personality in your head or just the personality the boy sees?

HM: I'd say I have her whole personality.

Here I go negating all that "don't stereotype based on gender!" stuff--girls are hard for me. Female love interests are difficult for me, specifically. I always say that I can write the girl you'd want to sleep with, but not the girl you'd want to bring home to Mom. I don't think anyone would want to bring Melinda home to Mom.

I'm not sure I'd call her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because they're generally so much...sweeter, yeah? More desirable. I liked your suggestion that she's a grown-up MPDG. Oh, here we go--I think she's a MPDG in the first summer, and that because of what happens to her between summers 1 and 2, she gets all the glitter scraped off of her and she's raw and terrified and a little horrible, and not always in a sexy way.

Chase's sister Claudia was, initially, me trying to prove to myself that I could write girls. I like Claudia. I always say she's the real hero of the story.

Me: Claudia was definitely my favorite character. She felt real, if you know what I mean. As far as teen slang goes, I'm curious about this. Did you get bros before hos from The Boondocks, because that line was cracking me up.

HM: I've heard that line all over! It's very possible it started there. I'm glad you liked Claudia. Noah is my favorite, which I think is probably unfortunately clear.

Me: On the topic of Noah, and Chase's family in general, I think it's good that you didn't take the easy road and ignore the parents. I've heard the term, Disappearing Parent Syndrome, used a lot in the past few weeks. 

Also, this has to be one of the first modern young adult stories I've read that features a large family. How easy is it keeping track of the entire family, by character arcs I mean, and what do you think of this not so recent trend of writing the parents out of the story? 

HM: I try very hard not to write parents out. What's sad is that I always think I'm writing decent parents (as in decent people, not decently written people) until I see reviews and everyone tells me they're terrible parents. This must make my own parents (who are fantastic) feel sad.

Disappearing Parent Syndrome very much bothers me. My upcoming YA, GONE, GONE, GONE, spends a lot of time on the parents, which I did intentionally. My main characters in that one are 15, so they're still very dependent on their parents. With INVINCIBLE SUMMER, it's a little harder, since Chase goes from 14 to 18 over the course of the novel, and his parents' role in his life obviously changes.

Keeping track of the entire family was so hard. I can't count the number of times I had to just open up a word document and list the character's ages. I never knew how old Gideon was, I swear.

The first draft of the book was very short--just over 20K words--so none of the siblings' plot-lines were very fleshed out at first. A lot of that came later, once I got comfortable with the characters.

Me: I noticed that you weren't involved in the YA Mafia ordeal. What's your stance on bloggers vs. writers?

HM: Hmmm, yeah, I'm not quite sure...

I think the relationship between bloggers and authors is really weird, because we really do like you guys, but authors just suck up to bloggers incessantly. You guys have a *lot* of power, and reviews are...reviews are really scary. And I can't tell you how many times I've been tempted to comment on bad reviews. It's not because they didn't like it; we know people aren't going to like our books, and we can deal with that. The problem is when you read a review and you go, no, that's WRONG, that ISN'T why character x did that, you TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT. And there are always going to be reviews like that, and you're always going to want to run in and just "clear something up."

Me: I never looked at it that way before. Most people think that authors hold most of the power. But in the end, most authors blog and most bloggers are writers. It's give and take. As for atmosphere, while I was reading Invincible Summer I was reminded of my time in Daytona Beach. How do you write a realistic setting, from memory or imagination?

HM: The setting of Invincible Summer is based 100% on Bethany Beach, Delaware where my family has a house. A house with the exact same layout as Chase's house. And the same downtown, and the same beach, and the same restaurants. It is not a coincidence.

I'm a huge fan of using real life for the details when you write. Plots and characters and stuff are always better when they're made up, but for the little things, I think filling in with real life makes everything seem more real.

Me: Alright, here are my last questions.

What's the last book you read?

What's your favorite book?

And, Which author would you like to meet in person?


HM: The last book I read was The Great Gatsby for school. I'd read it before but I was psyched to read it again, because I absolutely adore it.

My favorite books are On the Jellicoe Road, When You Reach Me, The Year of Secret Assignments, and My Heartbeat (I can't choose one).

I would love to meet E. Lockhart, but I would be a trembling mess.

Thanks again, Hannah.

If you want to learn more about Hannah Moskowitz and her novels, you can contact her via her website or Twitter

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Default Mode

by: Ceilidh of The Sparkle Project

You may have already seen my latest Sparkle Project post in which I touched on this but I think it definitely requires further discussion. A few days ago, YA author Jessica Verday announced that she was no longer a part of the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, edited by Trisha Telep, because she was asked to change the gay male relationship at the centre of it to a male-female one. I was disgusted, as were many of my fellow torch bearers on The Book Lantern, and blogged my disappointment, laying blame with the publishers. Later on, the editor of the anthology, Ms. Telep commented on Verday’s post, taking sole blame for the action, and her comment said a lot about this world:

Oh dear. Might as well give you my two cents. Not that it really matters but... Don't take it out on the publishers, the decision was mine totally. These teen anthologies I do are light on the sex and light on the language. I assumed they'd be light on alternative sexuality, as well. Turns out I was wrong! Just after I had the kerfuffle with jessica, I was told that the publishers would have loved the story to appear in the book! Oh dear. My rashness will be the death of me. It's a great story. Hope jessica publishes it online. (By the way: if you want to see a you tube video of me wrestling a gay man in Glasgow, and losing, please let me know).

There are so many things that are wrong with what she said and the sad thing is, I think they’re more common misconceptions than I’d like to believe they are. Is something automatically more explicit because it has gay content in it? Is gay romance ‘alternative’, making heterosexuality the only acceptable form of love in fiction for teens? Do gay teens not read romance or something? My anger only heightened when I found out that this supposed explicit content boiled down to three kisses. Apparently the unseen fourth kiss was the final remaining horseman of the apocalypse.

But Ms Telep’s casual ignorance aside, I can’t help but think what this says about romance in literature right now, not just YA. There seems to be this default mode for almost everything in life, that of the straight white person, usually a man, and this form is the widely accepted default form of human, because everyone can relate to the default mode. (This is also an argument I’ve heard mentioned for the differences in male and female writers – men write characters for everyone but women can only write ‘women’s issues’.)

