Friday, July 29, 2011

What Do You Write?

I know I don't let her out very often, but I'm speaking to you today as Writer Sarah. As most of you know, I also write. By which I mean, sometimes I jot down a paragraph that could someday end up in a novel, and then let it sit for months without writing anything new because "free time" is a thing of myth and legend.

But, sometimes I write.

In New York, if you say you're working on "a novel," the response is not "Oh, how interesting. What's it about?!" It's more likely to be a subtle eye roll and a polite "oh" with the clear subtext: "Yeah, who isn't?" I appreciate this about New Yorkers. Nobody here is special, and many New Yorkers will think nothing of reminding you of that fact. It's one of the things non-New Yorkers think is "rude" about us, but it's actually quite refreshing.

New Yorkers in general might not care about what I'm working on, but when friends and family hear I'm writing a novel, they ask the inevitable "What do you write?" It's a harmless enough question, but I hate answering it. Mostly because this is what usually happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: Fiction.
Q: Yeah but what kind?
A: For teens.
Q: Is it a mystery? Scary? Romance?
A: No. Just fiction.
Q: That sounds boring. You should add vampires to it.
A: ::falls over and dies::

Or this happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: I'm working on a young adult novel right now.
Q: What like vampires?
A: No, like just regular fiction. But for teens.
Q: ::does not compute:: ::thinks I'm not a "serious writer"::

I feel the need to give my credentials when people give the "you write for teens?" look. It's mocking and ignorant and I'm always tempted to quote Shakespeare and rub my MFA diploma in their faces (if I knew where said diploma was). But I don't do that and instead just say to myself "Yep, YA. Oh you don't know understand what it is? You must be really stupid then." and merrily walk away. (I hope you other writers do the same. But seriously, only say it to yourself. Not out loud.)

Maybe my "non-specialness" of being a New Yorker has made me shy away from this question. Truthfully, I'm more concerned about coming off like a novice, even though that's exactly what I am. So, I'm curious what you real writers answer when asked "What do you write?" Do you downplay what you're working on out of modesty? Do you proudly offer your genre even if it's not taken seriously by the less-informed? Or do you just ignore people and keep typing?

Happy Writing this weekend :)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cheating, A Love Story

Hope you all like adultery and twist endings because that's what I have for you today. I'm very excited to present Cheating, A Love Story by Steven Axelrod. Steven has an MFA in writing and regularly contributes articles to various 'zines. He's also at work on a mainstream father-and-son story, and currently has a dark noir on submission. Hope you enjoy his short story!

Cheating, a Love Story
By Steven Axelrod

They met on the third day of the Marriage Reconciliation Boot Camp, by the dumpsters where people smoked forbidden cigarettes, and it was love at first sight.

“I hate this place,” he said.

“Me, too.”

“Travers Houghton. What a miserable prick.”

“And he’s fat. If he wants to convince me he knows the secret of life he should skip a few meals.” She blew out a tight cone of smoke.

“My wife made me come.”

She smiled at that. “Sounds like grounds for divorce, right there. Intolerable cruelty. Irreconcilable differences. Or whatever.”

“She’s having second thoughts, believe me.”

“Does she know you’re smoking?”

“I was going to bring mouthwash but we never kiss anyway.”

“Which is all supposed to change now,” she said.

He looked across the half empty parking lot to the woods. “I wonder what the statistics are, at this place. I mean, does this shit ever help anyone?”

“I don’t know. Now you’ve got me thinking about divorce. That would be a quick fix. Half of what we’ve got would set me up for life.”

“That’s the difference – you’d be getting half. I’d be losing half.”

She shrugged. “So what? You’ve got your share and you’re out.”

They smoked in silence for a few moments. Rain clouds were piling up at the northern edge of the sky. No spousal intimacy bag races today.

“So,” she said, dropping the last of her American spirit and stepping on the butt, “When was the last time you got laid?”

“Do infidelities count?”

“You’re telling me you cheated on your wife?’”

“Don’t you believe it?”

“You’re not the type.”

“Hey -- I take that as an insult.”

“Sorry, but it’s true. You would have made a move already.”

“Because you’re so attractive?”

“Because that’s what you’d do. People like you. Players.”

“Which I’m not.”

“So not.”

“Oh well.”

“It’s charming. It’s intriguing.”

“My aura of smug virtue doesn’t put you off?”

She laughed. “You’re not virtuous. You’re not even faithful, not really. Except by default. If an attractive woman came on to you that would be it, buddy. You’d be gone. One kiss and out. You’ve been standing on the brink for years.”

He dropped his own cigarette, crushed it with the toe of his shoe. He stared at her.

“Prove it.”

