Monday, March 25, 2013

Gender Bender

The semester is ending, and I am in the last few weeks of panic and rushing. Thus, if my weekly blog posts start to sound fragmented and inane, that's why. I'll be hashing out essays, poems, and a term paper before everything ends. I do have some good news: I won second place in the specialty division of my school's big creative arts contest! I feel validated as a writer now that I've achieved something in an academic setting.

So what to talk about today? I could mention a book that made me angry. I don't like bashing books on this blog (I make fun of tired genre tropes, but that's different), but I feel okay mentioning this one because I like the author, I really do, and one of the reasons it bothered me so much was because I expected more. The book in question is Zom-B by Darren Shan. The summary: B is living in a world on the brink of a zombie apocalypse and is dealing with a father who is racist and whose racist views are tainting B.

The story is overall more about B's struggle with racism than with zombies, and I respect that. It makes the story less about conventions of genre and more about the character's personal journey, which I think makes a more compelling story. It was a good little YA book, but Shan did one thing that made me want to throw the book: he kept B's gender secret until the end.

"B" is short for "Becky," but since she is a tomboy with very short hair, hangs out with male friends, picks fights, steals, swears, and has a complex relationship with her father rather than with her mother, the reader believes B is a boy. Part of that, I think, comes from the set-up chapter where we see a boy named Brian killed by zombies. The image of a boy named B comes in from the start, and it's not until the end of the book that you learn that B is a girl.

Now, since the book is about racism, I can see how Shan might be making a commentary about preconceived notions. How all the attributes that people take as masculine can actually also apply to a girl. Nothing in B's character traits marks her as necessarily male or female, until the end when the reader learns the truth. If that's what Shan was trying to do, I applaud him for working to bring the reader into the story. I just don't think it worked as storytelling.

I have two big problems with holding this kind of secret until the end of a book: one, it makes the reader feel stupid when it's revealed. Shan may have wanted that to jolt the reader into thinking, but it could have backfired.

Two, and more importantly, it alters characterization. Everyone around B behaves differently before and after the moment when her father calls her "Becky." Before, there's nothing to suggest she's a girl. After, her father won't stop calling her his "little girl," "daughter," and her name, "Becky." He seems like a different person. Also, in the last few chapters and in the sequel, B herself acts more feminine. Nothing has happened to make her change the way she looks at herself (at least, not in that way), but now I hear more about her appearance when she didn't seem to care about it before. The character has changed, and not just because I know now and see her in a different way.

As much as I liked the way Shan worked the theme of racism into a zombie book, I'm disappointed in the way he handled the storytelling. I've been taught to put story first and let the message ooze out on its own, so when I see storytelling sacrificed to meaning, if that's what happened, I get a little unhappy. Sometimes surprise endings work, but this one didn't because it required the author to lie to his readers through the whole book, removing parts of characterization and replacing them only when the secret was out. I'm sorry, but that isn't good writing.

Monday, March 18, 2013

I Really Wish You Didn't Say That

Ever been reading a book or watching a movie when one of the characters says something and you just think, "Oh, nothing good can come of this"? Well, today, I am crafting a list of all those "famous almost-last words" for your reading pleasure. There's nothing better for creating dramatic irony than using one of these phrases or a differently-worded version of one. Well, nothing easier. Let's get started.

"Hello? Is anyone there?" (Yes, the guy with the chain saw is right there.)
"Let's split up." (the better to pick you off, my dears)
"Where's [enter name here]?" (Dead.)
"Don't worry. We're safe here." (No, you're not.)
"They say this camp/hotel/carnival is haunted." (It is, and a few more ghosts will call it home before this movie ends.)
"Did you hear about the escaped murderer?" (Speak of the devil, and the devil will come.)
"We can't call the police." (Why not? WHY THE HECK NOT?!)

Romantic Comedy
"It's okay. I understand." (No, you don't.)
"What do we have to talk about?" (Everything, apparently.)
"You're a great guy/girl...." (But....)
"You're making a mistake, and I'll prove it." (Misguided romantic gesture coming in 3, 2, 1.)