In YA, especially the paranormal side of things, the biggest selling books and most famous series are populated mainly by white straight people and the romances at the centre of them seldom feature people of colour or LGBT relationships. This isn’t to say they don’t exist but they certainly don’t get the same level of coverage as the other books. The gay characters and characters of colour tend to be relegated to being just the best friend. Of course we need this sort of visibility in fiction and this is one of the areas where YA is highly progressive, but often these depictions verge heavily into tokenism, where the character’s only defining attribute is their sexuality (the worst example I can think of off the top of my head is P.C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, where the token gay best friend constantly squeals and giggles and is described as not really being a guy because he’s gay. Nice.)

Why is the default mode the right mode? It isn’t and we all damn well know it. There’s absolutely nothing stopping us from relating to people and situations different from our own other than silly preconceptions and our own cowardice. Yet this silly assumption that we only want pretty white faces and so-called safe romances remains in almost every field of entertainment. Why are there no out gay leading men in Hollywood? (I’d say Neil Patrick Harris is the most famous but he’s not a top billing superstar of blockbusters like Will Smith - also one of the few instances of a black actor getting superstar treatment – and Sir Ian McKellen is more of an ensemble actor in blockbusters than the main man.) Why are black and Asian supermodels always described as ‘exotic’? Would Twilight have sold as well as it did if Edward was a woman? Why should gay characters be defined solely by their sexuality?

Hannah Moscowitz wrote a blog post asking a lot of these questions and raised many good points. The world’s a wonderfully varied place and it’s certainly not black and white, yet our YA is still heavily populated with the same pretty white faces falling in love with other pretty white faces of the opposite sex. Books with characters of colour and LGBT teens are also more likely to be labelled ‘issues’ books, where the plot revolves around the character’s sexual or racial identity. There are some fantastic books about these subjects but why must they be the only ones for such characters?

In real life, I’m not defined by my sexuality, it’s merely incidental to who I am as a person. We need more of these books on our shelves (and we shouldn’t have to trick readers into buying them by misrepresenting covers, like the infamous first cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, the recent paperback editions of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix or the original cover for Jackie Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. The UK cover of Malinda Lo’s wonderful book Ash also fails to mention the gay romance which I think does it a disservice.) We need more representation of the variety in life – and we need to do it right - because if we continue to accept the default mode these horrible stereotypes are allowed to flourish and turn into something even uglier than they already are.

Review: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Wither (Chemical Garden, #1)Wither by Lauren DeStefano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What if you knew exactly when you would die?

Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb—males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.
When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden's genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape—to find her twin brother and go home.

But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden's eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limted time she has left.

I'm not a squeamish person. Nor am I easily scared. I pride myself on being level-headed. But there were somethings in Wither that I couldn't stomach.

I consider myself to be a somewhat liberal person, with a few exceptions--for example, I believe in capital punishment and lex talionis under special circumstances.

However, I wasn't able to accept the relationship between Linden and Cecily. He's a good guy that I'm supposed to sympathize with, yet he sleeps with a kid? No thank you.

I know, I know, it's an alternate universe, I should get over it. But I'm unable to accept a relationship between a twenty-year-old man and a thirteen-year-old girl. It's weird. It's squicky. And weird. Yeah, I'm immature, but that's the way I feel about it.

No, my entire rating is not based off of that one particular factor. That's just a small part of my dissatisfaction with Wither.

The science fiction made exactly no-sense. Nor did the backwards polygamous culture. I'm still wondering how North America was the only country to survive a war that melted Antarctica. Can someone please explain that to me? The Earth's crust is made up of plates. Look at a map of tectonic plates. Then you'll see why it's impossible to bomb an entire continent until it dissolves into a chain of islands without destroying the entire planet.

As for the romance, well I wasn't too crazy about Linden or Gabriel. My favorite character is either Rose or Jenna. In fact, I wish this book had been about Rose and Linden. At least I would have been spared the pedophilia, polygamy, and the horrible psuedo-science backstory.

The prose wasn't bad, but at times it got a bit overwrought. I found myself skimming towards the end because I was bored. As I was reading, I decided to forget that this was supposed to be science fiction. Instead, I told myself that this was a historical romance set in Utah. No offense to any Mormons out there.

Wither isn't as good as The Hunger Games or Across the Universe, but it's a decent read if you're looking for a heroine that isn't too stupid to live. Rhine isn't whiny or over concerned with her love life. In fact, she actually has goals and ambitions. She also loves her brother, which is a plus. I hate when heroines put their lover boys over their entire family. But be warned, DeStefano throws a lot of shock factor elements around. Too many, in my opinion.

I received my ARC through Simon and Schuster's Galley Grab program. I'd only read the sequel if someone gave me a copy.

Note: Three stars does not mean I liked it. Three stars means that it was average. For a more positive review, check out Vinaya's. It's always good to get a second opinion and I admit, I'm harsh on books.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Literary Treasures from the Land Down Under

Inspired by Ceilidh's post last week on notable books from her native Scotland, I got to thinking about books and the countries from which they hail. I'm an American girl, true, but – I apologize – today I'm not going to be harping about young adult books from the United States. (That may be a post for another day.)

Instead, I'm here to gush about Australian authors.

Let me confess: most of my favorite authors are Australian. If I have to recommend a jarring read that will likely crawl deep inside of a reader and nest into his/her heart – well, I'm likely going to be waving copies of books written by some fantastic Australian authors. Honestly, I don't know what it is about Australia. Maybe it's something in the water that has a tendency to make Australian writers into stellar authors. Maybe the beautiful landscape just ends up rubbing off on people in the forms of creativity, inspiration, and – dare I say it? – genius. All I know is that, as an aspiring writer myself, I can't help but think that I would be well on my way to a worthwhile career as an author if I could just manage to emulate some of the great authors who hail from that colorful, exotic land known as Australia.

You may have read some Australian authors' works and not even know it. You may know some of the household names like fantasy authors Garth Nix (author of the Abhorsen trilogy) and Isobelle Carmody (author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles) – or maybe you're more familiar with Australian authors who are making names for themselves in the United States such as Justine Larbaleister (author of Liar and wife of fellow YA author Scott Westerfeld) and newcomer Alexandra Adornetto (author of Halo). But I'm not going to stop there, dear reader: I'm going to give you five notable Australian authors whose works you should get to know in case you haven't already.

Of course I have to begin with Melina Marchetta, the author of five wonderful works that each end up leaving an individual imprint on many readers' minds. Whether Marchetta is tackling dramedy (Looking for Alibrandi), real-life issues (Saving Francesca and its companion The Piper's Son), or fantasy (Finnikin of the Rock), she shines with her storytelling, her characterizations, and the raw human emotions thrumming from the hearts of her books and straight into the hearts of readers. Though American readers have become more exposed to Marchetta through her third novel, Jellicoe Road (which garnered the Michael L. Printz Award in 2009), she still lacks a presence on bookstore and library shelves within the United States. You know how I got to know Marchetta? I had to track most of her books down in used bookstores or order them online. Though her books will likely never be 'mainstream' in the way of American commercialism, I find that to be a sad, sad shame since many readers will be missing out on a great author who knows how to tell a great story with meaningful power.

