Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: Why Edgy Gets Me Excited

So, currently I'm reading Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver, and boy, am I smitten. The characters, story, and tension are all wonderful, but what really gets me are the parts most people may consider "edgy." I love the language-- the swearing is few and far between, but it feels accurate. The mentions of sex and sexuality, as well as what goes along with it-- sexual assault and porn to start. Then there's the drug mentions. One main character may only do a little pot or smoke cigarettes, but the harder stuff exists on the fringes-- it's there, mentioned in passing, just another part of the atmosphere.

But why do I love that this book touches on all of that? It's by no means an edgy story-- not about drug addicts or the like-- it's a story of sisters and their relationship. Truthfully, I may be a bit of an angst bunny. I love it when things get a little dark, but really, these things make books more real (when done well) because they were a part of my teenage experience. As a teenager, these things weren't the forefront of my life. I wasn't a druggie or had a lot of sex. In fact, aside from a little underage drinking I was a fairly straight laced kid. But I knew these things existed. I knew kids in my grade who would experiment with drugs, who were caught having sex in school (and thus, suspended). The gritty realities of life were in my line of sight, even if I didn't participate in them.

Perhaps that's why I'm so attached to VG. Most of the plot does not involve those things, but they do have an effect on their lives of the characters. As teenagers, sex, drugs and the like are relatively new experiences, and they don't always know how to react or how to stay away from them. After all, it can be hard to look away from a car crash. Even if you consciously know it is bad, you don't always have the willpower needed to turn away from it.

Yes, a lot of parents and publishers would like to keep YA fiction clean, hence why most of these subjects are referred to as "edgy." They tone down real life in the hopes of keeping teenagers naive for just a little longer. It's something that I'd consider "edgywashing," an attempt to focus in on things that won't be offensive. I have nothing wrong with a G rated story, but it often feels unreal, like the author has stuck blinders up on readers to only focus on certain areas of life. Sure, there's a time and place for it, but much like Hollywood's whitewashing, it feels as something's missing. When we get whitewashing, we ignore the diversity in our world and suddenly, a whole bunch of people don't have anything to relate to. Often, that is how I feel in an edgywashed story. Sure, I can enjoy the ride, but it's hard for me to relate to a lot of these characters. They feel unreal, because my experience as a teenager wasn't nearly as sheltered as some others'.

I know I'm not the only one who feels that way. I work in a residential treatment facility for traumatized children, who have come from horrible backgrounds. Some have been abandoned by their parents, abused in innumerable ways, others have serious addiction problems, whatever. These kids are definitely the exception to the rule, but they often relay a similar issue as many POC-- they don't feel like they can relate to characters in most fiction. They don't know what it's like to live in a normal house with normally functioning parents, something that can be found in many YA novels. Because they have a hard time relating, they don't pick up a book as often. It doesn't feel "real" to them. They want to read about characters who have similar experiences as they do, and they want to learn from how the character deals with that situation.

I'm not saying every book should have sex and drugs and rock and roll. There's a time and place for it, and there's a right way to do it. Some books definitely don't need it. But, there's a plethora of conflict within those subjects, innumerable things to be done with it and kids out there who need those stories-- not because they want things that are "cool" and "edgy," but because that is their lives, and they're trying to figure out how to deal with those struggles. They need to know they're not the only ones dealing with those issues, and that there is a way out. Because like POC, like LGBT, like children with disabilities, they just want to see someone like themselves in fiction. They want to know they're not alone.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How To Make FEELS (Or Drawing from Within)

In our weird little society, both inside the internet and out of it, we're always trying to put on a brave face and chase away those emotions we don't quite like. We show people our successes (Got a book deal! Wrote X amount of Words today!) but shy away from sharing anything really negative about ourselves. After all, who likes a Negative Nancy? People who are constantly negative bring you down and you don't want to spend time with them (let alone a whole book with them), but the opposite holds true as well. When we're all sunshine and roses and success stories, sometimes people can find it hard to relate to us. No one's life is perfect. I believe this stands through in writing as well as real life. Struggle helps us sympathize with others. If you have the Mary Sue MC who never runs into any troubles, it's easy to dismiss her as unrealistic.

