Friday, February 25, 2011

In Virtual Reality, What Can't We Do?

Social networking continues to prove just how powerful it is, more so now in the past few months than ever. When people aren't using it to oust dictators or organize movements, they are using it simply to connect. I have said before that people who scoff at Twitter, or think online-only friends can't have real value, clearly have no idea what social media is, and should therefore not talk about it.

Since I just can't stop talking about Joss Whedon lately, I thought I'd use the latest utilization of the Internet to segue into my topic today. God-among-nerds, Nathan Fillion, recently said in an interview that if won $300 million from the California lottery, then he'd buy the rights to Firefly and distribute it online. Well, the geek world went nuts and a few devoted Browncoats launched this website to "Help Nathan Buy Firefly." Firefly's cancellation is hardly akin to Middle Eastern oppression, but hey, some of us need to create our own problems.

This bit of nerd news does have a point. Cult favorite TV shows like Firefly and Arrested Development have been off the air for over five years, but these shows in particular never seem to have died. This is arguably because of the Internet. Getting canceled these days is not what it used to be. Fans have voices now, and they can mobilize. These are the people who got Family Guy back on the air. Even though I don't watch Family Guy, the impact that had is not lost on me. A network listened and maybe it'll happen again with other cult shows...

... But what about cult books?

Have you ever wondered what would happen if your favorite book goes out of print? Probably not - we live in the age of Espresso Book Machines and ebooks, after all. But what about those pulpy noir paperbacks with the awesome covers that, try as they might, just can't get reprinted. Or what if (heaven forbid!) an agent can't seem to give away those darn ebook rights? There are so many titles that have fallen by the wayside for either being too old, not frontlist-worthy, or the estates are holding them back. What's a reader to do?

What would happen if the social media savvy decided to save books the same way they do for canceled beloved TV shows? Do you think they'd stand a chance? If Margaret Atwood or David Foster Wallace were suddenly pulled from the shelves, would publishers notice a public outcry?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Requiette

Today's writer is living a very writerly life, in my opinion. Rhiannon Morgan currently lives above a pub in the south of England, where she says "sounds that drift up at midnight on a Friday are the best inspiration for dialogue." She's sharing the first chapter of her first novel, Requiette, which is the story of Sorcha, who is told she is the new guardian angel of her former high school crush. Only, the gods who forced her into her new position are not telling her the whole truth.

Hope you all enjoy this excerpt of Requiette and when you're finished reading, you can check out more from Rhiannon at her blog, Literary Friction.

Requiette
By Rhiannon Morgan

Seven different websites told me that if I got the right haircut and laughed in the school corridor at just the right time, William would notice me.

But he didn’t, and he went to uni. That sucked.

Then, I died. That sucked more.

None of those websites suggested I should turn into the instrument of his mortal corruption and materialise on his ceiling, but because I’m sharp like that, I’m about to try it out.

This could go one of two ways; I'm a special kind of dead, so I've seen them.

Both of them suck.

****

“How long have you been up there?” He shrieked the words like a toddler, as flat against his mattress as I was on his ceiling. My usual spot.

“Long enough.” I arched an eyebrow, grinning. “Filthy boy.”

“What the hell are you doing? Did I get drunk and bring home a ninja?”

He checked beneath his duvet for bruises, and I shivered; the rush of cold air pricked my skin as well as his. Two years after I died, and I'm finally having the most exciting moment of my life.

“Got to start locking my window,” he groaned, shaking his head. “That’s how you got in, isn’t it?” A pause. “Are you stalking me?”

“See, the thing is --”

“You are stalking me!” He jabbed a finger up accusingly. “Why…why’d you want to do that? And seriously, isn’t it painful being up there like that?”

“Not really. Gravity's weird, but..." I wriggled.  “Anyway, it’s not stalking. More like…observing.”

“What, like an investigator? Has my Mum sent you? This is because I don’t answer the phone to her much, isn’t it?”

“Nope. You’re a busy boy, last year of uni and all that. Your mum understands,” I shrugged.

“How do you know that?”

How long do you have, exactly?
“I know a lot of things.” I slivered forward and fell on to his bed in a neat, cross-legged plop. He gaped at me as if I’d just turned into a cat.

“Role-playing society?” he said hopefully. “Am I your psychology dissertation, or something? Come on.”

“I’m just impressed that you haven’t called the Police yet.”

“Should I?” he gulped.

“No, no. Not much they could do about me, anyway.”

In an ideal world, I’d have done this differently. Maybe I’d pretend that I was still human and pounce on him in the corner of the club, or accidentally drop my books on his foot in the library and seduce him with the awesomeness of me. But there are a number of reasons why that wouldn’t have worked (the least of which is a lack of awesome); everything I do now is twisted and bloody, and that’s not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

“Staring at me like that isn’t making you any less creepy,” he said.

“We’re really not done yet with the creepy. Trust me.” I turned my palm up towards him in an act of vague submission. “Touch me. Then…you‘ll see.”

“No.”

I tried pouting. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that I have to sink to these kinds of tactics.

“Still no!” he retorted.

“Afraid of a girl?” I teased. “Come on, what am I going to do?”

Heh.

He frowned. Then, he leaned forward and just brushed his fingers across my hand. Heat shot through me in a hissing gaggle of razors, and I know he felt it too -- he swallowed hard as the flush claimed his cheeks. I watched his green eyes widen as he saw them: long, graceful wings in gossamer skin and pearlescent bones, shimmering behind me in the momentous echo of his touch. Oh. Shivers.

“No way,” he croaked.

I nodded.

“No. Really,” he insisted. “I’m going back to sleep now, all right? You can sod off to the weird corner of my subconscious that thinks that angels are my idea of a good time.”

I like your subconscious! Listen to it more often!

“You’ll be late,” I managed.

“Funnily enough, a lecture doesn’t seem that important right now.”  Hands flew up and knotted into a mop of glossy chestnut hair. “I’m sorry, I just…give me a minute.”

