There is No Feminist Agenda; Only Zuul

You may have heard the news this week that the much-talked about Ghostbusters reboot finally has its all-female cast. I love this cast. Love, love, love this cast!

Of course, there are differing opinions about this movie.

Since the Internet is full of terrible people, I’ve seen some Men’s Rights Activists’ tweets about how this movie is going to dismantle the sanctity of their childhood memories and why do feminists have to ruin society all the time?

Since the Internet is also full of wonderful people, I’ve seen several supportive tweets already hailing the movie as a feminist achievement and waving the Girl Power flag proudly. This is where I needed to pause.

I will admit, I do not like reboots in general. They usually mean that instead of producing an original screenplay, Hollywood opted to dip into the same well because it’s easier money. But! If they were going to do this at all, I’m happy they went with an all-female cast. I’ll end up seeing it because it’ll probably be good, but it won’t be Ghostbusters. You can’t recreate that no matter how good the new cast is. So why not just make a new comedy about women fighting paranormal elements? Men In Black meets Ghostbusters, but with women. You’re welcome, Hollywood.

Anyway.

Hating this movie because it stars women makes you an asshole, and I have no time for that nonsense. Praising the movie as “feminist” feels misguided though. It reminded me of the issues I had with Bridesmaids being hailed as the best movie ever even though it was just a regular comedy (I elaborated on that here: Never A Bride.) It’s great that Hollywood green-lit an all-female reboot, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this counts as feminism.

Asking women to fill the shoes of beloved, iconic figures stacks the odds against them right from the start. If the all-female reboot is successful, it will be a huge step forward. My fear, however, is that it will create a surge in remakes, not necessarily new roles created for women. And, again, let’s not fool ourselves. We shouldn’t have to accept sloppy seconds as an “achievement” in feminism. Much like the recent remake of Annie being designated Black Annie, “Female Ghostbusters” doesn’t exactly make me feel like an equal, let alone someone’s first choice. It’s a lazy approach to diversity. Give me a character that wasn’t established by a man first.

As always, everything relates to writing, which is why the Ghostbusters talk has made me think a lot about my own slush pile. Many queries I receive begin with lines like, “Because you’re seeking strong female characters…,” which I think is great. I also love a good re-imagining of a classic or fairy-tale, but I end up rejecting 99% of the ones I receive. That’s because their “strong female character” isn’t really as dynamic or three-dimensional as they think they are, and their “re-imagining” is just a retelling.

[Digression: When agents and editors say “strong female character,” we mean strongly written. If she also happens to literally kick ass, that’s cool, as long as there’s more to her than that.]

Like a Hollywood reboot (a good one, anyway), re-tellings should be more than simply rearranging scenes in the same story we already know. There should be a reason this story needs to retold for a modern audience. Why are you writing it? What’s your approach? What makes it unique and relevant?

Gender-swapping is fun and can add a different perspective to a familiar story, but I see too many “re-imaginings” that rely on gender-swapping as its only twist. This holds very little appeal to me. The most common I see are Beauty and the Beast, but the female character is the beast; or a typical paranormal romance set-up, but the girl is the vampire who gets a shy boy to love her. Nothing about the stories themselves have been updated or changed. I need more than that to impress me. And I definitely need more than that to convince me the novel is somehow feminist just because it’s not not feminist.

And don’t get me wrong. I love a good gender-swap. Just make sure that’s not all you’re relying on. Feminism is not using the Find & Replace feature and changing Jim to Jane. It’s about creating roles for women, making us in control of our own narratives, and acknowledging that women’s stories have just as much merit as a man’s.

New Title Trend

Happy 2012, everyone! (It’s not past the point where I can still say that, right?)

I’m beginning my 2012 posts the same way most writers begin their novels – with titles.

Titles matter. Sometimes a bad title can ruin a good thing (Cougartown, anyone? But more on that later.). I’ve been having a problem with titles lately. Specifically, titles of television shows. It’s not so much what they are as what they reflect on society. I’m not liking what I see. Usually when I talk about TV on the blog, it’s about something that translates to novel writing, and the title trend I’ve been seeing in the latest crop of sitcoms is no different.

I’ve spoken before about “strong female characters” and what term means to me. Surprisingly, I think TV has been getting “strong” right more often than many novels lately. There was a lull in the past decade (I blame producers who tried to find “the next Sex and the City” by missing the point of the show.) Things are far from perfect, but in recent years we’ve been reassured that characters like Mary Richards (and Rhoda!), Murphy Brown, and Roseanne actually mattered. Women have come a long way. We get to be in charge of our sexuality, choose our own destinies, and have dragon tattoos (but more on that later). We get characters like Alicia from The Good Wife, Leslie from Parks & Recreation, and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries.

