Thursday, February 26, 2015

A World Unlike My Own

When I was in middle school, I avoided contemporary books. They never took place in a world I recognized. Book schools have popularity pyramids. In book schools, even the most popular kid knows the outcasts by name. And book schools were always high schools. I can't think of more than three YA books I read that were set in middle school. I'd much rather read historical fiction or fantasy. At least those make-believe worlds didn't masquerade as reality.

Back in January, my friend Hannah made a Mean Girls reference I couldn't appreciate because I'd never seen the movie. Well, that isn't entirely true. We watched the Burn Book clip in Women's History and I rolled my eyes the whole time. How does Regina have dirt on every female in their class? How can they get away with those itty bitty skirts in school? This wasn't a world I knew, much less lived in.
But I'd committed the horrid crime of living to age eighteen without seeing Mean Girls. So Hannah sat me down on her couch and educated me. As I finally watched the whole movie, I fell in love with this world of conniving, cutthroat girls. It didn't look anything my life, but for some reason, that no longer bothered me. It's the world the story needed and I know it hit home for some viewers.

I'm currently reading The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison. The protagonist is Linda Wallheim, the wife of a Mormon bishop and amateur sleuth who investigates her neighbor's sudden disappearance. In Linda's Mormon Utah world, all the male characters range from misogynistic to murderous.
I'm a Mormon from Riverton, Utah. That's one street over from Draper, Utah, where The Bishop's Wife is set. The Draper Temple? That building on the cover? I am currently looking at it from my computer room window.  I'm reading this for the same reason Hermione Granger took Muggle Studies. The oppressive patriarchy Linda lives in isn't the world I've lived in my entire life, but hey, I'm open to new perspectives.
In middle school I would've loathed it. Another failed attempt at representing my personal universe. But my opinions about media are evolving. Now I think complaining that a contemporary book isn't realistic is like saying dialogue doesn't resemble real speech. Of course it doesn't. Real people don't have copy editors. It's wittier than every day conversation.
Maybe, instead of whining when a book isn't realistic, we can use it as a chance to see what the world looks like through someone else's eyes.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why I Love Historical Fiction

A girl painting faux nylons on her legs during the 1940's
Some time ago I read the Children of the Promise books by Dean Hughes. The series follows a Utah family as their kids grow up and march of to battlefields, hospitals, and high school. In the author's note, he brags that he researched everything that could possibly be researched. If a character looks out a snowy window, then you can rest easy knowing the author looked up weather reports for that day. If the family goes to a movie you know it actually played in a theater near them on that exact date. I rolled my eyes a little. Who cares if it snowed in Sugar House, Utah on Christmas Day 1941? Sure, if you put snow on a historically dry battlefield, that'll screw up that war. But you can let it snow in Utah when you want snow.
Then I got to a scene in the second book. The women who got left behind on the home front stand around talking as they clean up dinner. There's a war going on. Their brothers and boyfriends and sons are fighting and dying on two continents. But what are they talking about? Fashion. Specifically nylons. The war makes it impossible for America to import nylon for stockings, but they want to be fashionable, so they draw a black makeup line down the back of their bare legs.
It impressed me because:
1. A male author is writing girl talk and it flows so naturally.
2. A modern author is writing 1940's talk and it flows naturally.
3. Everyone else wants to write about the bombs and battles of World War II. And there are plenty of those in the book, too. But a hardcore researcher doesn't just know who fought and won when. He knows how hard it was to draw a straight seam on your sister's leg. Little details like this make historical fiction come to life.
President Coolidge signing the Immigration Act, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act
My friend Tianna is a quarter Japanese. Our government teacher handed out a timeline on discrimination and democracy the other day. As Tianna read down the list, she was startled to find that the Asian Exclusion Act was passed in 1924. That's the year her great-granddaddy stepped off the boat.'d he get here if he was excluded? A quick search told her the law was passed on May 26, 1924. Alright, so he must have arrived in San Francisco before that. Then she pulled up a family history website and found the ship' s log. The date?
May 26, 1924.
And that's not when Grand-Granddaddy Masao got to America. No, that's when the ship set sail. They didn't dock until sixteen days later, but for some reason they were allowed in.
So what's the story there?
"Quick, son! We've got to book it down to the harbor and get on the last boat to America!"
"Wow, you're lucky you get here when you did. On the day you left, they passed this law banning Japanese immigrants. They just haven't started enforcing it yet."
"The last boat leaves on the twenty sixth? No, I want the tickets! Sorry, aspiring immigrant friends. These are mine!"
Whatever happened, there's a story here.
My favorite historical fiction is the kind that sheds light on the untouched corners of history. We all know what Hitler was up to during the war, but what about the Utah housewives? We know how the Asian Exclusion Act impacted immigration on a worldwide scale, but what did it mean for eighteen year old Masao? And what were the nylon details of his life? What was he eating when his dad told him to toss aside breakfast and get to the harbor? Did getting the last tickets to America mean he had to leave a girlfriend behind? Two decades later, when white housewives were drawing lines down their legs, did his family crowd around the wireless to hear about the attacks on Pearl Harbor?
I'm not fascinated enough to tell this story myself, and Tianna's books are full of fairies and aliens with vaguely Japanese names, but someday I'll stumble across a historical fiction book that touches on this topic in some way, and I'll read it. That's what usually happens when I get a "Wouldn't this be cool..." idea. Great-Grandaddy Masao isn't alone. Everyone who lived through history has some sort of story worth telling. Historical fiction is powerful because it makes global events personal and personal problems consume the world.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Staying Organized As a Writer

