I've said it before, I'll say it again: young adult literature predicts the future.
No, I don't mean the FUTURE-future, like the actual events in The Hunger Games. Maybe we really will end up with a totalitarian government that stupefies its populace by forcing its teenagers to participate in games of senseless, exploitative violence.
But the predictions I'm talking about are the ones about the future of pop culture.
Last year, I argued that the success of break-out gay teen characters like those on the TV show Glee was predicted almost a decade earlier by the unexpected success of my first book, the gay teen novel Geography Club, in 2003, and a bunch of other gay teen novels that found similarly unexpected success that same year.
Here's my thesis: for over a decade now, young adult literature has been in the midst of a fantastic creative renaissance where authors and publishers are encouraged to push limits and take chances. Plus, the lower production costs of books in general allows publishers to take these risks.
And then there's the fact that, ahem, we young adult authors can be a pretty smart, prescient bunch. After all, it's literally our job to predict what issues teenagers will find interesting and relevant in the years ahead. That's how we sell books!
The success of The Hunger Games books, and now the movies, is proving my theory yet again.
It used to be publishing "conventional wisdom" that boys wouldn't read books that feature strong girls in leading roles.
As a teen book author, I've known that that's mostly been bunk for a while now. First, that's just not how many teen boys think anymore. Today's teenagers don't see gender the way previous generations did: the idea of boys and girls being platonic friends isn't just not weird, it's the absolute norm. It's just the way most teenagers now relate to each other.
Gender stereotypes obviously still exist, but (I think) this is by far the least sexist generation of all time.
And second (as much as this pains me to say): boys are now pretty much irrelevant to the success of most young adult novels anyway. Increasingly, the genre is primarily being driven by female authors -- and, more importantly, female readers. (Indeed, this is becoming true for almost all literary genres, except maybe literary fiction.) Sadly, most boys are playing video games, not reading books.
The point is, anyone familiar with the YA genre knows that for at least a decade now, strong female characters have been the norm in YA literature. (Twilight, with its boring, passive, guy-obsessed Bella, is an exception to this rule, not the rule itself.)
But from Hollywood, I've heard almost nothing but the old, stupid conventional wisdom I used to hear from publishers: boys won't go to movies or watch TV shows staring strong leading female characters.
Bah! That simply isn't true anymore! It hasn't been true for a decade or more.
But Hollywood couldn't see it. They could've given us strong female movie leads on their own, but they didn't, or they did so only very, very sparingly.
Instead, it took a young adult novel to force Hollywood to give us such movie characters. The Hunger Games was so popular, and so obviously perfect to be adapted for film, that Hollywood simply had no choice but to put a strong female in an action movie lead.
Now it's a huge, huge hit, a major movie franchise that will dominate pop culture for years to come.
All of us who labor in young adult literature could have predicted this: in fact, we did predict it! These strong-female stories are exactly the kinds of books we've been writing for decades.
But up until the very end, Hollywood couldn't see it. The optimistic prediction was that The Hunger Games movie would gross $90 million, not the record-setting $155 million it ended up grossing. These eye-popping numbers violated their conventional wisdom, so they simply couldn't be true.
My greater point remains: if you want to know where the greater pop culture is going, don't look to Hollywood movies or television. They're reactive, not predictive.
No, look to young adult books. We'll tell you where society is going, not where it's already gone.
Ask the Brain is a column where readers can ask me advice about love, life, writing, and, well, just about anything. My massive, all-powerful brain will deign to grant an answer. Either that, or I’ll just make some s**t up.
Speaking of which, do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the city, state, or country where you’re writing from, though that can be obscured if necessary.)
Hey Brain: Well I’m a wannabe writer, I am currently in the midst of producing a manuscript and sending it around. My question is: when should I use my real name or my pen name? Because my books are usually from the point of view of gay youth, and are usually boys — and there’s that whole thing where people say, “People mightn’t read the book because it’s written by a girl and she knows nothing about a teenage boy.” But there’s also a nagging feeling in the back of my mind saying if I use my pen-name and people find out I am not male, then will the readers ‘rebel?’ — Girl Who (Hopefully) Writes Like a Gay Boy
The Brain Responds:
There are a lot of different reasons writers use a pen names, but the most common is probably because authors want to keep their “brand” clear. A book by “Nora Roberts” means a very specific thing, as does a book by Tom Clancy and Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
So when these writers have written books that are in different genres than what they’re readers are used to, they’ve sometimes chosen to use pseudonyms in order to not confuse the reader. With the new name, they’re trying to create an entirely new brand.
As an author who’s written in many different genres (and totally confused my readers), I can say I don’t necessarily think this is a terrible idea. As a reader, I have some pretty strong genre expectations of authors I like too.
But you’re talking about something a little different. You’re talking about the other reason why writers and publishers often use pen names: to hide the true gender or identity of the author.
Most of the times this has been done, it’s usually women pretending to be men so as to not scare off male readers. One of the most famous examples of is The Outsiders author S.E. Hinton — who is actually Susan Hinton, although her publisher worried a female name would confuse critics and readers, since the book is told from the point of view of a teenage boy.
And of course J.K. Rowling made exactly the same choice for exactly the same reason.
I’m not going to name any names, but this still happens a fair bit in gay male publishing. Whether it’s initials (which are a tell-tale sign of a female author) or a complete pseudonym, it goes on a lot, especially in gay male romance.
Should you do it? I’d love to be able to tell you that you shouldn’t — that we’ve long since moved on from such necessities. But the fact is, I suspect a female name on a book about a gay male teen might have a negative effect on sales and critical reaction. (I’m absolutely positive minority-themed books are considered more “authentic” when written by a member of the minority in question.)