Science Fiction
"We're having some trouble in the lab." (Is it big and snarly, with sharp teeth? Or are we talking the next pandemic?)
"We've thought through all the variables. Nothing will surprise us now." (Wanna bet?)
"That's impossible." (Think again.)
"This discovery will lead the human race into a utopian future." (Again, wanna bet?)
"Written and Produced by Joss Whedon" (Now I don't dare get too fond of any character.)

"You can trust me." (No, you can't.)
"I'm sorry. I had no choice." (Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!)
Whenever someone starts talking tenderly about family and life goals (Oh, dang; I was starting to like that guy. To bad he's a dead man walking.)

And the king of them all...

"Look on the bright side. At least things can't get any worse."

This is not a comprehensive list at all, so feel free to leave more in the comments. I'm sure there are many other seal-your-fate phrases in literature or film, and I'd love to archive them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

One Week in Boston

Long time no see! It has been a long, busy week, full of snow and classes and spending hours at a bookfair that took up 3 ballrooms, but I'm back home. The AWP Conference was great; I went to a lot of wonderful classes and found some journals that may accept my more...fantastic stories. I was there for 5 days, 5 very busy days, so I'm going to give the highlights and the parts that won't bore you all to death.

I took a red-eye flight to Boston, which meant I got about 3 hours of sleep, and I'm not sure how high-quality that sleep was. I traveled with a bunch of other students in my program, but since they were all sharing a condo and I was in a hotel, we split up at the subway station. Finding the hotel wasn't hard, and it was worth it: Fenway Park was right outside my window! The weather was cold and wet on Wednesday, when I got in. I checked the weather and saw it coming, but I wasn't thrilled. It meant I wasn't able to go to Old North Church or walk the Freedom Trail. So sorry, but no fun stories like that. The most touristy thing I did was eat a bowl of clam chowder.

Thursday was the first day of classes, and it was SNOWY! I mean it. Also, windy, which isn't the best combination when you're trying to navigate a city. When the snow is flying horizontally at your face, it's hard to check what street you're on. But I made it to the conference, even though I was sitting on the ground for the first class (on fairy tales, with a panel that included Jane Yolen and Kelly Link! Can we say yay?). I also saw Matthew Pearl, Julianne Baggott, and Benjamin Percy. I have a good, long list of books to read now that I'm back.

Rather than list out day by day (like I did with LTUE) what happened, here's my quick sum-up of what I learned over the conference: genre fiction is still looked-down on, but it's gaining respect. The setting of a story is important and can be a character in its own right. When writing literary fiction, ghosts and zombies mean things, like loss or hope or loss of hope. The brain treats fiction the same as it does real life, so the writer is literally creating a world for the reader. The reader takes part in creating that world, so too much description is bad. YA has a need for less description and more action than an adult book. Fan fiction, comic books, and video games are coming into their own as high-quality literature. And last, I am going to have a hard time finding work after I graduate.

Here are some things I learned outside my classes: convention center food courts rip you off. Dunkin Donuts has more varieties, but Krispy Kreme is better tasting. Snow apparently doesn't melt in Boston, it just turns to piles of slush. As soon as you're out of town, everyone is texting you. I'm not a fan of poetry readings, and I get cranky when I'm sleep deprived. Taking a red-eye to a convention with most of your classmates means not getting enough sleep, ever, during the days you're gone. And I may be sensitive after spending so much time in The Bubble, but after seeing the tattoos and the swearing and the smoking and the drinking and the clothing choices, I am apparently rather lady like for a serious fiction writer.

Most important thing I learned from the conference: there is good writing and there is bad writing. Genre has nothing to do with it (thank you for that, Julianne Baggott and Benjamin Percy! Thank you for validating my writing!).

It was a good experience, it really was. I'm glad I went. I feel more like a part of the writing community and less like a wannabe now. Maybe it was getting Italian with the other students (I had real, authentic cannoli), or maybe it was having a late night dessert party with them and the professors, or maybe it was just understanding the classes and getting inspired to write my own story. It seemed like every class helped me with the new story that is coming into my mind now. I'm beginning to understand the characters more, and the plot is coming in pieces. I may even have a setting for it now!

More to come on that, as I figure things out, and now that I'm back, the regularly scheduled blog posts are forthcoming.