So if I’m so happy with the way women are finally starting to be portrayed, what’s my problem? Men are my problem.

Don’t mistake my italics for an emphasis on “men.” I like men, as most feminists do. My problem with Men are the titles the word keeps appearing in. It’s talked about less, but men suffer from sexism on TV, in movies, and in books too. The difference is that most of the better characters are written for men, so the good often outweighs the bad, and the sexism isn’t always as noticeable. But apparently someone over at ABC noticed and wants something to be done about it. Only instead of creating better characters for women, they’re leveling the playing field by creating worse characters for men.

ABC seems to be leading the Man Revolution, beginning with its already-canceled Man Up and Tim Allen’s return to TV, Last Man Standing. Both shows are about men taking their gender back. From whom, you ask? Apparently women, liberals, and gay/intellectual/vegan/hipsters who are not considered “real men.”  

Man Up is about friends who need to grow up, but can’t seem to shake their college lifestyle. It’s a typical boys will be boys character trope that we’re used to seeing in small doses, usually through a supporting character in an ensemble cast. Not to be outdone, CBS had the good sense to kill its new show How to be a Gentleman before it spread, yet is holding on tight to the wizened patriarch of all Men shows, Two and a Half Men. Like Man Up, both of these shows feature men in their 30s and 40s behaving like boys. It’s all fast cars, hot babes, no ambition, and zero self-reflection. On the other side of the “man” spectrum is Last Man Standing, in which Tim Allen has sacrificed his manhood by living in the same house as his wife and daughters, and now needs to return to his manly, undomesticated roots.

ABC’s crowning achievement this year might be their mid-season replacement, Work It, a remake of Bosom Buddies, which should tell you all you need to know. But to elaborate, this is a 2012 sitcom with a premise that was tacky and outdated even in 1980. Two men – extra macho-looking for comedic effect – decide the only way they can get jobs is by dressing up as women. Hilarity, weak premises, and sexism ensue. From the previews, the men look as convincing as women as the Wayans Brothers looked in White Girls. Not only do they neglect shaving and general upkeep even though they are passing as women, but they only wear shoulder-padded pantsuits that I can only assume ABC still had laying around from Bosom Buddies. It’s offensive to men as much as it is women. There is no equivalent to these men in real life, and the level of immaturity and stupidity they celebrate is insulting.

But I digress. Back to Men.

I described these shows in case you hadn’t heard of them, but what it boils down to is that every man featured on these shows wishes for simpler times (for men) when gender roles were defined and all men were created equal, with the same interests, thoughts, education level, and goals. While each show features men in arrested development, they still get to proudly wave their Man title high. And yet, every magazine cover, news article, and end-of-year round-up has been about women (“finally”) being recognized as equals in comedy.

We got to see Bridesmaids… and, um… If you’re waiting for me to name another well-received all-female comedy made in the past year (or ten), then you’ll have to wait until Bridesmaids 2 comes out. Our “Year in Comedy” consisted of one movie, and two new sitcoms, New Girl and 2 Broke Girls.

Notice the immediate shift in title choices. The irony, of course, is that while Men get to celebrate their lack of growth, the Girl shows feature young women trying to make it on their own as adults. Admittedly, New Woman doesn’t have the same cache, but even teen heroines Buffy, Clarissa, Veronica, and Alex Mack got to at least have their names in their titles. (Oh, this year we also got Whitney, which did for female empowerment what its ad campaign did to get me to watch the show.)

Once women are old enough to be taken seriously in the real world, television and media find new ways to infantilize them. Isn’t it so darn cute how those Girls are single and independent and trying to live in a man’s world? Someday they’ll make 3/4 of what those Men do. Then maybe when they outgrow their youthful optimism they can move to Cougartown or become a Good Wife or if they really snap under the pressure, remain a Girl, but ones covered with dragon tattoos. I suppose it’s too much to think they’ll ever be called Women though, right?

Since two of these Man shows have been canceled already, I have some hope that this trend won’t last. I hope that writers will stop thinking that the type of humor that worked 30 years ago is still relevant today, and that the most critically acclaimed shows on TV right now are the ones that challenge gender stereotypes and create non-archetypal characters. And mostly I hope that you, the novel writers, won’t let this trend infect your work.

(Parting exercise: Type in “wife” into the Amazon search bar under Books. Scroll through the bestsellers and acclaimed novels that tell stories of women overshadowed by powerful men. Then type in “husband.”)

