Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Old Shame

On Monday before last, while searching for a hard copy of a science fiction novel I plan to revise, I found a hard copy of another long story, a dystopia with intended moral ambiguity and a boarding school of horrors. Immediately I put it away and hid it in the drawer, along with the poems and short stories that had earned me A's in middle and high school. The shame colored me all evening, to think that I had written something so laughably terrible and dark.

Last Tuesday, coincidentally, AvannaK on Tumblr posted a few old Naruto fanfics that she had written when she was younger, with apologies for characterization and shipping. I thought they were well written and had less obsessive shipping than a few young adult novels I had read over the weekend, and told her so. So did a few followers, but she still responded with modesty:

Jumping7Salon:Awwwwwww I want to give 20 year old Avanna a hug!!
AvannaK: or a smack in the face with a dictionary

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Writers always have that interesting contradiction: the egotistic ones, like me, know that we can write well, and we submit works when we feel they are ready to be published, but we also have some works that can never reach the proper light of day, and when they do, they are like the rogue dandelions that the gardeners could not pull out. I don't think I can ever read the bad fanfiction that I wrote when I was a teenager, but a few of them are still floating around online; half a dozen more disappeared when I switched computer hard drives. No, I will not tell you that pseudonym I used.

We writers have one thing in common when we have success, big or small: self-deprecation. Our old works embarrass us because we know what we did wrong then, and that we can do better now. AvannaK's concern involved her not knowing how to characterize Sakura in Naruto fanfiction, since it seems that when we fanfiction writers started out we tended to make our girl characters obsessed with the guys or vice versa, giving no thoughts to canon. With that said, she still finds the right words and phrasing to paint vivid scenes.  
For context, Sakura takes a bit to warm up to Naruto in canon.
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When submitting I try to hold onto my ego and belief that "THIS story is good!" and I ride on a high that it's going well, that "THIS story" will be the one to earn professional rates. The few times that I get an acceptance on the first try, like with "The Opera Singer," it brings a great sense of vindication especially when those stories come from a dark place. The times when a story that I work hard on gets nothing? I feel like a wave has flipped me over, and that the story isn't good enough. That it has lost my edge.

Some of these stories, I have retired because I run out of places to send them. I don't delete them like I used to, but I feel ready to move on to other stories, that feel right, and get back to the troubled ones when I know how to fix them. Probably when I have more energy I'll deal with them properly, and understand what to change. My endings are still fairly weak, but I'm getting better at them. 

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In the meantime? I'll watch the embarrassing dandelions bloom in my garden of stories. They deserve a small place, for having helped me start.  And I'll keep praising Avanna's works, old and new,  because her dandelions are undiluted power.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Harriet The Spy Was My Nancy Drew

Last week, the 85th anniversary of Nancy Drew happened. The article details how Nancy became a role model to girls living in the Great Depression, driving around in a car and wielding a gun to deal with potentially dangerous criminals. Later editions turned Nancy into a damsel in distress, needing a college boyfriend to save her, but she inspired a generation of female readers.

I felt a sense of disconnect. The Nancy Drew that I knew was not the girl detective of my childhood. Sammy Keyes eventually became that,but another fictional lady came in between. She was a little older than me, wore fake glasses and ratty jeans to go out spying, and she wrote in a notebook. This was Harriet the Spy, from her titular novel by Louise Fitzhugh.

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 I shied from reading Harriet the Spy at first because of the title. The thought of reading about a girl that spied on others, including her friends, and wrote about it in her journal, did not appeal to me. I like reading about characters who are fundamentally good and who didn't get into trouble. My siblings kept checking out the book from the library, and I kept returning it.

Then one day, I cracked it open and started. I became captivated, and started reading. The book paints a picture of the 1960s, when children could wander the New York City streets without their parents worrying, and slip into dumbwaiters. Kid bullies could spill bottles of ink on their victims because ink bottles were part of the curriculum. Authors still use heavy typewriters, and can crinkle up their paper with poor handling. People could order egg creams -- a type of cream soda that I had never heard about before-- and sip them slowly. I had always pictured them as a drink to slurp from a bowl, but they apparently came from tall glasses.