“Is it ok if I whistle?”

“I don’t think angels are meant to be this annoying,” he grumbled.

“Ok, ok. I’ll be quiet. For a minute.”

I snapped my fingers and fell back through the light. The lucidity of Earth still clung beneath my eyelids, and it ached when I went to blink; one moment I was on William’s bed and the next, I was in my little cell with its walls of writhing black sludge. A silver glow bounced off the ice that ever swirled around the Tower, and it poured through my window to stain the glass altar that served as my bed. I’d gone from the carnival of the Reading uni halls to the wailing hell of the Dorchatus in about three seconds, and the change never ceased to grate.

Five…he’ll be panicking. Blood thumping in his veins. Four…a nod with a jagged edge of panic. Three…now he‘ll decide that he dreamt it. Two…he’ll take a deep breath…one…

Snap.

“Jesus! Stop doing that!” He almost dived beneath the duvet.

“Why aren’t you dressed yet?”

“I told you -- I’m not going anywhere. Especially not…” An arm waved at me. “Not now there’s a guardian angel on my bed.”

“Yeah. About this whole guardian thing --”

“That’s what you are, right? Or I’m still drunk. I’m drunk.” He gazed about for vodka bottles and empty packets of pills. “I mean, I don’t actually remember drinking anything last night, but -- “

“If I say that’s what I am, will you get up and least pretend this is a normal morning?”

“I could try. I suppose.”

He paused for a moment, locating the clothes in his head. Then he leapt up, tugged the duvet round his waist and dived towards his underwear drawer.

“They’re in the clean washing,” I said, “the ones you’re looking for.”

“Don’t be psychic as well, please.” The muscles twitched beneath his flesh as he struggled into his clothes. “I’m sending you back if you’re psychic.”

“I have a bit of help in that department. Not that it‘s always reliable. No lottery numbers, before you ask. No test answers either.”

“A lot of good you are, huh?” He pulled a polo shirt on and smoothed his hair in the mirror. “In fact -- why are you here?” He looked right at me for the first time. A little of his guard crashed down about his feet. “Why me?”

I bit my lip.

“Now there’s a question. You really are going to be late, though.” I strode over, avoiding random socks and textbooks and Coke cans strewn about the floor. When I adjusted his collar, he didn’t flinch.

I did, though I don’t think he noticed. I brought my hands back down and tugged at the black ribbons that bound them in the delicate shape of an A.

“Will you be here when I get back?” he said.

“I will.” I smiled. “You’re going to come back rip-roaring drunk, though, and you’ll be in no state to talk.”

“At ten in the morning…?”

“You’ll start at lunch, after Marvin takes you to the pub.”

“Ah. Yeah.” His lips curved, the dimple pricking his left cheek. “Let’s blame Marvin.”

“He is a bit of a bad influence,” I added.

Oh oh oh. His mouth is really close to mine.

I’m not sure I can actually do this.

I raised my fingers to snap and he caught my wrist on reflex; then the heat fizzed again, bloody sparks singing his flesh, and the curses burst on his tongue.

“Such a gentleman,” I laughed.

“Why do you do that?” he demanded, still nursing hot fingers.

“Ask me a question that I have time to answer.”

“Ok. Um. What’s your name?”

“Sorcha.” I smiled as I spoke. Maybe it was the mellow recognition that bewitched his face, though he wasn’t aware of it; maybe it was the relief that I could finally tell someone.

“Sorcha,” he said softly. “I suppose you know mine…?”

Indeed I do.

William Grey: the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

He doesn’t know it, but he’s going to end the world.

****

When I snapped back into my cell, Tolly was reclined on the altar with his usual hunched shoulders, and his mucky robes licked at my floor with matted tongues.

“How’s my favourite Requiette?” he said fondly.

“I’m the only Requiette.” I folded my arms. “Besides, I’m a guardian angel today.”

“You went with the angel idea? Good choice.”

“It was that or pretend I’m in the X Men. Angels are sexier, right?”

Tolly cringed the way he always did when I mention words like sex. He was nearly as old as my Dad when he got turned into a Propheceer, and he’s been here way longer than I have.

“What?” I said. “I’m allowed to care if I look nice. I have to get him to like me --”

“You have to get him to love you, Sorcha. It’s a damn site harder than just plain liking.” He cast his eyes down. “Trust me there.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fire Bad, Tree Pretty

(Warning: if you didn't watch Buffy, you might not get many of the following references, but the sentiment in regard to your own writing remains the same, so please read anyway!)

Last week, I explained some things in older YA that I'd like to see removed from pop culture and many of you were keen to my allusion of writing an all-Buffy post. The transition from high school to college on Buffy was done remarkably well and Season 4, while admittedly my least favorite season, provided the perfect gateway into making "adult Buffy" almost a completely different show, albeit one that was still better crafted and better written than most shows before or after it.

My focus here is on Buffy, but for anyone who is interested in studying craft outside of classic literature, I would recommend watching - I mean really watching - the collected works of Joss Whedon. A while back I had asked the question, Are You a George Lucas or an Aaron Sorkin? in which I discussed the polar opposite strengths of the two writers (timeless storytelling vs. mastery of dialogue). Combine these two strengths and enter Joss.

Now back to Buffy and why the soon-to-be graduate in your YA can learn a lot from her:

"Nuke the school. I like it." - Xander Harris. When Sunnydale's class of '99 graduated, they made sure to literally leave nothing behind. Even if a giant snake-demon doesn't attack the fictional high school in your work-in-progress, let your main character enter the next phase of his or her life unattached. If the best friend audiences know and love wants to come along for the ride, then don't stop them. Just remember that a new phase also means potential for new characters and a new audience. Keeping your main character too invested in the past could alienate new readers and inhibit the character's growth.

