Genre Pressure

Since we’re all friends here, I feel comfortable admitting the following to you all…

I’m just not crazy about Battlestar Galactica. There, I said it.

Oh, and you know what author I just cannot, for the life of me, get into? Gary Shteyngart.

I know. Those two things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Not on the surface anyway.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I recognize Gary and Battlestar for their objective superiority in their given genres and even would go so far as to say I like them. I’m afraid that’s just not enough for me though. You see, I’m supposed to love them.

This is what I call Genre Pressure. As a fan of well-written science fiction, and as a fan of literary fiction, I should be ALL ABOUT these things. I even love all Brooklyn Jonathans. In fact, I continually pick up stories about self-obsessed writerly types in NYC even though it’s so incredibly lazy and cliche… I eat ’em up though! So why don’t I love Gary?

Genre Pressure works in mysterious ways. It’s the literary equivalent of “he’s just not that into you.” Only, it’s much harder to admit to yourself. No one wants to betray their favorite genre, especially when everyone you completely respect tell you all the time that “OMG You would totally love this!” So usually, I lie.

But nope, not today. I’m coming clean. Well, at least about these two specific examples.

What about you? Who else among us have secretly betrayed their genre of choice for the sake of fitting in?

Strength, Weakness, & Why Everyone Gets Feminism Wrong

There was some discussion this week about what makes a so-called “strong female character,” and since I’m often touting that I want that very thing in a novel, I thought I’d offer my two cents. It all started with Natalie Whipple, YA author and my former fake-battle-of-the-band nemesis. She blogged on Wednesday that she hates the term “strong female character” because it usually implies that there is only one way to be strong. In response, and further elaboration, Sarah Jae-Jones examined what it means to be feminine and the variations of “strength” it indicates.

I call myself a feminist and I don’t understand how anyone, male or female, can say they are not one. Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men, and that women have the freedom to make their own choices. That’s all it is. We are not militant radical hairy-legged man-haters intent on ridding the world of all things male. The thing about applying labels to yourself is that, suddenly, you become every negative connotation that label has ever represented.

Another example, though on a far less ideological scale, is the casual science fiction fan. Say you like sci-fi or fantasy to the average person and you become pegged as a Babylon 5-loving, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, convention-attending fanatic. (How many times have I experienced the “judgmental nose crinkle” after one hears my favorite show has the word “vampire” in it? Yeah, a lot.)

The point is, it’s easier to generalize; the extreme of a situation is always more fun to consider than the reality. To me, real strength is rising above those labels and bringing their original meaning back to the forefront. (And yes, I am attending the Rally to Restore Sanity.) Strength is not the ability to be sassy, independent, or fall out of gender roles. (Sorry, but I buy impractical shoes and paint my nails and am afraid of spiders – and I like to think I’m pretty damn strong.) Strength is the ability to be yourself and be comfortable with that person. There are characters who are less self-assured and still considered strong, but we’ll get to that later.

So what do I mean when I say I’m looking for strong female characters? Well, it’s the same as what I mean when I say I want strong male characters. “Strong” women are not necessarily the single-and-proud modern femmes made popular by Sex and the City. Of course, those characters were strong, for the most part. That is, until the movies showed up and demanded Carrie needed a marriage license in order to be happy, even though the person she married was horribly emotionally abusive to her for over ten years.

But I digress.

Actually, it’s not digression. By making Carrie get married, her character was weakened. She represented the “It’s OK to be single!” crowd (started a movement, even!) and making her marry Big instead of just living monogamously ever after or (gasp!) remain “happily single” the way she did in the book, basically lobotomized her. Yet, making a character like Charlotte remain single would’ve just been upsetting. Her whole purpose was to find love and marriage and have babies. Not giving her that happy ending would have weakened her too. It would have said everything she worked for was all for nothing, and that her dreams were meaningless.

The ladies of SATC were by no means the originators of ambiguously happy endings in the form of marriage. Elizabeth Bennett wasn’t suddenly in less control of her life because she married Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. What made Lizzie strong was her intellect, wit, and refusal to adhere to the restrictions of her time. We’d root for her no matter what she’s done because of who she is. If she ended up single at the end, she wouldn’t be tragic or a martyr. She’d still be Lizzie, who got there on her own terms.