On the other hand, a big (and growing!) part of the market for gay teen books, especially romance, is women and girls. So maybe you can start a whole new trend!
I also think you put your finger on a very real concerned: pissed off fans who feel a little tricked, at least if you have an entirely different pen name.
Bottom line? Perhaps using your initials is something to consider, at least when circulating the manuscript to editors and agents. Then once you’ve landed one, you can decide together what the best marketing strategy might be.
Dear Brent’s Brain: This sounds terrible, but here goes: I hate my good friend’s friends. They’re not necessarily “evil” people, but they’re just not people I relate to in any way: they’re often kinda judgmental and superficial, but mostly they’re just plain boring. I know this sounds harsh, I know this doesn’t really affect me, except that I often have to spend time around them. But I’ve tried to like her friends, and I’m just not into them. Part of me thinks my friend is not quite the person I think she is — frankly, around her friends, she’s judgmental, superficial, and boring too. But another part of me thinks my friend just has low self-esteem and, therefore, low standards in friends: if someone expresses and interest in her, she’s too flattered to not be a friend in return. Anyway, does all this mean my friendship with my friend is doomed? Should I say something? And for what it’s worth, I’m not a teenager: I’m 35, she’s 34. — Non-Teen Drama Queen
The Brain Responds:
We all have that friend whose partner we can’t stand. What in the world does he or she see in that person?
Sometimes those relationships don’t last (and we’re thrilled when they don’t!). But sometimes they do. Does it make your friend any less of a friend?
Actually, sometimes it does. A person’s choice of a partner, just like your friend’s choice of friends, is a reflection on her: it’s a part of her identity, of who she is. These friends you don’t like are telling you something important about her.
But it’s not the only part of her identity. A friend might also like cilantro and I can’t stand the stuff, but so what? I focus on the things I have in common, minimize the cilantro-related parts of our friendship, and I carry on.
But for some reason, you can’t. Her friends are more important than her like of cilantro, after all. This is clearly bothering you, so ask yourself these questions:
Why did you become friends with this person in the first place? Is that still intact? When her friends aren’t around, do you still like this person? Is this a symptom of a bigger problem with your friend: namely, that she has no solid identity of her own and she tailors her personality to be like whoever she happens to be around at the time — you when she’s with you, her friends when she’s with them?
But it’s also worth asking: are you a judgmental person in general? Does this kind of thing come up with in most of your friendships and partners? If so, the problem might really be you and your uncompromising standards, and not your friend at all. If so, you might be the one who has to change.
I can’t answer these questions: only you can.
But in the end, friends should be friends because they genuinely like and respect each other. Staying friends with someone out of guilt or obligation does no one any favors: it just makes you feel resentful in the long run, and the friend (usually) senses it on some level anyway, creating many more problems than it solves.
If you’ve got a history together, you owe it to the other person to try to work this through. If you do decide to bring up the topic, tread gently — and put the onus on you, not her.
But if you’re ultimately not feeling it, you’re not feeling it. It might finally be time to move on — or at least downgrade her status from “friend” to “acquaintance.”Now do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the location where you’re writing from.)
As long as I can remember, I've divided the movies, books, and TV shows I consume into two kinds of projects: "dessert" and "broccoli."
Dessert is the kind of project I can't wait to read or watch -- and the kind that leaves me breathless and enraptured and totally entertained when I do. These projects are not always sweet and "fun" per se (sometimes they're harrowing), but the fact is, I want to consume them, just like dessert.
Broccoli, meanwhile, is the kind movie, book, or TV show that I sort of have to force myself to read or watch -- but that I feel that I should consume because I've been told it's "important" or because there was a rave review in the New York Times. I'm consuming it mostly because it's good for me, just like, well, broccoli.
Oscar nominees and award winners are often dessert, but ... um, sometimes they give off a strong smell of broccoli as well.
They're about "the human condition." They're about "difficult" or "small" subjects. They make a point to MAKE A POINT.
And just between you and me, they're also sometimes a load of pretentious, self-important twaddle.
But let me hasten to add that box office hits and bestseller books are not necessarily pure dessert. Sometimes -- maybe even often -- they're just plain sh*t. And who wants to ever eat sh*t?
Obviously my artistic judgments -- like all artistic judgments -- are subjective. One person's dessert is another person's broccoli.
But maybe it's not entirely subjective.
I'm a playwright, and one of the reasons why I love the medium is that it's inherently humbling. If the writer attends a production of his or her own work, he or she is forced to deal with the reaction of the audience.
It's sort of like Amazon reviews times a hundred.
Here's the thing: just by sitting there with the audience, it's almost always incredibly obvious what they think. It's even obvious what specific parts of the play "work" and which don't.
And in my writer's heart of hearts, here's what I, like all who toil in the theater, have been forced to admit: the audience is usually right. Sure, not every project is for every audience. And furthermore, the audience can be swayed by gimmicks and spectacle (but who says genuinely entertaining gimmicks and spectacle are necessarily bad things?).
Yes, the reaction might vary slightly from audience to audience (and opening nights are notoriously bad predictors of anything, since they're stocked with sympathetic friends).
But when something "works" on stage, most people in the audience generally agree that it does; when it doesn't, they don't. They may not know "why" it does or doesn't work -- I think it takes a real talent, and a lifetime of study, to enumerate that. But they do know.
I've sat through many, many, many play productions in my life -- sometimes of my own work, and often the work of other writers.