"What was the highlight of our relationship? When you broke up with me or when I killed you?" - Buffy Summers. So many YA shows and novels - especially in paranormal - find a way to make the unrequited romance somehow work out in the end. Paranormals deserve happy endings too, don't get me wrong. This type of happily-ever-eternity dates back to Beauty and the Beast, and they seemed to be OK. But if you want your characters to live beyond their initial storyline, then they'll need to evolve, and sometimes this means breaking up. Angel realizes that he can never give her the life she deserves, so as much as it kills him (semi-literally), he moves to L.A. right after she graduates from high school. A little Sarah McLachlan music later, and Buffy is a hot co-ed ready to hook up with frat boys... one of whom turns out to be Riley. Yes, Riley was a little bit boring, but he was proof of two things: 1) romance can exist after high school and 2) romance can exist with a human. If you're not writing a paranormal, then just focus on that first part :)

"I'm not your sidekick!" - Willow Rosenberg. For the first three seasons, the hook of Buffy was "teenage girl chosen to fight demons." That girl also had two friends named Willow and Xander. When Joss took the series to college, he knew that same formula wouldn't work, especially if he wanted to garner a fresh, "non-teen" audience. So while Buffy was off doing her "ugh, why must I be the only chosen one?" routine, former sidekick, Willow, started to become the most interesting character in the series. College Willow fell in love with shy outcast (and Wicca), Tara, and their relationship became the most functional, believable, and romantic of the entire series. Willow also became a pretty badass witch, which gave her a power and purpose completely independent of Buffy.

"Score one for Captain Logic." - Xander Harris. Xander, meanwhile, took on a different role. Slacker/C-student Xander didn't go to college and never developed superhuman powers, despite watching all of his friends and future fiance fight evil through supernatural means. Xander was always the comic relief character, but into adulthood Mr. Whedon made Xander his own man. He kept everyone connected to their humanity. When Buffy's lone ranger/God-complex got the better of her, Xander was there to remind her she's not invincible (or that she was just being a bitch). And when Willow's powers overtook her to the point of destroying the world, Xander was able to bring back her humanity (and save the world) simply by being his adorable Xander self who loved her. Xander is a reminder that not all of your characters need to serve the same purpose in order to matter to the overall story.

"I'm cookie dough. I'm not done baking. I'm not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I'm going to turn out to be." - Buffy Summers. When Angel comes back to Sunnydale just in time for the final episode of Buffy, he presents her with a question viewers had been wondering all through Seasons 6 and 7 - is she going to end up with Angel or Spike? By the final season, Buffy is 22 years old - well beyond YA territory - and is about to finally relax after seven years of stopping apocalypses. She decides that when all is said and done, the only person she wants to curl up with at the end of the day is herself. Twenty-two is still young in that not-yet-fully-adult way. Watching Buffy tell Angel to go back to LA made it hard to believe that this was the same girl who, as a teenager, wanted nothing more than to run away with him after high school. Buffy grew up. She wasn't ready to commit to someone else because she still wasn't sure who she'd be independent from all the craziness that's been her life. Buffy remaining single at the end is smart and empowering, not sad. She is one of the few characters in crossover YA who encompassed that sort of wisdom and insight at her age. Remember that "finding love" does not have to be the only satisfying reward for your characters.

The ways these characters evolve (Season 4 Willow, Season 5 Xander, and Season 6 Buffy, particularly) are realistic in that by the final season, the three best friends are almost unrecognizable from their Season 1 teenage selves. Yet, the changes were so gradual and the circumstances surrounding them made so much sense that it's obvious their progression was nothing less than natural.

Hopefully I've convinced you Buffy fans to go and re-watch the series with your own writing and characters in mind. And if those of you who had never heard of Joss Whedon stuck with me until now, perhaps you are adding Buffy to your Netflix queues right now.

Thanks for indulging me, friends! Now go forth and write.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My History With Borders

The big news in publishing this week was that Borders Books & Music have officially filed for Chapter 11. There has been some pretty great commentary about what this means, and in addition to the general business coverage at PW and GalleyCat, I would recommend reading posts by Eric at Pimp My Novel and by Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. We all knew bankruptcy was coming for Borders. We've all watched the news, heard the reports, and yet when the list of just how many stores were going to close was released, it was no less shocking and sad.

The thing is, it is very hard for me to feel bad for a large corporation, and one of my first thoughts about Borders' situation was that maybe my fake sequel You've Got Mail wasn't as fictional or far into the future as I thought. I don't like chains of any kind and avoid them whenever possible. I'm also guilty of not buying books from Borders in years because I live in a city where I have other options. I realize this is not always the case for people, so for that reason I am sad to see an outlet for buying books slowly disappear.

That said, Borders' suffering still fills me with incredibly sympathy because, to me, Borders didn't always represent "ah! chains! evil!" They were actually my first experience with really loving a bookstore. I grew up in central New York, which is a pretty economically depressed area of upstate NY. When I was younger, we had a Walden Books (before it was owned by Borders) in our local mall, followed by a B. Dalton, which no longer exists (but it's where I bought pretty much all of my Babysitter's Club books). There were a few indie stores that came and went, but other than that we were left with absolutely no bookstore. And I grew up in a city! It was horrifying, especially for a kid who liked to read. I remember visiting family in northern Virginia and we walked by a Barnes & Noble. My mom and I both practically shrieked with glee and demanded we go in to look around. The uncle we were visiting looked at us with equal parts confusion and pity before my mother explained that "we've been without a bookstore for years." It was like we found an oasis in the desert. We could read again!

Borders existed forty-five minutes away in Syracuse, so we didn't get to go there very often. It was, and still is (I hope), in Carousel Mall, which is the greatest mall ever if you are a teenager in upstate NY. Even though it was a short drive away, we used to treat going there as if it were a glamorous day trip, and we'd always park in the lot near Borders so that we entered and exited through the bookstore. Borders was the first place I encountered a Young Adult section, which makes me sound a lot older than I am, but YA didn't really exist then to the extent it does now. As soon as we walked into the store, I rode the escalator upstairs and parked myself in front of books written for me until my parents were finished doing whatever it is they did.

