Thursday, December 1, 2016

Harry Potter and the Expanded Universe

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Ever since I started this blog, there have been certain books that I've made reference to, expecting my audience to know already. This blog is rife with spoilers for The Hunger Games, features the occasional Twilight related diatribe and - let's not forget - frequently pauses to admire the brilliance of the seven book, eight movie Harry Potter series.

These three series have a lot in common. They're all mega-blockbusters, all aimed at children and all garnered a massive adult fan base despite their intended audience. Up until 2016, they also shared another key feature that made them easy to talk about on this blog:

They were all over.


But someone got a hold of those Deathly Hallows and flipped the resurrection stone, because the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is back from the grave.

Some Context...

I first came across the Harry Potter books at the start of seventh grade. It took one sentence to hook me. I charged through books one, two and three. Then began the waiting.

Anyone who grew up in the late 90s/early 2000s learned the agony of waiting for each new Harry Potter book.  When the series started, I was a year younger than Harry, Ron and Hermione. By the time it ended, I was three years older. It never took me longer than a few days to read each book and so, by and large, most of my time spent with Harry, I was waiting for more.

In order to fill this Harry Potter sized hole in my heart, I took to the internet. I talked to people on message boards about Harry Potter. I read blog posts on everything from wand lore to inbreeding in the wizarding world. I trawled through countless pages of fan art on Deviant Art. It's safe to say that no series hit my developing writer's soul more than Harry's did.

Online, I wasn't alone. There were countless people just like me, desperate for more Potter. Which is why the inevitable blow-ups that happened whenever a new book was released were - in hindsight - kind of bizarre. But not that bizarre.

Fandom Over Time

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Ron + Herm 4 EVA!!!!
Between the publication of Book 4 and Book 5 alone, three years passed. Three! For teenage Emily, this was an eternity, and a lot of people felt the same way. So they filled the gap with fan theories, fan fiction and fan art. What resulted were divergent opinions about the true nature of the Harry Potter world. Right up until the sixth book came out, there were ride-or-die supporters of Harry and Hermione falling in love with each other. They could (and did) write essays on the ways JK Rowling clearly intended the couple to be together. They were devastated when they realized that Harry and Hermione were a love that would never be, even more so when Rowling joked that they'd missed some "anvil sized hints" that Hermione had feelings for Ron.

There were people who hated the "teen-angst Harry" that replaced our hero in Book 5; people who loathed Ginny Weasley, the more focus she took in the narrative; people who felt betrayed by the heroic end that Snape got; people who lost their minds when Umbridge didn't die; people who disliked the way Book 7 unraveled Dumbledore's legacy. And there were a lot of people who hated the epilogue. Man, people hated that epilogue.

But as each book settled into reality, resistance died down. Like it or not, this was Rowling's world. And you could either throw the whole series out or accept the changes you didn't like. Most people chose acceptance, though not everyone. I had friends who went from super fans to so disenchanted, they never finished the series.

But once 2007 passed, Harry Potter became fixed. Sure, J.K. Rowling continued to give interviews, but the stuff she spoke about  wasn't important enough to make it into the books. None of it defined the series. And if you weren't the type of fan who hung on every word the great Rowling spoke, you might not even know she was still adding factoids to the series.

The Arrival of 2016

In many ways, the great change began back in 2013, with the announcement of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For six years, the series had been over. The movie adaptations stretched the timeline a bit longer, but they weren't adding new lore to the world. And even then, the last movie came out in 2011. Potter was supposed to be done.

Fantastic Beasts would be a movie series, focused not on Harry, but on Newt Scamander, the author of one of Harry's textbooks. It would detail his adventures in 1920s America and function as an independent story, within the same world. On the whole, people loved this announcement. It felt like the perfect balance between getting more Potter without dragging out the corpse of the beloved series we'd already said good-bye to.

But then Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was announced and people kind of collectively said, "what?"

Of all the things I listed above, nothing was as universally reviled as Book 7's epilogue. I, like a lot of people, chose to conveniently "forget" it existed and focus on Harry as a teenager. The idea of a story that took place AFTER that time would make it feel more real. And back when she was writing the original series, Rowling double-triple-quadruple promised she wouldn't write Harry Potter and the Mid-Life Crisis, yet here we were, faced with a stage play that was exactly that.

Optimists (such as yours truly) still bought a copy of the play to read, but Cursed Child also made something else painfully clear. The book had three authors on the title page. Rowling wasn't the only one driving the Harry Potter bus any more.

Rowling is the only person on Fantastic Beasts with a "story by" credit, but even that being the case, you can bet the script was vetted and doctored by a whole team of writers. It's just the way movies are made. Besides which, Rowling is a novelist, and screenplays are a different - ahem - beast. The very fact that she has a "story" credit and not a "screenplay" one speaks to the fact that other people stepped in at some point.

In both cases, it can be argued that we might be getting more Harry Potter, but that doesn't mean we're getting any more *pure* Harry Potter. So what role do these additions play in the over-all universe? And are we expected to accept them the same way we did each book in the series? 

Expanding Universes Across Fandom

It might be useful at this point to address the whole notion of an "expanded universe." The term comes primarily from Star Wars, which after it's initial mega-success back in the 70s and 80s, spawned a whole generation of fans hungry for more.

At the time, George Lucas wasn't interested in making more Star Wars movies, so the task of creating fell to others. These works were meant to satiate super fans, but not necessarily define Star Wars for the general public who couldn't care less about Jabba the Hutt's origin story. And what is the cheapest way of creating new content for super fans?

Books, of course! Books are cheaper to produce than movies or TV shows and you don't need nearly as many people to engage with them to make a profit.

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Not gonna lie. I only recognize Han and Leia.
Star Wars wasn't the only series to make use of a niche fan base in this manner. Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and even My Little Pony have all published books related to their respective worlds, expanding the universe for the fans that care without complicating the overall perception for casual fans. In fact, it's understood that further movies or TV shows can "overwrite" these books, much to the heartache of those who love the Expanded Universe. Still, they tend to take it on the chin. The books were extra. Not the main narrative.

For some people, engaging with this Expanded Universe material is the defining test of if you *are* a super fan. You don't know the name of each of the bounty hunters after Han Solo? Well, THAT GUY read a book about each of them! And you call yourself a fan. For shame!

But now that Harry Potter is expanding, the old fan base is at a cross roads, because not everyone wants to jump on the wagon. And if you look closely, you can kind of understand why.

The Harry Potter Conundrum

All of the series I mentioned above started out as Mass Media. Okay, so books are technically mass media too, but they're different. They're the "smart person's" pass time. We all kind of expect books to be simplified or "dumbed down" when they're adapted to film and television. In fact, we're pleasantly stunned when they don't feel that way.

When Star Wars and the like expanded their universes, they were moving "up" the ladder. By adding books to the world, they were going for smarter, niche content that only the true super fan was meant to engage with. The whole notion that complexity could be added to the Harry Potter world by making more movies feels off for a lot of people.

Add to that, blockbuster movies are not the small side-projects you make for a hyper-devoted fandom. They depend on massive ticket sales and cash returns, which comes from lots and lots of people going to see the movies. These movies are for the average joe, not the fans who spent their teen and college years writing side stories where Luna Lovegood takes center stage.

Cursed Child tripped up fans for different reasons. Though a play, most people will engage it first as a book, since the released script made for the biggest Harry Potter book launch in years. Technically, you can also buy the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, but c'mon. Let's face it. We're seeing it in theatres. So then what's wrong with Cursed Child? First, it reads differently from the original series. It had to, of course. It's a play. But because it's a play, gone are the vast descriptions of magical objects and locations. Gone are the internal thoughts we're used to from Harry. Neither of those things work well on stage, but both were key to Harry's original success.

On top of that, both recent works have highlighted some deeper problems with the series that some fans would rather not swallow. Cursed Child introduces some plot holes, if it's canon. The Pottermore writings that lead up to Fantastic Beasts, plus the movie itself, highlighted some difficulties Rowling tends to have writing diversity. (Those problems have always been there, of course. Try reading Goblet of Fire and finding one French character who isn't a raging stereotype.) And the casting choices for both the play and the movies have led to some mixed reactions.

To be honest, I'm not even sure how much people (on average) care about these problems or worry about the wider implications of adding more to the series. One of the issues with being a super fan for a series is that my vision tends to be a little myopic. I know what the internet junkies are thinking and saying, but Harry Potter touched a far, far wider swathe of people, many of whom host Harry Potter parties and get Harry Potter tattoos, even if they've never dreamed of posting on a Harry Potter message board or reading fan fiction. It's their story too, and who am I to say their experience and insight into the series is any less important than mine? For all I know, these were the people Rowling created the new play and movies for.