She took two steps and kissed him, mouth open, arms twined around his back. He fell into the kiss as he remembered falling into swimming pools on hot summer days when he was a kid: the bliss of submission, the thrill of immersion, the soundless splash into enclosing silence.

Finally he had to come up for a breath.

“I want to go somewhere and fuck you,” he said.

She smiled. “Pushover. I knew it.”

They wound up in an empty room on the third floor of an unused dormitory. The college rented out the campus during the summer to organizations like Travers Houghton’s Boot Camp. The bed was just a bare mattress on a plank. They didn’t care. They had no idea how long the Testimonial Assembly was going to last and they didn’t care about that either. As long as couples wanted to stand up and ‘speak their hearts’ to the crowd, they were safe. It could take all day.

Both of them were sure they wouldn’t be missed – especially by their spouses. This place made you glad for a few minutes to yourself – like trying to cure claustrophobia by trapping you in a stalled elevator.

After the first frenzied missionary style slam she rolled over and said “What does your wife refuse to do?”

He laughed. “We just did it.”

“She must have been willing to fuck you at some point. Did she give you blow jobs?”

“Yeah – no, not really. Sort of.”

“How do you sort of give a blow job?”

He propped himself up on an elbow, turned on his side to face her. She was alert, bright-eyed, gorgeous. And impossibly, supernaturally easy to talk to.

“She treated it like Mount Saint Helens. An interesting spot to visit, but make sure you get the hell away it before it goes off.”

“I can beat that.”

“But what can I do for you? What won’t your husband do?”

“Well … you could take me to a Sandra Bullock movie.”

He laughed. “You drive a hard bargain.”

She paused. “But you promise”

“Anything. A double feature.”

All About Steve? Miss Congeniality?”

“And Miss Congeniality 2 -- a triple feature, Ok? I’m begging you now.”

“You really are. And for some reason I find that incredibly sexy.”

So she slipped the rest of the way down and gave him the totally committed blow job he’d been longing for since he was twenty-two years old and it was everything he remembered and more and when they slipped back into the auditorium each of them stood up and gave heartfelt declarations of love for their spouses and they were so convincing the other couples gave them standing ovations.

The rest of the week was all sex and subterfuge. Once they walked down the steep hill into town and ate an illicit lunch at the bad Mexican restaurant on Main Street, drinking 2-for-1 margaritas and ducking their heads when anyone they knew passed the big picture window.

“So what went wrong?” She asked him, over the second slug of crushed ice lime juice and tequila. He pushed his cooling enchilada across his plate. “I haven’t been able to give her the life she expected.”

“So it’s just money?”

“It’s money and couches and new cars and a bigger condo and the freedom to travel, and no stress about her spending habits.”

“So all you need to do is win the lottery.”

“Until she spends it all. And believe me, she can spend.”

“It’s just the opposite for me,” she said. “I just wish he could do what he wants. Really paint for a while try to get a gallery. Instead of the crap he does. Story boards. Free-lance art directing for d-list agencies.”

“So tell him to bail.”

“I’ve tried. He doesn’t listen.

“That’s why you’re here. Talk to him.”

“And say what?”

“Say – I don’t know. You want him to be better. Be all that he can be, that’s appropriate for boot camp. An army of one.”

“What a weird ad campaign. I was hoping for an army of two.”

“Whatever. You want him to be happy. Tell him that.”

“Or I could just send a Hallmark card.”

“I like mixing them up – sending a nice condolence card when people get married.”

She laughed. “Or a get well soon when they start a new job.”

“That’s the idea.”

“He never even tries to make love any more.”

“Maybe he’s given up. Seduce him. You can do it.”

She smiled. “Maybe all it takes is one good blow job.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

In between their assignations they duly played all the role-playing games, the touching games and the confessional games; they allowed themselves to be video-taped and sleep-deprived. They stripped naked in front of stranger and cried in front of stranger and confessed their sins and everyone forgave everyone else and said the worst thing they could think of and shared their most bitter regrets and most shameful secrets and then everyone got one good night’s sleep and they were on their way back home.

He met her on the steps of Dewey Hall. For a moment they were alone. No one was watching them. He set his suitcase down.

“Well, this is it,” he said.

“You’re my last fling and I’m off to get married?”

“Or vice versa.”

“What a shame.”

“I don’t know. It was a tough week but I think it worked.”

“Did you fall in love with your wife again?”

“Did you fall in love with your husband?”

They both nodded, smiling.

“So the role playing worked,” she said.

“Just like Bev and Marty said it would.”

“—as long as we threw ourselves into it.”

‘”Yeah. That’s what they said.”

“I hate admitting they were right.”

“Me, too.”

Travers Houghton strode past and lifted one fist, his signature greeting. They returned the salute.

“Because he really is such a pompous asshole.”

