Thursday, December 26, 2013

Getting the right kind of attention with your writing

When I was nine years old, my family moved to a new town and I switched schools. As an only child on the verge of puberty, I was just beginning to discover how life could get worse once I had to interact with other people and discover that I wasn't really like everyone else. I know now that it's because I'm introverted and a writer. But back then, I just thought there was something wrong with me.

I made a new group of friends pretty quickly, but got frustrated when I learned I wasn't always going to be the center of attention. Most of the kids in my class were more interested in chasing boys (or girls) and getting the newest gadgets than pretending their backyard was full of dinosaurs. So, like I often did when I was little, I ended up entertaining myself alone.

One day at recess, I got upset because my new friends would rather watch two of our classmates kissing behind a tree than play with me. Every time I tried to pry their attention away, I only got shushed or ignored. So the next day, I decided I was going to get them to pay attention to me, no matter what. Before school, I raided my mom's makeup collection.

Looking back, I don't remember what she said about it, if anything. But I do remember that at recess that day, there was more attention on me.

"Um, Mary," several of my classmates said, "I think you used a little too much eye shadow."

I pretended it was an embarrassing flub, but secretly I was thrilled that they were finally paying attention to me. Even if it was for less-than-ideal reasons.

It's human nature to feel like the world should revolve around us. When we're younger, especially when we grow up in small, close-knit communities, we get the impression that we're the center of universe. Then we get into the real world, and we're just a blip on everyone's radar. So how on earth do we stand out? Some take to drastic measures, attention grabbing antics. The grown up equivalent of putting on too much of mom's makeup.

In writing, it's tempting sometimes to reach for these antics to get an audience. We want to write something controversial or sensational just so we can get more attention, so the spotlight will be on us, even if it's for the wrong reasons. It can get so tiring slaving away for months or years on a book, only to have nobody else want to read it. But throw in lots of gratuitous sex and violence, and suddenly people are lining up to read it.

But here's the thing: People who do things just to get attention, not for the right reasons, only get temporary and fleeting notoriety. Everyone complains about outrageous celebrity antics and how people would rather read about the Kardashians' family drama or Justin Bieber getting arrested than to sit down with a good book. But this time two or three years ago, nobody cared about the Kardashians or Justin Bieber. They cared about some other stars who have since faded into oblivion. And chances are, five years from now, nobody will care about today's celebrities. And if they do, then clearly they were doing something right that their naysayers missed.

That same year I used makeup as an attention grabber, a little movie called Titanic was released. My classmates loved singing My Heart Will Go On at the top of their lungs on the playground and ogling Leonardo DiCaprio (can't say I blame them for that one, though). That was 1997, and people are still watching Titanic. Kids who were either babies or not yet born when it was released are just now starting to watch it, and they're just as interested in it as we were in 1997. And it's not just Titanic -- there are dozens of other classic novels and movies that have stood the test of time and been remembered for the right reasons.

This doesn't mean, of course, that a book is no good if it's not remembered ten years after it was published. There are so hundreds of thousands of books published every year, and it's impossible for all of them, even the best of them, to make a lasting impression. But don't fret over the latest celebrity news or resort to gratuity or sensationalism to get attention. Because striving for a better kind of attention is not only more fulfilling, but it can last a lot longer.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Misconceptions about young adult fiction

The other day, the leader of my writing group updated her Facebook status to say she was looking for a new writing adventure. One commenter suggested she write a YA novel that didn't have vampires or werewolves in it.

It was one of those things that wasn't meant to be overanalyzed, only said in passing on a Facebook post. But it made me think. As a writer who primarily writes young adult horror and fantasy, I know a lot more about publishing than the average person, even more than most readers. I know that in the publishing world, paranormal novels are metaphorically dead, being replaced with contemporary, coming of age novels (ex: John Green) as the next big thing. But if I were an outsider looking in -- especially if I was a casual reader who didn't write or pay much attention to publishing trends -- I might associate YA fiction with vampires and werewolves.

And they have been pretty popular lately. I don't write stories with vampires or werewolves, and I very rarely read any of them (though I did just start reading SHIVER). And I'm even getting burned out on paranormal and dystopian, two of my favorite genres, just because there are so many of them out there. So I get that people might  be getting tired of the vampire and werewolf trends. But for some reason, it bothers me that people seem to think so many YA novels are about vampires. It's not because I feel the need to defend them (come on, who needs to defend vampires? They can take care of themselves). It's because people have the wrong idea about just what YA is. Because when they think of YA fiction, their minds immediately go to sparkly vampires and shirtless werewolves. And that's not what it's about at all.

People on the outside of a trend, who aren't fans and don't really care much about the trend, tend to simplify it. After all, you can't love everything, so when you see something you're not interested in and don't understand, you don't want to take the time to learn about it. So you don't. For example, when I think about Thor, the first thing that comes to mind is Chris Hemsworth. Never mind that Thor has been around since long before the recent movies. I just tend to think of Chris Hemsworth because my primary experience with Thor is the movies, which he stars in. But if I ever told that to a hardcore comic book geek, they'd probably think I was a complete idiot.

People have thought for years that YA fiction was shallow and simplistic. Fortunately, that seems to be slowly changing, but the majority of non-writers I encounter (and even a lot of writers) still only have a vague idea of the thing that takes up most of my free time and that I want to turn into a career.

I don't expect people to know the ins and outs of everything that's important to me. I'm not that self-centered. But I'm hoping that as the popularity of YA fiction continues to grow, that people will get a different picture of it in their minds. That they'll stop calling every new YA book-to-movie adaptation "the next TWILIGHT." (I cringed every time they said that about The Hunger Games or The Mortal Instruments.) That they'll hear the phrase "young adult fiction" or "writing" and instead of thinking of sparkly vampires, they'll think about the complex themes and characters in YA fiction.

Or at least not look down on the people who do like these things.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hypocrisy in storytelling

In case you don't know already, I love horror movies. Anything even remotely dark, disturbing, or twisted will probably appeal to me. I love morbid, violent slashers -- the higher the body count, the better. But there's something about this fandom that bothers me on a moral level.

