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.