Will They/Won’t They

Last Friday, I wrote about love triangles, and how more often than not, your novel will need one. Love triangles represent conflict and choice, even when they’re not about romance, so I deem them necessary. But, this made me consider another often-used romantic element – sexual tension. Maybe I’ve been watching too much X-Files lately, but I wonder where sexual tension falls on the Necessary scale in literature.

We’ve certainly seen sexual tension in books. All romance novels have it, for example, and it’s used within love triangles themselves in pretty much every genre. The question isn’t whether it exists, or even why it exists. In fact, the only question ever associated with sexual tension is – Will they or won’t they? The “why” never matters.

The Will They/Won’t They question intrigues me for two reasons:
1) It implies that the fate of an entire story arc rests on one question.
2) Rarely do we consider what, exactly, we want to happen (or not happen). Will they or won’t they kiss? Have sex? End up in a relationship? Fall in love?

On this second point, some might argue that there is no clear difference between these things when it comes to fiction, or that it doesn’t really matter. I argue against that.

If I may quote a show I quote all the time, Cordelia Chase says of one Xander Harris: “Okay, it isn’t even like I was that attracted to Xander, it was more just that we kept being put in these life or death situations and that’s always all sexy and stuff.”

It sure is, Cordy. Which is why I don’t understand why, in this post-Mulder and Scully, post-Sam and Diane, post-Moonlighting world, we are still bombarded with Will They/Won’t They plot lines.

Literary mystery writer, Tana French, features male and female police partners in her novel In the Wood. In my opinion, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between the two, at least not an overwhelming amount, but they still (spoiler alert) end up in bed together. Do they fall in love after? No. Do they even really explore the possibility of a relationship? Not so much. Basically sex just made sense at that moment in the novel, so they had it. Just like Xander and Cordy (who didn’t have sex, but rather “groped in broom closets” but you get the idea).

I think this is a realistic view of sexual tension, albeit an anti-climactic one. There’s far less at stake if you kill the tension too soon, or don’t have tension at all. Charlaine Harris does this well with Sookie and Eric in the southern vampire mystery series. If you haven’t read them, True Blood handles their relationship similarly to the books. Sookie is mostly with Bill, but there’s just something about Eric that Sookie sees beneath his “evil.” They flirt, but nothing really happens between them… for a couple books anyway. The tension lasted enough to spark interest, but wasn’t drawn out so long that the reader got bored.

Even so, the more I watch the X-Files, the more I think of Cordelia’s original hypothesis. If you’re with the same person every single day, and you are clearly attracted to each other, and you are more-often-than-not in adrenaline-pumping situations, chances are you’re probably going to at least make out with that person. Even if it’s just out of “Yay! We weren’t killed by aliens!” relief.

I understand that “realistic” isn’t always the most fun option, and who doesn’t love good banter and flirting? Still, as much as I love the anticipation and frustration and the edge-of-my-seat-oh-my-god-just-kiss-already!, I developed a bit of a complex about sexual tension after the ungodly disappointment of casually seeing Josh and Donna literally laying in a bed together on The West Wing, as if it were an afterthought. We waited seven years and we don’t even get to watch them go at it? Sorry, but kissing while a door shuts on them was not enough. Ugh. 

There’s a fear, I think, that once the couple in question kiss, the series loses it’s momentum, which is why we had to wait until the bitter end for Josh and Donna to kiss. It’s also why we’re still waiting for Castle and Beckett to admit their feelings for each other, and for Booth and Brennen to just admit that David Boreanaz was hotter as Angel. (Wait, what? I got sidetracked… anyway!)

The only real answer to the Will They/Won’t They question I care about is whether the characters will fall in love. Flirting, kissing, sex… those all have their place and are important, but falling in love takes a much greater risk. Likewise, the risk is just as great for the writer who chooses not to make their characters fall in love. (Note: This does not apply to YA in the same way. The kiss or the sex likely is the defining moment, as it should be, so the characters are free to flirt their way to “the big moment” all they want.)

Even after characters “get together” (in whatever way the writer wants it to mean), I’d still keep watching/reading in anticipation of something more to happen between the two characters. Where else are they going to take this relationship, and what conflicts will ensue while they wrestle with their feelings, and not just their hormones? Characters are allowed to still be interesting after they kiss. And personally, I prefer living in a world – both real and imagined – where a greater emphasis is placed on love rather than sex. (Except for Sookie and Eric, which, uh… well, read the books!)

This is one of my blog posts that have no real conclusion. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. What do you all think? Do you write sexual tension in your fiction? What do you think its role is in terms of creating a strong romance? Is it necessary?

I know I focused more on TV here, but let me know if there are any other good examples in literature I should check out. (Not Elizabeth and Darcy, please!)

In Virtual Reality, What Can’t We Do?

