Thursday, June 28, 2012

Conflict is fun!

Even when it's not being presented Matrix-style. (source)

A few weeks ago, I posted about the number of writers that admit an addiction to (or at least a love for) reality TV. Most reality shows (well, at least the ones I like to watch) are trashy, shallow...and not real at all. Yet for every person who complains about the amount of coverage the Kardashians get, there's another one who glues themselves to the TV screen every week to see what shenanigans, real or imagined, predictable or unpredictable, the famous clan will get into next. Sometimes those people are the same.

I have to admit, baby Mason is pretty cute. (source)

But two of the most controversial reality shows of the past decade (and two of my favorites) are 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off, Teen Mom. The former highlights the trials and tribulations of various pregnant teenagers, and the latter highlights the continuing years of motherhood for a select few of the girls (another show, Teen Mom 2, follows girls from the later seasons of 16 and Pregnant, and a Teen Mom 3 is planned for the season that just aired). Because the focus of the show is, naturally, the pregnant girls, they are generally (though not always) portrayed as the good guys -- the girl next door, the ambitious go-getter, or even the poor, naive victim. Just like any reality show (and even in the world of celebrity), producers will sometimes go to great lengths to uphold an image for a girl.

Take, for example, Teen Mom cast member Maci Bookout. Maci, like, me, is a Southern girl; she was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, no doubt amongst plenty of sweet tea and Baptist revivals. As a pregnant teen (and, later, a mom), Maci was an all-American girl. A popular cheerleader ambitious enough to finish high school early, with significantly fewer money problems than many teen moms, fans identified with Maci and sympathized with her when Ryan, her baby daddy-slash-fiancé, appeared less than thrilled at the prospect of being a husband and father. Even after they split for good when their son, Bentley, was a year old, Maci continued to mourn their relationship and Ryan's apparent lack of fathering skills. And mourned it. And mourned it. And mourned it...until most of us were like this:

Fittingly, the caption on the original photo  is "just shoot me now." Yep, that sums it up.

Post-breakup, Maci found a new man and moved him in after just a few months of dating. She later criticized Ryan for going out during his weekends with Bentley, after his bundle of joy was already in bed. Two years later, Maci tagged along on Ryan's family vacation and promptly dragged his new girlfriend through the mud, purposefully intimidating her and criticizing their decision to vacation together after dating for only a few weeks. Because moving in with your boyfriend of a few months is totally better.
A little further digging reveals more incriminating information: Not only does Maci travel frequently, leaving her precious Bentley for weeks at a time, but she's quite the party girl herself. In a scene from the much earlier 16 and Pregnant, Maci laments her then-fiancĂ©'s decision to go out several nights in a row as opposed to spending time at home. A valid concern? Perhaps...or it would be, if it weren't for the blatant black X's across Maci's palm. At this point, she might as well take that permanent marker from the bouncer and write "I'm a hypocrite!" across her forehead.

So what's my point? Sure, criticizing a cast member on a reality show is a questionable way to spend one's time, even if it is technically an escape. But people wouldn't do it if it wasn't some sort of release or form of entertainment for them. A few weeks ago, there was an article on Cracked about why people are driven to negative internet discussions. Long story short: Being positive about something is often seen as a waste of time. And in terms of writing...well, this sort of makes sense.

Imagine a story that went like this: Once upon a time, there was a perfect princess who lived in a big castle, had plenty of money, and always got her way. She was as beautiful as the day is long, and she had plenty of family and friends who loved her and they never fought. 
One day, the princess met a prince from a neighboring kingdom. He was as handsome as the day is long and had just as much money as she did. They met, immediately fell in love, and decided to get married. He moved in with her and they lived happily ever after. They never even argued about money because they both had as much as their hearts desired.

This guy was so bored by that one that he fell asleep in a damn cart. (source)

Not exactly a great story, right? Humans are drawn to conflict because we are imperfect, and conflict is in our nature. Any time a story starts out like the one above, there's generally something beneath the surface. Maybe the prince had a girlfriend he left to marry the beautiful princess. Maybe the princess's family and friends never fought with her because they were all afraid of her and were reduced to being her "yes men." Or maybe there were other problems in the princess's marriage that drove a wedge between her and her husband. Plenty of families have great lives, but you never hear about the good times. You mostly hear about the wives who cracked and shot their husbands...or the teenage daughters that got pregnant at 17.
So next time you're fed up with a conflict and just want to focus on the positives...well, that's not necessarily a bad thing! But remember why people focus on negative things, and turn that negativity into a creative positive.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Reality television and writing

Over the past few months and years, after I started seriously looking at author websites and bios and wanting to become a published author just like them, I noticed one thing a lot of writers have in common. Well, a lot of things. There's that whole "we spend hours slaving over our works" thing, and maybe even that whole "we're crazy" thing. But another, more unusual thing I've noticed is that a lot of writers have a particular fondness for reality TV.
Former literary agent turned author Nathan Bransford periodically begins a blog post with a recap of and/or statement about The Hills or America's Next Top Model. Divergent author Veronica Roth has written about both Top Model and Project Runway. And Carrie Ryan, author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth (aka the best zombie book ever) has an entire list of her reality tv guilty pleasures on the FAQ page of her website.