When it comes to all entertainment, the audience isn't always right -- the People's Choice Awards prove that definitively every year. And then there's Tim Allen and Adam Sandler, diminishing my view of humanity by the hour.
But I think the audience is right more often than it's not -- at least as often as the critics or the award committees (although remember: critics and award committee folks are part of the audience too!).
So what do almost all audiences want from their writers?
Well, they want to be entertained. The way I see it, audiences and readers are doing us writers a big favor to consider our projects (and pay us for the privilege); it's not the writer who's doing the audience the favor here by bestowing his talent or wisdom on the world (which is what a lot of self-important writers seem to think).
Audiences want to be the opposite of bored. They want to laugh, they want to cry. Basically, they're desperate to be fully engaged, but they don't want to have to work too hard -- or be confused or mystified and bludgeoned by a message.
In other words, they want dessert.
But hold on, hold on! That's not all most audiences want. They also want to see something genuinely new. They want to be mentally stimulated. And they (sometimes) want to be challenged.
They just don't want to be preached at or lectured to or talked down to: they don't like writers who think they're smarter than their audiences. And all audiences get really, really frustrated with self-indulgent authors who are too lazy, too untalented, or too disinterested to clearly communicate their visions.
In other words, audiences also want broccoli -- assuming it's a reasonably modest portion, and it's well-prepared.
No, really! This is absolutely true! Ask any playwright or actor: they'll tell you, because they know.
What's the point of all this? It's that good writing is both dessert and broccoli.
I absolutely believe this to the core of my being: a project that is obviously well-intentioned and about an "important" topic, but ultimately boring or confused or preachy?
That's bad writing.
There is nothing wrong with having your audience be thrilled and excited and entertained. On the contrary, that's the writer's goal. And once you've done that, then you can offer up the broccoli if you choose.
Take the Starz series Spartacus. It's chock full of nudity, explicit sex, and stylized violence -- all the stuff you'd expect in a project that is "dessert." But if you've seen the show, you also know the writing is breathtakingly complex, and the themes are large and profound. The stuff of broccoli.
And it was a huge, break-out success for an obscure network that had never really had a break-out success before. But here's the thing: I think it was the "dessert" factor and the "broccoli" factor together that made it the kind of success it was. One or the other alone wouldn't have worked.
Or take Downton Abbey. From a distance, this is broccoli all the way: a stuffy period piece about upper crust Brits during World War I and the servants who serve them? And it's Masterpiece Theatre, no less!
But again, as anyone who has watched the show knows, along with the "broccoli" elements is some pretty sweet dessert: smart, funny writing; crisp, indelible characters; and fast-paced, get-to-the-point pacing. Things happen. Once again, some very sophisticated themes -- about power, gender, status, and all its many consequences -- are made extremely watchable.
(Interestingly, Downton Abbey has many of the same themes as Spartacus, and no, I don't think that's a coincidence!)
And once again, Downton Abbey was a huge, break-out hit for its respective network (PBS).
The audience knows.
Including an element of dessert in your writing doesn't mean dumbing it down, or selling out, or toning down your message. It simply means respecting your audience: not treating them like idiots, or forcing them to sit in an awkward uncomfortable seat while keeping the temperature way too cold.
And including an element of broccoli also means you're respecting your audience: taking for granted that they want works of truth and substance.
The most memorable meals include both broccoli and dessert. They're both important. And together, they're something to savor.
P.S. Before anyone says it? Personally, I love broccoli, even without dessert. Which means it may not make the best analogy for our purposes here. But hey, it's catchier than "dessert" versus "castor oil."
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Ask the Brain is a column where readers can ask me advice about love, life, writing, and, well, just about anything. My massive, all-powerful brain will deign to grant an answer. Either that, or I'll just pull something out of my ass.
Speaking of which, do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the city, state, or country where you're writing from, though that can be obscured if necessary.)
Dear Brain: I'm a teen who's scared to come out that I'm bi. My family is super-religious and strict and heavily involved with church. I told them gay marriage was legal somewhere and they were all "EEWWW THATS SO WRONG." I'm scared they'll sent me to straight camp or something if i tell them? Should I tell them or not? -- Scared Bi Teen
The Brain Responds:
You didn't give your exact age -- if you're a legal adult or not -- but it doesn't matter, since it's clear that your parents still have a lot of power and control over your life.
In your case, the answer to your question is really, really, really easy: Don't come out!
I repeat: Do! Not! Come! Out!
Your family clearly has a lot of prejudice and misconceptions about gay people -- and probably even more about bi folks. So there will come a day when you'll definitely want to come out to them: it will be empowering to you and, more importantly, it will be enlightening to them.
But it probably also be ugly and awkward and messy. Who knows for how long?
But this is why, five or ten years from now when you finally do come out to them, it will be so incredibly important for you to have:
(1) Complete financial security and total control over your life. You will need to be physically safe, so you can't be thrown out on the streets or sent to an ex-gay camp.
To any teenager thinking about coming out, this is a very important thing to consider. It's even more important than making a difference to the world or your own empowerment. Could coming out put you in personal or physical danger? If so, don't do it. Case closed, no arguing.
Five or ten years from now, you'll also have:
(2) Much more psychological support. Being rejected by your family, even if it's only for an hour, a day, or a week, is just about the most difficult thing a person can go through in life. And it sounds to me like there's a very high likelihood that you'll be rejected by your family, at least for a while. If that happens, you'll desperately need the support of your many future GLBT-supportive friends and loved ones who will be able to say to you, "It's not you, it's them." And: "You are fantastic and loved exactly the way you are."