Okay, so maybe my own morals are a bit off from what people expect. And I'm certainly in no position to judge others for their taste. But I've noticed something funny about other fans of these violent movies (and even books and TV shows) that I'm uncomfortable with. I'll give a few examples.

-- on a messageboard for John Carpenter's supernatural thriller The Ward, set in a mental hospital, a poster complained about a shower scene that involved naked women but no actual nudity on screen. If they can show blood and gore, why can't they show nudity as well?
-- In an interview, actor Jon Bernthal (who played Shane on The Walking Dead, before his untimely demise) was talking about a sex scene between his character and another. He mentioned that only a certain amount of skin could be shown on screen during a sex scene, so it had to be very carefully planned out for the cameras. He noted how funny it was that the show could depict zombies and humans alike getting killed in horrible ways, but not a full sex scene.
-- In a video review of Catching Fire (which is technically not horror but still decidedly violent), a book blogger I otherwise admire complained that the two f bombs in the movie were bleeped. She seemed to be convinced that this was done to keep the movie's desired PG-13 rating, and noted how ironic it was that they could show children being murdered, but not drop more than one or two f bombs. Never mind that the character who dropped said f bombs was being interviewed on national television, and it's perfectly plausible that her language would have been censored for the people of Panem. Not to mention one, maybe even two f bombs would have been fine for a PG-13, and they could have easily been left in as is. But because they're bleeped, hypocrisy is automatically assumed, with no thought to the fact that it could have been part of the story.

It's not exactly a new argument -- people seem to think that our nation's morals are totally hypocritical and screwed up. Why are we so casual about violence, but not about sex or foul language?

I'll give you another example -- John Green's bestselling novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I was going to use 50 SHADES OF GREY, but it is actually quasi violent and deals with BDSM, so it's not a good example. TFIOS, on the other hand, is a romance. The primary plot line follows two cancerous teenagers falling in love. Not exactly a violent book. Yes (spoiler alert!) there is sex in the book and, as far as I know, nobody has really complained about that. Yet nobody has complained about the lack of violence in the book either.

So, let me get this straight -- it's perfectly okay for a book about love/romance/sex to not have violence. But when a movie about violence/horror doesn't have sex in it, it's hypocritical? It seems like the people so quick to accuse writers and filmmakers and even America of hypocrisy have forgotten what books and movies are really about -- telling a good story.

I'm not morally opposed to sex on screen, or even sex in general. But I don't normally care to see it either. It's just a personal preference -- it doesn't appeal to me like it does to some people. And if it did, I would watch movies and TV shows and read books where the story called for a lot of sex.

But sex scares me. I've always believed, like many people, that it should go hand in hand with relationships, and relationships scare me. I've never been very good at them, romantic or otherwise. The thought of being so close to someone makes me uncomfortable. Yet because I love violence in movies and not sex, a lot of people would assume I'm just a hypocrite or a prude. They don't understand how much that gets to me, that this is a very real fear of mine. It hurts to have it written off or even mocked -- especially in a world where sex is everywhere and I have to pretend like it's totally normal or risk being labeled and judged.

I have read books where characters didn't have sex and it felt contrived and weird to leave it out. But just because a story is violent but not sexual (or even involving other controversial things like swearing) doesn't mean it's hypocritical. It bothers me that people seem to automatically assume hypocrisy because a story has one controversial or inappropriate thing, but not another. Why does a story about violence or monsters have to have sexual content in it? It might -- but it might not, and leaving out a sex scene or lots of swearing because putting it in would be gratuitous and not serve the story well would be silly and not very good storytelling.

As for Catching Fire, I was actually kind of upset when I learned there would be not one, but two f bombs dropped in the movie. The word doesn't appear a single time in the books, which take place hundreds of years in the future -- who knows if they're even part of the normal vocabulary in Panem? But when I learned they would be said by Johanna Mason, I decided to keep an open mind. If any Hunger Games character would use foul language, it would be Johanna. And the way she screams "FUCK YOU" in the middle of her interview is brilliant. Sure, you could argue that it was hypocritical of the Capitol to allow the murder of children but not an f bomb or two on TV. But come on, it's not like you're supposed to be rooting for the Capitol anyway.

So please, before you assume hypocrisy, think about storytelling and being gratuitous. Every word, every scene, every single little thing has to be important. And if someone loves violence but doesn't want to see a lot of sex, don't assume they're hypocrites. You don't know why a person likes what they do, or why they are the way they are. There is nothing wrong with telling a story the way it needs to be told -- even if it's not the way you wanted the story to go.

Rant over.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ignoring your inner editor

Over the past three weeks or so, I've been completely wrapped up in NaNoWriMo- National Novel Writing Month. It's been more of a challenge this year to get to 50,000 words in just 30 days, but luckily I'm stubborn, so I'm going to keep going until I get there.

As I was getting some writing in this morning, a hot issue in the writing world came to mind: Diversity. Embracing diversity is important for a lot of teenagers, so it's also a pretty hot topic among those of is who write for teenagers.

Diversity is a wonderful thing. We're all so different, and it's always great to come together despite our differences and include all sorts of characters in our stories. But a few months ago, I read a rather unsettling article from a rather well-known author (who, for obvious reasons, I won't name). In an otherwise good article about diversity in YA fiction, said author told all of her fellow authors that if we didn't have at least one character in each of our novels who was in some sort of minority-race, sexual orientation, anything else that set them apart from the "typical" protagonist-we were in the wrong.

As an author, I find this tremendously unsettling. We're always taught to be authentic, to tell a story that needs to be told in the way it needs to be told. And it's great to include characters in a story that are different from you. But I'm bothered by the idea of sticking a "token" minority character in a story just to fulfill a quota for social acceptance in the writing community.

I being this up under the topic of inner editors because this is something I've gotten pretty good a turning off. When we sit down to write, we often hear voices in our heads-our peers or friends or family telling us our writing isn't good enough. I thought I had learned to shut these voices out, until I read this post all those months ago. Now every time I write about a character significantly different from me-whether they're a different race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever-I wonder if I'm writing them that way because that's who they are, or if I'm afraid of being labeled dismissive or close minded if I don't write them this way.