If Marchetta is the goddess of Australian literature, then I would vote for Markus Zusak to be the reigning god. Author of the much acclaimed The Book Thief, he is a master at storytelling while also having a great handle on beautiful prose and realistic characterization. Zusak does not have trouble representing harshness, cruelty, or depravity in his novels (particularly Printz Honor book I Am the Messenger) – but the way he does so is moving and stirring, never failing to tug at a reader's heartstrings. His trilogy of novels following the Wolfe brothers, Ruben and Cameron, are also worth a look because they contain the same level of writing and focus on emotion as his better-known works. (For interested readers who cannot track the novels down, Scholastic will be re-releasing said trilogy in an omnibus version entitled Underdogs come September 2011.) While Zusak's stories may not resonate the same way with everyone, he is definitely an author who will hopefully amaze more than disappoint.

Marchetta. Zusak. If they are goddess and god in the realm of Australian YA, then who are some of the demigods whose powers have not been wholly acknowledged in the United States?

First up would definitely be Margo Lanagan, author of the controversial Tender Morsels, a novel that doesn't fail to spotlight uncomfortable issues such as rape, abuse, violence, and bestiality. The novel has garnered praise and awards (among them being the World Fantasy Award) along with hate and disgust. However much readers may be divided on Lanagan's novel, she is definitely positively stellar when it comes to the majority of her short stories. Though her short story collections (Black Juice, Red Spikes, and White Time) have been released Stateside, I would never have thought to read Lanagan's works if not for her contribution to the Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology in 2010. Talk about creepy writing and storytelling that managed to pack a punch! Lanagan definitely has a way with words – and I eventually read some of her other short story offerings. . .and fell so in love with her haunting way of telling a story that I actually felt a fair bit of envy for how she could meld words together. Her stories have a way of creeping inside of you and lingering, just lingering, and making you think about them. Is she an author for everyone? No, I wouldn't say so – but she offers quite a lot for readers who are willing to step outside their boxes, even if only for a short enough time to peruse and absorb a short story.

Who's the next demigod of Australian YA? I would definitely give a nod to Jaclyn Moriarty, author of the Ashbury/Brookfield series. The most well-known of the series is The Year of Secret Assignments (originally titled Finding Cassie Crazy), a novel written in notes, e-mails, postings, and letters relating to Ashbury and Brookfield students. The clincher? The Ashbury and Brookfield students don't like each other. Not one bit. Or, at least, they're not supposed to like each other. While you may think her books are delightful romps following Australian students, I must correct that assumption and say that Moriarty handles both comedy and drama seamlessly. You will laugh while reading her books, true, but chances are that you will likely cry (or at least tear up) during them as well. Though some readers might label her novels as 'too quirky' or 'a bit outlandish,' I would argue that Moriarty could easily stand on level ground with the likes of American authors like Sarah Dessen and Meg Cabot if readers would give her novels a chance.

The final demigod of Australian YA is a bit of a newcomer compared to the above authors with a bunch of novels and short stories under their belts, but that doesn't mean that she isn't a powerful voice in YA literature. Enter Lucy Christopher, who hit American shores last year with her stunning yet shocking novel Stolen, the story of a kidnapped girl who ends up living within the Australian desert with her captor. Exploring the very real effect of Stockholm Syndrome, Christopher manages to do the impossible: make the reader experience Stockholm Syndrome right alongside the main character. The storytelling itself is gripping while the writing itself amazes and horrifies alike. And the characters – oh, the characters. Even though I read this novel almost a year ago, I'm still thinking about the characters in this novel. That is what makes Christopher a demigod in the making. That is the power of a great author.

Now, in case I didn't make myself clear enough with all my harping, I would highly recommend that you check these authors out if ever you have the reading time and/or curiosity to do so. You just might come away finding a new author to love – and a role model for any of your own writing aspirations. I know that these Australian authors have become guides and beacons for my own writing. . .and I hope that they will continue to inspire readers across all oceans for years to come.

Are there any other notable or memorable Australian young adult books that are favorites of yours that I have failed to mention (or, more likely, haven't even discovered yet)? The Book Lantern is always on the look-out for new books to devour and love, so please feel free to leave a comment if you have a recommendation!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

After the Happily-Ever-After...


Meridian and Tens, Luce and Daniel, Nora and Patch, Calla and Shay, Jacinda and Will, Helen and Lucas... what do all of these couples have in common? Well, for one, they are the most talked about couples in YA paranormal fiction today. Everybody’s eagerly awaiting and devouring the next installments in their stories, getting starry-eyed about their romance and fervently believing that these star-crossed lovers will get their happily ever after.

But you know what else these couples have in common? They all meet and fall in ‘love’ in intense, highly-emotional, stressful situations. They are all living in fear of their lives, fighting battles that are bigger than they are, and they are all cut off from the world, from a support system, from the reality of day-to-day existence.

So today, for a change, I am actually going to support the insta-love trope. Because what these kids are facing is wartime. Maybe it’s a war that’s happening on a hidden, paranormal level, but it’s still war. And you know what happens during wartime? The rate of marriages increases exponentially. (Also divorces, but we’ll save that for later). The Chicago Tribune had an article a few years ago that pointed out that a lot of servicemen heading to Iraq ended up getting married before they left for duty. Sometimes they just pushed forward a marriage that was in the works anyway, but a lot of them also ended up falling for and marrying complete strangers.

Nothing makes you quite as aware of your mortality as war. There are so many things that could go wrong on a field of battle; the best you can hope for is to leave behind a legacy, someone who will remember you, and pray like hell that you survive. This is the main reason so many soldiers rush into love and marriage during wartime, hoping to cram a lifetime’s worth of experiences into a few weeks or months.

So I guess it is not entirely incomprehensible that the enforced intimacy of their situation leads these teenage couples to fall in ‘love’. After all, something similar happens to victims of the Stockholm Syndrome. The captive and the hostage taker spend such long periods of time in forced proximity that the hostage begins to view the captor in a positive light. The captor would probably not, under normal circumstances, be someone the hostage would cross paths with, but the captivity fosters a false feeling of intimacy and connection. Are you seeing the parallels here?