I'm hyperorganized. Not just as a writer, but as a person. Last August, I sat down and planned out what I would be doing every night in November. Granted, November is National Novel Writing Month, so I had a pretty good idea what I was doing, but it's still a bit excessive. Here are eight of the gadgets and gimmicks I used to keep my brain and my stories in order.

1. Paint with Water
There's a scene in Crossed by Ally Condie where the character Ky explains how his artist mother used to paint with water. Their family could afford brushes, but not paint, so she'd paint on the desert rocks and watch her work dry up in the sun. Nothing was meant to last, but it gave her a chance to see what her work looked like outside of her head.
On both my phone and computer, I have a designated deletable document called Paint with Water. Whatever I type is meant to be erased, either by holding down the delete key or trashing the whole document, the next time I look at it. If Paint with Water produces something worth keeping, I rename it and create a new note.

2. Story Garden
When I get an idea and I know it's good enough to be a story, I put it in my Story Garden under Seedlings. I have about seventy of these. Each seedling has a title, a one line title, and nothing else. When my Seedling reaches around 10,000 words in length, I move it down to Sproutlings. Finish projects go under Trees (novels) or Shrubs (short stories). Yes, I know this should be a Story Forest instead of a garden, but that's what I named it long ago.
3. Beginnings and Snippets
Every writer's had a computer clogged up with dozens of half-started stories. That's why I put all my beginnings in one document. When the seedlings start sprouting, I copy and paste them into a new home. What about story fragments that don't have a beginning? They go in Snippets. Like Beginnings, they migrate once they're big enough to find their own way.

4. General Resources
This is where I keep all my lists. Names, themes, what-ifs, and other odds and ends I haven't had the chance to use yet. Before my computer crashed, Story Garden lived in this file. Now it has its own space. It's like my story stockroom. Each individual project also has a file called (Story Name) Resources.

5. Choose Your Tools Wisely
Pens are for prose, yearbook autographs, check lists, schedules, and everything else you might want to write down. For a long time, I didn't see why anyone would want to write in pencil. Unless you like painting with water. Or math. This week, I finally figured out what pencils are built for: poems! With prose, I can cross out words or lines I don't like. Poetry is meant to look a certain way on the page. I'm constantly adjusting end rhymes, punctuation, and line breaks. Some writers will use their tools the other way around, but this is what works for me.

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6. Dialogue-Only Rough Drafts
Dialogue is the easiest thing for me to write. When I have a scene in the works, I write the speakers' initials in the margins and put occasional parentheses for movement and other notes. One of my actress friends says I'm basically writing a script.

7. Timelines and Alphabet Parade
I try not to give two characters the same initials when I can help it. I also need an idea of how long my story is going to take. For each project, I have a timeline and alphabetical list of character names in the that project's Resources.