The protagonist of my NaNo novel is an attractive blonde teenage girl. Her love interest is a Native American boy, and her (former) best friend is Hispanic. I love that her new love interest is so different, both in looks and personality, than her jerk of an ex (who also appears on the story). And I cheated a little bit on NaNo this year, and am expanding a short story I wrote years ago, before I was aware of the diversity in YA issue and how big it was. So I know I'm not writing them this way because I want to subconsciously fulfill some socially acceptable quota. Yet I'm the scene I just wrote, where my pretty blonde protag gets chosen for a date over her equally pretty Hispanic friend, I wonder if some people will think I'm being close minded, dismissive, or maybe even racist.

I guess I still have some work to do on shutting up that pesky inner editor voice. How do you deal with your inner editor? Whose voice do you usually hear?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Young Adult Fiction 101

The world of young adult (YA fiction) is sort of small. Most people who don't read and/or write it aren't always sure what it really even is. It's always been sort of a "you know it when you see it" kind of thing. Except it isn't. Publishers and literary agents have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes YA -- and what doesn't.

I talked to a guy last night who was not only upset that most of his favorite novels were considered YA, but had no clue what YA really even is. He thought any novel that didn't have sex was considered YA, and was genuinely shocked when I told him otherwise. I mean, really shocked. He had the same stunned look on his face I had at the end of MOCKINGJAY.

Prim does WHAT?!

This guy also talked about one of his favorite books that was apparently shelved with the children's literature only because it involved talking animals. Which leads me to believe that readers don't know who books are targeted to because booksellers, the people who put the books out there for them to see, don't really know either. Which is kind of disheartening -- but up until a few years ago, I didn't know this stuff either! But from spending several years in the writing world, I can tell you three major things that make a novel YA.

1.) YA novels have a teenage protagonist. Even though the rest of the world thinks of "young adults" as people in their 20's, in publishing terms, YA covers the 12 to 17 age range. Sometimes a book will be shelved as YA if the protagonist is a little younger but the subject matter is darker. But a YA protagonist is usually high school aged.

2.) The protagonist goes through a "coming of age" experience, has a problem that is genuinely associated with teenagers, and/or has to solve a problem largely without the help of adults. The protagonist is always the center of the story, regardless of your target age range. So it makes sense that a novel geared to teens has to have a teen solving teenage problems. First love is a really common theme for YA novels (TWILIGHT anyone?) because a lot of people experience their first love as teenagers. This is probably why paranormal romance in general is so popular in YA. First love is scary enough -- what if you threw in a twist and your first love was a supernatural creature?

3.) In general, YA novels (especially debut novels) are shorter and more fast paced than adult novels. Teenagers these days are facing 8 gadzillion distractions that can so easily pull their attention away from books. Not just television and video games and smartphones but homework and after school activities and hanging out with friends. A novel has to have stuff happening in a short time frame or it'll lose its audience to the next popular app.

And that's pretty much it. YA novels do tend to have less dark subject matter than adult novels, but they're not all clean as a whistle either. But when I'm looking at a book, these are the criteria I tend to go to to determine if it's YA, adult, or even children's. Don't assume a book is not for teenagers because it has sex or violence. Teenagers are much less sheltered than we give them credit for. And if you ever meet someone who has some warped idea of what YA really is, don't be afraid to -- gently! -- correct them.

Anything else people should know about YA fiction?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Reminisce on memories and find the silver lining

One thing I've learned as I've gotten older is life is basically a roller coaster, full of abrupt highs and lows. Today I experience a low that some people would consider pretty insignificant: One of my favorite bands, the Jonas Brothers, announced they were breaking up.

In some strange way, I feel like I'm dealing with an actual breakup. All the emotions are there: The sadness, the anger, the frustration and despair and fear of what the future holds. I've been a Jonas fan for five years. I've seen them live twice, met them twice, and made a lot of friends and experienced a lot of cool things because of them. Even though we've gotten some subtle (and not so subtle) hints that there was trouble, it still feels like a huge part of the last five years of my life just came to a screeching halt.

So at first I was shocked.

And now I'm going to be sad for awhile.

Then I'm going to be mad.

Then I'm going to be sad again.

Then I'll probably be happy again, until the summer rolls around and I realize I don't have any more of their concerts to go to. Then I'll be sad yet again.

Then someone will say they don't care the Jonas Brothers are over, that I shouldn't care and that they're stupid, talent-less hacks anyway.

And then I'll realize most of those gifs were Hunger Games related and Catching Fire is coming out in less than a month.

And then I'll look back on all the good Jonas times, like when I got to celebrate Joe's 20th birthday with them.


So, to all my fellow Jonas fans: Reminisce on memories, and I'll see you at the finish line.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cemetery "research" in New Orleans

Hey, internet friends. Long time no talk. Haven't blogged much lately because...well, there hasn't been much to blog about. But I'm starting a new job next week and thought now was the perfect time to take the trip to New Orleans I've been planning.

The novel I'm currently working on is about a group of necromancers in New Orleans. The protagonist has a strange fascination with death and even wants to become a mortician. And what better place to have fun vacation research death in New Orleans than a cemetery tour? So I booked a tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and spent this past Wednesday walking around the French Quarter. (Don't worry, I didn't go alone-I dragged my parents along with me.)

The French Quarter is not for the claustrophobic. The streets are already narrow and people park on them, leaving limited room for driving. Fortunately there are parking lots, but the bathrooms are a tight squeeze too. Right before the tour, mom and I slipped in a bar to use the bathroom...and I got carded. Just to go pee.

But they did have some pretty sweet Halloween decorations.

The cemetery was just as narrow as the Quarter streets (and bathrooms). I was surprised at how small it was-probably about half the size of a football field, if that. But they've managed to cram hundreds of bodies in the vaults by what our tour guide referred to as "shake and bake." Once a body was buried, the tomb had to remain sealed for a certain amount of time to allow the body to decompose. Once another family member died (assuming the minimum time had passed), they removed the last person's remains, shook them around to break them down a little more, put them in a bag, and stuck the newly dead person's casket on top. So the vaults were the size normally used to house one body, but dozens of people could be buried there.

