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.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Life lessons from R.L Stine

When I was a kid, I loved reading Goosebumps books. My parents probably wished I would read the Chronicles of Narnia or something instead, but they did get me a Goosebumps book for Christmas one year, the oh-so-cleverly titled It Came from Beneath the Sink!

The story follows Kat Merton, who has just moved to a new house with her family. The house is huge, and Kat couldn't be more excited to live there. But upon arrival, she finds something under the kitchen sink -- a sponge. But wait...sponges don't have mouths. And they don't laugh. Dogs don't growl at them. And they certainly don't cause bad luck.

But this sponge does. After several incidents that include her dad falling off a ladder and her birthday party being cancelled due to rain, Kat does some research and finds out that her personified sponge is actually a Grool, a creature that causes bad luck and feeds off of it. The more bad things that happen to Kat, the more angry she gets. And the more angry she gets, the happier the Grool becomes.

Kat is stuck in a vicious cycle for the rest of the book. She tries everything she can to rid herself of the Grool, but it keeps coming back and shows no signs of giving her a break. Even worse, Kat learns that if she gives the Grool up, she'll die. So it seems like Kat is stuck with bad luck for the rest of her life.

Except, you know, she's not. Finally, in front of her bewildered brother and his friend, she starts to pet the Grool and sing to it. She coos about how much she loves it and even kisses it. Slowly, the Grool starts to shrivel up until it's nothing but a few flakes of what used to be a sponge-like creature (in more ways than one).

Sounds pretty ridiculous, of course, but we can learn a lot from Kat Merton and the evil sponge. Humans are sort of like Grools; we feed off negativity, and seeing people in pain sometimes makes us happy -- especially if they've done something to wrong us. If we continue to treat them the way they're treating us, we'll be stuck in that cycle just like Kat. But if we treat them the opposite of what they're expecting, without the misery they feed off of, we've broken the cycle.

It's extremely hard to do sometimes. It takes a huge hit to our already fragile egos when we try to be nice to someone who's done nothing but make us feel like crap. But it's not just a noble thing to do -- it can keep you both from experiencing more unnecessary pain. Sometimes if you want to change things for the better, you have to get outside of your comfort zone and even bruise your ego a bit.

And, you know, don't pick up any laughing sponges.

Except maybe this one. (source)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why is everything compared to Twilight?

I've noticed something interesting about entertainment as a whole, particularly YA fiction (though that's my area of expertise, so I notice it more than anything else). When a lot of YA authors tell people what they write, they often get a variation on the same general response: "Oh, so you write stuff like Twilight?"

It's not a response that's generally met with positivity. A lot of writers detest Twilight, for various reasons. Even those of us who enjoyed the series are left scratching our heads, wondering why people would jump to one particular book to generalize an entire category.

Twilight is popular, no question. The franchise even inspired 50 Shades of Grey, a trilogy of fan fiction turned original fiction that outsold Harry Potter on Amazon UK. Edward Cullen and Bella Swan are practically household names (as are Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart). And vampires are now associated with sparkles, of all things.

This is the first thing that came up when I searched "sparkle." (source)

I remember when The Hunger Games movie came out and people compared it to Twilight. Anyone who read so much as the book blurbs on the back of both books would know that the two stories have nothing in common. Yet I heard so many people say they didn't care to see The Hunger Games because they thought it was "the next Twilight."

And that's really sad.

I've talked a lot about how people tend to look down on children's fiction because they look down on children. Teenagers aren't exempted from this stereotype; if anything, they have it worse. The teenage years are seen as years where people act stupid and impulsively without a fleeting thought about anyone or anything but themselves and right now. So any sort of entertainment is assumed to have the same flaws.

But Twilight is sort of perfect for the teen crowd. It's the very definition of wish fulfillment: An awkward wallflower manages to woo a gorgeous, untouchable guy who turns out to be a vampire, making him 10 trillion times more sexy than he already was. No wonder teenage girls ate it up. A lot of adult identify with it too, but that always happens with a good YA novel.

But even thought I acknowledge Twilight's massive popularity and appeal, it's only one series. It's not the first YA novel to get this big, nor will it be the last. It's not Harry Potter, it's not The Hunger Games, it's not Percy Jackson or 50 Shades of Grey or Spider-man or anything else. And if you write YA paranormal romance or vampire fiction, you shouldn't have to defend your book against Twilight comparisons.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dear everyone: You are important

Ever heard of Richard Matheson? Probably not; most people haven't. But he's had more of an impact on pop culture than you realize. In fact, he's sort of indirectly responsible for this:

And this:

I'll explain.

Richard Matheson is a writer from New Jersey. Way back in 1953, his third novel, I Am Legend, was published. It's been adapted for the screen several times, the most popular version being the 2007 movie starring Will Smith. 

The story follows a man named Robert Neville, the supposed "last man on earth" (which was also the name of one of the screen adaptations of the novel). The rest of the world has fallen prey to "bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures" (as Amazon calls them). My only firsthand experience with the story is the 2007 movie adaptation, but I remember the creatures in that one being a bizarre mix between vampires and zombies. That's what they're supposed to be, anyway.

And guess what movie director these creatures inspired? George A. Romero, whose movie Night of the Living Dead was so popular it transformed the way we see zombies, and continues to influence modern zombie culture. So even if you've never heard the name Richard Matheson, you can thank him every time you go into a bookstore and see zombie t-shirts.

But whether you love zombies or wish they would die (again), there's another message in here. Even if you have no say in pop culture or trends, you are still important. We tend to think we're insignificant because we don't always see the fruits of our labor day in and day out. It's frustrating working hours, days, and weeks on something only to get nothing in return. But you never know how you're affecting people, or how meaningful you can be in their lives.