“A rich pompous asshole. Thriving by word of mouth.”

“So we do have to tell them.”

“I guess. But first I want another sublime blow job or two.”

“And we’re going to have the complete oeuvre of Sandra Bullock on our netflicks queue.”

He bowed his head, nodding in mock defeat.

When he looked up she was smiling. “You’ll do some real painting, too, won’t you, Mike? I’ll model for you. Any pose you want.”

He pulled her to him and kissed her.

“I feel like marrying you right here and now. Houghton is an ordained minister.”

She put a finger to his lips, shook her head.

“Been there, done that,” she said.

Then she picked up her bag, took his hand and started lightly down the steps to their car.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Do Endings Matter?

As you know, I didn't love how Harry Potter ended. That said, I was quite satisfied with it. Does it matter whether Harry lived or died in the end? Not particularly, at least not to me. Does it matter that there were flaws or lapses in logic? Nope. It was an amazing story with amazing characters who did amazing things. Not being blown away by the final installment didn't ruin that for me. I don't regret reading it and I got what I wanted from the series. J.K. Rowling could have had Ron flip on a boombox, blast Alice Cooper's School's Out, and kill everybody, and I still would have been satisfied. It wouldn't have changed the fact that for over 10 years, and for six+ books, I was riveted.

When Lost ended, I wrote about my feelings on satisfying endings. (There are no spoilers for those who want to go back and read it, but you'll notice that I do manage to talk about a certain epilogue.) In fact, another J.J. Abrams production is what got me thinking about endings in the first place. I was already playing around with whether endings really matter after seeing Harry, but then I saw Super 8.

I loved it. Like, loved it. It was basically every movie you've ever seen rolled into one, but somehow still managed to be fun and original. And the kids - the kids! They were just great. Anyway. When I went to express this love to my fellow geeks, I was met with shrugs and "yeah it was OK." Shocking! I didn't understand this "meh" attitude, especially from people whose opinions I respect on these matters.

Then I realized their problem. They had this desire to be satisfied. Like with Cloverfield, we don't really get to see the physical threat in Super 8 too often. For a monster movie, the danger is sort of beside the point. It's easy to compare that to Lost too. Pretty much all of J.J. Abrams' sci-fi works can be summed up with: "There's a monster. People are dealing with it. Focus on how they deal. Don't worry about that monster."

It's sort of infuriating when people say they "wasted six years" watching Lost. I feel bad for these types of people. Were they not still tuning it every week? Were they not coming up with theories and having fun and waiting to see what would happen next? How does one episode ruin that experience, as if it never mattered? If anyone was expecting logical answers in the end, then they missed what the show was really about - people reacting to crazy shit happening to them. Sure, the last episode was a bit of a cop-out, sort of confusing, and full of cliffhangers. That basically describes the entire series, so in my opinion, it was a pretty fitting ending.

But to many, it was unsatisfying and I suppose I understand that to an extent. For me, monsters are cool, but I'm way more interested in human nature, so in my opinion, storytellers like J.J. Abrams are perfect. Yes, I want the threat to be real and not metaphorical. Yes, I want to see some action. Yes, I need a plot to follow. But no, I don't need everything neatly wrapped up, or know where that monster came from, or even what it looks like. J.J. delivers on all of these points. (It's not like he's M. Night Shyamalan, who fails at plot, character, and endings.)

So, I ask again - do endings matter? Of course. As writers, you need to reach a conclusion that's in keeping with your story and that will satisfy your readers (there's a reason Ms. Rowling didn't just kill everybody). But, as readers, how much do they matter to you? Will an unsatisfying ending ruin an experience you otherwise enjoyed?

Oh, and see Super 8 if you haven't already. You'll want to hug it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Graveyard at the Red Clay Creek Church

Taking you back in time today in a story that uses setting wonderfully. Graveyard at the Red Clay Creek Church has monsters, the devil, and some teenage kisses, and I am very happy to share it with you today. The author, Jake Mosberg, has written everything from screenplays to essays to profiles to poems. Right now he works out of his office "in an attic" in North Carolina, where he is writing about ghosts. Enjoy!

Graveyard at the Red Clay Creek Church
By Jake Mosberg

1. In 1956

“Billy’s father is the devil,” she once heard, though actually Minister Thomas had said the old drunk has the devil. Why don’t they put him in jail, Willa thought, if he’s the devil?

The previous weekend, just at summer’s end, Billy and Willa kissed in the woods behind the church. After Sunday school, Billy had boasted of catching many frogs. When Willa squirmed, Billy had vowed to launch a frog in amongst her brown curls. Shrieking, Willa fled, but she ran straight for the Red Clay Creek where the frogs gathered to sing the summer eve into night, and the night into midnight, and midnight into morning.