Social networking continues to prove just how powerful it is, more so now in the past few months than ever. When people aren’t using it to oust dictators or organize movements, they are using it simply to connect. I have said before that people who scoff at Twitter, or think online-only friends can’t have real value, clearly have no idea what social media is, and should therefore not talk about it.

Since I just can’t stop talking about Joss Whedon lately, I thought I’d use the latest utilization of the Internet to segue into my topic today. God-among-nerds, Nathan Fillion, recently said in an interview that if won $300 million from the California lottery, then he’d buy the rights to Firefly and distribute it online. Well, the geek world went nuts and a few devoted Browncoats launched this website to “Help Nathan Buy Firefly.” Firefly‘s cancellation is hardly akin to Middle Eastern oppression, but hey, some of us need to create our own problems.

This bit of nerd news does have a point. Cult favorite TV shows like Firefly and Arrested Development have been off the air for over five years, but these shows in particular never seem to have died. This is arguably because of the Internet. Getting canceled these days is not what it used to be. Fans have voices now, and they can mobilize. These are the people who got Family Guy back on the air. Even though I don’t watch Family Guy, the impact that had is not lost on me. A network listened and maybe it’ll happen again with other cult shows…

… But what about cult books?

Have you ever wondered what would happen if your favorite book goes out of print? Probably not – we live in the age of Espresso Book Machines and ebooks, after all. But what about those pulpy noir paperbacks with the awesome covers that, try as they might, just can’t get reprinted. Or what if (heaven forbid!) an agent can’t seem to give away those darn ebook rights? There are so many titles that have fallen by the wayside for either being too old, not frontlist-worthy, or the estates are holding them back. What’s a reader to do?

What would happen if the social media savvy decided to save books the same way they do for canceled beloved TV shows? Do you think they’d stand a chance? If Margaret Atwood or David Foster Wallace were suddenly pulled from the shelves, would publishers notice a public outcry?

Fire Bad, Tree Pretty

(Warning: if you didn’t watch Buffy, you might not get many of the following references, but the sentiment in regard to your own writing remains the same, so please read anyway!)

Last week, I explained some things in older YA that I’d like to see removed from pop culture and many of you were keen to my allusion of writing an all-Buffy post. The transition from high school to college on Buffy was done remarkably well and Season 4, while admittedly my least favorite season, provided the perfect gateway into making “adult Buffy” almost a completely different show, albeit one that was still better crafted and better written than most shows before or after it.

My focus here is on Buffy, but for anyone who is interested in studying craft outside of classic literature, I would recommend watching – I mean really watching – the collected works of Joss Whedon. A while back I had asked the question, Are You a George Lucas or an Aaron Sorkin? in which I discussed the polar opposite strengths of the two writers (timeless storytelling vs. mastery of dialogue). Combine these two strengths and enter Joss.

Now back to Buffy and why the soon-to-be graduate in your YA can learn a lot from her:

“Nuke the school. I like it.” – Xander Harris. When Sunnydale’s class of ’99 graduated, they made sure to literally leave nothing behind. Even if a giant snake-demon doesn’t attack the fictional high school in your work-in-progress, let your main character enter the next phase of his or her life unattached. If the best friend audiences know and love wants to come along for the ride, then don’t stop them. Just remember that a new phase also means potential for new characters and a new audience. Keeping your main character too invested in the past could alienate new readers and inhibit the character’s growth.

“What was the highlight of our relationship? When you broke up with me or when I killed you?” – Buffy Summers. So many YA shows and novels – especially in paranormal – find a way to make the unrequited romance somehow work out in the end. Paranormals deserve happy endings too, don’t get me wrong. This type of happily-ever-eternity dates back to Beauty and the Beast, and they seemed to be OK. But if you want your characters to live beyond their initial storyline, then they’ll need to evolve, and sometimes this means breaking up. Angel realizes that he can never give her the life she deserves, so as much as it kills him (semi-literally), he moves to L.A. right after she graduates from high school. A little Sarah McLachlan music later, and Buffy is a hot co-ed ready to hook up with frat boys… one of whom turns out to be Riley. Yes, Riley was a little bit boring, but he was proof of two things: 1) romance can exist after high school and 2) romance can exist with a human. If you’re not writing a paranormal, then just focus on that first part 🙂

“I’m not your sidekick!” – Willow Rosenberg. For the first three seasons, the hook of Buffy was “teenage girl chosen to fight demons.” That girl also had two friends named Willow and Xander. When Joss took the series to college, he knew that same formula wouldn’t work, especially if he wanted to garner a fresh, “non-teen” audience. So while Buffy was off doing her “ugh, why must I be the only chosen one?” routine, former sidekick, Willow, started to become the most interesting character in the series. College Willow fell in love with shy outcast (and Wicca), Tara, and their relationship became the most functional, believable, and romantic of the entire series. Willow also became a pretty badass witch, which gave her a power and purpose completely independent of Buffy.