My hometown got a Barnes & Noble at the tail end of my high school career, so I never got to fully experience the joys of having a bookstore so close to home. But then Borders came back into my life in college. I worked there as a barista and got all the free coffee and discounted books my heart could desire. (Borders, by the way, is also directly responsible for my current coffee snobbery and obsession, having gone through intensive training courtesy of the Starbucks Corporation, who own Seattle's Best.) Even the management at Borders were full of book people. Intellectuals who hand sold books and engaged with customers and were genuinely happy to be surrounded by books. It wasn't just some retail job for us. Granted, we were living in a very liberal college town, but this is still the mentality I associate with all Borders, which makes it very hard for me to write them off as just another greedy corporation. They've just always been there for me, even when I haven't been there for them.

Even though Borders and I broke up due to my own morals, they still hold a place in my heart and I will always think of them fondly. I even return to them from time to time. This long personal history has made me wonder what bookstores you all have grown attached to, whether corporate or otherwise. Do you feel a personal attachment to a bookstore? If they're still open for business, please share details so we can experience them too some time.

Have a lovely weekend, everyone :)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Red Shoes

You may remember our featured writer, Sophie Taylor, from her last appearance on Glass Cases when the fourteen-year-old brought us a bit of science fiction adventure. Today, she returns with a sadder tale called Red Shoes about a girl dealing with her sister's death. Hope you enjoy reading.

Red Shoes
By Sophie Taylor

The first time I saw you I wore red shoes. They were my first. They were brilliant. Sky-scrapers with bows, bright red, they gleamed and they seemed to be a miracle on that ward of dying people watching me with the machines buzzing around them so much bigger than them. People stared when they saw me. I was so proud.

Thirteen, my first heels. You would love them.

I loved the sounds they made. Maracas and every step was the cha cha. You remember those games we used to play? This time, I was Marylyn Monroe. Every step in those shoes was a wedding dance, I was a princess and those little straps on my feet were my crown.

But I changed my mind that day. I spent the morning before walking up and down in the hallway so I would be able to walk without falling over myself, laughing at the clashes like symbols, but now they just seemed loud and fanatical and slightly mad. A girl in the bed opposite was watching me. She shook her head. I hung my head. I remembered being little again, with you, when we used to be pixies, running through the house, me in my slippers and you in your bare feet, the laughter that was as noisy as those shoes. I glanced down at my feet. I thought of you and your small body hooked up to the monitor, your breaths that were the sound of a spoon scraping the bottom of the ice-cream tub, except it wasn’t sweet at all, there was no sunshine, there never was, in the hospital. You sat in the LED glow through the snowflakes, the leaves that crackled under your feet and the hot, sprawling sky in summer. You forgot the days of the week and sometimes the months. You would be confused when the nurses asked you how old you were. I swallowed. I slipped my shoes off of my feet and held them in my hands instead. I walked the rest of the way in silence.

You gasped when you saw them.

‘Those,’ you gushed. ‘Are gorgeous.’

I smiled once but it was false and we both knew it, it was like that time at Christmas when I wanted to be an angel but you are argued and said no, we should be aliens instead, that was so much more fun. We never could agree, so we decided instead that we should forget about the story and just spend our time running through the sky instead. We bugged Mum and we hung thick sheets of ink-black sugar paper all over the wall and we pretended we could fly. Except I think you forgot, half-way through. One more step and you would rise on the air.

‘Mum gave me some money for my birthday,’ I said. ‘And I bought them.’

Your hands reached forward to touch them, and I pressed them into your palm. You slid your finger under the bow and the open-tow and across the heel, and you sighed.

‘I miss shoes,’ you said.

Mum had been watching us but pretending not to. She glanced up from her newspaper.

‘You’ll be home soon, sweetie,’ she said, as she looked at you. ‘And then you can wear all the heels you want.’

‘Yeah,’ I smiled, and I glanced at Mum and I nodded. ‘Yeah, all the shoes in the world.’

You smiled and I realized your eyes were glimmering like the bows on my shoes. You nodded and you smiled.

‘Shoes like yours,’ you said. ‘Red shoes.’

The next time I saw you it was raining and I was glad. The whole horizon was sobbing, screaming with stabs of lightning across the world. The sky was hanging in slabs and I remembered being little, getting angry with the puzzle pieces that wouldn’t fit together. You fixed them. But you weren’t here to fix them, anymore.

I wasn’t wearing red shoes that day. I was wearing plain black clogs that were as miserable as grief. They made no noise when I walked. I knew why. There were not any words left in my mouth. I had used them all up trying to call you back when you didn’t want to hear me; you always were stubborn. And you used to get away with it all, too. Mum and Dad and Nana would get all annoyed inside and be ready to snap and then they would look up at you and you would just melt them. You did that to people. You made them forget what they were. You made them dance at parties and you made them bake cakes when they were supposed to cook stew. You were like a supernova.

What was the sky supposed to do, without you?

I hid the shoes in my bag. I wanted to show them to you one last time and even though you weren’t there to look, I was hopeful that you were hiding like you did when we were little. I never could find you even then but I knew you would be there, somewhere, in between the cracks of the wall or crouching under the table, your giggles like the apples on a tree you never can reach. You were there even though I couldn’t see you, you were the angel, this time, and I had become an alien on a planet that didn’t want me. Mum was outside and I remembered people would be clamming around her, trying to crush out the sadness like it was a naughty child they could sit on a stair.

I put the red shoes on the ground and I slide the ugly bleak clogs onto the floor. You come back to me, then.

I remember, back before, back before the cancer and the hospital and the pills, back when we were just little children that liked to run barefoot in the sand, back when your hair was long and gold and you would wear it streaming down your back, back when we believed in life. I was five, you were seven. We were shoe-shopping.