But at the creek Billy ceased his taunt. He caught up to Willa, took her hand, and stepped closer. While holding her hand, Billy balanced on a smooth, wide creek stone.

“You believe in God?” He teetered, then hopped off the stone.

“Reverend Green says God’s as real as the trees, the rain, the seasons, and the people.”

Billy nodded and clicked his tongue on the roof of his mouth, pondering. “Then he’s as real as the frogs.”

They searched for evidence, but the muddy banks were empty of frogs. They roosted somewhere in the dark water, invisible.

“I’m not supposed to be in these woods,” Willa said.

But Billy only stepped closer and squeezed her hand, signaling to her that she was safe with him, beyond danger and beyond reproach. Soon, he kissed her. His lips were dry from summer. It was a single pluck, and he withdrew quickly as one might excise a dandelion from spring fields.

On the first day back to school, Billy sported a black eye. Willa asked what happened. Billy said he had fought off many robbers who were after his secret fortune of pirate treasures. Willa cried because she knew he was lying to her. That was the last day that Billy came to school.

Willa returned to the edge of the woods every night, sneaking out after she finished homework and chores in order to search for Billy. On the fourth night, she found him. By then, the frogs were singing inside the woods. She asked him what he was doing, why he hadn’t come to school.

“I ran away,” he explained.

“Why don’t you go back home?”

Willa pleaded with Billy to leave the woods, but he insisted that he had to remain hidden from the gang of robbers. She promised to bring him food, but insisted she would not go inside the woods where she was not allowed to play.

“Then meet me here in the graveyard,” he said.

For a week, Willa brought him food—bread, cookies, sweets, apples—lifted from her mother’s kitchen, and though she pulled off her heists, buzz over the missing boy covered the town. Minister Thomas went looking for Billy, but his father—the last to see him besides Willa—was a drunk and could not be relied on to account for the boy. Some townsfolk came to aid the search, but Billy’s family was not well liked. Rumors circled: what had the boy done or where had he got to?

On a Friday, Willa set out again. It had been 14 days, she counted, since their kiss. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps he will kiss me again tonight. Outside the house, before the daylight vanished, Willa had hid her Sunday dress. After sneaking out, she changed and ran to the graveyard, holding the bread in both hands, anxious to present herself on their fortnight anniversary.

But Billy did not show. So much she wanted to be like Billy, to brave the dark places where she should not be. The night air gave her a chill and her teeth chattered. For a time, she tried to distract her imagination by counting the stars.

Then a voice entered the graveyard. It was too deep for Billy, and too slurred for her father, but the voice was calling after someone hiding in the graveyard. She dropped the bread.

“Billy, I know you’re in here! Got the law bangin’ on my door. Best get, boy!”

A lantern appeared among the graves. It was Billy’s father come aware of the runaway’s hideout. Willa ducked behind a tall grave and closed her eyes, as if by not seeing the light herself, it would not catch her in the dark. In her mind, she saw his rocky fist gripping the lantern. So it was Billy’s father, the devil, who had marked his eye with a purple swell. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I knew already. She clenched her eyes tighter with the devil’s voice shouting still, “Ain’t no use in hidin’!”

Just then, in the opposite direction of the lantern, she heard quick footsteps, then saw a silhouette fleeing. Its shadow moved once in the lantern light.

“I hear you runnin’!” the devil called.

Willa felt the lantern’s light on her back, but soon it passed beyond her, closer to the woods. The light followed the shadow, trying to capture it and make it whole. Just before the light and the shadow disappeared beyond the churchyard, she heard another shout. Then, in the woods, even their rustling quieted, and though her curls were safe from the creek frogs, her heart broke early.

2. The Creek Monster

Flashlights zipped around the graveyard—from across the street, it looked as if the dead were at disco. Within the stony field, screams and laughter mixed together while a September wind mastered the kids’ jubilee. Before the light gave out, they had played capture the flag, but in the dark, they took up those flashlights and chased each other among the graves. The boys howled like ghosts and wolves. They hid behind old and new stones, leaping out when the girls passed, grabbing at their bony shoulders, wrapping around their scrawny waists, or clipping their chicken legs. All the young shrieks blended together, each an equal shrill.

Soon, two of the boys grew tired of the aimless chase. One said to the other, “Wanna see the grave of a ghost?”

Peter, who was one year younger, followed Derrick to the back of the graveyard.

“How’d he become a ghost?” Peter asked.

“He died.”

“No duh.”

“You know about the Creek Monster?”

“There is no Creek Monster.”