But now we come to the real problem. The fact that these feelings are being touted as the basis for forever love. The fact that readers are being led to believe that someone who has emerged from a warzone will just settle down and build picket fences and play with their 2.5 children for the rest of their (im)mortal lives. Did you know that after every war, there is a boom in divorces? And that divorces amongst veterans were higher than amongst soldiers who did not see combat?

Take the Lord of the Rings, for example. After the war was over, and the ring was destroyed, Frodo, who had perhaps suffered the most, and upon whose shoulders the fate of the world literally rested, found that he could not return to Hobbiton and resume his pre-Ring life. So confined did he feel by the constraints of everyday life, he finally decided to accompany the Elves on their mission to find Tol Eressëa, leaving behind all that was dear and familiar.

Similarly, almost one in every 3 veterans returned from Vietnam, and one in every 5 veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan succumbed to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Why am I telling you this? To show you that returning mentally and psychologically unscathed from war is impossible. A fact that Suzanne Collins depicts beautifully in Mockingjay, where it’s not all roses and candy, even if it is about true, realistic love.

So here’s my question. What happens to these couples after the Happily Ever After? Can you really see Patch picking up the milk on his way home from work? Can you see Daniel allowing Luce to live her own life, being supportive during the recession, or even letting her pick her own hair colour, for God’s sake? Life doesn’t end after the HEA. In fact, it’s supposed to only be beginning, but as the victims of trauma and conflict, will these couples be able stick together once the excitement is over?

Frankly, no. And this comes back to the basis of teenage true love in YA PNRs. Firstly, they are teenagers. How many teenagers end up married to their first loves? (Some do, I agree, but most?) Secondly, the basis of these relationships is ephemeral, based on attraction and enforced proximity. Thirdly, as The Duck pointed out in her post last week, there is no give and take in these relationships; compromise is the cornerstone of long-lasting relationships, but in YA paranormals, it’s an unknown concept. Fourthly, there is no meeting point outside of lust for most of these couples. What happens in ten years’ time, when the illicit thrill of physical attraction to the ‘bad boy’ wears off? When you look across the breakfast table and realise you have nothing in common with this person except sex?

And now I come back to my favourite example of a ‘healthy’ relationship, Clara and Tucker, from Unearthly. This is a couple that I can actually see working. They didn’t fall instantly in love and declare themselves soulmates. They actually got to know one another, they talked and spent time together; they dealt with their issues and got through the tough times by compromising ad co-existing. So, whatever happens in the subsequent books, and whatever happens after the happily ever after, I will be rooting for Clara and Tucker; I will have faith in the longevity of their relationship.

So here’s my advice to YA paranormal authors: try to think about what comes after. Your job may end at the last page of your trilogy/series, but your characters live on, and we’d LIKE for them to live on happily. One of my favourite things to do after I finish a series is to imagine what the characters are going to do with the rest of their lives. With books like Hush, Hush and Nightshade, I really can’t see a future that ends happily. And don’t even get me started on Vampire Academy! A relationship that starts with cheating, lying and causing all-round misery? Yeah, I’m sure that’s fated to end well!

And on an unrelated note, if you aren’t yet aware of the Jessica Verday brouhaha, it’s time you were! Check out Ceilidh’s post on the Sparkle Project, and Jessica’s original post. I would love to see more authors display this sort of integrity! 

Morals, Values, and Other Capitalizations

by: Katya of Readers United

Do you know what movie stars, writers and Big Brother participants have in common?

People think that being a writer is a sweet job. You don’t need a fancy university degree to improve your chances of getting a job. You don’t have to deal with the cutthroat jungle of the water cooler or suck up to your boss. You don’t have to shower, dress, or even get out of bed to work. You write what your heart desires, get free copies of your favorite books and people pay you tons.

That, as they say, is the gingerbread house that is presented to the public. Nobody talks about the taxes you have to pay or the lack of health insurance, the difficulties of the publishing process and the pressure you’re under. And nobody ever mentions the fact that you are suddenly deprived of your right of privacy.

Especially if you’re writing for teenagers.

The concept that writers are self-employed is pretty accurate – once you get published, you’re a one-man enterprise, a branch of the almighty publishing industry, and as such you are expected to project a certain public image. Suddenly, you have hundreds of online friends, the comments on your blog quadruple, and your inbox floods. Your books are analyzed and scrutinized and not everyone is pleased with their findings. You’re standing in a minefield and you have to tread carefully, or else get your foot blown off.

Very often books get grilled for their abhorrent underlying themes. However, some people tend to take this analysis even further – they tend to mistake the author’s own personal values with the ones of his or her characters.

I find this ridiculous for two main reasons: One, there is more than one character in a book and their morals might, and should be, conflicting. Authors might relate to a character, just as their readers, but just because there is a promiscuous protagonist in a book doesn’t mean that the writer advocates undiscriminating sex. Such a statement, if voiced, can be considered libelous and could lead to legal repercussions.

The second reason is that it’s not really the author’s job to draw up moral lessons from their stories. Like everything connected to the enterprise, it’s considered correct to assume as neutral a position as possible and leave the reader to interpret the story in his or her own way. After all, there are as many stories as there are people, and it would be statistically impossible to write one that everyone would relate to.

Shannon Hale wrote on her blog a series of posts that relate to the topic of morals in stories and the author’s influence. In one of them, several YA writers comment on the issue, and it is truly a varied, broad topic, but one of the main ideas is this: Stories are meant to reflect reality, nothing more and nothing less. While a writer’s moral compass influences their writing in some way, their job is to tell their characters’ truths.

Some types of fiction require a lot more world building than others, which sometimes means that you have to come up with entire new sets of world values. Vinaya wrote in her post Testing Positive: On Teen Sexuality and Mixed Messages how sex positive messages are more frequent in contemporary YA than in paranormal YA, for instance.


“Contemporary fiction writers must deal with society as it is. Paranormal authors have the freedom to tweak their worlds to fit their notion of how it ought to be.”

She remarks on how writers of paranormal YA tend to make up these relationships based on dated, degrading morals and how this affects the readers. I myself don’t think that the writers shouldn’t do that, but I am surprised that of all the ways you can build your characters, we encounter the same stereotypes over and over again. Sometimes I feel like writers, in their desire to be politically correct, make their stories so unrealistic that it’s impossible to relate to them.

Which leads me to the biggest controversy of how Young Adult fiction is perceived: On one hand, people sneer at it and dismiss its cultural and literal value as subpar. On the other, they jump down the author’s throats if they don’t convey the right messages because the intended audience is considered to be more emotionally vulnerable.