Or did she think she could satisfy all of us in one go? Or did she know she couldn't, but kept writing anyway?

The Future of Potter

So where do these works fit? They're going to be well known, more so than the expanded material from Star Wars or countless other properties. And even if other people are involved now, Rowling's name is there, over and over again, reminding us that on some level, she signed off on this. The chances that future books will come out that "overwrite" the new movies and play are slim to none.

You certainly can't force everyone to like the new material. As someone who eagerly read Cursed Child and watched Fantastic Beasts, I can admit, they aren't perfect. And maybe there is something to be said for holding the books up on a different "tier" than the rest of the new material. The "pure" books that Rowling created without the meddling of big studios and big money.

But at the same time...

I would never want to stop someone from critiquing the Harry Potter series. Man, there is next to NOTHING that I enjoy more than picking apart a story I love. One of the major features of this blog is its book reviews, which always mention at least one thing that could be "improved" in a work of fiction. Sometimes it's craft, sometimes its what it says on a social commentary level. But as we pick apart the new additions to the series, overall, I'm excited that there's a lot of interesting stuff to talk about. Even with their weaknesses, I don't think they're anywhere close to being something you would want to give up on.

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RON + HERM 4 EVA!!!!!!
For those who are wondering if they should read Cursed Child or see Fantastic Beasts - especially those who are worried that these stories might tarnish something they loved - I'd really encourage you to give them a shot. There are great, new characters to meet. There are all of Newt's creature friends and, holy crap are they lovable. And Cursed Child finally fixed that frickin' Book 7 epilogue and for that alone, the play deserves an award.

I keep wondering what will happen a year or so from now when the dust has settled and these stories have been around for a while. Will they be seen as normal? Will the fan base swallow them on the whole, just like they did the books? After all, this isn't a new pattern we're seeing. People have rejected aspects of "new Potter" every time another story is added to the canon. All that's changed is the level of social media exposure.

Either way, with more movies on the way and new snippets added to Pottermore regularly, one thing is very clear. Harry Potter fans have more content than ever before to engage with, and what they do with it will only be known in time.

Friday, September 23, 2016

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

Image result for to all the boys i've loved beforeLara Jean is a girl who enjoys the simple, comfortable life. Her best friends are her sisters, Kitty and Margot, and Margot’s boyfriend, Josh. But Margot is off to Scotland for university and – to Lara Jean’s amazement – breaks up with Josh before leaving.

The break-up prompts Lara Jean to admit to herself that she might have feelings for Josh. She thought she got over him when he and Margot started dating, but apparently not. As she finds herself attracted to him again, she tries to force away her feelings the same way she has gotten over every crush she’s ever had – by writing him a letter and hiding it in the hatbox under her bed. Lara Jean’s letters contain all the thoughts and feelings she never dares say to the boys she’s loved, and by writing them, she finds herself able to move on.

Then on the first day of Junior year, her middle school crush, Peter, walks up to her with a few questions. Questions about a letter he claims she mailed him. A letter, Lara Jean realizes, she wrote him back at the end of Eighth Grade.

The hatbox is missing. The letters were mailed, including the one to Josh. And Lara Jean’s simple life is about to get far less comfortable.

What Makes It So Good

I feel like I recommend a lot of dark, gruesome stuff on this blog. Books with flesh-eating horses and mutated dog-men and haunted grave diggers and Hitler. So let’s celebrate something different today!

This book is fluffy and cute and sweet and wonderful. The loveliness starts with Lara Jean herself, who is charming and neurotically teenaged all at once. She’s the kind of girl who does well in school, not because she’s a tortured genius, but because doing well in things matters to her. She’s not in the popular crowd, not because she’s hopelessly uncool or outcast, but because she’s a bit of a homebody and would rather be baking cookies than partying. Watching her step outside her comfort zone and grow up is so satisfying. Her arc is one of a girl who gradually realizes she wants more out of life, but who also hangs on to her goodness and sweetness, knowing those are part of who she essentially is.

Jenny Han is great at making you care about the things Lara Jean cares about – her sisters, her single father, whether or not she should include pictures of Josh in the scrapbook she’s making for Margot. She’s funny in her simple obsessions. And the relationship drama that falls out of her letters getting mailed also feels authentic. More often than not, its humorous rather than overwrought and her reactions are very relatable. I know of a lot of highschoolers that live more in a world of imaginary romances than real ones, and Lara Jean is clearly more comfortable with the imaginary.

But of course, this book wouldn’t be complete without the eponymous “boys she loved before” and here again, the book hits a home run. Most of the drama focuses on two of the boys. Josh, who still belongs to Margot in Lara Jean’s head, and Peter, who can’t help getting involved because he finds this whole fiasco hilarious. Of course there’s a love triangle, but Han doesn’t sink too much angst into it and by the end of the book, you’re pretty firmly steered in favor of Lara Jean’s decision.

It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a romance this much. If you’re looking for a light read, but don’t want to sacrifice characterization or theme, I highly recommend this book.

What Could Make It Better

So… let’s not beat around the bush. The premise is pretty contrived. The letter writing itself seems like something a girl would do, but the letters getting mysteriously mailed out? Lara Jean, this is why you DO NOT write addresses on letters you don’t actually want mailed!

And this isn’t the only contrived, rom-com level trope this book employs. There are quite a few, though I won’t detail them all for fear of giving away the entire plot. What Han excels at is making these tropes seem relatable again, but they are there in full force. If you hate this sort of thing, you may still hate it here, but you might find yourself liking it. Maybe you were just waiting for proper execution.

If you think of this book as a rom-com, most of the tropes are easy to swallow. All romantic comedies have some kind of quirky premise that is meant to make a story stick out from the pack. Maybe there’s a man in a coma. Maybe there’s a woman writing an article about How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. I’m not one to fault a book for using a catchy, contrived premise. To me, it’s what it does with it. And over all, I was satisfied with how Han told her story.

This book is also what you might call “very highschool.” I can’t imagine encountering the same problems Lara Jean faces in university, let alone during actual adulthood. It appealed more to my inner sixteen-year-old far more than it resonated with my current emotional state. But again, I don’t think that’s a fault. A lot of YA feels written for an older audience, whereas this book definitely focuses on the hopes and dreams of teenagers. But it might be a turn-off to some readers.

Overall, I’d urge you to give this book a try, especially if you’re in the mood for something happy and light. It’s a fantastic pick-me-up.

P.S. There is a poll in the upper right hand corner!!!

Did you know I am obsessed with polls? WELL NOW YOU DO! Right now I'm trying to get an idea of what people like reading on the blog, so that I can hopefully provide more of it. So click all the things you like! Multiple answers are allowed. And if you have any questions/suggestions, sound off in the comments! Love you guys! :)

Monday, September 12, 2016

How Diversity (and Lin Manuel Miranda) Can Make A Story Awesome

Lin Manuel Miranda's musical IN THE HEIGHTS

Lately, there have been a lot of discussions around diversity and inclusivity in my writing community. I say lately, but really, these discussions have been going on for a long time. However, they have their moments where they boil over a little more heated, and the past few weeks, this has seemed to be the case.

This is a topic I have a lot of thoughts on, mostly because that when it comes to increasing diversity in books and in the publishing industry, I am all for it. A lot of the time, I kind of expect people to take this for granted. I'm not one to make a fuss. I'm not one who likes hurting feelings. But I am also someone who hates faulty logic, and lately, there have been some arguments AGAINST increasing diversity in books that have relied on terrible, narrow-sighted premises and that is the kind of thing that I just cannot stand for. So in the name of sense, I am saying some things.

Actually, I am saying a LOT of things. Bear with me. I have a lot of thoughts on this.

Bad Argument #1: There isn't really a lack of diverse books. I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and that had race issues in it.

A lot of my readers are not writers and are likely unaware of the discussions writers have around diversity. But if you're someone who is concerned with social justice and media, you've probably heard of these discussions in some other venue. Maybe you watch movies and saw some of the discussion around the incredibly white Oscar nominees of the past couple years. Or maybe you like theatre and noticed that everyone is losing their minds over Lin Manuel Miranda's musical, Hamilton (we'll talk more about Miranda in a minute).