There was also a "society tomb" that held over 200 bodies of people who didn't really have families.

And the grave that Nicholas Cage will apparently be buried in one day.

And, of course, there was the tomb of Marie Loveau, the famous voodoo queen. Apparently the belief is if you mark three x's on her tomb, she'll grant you a wish. But this is considered vandalism, and the tomb owners don't like it, so a lot of people leave offerings instead. I saw flowers, lip gloss, and even a Saints flag.

Toward the back, I saw a group of workers and the morbid side of me got excited because I thought they were actually burying a body or sealing a tomb. Turns out they were just building one.

I found another tomb with x's on it, just like Marie Loveau's grave. There are rumors she wasn't really buried in the grave marked as hers, so some people marked another tomb they thought was hers.

And some other generally cool photos:

Our tour guide's name was Ernie, and he was awesome. If you ever want a cemetery tour in New Orleans, the Haunted History tours are great. I want to go back sometime and do the Ghosts and Gardens tour through Lafayette Cemetery, where I initially wanted to go but didn't even know there was a tour until I got there.

And what better post-tour activity than stopping by Cafe du Monde? It was completely different from what I expected-not exactly a place to sit down and read. But the bengeits are amazing.

We went back to the French Quarter for dinner and headed home...where I watched American Horror Story, where the current season follows a coven of witches in New Orleans.

It was an awesome trip. I learned a lot, got a lot of inspiration, and had a lot of fun. My NaNo novel takes place in the Redwood Forest...wonder if I can scrape up enough change to buy a plane ticket? Or maybe move it to some forest nearby. It wouldn't be as hot there, right?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Having a voice

In the movie Titanic, there's a scene where Rose tells Jack how frustrating her life is. She describes the endless parade of dinner parties and other activities she sees as society's frivolous ways of keeping up appearances. But what stuck out to me the most was Rose's desire to have a voice. At one point, she compares it to standing in a crowded room, screaming at the top of her lungs -- and nobody even looking up.

It's easy to feel like this on a planet inhabited by over 7 billion people. How on earth do you stand out and make sure you're seen and heard? I've blogged before about the need to be noticed and feeling your efforts are futile. I've never felt that so much since graduating from college and entering the proverbial real world, where you go from competing with a few hundred or thousand people for attention to a few million.

But finding your voice is tough. Because for all the preaching our society does on "being yourself," there will always be people who not only disagree with the things you say and do, but have no trouble demeaning you for them. And we often refrain from speaking out for fear of being demeaned like this.

I can't tell you to speak out against something if you're insecure about it. And I can't tell you everyone will like you. There will always be people who don't like you, and they have every right to feel that way. They don't have a right to treat you badly because they disagree -- but sometimes, there's not much you can do about it.

The other day, I read a blog post (on a blog I've since stopped following), that made me angry. Really angry. It was a post I'm sure a lot of people not only agreed with but advocated, and I was initially afraid to speak out for fear of being thrown under the bus. But I eventually typed up a comment that was respectful, but still in vehement disagreement with the post. People might disagree with me, even try to respond negatively to my comment, and that's fine. They can have their opinion and I can have mine. But my mind is made up.

And it felt really, really good to stand up for what I believe in. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have a voice and am using it -- even if I'm the only person singing a particular tune.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The one where I rant about ice cream and Skins

When I was a kid, I went to an ice cream shop advertising "Superman" ice cream. It was brightly colored ice cream, dyed in stripes of blue, red, and yellow, and it looked enticing. When I asked the girl behind the counter what flavor it was, she said, "Oh, it's just vanilla. We put the color in it so kids will want it."

I was reminded of this incident a few weeks ago, when I saw a special "shark week" ice cream being promoted at Cold Stone. The ice cream was sweet cream flavored, so I asked what it tasted like. Yep, plain old french vanilla.

Kids aren't the only ones fooled by a dazzling exterior. We're all guilty of judging a metaphorical book by its cover, of thinking that something must be good because it looks good, despite a lackluster interior. Are we really so gullible? Why do we get fooled so easily by the same product we've always had in a slightly more flashy package? Are we just too lazy to figure things out for ourselves? Or is there some part of our brain that tries to sort the genuinely good from the superficially good looking? Or do people who are accused of judging based on looks also being unfairly judged?

Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, I've started watching old episodes of the British TV show Skins. Most of the show's major characters are teens who spend their free time drinking, partying, and hooking up. But no character is a better drinker, party-er, or hooker-upper than Effy Stonem. Effy starts out the show as the quiet little sister of major character Tony, who leaves after season two to go to university. But as audience members, we know from the start that Effy is no angel. In the first scene of the first episode, Tony distracts their father as Effy sneaks back in after a long night of partying. At the end of the season, we see her overdose and land in the hospital, but that doesn't stop her or even slow her down. After Tony leaves, Effy officially takes center stage. Well, as much as you can in an ensemble drama where each episode focuses on a different character.

Effy isn't the kind of person I'd want to be friends with. I rarely drink or party, and she'd probably scare the daylights out of me on a regular basis. But there's something about her that fascinates me. Could it have anything to do with her stunning good looks? Effy isn't even the gender I'm normally attracted to, so it's not that. But Effy and I have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

When Effy finally comes into the spotlight, we first see her at the Stonem family dinner. She is quiet and reserved, her hair back in a ponytail, her face makeup-free, and wrapped in a bathrobe. But once her parents go to bed, another side of Effy comes out.

It's not surprising that Effy would act one way around her parents and another around her friends and companions. Don't we all do this? I know I do. People tend to think I'm like Effy at the family dinner -- quiet, reserved, and incapable of any trouble. But once I get around people I'm comfortable with, another side comes out. Maybe this is what drew me to Effy, rather than looks.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's stupid to make assumptions based on looks, but looks are important sometimes too. Maybe there's some connection between outward appearance and the way we perceive it -- maybe our subconscious is really trying to tell us about a gut feeling of something that we interpret as "hey, this looks good!"