There is also what I’ll call plot-based strength. Think of Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air (made famous by George Clooney in the movie). In Ryan’s case, independence and freedom are not always positive strong points. He is solitary and convinces himself he wants it that way. Then we see how lonely that life is, and just when we think he can finally connect with someone… he doesn’t. The ending is incredibly sad, but the novel sets it up to be that way. Sad endings aren’t always deep and happy endings aren’t always an easy way out. But, in Ryan’s case, his sad ending existed to make the reader reflect. Like Lizzie, it almost didn’t matter if the character found happiness through another human being or whether he decided being alone is what he really wanted. It was his time, place, and circumstances that made him who he is. If we knew him in real life, would we consider him a strong, confident man? Maybe not. But he does make for one strong character.

Back to my original question, now: what do I mean when I say I want strong characters? I want people who transcend the labels, who are multi-dimensional, and who’s endings are in keeping with what they want or deserve. Words like “strong” or “weak” only apply to how you write your characters and what types of lives you want them to have.

To me, the weakest character in all of literature is Bella Swan. She is passive, unremarkable, and has no purpose other than to be the object of crazy-stalker-boyfriend’s affection. She is the poster child for low self-esteem and teaches girls all over the country that it’s OK to be controlled, bitten, and obsessed over, as long as the boy is cute enough. (Oh, and it’s perfectly fine to carry his claw-happy offspring, as long as you wait until marriage and give up your humanity.)

The reason all of this makes Bella weak, other than the obvious, is because through it all, we’re still supposed to think of her as our heroine, and not as the tragic figure she really is.

Writing good characters, like feminism, is about choices. Whether your character is male or female, ask yourself if they were responsible for their story’s conclusion, and, if they weren’t, can it be considered redeeming or poignant.

An Ode to the Hard Way

I read some entertainment news this week that made me stop and pause. That is, after my anger subsided. You see, on publishing’s beloved blog, GalleyCat, it was announced that procrastinating’s beloved time-suck, Awkward Family Photos, is becoming a TV show. The article is here, and it also brings up another success story that we know and, well, have mixed feelings about.

We all remember that Shit My Dad Says was a hilarious Twitter feed that became a less funny book and is about to become what I assume will be a god awful TV show. Likewise, I assume Family Photos will have a similar “so quirky it’s forced” premise and may or may not star a has-been celeb like Willie Aames or George Hamilton.

Blog/Twitter feed to book to TV deals, as a whole, are not bad things. Blogs becoming books seem like a logical next step in the right instances, and adding TV to that mix can work, again, with the right subjects. What bothers me so much about Awkward Family Photos is the same thing that bothers me about the recent trend of fake Broadway musicals like Rock of Ages. They completely disregard the talent and importance of original writing just to make a quick buck.

These blog-to-TV shows are every other typical family sitcom disguised as a recognizable brand. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this is good in theory. Rehashing something we already know is fun, for about a minute. (Remember the Geico Cavemen show? Exactly.) We can sing along, we see familiar faces, and we’re in on the joke. It makes us feel special. But attention-grabbing gimmicks do not a lasting career make. Once people realize they’ve been duped into watching just another According to Jim, these blog-to-TV shows will get canceled.

Now, if your life dream is to produce one massively successful project that will make you tons of money in one fell swoop, even if it means being a nobody a year later, then go for it. I will not stand in your way; I will even support your endeavor. (Everyone likes money, right?)

But if you want to be authors – as in, real, this-is-my-career authors – then do not get discouraged by this flashes in the pan. Things like integrity, patience, and talent not only matter, but they will be what make you last in this business.

I realize I’m sounding a bit Pollyanna and I apologize. My faith in writers, publishing, and humanity in general can’t be snarked out the way the rest of my emotions can. (Usually.)

Lastly, relevant to nothing, I leave you for the weekend with this awesome rendering of various Harry Potter characters’ social media pages (courtesy of @NathanBransford)!