This is what kids drank in the 1960s
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More importantly, the story itself featured an imperfect yet likable protagonist that doesn't want to change when the world imposes changes upon her. Harriet loses a lot of valuable things, and people, and the path to winning them back or letting them go does not always have a straight answer. She represents brutal honesty in a world that does not appreciate hostile words, and thus suffers persecution. Even readers, like my brother who recommended the book, have little sympathy for Harriet and for the honest notes she writes in her notebook. The film adaptation makes Harriet's thoughts worse, so that her former friends have a more valid reason to bully her, though there never is a valid reason for bullying a child in my opinion.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird mentions how writers as children are told to ignore their instinct and accept little lies as opposed to swallowing and registering proper truths. One cannot create believable fiction without knowing how real life works, and how people behave, why they act the way that they think. People do and think horrible things, sometimes with good intentions.  Sometimes their motivations are complex, but they do not behave in a vacuum. A writer, too involved in the art of crafting as I am, can miss all those actions and motivations and real life, perhaps because we cannot face the horrifying truth.

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Harriet taught me that a character with stubbornness and brutal honesty can be likable, and she demonstrated a skill that all writers need: the ability to observe. This eleven-year old girl spies so that she can learn more about people, to put them in the books that she will write later. She faces the daily mundane horrors that plague humanity on a regular basis, whether they concern heiresses with too much money or birdcage makers with too many cats. Her problem lies in having no filter for her thoughts when they end up in her notebook, and when her notebook ends up in her friends' hands.

I had an epiphany after reading Harriet the Spy: I wanted to write, and to become a writer. My desire to create stories hadn't notified me; the fiction prompts in preparation for the FCAT hadn't notified me either. Yet I wanted to write, and to create worlds that would absorb readers the way older books had absorbed me.
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Unlike my sudden desire to learn figure skating after reading the Boxcar Children, writing was a skill that I could hone on my own time, with just a piece of paper, or a blank notebook, and a pen. The computer could also help, with various writing programs and access to the Internet. I learned later how to connect with fellow writers using the web and to find soundtracks,  but at the time computers only made me feel official, that I could write something that could be printed and look official.
 There was a bit of a problem: I had the ideas, thanks to Harry Potter fanfiction and inspiration from fantasy authors,  but I didn't have any idea how to structure a story, or what elements were involved. I didn't know how to use words to develop character. Worst of all, I didn't know how to write honestly, or how to observe people.

 I withdraw from the real world, finding a structured fiction more appealing than the harsh realities of our time. "Write what you know" seemed to be a facetious piece of advice, since what a person knew was not necessarily what interested them. I didn't start incorporating personal experience into fiction until high school, and even then it took about four more years to learn that it was okay to do so, in fact encouraged.

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Harriet knew better than I did about how to write, and how to record life without a filter. It gets her in trouble,  but the book argues that writers need to be honest with themselves while lying to the people they know to avoid hurting people's feelings when you use real details. One can use filters, but only after the rough drafts are written.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Paranormal Romance: What Works and What Doesn't

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 During the first weekend of January, I was going through my bookshelf to finish library books before the start of school, and to read one hundred books this year. I noticed that I had two paranormal romances that I had not picked up, Starcrossed and Beautiful Creatures. Beautiful Creatures is a novel that my friend Cory likes, and it was popular enough to become a feature film.

Starcrossed is about the descendants of ancient Greek families finding out that they’re mortal enemies, and that they cannot get together for fear of starting a war. The book went on an emotional roller coaster of “I want to be together, we can’t stay together, if we stay together it’s going to cause a war, wait suddenly new characters arrive and want to be dangerous, no we actually have bigger problems” for about two hundred pages. The suspense kept riding up and down, and at the end of it the sequel hook made me feel a little dizzy.

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Beautiful Creatures involves even more “opposites attract but can possibly lead to death” love, this time in the Deep South. I might have tolerated the snarky tones, the bullying towards the female love interest, if it weren’t for one teensy fact: the narrator, who dreamed about escaping his home town and the ignorance there, puts all his dreams of college aside and never talks about it for the rest of the series. My biases towards the Deep South and to people who believe in the Civil war’s glory didn’t assist with my enjoyment, and neither did the absence of people of color in the story that would suffer from such an environment. I admit that I am biased about places I’ve never been which have a profile of people not treating minorities well, but my biases are based on general American history and proven facts. A twenty-first century book about such a place that ignores the facts, especially in the light of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and other victims of violent racism, does not earn my good graces.