There is a good difference between realistic story and one that gives you nothing. Let’s take “Story of a Girl” by Sarah Zarr – it’s a book that deals directly with teen sexuality. The protagonist, Deanna, has sex at thirteen and is caught by her father. This could have easily descended into a soliloquy on how premarital sex is bad, how you shouldn’t give yourself away, how this will ruin your life and all that other stuff that will cause a nation-wide knee jerk reaction in your audience. Instead, the story is delivered with a delicacy and intelligence that is as touching as it is rare.

Good portrayals of reality aren’t limited to contemporary YA. Sarah Rees Brenann’s “The Demon’s Lexicon” is a story of demons, magic and blood sacrifices, but it’s also treating ideas which are not so far away from us than it seems. Love plays a key part in the book, but it’s the familial kind, the one that you don’t see portrayed often in YA, but one you can relate to every day of the week.

On the other hand, let’s take “Torment” by Lauren Kate – a book that also deals with love, but on a whole different level. Unlike “The Demon’s Lexicon”, the romance plays a central part in the novel, and since the two characters got together in the previous book, that doesn’t provide much tension for the plot. What happens is that the book consists mostly of these two people skirting around their problems, fighting, making up, and generally being obsessed with one another.

Out of those three books, “Torment” is the one I find hardest to relate to. Yes, I do realize that men cannot fly. Frankly, if I were subjected to one of the romantic flights described in that book, I’d tell my boyfriend to do me a favor and let me hit the pavement. Maybe I’m weird, but I do not spend my days trying to pick between three amazing guys vying for my attention and lamenting every second I spend without a boyfriend. I don’t find it romantic to have a guy drag me away from my friends whenever I have fun without him.

I’d never dream to say that Lauren Kate was trying to give some sort of message through this book. However, I still relate better to the things in “Story of a Girl” and “The Demon’s Lexicon”. Loneliness, love, feelings of inadequacy – those are things I experience every day, and I naturally lean towards stories that reflect them.

What does this all lead to? It’s not the author’s job to moralize the story, and it is wrong to mistake an author’s personal values with those of his or her characters. However, the more you look at the new crop of popular paranormal Young Adult books, the more you notice characters acting according to some unwritten code for morality – chaste, chivalric love that is as alien to readers as is the Black Plague. Fear not, it is for a good reason - surely that kind of world building will appease the moral crusaders.

But the more I think about this, the more I ask myself, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to want characters like that? There are children out there who have to take kindergarten entrance exams. Little girls teeter on high heels and appear in catalogues as models as if they’re playing some perverse mutation of dress-up. The media is only too glad to raise a hype over some child performer or another, focusing on how extraordinary it is for someone so young to be so successful and raising the bar for everyone else. Heel, jump, roll over, grow up!

Is it really right to coddle teenagers and treat them like they’re three when kindergarteners are selling their childhoods in order to be adults? Why jump down an author’s throat for touching on gritty subjects when society obliterates innocence at its root?

And, most important – should a story really be confined to one genre, one age group alone? Do the lessons you learn as a teenager stop working as soon as you turn twenty? Should a story be read only by girls because it has no action? Are books about gay characters not fit to be read by heterosexuals? Aren’t some truths valid for everyone, be they black or white or Asian or Hispanic?

There’s something universal to every story, no matter how hated or weird it is. As writers, shouldn't we report it? As readers, shouldn't we discover it?

Monday, March 21, 2011

The War of the Literati

When people ask me what kind of books I write, I say, “Contemporary romance”. Nine times out of ten, I can see the person (usually a guy, but not always) turn up their nose and sneer. “You mean chick lit?” is one of the most common questions, in a condescending tone that makes me want to use his/her face as a punching bag. So if there’s one thing I know all about, it’s the difficulty in getting people to consider the literary merits of genre fiction.

But sometimes, the blatant bigotry displayed by some people manages to surprise even me. I came across the following review of a historical romance on Goodreads, and... really, I have no words. See for yourself.
“This book was overly predictable and quite irritating to read. Then again, it was a romance novel, which I feel are poorly written anyway and don't deserve to be considered literature in any way.”

So wait... this reviewer disliked one historical romance, on the basis of which she made a sweeping generalisation about the genre as a whole? She just dismissed thousands of authors and millions of publishing dollars because in her overweening conceit, she believes romance novels don’t deserve to be considered literature? Dear reviewer, ever heard of Jane Eyre? Or Wuthering Heights? Or The Phantom of the Opera? Maybe Les Misérables?  You know what category they all fall under? Yeah, that’s right, romance.

Not all book snobs are as tactlessly outspoken as this one, but that there exists a chasm between literary fiction and genre fiction cannot be denied. Genre fiction is the bread-and-butter writing, the sort that sells and sells and keeps on selling; literary fiction is the cake, receiving all the glory and the plaudits. Can you ever imagine an SFF author receiving the Nobel? Or even the Man Booker? Sure the other writers, the ones in fancy sub-genres such as magical realism and speculative fiction, may be worthy of the honour, but your everyday fantasy author? Not so much.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am something of a book snob too. I would never, for example, put Aldous Huxley and Suzanne Collins on the same pedestal. Despite the fact that Collins is one of the more talented YA authors I know, her realization of a dystopian society sucks rotten eggs when compared to Huxley’s disturbing, disenchanted vision. But here’s the point: You don’t have to be a Nobel Laureate for your work to have literary merit.

Again, in the interests of being completely honest, let me tell you that, despite being a writer and cherishing my work like it’s my first born child, I don’t believe every book ever published, or even every book to ever make it on the NYT list, has literary merit. Some books, in my humble opinion, ought to have been strangled at birth and toasted over a blacksmith’s forge. But there are very many, many gems, real works of art, in genre fiction, that get ignored simply because they are shelved as romance, or young adult or fantasy instead of literary fiction.

And the saddest part is, even in genre fiction there are divisions. The people who read adult fiction look down on the YA readers; the epic fantasy nerds think they’re cooler than the urban fantasy jocks. Male readers think their fiction is cooler and more intellectual than women-oriented fiction... and so on. But really, we’re just making things worse. The bottom line is, good writing is good writing, regardless of genre.

Don’t believe me? I suggest you go read 'The Love Conspiracy', by Susan Napier. This is, believe it or not, a Harlequin paperback romance, but it’s one of the smartest, funniest romances I’ve ever read, with a strong, witty heroine who would stand proudly equal to Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, the book is constrained by the rules of its genre, as is any book, and yet, Susan Napier manages to bring innovation and wit to a genre that is sorely in need of both.