It's really important for everyone to come out eventually -- especially bi folks, who (for important reasons) are less likely to be open about who they are, but who, as a result, live in a world of more misinformation. (It's a vicious cycle).
But Scared Bi Teen, the key word here is "eventually." There is no rush to come out, no deadline.
You'll know when the time is right. But I can tell you strongly, clearly, and unequivocally, this is not yet it.
Dear Brain: I have a writing question for you: do you have any tips on how to handle 'tokenism' in YA? Many of the characters in my book are minorities, and I want to know if you have any characterization tips on how I can avoid having them coming across as tokens. -- Virginia
The Brain Responds:
It's an excellent question, and in fact, I just wrote a blog post about something similar to this -- stereotypes -- that might be helpful for you to read.
Everyone calls for more "diversity" -- racial and otherwise -- in books and movies. And yet everyone is also critical of "tokenism." What's the difference?
To some degree, this is subjective. Someone's "diversity" is someone else's "tokenism."
I think it's a question of intent. If you're writing a story about a character who happens to be white, and you're making an effort to include other well-rounded, non-stereotypical non-white characters, I think that's usually clear and good for all involved.
But it's worth asking: are your non-white characters involved in the heart of the action? Even supporting characters can play pivotal roles in a story -- or they can just be window-dressing. And if you're non-white characters are both non-essential and stereotypical, that is telling you something about your own intent -- and your commitment to the cause of diversity.
Take the recent phenomenon that almost every single police chief on TV (along with many mayors and judges) is now black. On the surface, these seem like powerful characters: after all, they're mayors and judges and police chiefs, right?
But leading characters on TV are rarely mayors, judges, and police chiefs. On the contrary, these are usually the stuffy, by-the-numbers characters that the rookie, but plucky, eager-to-prove-herself lead character goes up against ... in one or two scenes per episode. Either that or these black police chiefs are simply part of the backdrop, with no essential dramatic role at all.
This is where the criticism of "tokenism" comes in. Racial and sexual minorities have made clear and undisputed case that they've long been unfairly censored from TV and movies.
So how has Hollywood responded to this withering and totally accurate criticism?
With tokenism. By pretending to give audiences "powerful" minority characters, but not really.
Clearly, this is better than the alternative. But it grates nonetheless, because it seems so half-assed and insincere. "Yes, yes, we gave you a black character -- are you still complaining?"
Minorities want minority characters that are more than just background characters; they want well-rounded, active, main characters. You'd think this would've gone without saying.
But no. Tokenism is alive and well.
I suspect this is not what you're doing in your books. But it's still worth asking yourself: "Are the most active, well-rounded, and interesting characters in my books always white?" If so, you might have a problem.
Now do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the location where you're writing from, though that can be obscured if need be.)
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What's this? The e-version of my 2004 novel The Last Chance Texaco is free? Yup, that's right -- for limited time anyway.
And for what it's worth, this is one of the most popular books I've ever written -- at least in terms of fan letters and sales (it sold tens of thousands of copies!).
More details below. And if you like it, please help me spread the word by posting a review -- or, hey, buying another one of my books.
The Last Chance Texaco
By Brent Hartinger
(For readers 12 and up)
Fifteen years old and parentless, Lucy Pitt has spent the last eight years being shifted from one foster home to another. Now she’s ended up at Kindle Home, a place for foster kids who aren‘t wanted anywhere else. Among the residents, Kindle Home is known as the Last Chance Texaco, because it’s the last stop before being shipped off to the high-security juvenile detention center on nearby Rabbit Island--better known as Eat-Their-Young Island to anyone who knows what it‘s really like.
But Lucy finds that Kindle Home is different from past group homes, and she soon decides she wants to stay. Problem is, someone is starting a series of car-fires in the neighborhood in an effort to get the house shut down. Could it be Joy, a spiteful Kindle Home resident? Or maybe it's Alicia, the bony blond supermodel-wannabe from the local high school who thinks Lucy has stolen her boyfriend. Lucy suspects it might even be Emil, the Kindle Home therapist, who clearly has a low opinion of the kids he counsels. Whoever it is, Lucy must expose the criminal, or she'll lose not just her new home, but her one last chance for happiness.
In the tradition of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and Louis Sachar's Holes, Hartinger writes about a subculture of teenagers many people would like to forget, in a novel as fast-paced and provocative as his first book, Geography Club.
Awards and Honors
- A 2005 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
- A Yahoo.com Summer Read
- An ALA "Popular Paperback"
- A Teenreads.com "Best of 2004"
- A Genrefluent "Favorite of 2004"
- A MyShelf "2004 Favorite"
- A 2005-2006 Missouri Public Library "Best of the Best"
- A 2006 Michigan Library "Thumbs Up!" Award Nominee
- A 2006 Utah Library "Beehive Award" Nominee
- An 2006-2007 Iowa "Teen Award" Nominee
- A 2006-2007 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award Nominee
- A 2005 Maryland Library "Great Book"
- A 2005-2006 Maine Student Book Award Nominee
- A 2004 Texas HS Reading List (TAYSHAS) Pick
- A 2007-2007 Missouri "Gateway Award" Nominee
- A 2006-2007 Berkeley Book Award Nominee
- A Girls Life Top Ten Summer Read
- An EmbracingTheChild.org Book of the Month
"Hartinger draws on his own previous experience as a group-home counselor to write a fast-paced, riveting story filled with multi-dimensional characters who command our admiration as they struggle against their personal demons...This book should have wide appeal to parents and adolescents alike. Grade: A"
-- Rocky Mountain News
"The Last Chance Texaco has everything a reader could want...Never have I read a book that screamed so loudly to be made into a movie...Don't pass this one up!"