‘Can we just go?!’ I moaned. ‘I want to go home.’

‘Shush,’ Mum said. ‘We need to buy you shoes for school.’

‘I don’t care about shoes,’ I groaned. ‘Can’t you just pick one so we can go?’

You weren’t listening to me. You were standing up away from us and fingering the high heels for the grown-ups with your fingers, you were looking at the colours and I realized that you were thinking about being old, being tall and being able to chose your own shoes, your own life. You always were the high-heels type. I never cared. Until you weren’t allowed to walk, until you had to spend days when you used to dance lying in a hospital bed. Then I wore red shoes for you.

‘Ellie,’ you said. ‘How about these?’

You pointed to some black sandals with silver hearts on the side. I shrugged.

‘I just want to go home.’

You stepped closer.

‘Ellie!’ You sighed, frustrated. ‘Ellie,’ you repeated. ‘If you don’t pick some soon, Mum will, and she will pick the most boring, ugliest shoes in the whole store.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘Ellie!’ You hissed. You stopped. You looked at me. ‘Shoes,’ you said. ‘You don’t get that many in your life.

You have to make sure that the ones you do wear are special.’ You looked at me. ‘Wear pink shoes. Wear blue shoes. But wear shoes you love, make sure they’re colourful and it doesn’t matter if they’re not sensible, because you only get to walk the walk once, Ellie, and if you do fall it’s better than hobbling along in stupid black boots.’ You sighed. ‘Make them special.’

I’m standing up straight in my red shoes that should have belonged to you, now. There are tears dripping down my cheeks and I’m hoping inside that God realizes that just because angels can fly doesn’t mean they don’t need shoes, real shoes, red shoes, special shoes. I swallow.

‘You’re gone,’ I say, out loud. ‘But don’t worry. I’ll wear these red shoes for you every day and I know that wherever you are, you’ll be okay, because you don’t need shoes to be special. They buried you in your slippers but that’s okay, you’re out there somewhere and you’re in the sky and I know you’re staggering the way you always did, in shoes that are too tall for you in bright blaring colours that no one can ever forget.’

Monday, February 14, 2011

Graduation

As most of you know, my love of YA is not limited to the page. I am a huge fan of teen-centric dramas and WB-esque shows as long as they are clever, honest, well-written, or just plain awesome (hello, Vampire Diaries!) However, there is a common thread in these series - even in the cases of my most beloved shows, which I'll get to later - that I think needs addressing. The issue I'm referring to is "Graduation." Or, more accurately, not showing what realistically happens to your main characters upon graduating from high school. Some grievances:

Let's Get Married: Before I state my case, I would like to acknowledge all of the happily married high school sweethearts out there. I know you exist. My parents are perfect examples of this actually. Now, that said - please stop making your love interests get married! Sadly, the only literary reference to this unfortunate plotline that I can think of right now are Bella and Edward from Twilight. Their inevitable marriage is depressing for many reasons, but what I'm focusing on here is their age (well, her age in this case). Much like our reigning literary couple, Corey & Topanga (Boy Meets World), Zack & Kelly (SBTB), and Liz & Max (Roswell) are only a few examples of TV teens who decided that getting a marriage license before getting a college degree was the logical next step in their lives. This is so dangerous for teenagers. It's saying "you will never meet anyone better and you will always have the same standards as you had in high school." Or, it breeds the thinking that "there is nothing else after high school worth exploring on your own anyway, so why not just get married?" It's incredibly sad that series like these - with seemingly driven, intelligent characters -  have perpetuated this ideology. I realize "marriage" doesn't have to mean the ball-and-chain institution that its associated with, but marriage is not something that should be idealized as purely romantic either. No one is more impulsive than a teenager and no one falls in love more often than a teenager. These are not people who should have things like mortgages and babies and joint checking accounts.

Parents As Enablers: Contrary to what Will Smith told us, it seems that in teen dramas where the teenagers are acting completely irrationally, emotionally, and, well, like teenagers, the parents completely understand. They will say things like "I know it will be hard to be away from [boyfriend or girlfriend], but this is your decision." In real life, college-bound teens do usually opt for college, but in teen dramas, they will always choose the love interest if given the option. Writers, assuming your YA parents are alive and well, let them be parents. They don't always understand what the teen is going through because they've already grown out of such behavior. Want to get married at 18? Want to throw away your full ride to Oxford so you can go to the local community college with your best friend? Most parents, if they have their child's best interest at heart, would not say "it's your decision." They would say "you get your ass on that plane." Parents don't have to be a villain, nor should they be portrayed that way, but they should be logical when the teen is not.

There's No Place Like Home: Destined-for-greatness, Veronica Mars, and teenage genius, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, can go anywhere and do anything. Straight-A students with acceptance letters from the Ivy League to universities abroad to super amazing internships. With so many options, why not choose to stay in your hometown? Er... right? OK, so Willow preferred to battle evil on the Hellmouth, but I mean... there's another one in Cleveland! Live outside your box for a while, Willow. The literary character I thought this might happen to was Hermione Granger. I didn't want Ron holding her back, which I fear is what ultimately happened. Seriously, YA & teen drama writers, what is so bad about getting out of dodge, at least for college, if not forever? Again, with few exceptions, leaving your hometown is a necessary experience and teenagers, who no doubt get enough pressure from their parents to stay close to home, shouldn't need to see their favorite teen characters make decisions that are usually not in their best interest.