So why do we insist on dulling down our negative emotions, hiding them away, and pretending the world is simply full of Mary Sues?

Emotion and writing go hand in hand because emotion and life go hand in hand. If you as a writer are feeling something really strongly while writing-- if your own story pulls anger or surprise or general shock from you, you have a greater chance of eliciting that response in the reader. But how do you tap into that swell of emotion? How do you find the right words to bring it out?

I believe the first step is acknowledging your own emotions throughout your day to day life.

Do you try to shut down anger, or put it away for later? Do you hide feelings of grief or sadness behind a big smile? Why? Because other people might be put off of your negative sides?

Currently, I set today out to write. Write, write, write. But I woke up in a horribly depressed mood. I just want to openly weep over my keyboard for no good reason. Usually I use this as an excuse to avoid writing. After all, it's next to impossible to form decent sentences when it feels like my brain is moving through molasses. But the scene I'm currently writing is a sad one, so I forced myself to sit down and write, because as I feel nearly exactly like my character would feel, it gives me an opportunity to look inside and understand what that really feels like and then find the words to convey that to someone else.

Often when I'm writing, my character may come across a situation I couldn't even imagine. Their best friend is killed. They have to undertake a massive responsibility. Yes, I can go with the most obvious way they may feel about those things, but I often feel like that's not enough. We don't have a "boo hoo" moment when someone close to us dies, we have a long lasting grief that can affect us in multitude of different ways.

When you hit those moments where you're angry beyond belief, when you're shattered inside, or even when you're so overjoyed you don't know what to do with yourself, take a moment. As a writer, take yourself inside your own experience. Try to describe to yourself how it feels. How would you make a reader understand what this feeling is like? You may not be slaying dragons or dealing with your friends being murdered, but the foundation of those feelings is there in your everyday life. When putting characters through those larger than life situations, we can take what we've learned from introspection and what it feels on a small scale, and then blow it up to larger than life proportions that suit your character's situation.

We specialize in the human condition. Life is long but unfortunately book pages are few. To create something really poignant, you need to take as many opportunities as possible to really make your character feel. Utter disappointment. Failure. Depression. Motivation. Joy. Elation. Lust. More so, those emotions are much more powerful when you can touch on what it really feels like. How many times have you had minorities of any kind (Disability, mental illness, POC, LGBT, etc) look at something and say, "This isn't right. This isn't what it's like." The same can be happen for feeling, for events that cause those feelings, and for inaccurate responses to those situations. It's why I take some time to think how my character (not just anyone, but the character I've built so far) may feel about something.

We'll never get it perfect, because everyone is different and experiences things differently. There will always be people who say, "That's not right," regarding how your character reacts to a situation, how they feel about something, what they get angry at, etc. It's because of the diversity of the human race, and it's that diversity that we really want to capture. If every character reacted how they were "supposed" to, it would create the same story over and over again, invoke the same feelings. As artists, we're always looking for something new.

So take some time each day and consider how you're feeling. Take a break from reality and ask yourself how you reacted to that snide comment from a coworker. Consider how missing breakfast made you feel and affected your mood. Often there is so much going on within us that we disregard in favour of focusing on the outside world, but that inside world is where we find humanity, which every reader is looking for.

What are your thoughts? How do you go about capturing emotion? Let me know!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book Review: Shades of Grey

Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Goodreads Description: Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Eddie's world wasn't always like this. There's evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.

Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good. Together, they engage in dangerous revolutionary talk.

My Review:  Shades of Grey was recommended to me by a coworker when we got to talking about books, and am I ever so grateful he did. I fell immediately in love with Jasper Fforde and his wonderfully quirky writing style. Right from the beginning, this book draws you in with our main character being eaten by a tree, and the weirdness quickly spreads as Fforde slowly introduces us to a world far in our own future, after the Something That Happened and multiple Leapbacks, leaving human society static and social classes determined by what colour you can see. It can come off a tad dystopic, in the way all societies can turn dystopic, even our own. Aside from that, this story is a far cry from anything titled dystopia and more often has a whimsical and romantic side to it, as one of the major subplots of the book is who will marry who to get children who can see more colour or for financial or social reasons.