Generally, you can drag-and-drop that discussion onto books. Books, like most media, are dominated by white, heterosexual, able-bodied heroes. Oh sure, there are exceptions. There are lots of great books out there about minority characters, but this is more a symptom of there being "lots of great books" than of there being adequate exposure or opportunities for books focused on minorities.

If you need convincing at all, I compiled a list of as many books as I could think of that have been featured in some way on my blog. Most were selected for book reviews of some kind, because I think they're great books. A few came up because you can't discuss Young Adult literature without saying a few things about Harry Potter and Twilight. I think the list provides a decent litmus test of what you'll "happen" to see and read if you are not actively selecting for diversity. Below, I have highlighted all the books that definitively feature a protagonist who isn't white.

True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp – a white boy and some raccoons
Ship Breaker – a mixed race boy, possibly Latino, but it’s all pretty vague. Could be white
Divergent – a white girl
The Night Gardener – a white girl and a white boy
The Giver Quartet – three white boys and two white girls
The Hunger Games – a girl. Probably white.
Twilight – a white girl
Harry Potter – a white boy
MaddAddam Trilogy – a white girl, a white boy, a white woman and a white man
The Scorpio Races – a white girl and a white boy
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – a Native American boy
Three Men in a Boat – a white man
Tess of the D’Urbervilles – a white girl
Bone Gap – a white girl and a white boy
Stand Still. Stay Silent. – four white boys and two white girls
Wolf by Wolf – a Jewish girl who *usually* looks white
To All the Boys I've Loved Before - a half Korean girl (spoiler! This review is upcoming!!!)

I included that last one because I actually did write that review already, so it seemed part of the same, pre-post on diversity thought process of mine.

Now, racial diversity isn't the only kind of diversity you can read about, but I hope this gives some idea of why, when people seemingly go on and on and on about inclusivity, it isn't because they are going on about nothing. These are not books I stumbled into accidently. The majority are award winning and highly respected. Others are runaway blockbuster hits. Most are used as benchmarks within the discipline.

So here are some numbers:

Of the 17 books above, only 2 feature definitively non-white protagonists
If we include Nailer from Shipbreaker, that number goes up to 3
Wolf By Wolf features a religiously diverse protagonist. The count goes up to 4
Stand Still. Stay Silent. features linguistic diversity and isn't heteronormative. The count goes up to 5
Bone Gap features a protagonist with a disability. The count goes up to 6

And that's it. 6 out of 17 books feature diverse protagonists. Due to the inclusion of a couple works of classical literature, maybe the number skews a little low, but one of the advantages of being white today is that you have the past to bolster you up. We've been the heroes in the cultural narrative for a long time.

A lot of people may argue that I'm being unfair, only counting books where the protagonist belongs to a diverse group. And yes, I will grant you that it's nice that Katniss is friends with black characters and that Bella has a thing for Jacob. They help, because they show that neither Katniss nor Bella belongs to some sort of strange world where the diverse characters have all been edited away. But these are still stories that are about the experiences of people who don't grapple with issues that exclude them from the mainstream. The diverse characters are appendages to those stories, not the focus themselves.

What I'm saying is that things could be better. There could be more diverse books. I might need to more actively select FOR diversity if I want to feature it on my blog. But you'll notice something else about that list. The bottom of it - which is composed primarily of new releases - is more diverse than the top. I didn't do this intentionally, but the books I am reading and that are promoted to me are changing. Modern writers are getting better at including diversity, and a lot of the best stories today feature diverse protagonists. Which leads me to...

Bad Argument #2: If people are just trying to promote diverse books, then what will happen to "good" literature? This is like affirmative action hiring in books! I don't like it!

I think it goes without saying that books should recommend themselves on their own merits. I've picked up diverse books I haven't liked. I've also picked up books that don't feature diversity that I haven't liked. Just as there are "lots of good books" out there, there are also lots of bad books out there. And because reading is so subjective, it can be hard for us to understand why one book got published and another one didn't. And all too often, people use this as an excuse to blame diversity.

You see the same nervousness around diverse books that you do around affirmative action hiring, particularly from writers. Writers who aren't from diverse groups get antsy when they see an editor or literary agent calling for diversity. It's like a scholarship they can't apply to, and it upsets them, because they're looking for a way into the market too.

But this is the thing: For every editor there is asking for fantasy that features non-European mythology, there is another one turning down a manuscript with a diverse protagonist because there just isn't "broad enough market appeal" for it. And "market appeal" is often seen to equal white, heterosexual, able-bodied etc etc

If you want a good example of this, take a look at the way books are adapted into movies. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins describes Katniss as olive skinned, dark haired and dark eyed. She's racially ambiguous. But most of us don't think of her that way anymore because we've all seen her played by fair skinned, blue eyed Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence was a logical choice for making the movie more "marketable," a traditional, white beauty who was a star on the rise. Of course she did a good job, and since Katniss's race was ambiguous at best, I wouldn't say she was miscast. But can you see what I mean? When a spot is "neutral" so-called, it's usually filled by a mainstream character.

When people actively call for diverse work, it isn't because they are trying to exclude other writers, but because they're trying to make a space for work that otherwise might struggle to get into the "neutral" slot because nothing is ever neutral. Not really.

And if you find yourself "missing" these opportunities, consider for a moment whether or not your own work really is at it's very best. There might be more diverse work out there now, but there's also still plenty of stories about white people. Don't worry, I went to the book store. I checked. Our faces are still on plenty of covers. Which brings us to...

Bad Argument #3: Diversity is great and all, but not EVERY book should have to be diverse, right? Authors shouldn't feel pressured to include it if they don't want to.

If you are asking this question because you are looking for permission to write a white, able-bodied, heterosexual etc etc mainstream character as your protagonist, then I hereby give you permission. Yes, go ahead. It's your story. You can write your story about whatever you're little heart desires. Similarly, yes, you can enjoy a book about white characters without feeling guilty for liking it. There are great books out there that aren't terribly diverse.

And the reality is that even when we're looking at mainstream protagonists, there are still lots of differences between them . We all love the Avengers and how different they are from each other and yet they're all white, 30-something-year-old dudes. Give or take. (That's starting to change. Marvel is planning on releasing some movies that should broaden the line-up.)

But on the flip side, I will say this: Writers have a responsibility to represent diversity not because it is the buzz phrase du jour, but because writers have a responsibility to represent reality. And the reality is that the world is a diverse place.

If you live in Europe and North America, there was a time when reality did seem less diverse. I don't think Shakespeare had much exposure to cultures other than his own, so when he wrote reality, it was a narrow version of it. And good gosh, we should be grateful he didn't veer too far off of what he knew! *coughshylockchough*

But we don't live in that world anymore. Less than 50% of kindergarteners in America are white. Around a quarter of all Americans live with a disability at some point. If you don't see the need to feature at least SOME non-mainstream characters in your work, then you might just be ignoring reality. And yes, that is something that deserves to be called out. The "mainstream" I've mentioned so many times isn't what it used to be. It's varied in a way that it wasn't before.

There will still be exceptions. There will still be deeply fascinating, genuine books that feature little-known aspects of European history. There will still be stories about small towns in middle-America where everyone attends the same highschool and everyone looks like each other, accept for that one kid who sticks out like a sore thumb. These might be portraying reality in a time or place where it would feel a bit forced to make everyone "diverse for the sake of diversity." But even then, it wouldn't hurt to do a bit of extra research - to make sure we are portraying reality in those places and not just our assumptions about it. Even back in the olden days, there was still more immigration and mixing that went on than people often care to acknowledge.

So with all that said, I want to provide one last argument; one of my own, which I hope strikes people as a good one. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and even label it as such.

Good argument #1: Everyone benefits from diversity because it gives us more stories; stories that wouldn't be available to us otherwise.

A few years ago, I went on a trip to New York with my older sister. Being musical theatre enthusiasts, we decided to go attend a show we knew very little about, but had great buzz. It was called In The Heights and told the story of a neighborhood in northern Manhattan primarily made up of Latin American immigrants.

The musical was the first major work by Lin Manuel Miranda, who has since then achieved dizzying acclaim with his more recent work, Hamilton. But it was In The Heights that made me fall in love with Miranda and his hip-hop, rap infused musical theatre stylings. There isn't really anyone else like him on Broadway.