And now I really want ice cream.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why writers are (and should be) like sharks

A couple of weeks ago, nerds everywhere stopped the Batman versus Superman debate and came together for Shark Week. Before I started indulging in this week long geek fest, I was scared out of my mind of sharks. I could have added them to one of those lists of things that scare me. But no more. Thanks Shark Week!

Still, this one looks kind of creepy.

But sharks aren't exactly cuddly teddy bears either. When great whites are born, they immediately swim away from their mother because they know she's hungry -- and dangerous. Some species of shark babies even eat each other in the womb. Sharks learn to fend for themselves and kill or be killed before they're even born. Even mating is difficult for female sharks, who often have to be hunted and held down by the male. The female sharks I saw on some of these programs had huge scars down their backs as a result of this. And all for the preservation of the species.

Sometimes, being an unpublished, unagented writer feels the same way. We have to subject ourselves to pain and scarring -- getting our work critiqued, getting rejections, even major revisions or setbacks in a manuscript or hunt for a publisher -- just to keep going.

But sharks aren't just mindless killing machines. That's something else they have in common with writers -- both are tremendously misunderstood creatures. Sharks rarely attack humans with the intent of killing them. Most of the time, it's a case of mistaken identity. And the rare rogue sharks, the ones that go after humans and won't stop come hell or, um, high water...well, there are people who go after people like that too, are there not?

When I was in high school studying theater, our theater teacher told us that actors had to be like sharks.  Ever notice how sharks never stay still in the water like some fish do? They can't. They have to keep moving forward or they'll suffocate.

This applies to actors and pretty much everyone else, but especially to writers. We have to keep learning and growing, or our careers/crafts will come to a standstill. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I talked about baby sharks eating each other in the womb? Sharks are aggressive, but they sort of have to be. If they're not, they won't survive. Just like...writers!

Friday, July 19, 2013

5 more things that scare me

Just a few days after I wrote about 5 things that scare me, I thought of 5 more things I'm shocked I couldn't remember the first time around. they are!

1. The ocean

Looks peaceful, right? Sure, the ocean is nice when you're looking out at the sunset or splashing in the waves up on shore. I already mentioned that I have an irrational fear of fish, and guess what the ocean is full of? Fish! And not just cute little Nemo-esque clownfish, but big, dangerous fish with big sharp teeth and slimy scales. Not to mention sting rays that shoot out poison and the fact that if you swim far enough down, you'll get crushed to death by the pressure. That is, if you don't get eaten by a shark first (though thanks to Shark Week, sharks actually don't freak me out that much).

2. Space

By "space," I mean "outer space" and/or "any part of the universe that is not earth." No offense to all those cool places like Jupiter and the Milky Way, but vast, open areas that lack the essentials for human survival (air, water, oxygen, etc.) scare the life out of me. There's a movie coming out in October called Gravity that shows exactly why I could never, ever be an astronaut. Just like the ocean, getting stranded in space presents a multitude of possibilities, none of them even remotely good. There's no telling whether you'll die by getting hit by a meteor, roast (or freeze) in the atmosphere of the nearest celestial being, or just float around for days until you run out of oxygen. Strangely enough, the thought of aliens doesn't really phase me.

3. Blood

I'm getting sick just thinking about blood right now. I can watch teenagers get decapitated or hacked up by a chainsaw thousands of times on screen, but if I get so much as a paper cut, I freak. When I was in college, I went to a lecture one of my bio major suite-mates gave on malaria. At one point, she talked about "retinal hemorrhaging," complete with photos. I got so dizzy I felt like I might pass out. Even talk of bloody injuries makes me see spots.

4. Fire
I only picked this picture because it reminds me of The Hunger Games logo.

Technically, fire is one of those fears that I've already faced and overcome. I used to be scared to even roast marshmallows, but now I don't really mind fire. Still, burning to death is supposed to be one of the most painful ways to go. Even though you only have about ten minutes before your nerves are burned to a crisp and you feel nothing until you die, it's supposedly the ten most painful minutes you can experience.

5. Creepypasta (and other horror stories)

A slightly less morbid fear (operative word: slightly). Even though some of the classic creepypastas (a collective term for horror micro fiction originating online) will make your hair stand on end, none of them are actually lethal. Ever heard of smile dog? No? Just google it. Seriously, do it. And tell me those photos aren't the creepiest things you've ever seen.
If you didn't google it, the smile dog story is about a photograph that drives anyone who sees it to suicide. Every now and then, when I'm trying to go to sleep, I have to shut my eyes tight for fear that that stupid dog is just standing at the foot of my bed, waiting for me to see him and go insane.
Another one that gives me the creeps is actually a Japanese urban legend known as Teke Teke. According to the legend, a girl was run over by a train and lost her legs. Her ghost still roams around, legless, looking for victims to slice in half, just like her.

So, these fears are slightly less rational than the big ones -- loneliness, sociopaths, and the like. I'm probably never going to go into space or get anywhere near the bottom of the ocean. But for whatever reason, these things still send chills up my spine.

What are your irrational fears?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Austin, Ally, and the Dunning-Kruger effect

You may or may not know about my age-inappropriate love for the TV show Austin & Ally. For those of you not in touch with your inner 12-year-old, the latest episode features title character Ally preparing for her entry as a finalist in an up and coming artists feature. Ally wants to shoot a dance video, but she's a terrible dancer. Her friends try to tell her nicely that she sucks, but she isn't having it. She likes her dancing, she insists. And isn't that all that matters? If you think you're good at something, it doesn't matter what others think. Right?

There's a popular psychological theory called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It basically says that people who are really good at something frequently doubt themselves and their abilities, while people who are terrible at something will often (but not always) think they're really good. It's also called the American Idol effect, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has seen even a commercial for American Idol.

But is this effect scientifically accurate, or is it all BS? When multiple people tell you you're bad at something, should you listen? After all, bad is subjective. If Stephenie Meyer let people read Twilight before it was published and they absolutely hated it, would she have refrained from publishing it? Would Twilight fans have never gotten the books?