“Yes there is, dummy.” Derrick pointed to the woods. Their parents prohibited them, as did the parents of all the children, from wandering into the woods past the churchyard. They were unkempt, full of poisons and ticks and god-knows-what-else. Only the older, reckless neighborhood kids ventured there. “The Creek Monster is like Swamp Thing except he has ten heads and fangs. He carries a lantern so he can find his victims and eat them whole.”

“Ten heads. That’s stupid.”

“You won’t think it’s stupid if all the heads eat you.”

“Then what is he made outta?”

“Dead frogs, sewage, and tin cans.”

“What are his fangs made of?”

“He cuts them out of the tin cans and uses frog slime to stick them in his gums.” Derrick cocked his head back and made a motion meant to mimic how one might affix a tin-can fang to a frog-slime gum.

“That’s stupid.”

“How ya think the ghost became a ghost, stooooopid? He went near the creek at night when the Creek Monster was out. Everybody warned ‘im not to go, but he did it anyway.”

“Why?”

“Cause he wanted to be brave.”

Soon, Derrick stopped trudging and shined his light on a small grave. Peter read the name and date over and over and over.

William Daniel Vance
1942-1956

Peter counted the years of the boy’s life, then counted the years since his death, then whispered them: 14, 41. 14 was what he would be in 14 months. 41 gave him a chill; it was his street address.

“What happened?”

“The Creek Monster.”

“There is no Creek Monster.”

“How do you think he died?” Suddenly, Derrick’s ears perked. “Hear that?”

Each boy leaned toward the forbidden woods, listening for the ghost.

Among the night’s noises, wherein it was said the wretched Creek Monster’s dead frog songs could be heard, a powerful gust blew over, and the boys shielded themselves, lest they tip over into the short, thick fescue. The dark oaks above Red Clay Creek, higher even than the church’s steeple, swayed and mewed. In the gust’s wake, they listened again. They listened for the monster or the ghost, but nothing sounded above the children, all ado over their nameless games invented in the moments they were played.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Real Lesson from Harry Potter

**If the select few who only experience the Harry Potter series through the movies wish to avoid "spoilers," then consider yourself warned.**

Like many HP fans, I went to see The Deathly Hallows: Part II this weekend. I surprised myself by not crying and mostly floated through the movie waiting to see how they would present certain scenes, rather than anticipate the scenes themselves. Despite knowing what happens, and making my peace with it, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I will probably see it again in theaters at least one more time.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. That statement alone feels sort of strange to say. The series has reached such popularity that saying you're a fan is practically commonplace. Obviously I'm a fan. It's like saying you think The Beatles are a good band, or you enjoy eating pizza. There's a "duh" factor.

My inner fangirl loves Harry Potter for many, many reasons. The plot and characters, of course, but more than that, my admiration for J.K. Rowling's storytelling ability is what keeps me such a strong advocate for this series. Each character (and there are many), no matter how insignificant, has some sort of back-story. We care about every single one of them, even when we can't always keep everyone straight. Not only that, but in the hugely rich tale of why a boy must battle the darkest wizard of all time, there are several sub-plots - many of them independent from Harry and Voldemort - that are just as interesting. Beneath "good vs. evil," there are socially relevant themes of government interference in schools (Umbridge), attack of independent media (The Quibbler), modern slavery/class systems (house elves), and feminism (Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall, strong women forced to take a back seat in the man's world of their generation.) These are just to name a few, by the way.

This is all by way of saying how much I love Ms. Rowling's writing and how much of a connection I've felt toward this series for so many years. That's why in addition to not crying, I surprised myself for a different reason while watching The Deathly Hallows. I realized something - you can be brilliant and still have flaws.

Maybe it was the fatigue of writing this series for 20 years, or pressure from her publishers to turn in the next book, or simply a desire not to make each book 4,000 pages... but our beloved Ms. Rowling leaves quite a few loose ends and rushed conclusions. For example:

1. Snape. Was he actually good that whole time? The final film does a good job of redeeming his character, but the books actually keep him pretty ambiguous. Yes, he did what Dumbledore asked him to do, but why not still be a double agent for The Order? Why not let them in on Dumbledore's plan? Even though his heart was never in it, his choice was to give himself over to Voldemort completely, knowing he'd never be allowed to escape. Is that martyrdom or stupidity? And why is such a dick all the time? This comic puts all of your Snape questions into context. OK, we get it, Snape had a soft spot for Harry this whole time because he loved Lily. But... he is still basically evil, right? Based on the books alone, we never know the real answer.

2. Harry's connection to Voldemort. We know why they can hear each other's thoughts, but Dumbledore seemed to think Harry could block them out with a little practice. But because Snape's hatred of Harry gets in the way of his responsibility to The Order (see above), he basically tells Harry to fend for himself. One of my favorite lines in the final movie was Harry's response to Hermione when she asks whether he can sever the connection to Voldemort: "I can't! Or maybe I can. I don't know." It's such a perfect comment on the fact that J.K. Rowling  drops this storyline with no real explanation. If Harry did learn to block out Voldemort's presence, there goes pertinent plot points for Books 6 and 7, so it's left open for interpretation.