One of the scenes that completely fascinated me was one that involved Benny, a black cab driver who worked for a Puerto Rican ran cab company. He gets involved with his boss's daughter, Nina, and to his shock, is rebuffed by her family. Benny had always enjoyed an easy relationship with his boss. They're both minorities. They're both used to not having their dreams taken seriously, because they're from a "bad" part of Manhattan. But Benny is a cultural outsider, who speaks some Spanish, but isn't fluent. He finds himself viewed as an intruder and this understandably hurts him.

The resolution of this storyline is probably best left to the musical, but I remember this was a real wake-up call for me. I was so excited watching this, because I had literally never seen this story before. I hadn't seen it anywhere. One of the main reasons why was because, in my own life, there is literally ALWAYS a white person present. It can't be helped because guys, I AM that white person! Shocking, I know.

Miranda gave me a peep into a world of race relationships and cultural hierarchy that had very little - almost nothing, really - to do with white experience. The baggage is different. The tensions are different. The assumptions are different. As a result, the stories are different. Having a white character present for that scene would have radically altered the tone, and so I found myself very glad that there weren't any. Not because I'm inherently "uninterested" in the stories of white characters, but because sometimes they need to step out of the way and make room for other people - to make room for the stories that cannot involve them.

And that's what we stand to gain when we open up to diversity in literature. We end up able to empathize with more people and aware of worlds that are beyond our ability to observe. We have so much to gain by letting more stories be told by the people who experience them. So don't fear the future, friends. It's a place with a lot of great stories to tell.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Reviews: Wolf By Wolf

Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin
Ten years have passed since the Axis powers won World War II. To commemorate their victory, each spring, Germany and Japan host a motorcycle race across their controlled lands, the racers drawn from the best of the Hitler Youth and Japan’s elite racing camps.

Only one girl has ever competed in the race, last year’s victor, Adele Wolfe, darling of the Third Reich and particular favorite of Adolf Hitler. But this year, someone else is racing in her place. A survivor of the death camps, Yael can skin shift, thanks to the years of Nazi experimentation performed on her as a child. Using Adele’s face as her own, Yael enters the race, determined to win and kill Hitler at the victor’s ball.

But navigating the road is only one of the dangers she’ll face. Adele has plenty of blood on her hands from last year’s race, and if Yael wants to complete her mission, she’ll need to answer for Adele’s crimes.

What Makes It So Good

Anyone following my blog knows that I’m a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy. Those books prompted a huge wave of follow-the-leader novels, all tackling the topic of dystopic futures and life-or-death competitions. The trend was so pervasive, that about three years ago, publishing got so sick of dystopic YA that it’s kind of shocking that this book wiggled through.

But Ryan Graudin hit on a way of writing a dystopia that didn’t feel derivative or played out. Instead of this being some futuristic society that keeps its people in line with laser guns, it’s the most famous dystopia that ever existed – Nazi Germany. Of course, Graudin isn’t the first person to write an alternate history where the Nazis won the war. Anyone who reads comics knows that superheroes can’t get enough of punching Hitler in the face. But her take does feel satisfyingly unique. The inclusion of the race gives the book structure, keeps the pace brisk and – yes – seems like something else Graudin picked up on from the success of The Hunger Games. We YA readers do like our cutthroat competitions.

A lot of people who dislike The Hunger Games do so because they don’t find it plausible. You can’t say that of Wolf By Wolf. The scenario isn’t that far off of what could have happened. Adjust when Hitler planned on launching Operation Sea Lion, and he very well could have won the war. Graudin has done her research, and it shows. From the Zundapp motorcycles to the fragmented remains of the USSR to Yael’s skin shifting ability, the details real and imagined blend together seamlessly.

Yael’s relationships are also fascinating. She comes into the race predisposed to hate all the Hitler Youth boys, but as she’s forced to interact with them, she can’t deny that there’s something more to each. Though none of them have survived the horrors she’s endured, they’re also victims of Hitler’s reign.

The writing itself is sharp, weaving together flashbacks of Yael’s past with the race, allowing the reader to come to know the force that drives her. The prose is at turns heart breaking and brutal, but I never found it so dark I didn’t want to read on. Over all, a fantastic read. Get on the fan wagon while there’s still room, because a sequel is coming out this fall.

What Could Make It Better

I had very few quibbles with this book, but I can think of a couple things that might bother a different reader. One of the strengths of The Hunger Games was that Katniss herself had a very distinct and understandable personality. Within a chapter or two, she made sense to you and even if you hated her, you could still easily describe her personality – sour, withdrawn, but also determined and wily.

You can’t say this of Yael. Yael is a blank slate, a girl who is so wrapped up in her mission, she has very little sense of herself and her own likes or dislikes. For most of the book, she’s impersonating Adele and trying to think of what Adele would do, rather than what she, Yael, would want. This can get frustrating.

Actually, it could have been much worse. A flaw like that would destroy most books. Video games make use of this trope all the time, giving the player a generic, chiseled dude to play who doesn’t interfere with the player’s ability to imagine themselves in the role of hero. If there’s no personality complicating identification, it’s easy to do. But this style of game isn’t typically known for gripping stories. It’s a sacrifice of story quality for immersive experience.

While video games can justify this choice on occasion, it’s harder with books. Yet I’ve read some YA where the author seems to purposely make the heroine as indistinct as possible so that any girl reading can imagine herself into the story without much problem. And yes, they can be immersive, but they can also be shallow. This is where your Bella Swann style heroines come from – girls who seem like shells rather than real people. And Yael is a bit of a shell.

But for this book, it was absolutely the right choice. Yael is a blank slate character because she is LITERALLY a blank slate. One of the saddest and most telling lines of the book comes early on when Yael admits that she can’t remember what her own face looks like. She was too young when the experiments started and took away her original appearance. So yes, Yael doesn’t really know herself and doesn’t seem certain of what she wants. But this bothers her. A lot.

In a certain way, Yael could be any girl out there. We all get to imagine ourselves racing motorcycles and hunting Hitler. That’s her gift and her curse. But by the end of the book, I think Graudin does a decent job of showing that even if her identity has been stripped from her, she isn’t every person who has ever lived.

Young Adult literature is often characterized as being a genre focused on “coming-of-age” and knowing yourself. Yael provides a fascinating entry point into a very universal theme. Most teenagers feel like a blank slate in some sense, one that’s fighting to know itself and grow up. Yael shows just how powerful an identity can be, whether it’s your own or one you stole from someone else. Besides, one of the most enjoyable parts of fiction is getting to imagine ourselves in someone else’s skin, and Yael gives us so many people to be.

Monday, July 4, 2016

SILK SONG: A New Story By Emily Paxman


So you might have noticed I have news.

The short version of the announcement is that I've finally decided to share some of my own, original fiction with you through my blog - or blogs as the case now happens to be. You can find the new story, called Silk Song, right here! The long version has a few more details.

Blogging and the World of Self-Publishing

For a while now, some of you lovely people who read my blog have asked if you can read some of my REAL writing. You know, that stuff I talk about all the time. In particular, people have wondered why I don't post more fiction on this blog.

There are a few reasons for that, the chief being that anything posted on the internet is - for all intents and purposes - published. It might not be on a bookshelf and it might not be making me any money, but regardless, if it's online and searchable, it's published. And on the whole, my goals have been to get my fiction published more formally with actual presses who can help me distribute, promote and make money off it.

Most people can understand these concerns, so the follow up question tends to be something along the lines of: what about short stories? Wouldn't those work well on a blog? And wouldn't those be easy? There's kind of an assumption that short story writing is easier than novels and so if I published a short story here, it wouldn't be as much of a sacrifice. And on top of that, it might even be worth something to me if I can use free stories to grow my audience, so that there are people interested in my full length novels when they do come out.

I can't say if I agree with these sentiments or not. Back in my Master's program, I certainly had friends who found short story writing easier than novels and a few of them did publish work for little or no pay. But even in these cases, they were typically publishing their short form work with literary magazines - both in print and online - which provides both legitimacy and increased visibility to the work. So it's not as if the people I know who produce good quality short stories are simply blogging those willy-nilly. They place them carefully and use them to build their own careers, which may be commercial fiction or may be more closely tied to academia.

But the more important objection to posting short stories on this blog is this: I don't write them. It's not for any terribly complicated or idealistic reason. I just don't get ideas for them. During my undergrad writing classes, I struggled to come up with pieces short enough to satisfy my professors. I find it much easier to structure a novel than a short story, not because novels are easy, but because they work better for me and the ideas I have.

In fact, the only short form ideas I get tend to be for... essays. Which you'll notice are what I write for this blog.