I wonder what Richard Matheson thinks of zombie porn.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

In defense of fan fiction

Readers, writers, bloggers, friends. I have a confession to make.

I've started reading erotic fan fiction again.

This isn't the first time I've gotten into this habit, and it won't be the last. I won't tell you what fandom, but if you read my blog at all you'll probably be able to figure it out.

When I was in junior high, I used to read fan fiction all the time. I could spend hours reading about various Mary Sues falling for Justin Timberlake or Leonardo DiCaprio or Orlando Bloom. I kept reading into my teens, but the well-written and engaging stories became harder and harder to find; most just seemed like self-insertion fluff. Even the enjoyable ones were mostly...well, self-insertion fluff. I eventually stopped altogether, then briefly picked it back up again a few years later. It seems like every time I avoid it, every time I convince myself that it's a waste of time, I come back to it. Sort of like a bad boyfriend or triple chocolate ice cream.

This looks much more appealing than Scott Disick. (source)

A lot of writers start out in fan fiction. It's a great way to practice your craft if you're not ready to create fully developed worlds or characters on your own. It's always had a bad reputation in the same way self-publishing has -- because there's so much bad stuff out there, there's a really good chance that your work will be bad, and it's often stereotyped as bad with no fair chance. And there is a lot of really bad fan fiction out there, but I've also seen some that was really well-written, from writers who have gone on to publish well-written original fiction.

And if you think about it, fan fiction almost always does what any good story should do: It keeps the reader turning the pages. Or, in the case of stories posted online (which most of them are), it keeps the reader clicking the links to the next chapter. Most of the characters are either people the reader already knows and loves or people they can easily identify with. And is that really such a bad thing?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Big Bang Theory and character arcs

I posted awhile ago about something that Penny said on The Big Bang Theory that struck a nerve with me. As I continue to watch the show, unfortunately, she continues to annoy me. So, like any good over-emotional weirdo, I set out to figure out why.

Penny is a pretty blonde girl from Nebraska. She moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a famous actress; seven years later, she's still a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory. There's nothing at all wrong with being pretty, blonde, an aspiring actress, or a waitress. But seven years after the show started, Penny was still a pretty blonde waitress with hopes of becoming a famous actress. There's also nothing at all wrong with shooting for the stars and working hard to fulfill your dreams and goals. But if your primary goal is to become famous, there's something wrong. And if your primary goal to be famous has gotten you nowhere seven years later, there's something really wrong.

So this whole thing got me thinking about characters, and what they have to do in order to sympathetic and likable. They don't necessarily have to undergo some big dramatic personality change, or even a major change at all. Some of the characters in my favorite books never undergo any major changes in their personalities. But the audience has to have a certain perception of them. And in order to make a character interesting, they have to be...well, interesting.

I'm not saying that every good fiction character has to be as weird as, say, Sheldon Cooper (my favorite Big Bang character). But you can't fit people and their personalities into a neat little box. I've mentioned the Abercrombie controversy a few times, and how the CEO got himself in major trouble by saying that he targeted the "cool kids." The controversy, of course, was mostly caused by his implication that plus sized individuals aren't "cool" enough to wear the company's clothes. But just targeting the cool kids is bad enough because guess what?

99.9 % of the world population is not cool.

Even the coolest, most normal-seeming people, have quirks, things that set them apart from the crowd and make them interesting. It's a writer's job to bring these quirks out. How many book blurbs start out with "such and such character is just a normal girl...except (fill in the blank)" Or "such and such character is just a normal girl...until (fill in the blank) happens" Interesting characters in interesting stories can't just be cardboard cutouts or stereotypes of what we think people should be. But if you're a writer, you'll probably be able to bring those qualities to the surface of even the most normal character.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Things that make me happy

In the spirit of positivity and personality, I thought I'd share a list of things that make me happy. Whether it's a certain action, a book, movie, whatever.

Writing: This one's kind of obvious, since it's what I spend most of my time doing. Sometimes it's miserable, of course. Sometimes it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Sometimes it stresses me out more than anything ever has before. But there's nothing that can make me give it up. And nothing compares to the feeling of accomplishment I get when I see my hard work paying off, or even when I just finish something.

Finding a really good book and getting lost in it: This goes hand in hand with writing, but I've read so many books now that it can be hard to dig and find the extraordinary ones, the ones that make you feel like you're being transported to another world. Finding another one is amazing, and rereading the old ones is like visiting an old friend.

Going to church: This one seems kind of strange even as I type it out, because just last week I was sitting in a pew squirming and thinking about how bored I was. And when I was a teenager, I hated being forced to go to church by my parents. But now that I'm older, I feel weird if I skip a week. It's become a part of my routine. Not that going to church is about routine or being happy, but I'm glad I keep doing it week after week because there are plenty of benefits.

Music: When my alarm clock goes off in the morning, it plays music. When I go to work in the mornings, I listen to music. When I'm in my Writing? If I'm not watching TV, I'm listening to music. Just like getting lost in a good book, few things make me happier than finding a good album I can listen to over and over until I'm sick of it. Nearly every long fiction piece I've written in the past year or so has had some sort of music element in it, because I love it that much.

Pop culture obsessions: I've heard every argument out there against following pop culture and celebrity obsession. But pop is short for popular, and these things are popular for a reason -- people connect to them. I've talked about this time and time again, so I'll just leave it at that.

Coffee: I guess caffeine has been proven to be a mood booster. I can be having the worst day and be angry at any number of silly or unimportant things. But somehow, a cup of coffee makes everything better.

Buffalo wings: So good, they need no explanation.


What sort of things never fail to make you happy?