3. Neville! In Book 5, we learn that the prophecy labeling Harry as Voldemort's one true enemy could have actually applied to Neville as well. It takes about two paragraphs for J.K. to explain that Neville's parents also defied Voldemort and that Neville was also born at the end of July, but don't worry it really is Harry who must defeat him. Wait, what? Why bother telling us about Neville then? And didn't Voldemort mark Harry by accident? He didn't know the spell would backfire and just leave a scar. He was trying to kill him. Maybe the spell backfiring weakened him before he got the chance to hit up the Longbottom house. We don't know. It's an odd thing for J.K. to include in the series so far into it. She would have had to re-write the last two books to make Neville our hero after all. Of course, changing the game so far into the series would have been a disaster for readers who have come to love Harry. So, Neville's would-be calling becomes a red herring. Still... is Harry really our hero?

4. Harry is Not Really Our Hero. Our boy who lived is an incredible wizard. There's no question about this. He has skills beyond his years, he's clever and resourceful, and he's certainly not short on bravery. But if you really think about the series, Harry doesn't really do anything at the end. He fights and wins battles the same as everyone else, but when it comes to fighting the big end-of-show evil, someone else manages to swoop in and help out at the last minute, leaving Harry to take all the credit. Hermione knows the winning spell, unexplained swords and patronuses appear out of thin air to help him out of jams, and Neville (see above!) is the one who destroys the final Horcrux, thus killing Voldemort and saving the world. Harry is a natural leader and a gifted motivational speaker, but when it comes to physical battles, he's no more or less equipped than his friends. I'd be fine with this portrayal of Harry if that was the intention, but the series hinges on the fact that Harry really is a hero. And by himself, he's just not. Sorry, J.K.

5. Harry's Love Life.  After seeing Deathly Hallows: Part I, I made my disapproval of Harry and Ginny's happily ever after known. I still find it insulting and unrealistic, but seeing Part II of this installment made me remember Luna Lovegood. Oh, Luna! Now, keep in mind I have a huge problem with Harry ending up with anyone romantically. He's only 17 and just ended seven years of going through some serious shit. All I want for Harry is a tall, frosty butterbeer, and maybe a  vacation. The sexual tension between Ron and Hermione pays off splendidly in the end, which should be enough for readers wanting a little romance with their fantasy. But, blah blah Harry blah blah Main Character blah blah He Needs Love Too. I get it. But does it have to be Ginny? I'm a huge fan of Ginny as a character, but the two have absolutely no chemistry. The only logical explanation I can see for having Harry end up with Ginny is that Harry is too exhausted after the war to care, and he always wanted to be a Weasley anyway, and Ginny is the only girl in that family. If our boy HAS to end up with anyone, it should be Luna. (Ginny, of course, should be with Neville.) From the beginning, Harry is the only person who doesn't think Luna is completely insane. She makes him laugh and we see them have actual fun together, as opposed to Harry and Ginny, who just give each other awkward stares. Luna and Harry also share an ability to see only what the truly bereaved can see. Plus, any time Harry is going through his woe-is-me emo phases, it's Luna who always pops up to comfort or give him advice. This should be obvious, J.K.! Why make awesome characters like Ginny, Harry, and Luna settle for a crappy post-high school existence?

6. That F@#(@#* Epilogue. Kind readers, you know my feelings on epilogues. I will spare you all my rant. If The Deathly Hallows was a standalone title, or if the series wasn't as popular, I'm sure J.K.'s editors would have made her remove that horrible piece of writing from the series. The level with which I hate it is akin to the S.P.E.W. sub-plot in Book 4, which is to say, quite intense.

So, does this mean that if you're writing a series, you can cop out, be deliberately vague, and leave things unexplained? Of course not. As the series became more ambitious, so did J.K. Rowling's writing, and sometimes adding so much more didn't always work. But, by the time The Deathly Hallows was published, it was abundantly clear that J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and however she wanted it. Unless your series reaches that status, it's best to stick to the script.

The real lesson here is that if you have a good story, readers will respond. If you have even better characters, readers will stick with them. Build your fan base by getting it right, but don't become consumed by being "perfect." Real fans will recognize your faults, and they will continue to love you anyway.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Gateway Books

As an agent, I represent both YA and adult fiction because as a reader, I love both equally. Admittedly, I read a lot more YA than adult, especially since I became an agent, because that's what's sent to me most often. (Note: this is not a complaint!) It's my job to keep up with the markets I'm specializing in, so even in those rare moments of free time, I read YA.