Beyond Emily's Stories

I've kept this blog for a couple of years now. It's a small, cozy space where I get to talk about stories and why I love them and where, to my delight, I get to hear from all of you too. I started this blog hoping to spark conversations with my friends and strangers about the books I love. And believe me, it's been a joy to do it. When someone asks me what sort of books I think boys might enjoy or when I find out that one of the books I reviewed has become a new favorite for someone, I'm so touched. And the fact that people are now asking to see more of my work is incredibly exciting.

For a while, I've wondered if I couldn't do something more here. I've had an idea for a new project involving my blog since September, but I was hesitant to put it into action. I knew it would be a large undertaking, and before I committed myself to it, I wanted to make sure I was consistently posting at least once every month, preferably a little more. Since then, I've made an effort to be more diligent and I've also branched out in terms of topics I cover. It's been wonderful to be more involved here, and so I finally feel ready to start my next big project...

Introducing Silk Song

When I considered posting my work on-line, I knew it needed to be the right sort of story and in a way that worked for me. These were my main concerns when I considered posting fiction:

1) I don't get short story ideas. It would need to be a novel (in some sense).
2) My favorite thing about blogging is the interaction and conversation with my readers. I didn't want to post something just to get "likes" or "dislikes" on it. That's not very interesting to me.
3) It needed to be something that I could throw my passion behind and that represented my honest work and effort. And yet still somehow be something I didn't feel so proprietary of and attached to that I wanted to save it and try getting it traditionally published.
4) It needed to be fun.

With these things in mind, I began planning SILK SONG. In some ways, it will be very representative of what I write. It's a Young Adult fantasy novel about a girl who must survive exciting things. It will be posted in short chapter/scene length installments on it's own blog. I considered placing it here, but I felt that since it's an independent story, it needed room to breathe. I didn't want the story's feed clogged up with my book reviews and ramblings about the Hunger Games and I didn't want this blog to lose its focus on the more academic side of writing.

But most importantly, it will also be highly interactive!

SILK SONG is what I like to call a vote-your-own-adventure novel. At the end of each installment, readers will be given a chance to vote on what happens next, from a list of options I provide. Whichever option garners the most support, that's the path the story goes down! I'll write it into the next section and let you see the consequences of your decisions! In addition, I will be reading whatever comments people make, so if I *happen* to like a suggestion you've made for the story in the comments, hey! You never know. It might turn up later.

You can always find a link to SILK SONG from the menu at the top of this blog, as well as right here. The first chapter is already posted, so feel free to dive in! If you want more details about the story, explore the story's blog, which has an "about" section and "FAQ" already. For those who are curious, my current definition of "Frequent" for "FAQ" is "my roommate mentioned this when I pitched the idea to her." Thank you, Miranda.

I'm really hopeful you'll all enjoy the new project. If you do, please share it with your friends, especially if they are/are parents of teen-agers. And if you're liking it yourself, you can subscribe to the blog so that your email lets you know when a new installment is up. Your support means a tremendous amount to me and let's face it, the poll will be more fun with more people voting in it.

Once again, thank you for reading and following along with me. And I hope to see you all over at SILK SONG. It's gonna be awesome, guys. I can feel it. :)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When is it safe to ignore criticism of your writing/art?

Hey everyone! In my last post I talked about my excitement for the LDStorymakers Conference in Provo, Utah, and promised that I would eventually blog some of my thoughts and feelings about the experience.

First off, it was AMAZING!!! I had a fantastic time, met awesome people and made great connections. The classes were phenomenal and as I embark on revising my manuscript, I've been doing it with one eye on the notes I took from a few of my favorite workshops.

But of course, not every happy story is without it's hiccups, and oddly enough, one of the WORST experiences of the conference was also one of the most informative. It really made me reflect on my work in a different way and reevaluate what I believed about receiving feedback. And that's the first story I want to share from the conference, mostly because I think it will be interesting to other people.

As a side note, I almost didn't post about this, because I don't want to seem crabby or ungrateful or to suggest that my general experience was anything other than awesome. I've worked through all the emotions that came from this long ago, and can happily stick my thumb sky high, a la Siskel and Ebert, when I sign off about this story. But I am sharing this, because the thought keeps reoccurring that what I learned might benefit someone else.

The First Chapter Contest

Leading up to LDStorymakers, I entered a First Chapter Contest with - you'll never guess - the first chapter of my most recent manuscript. Before I submitted it, I participated with a group of other writers attending the conference, trading manuscripts and offering feedback. It was fantastic! My work improved hugely thanks to their input, and I started making friends, some of which I met in at the conference.

During this process, I received amazingly positive feedback. A number of people told me they loved my work, some even going so far as to say it was the best of everything they'd critiqued for the contest. I was getting such consistently good reviews, I couldn't help going to Provo somewhat hopeful. I knew my category - Young Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy - would be a tough field, due to it's popularity, but with such an outpouring of affection, it didn't seem unreasonable to think I might win something.

I didn't win anything.

Okay, well... that was fine. Of course I was disappointed, but this had always been a possibility. At least I would find out how close I came. One of the great things about this contest was that every entrant received feedback from four judges. The judges would all be writers in that area who were either agented or published, so that sounded pretty legit.

As one of my dear friends said, maybe I was *just* below placing and they could tell me how to improve. But as my wounded pride grasped for some straw to hold to after losing, I said, "yeah. Or maybe I got three really good reviews and one who didn't understand my work and marked me down so low, I couldn't place."

Guess which one it was?

If you were thinking this was the post where Emily is forced to swallow some humble pie then, HA! That is not this post! You may refer to the post where I talk about my sister not wanting to eat scrambled eggs for that!

As it turned out, I was bang on. I got three very, very high scores and the other? Not so much. To put the numbers in perspective, imagine submitting an assignment at school and getting three A+ grades and one C from four separate teachers. Those were my marks. In a school setting, you would appeal that C and probably get it thrown out. But this was a contest with over 300 entrants and not the sort of thing where appeal boards are set up. The arts don't work that way. If you don't win, you don't win. End of story.

So what do you do with a critique like this? What do you do with critique generally? Let's see if we can unpack some of the dos and don'ts of listening to feedback.

1) Don't Bother with Opinions that come from People who Don't Care about your Work

I think it should go without saying that anyone who attacks creative work or laughs at it or ridicules it or generally points out flaws so that they can make themselves feel better is not someone you should be listening to. No mean-spirited critique is helpful. Also beware of those who describe themselves as "brutally honest." While not universal, most people who describe themselves that way emphasize the "brutal" part more than anything else.

Frankly, I don't believe the truth is inherently brutal. We're talking about creative work here, not nuclear war. There is nothing someone can say to you about your work that can't be stated kindly.

One of the main criticisms I've heard levied at MFA programs is that students become competitive and critiques start turning into attacks. I'm so grateful for the teachers I had who chased away the notion that we were directly competing with each other, because I can admit that it WAS tempting to see things that way. But many of my classmates were creating work so vastly different from mine, it would have been foolish to treat them as direct competition. My classmate who wanted to write about psychedelic drugs was not going to chase my Middle Grade novel about cats out of the market.

So be kind and be helpful. You can afford to be. And even when you are dealing with people within your genre, competing for the same attention, still be kind. You never know when you're going to need those people to help you by blogging about your book release. Like most professional environments, the writing world gets smaller the deeper you get into it.

In return, look for helpful, insightful critique that has your best interests at heart. If someone seems intent on tearing you down, don't listen to them.

That being said, critique often feels inherently cutting, so do beware that just because something HAS hurt your feelings doesn't mean that the person who said it MEANT for it to hurt your feelings. If you find yourself wounded by a critique, try asking them to clarify what they are saying or how you could make it stronger. Sometimes that prompts the kinder, healthier response as they start looking for solutions rather than problems. Ask about how you can improve your work. It also helps you by making you focus on forward progress rather than what might be "wrong" with the project.

Of course, if they follow up these measured, even questions with something rude then by all means, roll your eyes and move on. This is easier said than done. It can be very VERY hard to share your work with the world and any rejection can feel damning. But you'll only get better by listening to people who look at art with an eye towards making it better.

2) Subjectivity is a Thing

So as mentioned above, the arts are unfair. They're inherently subjective and sometimes you draw the short end of the stick. And because the arts are ALSO underfunded, you can't exactly beat your chest demanding a more *fair* result. People do the best they can with the resources they have and the people who run contests of any kind wrack themselves with guilt already over the dreams they may  be crushing.