After moving to a small town on the outer fringes with his father, Eddie is enthralled by a beautiful and mysterious girl and her connection to the theft of colour swatches, Greys impersonating as higher up colours, and murders framed as accidents. While nearly every other character adheres to the subtle social standards that are touched upon throughout the entire book, Jane is interesting in that she does not. She is brash, loud, and forward, so it's easy to see why Eddie falls for her. In a world where Munsell's Rules dictate everything, Jane is up for Reboot for her disrespectful actions-- where she will be reeducated into a proper member of society. But it's never as simple as that.

The beauty in this book, to me, was the balance between introspection and action. If this balance is thrown off, we can get bogged down too much by the MC's opinions or lost in non-stop action that has little to no meaning. Fforde's writing is perfectly set with quirky, clever observations with smooth, fluid action always a step behind. The tension, at times, is not as strong, but there are definite parts that ramp up the tension, though often in quieter ways. Mystery seems to be the frontrunner for drawing people in. The first half of the book presents you with several different threads, all seemingly random, and the second half ties it all together in a wonderful little bow. Though, at times, I would question whether something was really necessary in the plot (Such as, at times, the marriage subplot) but each subplot came together by the end and left me feeling extremely satisfied.

I would love to stand on my chair and proclaim the ending to everyone, but couldn't imagine spoiling such a wonderfully delicious ending. The only possible thing I could complain about is that its sequel is still not out, despite the book being released in 2009. By the end, high stakes have been established and conflicts are set up for the future which only makes me want to clamor to see what comes next. Though Shades of Grey stands as an excellent book on its own, the originality and creativity that went into this series has left me desperate for more.

Please, please share this book with those around you. This is an absolutely delightful read and would add to anyone's library. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on more of his books, for sure.

TL;DR: 5/5. For the love of all things wordy, YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Review: A World Without Princes

Book Review: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani.

Goodreads Description: When Agatha secretly wishes she’d chosen a different happy ending, she reopens the gates to the School for Good and Evil. But the world she and Sophie once knew has changed.

Witches and princesses, warlocks and princes are no longer enemies. New bonds are forming; old bonds are being shattered. But underneath this uneasy arrangement, a war is brewing and a dangerous enemy rises. As Agatha and Sophie battle to restore peace, an unexpected threat could destroy everything, and everyone, they love—and this time, it comes from within.

My Review: Sitting down with Soman Chainani's sequel to School and Good and Evil, I was excited to get drawn back into his fantastical world. Chainani's easy and simple writing style makes this a relaxing read, but the simple read should not be confused with a simple story, as this book is just as intricate as its predecessor.

Where The School of Good and Evil stretched its arms wide, strongly establishing the world in all its wonder, A World Without Princes hugs you close, focusing in on the characters, their motivations, actions, and the consequences they bring. We start with Sophie and Agatha in their world and are quickly taken back to the School of Good and Evil, where their fairy tale ending (a witch and a princess choosing friendship over love) has changed everything. The line is drawn between Girls and Boys now, which creates a very interesting dynamic throughout the book.

The best part of this book are each of the characters and their motivations-- each time they try to do what is right, they end up causing severe problems for those around them. Agatha's wish for Sophie doomed the princes to be ostracized and treated as slaves-- who could blame them for wanting their homes and lives back, or for revenge? Agatha's attempts to right their fairy tale only drives more divides between herself and Sophie. When Tedros attempts to go after Sophie instead of kissing Agatha, he ruins his chance of righting everything. In this way, each character is their own villain and hero, for everyone's reasons for their actions come from a place of sympathy, so who do you root for when everyone is in the right and the wrong?

Sophie and Agatha's relationship continues to be the focus of the story, and I can't help but love both of them more and more as the series develops. I particularly liked Agatha in this book, as we get to see her make some questionable decisions that negatively impacts her relationship with Sophie. Also, Tedros' character takes a complete flip as he shows up as a villain and drives a further wedge between them, yet with a justified reason that doesn't make him come off as a complete jerk.