Ally says several things throughout the episode that indicate she doesn't really get it. "All those people who don't like my dancing just don't understand my vision." "Oh, they're all just jealous." In the end, though, she keeps the dance routine in her video but turns it into a self-parodying dance instructional video. The video is a hit and wins the contest.

But does this always work? How do you know when you should value the opinions of others or trust your own gut? What if Ally had made the video and it had been a disaster?

If the Dunning-Kruger effect is accurate, then I must be a pretty good writer, because I doubt myself all the time. I've always struggled with self-confidence, and when you release your work into the world only to have it picked apart or rejected all together with no clear reason why, it can get frustrating. Fortunately, I have had enough positive feedback to convince myself that yes, I really am a good writer. But since writing is subjective, there will always be doubts when someone rejects your work.

I know self-doubt is a part of most people's lives, and that it's normal. But sometimes I feel like it's pulling me down, keeping me from doing my best. That little voice in the back of my head says "why put effort into this? It's going to suck no matter what."

But if you listen to that voice, you'll never get anywhere. What if J.K. Rowling had listened to that voice? Stephen King? I'm nowhere near their level and probably never will be, but that doesn't mean I can't share a story with the world. That's all I really want to do.

Fortunately, I have had a bit of writing luck in the past few weeks and months. The little pieces of positive feedback are hard to hold onto because it's in our nature to focus on the negative things first. I haven't quite figured out yet how to primarily focus on the good things instead of the bad. But I know that's what needs to be done.

How do you deal with criticism and self-doubt? How do you focus on the positive in your life instead of the negative?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

5 things that scare me

There are two types of people: People who run away from their fears, and people who face them head-on. I've always been in the latter category, but there are still some things I'm afraid of and not quite ready to face yet.

1. Death

The ultimate ending, and it can affect anyone at any time. Ultimately, it'll affect all if us, whether the dead person is us or someone we know.
The scariest thing about death is the element of the unknown. Even though we all have our various beliefs about the afterlife, there's no way to know what death is like until you experience it. And by then it's too late to go back.

2. Sociopaths

Even though a very small percentage are actually violent, sociopaths are incapable of feeling remorse or guilt. I'm a really sensitive person, so the idea that someone could hurt me (or anyone else) and not feel bad for it is unsettling.
A few weeks ago, I saw a book my local bookstore written by a sociopath under a pen name. It supposedly debunks myths about sociopaths and the front cover states that they live among us and could be anyone. I guess I should read it to figure out if my thoughts on sociopaths are just stereotypes or irrational fears. But I haven't yet because I'm...well, scared.

3. Loneliness

I'm really introverted and like being alone. But there's a difference between being alone and being lonely. I'm always afraid of losing the few meaningful human relationships I have and not being able to form new ones.

And onto some slightly less depressing fears...

4. Bears

Maybe this one isn't that depressing. Lots of people are killed by bears. Lots of people are also killed by cars and planes and guns. But cars and planes and guns don't usually stroll up to your sidewalk and start rooting through your trash, or corner you in a tent and try to eat your face off.

5. Fish

Probably the weirdest fear ever. I love sushi and fried fish, but live fish freak me out. Their lack of eyelids and vocal cords mean that not only can you not hear them when they're in pain, but once they're dead, they have that creepy death glare. I've been afraid of fish all my life, but a few years ago, had a particularly scarring experience when I saw a dead, half stomped on goldfish on the floor at a pet store.

Rational or not, what are you most afraid of?

Monday, July 1, 2013

So Weird: They don't make 'em like they used to

When I was 10, I was obsessed with a TV show called So Weird. After a bizarre string of nostalgia fits and wayward research, I spent the majority of this weekend watching old episodes of the show, almost finishing the first two seasons (there are three in all). It wasn't until almost halfway through that I realized how much the show still influences my writing even today.

The show follows 13-year-old Fiona Phillips -- Fi for short. Fi's mom is a musician, Molly Phillips (played by Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of The Mamas and the Papas singer John Phillips). After a decade long hiatus following her husband's death, Molly is back on the road touring, and Fi and her older brother, Jack, as well as Molly's manager and her family, are along for the ride. Fi is extroverted, tenacious, and has a love for the paranormal. In every city they stop in, she finds some strange happenings -- from ghosts to aliens to telekinetic kids. Or do these things find her?

Despite Fi's love for all things weird, older brother Jack is the perpetual skeptic. No matter what sort of strange shenanigans Fi gets herself into, Jack is always looking for the logical explanation. It takes awhile for him to ever admit that anything supernatural even exists. Most of Fi's other companions approach the weird stuff she finds with a mix of skepticism and curiosity.

Even though each episode is fairly self-contained, there is an overarching story line throughout the first two seasons. Halfway through season 2, Molly tells Fi that her dad was into the same paranormal things she is. Molly never said anything before because she constantly worried about her husband and, somewhere in the back of her mind, probably thought that if Fi knew the truth about her dad, her love for the paranormal would increase tenfold -- and she might end up doing something dangerous. It does sort of explain why all of these strange things just happen to fall into Fi's lap, so to speak. And Fi later learns that the paranormal creatures her dad was chasing ended up chasing him -- and may have even caused his death.

A few observations as I watched:
1. Even if you're not into paranormal stuff, the show is a great model for writers. Some of the paranormal activity is a bit out there (a mad scientist turning people into dogs -- who comes up with this stuff?). But the actors and character dynamics are all excellent -- especially the relationship between Fi, lover of all things weird, and Jack who, despite his incessant skepticism, will always look out for his little sister.
2. The show first aired in 1999, when home computers and the internet were just starting to be a big thing. Wi-fi was practically unheard of, but Fi utilizes it pretty well. She runs her own website devoted to the paranormal, frequently uses e-mail and chat rooms to keep in touch with friends while on the road, and researches the weird stuff she finds through a generic search engine. Chat rooms and search engines are old news now. But back then, all the cool kids were doing it. Or wished they could do it.
3. On a similar note, I watched the show thanks to a wonderful YouTube user (thanks, SoWeirdTV!) who uploaded every episode. When I first watched the show way back in '99, I recorded every episode on VHS and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. This weekend, I watched the episodes on YouTube via an app on my blu ray player. If you had told 10-year-old me that I would one day be watching my then-favorite show on a YouTube via a blu ray player, I'd have thought you were insane.
4. Another Disney Channel feature I loved at that age was Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. The movie was made in 1999 and takes place in 2049; if you're bad at math, that's 50 years in the future (I may or may not have used a calculator for that one). The teenage characters in the movie communicate via a device called DataZap, in which they talk to each other via a tiny computer screen. Don't we have something like that now? Oh yeah, Skype. And Face Time.
Did you read that right? Moviemakers thought communicating face to face via a computer screen would be modern 50 years from now, and we already have devices 14 years later that can do that and much more. With such a rapid progression of technology, it's no wonder I already feel like an old woman at 25.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beauty is our ugly little secret