I've participated in a large number of contests over the past few years - some I've placed in, others I haven't - and I've seen the hosts struggle to massage the egos of disappointed writers as we slump back to our writer-caves. Much of the time, they repeat over and over how subjective art is and how, in another context, our work might be loved.

But in actuality, I've rarely found this comforting. Usually when I've missed out on something, I've been able to explain it somehow, either through feedback or through where I perceive there to be a weakness still. Hard as it is for authors who are starting out to hear, most of the time, you miss out because you ARE missing something, even if that something is small. At least, that's been my experience. Which kind of undercuts this bullet point, but leads us to the next...

3) Always Evaluate Criticism Carefully

It is much easier to write something good than it is to write something that is perfect. I actually tend to pick apart the work I like MORE than the work I don't, because I see better where the piece could go. This is one reason why finding people who like your work to give you feedback can be really important. These are the people who feel a vested interest in making your work better.

But isn't it shortsighted to only listen to people who like your work? Why yes, dear reader, it is! Especially if you evaluate how much someone likes your work by how many nice things they have to say about it. If you have a good relationship with your critique partners, you'll listen when they say "this is crap" or "I don't understand this" or "wanna go get a burger?" (This last bit of advice is extremely important!)

But there are other sources (besides your friends/critique partners) that you should turn to for feedback whenever possible. You should also listen to the Important Strangers. Who are Important Strangers? They are people with some sense of authority in your area who have a vested interest in making your work better.

So for example, I once had an agent write back on a query letter that she liked my manuscript's concept, but thought I used too much dialogue. Or there was the time one of my professors pointed out that "he shrugged his shoulders" can ALWAYS be shortened to "he shrugged" since no one is going to be confused and think someone is shrugging their eyebrows. This feedback is incredibly valuable, as it comes from a higher vantage point than yours. As such, if anything, it should be taken MORE seriously.

And this is why I had a hard time, initially, putting that bad review down. The feedback I got WAS from an Important Stranger and I was used to listening to them. The contest was anonymous, so there's no reason to think this person hated me or didn't want me to succeed. More likely, they just didn't like my work or think it up to snuff, and felt they should give an honest critique for the sake of the contest. There certainly wasn't anything mean-spirited about the comments.

At first, I tried to reconcile the reviews by thinking, "well, maybe this reader is more deeply bothered by my story's flaws. Maybe if I fixed those flaws, then my work would be ACTUALLY perfect!" So I read over the review carefully. But when I lined it up next to the others, I began to realize a disconcerting pattern.

Reviews 1-3: I loved the opening! So brooding and atmospheric! So evocative! I was right there with your characters! The soldiers and caving-in ceiling gave it immediate tension!

Review 4: Boring opening. A leaky ceiling is not interesting.

Reviews 1-3: The style was so gorgeous. You are clearly a gifted writer. The language was so evocative.

Review 4: I don't think this writer knew what the words they were using meant.

Reviews 1-3: I would definitely read on, though I've got a few concerns that need addressing when you edit this. I hope you get this published! It's going to be great!

Review 4: I would not read on. This is not publishable yet. Needs a lot more work.

Clearly reviewer 4 didn't like my chapter. But often the things they were hitting me the hardest for were the things my other readers loved, like my word choice and my opening. And changing those things in order to satisfy that fourth opinion would have essentially meant making my book something it wasn't ever supposed to be.

I wanted evocative language that built tension slowly. This story was about quiet dread, not flashy explosions, so yes, the leak in the roof came first. And three of my Important Strangers understood that and loved my work for it. One didn't.

At various intervals, I've posted about my experiences disliking books or finding ones I hate so much I don't finish them. Some have been classics, and a small part of my brain might even understand why. But at the same time, I do not get the appeal of The Chocolate War and if it showed up in a contest folder for my review, I would probably give it bad marks. If I didn't know it was a classic, I might assume everyone else was busily giving it bad marks too.

4) In Publishing, Nothing is Sacred. Be Ready to Make Painful Changes... Usually

What I relate this all for is to say very strongly that it is not advisable to change your work substantially until you have MORE THAN ONE opinion on it. Even if that opinion comes from an Important Stranger. Of course, if you do have only one review, but that review resonates with you and you DO want to change it right away, that's another matter. But if their words are coming somewhat as a shock, wait for another opinion.

Again, from personal experience, I can say that if something needs to be fixed, you will get enough feedback from trusted sources to confirm that they are right. Querying my first manuscript, I learned that I needed to rethink the way I balanced scene and description. I needed to be more ruthless when deleting "extra" words. I started the book in the wrong place.

I hated rewriting my first book. But when I finished, I was so glad that I did. While that book still isn't perfect, I could see how much better it had become. But in order to get there, I had to be willing to delete scenes and characters I loved. I had to gut large sections of text. I had to reevaluate praise I got in school, because the publishing world didn't respond the same way as my teachers and classmates. I had to admit that some of the "artistic choices" I'd made were the wrong choices.

When I looked at those first chapter critiques, I knew that I'd made an artistic choice with my manuscript, and that choice had lost me at least one reader. But I also realized that for the sake of the project, it was a reader I could live without.  My reviewer assured me that if they found my book on a library or store shelf, they would not turn the pages past Chapter One. And that's okay. I didn't write it for them.

I didn't think I'd come away from that contest with this kind of story. I hoped for a more traditional happy one. But if nothing else, that critique taught me something I hadn't realized I'd only partially believed - that it was okay to disagree with someone who disliked my work. There are situations where it's appropriate to nod, say "that's your opinion" and then get on with life. At the end of the day, it's not worth writing a book unless you love it. There are far easier ways to make money than publishing fiction.

Oddly enough, that bad review only made me more confident in my love for my story. I could firmly say that there were things I wanted that book to be, no matter what someone else said. And that feels pretty darn good.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Conferences and Drafting: Writerly News

You might have noticed it's been a little while since I wrote a blog post. Or you might be going merrily along with your life none the wiser. Either option is fine. But suppose you ARE that person who has noticed it's been a while. Suppose you've been waiting for me to complete my blog series on boys and reading. If you are among these people, then you might have worried the past month or so that I wasn't writing much any more.

Well, worry no more! Because as it turns out, the problem was the opposite. I was writing. A lot. And it all pointed towards one purpose...


Last year I completed my Master's, and while that was awesome and exciting, it also left an empty space in my life. During my studies, I'd been enjoying the support of a school writing community that pushed me to produce large amounts of work and also to refine that work into something better. I can't emphasize enough how amazing it was to focus entirely on writing during that time.

But perhaps even more important, school created a sense of urgency in me when it came to writing. If you didn't show up with new pages every week, you looked like you were slacking off, even if you were technically *allowed* to miss a week or two. But why would you want to? The feedback we got by workshopping our stories each week was incredible. All you had to do was finish on time, and people would read your work and comment on it and help you improve it.

Deadlines were one of the best things about school. I could take or leave the grading, but the chance to learn and workshop once every week - well, I can't over state it. Since graduating, it's been difficult at times to force myself to keep to a writing schedule, largely because I don't have someone external to me expecting results in a timely manner. I tried setting my own deadlines, but I felt strongly that I'd do better if I was writing for something.

The best solution I could come up with was to look for a writing conference I could attend at some point this year. Conferences provide a great opportunity to network with other writers, enter contests, interact with publishing professionals and - highly appealing - join critique groups and get feedback on work.

I spent a long time finding a conference that I both wanted to attend and could afford to get to. Eventually, I settled on LDStorymakers. There were agents and writers in attendance I was interested in hearing speak, an impressive schedule of classes and, perhaps most compelling, it was all taking place in Provo, Utah, where I could stay at my sister's house for free!

I've already thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Storymakers community. People have been supportive and reached out to one another, offering feedback for the First Chapter Contest and playing Twitter games with each other. It only seems like it can get better from here.

I'm also excited - though, honestly, nervous too - about the chance I'll have to interact with other writers who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For anyone who was either raised in/currently belongs to a religious community, it's pretty much impossible for your faith not to influence all aspects of your life. I think this is particularly true for Mormons and other minority religions. We're used to coming off as oddballs to other people at times, because our beliefs aren't common and we might not see things the same way as those who hold more mainstream beliefs. And despite this obvious influence, my writing life and my religion have often been kept in neat, separate boxes.