"A fast-moving, heartfelt story...beautifully conceived and executed, very well written [with] characters who seem very real...brutally honest [but] full of hope...You won’t be taking a chance with The Last Chance Texaco. It will reward you on every page."
-- (Oregon) Statesman Journal
"Hartinger clearly knows the culture [of group home life]...The talk is lively, and the whodunnit will keep readers hooked to the end."
"Readers will root for Lucy and come away with a greater understanding of the complexities of group homes and their inhabitants. Hartinger excels at giving readers an insider's view of the subculture."
-- School Library Journal
"Hartinger has a wonderful ear for the diction and eye for the furniture, of all sorts...Lucy, cagey and smart, becomes a character we care about."
-- Chicago Tribune
"After dealing with kids in the system for 17 years and living with foster kids 13 years, I look very closely at books about them and usually find them wanting, but The Last Chance Texaco is right on. Hartinger captured the voices of the kids perfectly and portrays [the situation] extremely well."
"The Last Chance Texaco is a fast-paced, dramatic story, populated with authentic characters...His dialogue is pitch-perfect and his narrative is utterly believable."BUY AT AMAZON
-- The Bremerton Sun
BUY AT BARNES AND NOBLE
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|» Advice to Authors: Stereotypes Are Your Enemy -- But Also Your Friend!|
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard it again and again: avoid stereotypes!
And it’s really good advice. First, it’s just plain boring when your characters act in a predictable, stereotypical fashion — when gay guys are snappy dressers with bitchy comebacks, when black women are always sassy, when disabled or autistic kids are always brilliant visionaries imbued with the superpower-like abilities or the wisdom of the universe, and when Christians are uptight and bigoted. We’ve been there and done that.
But even more importantly? Stereotypes are inaccurate.
Most gay guys aren’t bitchy, snappy dressers; most black women aren’t sassy, most autistic kids don’t have super-powers or know the wisdom of the universe; and most Christians aren’t uptight and bigoted. I’m not making this up: it’s the truth. And if you think any of these things are true, you aren’t getting out nearly enough.
Are there prominent, real-live examples of all of these stereotypes? Maybe. But the reason why we remember these folks is because they reinforce the stereotypes. It’s just the way the human mind words: we seek out information that confirms the patterns in our brain, and we discount the information that contradicts it … at least until the evidence becomes overwhelming, and the pattern in our brain is rewritten.
(I think a big part of the reason why these stereotypes are so hard to rewire is, depressingly, because of media portrayals. Every time a writer resorts to a hackneyed stereotype, it gets further entrenched — and also a cute little kitten dies.)
My point is, good writing is about telling the truth — about convincing your reader that while your story may be entirely fictional, it has the “ring” of emotional truth and honestly. A reliance on hackneyed stereotypes screams to the reader that, no, your story doesn’t have the ring of truth.
Are you with me so far? I suspect you are, because I haven’t really yet said anything that almost all writing teachers say.
So here’s where I complicate things: sometimes stereotypes are good. In fact, usually they’re essential.
Think about this. Let’s say you’ve written a story set in the suburbs. You’re trying really, really hard to avoid stereotypes, so you make all the characters artsy, bohemian types. Everyone thinks outside the box and questions authority.
Wait. Are you sure you’re still in the suburbs? Sure, suburbs are not nearly the bastions of conformity that they’re sometimes made out to be, but … well, does this wild, free-thinking suburb have the ring of truth to you, at least short of some kind of other explanation for people being the way they are?
In short, you’ve gone from contradicting stereotypes to confusing the reader.
Stereotypes exist for a reason: they help us make sense of the world. They enable us to make snap-judgments — judgments that usually are, at least in a very general sense, right. We’re more likely to find an obscure indie ethnic restaurant in the city than we are in the suburbs.
As writers, we use stereotypes just like all people do: as shorthand. With a measured, effectively-placed stereotype, we don’t have to start with a completely blank slate. We assume some common knowledge, some agreed-upon expectations.
And the fact is, while extreme or overused media stereotypes are inaccurate, personality traits are not necessarily distributed randomly across all races, classes, and locales. Tendencies exist, and it’s obviously okay to reflect that in your writing. In fact, it’s required. Again, good writing is about truthfulness, right?
So what’s the distinction? When is something a “hackneyed stereotype” and when is something “reflecting the reality of the character and the situation”?
There’s the rub, isn’t it?
Here’s what I know.
(1) No person in the history of the world has ever been just a list of stereotypes. Even the most “typical” person of any race, class, sexual orientation, or situation has something about him or her that would surprise many people — something that contradicts the “usual” stereotypes. This isn’t political correctness, damn it: it’s literally the truth! And if you’re not reflecting this in your writing, you’re not telling the truth. You’re lying to your readers.
I’ll repeat this in a different way for emphasis: there is no such thing as “typical” anyway. We’re ALL a collection of crazy contradictions. Again, this is the truth. Reflect it or die.
And let’s face it: even if such a crazy-stereotypical person did exist, would you really want to write about him or her? Why? It’s a totally boring, predictable character! And the only writers who are drawn to these sorts of characters are people who are (a) stupid, or (b) have some kind of an agenda.
(2) Your characterizations of specific races, types, classes, and sexual orientations of people get better and better the more of those actual people that you know. Why would this be? Because as you have more real-world experience — as you get further from media portrayals of these people, which are often hackneyed and stereotypical, and closer to “reality” — you literally begin to rewire the patterns in your own brain.
The result? Your fiction begins to seem more and more “real” and “true.”