I'm not a big fan of romantic comedies or "chick flicks," but one I have enjoyed enough to watch multiple times is John Tucker Must Die. The movie's protagonist is Kate, a high schooler who's grown up watching her serial dater mom jump from guy to guy, only to pack up and move both of them to a new city once the relationship inevitably sours. Needless to say, Kate's a bit jaded -- not just when it comes to dating, but her own self-esteem. She's insecure and prefers not to draw attention to herself, presuming that the students at her various new schools only see her as the unimportant new girl, if they even notice her at all.
Everything changes, of course, when Kate meets John Tucker, the heartbreaker of her newest school. When all four of his girlfriends (that's right, four) accidentally find out about one another, Kate agrees to help them get revenge on John. The plan? She'll get him to fall for her, then mercilessly dump him, breaking his heart just like he breaks hearts on a regular basis.
As much as I love this movie, there's one thing I couldn't help but notice that sort of bugs me about movies in general. Kate, the self-proclaimed invisible girl, never before worthy of male attention, is actually very attractive. When John's exes team up to make her over, all they really do is straighten her hair. She goes from being a pretty wallflower to a slightly more pretty wallflower with different hair.

It's not exactly a secret that the majority of film and television actors are attractive (including Brittany Snow, who plays Kate). And whether we want to admit it or not, most of us, regardless of our own looks, would rather see an attractive person play a character who is supposed to be unattractive than see an unattractive person on screen at all. No matter how many Beauty and the Beast retellings we get, no matter how many times we hear "don't judge a book by its cover" or "it's what's on the inside that counts," our brains are wired to only accept things that we see as beautiful.

I recently read a book called THE REPLACEMENT (which, on a side note, is really good and should be read by anyone who likes dark fantasy). The book takes place in a small town called Gentry, which seems normal enough on the surface: Kids go to school, parents go to work, and everyone comes home at night to their nice little houses with the white picket fences. But Gentry has a dirty little secret: Underneath the town is another whole world, a secret society of creatures that steal one of Gentry's children once every seven years for a ritual sacrifice, replacing them with their own creatures, who aren't used to a life above ground and usually die rather quickly. Because their children are replaced, even though they're clearly not the same children and they almost always die young, the residents of Gentry are content to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on. When a child dies, it's an unfortunate tragedy. They know that these children aren't really theirs, but they're so afraid to challenge these creatures that snatch their children that they go on with life, pretending nothing is wrong while their children are being snatched and murdered.

I guess I wanted to blog about beauty because it's sort of like our culture's version of Gentry and their changeling children. We pretend that looks don't matter, that our daily lives aren't affected by them at all. But they are. So, so much.

When I was in junior high, I was the most socially awkward, self-conscious, nerdy wallflower you could meet. Instead of being tormented by the proverbial populars, I was mostly ignored. I tried to dress nice and look good, but somehow I just couldn't manage to be confident in my appearance. Instead, I focused most of my attention on reading, homework, band (yeah, I was a band nerd) and spending time with the friends and acquaintances who did enjoy my company.

In high school, things started to look up. I switched schools the summer before freshman year -- the perfect chance to start over. I didn't transform into a social butterfly overnight, and I was never anywhere near most popular. But I did start to transition out of my awkward phase and become more confident in my appearance. I also joined more school activities, which helped me connect with people I had things in common with and make a lot of good friends. I wasn't ultra gorgeous -- never have been, never will be -- and I had plenty of days where I just wanted to crawl into a hole. But I was much happier, both with my appearance and life in general.

It's still a struggle sometimes. For the most part, I'm relatively okay with the way I look. Some days I feel like a million bucks. Other days I'm afraid people will mistake me for Elmer Fudd. But I think that's normal.

For most girls (and I'd imagine for a lot of guys too, but I'm not a guy and won't even pretend to be an expert on them), our self-worth is based an awful lot on our looks. There are a lot of other determining factors -- our jobs, how much money we make, how much people like us, etc. None of these things, of course, should matter one iota when it comes to determining our value as human beings. But sometimes it feels like they do. And for me, looks are the hardest to deal with. As a girl, one of my worst fears is having someone tell me I'm unattractive, or finding out that someone thinks that. It's never happened, but I don't know if I'd be able to handle myself if it did.

Looks are important. They're not the most important thing in the world, but they do matter. There are all sorts of studies that suggest that attractive people get better jobs or can get away with crimes easier or are presumed to be generally good people. They may be mostly true or partially true or complete BS, but they're out there for anyone to see. Every time I go out in public feeling like I'm not looking my best or I get another rejection letter or just get ignored or feel put down in general, that little nagging voice in the back of my mind starts running its mouth:

"You're never going to be good enough. Nobody pays you any attention and you'll never get anywhere in life because you're ugly."

And then there are the inspirational sayings designed to make us feel better: "All women are beautiful." "It's what's on the inside that counts." "If you believe you're beautiful, others will too."

But when it comes to us talking about our own looks, it's a lose-lose situation. If you claim to think you're ugly, people think you're whiny or fishing for compliments. If you claim to think you're attractive, they think you're vain or arrogant.