Do you believe paperback romances are all tacky mindless soft porn? Read 'Deal of a Lifetime', another Napier and a very subtle satire on militant feminism, and the benefits of moderation. No, I’m not wilfully reading too much into it; people just tend to underestimate romance writers.

Let us look, for example, at Printz winning YA author Melina Marchetta. Her book 'On The Jellicoe Road', is a beautiful, profound exploration of human emotion. Her writing is layered and textured, the stories within stories revealing different aspects of teenage trauma and abandonment. But despite its undeniable literary merits, how many bookstores, or book critics, would categorize this book as literary fiction?

A lot of genre fiction is stereotypical, sometimes badly-written, clichéd and mass-produced.  But that still doesn’t justify judging an entire genre on the basis of its bad apples. Every writer of literary fiction is not stellar. Even the ones that are considered great are sometimes more the product of good press than good writing. Take for example, Umberto Eco. He is acclaimed as a genius when it comes to technical skill, but his writing has no heart. He has the least aesthetically pleasing writing style I have ever seen. He writes from the assumption that his readers are as conversant with the culture, style and factual background of his stories as he is. In short, he’s a terrible storyteller.

But apparently, there is a general consensus that the less you understand, the more elite the literature is. This is such a massive case of the emperor’s new clothes. If an author is telling a story that more than seventy percent of the world’s population finds incomprehensible, he’s not elite, he’s a bad writer. If you’re going to write fiction, that means you’re setting out to tell a story. Your story might be just that, or it might be a vehicle to declaim the socio-economic structure of the world you live in, but at the ground level, it is a story. Mayowa over at Pens With Cojones says it way better than I ever could.

If anything has damaged literary fiction significantly, it’s the abandonment of that story element which most appeals to the common man. Plot. Long before languages matured enough to allow the excessive linguistic masturbation common to literary novels, man has needed to know the What, When and Where. Literary writers need to embrace plot as much as they do characterization.”

Ironically, while genre writers like me vie for legitimacy amongst the intelligentsia, there are literary writers who worry about the decline of literary fiction. While we worry about being labelled one of the crowd and dismissed, they worry about their inability to appeal to the masses, about declining sales and decreasing publication. It’s like a high school dramedy, I swear. The rich popular girls are tired of being labelled bimbos, and the nerdy obscure guys are tired of being unpopular.

My life has been a study in literary regression. I spent my teenage years reading Hardy and James and Shakespeare; I’m spending my twenties reading Meyer and Fitzpatrick and Stiefvater. But at least, it gives me a certain level of expertise in judging the relative merits of different types of literature. And I say to you, book snobs, that I will bet my George R. R. Martin against your Machiavelli, my Megan McCafferty against your George Orwell, my Melina Marchetta against your Toni Morrison and my Patrick Rothfuss against your Shakespeare, and I will win. Because literary fiction is about beautiful prose, talented writing, and most importantly, an exploration of the human condition. And it doesn’t matter if you write YA or fantasy or romance, if you can incorporate these things into your writing, you’re a literary genius... with the added benefit of a million fans and a bigger paycheque!

Don’t agree with me? Feel free to comment and tell me why! In the meantime, I will return to my favourite stalking horse YA PNRs tomorrow, with an examination of what happens after the HEA. Peace out. 


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Character Creation 101: The Popular Girl

The popular girl is a stock character with a wide range. She can be stuck up and bratty or nice and compassionate. Modern YA authors tend to go for the former rather than the later to evoke sympathy from their readers for the protagonist. It would be absurd to say that you can only be popular if you're a snob, but in YA the protagonist is usually the outcast victim. And rather than create real drama, the mean girl is used. Sadly. she is becoming more and more prominent as the popular girl. Below are some examples of the different types of popular girls in fiction.

The Mean Girl

This is the girl who dates the popular boy, cheats on him, and makes the wimpy protagonist feel inadequate all in one afternoon. She's got her daddy's credit card in her right pocket and the it list in her left. Most often portrayed as a blond with a narcissist attitude, the mean girl is the standard antagonist for modern YA chick lit.

She's got a team of girls and boys ready to do her bidding. She'll do anything to get her way. And she's got an annoying sidekick to reiterate everything she says. She's cunning and has a purse full of schemes to stay in power. Pink is her color and collecting expensive jewelery is her hobby. The mall is her natural habitat and valley girl is her first language. Her IQ rarely spans over 110. Her face is probably going to be pointy, like a rat's, and she's so thin it's a wonder she's not anorexic. Depth is rarely one of her traits as she is more of a plot device than a character.

Examples: Lauren Moffat from 'How to Be Popular', Lana Weinberger from 'The Princess Diaries', Angela from 'The Castaways', Angelica Pickles from 'Rugrats',Pansy Parkinson from 'Harry Potter', and Mia from 'Vampire Academy'.

The Queen Bee

The queen bee, like her namesake, is the 'queen' of the school. Unlike the gossip girl, she doesn't get giddy over boys, they approach her. She's got lots of friends who respect her because of her intelligence and her personality. It might help that she's also attractive. Under-pressure she can be tough but she's very sensitive and has a tendency to cry after tragic events. She may also be from a respected family. Her antagonist is the mean girl who unfortunately can't dispose of her because the queen is just as popular as she is. She is extremely loyal to her friends but can also have a tendency to be clingy. She is very emotional and at times will need a shoulder to cry on. She is also very polite and doesn't spread rumors. This is the girl that every boy will crush on but sadly cannot date because she is already taken. If the mean girl isn't dating the popular boy then you better believe that the queen is.

Examples: Cho Chang from 'Harry Potter', Daisy Walker from 'Static Shock', Lissa Dragomir from 'Vampire Academy', and Susan Snell from 'Carrie'.

The Gossip Girl

This is the girl that giggles with her friends at lunch over their new found crush. She gossips, spreads rumors, and is, at times, extremely shallow. But she is kind to everyone and the girl is everyone’s friend. She had the opportunity to become a mean girl but she took the nice route instead. But that doesn't stop her from being hypocritical and judgmental. She's cute rather than beautiful and dates jocks of all kinds. She falls for guys based on their appearance rather than their personality. And she loves to flirt. This gossip girl will hate a boy one second and make-out with him the next. She can be superficial and have seemingly low intelligence but she does well academically.

She's doesn't act this way on purpose, it's just the way that she is. Do not doubt that she'll be in a clique. She is the head of the preppiest clique in the school. She loves make up and nail polish. Squealing with joy over something ridiculous is also another one of her hobbies. But she likes to nag like no tomorrow and sometimes she will remind you of your mother. She is not afraid to speak her mind even if her opinion is completely absurd. Gossip girls don't have any specific crowd that they run with, they're friends with everyone. She is definitely an interesting type of popular girl to say the least.