“Score one for Captain Logic.” – Xander Harris. Xander, meanwhile, took on a different role. Slacker/C-student Xander didn’t go to college and never developed superhuman powers, despite watching all of his friends and future fiance fight evil through supernatural means. Xander was always the comic relief character, but into adulthood Mr. Whedon made Xander his own man. He kept everyone connected to their humanity. When Buffy’s lone ranger/God-complex got the better of her, Xander was there to remind her she’s not invincible (or that she was just being a bitch). And when Willow’s powers overtook her to the point of destroying the world, Xander was able to bring back her humanity (and save the world) simply by being his adorable Xander self who loved her. Xander is a reminder that not all of your characters need to serve the same purpose in order to matter to the overall story.

“I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m going to turn out to be.” – Buffy Summers. When Angel comes back to Sunnydale just in time for the final episode of Buffy, he presents her with a question viewers had been wondering all through Seasons 6 and 7 – is she going to end up with Angel or Spike? By the final season, Buffy is 22 years old – well beyond YA territory – and is about to finally relax after seven years of stopping apocalypses. She decides that when all is said and done, the only person she wants to curl up with at the end of the day is herself. Twenty-two is still young in that not-yet-fully-adult way. Watching Buffy tell Angel to go back to LA made it hard to believe that this was the same girl who, as a teenager, wanted nothing more than to run away with him after high school. Buffy grew up. She wasn’t ready to commit to someone else because she still wasn’t sure who she’d be independent from all the craziness that’s been her life. Buffy remaining single at the end is smart and empowering, not sad. She is one of the few characters in crossover YA who encompassed that sort of wisdom and insight at her age. Remember that “finding love” does not have to be the only satisfying reward for your characters.

The ways these characters evolve (Season 4 Willow, Season 5 Xander, and Season 6 Buffy, particularly) are realistic in that by the final season, the three best friends are almost unrecognizable from their Season 1 teenage selves. Yet, the changes were so gradual and the circumstances surrounding them made so much sense that it’s obvious their progression was nothing less than natural.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you Buffy fans to go and re-watch the series with your own writing and characters in mind. And if those of you who had never heard of Joss Whedon stuck with me until now, perhaps you are adding Buffy to your Netflix queues right now.

Thanks for indulging me, friends! Now go forth and write.

Graduation

As most of you know, my love of YA is not limited to the page. I am a huge fan of teen-centric dramas and WB-esque shows as long as they are clever, honest, well-written, or just plain awesome (hello, Vampire Diaries!) However, there is a common thread in these series – even in the cases of my most beloved shows, which I’ll get to later – that I think needs addressing. The issue I’m referring to is “Graduation.” Or, more accurately, not showing what realistically happens to your main characters upon graduating from high school. Some grievances:

Let’s Get Married: Before I state my case, I would like to acknowledge all of the happily married high school sweethearts out there. I know you exist. My parents are perfect examples of this actually. Now, that said – please stop making your love interests get married! Sadly, the only literary reference to this unfortunate plotline that I can think of right now are Bella and Edward from Twilight. Their inevitable marriage is depressing for many reasons, but what I’m focusing on here is their age (well, her age in this case). Much like our reigning literary couple, Corey & Topanga (Boy Meets World), Zack & Kelly (SBTB), and Liz & Max (Roswell) are only a few examples of TV teens who decided that getting a marriage license before getting a college degree was the logical next step in their lives. This is so dangerous for teenagers. It’s saying “you will never meet anyone better and you will always have the same standards as you had in high school.” Or, it breeds the thinking that “there is nothing else after high school worth exploring on your own anyway, so why not just get married?” It’s incredibly sad that series like these – with seemingly driven, intelligent characters –  have perpetuated this ideology. I realize “marriage” doesn’t have to mean the ball-and-chain institution that its associated with, but marriage is not something that should be idealized as purely romantic either. No one is more impulsive than a teenager and no one falls in love more often than a teenager. These are not people who should have things like mortgages and babies and joint checking accounts.

Parents As Enablers: Contrary to what Will Smith told us, it seems that in teen dramas where the teenagers are acting completely irrationally, emotionally, and, well, like teenagers, the parents completely understand. They will say things like “I know it will be hard to be away from [boyfriend or girlfriend], but this is your decision.” In real life, college-bound teens do usually opt for college, but in teen dramas, they will always choose the love interest if given the option. Writers, assuming your YA parents are alive and well, let them be parents. They don’t always understand what the teen is going through because they’ve already grown out of such behavior. Want to get married at 18? Want to throw away your full ride to Oxford so you can go to the local community college with your best friend? Most parents, if they have their child’s best interest at heart, would not say “it’s your decision.” They would say “you get your ass on that plane.” Parents don’t have to be a villain, nor should they be portrayed that way, but they should be logical when the teen is not.