8. Other Tips, Tricks, and Tidbits
When I get an idea but don't know if it's Seedling-worthy, I jot it down in my notebook and put a star in the margins so I can find it later. Each page has a character name, title, or title acronym of whatever I'm working on so I can find it when I'm flipping through later. Here are some examples.
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This is how I stay sane. How do you keep your writing organized?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Your Fairytale Club Membership Has Been Denied

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz are not fairytales. I can't go a year without running into a novel retelling for each of these. Fairytale franchises, like the TV show Once Upon A Time, have no qualms about lopping them in with legitimate stories Rumpelstiltskin or Snow White. But that doesn't mean they belong in that category.
Second Star
They are novels with fantastic elements that have entered the public domain. When the copyrights on Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings have expired, people will retell them, too.
Fairytales are folk stories that existed in multiple version across different cultures and generations. Rapunzel. Cinderella. Hansel and Gretel. A fairytale isn't simply a story that is retold, it's a story that was retold before someone settled on an official version. We can get into some gray territory with this. Perrault and the Grimms collected stories, but Hans Christian Anderson whipped them up from scratch, and he was writing around the same time as Lewis Carroll. I'm not sure if it's a matter of length, originality, or copyright, but I've always been squeamish about labeling them as fairytales.
We can call them retellings, like Jane Austen and Shakespeare adaptations, but magic elements doesn't equal fairytale.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Things with Wings

If this post looks familiar, it's because I published it before only to take it down. Now I've decided to throw it back out into the world once more.

My sophomore year was all about birds. I struggled with feelings of low self esteem, despair, and self loathing, though I never sunk deep enough to call it depression. It still cut me, though. I pulled myself out of it with a by-your-own-bootstraps mentality borrowed from Frank C. Bucaro.
"Don't wait for someone to take you under their wing. Find a good wing and climb up underneath it."-Frank C. Bucaro
That quote was just one of them many wing-themed messages I carried with me. On my gentler days, my favorite was a Bible verse, Luke 12:6-7.

Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Okay, so I was worth more than a sparrow. But because I was a by-your-own bootstraps girl, I wasn't going to crawl under any wing. I'd spread my own wings and fly, and after I did that, I'd take everyone else under mine. Cue the Emily Dickinson.

IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin        
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

I decided I wasn't going to be a miserable, pathetic robin. I'd spread my wings and become everyone else's fairy godmother. No, wait, a guardian angel! If I did that, if I managed to touch lives other than my own, I wouldn't live in vain. 
But after a year of living like that, a year of reaching out to friends and strangers who never reached back to me, I realized that most of them aren't helpless robins. They're Martina McBride's concrete angels standing sentinel on Maya Angelou's grave of dreams. 

I realized it, but I kept on guardian-angeling, because all my concrete counterparts and feathered friends would flop and die without me. And I never dared complain about my own problems, even inside my own head. If I did, I was whining, just like that pampered princess in Christina Georgina Rossetti's poem.

Me, poor dove that must not coo-
Eagle that must not soar.

I'm done living a life of silence. I'm done spreading my wings when I'm surrounded by birds too dumb to crawl under them. I'm done telling myself my problems don't matter because someone out there has it worse. If I picked myself up by my own bootstraps, everyone else can do the same. I'm done grieving. 

It started a grief within a grief,
To think their case was beyond relief--
They could not go flying about in search
Of their nest again, nor find a perch.
They must brood where they fell in mulch and mire,
Trusting feathers and inward fire
Till daylight made it safe for a flyer.
-Robert Frost, "The Thatch"

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Value of Contemporary YA

Speculative YA fiction tells teenagers we can save the world. Contemporary tells us we don't have to. We can be queens and warriors and superheroes, but we can also be ourselves.
Contemporary tells us our passions and problems are real.
Contemporary tells us it's okay to have a world built of crushes and soccer tournaments.
Contemporary tells us we're not alone when we battle gritty issues like depression, eating disorders, or dying loved ones.
Contemporary tells us our friend drama and family troubles are legitimate struggles.
Speculative fiction lets us dream, but contemporary is vindicating.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Problem with "Perspective Readers"

When I was fifteen, I proofread a book for an Australian Jewish adult male writer. I was a Utah Mormon teen girl, just like his protagonist. As well as giving him general input on the story I was supposed to tell him how well he portrayed her. So I read the book, gave some feedback, put it on a shelf, and didn't think about it again for three years.
This week I found the book again while cleaning out my room. There’s a scene where the protagonist, who had newly arrived in Australia, was confused when she heard the Australians refer to a barbecue as “the barbie”. That’s Australian slang, definitely, but it’s a piece of Australian slang all Americans know. She shouldn’t have been confused. After reading 300 pages of this book I was more concerned about plot structure and disappearing characters to catch something so small. I never told the author about the barbie issue.
The second most consistent piece of advice I hear about writing “the other” is to find someone who fits in the same boxes as their protagonist to read over it. This isn’t always helpful. No one reader can catch every problem and not every reader will view the same things as problems.