Have a wonderful weekend, everybody! And if you find yourself getting restless, you can always go take some awkward photos and hope for the best.

Lessons from Peggy Olson

Last night on Mad Men, my role model, Peggy Olson, after once again refusing the advances of that guy who saw her naked, asks him why he always “makes her reject him.” I can relate, Peggy. Only my lament is usually to writers. Rather than make my question hypothetical like Peggy, I thought I’d share the most common types of writers that elicit this response, using other fabulous Peggy quotes, of course. Hopefully you won’t recognize yourself, but maybe you’ll be able to save others.

1. Stop barging in here and infecting me with your anxiety!” It usually goes something like this: I receive a query that doesn’t interest me, so I reply with my form rejection. The writer immediately replies, thanks me for my rejection, and sends another query pasted below. I’m still not interested and send a slightly more personal rejection. Writer responds with, “OK how bout this?” This only reminds me of that kid in junior high who keeps asking out the girl who just wants to be friends. It makes me feel bad, but it doesn’t make me respect you as a writer. It comes off as desperate and unprofessional. Wait a few weeks to query again, and be sure to remind agents what your previous project was so we know who you are.

2. “Clients don’t always know what’s best.” OK, I’m stretching with this quote because instead of “clients,” I will say “potential clients,” and the reason the rejected ones don’t always know what’s best is because they don’t look. An agent shares submission guidelines, what they are looking for, and what they are definitely not looking for are on company websites, agent-directory sites, personal blogs, and on Twitter. If writers are ignoring these outlets, then they just made an extremely competitive business that much harder to break through. If my name is one of many on the “sent” list, or if you attach a query instead of pasting it, or you send me a pitch for something I do not represent, then your email is going to get deleted without being read. Likewise, if you send something via snail mail, it not only takes longer to get a response, but you risk having your query lost in the mail. Or, in the case of larger agencies like Curtis Brown, you could get trapped in the General Slush Pile, queries not addressed to specific agents. Few live to tell the tale.

3. “You have everything and so much of it.” It’s easy to understand why writers would want to stand out to agents, to try to get noticed in a sea of queries. What most of these writers don’t understand is that the best way to get noticed is to have an appealing project. The “look at me” queries are usually 90% biography and 10% project. If you are pitching a nonfiction project that only you can write, then yes, you should include background information. (I should point out that I am not looking for nonfiction, unless it’s of the narrative kind.) When parents talk about their kids as a way of saying “I’m qualified to write YA because I’ve spoken to a child before” it just sounds ridiculous. Same is true for the people who are doctors or lawyers or former CIA agents – working in a field you write about gives your book authenticity, but it doesn’t automatically make you a talented writer. The project you are pitching should always be the focus of your query. Everything else is useless if you don’t have a good idea or ability to write.

4. “I wanted other things.” This comes after I read a manuscript, decide to pass on it, but am willing to read a revision. When the revision comes, I’m always excited to read it because I know it’s a project with potential that hasn’t yet been reached. Sometimes, disaster strikes and the writer does one of two things: 1) he or she does a substantial revision, but does not address any of the issues I wanted addressed, or 2) he or she does exactly what I suggested and nothing else, making the overall product appear poorly constructed and not well thought out. Sadly, another rejection has to be given.

5. “Frankly I’m disappointed by your presentation.” It doesn’t get any clearer, writers. Sometimes the only reason agents “must” reject you is because we are just not impressed by your project. That never means “we are all disappointed;” it just means “I” am, whoever that “I” may be. Don’t take things personally, ever, in this business because rejections come with the territory.

The moral of most of my stories here on the blog is to just be professional and considerate when dealing with agents. Respect their wishes, both in terms of how they want work submitted and when they want you to stop sending them work.

Ultimately, there will be someone out there who will respond positively to your work, and what’s important to remember is that the agents who rejected you won’t feel bad or ashamed when your book gets published. We’ll just think, “See? That project that wasn’t for me really did find a better home. Good for you, writer who now has a good name within the industry!”

But, if you’re anything like those immature men who won’t leave Peggy alone, we won’t have to be gracious at all because, chances are, you are still out there… making people keep rejecting you.