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?

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.

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 🙂

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.)

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 🙂

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.

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!