None of this is easy. Stereotypes are easy, which is why a lot of lazy writers employ them.
But one more time: good writing is all about telling the truth. Which is why the stereotype is always the beginning, never the ending, of a well-written character.
CHECK OUT MY NEW WEBSITE HERE
|» Wait. When Did SPLIT SCREEN Become DOUBLE FEATURE?|
Wait. Didn't my book Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (the third book in the Russel Middlebrook series) used to have a different title?
It did! It was originally published by HarperCollins back in 2007 as Split Screen (with the same “zombie” subtitles).
So why does it have a different title now?
When I was writing it, I had originally titled the book Double Feature, which I thought was really important to communicate the overall “concept” of the book (it's two complete books in one that tell of the same period of time from two points of view -- Russel's and Min's). I also loved the retro sci-fi allusion, which totally fit the plot of the book (Russel and his friends get a job working as extras on a low-budget zombie movie).
- The new book jacket
But my editors didn't like it. They didn't really have a reason, except that marketing had told them, "No. It's not 'colorful' enough."
(And it didn't matter when I said, "Not colorfulenough? The sub-title is all about brain zombies!")
No matter how much I begged and pleaded, my editors refused to give the book my original title. I didn't like our “compromise” title, Split Screen, which I thought was awkward and confusing and didn't fit the concept I had in mind. But I was trying to be a good soldier, so I ultimately went along with it. (And then, of course, after the book was published, I had to read a lot of reviews and email from people who thought the title was awkward and confusing and didn't fit the concept. D'oh!)
Hey, editors and writers don’t always see eye-to-eye. Nothing new about that. And they’re signing the paycheck, so their word goes on things like that. What can you do?
- The original book jacket
Anyway, when I got the rights to the book back earlier this year, I decided to publish my own e-edition, and I was able to finally give it the title I had originally wanted. I was also able to give it a cover that I think does the book better justice than the one HarperCollins chose (authors have no control over their book jackets, alas).
I know that changing titles will probably cost me some book sales, but you know what? I really didn't like the title Split Screen, so it was really important to me to return to my original vision.
Miss the book (which ended up winning the Lambda Award, despite its title!) the first time around? Check it out here!
(Graphic artist April Martinez did my original e-book covers for Double Feature, Grand & Humble, and The Last Chance Texaco, and I recommend her very highly.)
|» Advice to Authors: Alas, You Have Almost No Say in How Well Your Book Will Do|
I’ve traditionally published nine books with major publishers (with more forthcoming), and I’m often asked by aspiring writers, “What can I do to make sure my book is a success?”
There’s certainly a lot an author can do, especially in this Internet Age. But will it necessarily make your book a success?
That’s a whole other question.
The fact is, whether or not a book is a success is mostly beyond the author’s control. I know you’re never supposed to say things like this — if Americans agree on anything, it’s that we’re all responsible for our own destinies.
And I believe this … in everything except when it comes to book publishing.
Here are the things that happen to all new traditionally published books, and the amount of control the author of the book has over them:
(1) In-house enthusiasm. Your editor plays a role here, but it’s mostly organic. You have no control here (although being a jerk can make things much, much worse).
(2) Publisher promotional efforts. Unless you’re a big name and a lead title, it’s all about the same. Some people will get a few ads, a dedicated website, or a small tour, but I can’t believe this makes or breaks a book. You have no control here either.
(3) Reviews and awards/the reception of librarians, industry bigmouths, etc. Assuming you’ve written the best book you possibly can: yup, you have no control (although meeting these people at conferences doesn’t hurt, and — again — being a jerk really, really does).
(4) Bookstore awareness/enthusiasm. You have a little tiny bit of control here, at least with the independents or local stores, in getting them aware of your book. With the chains, you have no control whatsoever. Even the manager at the local chain has almost no control. (This is one of the many reasons we should all hate the chains! Or “chain.” There’s only one now, isn’t there?)
(5) Reader awareness/enthusiasm. This is where the author can make a difference, a big one. But this is undercut if bookstores don’t stock you. So for your control to kick in, other things that you have no control over must be in synch. These days, you’re always available as an e-book, which is no small thing. But in the end, you have some control … and you don’t.
(6) Zeitgeist issues/karmic balance/pure random f**king chance. You have less than no control. And if you try to control destiny, you’ll end up with some screwy, ironic reverse ending, like a Steinbeck novel, or an episode of Star Trek.
Every book has its audience; a book release is simply finding out exactly how big that audience really is.
This all sounds scary and ominous, I know, but it’s really not (that much). But being a published writer means accepting that, yup, a lot of it is completely out of your control. People who write those self-help books saying the opposite, that you just have to “believe” and it will come true?
Basically, they’re idiots. And understanding this can save you a lot of heartache in the long run.
So does all this mean I’m advocating eschewing traditional publishing and turning to independent e-publishing? It definitely has its advantages (as I blog about here).
But go back and look at the above list of six items. If you’re traditionally published, that means you at least have a random chance that the first four items will go your way. But if you’re self-publishing, you have no chance for those first four items whatsoever. All you have are the last two items — and the only one you control is the fifth. That’s worth remembering.
Incidentally, does all this make me sound bitter? I hope not. I’ve been advised to never blog bitter, and I’m really not bitter about any of this, not anymore.
In fact, what I’ve come to accept is that the “breaking out” of a book or any art project is basically … magic. It can’t ever be explained or controlled — and it often acts contrary to what we thought were the established laws of nature.
It either happens … or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t happen, it’s disappointing.
But when it does happen? It’s wonderful!