Looks have always mattered, regardless of time period or culture. Good or bad, it's just the way things are. And I'd be willing to bet money that someone will see this blog and send me a message saying, "But Mary, you're beautiful!" Or maybe someone will send me a message saying, "Mary, you're hideous and you should just learn to live with it. Best not to waste your time getting your hopes up that you'll ever be attractive or get anywhere in life." When it comes to my own beauty, I'd rather nobody tell me anything. If you tell me I'm pretty, I'm going to think you're just being nice, and if you tell me I'm ugly, I'll think you're being unnecessarily harsh.

I guess the beauty really does come from within.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Writing as escape

Most people don't realize it, but I absolutely love Ke$ha. You know, the dance/rap/pop singer who's obsessed with glitter and mostly sings about drinking, partying, and hooking up. She and I just have so much in common.

Most of the things I hear about Ke$ha are negative. It surprises even me sometimes that I like her. I rarely drink, party, or hook up. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person my age who would rather spend Friday night at Starbucks than at a club. Yet for all the twentysomethings that live this lifestyle and claim that it's "normal" (as if those of us who don't partake in it are, you know, weird), the singer who unabashedly glamorizes it gets bashed to high heaven. Kind of ironic. But I digress.

I'm a pretty mellow person. It takes a lot to get me excited. So most of the music I listen to is just the opposite -- upbeat and energizing. Ke$ha definitely falls into this category. But why do I particularly enjoy listening to songs about a lifestyle that I'm not a part of at all? Because sometimes, when I'm looking for entertainment, I'm not looking for reliability. 

I'm looking for an escape.

I'd imagine this is one of the reasons why so many people my age do party. Life is rough, and when you're in your twenties and just transitioning into the proverbial "real world," it seems extra rough. And not only are you used to the little comforts of being a teenager and having your parents to fall back on (now you have to do all that grown up stuff like, you know, pay bills), but it's also the first time you can  drink and stay out late without mommy or daddy or the cops trying to stop you. So, scary new responsibilities + new found freedom = need for escape. 

I happen to have a different method of escape from a lot of people. When I get upset or frustrated or just generally overwhelmed with life, I write. Nothing compares to the feeling I get when I sit down with a manuscript and work on it for two hours straight. Even if it's causing me tons of problems and there are tons of plot holes and the characters aren't doing what I want them to do...while I'm doing it, I'm happy.

But then there are the times that it gets to be too much. When I get caught up in the business of writing or I get my 28th rejection that month or I just get frustrated or impatient. And that's when I escape into yet another world, where I can live vicariously through people who are doing things I normally don't do but that are normal for them.

Say what you want about Ke$ha -- that she's crazy, trashy, untalented, whatever. But she is providing an escape, an outlet for people like me , people who are looking for a certain kind of escape.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Albums I Love

I love music. No matter what kind of crap I'm going through, there's nothing quite like shutting out the world for an hour or so and blasting songs through my headphones. And even better than that is finding entire albums that are so good they give me chills. I've gone through my entire music library and narrowed it down to a select few albums that I'll always have a soft spot for.

Love Drunk (Boys Like Girls)

I can't quite put my finger on what it is that makes this album (and Boys Like Girls in general) so likable. I saw them live for the first time last fall, and they struck me as really...personable? I can't really describe it. But Contagious is the # 1 most played song on my iPod, so clearly it's had an impact.

Hands All Over (Maroon 5)

I've always loved Maroon 5 but, as good as Overexposed was, this is probably my favorite of their albums. I remember that I had just graduated from college when this album came out. Maybe it sticks out in my mind as being a minor foray into the adult world.
And Last Chance is just....askdlfjaklsdjflaskdf.

Hot Mess (Cobra Starship)

I got into Cobra Starship a little late. They already had two albums out before they hit it big with Hot Mess, and I didn't even start listening to them until their latest album, Night Shades, was about to come out. The title track of Hot Mess is hilarious; the thing I love about them, and probably what makes them so interesting, is that they don't take themselves seriously at all. So their music is catchy and amusing.

Save Rock and Roll (Fall Out Boy)

Fall Out Boy was really popular when I was in high school, but I didn't listen to them much (sadly, it's probably because they were popular). But when they released their new album after an I-don't-even-know-how-many-years hiatus, I loved the first couple of songs I heard so much that I bought the whole thing. And I've been listening to it non-stop for the past month.

Costello Music (The Fratellis)

I like Brit rock, so when I saw a discussion awhile back about The Fratellis, I had to listen to them. They have several songs that have been in various commercials, and I recognized them immediately. I usually don't like to listen to songs that have been in commercials, but they were so catchy that I kept listening and started listening to the whole album over and over.

Lines, Vines, and Trying Times (Jonas Brothers)

If I had to pick a # 1 favorite album of all time, this would probably be it. I don't think anyone could listen to the whole album and still think the Jonas Brothers are still some teen Disney band. Seriously, just go listen to Black Keys. Now.

American Idiot (Green Day)

I played this album so much that it got completely scratched. When I got a new computer and had to re-import the songs, I had to download some of them individually because they wouldn't play on the CD.

Fashionably Late (Honor Society)

I first heard of Honor Society when they opened up for the Jonas Brothers in 2009, but I've seen them twice on their own since. They've changed their sound considerably since Fashionably Late (their first full-length album), but it's still awesome.

All the Lost Souls (James Blunt)

James Blunt is 100 % not my kind of music. I never ever listen to any kind of soft rock because it usually puts me to sleep. But there's something about James Blunt and his lyrics that makes me want to keep listening. This was his second album; his third, Some Kind of Trouble, is just as good, if not better.

A Year Without Rain (Selena Gomez & The Scene)

This feels like kind of a weird addition to the list. I've always loved Selena Gomez, but I didn't start listening to her music until a year or so ago when someone mentioned it on some random message board. It just happened to be the middle of summer, so this was a really fun summer album to keep on repeat for awhile.

Hold on Tight (Hey Monday)

I used to know a girl who went to school with some of the band members from Hey Monday. The lead singer, Cassadee Pope, used to win singing contests when she was younger. I think I listened to this album an awful lot during the winter of 2009.

And there you have it. There are so many more bands and songs that I love and that I could probably write about, but then I'd end up writing a whole book.