Love Ya Like a Sis, Don't Ever Change: This was written in my yearbook just like I'm sure it was written in yours (if you're a girl who graduated in the late '90s/early '00s anyway). I'll forgive the "LYLAS" part, but "don't ever change?" Sorry, but I prefer to grow up and not continue to think and act the same way I did when I was a teenager. My beloved Buffy and Veronica fell victim to the trend of going to college in a group, which is how I know that no writer, no matter how good, is safe from doing this. Other teen shows have notoriously high-school heavy freshman years too (more recently done by Gossip Girl). I understand that building an audience for a TV show takes time and it's very risky to throw away characters audiences have come to love when moving the main character to college. There's a reason why 90210 and Saved By the Bell - much like the popular cliques their characters represented - peaked in high school. But when something is well-written, smart, and easily able to take the next step into "crossover" territory, I don't see any reason why writers shouldn't offer a realistic look at what happens to most people after high school - complete departure with occasional Facebook stalkage (or, in my case, AIM). I can count on one hand the number of friends from high school who I still consider actual friends, and my life is hardly lacking because of it. People grow and change, and more often than not, the people who were your entire world suddenly don't fit into yours anymore. Portraying this as something negative rather than liberating not only holds teens back, but it stunts your characters' growth as well.

Life only begins at 18, yet so many teen dramas keep their characters in the dark about adulthood. Graduation may be the end of life as they know it, but it's not the end of their lives. As writers, you should write for your intended audience. Just remember not to create a Neverland for them. Chances are, they will break up with the person they are so in love with and the best friend who they can't imagine living without will be just as fine without them as they are without him or her. These things are downers to a YA audience; I get that. But just like one's initial fear of the unfamiliar, the anxiety and sadness passes and gives way to realizing how much is still ahead. Unless you are writing a tragedy, don't let your characters peak in high school. Even if you don't write them into adulthood, keep them open, ready, and excited for their next step.

(PS: The number of things Buffy did get right (in both the high school years and beyond) is enough for an entirely different blog post, which I may or may not write in the future.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Literary Dates

Valentine's Day is on Monday, but for those celebrating, love will be in the air this weekend. (Mondays will never be romantic, no matter what holiday happens to fall on them.) So I thought I'd lead you all into your  weekends - whether full of flowers & candy or spent with a box of white wine & Jagged Little Pill - with a literary fantasy:

What would be your ideal date with any literary character?

Concert and mix-tape swap with Rob Gordon? Trip to the Natural History Museum with Holden Caulfield? European rendezvous with Jake Barnes? Or a Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist-style epic night with the "Nick" or "Norah" of your choice? (I think I'd go with that one.)

Possibilities are endless, and things like logistics, legal ages (hello YA crushes!), and time constraints don't matter here. Happy planning!

Enjoy your weekend, no matter what you end up doing :)


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Becoming

Today I'm bringing you a story of isolation. Not the brightest of subjects, but you'll forget all about that after reading today's piece, titled Becoming by Lem Thomas. Lem is an environmental lawyer living in Texas, where is also pursuing a career in writing. His completed novel, China Island is a paranormal thriller set in the bayou. Enjoy!

Becoming
By Lem Thomas

Jack hiked all afternoon through the Catoctin Range, the air bone-chilling, the remnants of fall foliage damp and moldering underfoot in faded reds and yellows turning to brown, then drove back to D.C. tired and relaxed, Garrison Keillor droning on the radio. He didn’t give much thought to what the trees had said to him. Their words did not seem important, or directed at him, or even comprehensible.

Roger lounged in the back seat, gently panting, watching the traffic out the rear window as headlights began to pop on behind them. The traffic picked up in Frederick as the farmhouses gave way to exurban McMansions.

He entered the city and weaved his way down Georgia Avenue and 14th Street, parking in front of his Columbia Heights row house. He owned the second floor, a financial sinkhole purchased at the height of the condo boom just after his divorce. He opened the door for Roger, and the muscular German Shepherd's body rippled as he sprung from the car.

The spindly young elm growing through the sidewalk said something, possibly a greeting, as the two mammals brushed past. Jack ignored it. Roger seemed not to notice.

Once inside, radio tuned to a bluegrass show, Jack went to the cabinet and began gathering the accoutrements for his Saturday evening ritual. Bourbon, a cocktail glass, and the shaker. He lit a candle. He turned, filling the shaker with ice from the front of the freezer before retrieving the bottle of vermouth (rosso), the Angostura bitters, and the Maraschino cherries from the refrigerator door.

The perfect Manhattan was an art he had perfected over the ten-year course of his marriage. Roger gazed up at him, head between paws, as he made the preparations, first dropping a cherry into the glass and placing it in the freezer to chill. Then, a measure of bourbon into the shaker, a quarter as much vermouth, and a precise three dashes of bitters. He let the concoction rest as he fed Roger, taking equal care with the proportions of wet and dry dog food and water. As Roger ate, Jack closed the shaker and shook until ice formed on the chrome, burning his palms with the cold. He retrieved the glass from the freezer and poured. The candle flame shown through the amber liquid in the frosted glass with a dull glistening. Jack sipped.

Roger’s muzzle prodded Jack to life Sunday, cotton-mouthed and sore. He fed the dog and cleaned himself and pretended to work and at last gave in as he knew he would and made his way down to the Church of the Rock, his private nickname for the 12th Street dive bar’s Sunday special—one dollar Rolling Rock all day. The sidewalk trees spoke to him on the way. Jack, too hung over to give a damn, let himself listen, but he couldn’t make out their words.


He arrived at the office Monday and deposited his lunch in the break room fridge (ham and cheese on white bread, apple, a little bag of potato chips), settled into his cubicle—one of dozens in this vast cube farm in the basement of a boxy K Street office building—and logged into his computer. Jack tried not to think about what the trees had said on his walk to the Metro station. The words itched the back of his brain, but Jack managed to ignore them through the distraction of work.

His assignment this week, and all other weeks, involved clicking through thousands of pages of documents that might or might not be relevant to the big lawsuit—in this case, a copyright infringement claim—the subtle legal arguments and courtroom strategies of which Jack knew next to nothing, just the bare minimum to allow him to do his job, despite his designer law degree and six figure student debt.