Fortunately, I haven't heard a single author express a positive opinion about Jersey Shore. (source)

As for me, I enjoy some reality TV shows, but I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan of the genre (or would it be a category?). I can't stand reality dating shows because reality shows, despite their name, are already so artificial. I don't like seeing the dating process, which is something that we have already made way too artificial, be made even more phony.

But I do have a soft spot for those MTV reality soap operas. A few weeks ago, I spent an entire Friday night re-watching the third season of Laguna Beach. You know, that "reality" version of The OC that follows a bunch of rich teenagers through their junior and senior years of high school. And season three was the most boring season, so that says a lot about my state of mind at the time.

This is your brain on reality TV and too many rewrites. (source)

And, like the aforementioned Nathan Bransford, I also enjoyed The Hills, the Laguna Beach spin-off in which season 1 favorite (and now quasi oober celeb) Lauren Conrad moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of becoming a fashion designer. And apparently author, because she now has a YA trilogy out about -- shocker! -- a girl who moves to Los Angeles and gets on a reality show. She's also working on yet another YA trilogy about -- another shocker! -- a reality show, the first book of which was released a few weeks ago. I have not read any of her books...but I do follow her on twitter. Does that count for anything?

Alas, when The Hills ended, we MTV junkies needed something else to fill the void. Enter 16 and Pregnant, perhaps the most controversial thing to be shown on MTV since Britney wore that midriff top  in the video for "...Baby One More Time." The show is pretty self-explanatory, as is its spin-off, Teen Mom. Plenty of people complained that the shows glorify teen pregnancy, and maybe they do. But for many of us who are no longer teens, it's an addicting guilty pleasure.

So what is it with authors who spend hours slaving over ultimately brilliant prose and then sit in front of the TV to rot their brain with a phony reality? Maybe that's why we do it -- it's phony, but it's an escape. And, after all, isn't that what entertainment is supposed to be?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On books and bathroom use (not what you think!)

The other day, the lovely Michelle Krys posted a book review and claimed that the book was so good she only stopped reading to make tea and use the bathroom. TMI? She thought so. I didn't.

Though if my bathroom looked this nice, I might visit it more often, even if I was reading a good book. (source)

This entry reminded me of a category of books I call the "sleep and pee" books. Sounds kind of crass, and maybe it is. But that's the first title that comes to mind because these books are so good I only stop reading to sleep or pee. (But not at the same time!)

I'll start with the "holy triumvirate" of young adult novels: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, all three of which I enjoyed immensely. And all three are popular for pretty good reasons: Harry Potter because it takes place in a world that is both different from and exactly like our own. Twilight because it is escapist fantasy fun at its finest (alliteration is awesome!). And The Hunger Games because the stakes for the characters are enormously high and the future world the characters live in is dangerously close to what ours could become someday. What it's already becoming.

And now the runners-up:

Paper Towns (John Green): I really like John Green's books, but even his most popular one, Looking for Alaska, doesn't hold a candle to Paper Towns. I think I enjoyed it so much because it has an element of mystery to it, and I had to keep reading to find out what the heck was going to happen to this missing girl.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Carrie Ryan): One of my favorite zombie novels. I read it over the course of a weekend when my parents were out of town, and the first night I was home alone reading...well, let's just say I didn't get much sleep that night.

The Giver (Lois Lowry): A classic of children's/young adult fiction. Lois Lowry is brilliant; I've read several of her other books and she never disappoints. This is also the book that indirectly got me interested in dystopian fiction (I probably liked it before then, but didn't have a name for it).

Genesis (Bernard Beckett): I had to read this in college, so at first it was just another dull required reading assignment. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Like The Giver, it takes place in a futuristic/alternate world and has sort of a dystopian element to it as well. Why is dystopian fiction so awesome? For the same reason that shows like The OC and 90210 are popular; you think everything looks perfect on the surface, but it's not. Far from it, actually.

Wither & Fever (Lauren DeStefano): I don't remember Wither as much as I do Fever, because I just read Fever a couple of months ago. But I do remember enjoying them both and plowing through them. A lot of people criticize them for their lack of world building, but their strength is the characters. You constantly want to know what's going to happen to them next and how they're going to react to it. And isn't that the strength of any good story? After all, stories are about people.