While I was at school, I was hyper aware of how weird I may or may not seem to people, due to my faith. I'd grown up as a decidedly uncool nerd, and away at Grad School, I got my first taste of acceptance by the wider population. We were all a bit weird, and it was so exciting to be around people who shared that experience and the accompanying enthusiasm for art. But even there, I was still DIFFERENT different. I couldn't go to bars or clubs and, as a result, missed out on some of the wider university culture.

My friends at Chatham were warm, accepting and never challenged me to do anything that went against my beliefs. Any barriers that existed between my faith and how I expressed myself were largely of my own making. My friends all knew I was Mormon and we had a lot of awesome conversations about faith and what religious beliefs we'd grown up with. But when we got into the actual classroom, I had a tendency to shut down that side of me. It was easier to come across as something neutral and non-threatening than to expose that more vulnerable part of me. We come from a culture where "common knowledge" suggests that religion is a topic that makes people angry and uncomfortable, so even when I was experiencing acceptance, it was hard for me to shut down this script in my head, that if I spoke about my writing from a position of faith, I would be yelled at or labeled as narrow-minded.

I don't know if I would have even noticed I was doing this if it hadn't been for a student/teacher mid-term talk I had with one of my favorite professors. He was trying to encourage me to be freer in my work, and I wasn't getting what he meant. As his careful, professional words failed to get through to me, he looked me squarely in the eye and said, "you're Mormon. You believe God put you on this earth for a purpose. That's what you need to write about."

I was instantly in tears, struggling to express how grateful I was to him for saying that. This fundamental part of why I write and why stories matter to me was something I'd never dared express in class. In my head, it would only make me sound crazy. But deep inside, I knew he was right. I didn't tell stories for fun, but because I believed they were part of what I was supposed to do with my time on earth - something I felt accountable to God for.

It's a memory that still makes me cry. In many ways, there are three things that matter to me in my life. My faith, my family and my writing. Inside me, they're all deeply intertwined, but it's rare I get the chance to experience them as united. I don't expect every Mormon author I meet to experience their faith and writing the same way I do, but that's part of what's exciting about the chance to go to LDStorymakers. I'm curious how others have integrated these things in their life and their work. Some will be people who write directly for the LDS niche market. Others will be like me, influenced thematically, but more drawn to books and stories aimed at a wider audience.

Hopefully, all of us can learn from each other. The conference starts on Thursday, May 5th with an intensive workshop, and I'm super excited! And one of the main reasons I'm excited is because I'm bringing a brand, spankin' new manuscript with me.


Earlier tonight, I finished drafting my current Work-In-Progress (or WIP as we writerly types like to call it), a Young Adult fantasy novel set in a world based loosely on pre-revolution France. It's about the transition of a country from war to a state of peace and the uneasy tensions that still litter the countryside. And at the center of it is a young woman who's thought of as a traitor by both sides.

Doesn't that sound exciting? I'm so glad that story exists now. And I would likely still be dragging my feet drafting it if not for the fact that Storymakers is starting this coming week.

Remember that talk about deadlines? Well, I promised myself that when I went to Storymakers, I would focus on classes that could help me edit my manuscript. But in order for that to be relevant, I needed to be finished the book I planned on editing. It is rough rough rough, my friends, but it exists. I love this story, and I'm really looking forward to going over it again and reshaping it into the story it is in my head, if not yet on the page.

Later, I might write another post talking about the differences between drafting and editing. For now though, I'm planning on focusing on the conference. I plan on writing at least one more post on LDStorymakers after it's finished. Maybe even more than that. :) We shall see!

Until then, I also want to say thank you to everyone who supported me while I finished this story. A huge thanks to my friends who were very understanding when I had to blow them off so that I could write. Thanks to my brother, who not only was patient with me through this process, but also has let me write about him and our relationship in the most bizarre, twisted of manners. Thank you to my sister who - did I mention? - is letting me stay at her house FOR FREE! Major props to Disturbed, whose cover of Simon and Garfunkle's Sound of Silence literally got me through a few of the darker chapters. A colossal thank you to my dad, who volunteered to drive me to the conference so he could see his grandsons and because he loves me a crazy amount. And a "I couldn't have done it without you" to my best buddy, Miranda Leavitt, who listened to long, rambling talks about characters, plot twists and my neurosis. She's a super hero, and I couldn't be more thrilled that she's coming to the conference too.

And above all, an amazing, all encompassing THANK YOU to my mother, who put up with a flaky daughter who constantly forgot to clean things and instead of getting annoyed with me, would time and again tell me to go finish my book instead. She's even volunteered to do my laundry tomorrow so I can focus on my other conference prep activities, because she's a saint.

For the rest of tonight, I'm gonna celebrate and rock out to the Dolly Parton album iTunes had on sale tonight. It's a good day, folks. A very good day.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Boys Vs Books: Beating Back against Busy

Last week, I started a new post series centered around the problems facing boys in regards to literacy. I framed the initial discussion around Disney's Beauty and the Beast and how reading is portrayed within that movie. The movie is famous for its positive portrayal of Belle as a modern, forward thinking princess, and that portrayal is driven home through her love of books. But while Belle is constantly shown reading, the men around her all have problematic relationships with books.

If you're interested in reading the earlier discussion, you can find the previous posts in this series here:

1. Boys vs Books: A Tale as Old as Time

Today, we're looking at one of the three male characters Belle attempts to share her love of books with. We'll start with the first man we see her talk to, the town baker.

Going on Dates with the Baker

When Belle attempts to tell the baker about reading Jack and the Beanstalk, he quickly dismisses her and moves on to his business concerns. The baguettes aren't going to sell themselves, and clearly, he's in a hurry.

As a writer, books come up frequently when I talk to people. It's almost impossible for them NOT to come up, since "what do you do?" is one of the most common questions we ask each other in today's culture. This is especially true on dates. The guys I go out with often feel pressured to fess up to how much they read. And I'll admit, I can understand why. It doesn't help that one of my favorite conversation topics IS books, but I try to make the topic more accessible. I ask them about what they liked to read as kids, especially since children's lit is my area. But invariably, they still tell me how much they currently read, and the conversation typically goes like this:

"I like reading, but it's been forever since I, you know... read a book. I'm just so busy. It takes way too much time."

I'll note that this happens often when I talk to women, too. Busy is one of the great catch phrases of our time. We're all too busy for SOMETHING, it's just a matter of exactly WHAT we're too busy for. But formal studies and my own casual experience reinforce that yes, there are more men who are too busy to read than women.  So why is this?

Mastering the Reading "Economy"

Many of my male friends have pointed out that time is a big stumbling block for them. A few have described to me at length that the reason they like movies so much is because they're self contained and over quickly. A movie costs you 2 hours of your life, whereas a book of 80,000 words is going to take you at least 4 hours. But this still doesn't answer the question of why men read less. Aren't the same time constraints applicable to women? What made men particularly susceptible to cutting books out of their lives based on time?

For an incredibly unscientific perspective on this, I would like to share an anecdote. It comes from ONE man articulating his feelings about reading, but they struck me as rather interesting, and worth restating. Call it my inner anthropologist, but while these first hand accounts don't always have statistics to back them up, I find they can add depth to cultural trends.

We were, at the time, talking about my frustration with the fact that none of my male friends seemed to read books that had come out since the Harry Potter series ended. While I'm now paraphrasing, in effect, he said this:

"Look, books take a long time to read. And men can't help but look at things like books and movies and say to themselves, "what is this going to get me long term?" We're trained to think of practically everything like a business investment. We find ourselves wondering "how much social capital is this going to result in?" So if we are going to read, we read the classics, because we know 40 years from now, there's still going to be people talking about them. They'll have paid off. With things we're less sure on, we're more likely to just see the movie. It makes it so we know what people are talking about, but haven't invested our time in the wrong place. I know for myself, I can't help worrying that if I read a new book, no one is going to know what I'm talking about. I want to read things I KNOW someone else has read and assured me is valuable."

This surprised me a bit. What he was describing wasn't reading for the pleasure of reading, but reading for some other, distant benefit that would result from the experience. Often, when we try to sell people of either gender on the idea of reading, we sell it on the idea of enjoyment. We repost pictures of people curled up in pajamas with a cup of tea and a novel on Facebook. We talk about falling in love with characters and getting the "feels" when tragic things happen to them.

This looks super exciting to me, but is it everyone's week-end fantasy?

The problem with this model is that when we stake reading entirely on enjoyment, it becomes as low priority as everything else we happen to "enjoy," rather than distinctly different and valuable. When we tell people to read more because "reading is fun," the discussion can become us shouting at them "YOU SHOULD LIKE THIS MORE" and them shouting back either, "but I don't..." or "I DO like it! But have you noticed how little time there is for the things I LIKE?"