However, in the same way I can't read too many books within any specific genre in a row, I find that too much YA leaves me craving something more grown up, something written with absolutely no regard for a younger audience. The language gets denser, the characters are closer to my age, and the situations are more relevant to my life. As complex and literary and wonderful as YA can be, the whole point of it is to speak to the teenage experience. I don't think I'm alone here when I say that remaining in high school forever feels like a cruel joke. Much like in my actual teen years, sometimes all I want to do is graduate and embrace the adult experience.

There are many other readers out there who manage to strike this same balance between YA and adult fiction. But, there are others who are clearly in one camp or the other. I've met readers (and writers) who barely know any modern adult fiction titles because they only follow the YA community. Likewise (as we read about way more often than we should), adult fiction readers, of both commercial and literary tastes, tend to either a) think of YA as "kid stuff," which to them includes teens, or b) don't understand what YA is and don't enough care to find out.

Neither side here is right, and in their own way, neither side is really wrong. As long as one refrains from bashing the other, it all comes down to personal preference. But if you're one of those readers who spends way too much time reading one vs. the other; or you want to try YA, but you're hung up on the stigma of shopping in the "teen" section; or you're waiting for an adult novel to speak to you as much as YA has, then might I suggest a few gateway titles that will make the transition easier:

1. Election by Tom Perrotta: Ah, Tracy Flick. The original Hermione Granger, minus the ability to conjure spells. All Tracy conjured was an immediate sense of annoyance and disdain... but who also had an odd likability. She wants to be president of her high school and one day conquer the world, but her teacher, Mr. M, would rather that didn't happen. The novel takes place in high school and only has one real adult protagonist (if you want to call him that) in the mix of teenagers. Yet it's a deeply rich satire about politics and scandal. If you've seen the equally brilliant film version, then you know this isn't meant to speak directly to the teenage experience, but it features teens we all know, even sometimes love.

2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss: I read this book in a class called "Young Adult as the Narrator" when I was getting my MFA and couldn't understand why this book was even on the course list. It had nothing to do with young adult fiction, or so I thought. Which I guess was the point of the class. Told from the alternating perspectives of 14-year-old Alma and 90-year-old Leo, it's a story about family and survival and self-discovery. While no one could accidentally misplace this in the YA section like they could with Election, The History of Love is a novel teenagers would enjoy because its core themes transcend age, like all good novels should. But with a young narrator, it makes the crossover appeal that much easier to take in.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: Published in the late 1940s, this novel also features a teenage narrator whose focus is on her family. It's hard for me not to compare this novel to Jane Austen - wise-beyond-her-years young woman sees herself as an outsider in her formerly prominent family, who is dealing with the changing times in the English countryside. Then, to shake things up, handsome (American!) young men move in next door and matchmaking ensues... It's all there, but 17-year-old Cassandra Morton's family are no Bennetts. They are dysfunctional and broken and wildly eccentric - and Cassandra's sharp eye and wit is there to capture it all.

4. How I Paid for College by Marc Acito: The subtitle for this book is "A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater" and I picked it up in the bookstore for that reason. I was 20 when I read it, and having been a proud member of my high school's drama club, a book about "play people" (as they're called in the book) who drink, have sex, and go on madcap adventures to New York City was appealing. This book would probably be more for adult readers who want to segue into YA, but honestly even knowing what I know now about the industry, I'm not sure where I'd categorize this. I bought it in the regular fiction section, but it could very easily fit in on a YA shelf next to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist or Youth in Revolt. It's a crazy book and laugh-out-loud funny (a phrase I do not use lightly!). Basically every age group should read it, even if you weren't a play person.

5. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card: This is an easy, if not obvious, pick coming from me. Not only does it introduce reluctant YA readers to a younger character, but it introduces sci-fi skeptics to a world where battling aliens is just as important as the literary writing style and richly developed characters. The thing about Ender is that he is very young, not even a teenager. So while the overarching plot is pure sci-fi territory, the readers get to see a very simple coming of age story. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it. I've also just noticed Orson Scott Card's original dedication as I leafed through my copy - "For Geoffrey, who makes me remember how young and how old children can be." It can't really be said better than that, can it?