There’s No Place Like Home: Destined-for-greatness, Veronica Mars, and teenage genius, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, can go anywhere and do anything. Straight-A students with acceptance letters from the Ivy League to universities abroad to super amazing internships. With so many options, why not choose to stay in your hometown? Er… right? OK, so Willow preferred to battle evil on the Hellmouth, but I mean… there’s another one in Cleveland! Live outside your box for a while, Willow. The literary character I thought this might happen to was Hermione Granger. I didn’t want Ron holding her back, which I fear is what ultimately happened. Seriously, YA & teen drama writers, what is so bad about getting out of dodge, at least for college, if not forever? Again, with few exceptions, leaving your hometown is a necessary experience and teenagers, who no doubt get enough pressure from their parents to stay close to home, shouldn’t need to see their favorite teen characters make decisions that are usually not in their best interest.

Love Ya Like a Sis, Don’t Ever Change: This was written in my yearbook just like I’m sure it was written in yours (if you’re a girl who graduated in the late ’90s/early ’00s anyway). I’ll forgive the “LYLAS” part, but “don’t ever change?” Sorry, but I prefer to grow up and not continue to think and act the same way I did when I was a teenager. My beloved Buffy and Veronica fell victim to the trend of going to college in a group, which is how I know that no writer, no matter how good, is safe from doing this. Other teen shows have notoriously high-school heavy freshman years too (more recently done by Gossip Girl). I understand that building an audience for a TV show takes time and it’s very risky to throw away characters audiences have come to love when moving the main character to college. There’s a reason why 90210 and Saved By the Bell – much like the popular cliques their characters represented – peaked in high school. But when something is well-written, smart, and easily able to take the next step into “crossover” territory, I don’t see any reason why writers shouldn’t offer a realistic look at what happens to most people after high school – complete departure with occasional Facebook stalkage (or, in my case, AIM). I can count on one hand the number of friends from high school who I still consider actual friends, and my life is hardly lacking because of it. People grow and change, and more often than not, the people who were your entire world suddenly don’t fit into yours anymore. Portraying this as something negative rather than liberating not only holds teens back, but it stunts your characters’ growth as well.

Life only begins at 18, yet so many teen dramas keep their characters in the dark about adulthood. Graduation may be the end of life as they know it, but it’s not the end of their lives. As writers, you should write for your intended audience. Just remember not to create a Neverland for them. Chances are, they will break up with the person they are so in love with and the best friend who they can’t imagine living without will be just as fine without them as they are without him or her. These things are downers to a YA audience; I get that. But just like one’s initial fear of the unfamiliar, the anxiety and sadness passes and gives way to realizing how much is still ahead. Unless you are writing a tragedy, don’t let your characters peak in high school. Even if you don’t write them into adulthood, keep them open, ready, and excited for their next step.

(PS: The number of things Buffy did get right (in both the high school years and beyond) is enough for an entirely different blog post, which I may or may not write in the future.)

Once, Twice, Thrice

If you’re a member of Team Coco like I am, you may know that Conan O’Brien launched a campaign to bring the word “thrice” back into our daily lexicon. While I have little occasion to use the word, I fully support this endeavor. There are probably tons of words that have fallen out of the mainstream that are due for a comeback.

And so I ask you – what words do you want to see return?

For me, I like the word “scram.” I always have and think it’s hilarious. And why don’t people get called “nimrod” anymore? Or hear people say “forthwith?” These are valuable words, people! If we, The Literary Ones, don’t bring them back, who will? The Save the Words website can only do so much!

So what say you? Which words do you want to rescue from obscurity before they permanently fall to the wayside?

Here We Are Now; Entertain Us

I’ve been noticing something for the past couple of weeks. I was trying to ignore it, but now other events, that are just as strange, have made that impossible. Friends, on the streets of New York, I’ve been seeing… scrunchies. I’m not talking about the occasional sighting in tourist-ridden Times Square or on the ironically nostalgic streets of Brooklyn. No, these scrunchies are appearing on subways, in Greenwich Village, and in my very own neighborhood. In other words, they’ve hit the mainstream. I mean, what would Carrie Bradshaw say!?