After lunch alone in his cube with a magazine, Jack took a quick walk around the block to stretch his legs, the chilly grayness a brief respite from the mind-numbing fluorescents and glaring white plastic surfaces of the basement. The trees downtown were young and thin, poking up from metal grates set into the sidewalks, planted in recent years as part of some sort of green city movement. Chinese elms almost bare, maples still burning crimson. He made out some of what they said. “Still.” The word repeated. Jack hummed to himself as he walked, finding it harder to ignore the voices; he knew he would have to figure out what they wanted someday. He put it off, but it nagged him like a deadline one calendar page away.


Autumn passed. Trees murmured through November. Thanksgiving dawned clear and cold. Jack took Roger out, the dog’s plume of breath mingling with his own. The neighborhood seemed deserted; most of the row houses—late Victorians of red brick, gray stone, and gothic ornamentation—were chopped up like his own into condos for transient young professionals now back home in Ohio or New England or the Virginia suburbs for the holiday. Jack imagined himself as the sole survivor of a great plague. He had told his family back home that he couldn’t make it this year, that he had to work—a lie.

He walked east and crossed the line of gentrification. The neighborhood charm gave way to sinister blocks of identical houses of grimy dull brick, bars obscuring dark windows.

He saw a boy sitting on some steps bouncing a red ball between his legs.

“What up, my man?” the boy said.

Jack walked on, then paused and turned his head. The boy wore a full open-mouthed smile. Merry. Roger sat, his eyes not leaving the ball.

The boy said, “Son, why don’t you listen.” As he stressed the last word, he spread his arms wide, hands down and fingers splayed, the ball defying gravity in his left palm.

“I’m older than you,” Jack heard himself say, as if listening to a message from himself on a worn out answering machine.

The boy laughed softly, his smile not faltering, the ball now balanced on his right foot. Jack lost sight of it as the boy stood up, turned his back, and left. He watched the boy toss the ball up and catch it, over and over, as he diminished down street.

By two o’clock, Jack was three-fourths drunk on his couch. He drank bourbon and pretended to watch football. Roger dozed, hind legs twitching. Jack decided he needed Thanksgiving dinner. He drove down 14th to Mass Ave and hit 395. Soon he crossed the Potomac, entering Virginia.

He pulled up to his ex-wife’s house, a mid-century colonial on a tree-lined Fairfax street. The splotchy brown frozen Bermuda grass crunched under his feet as he made his way to the front door. He could hear voices from inside: “we can’t just ignore him…,” “no, let me get it….”

His sister-in-law, ex-sister-in-law, opened the door wearing a forced smile and sad eyes.

“Jack, this is a surprise – I thought you’d be in Jacksonville for the weekend?” The way she turned up the last word sounded like an accusation, but he and Beth had always been close – more like old friends than in-laws.

“Hi-ya, Beth!” He reached in to give her a hug. “Margaret around?”

“She’s cooking. Dad’s here, and—oh, Jack, you’ve been drinking—”

“Hello, Jack.” A new voice in the doorway: Margaret’s new husband, Alistair, stepping in front of Beth. “What can we help you with today?”

“What, you selling something?” He tried to chuckle with good cheer but it came out as an insolent snicker. “Just hoping for some grub, worked late last night and missed my flight—”

Alistair’s voice remained smooth and calm. “Jack, I don’t think this is a good—”

“Hey Margo!” Jack called into the house. “You in there? Tell fucking Ally-boy that husband number one wants some turkey!”

“You need to leave now, Jack,” said Alistair, anger rising.

“Go,” mouthed Beth behind him. She wept, but her expression was stern.

And then Jack stood alone in the yard surrounded by the trees—towering oak and maple, bare branches reaching like claws. They laughed at him. He could hear words between their howls: “… fool …,” “…admit it …,” “just be still, you idiot ….”

Jack walked into the forest during a December ice storm. Roger was game despite the frigid damp. They’d walked down Columbia Road to Calvert Street and the Duke Ellington Bridge. Now, as they entered the thick woods of Rock Creek Park, the trees laughed—not at him, but with joy.

With Roger off the leash, Jack picked a spot near a sycamore and stood still, looking up. The feeling of freezing rain on his face faded as his skin hardened. His roots made their way into the frozen earth, anchoring him. They felt like tendrils, growing warm with the depth, searching for water. His arms extended, joining the sycamore.

Roger paused from sniffing the ground all around and looked up at him, whimpering. Jack tried to tell the dog it was okay, but he couldn’t form the words in the hollow spot his mouth had become. He grew snug, cozy within his bark. Later, Roger sniffed around his trunk without recognition, then bounded up the embankment towards home.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Rejecting the Rejections

I mentioned via The Twitter today that I wished my standard form rejection could read "Sorry, but your agent is in another castle." Obviously, I was joking (even though that would be sweet), but a number of followers responded that it would certainly soften the blow. This got me wondering about form rejections in general.

They are designed to be as impartial, encouraging, and non-threatening as possible, despite the fact that they are completely impersonal. As writers who are publishing-savvy, you are no doubt aware that no agent likes giving such a reply, but the sheer volume of queries we receive sometimes make it impossible to personally respond to those we need to pass on.

So, a bit of a project for all of you who have either experienced the dreaded form rejection or are still living in fear of it. How can we agents "soften the blow" without resorting to lines from late '80s video games?

Welcome to the fake-agenting world, writers! Leave your one-to-two sentence professional form rejection in the comments. Maybe we'll learn a thing or two.

Friday, February 04, 2011

I Can Haz Grammar Back?

On Monday I talked about words that are worth saving. Today I'm thinking of the exact opposite. No, I do not mean to remove words from the English language. As you all know, I am a lover of words. What I do want to remove - banish forever and ever - are the non-words that seem to have been embedded in the way we now speak. I'm talking about Twitter-speak, YA-speak, and the like. Then I saw this brief article yesterday that raised the question of where the "future of English" is headed. The fact that this question had to be raised made me consider all of the misspellings and fake words I see all the time in the online world that are used by adults in the name of brevity, irony, or both.