Check out my new website here.
|» Do Women Care Less About Plot Than Men?|
An acquaintance, who happens to be a film critic, recently told me how much she enjoyed Albert Nobbs, the new movie set in the past where Glenn Close's character has to pretend to be a man.
I hated the movie. I thought it was a total failure on almost every level (except, perhaps, Close's show-y, obviously-intended-to-get-her-an-Oscar performance, and maybe also the period costumes and set design).
I usually love stories with themes about gender, self-sacrifice, and self-discovery, but Albert Nobbs seemed poorly plotted to me: things happen mostly without rhyme or reason, depending on huge coincidences and contrivances. And for an ending, the movie just sort of tacked on something obvious and emotionally manipulative.
But when this friend of mine told me how much she loved the movie, I thought two things:
First, how great it is that all film critics are no longer all old, white men. Seriously: her opinion came from a very different place than mine, and I enjoyed hearing it and thinking about it.
Second, I wondered if women in general care less about plot than men.
This is obviously the conventional wisdom about books and movies: women care more about character and world-building, and men care more about plot and resolution.
But is it true?
I personally love plot. I think a perfectly constructed story -- one with a beginning, a middle, and an end that is both completely unexpected and absolutely inevitable -- is a thing of wonder and beauty.
I get really frustrated with writers and readers who confuse "plot" and "structure" with "formula"; they're two completely different things! And I hate that so many critics and award committees don't seem to care if a book or movie is ineptly plotted, or even if it has virtually no plot at all.
For me, with maybe a very few exceptions, a story without a well-executed plot is like a story without characters: plot is usually an essential component.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is another recent movie that I thought completely screwed up the plotting: the writer and the director took a book with a fantastic plot, one that expertly built up the tension to a powerful twist ending, and turned it into a pretentious, confusing character study with a telegraphed, ham-fisted conclusion (except, perhaps, for the moving final scene, which is taken right from the book).
You could cut out almost any scene in We Need to Talk About Kevin (the movie), and it would make hardly any difference at all. Whereas my attitude about plot and storytelling is that absolutely every scene must be essential to the plot. If it's not, why is it there? Why are you wasting my time? If a scene is only there to add "atmosphere" or "tell us something about the character" -- well, you're probably not writing a project that I'm much interested in seeing. For me, economy of language matters.
(I also don't buy the strong critical prejudice that books without plot are somehow more "sophisticated" or "accomplished" than books with a strong plot -- that "plot" is for the stupid or the simple. But that's the subject for another posting.)
So are there gender differences when it comes to plot? Are women more forgiving when it's non-existent or just barely there (just as men are more forgiving of cardboard characters)? Should the question even be asked?
I've been thinking about my favorite writers lately. Kenneth Oppel (in the Airborn books) and Jonathan Stroud (in the Bartimaeus books) are both masters of plot (and character, for what it's worth).
But there are plenty of female writers who do plot terrifically well too -- Lois Lowry, for one, whose The Giver may be a "soft" plot, but it's just as tightly written, and just as powerful, as anything I've read in the last ten years.
And, um, Lionel Shriver, who wrote the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, is a woman.
On the other hand, I've had dozens of school librarians tell me that a "boy book" basically means "a book with a strong plot." And I've talked to lots of (female) slash-fic writers who are driven to further explore the relationships of their favorite TV and movie characters in their own fiction -- and whether these writers admit it or not, their stories are often, um, short on actual plot.
As a writing instructor, it has always seemed to me that it's my female students who have the most objections to the concept of the "outline" or the "synopsis." "It can't be boiled down like that!" they tell me. Or, "Is this really necessary?" (Even as my male students sometimes say, "I'll fill in the character details later.")
I was one of five judges on a major book contest a few years back, and I read one of the books and just hated it. It's not that it wasn't well-written; it actually was. But it was a ghost story, and it ended exactly where I expected it would. There were no surprises at all. As a result, the whole experience of reading the book ended up seeming completely pointless to me; by taking me exactly where I expected to go, I felt the (female) author had wasted my time.
But one of the other judges -- also a woman -- loved it. She wanted to make it one of the nominees for the big award.
Needless to say, this was going to be over my dead body. "But didn't the ending offend you?" I asked her. "How you knew exactly what was going to happen? It seemed like the writer couldn't be bothered of doing the hard work of coming up with a story worth telling!"
"I didn't notice that the ending was particularly obvious," the woman said. "But didn't you notice how beautiful the writing was?"
(For the record, I thought the writing was good, definitely not great.)
Anyway, this was all obviously just personal opinion; there is no "right" and "wrong" when it comes to art or literature. My dispute with that other judge all depended on your point of view: is the point of a book partly about the destination, or is it more about the journey, with the ending not really mattering that much at all?
Does a story have to have a point?
Assuming there are gender tendencies, maybe one of the points of having these two genders in the world is that we sort of "complete" other -- not sexually, but psychically and spiritually. There is a "masculine" energy in literature, and a "feminine" one, and to write the truly "universal" story, you need to somehow capture both energies.
Hmmm, here I go giving this essay a "point" at the end. Typical man. (And it's also an ironic point, given that I'm gay!)
Or maybe there's no gender component to this at all: maybe some people like plot and some people are indifferent, and some of those people are women and some of them are men.
What do you think? Do you care about plot? And do you think it has anything at all to do with gender?
|» How I Learned to Love E-Publishing (and How It's Totally Freaking Me Out!)|
Truthfully? I was dubious about e-publishing.
Not as a reader. I love my e-reader — in fact, I now much prefer to read books electronically.