I was willing to let this go. But then, last week on Twitter I saw that #why90srocked was trending, and Monday night on Conan, CAKE performed. Throw in the way-too-soon-and-downright-evil reboot of Buffy and the fact that teenagers all over the country think that being trendy means dressing like me in 3rd grade, and we have one viable conclusion – the ’90s are back.

This is sad to me for two reasons. The main reason is that, since fashion and trends are cyclical, this means that my generation is now the previous generation. This is depressing on an obvious level, not that we all didn’t see this coming. The other reason the ’90s being back is worrisome is because pretty soon we’re all going to have to re-learn, the hard way, that snap bracelets hurt!

As a ’90s enthusiast, however, I’m excited about the return to what I consider the most interesting decade in modern history (pipe down, ’60s fans, I got your back too). I won’t pretend I fully understood the cultural impact the ’90s had on the country at the time; I’m only now, in my late twenties, beginning to process what I had missed while I was busy growing up.

But, to me, the ’90s symbolized hope. Civil rights, including those of women and LGBT (an acronym, by the way, that started in the ’90s), were by no means where they needed to be, but it felt as if equality was finally on the way. Clinton started DADT, and while that was a bad decision (my blog = my opinion), it still managed to spark a national debate, one that is still very present in the news almost twenty years later. Yet, twenty years before that, I doubt anyone would have even noticed yet another government mandated form of intolerance. We probably wouldn’t have been told it was going on.

More than that, the ’90s, in retrospect only, represent the “before.” Better days, if you will, whatever that means. In the way that “post-war” became attached to literature, film, and even architectural structures after World War II, the phrase “post-9/11” infiltrated our culture in what we read, watch, and how we act. With that one morning, the economically positive, civil rights-defending, overall hopefulness of the ’90s came to a screeching halt. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that 9/11 is the source of our current financial crisis. It is NOT. Just want to make that clear.) In the early ’00s, we managed to reinstate socially acceptable racism, only this time with a different face. We had a president who not only encouraged this, but he gave the racism a catchy name (“Axis of Evil”). Suddenly having a cowboy in the White House seemed more logical; I guess so he could play his role in the disaster film we were currently living.

The post-9/11, post-’90s world also created a wave of conservatism that, in addition to racial minorities, gays and women were back to being targets – with fewer voices willing to dissent this time around. The idea of two men or  two women getting married is an actual debate. This should say everything there is to say about the way we (America) feel is acceptable behavior. Likewise, a qualified, intelligent, and, yes, ambitious woman was thisclose to being president, and yet she is still, to this day, being denigrated for her choice in clothing, rather than being challenged on her policies. Likewise, I doubt Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell would receive even a fraction of “credibility” were it not for their darn physical attractiveness.

We live in a time of The Tea Party, a hate group that has not gained such national attention and support since the early days of the KKK. If the ’90s are coming back, I say bring it on. I’ll suffer through a Vanilla Ice comeback tour if it means returning to a time not dictated by fear and hate.

I don’t usually get so political here, so I’d like to state again that my blog represents my opinion only. Please respect it, especially in the comments section, and I’ll do the same for you.

Now, that said – what does all of this have to do with you as writers? Well, everything. Writers are the ones who get to dictate what’s remembered. We’re both a reflection of, and a cause of, what is happening around us.  The bestselling fiction authors of the 1990s do not differ too much from what we see today. It seems there will always be a Grisham, King, or Koontz novel on that list somewhere. Only now our terrorists and monsters represent different things than before. Will we see a return to Anne Rice vampires? Bridges over Madison, or other, counties? What about books like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, that represented a decade so perfectly, the way Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis represented the ’80s? Books written “about the time” in the ’00s were automatically labeled post-9/11. It practically became its own genre. Lorrie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs comes to mind, but there are others.

Did you know that the New York Times didn’t even have a Children’s Best Seller List until 2000? Apparently they wanted Harry Potter to get off the “real” list, so they gave it its own place. Writers, this speaks volumes of the power you have now.

We’re lucky enough to have finally returned to generation that doesn’t need to be pre- or post- anything. And when the previous generation returns, it means one thing – a new one has just begun. Contribute to its discourse, write its history, and, most importantly, entertain us.

George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin

I’m back, friends! I spent a week in 65-degree upstate New York where I escaped NYC craziness and worked on my YA-in-progress. Despite a pretty great week, I have to say it’s good to be home. (What can I say, I loves me some craziness. The return to 90-degree humidity, however, is a different story…)

While writing this week, I noticed that I write a lot of dialogue. Or at least more dialogue than narration. This is neither good nor bad in my opinion, but it got me thinking about writing conversations in general. I’m a big dialogue person – old-fashioned Bogie and Bacall banter, I eat it up. But how much does it really matter? For me, it’s the first thing I notice when reading or watching something, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most important thing I look for. When reading requested material, queries, what-have-you, I usually see one of two extremes when dialogue doesn’t work. I’ll call it the George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin problem.