Reading the above-mentioned titles will not only convert reluctant readers on both sides, but they will also help any of you writers out there who are thinking crossing age lines. You may have noticed that several adult authors are tackling YA these days (Grisham and Patterson among the larger names). You may have also noticed it's not a matter of simply "dumbing down" prose and making a few characters younger. It's writing with an entirely different viewpoint in mind, one that most adults have not considered in quite a while. Tapping into a part of your brain that hasn't been used in decades is not easy. Oh no, how do teens think? Will they understand if I use this literary device? Do they modern-day teens even care about this anymore? It's easy to get yourself worked up over whether your audience will "get" you if you are trying something completely new. Same goes for YA authors trying adult for the first time. I find that if I read too many YA voices in a row, the switch to an adult perspective can be jarring. Switching your brain in order to write it is even more of a challenge. Even though the adult voice is the writer's own voice, it is still a daunting task. That's where crossover titles - Gateway Books - come in. They exist in the middle, and writers can pick and choose what they need to take from them.

If you're wondering why I left out the more obvious titles of To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, or Huck Finn, it's because you already read them. Also, with the exception of Dodie Smith, the above titles are for the more contemporary reader. I find "classics" to be classics for a reason; people of all age groups have accepted them as "great" or are being told they're great high school. Contemporary fiction is still divided. You either "like that kind of thing" or don't. Not enough time has passed to see where they'll fall in the literary spectrum.

Whether you're on Team YA or Team Adult, I guarantee reading the above-mentioned titles (in no particular order) will help you find value in both styles of writing - one way or the other. Unfortunately, this is not a money-back-guarantee, so in case I'm proven wrong please accept the following song as a consolation.

(But I doubt I'll be proven wrong. You will love them and learn from them!)

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Agent

Hello, friends! I'm back from my upstate getaway and, while it was great, I'm very happy to be back. Now, who's ready to dive right back into Story Time? Excellent.

Don't be fooled by the title of today's post - this is not about me. Rather, it comes from the absurdist mind of friend-of-the-blog, Gregg Podolski, whom you may remember from his last appearance on Glass Cases, in which he shared excerpts from his novel, Androids, Ninjas, and Floss: A Memoir. Today's story is also on the hilarious side, and is a piece of flash fiction dialogue between Shakespeare and his agent, in which they discuss (and decide against) the possibility of Shakespeare going in a different direction. Enjoy!

The Agent
By Gregg Podolski

Shakespeare said, "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

"What?" said his agent.

"It's a new idea I'm working on, called a 'joke.'"

"What's that?"

"A line or short passage that compels laughter."

"Why the hell are you wasting your time on something like that? You’ve got a deadline coming up for Henry VI revisions, and last time I checked there wasn’t a whole lot of room for laughs in that puppy."

"Exactly! Everything I've done is so damned gloomy. I want to write something that will bring a smile to my audience's face."

"So you decided to explore the motivations behind a chicken crossing a road? That's not funny."

"Well, the question isn't supposed to be funny. It's in the answer that the humor lies."

"Okay, so what's the answer?"

Shakespeare put a fist to his mouth, cleared his throat and said, "To get to the other side."

Crickets chirped. A gust of wind blew a tumbleweed between the two men on the empty thoroughfare where they stood. After a long moment, the agent grabbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, bumping up his glasses so he could massage the tender spot where they always pinched. He needed a new pair--needed a lot of things, actually--but his clients' work hadn't been selling. The industry didn't have room for mid-list playwrights anymore. It was either blockbuster or bust. Bill had that kind of potential, but the first draft he'd turned in was a mess--wordy and bloated and just all over the place. The agent would probably have to break the thing up and pitch it as a trilogy, which would require a ton of work. The last thing he needed was for the guy to get sidetracked by this "joke" nonsense.

Just then a woman passed by holding a small, crying child. The wails woke him from his temporary daze and he thought, I know how you feel, kid.

"Walk with me Bill," he said at last, replacing his glasses and putting an arm around his client's shoulder. They started down the avenue towards the theater, where they had a meeting scheduled at noon with the set designer. "You've got talent, kid. You know that, right?"

Shakespeare looked uncomfortable with the compliment and dropped his eyes.

"No, you do," the agent continued. "Remember what I said when I took you on?”

“You’re not in the charity business, you’re in the money-making business.”

"That’s right. If I didn’t think you had what it takes, we wouldn’t be having this conversation."

"What about my play?"

“It's got problems, sure, but what debut play doesn't? There’s nothing wrong with it we can’t fix, but I need your head in the game. I'll work with you every step of the way, but we need to keep our eyes on the prize here and Bill, look at me--"

He stopped walking and took Shakespeare's chin in his hand, turning his face towards him.

"--the prize is not laughter. Death and despair, kid, that's what puts asses in the seats. Trust me on this."

Shakespeare nodded.

"Really?"

He nodded again, this time with a smile.

"Good. That's my boy. Come on, let's go meet this scenic design guy. He's got something he wants to show us with dry ice. Supposed to be real cutting-edge stuff."

The kid would be all right. He had the gift. As long as he stayed focused on what sold and left the comedy to the court jesters, he'd do just fine. The agent knew it. He had a knack for these things.