Both counter arguments are quite strong from this standpoint. You can't force someone to like something and you can't force them to have time for things they like when life is so busy, busy, busy!

But still, why is this happening with men? Is it because of the "business model" mentality my friend described to me? Studies suggest that men show this "investment" thinking in other areas. Women dominate in college majors such as the arts and humanities, whereas men dominate in areas that lead to firm "career paths." And yes, this includes many specifically "business" related programs, like finance. Some estimates place women as only 40% of business majors, despite the fact that women are outstripping men in general college enrollment. Where women do show up in business is in the more people oriented areas like human resources and advertising, which, it's little surprise, are also areas that depend more on reading and literacy skills.

The Unbeatable Value of Reading

Once again, we've got a cultural problem on our hands. There's a lot of buzz about getting more women into STEM fields, and gradually, we're making headway. Girls are catching up in mathematics and other STEM related subjects in schools. But at the same time, boys are falling further and further behind in literacy and reading. And it's getting serious enough, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if studies surface showing that it's leading to decreased opportunities in earning and employment, just as the disconnect between STEM and girls has for women. We already know boys are falling behind in college enrollments, and reading and writing are their roughest subjects.

No amount of movie watching will substitute for the skills developed during reading and writing. Better readers are better writers and reading and writing skills are fundamental in many employment fields. Of my two degrees, it's by far my writing degree that actually gets me jobs. Offices are looking for people who can research, read and write.

On top of that, most employers want people with strong social skills, and some studies have suggested that there is a link between reading literary fiction and the ability to empathize with others. Reading books where the characters showcase complicated emotions has been linked with our ability to deal with these emotions when real people showcase them. While the studies are still early, they are compelling. Also, even if you're someone who works in a contained sphere where social skills aren't paramount, empathy is a highly valuable skill when it comes to things like - oh, I don't know - making friends and dating, perhaps?

At the same time, high levels of watching television (and we can lump movies in here largely too) are associated with higher levels of depression, something that can't be said of reading. In other words, you might THINK you like movies more, but they're not actually making you very happy. At least not in the long term.

Books are all about teaching the value of long term investment and commitment. They require us to visualize what the words say, rather than spoon-feeding the images and experience to us. They take effort and time and, like most things that require effort, make us think harder and deeper and ultimately, make us happier.

All of this is to say that if you are someone who thinks you are too "busy" to read, I hope you'll reconsider what you're investing in. A single book might take more time than a movie, but you will be better for it if you add a couple books to your diet. The benefits are not equal. The long term gains from reading outpace the long term gains from movies and television.

I know I'm coming down hard here, and don't get me wrong, I love a good story told through film. But if the average American spends 4.5 hours watching television, is it really fair to say that none of that time could be spent reading? In an ideal world, I'd love to see people cutting that back so they could fit in 1 hour of reading per day, but if people even tried to read just 2 or 3 new books each year, that would be a huge win.

The Busy Boy

Up until this point, I've spoken largely about how adult men interact with books. But the truth is, men aren't the only one's saying they are "too busy." Studies in Ontario have shown that this is an excuse that school age boys give too, where frankly, it holds less weight. While a grown man might conceivably be busy with a career or caring for children or any number of adult responsibilities, children are not busy in the same way. And yet, I'm guessing that it's pretty frequent that boys who are too "busy" to read as children often grow up to use the same excuse as adults.

I can think of three things that boys might secretly be saying when they claim they're too busy to read.

1) I'm one of those textbook over-scheduled children who literally can't find time to read. I'm so busy!
2) I don't like reading very much and I'm busy doing other things!
3) Some other reason is stopping me from reading, but I'm too embarrassed to talk about it, so I'll just say I'm busy and hopefully, that means you'll leave me alone.

What are the solutions for dealing with these reasons?  Let's give it a shot, shall we? Of course, if you happen to be the parent of a girl who makes these same excuses, the same advice applies.

1) The Over-Scheduled Boy

Of all the potential problems, this is probably the easiest dealt with. Most of the time, these HUGE schedules are determined, at least in part, by parents. Simply ease up the schedule and slip in time for reading! Encourage it as something important and set aside time for it. Read to them. One thing that often helps is giving kids only two options when it's time for bed - turn the light off and fall asleep, or read for half an hour before you have to turn the light off and fall asleep. Most kids find sleeping more boring than reading, and this can become prized time for a child where their only option is to develop a love of reading.

2) The "Busy" boy who can't be Bothered.

Let's talk about the word "busy" again. Up until this point, we've been assuming a certain definition for it. In the earlier discussion, "busy" meant "I have too many things to do and this is not a priority, so I'm not doing it" but when we talk about children - especially very young children - busy often means something else.

My youngest nephew just turned two-years-old and he's at that age where he is curious about everything, into everything, climbing everything, falling off everything and altogether, never seems to stop moving. In an effort not to problematize this behavior, parents and early childhood development specialists often refer to this behavior as "busy." He's a busy little boy. This descriptor is sometimes applied to girls, but more often, it falls to boys. "Busy" ends up a code word for energy and an inability to sit still.

Whether or not boys are innately worse at sitting still or if this is a quality that's culturally determined is HUGELY up for debate and well beyond the scope of this essay. I'm not qualified to comment on whether or not boys are encouraged or allowed to run amok more frequently than girls or if their innate drive to zip around with endless energy is tied into a different genetic make-up. Regardless, our perceptions of their busy wiggles do play into how we parent little boys.

A recent study conducted in Canada, the US and the UK found that subconsciously, parents read more to their girls than their boys. At least one of the reasons why is because it's seen as more difficult to read to boys and get them to sit still for a nice, calm parental reading session. This disparity has been linked to why it is that girls are entering schools already ahead of boys in reading and literacy skills. By the second grade, boys begin describing reading as a "girl" activity, dissociating themselves further from it. But the younger you go, the more interest boys show in books and reading. They just aren't crazy about sitting still for it.

One thing that is worth noting with any of these studies regarding academic achievement is that the ability differences are always greater AMONG boys and AMONG girls than BETWEEN boys and girls. What I take this to mean, in part, is that the disparity BETWEEN genders is not inevitable. With that in mind, perhaps reading needs to be reclaimed as a gender-neutral activity. And perhaps as an activity where snapping to attention isn't a requisite. If a boy is allowed to fall over laughing or jump to his feet and act a passage out, he might be more interested in the whole affair.

Otherwise, as boys age, they become more and more enamored with the "busy" things - the ones that play into their curiosity and need for silliness and exploration. Maybe it's sports, maybe it's video games. Who knows? But if the gap already exists, then what can be done to fix it? What do you do when your boy is old enough to think reading isn't for him?

Perhaps part of the answer is to allow reading to be more about the things they're already busy doing. Are there books out there staring his favorite video game characters or super heroes? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Are there books featuring sports he plays? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Are there books that tell funny jokes he can imagine telling to his friends later? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Remember, if a boy doesn't think he likes reading enough to make time for it, he might need more than "sheer enjoyment" to motivate him. He needs to believe it's relevant to him and not inherently "girly."

By the time they're men, most boys have stopped calling reading "girly" but they also are no longer in the habit of making time for it. If reading were a natural part of what they are interested in, then maybe they won't find themselves struggling to remember the last time they read.

Not all parents are huge fans of the things their children are interested in - the fart jokes, the video game explosions. But a library trip where you focus on your little boy's passions might help bring books back into his life.

3) The Boy who is Claiming "Busy" as a Mask for a Different Problem.

Well, this is a SERIES of posts and in fact, I have not yet covered all my thoughts about boys and reading. We'll save the answer to this for a later post. :)

Rethinking Belle

Let's return to Beauty and the Beast for one quick thought experiment; one where Belle is able to connect with the baker about books. Maybe their conversation would have gone a little like this...

Baker: Where you off to?
Belle: The bookshop! I just finished the most interesting book about the effect of wheat on digestive-
Baker: That's ni- wait! Now, don't get me started on this whole gluten-free nonsense! What book was it?

Of course, it's not Belle's job, per say, to parent the baker's reading choices. But meeting people where their interests are is often a key component of getting them to take the time to read, and for actual parents and educators, that's a pretty big thing to keep in mind.

In fact, it's such a key component, it's going to be the subject of the next post in this series. Time to start rethinking Gaston.