Examples: Carly Shay from 'iCarly', Katara from 'Avatar: The Last Airbender', Frieda from 'Static Shock', and Courtney Crimson from '13 Reasons Why'.

The Ice Queen

You couldn't melt this girl's heart with a blow torch. Not even a nuclear bomb could warm it. Approach with caution, the ice queen is a dangerous breed of popular girl ready to tear you into shreds. At first glance, she may seem like the heart-breaker, but she is much worse. Her heart is protected like Fort Knox. She'd probably laugh at the idea of drowning puppies, if she had a sense of humor. Apathy is her middle name and sympathy isn't a game she likes to play. She doesn't date, unless she has a steady boyfriend who she keeps under her thumb. She has probably had her heart broken before and refuses to get hurt once more.

Underneath the icy exterior is a train wreck of emotions that only the biggest fool would try to fix. It's a wonder this girl has any friends. Most likely it has to do with her appearance. The ice queen will never get lower than nine out ten on the beauty scale. She's always there for her friends and will be a shoulder to cry on. Just don't expect her to comfort you. She is a rock, nothing more, nothing less. She doesn't confide in anyone and never cries. Don't get on her bad side because revenge is her favorite game and you can guarantee that she'll get even no matter what.

Examples: Tanya from 'Dark Angel', Rosalie Hale from 'Twilight', Anna Kyoyama from 'Shaman King', Leah Clearwater from 'Twilight', and Rikako from 'Ocean Waves'.

The Manic Pixie

This is the girl that drives guys crazy. They'll wonder why the ever fell in love with her in the first place. She's got her quirks and her flaws. She might be aggressive, self destructive, or just a party girl. But one trait they all share is their sense of individuality. They don't usually fit in with cliques. They prefer to hang out with guys and those guys are more often than not crushing on them. She has to be the most annoying of the popular girls. But she has inner pain that she hides by being unpredictable.

She doesn't mean to be a heart breaker. She is probably moody. She will cry when her feelings are hurt, but only as a last resort. The manic pixie will be the character to die more often than not. She has to be attractive. Her best friend is the only person she truly confides in. She's had many love interests, each different in their own way, but none are more important than the other to her. Sometimes she is used as a plot device to teach the protagonist something about themselves. Her vices will sometimes include smoking and alcohol abuse. She also likes flirting even more than the gossip girl. And she's not as shy about it. Expect her to have leukemia or another deadly disease if the plot calls for it.

Examples: Alaska from 'Looking For Alaska', Samantha Puckett from 'iCarly', Summer from ' (500) Days of Summer', Avery from 'Vampire Academy', Rachel from ' The Animorphs', Olivia and Harriet from 'Lock and Key', and Sarah Deever from 'Sweet November'.

The Heart Breaker

This character is most often confused with the manic pixie and the ice queen. However, she is very different. She has many boyfriend, most of which she dumps. She doesn't feel remorse about it either. Unlike the manic pixie, she doesn't cry about it. She knows that she dumped them for a logical reason and she doesn't feel guilty. She moves on very easily. It's very likely that she had a good reason for dumping them. She has a strong personality and quite an attitude.

Most heart breakers do their fair share of flirting but they have quite the temper and aren't passive aggressive like manic pixies who may suffer from depression. This character has her mind made up and when she makes a decision it's final. She probably has a calender date for when she dumps a boy. She hangs out with a variety of people and confides in no one except for one or two close friends. She may also be quite the bully but she has to be very attractive to keep her circle of friends. Like the ice queen she provides a shoulder to cry on and is very dependable, but she will occasionally provide comforting words. Most importantly she doesn't take anything from anyone.

Examples: Tris from 'Nick and Norah', Remy Starr from 'This Lullaby', Blaise Harman from 'Witchlight', and Victoria from 'Along for the Ride'.

The Green Girl

The green girl doesn't drink coffee, you'll most likely find her in a tea house sipping chai. Or she'll you'll find her eating a crossaint in the park on a cold morning. The green girl and the manic pixie are the backbone for the rom-coms of the late 90's. While she is the least popular of the popular girls she is definitely the nicest. Her compassion and caring attitude draw people near her. She is one of the friendliest characters you'll ever write. While boys will wonder why they're attracted to manic pixies and heart breakers, they know why they like the green girl; because she's nice. She doesn't have to beautiful, sometimes she only has to be average. Being attractive isn't her strong point as she relies on her personality, unlike the ice queen. She'll most likely be a vegetarian or even a vegan.

If you received an organic hand knitted sherpa hat for Christmas, it was from her. One of her major flaws is that she puts people before herself, never caring to think that she can't be a saint all of the time. While she may be the best person to come for if you're in need of advice, most won't simply because she tends to be preachy and over sympathetic to the point of embarrassment. She doesn't realize that she can't be Oprah all of the time. People like to solve their problems on their own, and they don't need her to tell them how to do that. One major difference between her and the queen bee is that she is the shoulder to cry on rather than the one that cries on the shoulder. You'll usually find her outside with animals or in beautiful scenery because she loves the outdoors. Hipsters love this trope.

Examples: Heather from 'Lock and Key', Cassie from 'The Animorphs, Luna Lovegood from 'Harry Potter', and Stargirl from 'Stargirl'.

In conclusion, the popular girl can cover a wide range of personality types but the one thing they share is that people are attracted to them. 

If you have anymore characters to add, or if you think I've mis-categorized someone, please let me know in the comments.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Teen Angst, Lust and Abuse: The New True Love?

Ever heard of teenagers in love? If you’re an adult, I don’t blame you for thinking the idea is ridiculous. Most teenagers don’t have one ounce of understanding for what love is. And teenagers, please don’t jump down my throat; I said most, not all. I know it sucks to be a teenager in a relationship when people don’t take you seriously (trust me, I’ve been there) but when you think about how some teens treat love, are you really that surprised?

In the teenage world, it is common to see girls who enjoy dating for the fun of it, or for showing off in front of their friends who also have boyfriends, or because the boy has money or a nice car, or just because he’s hot. Vice versa for some teen boys. In the teenage world, a common belief of how true love works is that you must dedicate yourself entirely to your partner, they must be the center of your world, and you must be the center of theirs.
  • If they don’t call you every day, they don’t love you.
  • If they want to hang out with their friends once in a while instead of you, they don’t love you.
  • If they have something important to do on a day you wanted to go out with them, they don’t love you.
  • If they aren’t immediately turned on whenever you are around, they don’t love you.
  • If they even look at another girl or boy, they don’t love you.
  • If they don’t want to be with you every second of every minute of every day, they don’t love you.
And the list goes on and on.