But I’ve been a full-time writer of fiction for well over ten years now (with another ten years of “paying my dues” before that), and let’s just say: I’m used to being disappointed by the publishing industry. I’ve had a few very successful years in my career so far, but I’ve also learned that, um, it’s not really realistic to count on that kind of success year after year.
Sometimes the reviews are good, but the sales are bad. Sometimes Barnes & Noble doesn’t like your cover, but it’s too late to change it. And sometimes the movie version of your book doesn’t get made, even though it had a very impressive A-list director attached.
This isn’t my approach to everything in life, but when it comes to book publishing, you might say I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to keep one’s expectations a little, um, low.
Short of Suzanne Collins, I don’t think I know a single long-time author who feels otherwise. Keeping expectations in check might be the only way to stay sane, since writers have so little control over how their work is received (and purchased!).
So a year or so ago when everyone started buzzing about e-publishing, I thought, “Huh. That’s cool. Yes, yes, I’m sure it will change everything.” And like I said, I was enjoying the technology with my own personal reading.
But other than that, I didn’t give it another thought.
The thing is, I had a number of older titles that were yet not available in e-versions. I was getting a lot of email from readers saying they wanted to buy these books, but they couldn’t. A couple of the books were out-of-print, and a couple of others were sort of in-print, but their editors had long since moved on, so one really cared about them at my former publishing house.
I really didn’t want the hassle of figuring out how to e-publish myself, so I asked the publisher, “Please will you e-publish them? I know people are interested — I get emails all the time!”
But they were dragging their feet, so finally I said to myself, “Screw it. I’ll just do it my damn self.”
I honestly didn’t think I’d make any money. I was just doing it because, hey, I’d worked hard on these puppies, and I wanted them to be read.
I started last spring with just one book, The Order of the Poison Oak, the second book in the Russel Middlebrook series that began with Geography Club. Truthfully, Amazon makes it really, really easy to self-e-publish, especially if you know a little HTML.
I designed a cover, pressed “publish,” and promptly forgot all about the whole thing. But a month or so later, some money turned up in my checking account.
A surprisingly large amount of money.
Okay, so it wasn’t enough to retire on, but it was enough to get my attention. When you’re earning a 70% royalty, which is what Amazon pays, you don’t have to sell that many copies to make a surprisingly decent chunk of change.
Was this a fluke?
I tried publishing the same book with iTunes, but it was almost funny how difficult they made it — it was instantly clear to me that iTunes (and Steve Jobs) did not care about books in the least.
So I turned to Smashwords.com, which allowed me to publish the book for every other e-platform (at a slightly lower royalty rate than Amazon, about 60%, since they take their own cut).
Once again, I assumed I was wasting my time — that Amazon so dominated the e-market that it was barely worth it to e-publish elsewhere.
And once again, I was completely, 100% wrong.
E-publishing, which had been a very low priority — just satisfying my curiosity, really — suddenly became a very, very high priority.
My agent and I worked on getting the rights back to some of my other titles, and I now currently have four previously published books that I have re-published myself as e-books: (1) The Order of the Poison Oak; (2) another sequel to Geography Club called Double Feature (which was traditionally published as Split Screen, a name I always hated); (3) a mystery about a girl in a group home, called The Last Chance Texaco, and (4) a psychological thriller called Grand & Humble, a book that won the Scandiuzzi Washington State Book Award a few years ago.
And again, I’m not making enough money to retire, but you know what? I’m actually making a lot more money from these older titles than what my publisher was paying me in royalties (usually a year or so after the sales). If these sales keep up for a few more years, I’ll probably make more from my self-published e-versions than I ever made from their traditionally published versions.
I know! Who knew? It turns out the hype about e-books isn’t just hype.
(Seriously, there are now ads for the Nook and the Kindle on TV. When was the last time you saw ads for anything book-related on TV?)
Just when the book publishing industry had bludgeoned me into a quivering mass of pessimistic goo, it turns around and gets all “morning in America” on me.
I still have books forthcoming from traditional publishers, and I have other projects that I hope will sell to traditional publishers. There is still something to be said for bookstores, and industry reviews, and awards — and the legitimacy and respect all these things bring. Speaking gigs, for one thing. (It all boils down to money, doesn’t it? But hey, we all gotta eat!).
But just because I’m still writing for traditional publishers doesn’t mean that, just like almost every author I know, I’m not also writing an e-book original — specifically, the fourth book in the Russel Middlebrook series, The Elephant of Surprise, coming in 2012.
“Follow the money,” Deep Throat said, and he had a point. We writers do what we do out of love for the craft and for our stories, not for the cash. But again: hey, we gotta eat!
Weirdly, I think I’m in something an e-publishing “sweet spot”: I’m not successful enough to have publishers pounding at my door (and paying me huge bucks). But I’m familiar enough to some readers that my e-books don’t simply disappear into the ether, like I guess they do with a lot of amateur, non-traditionally published authors.
The other cool part of e-publishing? The amount of control that we authors have. I hasten to add that I will never publish any original book without first hiring both a freelance editor and a copy editor.
But this time around, I can write exactly what I want, not the pitch my publisher agrees to because their marketing department says it’s what people will buy.
I can choose my own price — and experiment if I want. And — yah! — I finally get to choose my own book jackets (like the ones a terrific graphic artist named April Martinez did for my e-book versions of Double Feature, Grand & Humble, and The Last Chance Texaco).
The world of book publishing is changing, and for once, it’s seems to be changing in my favor, and it’s totally freaking me out!
Next thing you know I’ll be out smelling roses and whistling happy tunes, and then where the hell will I be?