I understand that there is a need for abbrev. certain words to keep your tweets under 140 characters. Even so, I implore you to dial down the intentional misspellings and the I Can Haz Cheezburger-ness of your writing. Maybe I'm being schoolmarm-esque about this, and usually I'm a huge proponent of "once you know the rules, you can break them." (I mean, look how many sentences I begin with conjunctions and how many infinitives I split!) Still, this is just getting out of hand. Like my ongoing "Please Stop Misusing & Overusing Literally, Random, and Awkward" campaign, I must share this recent grievance with you all as well.

To anyone who has written "kittehs," "teh," "sekrit," or "haz," or have even just intentionally used child-level grammar in a blog post or tweet, I ask you - please stop. What was once cute or ironic or done in the name of fun has now gotten to the point where it's infiltrating actual speech. People with higher education degrees and knowledge of the written word have regressed to the intellectual capacity of a first grader, and for what? To sound adorable? It's not adorable. It is the linguistic equivalent of using Comic Sans in a business email. Put another way, it's like dating someone who insists on using baby talk. No one wants to be likened to an infant and no one should want to come across as one either. We are all adults here, and apparently we're still responsible for setting the standard in this "next wave" of the English language. So, let's keep it alive, well, and as correct as it can be when used in informal places.

What's on your list of words that need to go away? Share your grammar-related complaints and begin your weekends free of annoyance!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Directions

On this icy, awful day I am happy to bring you a short piece from friend-of-the-blog, Mindy Hardwick. You may remember Mindy's flash fiction appearance on Glass Cases back in October, and she's returning with something slightly different today: a flash memoir-in-progress told in second person. I'm a huge fan of second person, and rarely do I find it done well, so I'm quite excited to share this piece.

Mindy holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College.She has published short stories for teens and middle grade as well as articles about writing for children. For the last five years, Mindy has facilitated a poetry workshop with youth at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. Directions is part of that memoir in progress. Mindy keeps a blog at www.mindyhardwick.com.

Directions
By Mindy Hardwick

Thank you for volunteering to be a facilitator for the poetry workshop. There are a few things you must know:

How to Enter the Facility

Before you enter the juvenile detention center, you must slip off all jewelry and leave it with your purse. You will tuck your purse under a thick, heavy blanket in the back of your car. We have lockers inside the facility, but it’s really easier just to hide your valuables in your car. No one will break in. Not here. The criminals are all inside.

You will walk up to the double glass doors of the facility. It’s a concrete building. On your left, there are glass windows. You can see pots of flowers sitting on desks. On your right, there are no windows. There are only concrete walls. This is where the criminals live. Along the sidewalk, you might notice the weeds growing in the empty flower beds. You might wonder why the criminals aren’t assigned to weeding. However, we think they are best kept inside. These are dangerous youth.

Dangerous.

How to Clear Security

As you enter the facility, you will want to thank the young man who holds open the door for you. However, we hope you don’t engage too much with the criminals. His jeans sag and his t-shirt is over-sized. He’s tucked his baseball cap sideways over his thick, dark curly hair. Somewhere, he’s got his gang name tattooed. He heads toward the probation office while you will wait in the security line.

The security is no different than the airport, but here, you may leave your shoes on. You place your book bag and purse on the long scanner. You remove your belt and hand your car keys to the guard. You will walk quickly through the full body scanner. If you lean to the left or to the right, there will be a small beep. Please walk straight through the scanner. We don’t want to have to use the wand on you. Afterwards, pick up your book bag and slip your belt back through your belt loops. Ignore the cluster of parents, lawyers and families who wait outside the court room and scrutinize you as you redress.

Once you are redressed, you will turn right and find yourself in a small waiting room. Pamphlets about gangs, drugs, and violence litter the small tables. Unfortunately, no one seems to read the pamphlets. In a glass cabinet, you’ll also see the framed art. There will be colorful pictures of barnyard animals and sunny, cloudless days which illustrate stories for pre-school children to read. The criminals created this art. You will want to stop, but you must hurry now. You are only assigned two hours for the poetry workshop. We must keep on schedule.

After you walk through the small waiting room, you will step up to a large glass wall. There is a camera on the wall which will watch everything. At the glass wall, a small metal drawer will open. You will place your driver’s license into the drawer. The drawer is pulled inward by a guard on the other side of the wall. In return, you will receive a badge. You will clip the “Professional” badge to the lower left hand corner of your shirt. You will make sure the cameras can see that you are a “Professional.”

Then, you will wait until the double doors open. Inside these doors is a long hallway leading to the units. Sometimes your wait will be long when the guards are watching other places. Sometimes the guards forget to hit the button which will open the doors.

How to Talk to Parents

As you wait, you will feel eyes on your back. You will turn to see a woman who is not much older than you. She watches you from her plastic green chair. You will know her wait has been long. She has the look on her face. The one that says she’s been here before. It’s always the same. We hope you will ignore her.

However, you never did follow direction well. You will slip your hand into your bag and pull out a small poetry book with the title, “Poems from Youth in Detention.” You will hand her the book. You will know that this is only one more piece of information in a long line of brochures, pamphlets, and booklets which have been pressed into her hands from well-meaning counselors, probation officers, and lawyers. But, instead of glazing over or becoming defensive, she looks up at you and says, “You know my son?”

You know that you don’t know who her son is, or even if he’s been in the weekly poetry groups. Inside, they are all the same in their orange jumpsuits. But, you nod, and say, “I do.”

Her son is the boy who writes about siblings he has disappointed. He’s the boy who writes apology poems to his Mom. He’s the boy who returns again and again because he just can’t get off the drug.

You know him.

This boy.

Her son.

But, before you can tell her anything more, the double door clicks open.

You are ushered inside to the poetry workshop.