Explanation.

Take George Lucas. Star Wars has proven decade after decade that Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away resonates with audiences, regardless of generation. He’s reinvented the franchise yet again with Clone Wars, which is currently being enjoyed by the grandchildren of those who were first shocked over the identity of Luke’s dad. (Don’t worry; I won’t ruin it for you.)

Yet, one thing George Lucas is notoriously guilty of (which he’s even accepted himself) is that he cannot write dialogue. Like, at all. Sure, Han’s “I know” to Leia’s “I love you” was pretty badass, but given the rest of the lackluster attempts at romance, I think this gem was simply the result of Lucas’ inability to convey genuine emotion.

Lucas proves that you don’t need deeply meaningful conversation, witty banter, or even a college-level vocabulary to engage a massive audience. It should come as a surprise to no one that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, but consider for a minute if it was a novel (and also ignore the many novelizations that already exist). After a few pages of “I’ll be careful”/”You’ll be dead!” exchanges, I think I’d be ready to throw in the towel. Some things just don’t translate to the page with the same effect.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Now, before I explain the “problem” I have with a person whom I consider a master of dialogue, I will state that The West Wing remains one of the greater written shows of all time, and that I’ve loved everything Sorkin has ever written and/or created. With one exception – Studio 60. So, that will be my focus here. Studio 60, to me, represents exactly what not to do as a writer, even if you’re an incredibly gifted writer. 

Sorkin has a philosophy that one should never talk down to one’s audience. This is evident in his writing, and he stated it blatantly in Studio 60. I agree with him to an extent, but in the case of this “missing of the mark,” let’s say, he manages to take his trademark smart, witty, heightened language and turn it into whiny, preachy, condescending monologue. Even in near-perfect shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has been guilty of preaching. Since I usually fell into the choir he was he preaching to, I never really minded, but there were times where even I felt the eye roll-worthiness of some of Bartlett and Leo’s seemingly unrelated anecdotes in reference to world-changing decisions.

With Studio 60, Sorkin took his preaching to a new level. Clearly still pissed at NBC for firing him from The West Wing, he managed to create an entire show of monologues that made fairly accurate points about unfairness, network greed, and censorship, among others. What he forgot to do while making these Obama-level speeches was to develop an actual plot. Stories and characters on television are created through dialogue, which is another thing he forgot to write. Or, at least, forgot to write it well. Hence, the show failed.

Lucas’ ability to create a world in which people want to lose themselves is a testament to his talent as a writer. Whereas Sorkin’s apparent inability to use words for anything other than wit and intellect is a testament to his particular talent. On the page, however, a balance needs to be struck, whether you’re writing commercial or literary fiction. Exceptions are always made, depending on genre and style, but (for me, at least) I like seeing both factors given equal, or near-equal, weight.

How important is dialogue to you, and how do you approach it as writers? Does every word count toward the plot, or do you let your characters speak tangentially, the way people do in real life? Tell me how you balance your story, dialogue, and character development.

I Just Had the Strangest Dream

Don’t worry. I’m not going to give anything away.

To me, no show has ever fully embraced the concept of “the journey, not the destination, matters,” more than Lost. You didn’t need to have seen the finale to pick up on that. Not to sound too much like Jacob, but life is not about the situation you’re in, but rather how and why you handle that situation the way you do. Lost was a show of ideas and of human nature. It was never, ever, a show about “hey, what’s this crazy island?” Those who are arguing over the ending or still questioning “what’s it all mean?” will probably never be satisfied, and, sadly, those people completely missed the point of the show. I think it’ll be a long time before television audiences are ready to put up with such a concept again, so for that reason, I am sad to see Lost go. 

Moving on.

The end of the most novelistic show on television got me thinking of the most outrageous, satisfying, beautiful, or completely infuriating endings to novels we’ve read. Reactions to book endings usually don’t have blogs or message boards devoted to them, so feel free to geek out in the comments.

For me, my favorite last line might be (I’m predictable, I know), “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody,” from, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. I’m also partial to the entire last paragraph of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (which I mentioned before here).

As for “infuriating endings,” I think I’m guilty of naysaying. That said, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows made me a little mad. First, for people who did die and people who should’ve died but didn’t. Second, for the “tra la la” epilogue. I’ve heard JK Rowling talk about the book, and I understand why she did it, but when I read it I admit to making my “seriously?” face.

What is your favorite, or least favorite, ending or last line to a book? (Rule: Respect the “spoiler alert” code of not being a ruiner! Thanks.)