I don't have grudges or prejudices against the paranormal romance genre, since it's merely a construct of "magic and romance dominating the plot" for the most part, and some of my favorite YA novels like the Abandon trilogy and Sunshine handle both elements with finesse. After reading both novels, however, and especially knowing that Twilight started the trend towards paranormal romance, a prejudice against paranormal romance is threatening to rise. This is a problem because if I ever want to write the genre, I’d want to write it with sincere effort.

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Starcrossed and Beautiful Creatures suffer the fundamental problem that I’m finding in most paranormal romance: previously established “smart” characters make stupid decisions over an obsession for another person, guy or girl. Even worse, the stories justify these decisions as “right” despite the illogical approach that the narrators take. I actually applaud novels like Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld where when the narrator makes a stupid decision, like paying $3500 a month in rent for a year, it haunts her in the end.

The problem is that in romance stories, the conflict involves getting the leads together, and what keeps them apart. Poorly written paranormal romance makes the conflict highly exaggerated or blown beyond proportion in the face of greater evils, and with obsessions. People can be rational about love, thus when you show rational characters behaving irrationally for pages on end it frustrates the intellectual reader and promises only a world where obsession is the norm. The same applies not just to boy meets girl relationships, but also to non-hetero-normative ones. 

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Which paranormal romances handle these conflicts well and plausibly then? Quite a number, to be honest. The first one that comes to mind is, as mentioned before, the Abandon trilogy by Meg Cabot: that features a relationship between seventeen-year old Pierce Oliviera and Underworld ruler John Hayden. Due to a near-death experience Pierce has encountered John in the Underworld and at fifteen thought she was too young to die and settle down with a guy forever; this is a plausible road block, as is an older Pierce finding herself in dangerous situations due to the necklace that John gives her. She spends half the trilogy trying to figure out how to get rid of the Furies that are plaguing her, her friends and John, and the other half deciding if such a relationship could work. In other words, she never lets her growing feelings for him get in the way of taking practical measures to handle an ongoing conflict, though at times she does admit that she cares for him a lot. Meg has also written satirical paranormal novels about mediators falling for ghosts and soap opera writers expressing strong dislike for vampires, so she knows what types of conflict to avoid.

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan also makes the paranormal material work by satirizing the Twilight mythos with vampires and showing a believable world involving such creations. In that novel the protagonist Mel tries to stop her friend Cathy from turning into a vampire to stay with the new exchange student Francis. Mel in the meantime develops feelings for Kit, a human raised by a vampire family, who lacks certain social skills and is matter-of-fact about how terrible normal people can be. Both sides bring up points about whether or not becoming a vampire is a bad thing, and eventually Mel and Kit resolve their differences by working together and learning to see the other's perspective, before they engage in any sort of relationship. In other words, they behave rationally and communicate about their desires and needs.

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As for myself, I haven't written a paranormal romance yet, but I wrote about romance and fantasy. In my webcomic A La Mode before it went on hiatus, I had a relationship develop between two characters over time, based on their interactions. Lamode, the nineteen-year old main character, takes her time to express feelings for a local medical student, and before the hiatus they became an official couple. Their obstacles mainly stem from having two different backgrounds and going on a disastrous first date as a result: the boy B.B. is a twenty-one year old rebellious medical student that takes her out to a horror film, and Lamode is a reluctant witch from a conservative atmosphere, unused to jump scares and suspense. When I was writing the comic I was letting their personalities bounce off each other as they communicated their needs and worked through that disaster; their different backgrounds will still be an obstacle when I resume, but they’re working through it without the high-stakes drama in typical paranormal romance. In addition they're both too busy with their jobs-- medicine and baking-- to become obsessed with each other.

Here is what works in paranormal romance: legitimate road blocks that are not necessarily dramatic, three-dimensional characters, and communication between said characters. Don't go for the star-crossed love that predated every novel ages ago with Romeo and Juliet and every mythos in the Western Hemisphere. See what a little bit of mundane conflict can do in a fantastic world.

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