That’s not love, that’s teen angst. Lots and lots of melodrama.

‘I can’t live without you!’
‘I want nothing but you!’
‘You’re everything to me!’
‘I’m nothing without you! You’re my whole life!’
‘I need to see you or I will die!’
 

A lot of these relationships tend to go badly from these ridiculous expectations. And even worse, sometimes things go badly because the teen chooses the wrong person. And by wrong person I mean a girl dating a hot guy who, in reality, is a total asshole; a guy dating a girl because she’s hot, only to find out that she's a total bitch. How many times have we seen this happen in high school? 

I have also noticed these trends in modern YA paranormal romance literature. The girls always fall for the hot assholes, the girls need to be around the guy 24/7 or else they die from a broken heart; the girl must dedicate herself entirely to her guy and the guy must do the same for her, and if he isn’t turned on whenever she’s around it means something is majorly wrong.

Yes, I have to say these relationships happen in reality, however, in YA paranormal literature they are glorified as being true love. When did this happen? Even adults who make fun of teens in love gush over books like Fallen and Twilight and Hush, Hush. There’s nothing romantic about them. Melodrama and angst are not romantic. And neither are assholes. 

Whatever happened to love stories with actual love? Where love wasn’t a prize you didn’t have to win, but something you had to earn? And since when does true love consist of immature desperation and abuse? And since when are ideal partners abusive?

Nowadays in YA all the hero has to be is hot and all the heroine has to be is desperate. Put the two together and you get true love. And neither do anything to earn or deserve said love. There's never any real reason why they're in love. In YA, the male love interest is a total asshole, and the heroine is a love-sick little weakling who falls for nothing but the asshole’s endearing looks. 

What does Daniel Grigori do that is so appealing to Luce? Apparently he’s endearing and good looking. However, his behavior is rotten. When they first meet, Daniel flips her off for no reason. When they meet again, Daniel is rude to her and tells her to leave him alone. Then, he begins stalking her and decides that he’s going to make decisions for her. He commands her to do things, and whenever she has any doubts he kisses her and all is well. But apparently, everything he does is romantic.

How does Luce fall in love with him? All she has to do is look at him, notice his handsomeness and she’s head over heels. That means she’s in love and that’s totally cool. 

Let’s have another example of this glorified teen angst abusive romance. Patch and Nora. What is the first thing Nora notices when she sees Patch? He’s hot. What is the first thing Patch does when he sees Nora? Treats her like crap. He scares her, he openly humiliates and sexually harasses her, he puts her up on display to be treated as a sex object at some point, constantly puts her down and mocks her, and even plots to kill her until the last ten pages of the book. But apparently that’s also romantic. Nora falls in love with Patch for no reason other than the fact that he’s hot. No matter what he does, his hotness always excuses him for it.  

NO. 
THE MAN IS ABUSIVE. HE SEXUALLY HARASSES HER. 
HE EMOTIONALLY AND MENTALLY HARASSES HER. 
THAT IS NOT ROMANTIC. 
There is nothing either of them find attractive about each other--other than their looks. 

Neither of these relationships are romantic. And I chose these two as prime examples because in my opinion they are the worse I’ve ever seen. They are shallow, melodramatic and disgustingly abusive. They should not be glorified as being the one true love. You know what that does? It supports abusive relationships. It supports shallowness, it supports control over another, it supports vain and ridiculous concepts of what love is when it doesn’t even come close to the true definition. 

How about I show you a couple that defines what true love is? And it’s not even from a novel, but a video game

Tidus and Yuna from Final Fantasy X. When Tidus first meets Yuna, yes he thought she was beautiful and immediately took interest in her. But it wasn’t a silly love at first sight matter. It was a simple ‘Hey, you look like a nice person, I’d like to get to know you’ matter. Tidus and Yuna start off as friends. Tidus feels comfortable with Yuna out of the group. He knows she will listen attentively to him and won’t put him down or have a lesser opinion of him if he shows insecurity or sadness.

Yuna finds the same comfort in Tidus. Yuna is constantly viewed by her people as a summoner with a high status, being the daughter of the high summoner Braska who once saved Spira, and Yuna is expected to live up to her father’s title. But Tidus is one of the few who look at Yuna and see Yuna as a person first, and not Yuna as a high summoner’s daughter. And Yuna finds comfort in that aspect.

Yuna and Tidus confide in each other their feelings and worries, and throughout their journey they always pick each other up. They find mutual respect and share many of the same issues, and learn from each other. Yuna helps Tidus through his struggles with his feelings towards his father and adapting to the fact that he may never return to his home, but that he can find a new home in Spira. Eventually they do fall in love, but their love develops from trust, respect and caring. 

Now I’m not a fan of love stories, but I find Tidus and Yuna to be a romantic, wonderful couple. And they are a romantic couple. There is true love there. Yuna is not a vain, stupid girl. She doesn’t rely on Tidus to save her all the time. She is independent and falls in love with Tidus for who he is AS A PERSON. It is the same case for Tidus. Though he found Yuna attractive when he first met her, he didn’t fall in love with Yuna because of her beauty. He fell in love with Yuna for who she was.

They both fall in love with each other for who they are on the inside. Also, Tidus never treats Yuna like a sex object, he never harasses her, he never flips her off and he never tries to control her. Though he may be protective of Yuna, he is not protective to the point of stalking her and forcing control over her because he reckons she can’t think for herself. No, he gives Yuna her space even when he has doubts, but he manages to consider that Yuna needs to make her own decisions and that it’s not his place to take control over them. 

Sadly a guy like Tidus would be nothing but a third wheel love interest in YA that the heroine uses as a rebound for her asshole love interest. 

I don’t understand why these shallow and abusive romances are hailed as romantic. There is absolutely nothing romantic going on in these YA paranormal novels. Nothing. The love is based on nothing but desperation and lust.

Everything else is either overlooked, or excused for the character’s physical appeal. And when these relationships occur in real life, people get worried. However, these same people look at these books and call them ‘the love story of the century’. Why? Why are these books romantic to you? Whatever happened to love being about mutual respect, mutual caring and equality? Is that not romantic anymore? Does your love interest have to be controlling and melodramatic? Is that what it takes to be romantic? 

I would like you guys to give me your input on the matter, no matter what side you're on. And if you think books like Fallen and Twilight are romantic, tell me why. I won’t shoot you down, but I am curious as to what you see in these ‘romances’.