The root of this story comes from love-- love between a boy and a girl, best friend love, love between two girls, love between two boys. The interesting part of this book is how it tackles feminism, gender roles, and the eternal battle of the sexes. At some points, it can seem a little sexist in the way it seems to push the princess/prince ending as the "correct" ending, though by the end of the book it becomes clear that this ending isn't necessarily a good one. Within this book alone, we have girls kissing girls, boys masquerading as girls, girls masquerading as boys, blurred gender roles, and the overall tone of acceptance makes this book feel very progressive.

This book is filled with tension and a wonderful story that builds on what's established and ends on a powerful note that hints at the conflict for book three. A World Without Princes was a great second book, but in no way did it feel like a bridge between two parts. It had a full, fleshy story of its own that stands on par with its predecessor, albeit with a slightly different focus.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A solid, exciting middle grade with a very progressive feel.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Writing Resolutions 2015

I'm a few days late with this post, but as it's the New Year, I know my fellow writers are setting their goals for 2015. I've set some of my own goals as well, but with a certain degree of caution, as in previous years I've been a little overzealous with my writing goals. When you set goals that are outside of your control and then you fail to meet them, it can be pretty disheartening year after year. And why would we waste time setting goals that we can't even meet? The point of new years resolutions isn't to make us feel bad, or to abandon them a week into the new year, but to set ourselves on a path to success.

To make 2015 your Best Writing Year Yet, take a look at your goals and ask yourself: can I achieve this? If the answer is yes, then it's time to make a plan.

You're setting goals, not labeling dreams. A lot of the time when making goals (and I myself am very guilty of this) I get a bit of a big head and begin planning all sorts of things. "I'm going to write nine books this year!" I would exclaim, completely neglecting how on earth I would fit that much writing and that many words into such a (relatively) short time frame. It would be lovely to conquer the world in 2015, but unless I can figure out how to accomplish this and be able to visualize myself achieving this, then it's likely going to remain a dream. Take a look at your own goals and visualize yourself accomplishing this goal and, based on your previous experiences, how long this will take. Just because a goal is overzealous doesn't mean it's not a goal worth pursuing. Sometimes it's just about adjusting the scale.

Don't set a goal that hinges on someone else's decision. This can take a lot of forms. Many writers make the mistake of trying to obtain an agent or editor as one of their new year's goals, when in reality, you have little to no control over it. This goal can mean, as it did for me in previous years, sending out more queries, working on researching more, entering pitch contests and attempting to engage more with potential agents, and that is where you should focus your goal. On actions you can take. If that means 2015 will be the time you perfect your query writing skills, then set that as your goal. Because even if you do everything right, it is still up to the agent/editor whether or not the time is right for the particular work you have. A lot of this business hinges on luck and timing and personal opinion. Just because you didn't snag an agent doesn't mean you didn't spend hours perfecting your pitches, sending our queries, doing research. If you hinge your success on that yes, you're often forgetting all the hard work you've put in. Don't sell yourself short, kids.

Goals need to be obtainable. Don't tell yourself you'll read 100 books this year if last year you only managed five. If you want to set a goal to improve productivity, look at how much you did last year, and then attempt to double that number. Or set a schedule you can keep in order to reach the set goal you want.

Make a plan. If you don't have a plan for obtaining your goal, it's probably going to stay a dream. Plan to read ten pages a day. Or write 1000 words a day. Don't just make a goal to "write more blog posts." Make a plan to "write one blog post a week." When we get into these routines, they become habits and then something we do without thought. More than that, though, we have to use that schedule to push ourselves through those times we'd rather be doing something else. Writer's block, feeling blah, busy work life, too much housework-- the excuses are innumerable, but if you have a set time to sit down and work, it's easier to push those other things aside. After all, just as housework and real life and self-care are all important, so is writing, so we have to make time for it.

How are your writing resolutions going? What did you decide on this year? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments, as I'd love to have your input.

Happy New Year, keyboard kritters, and may all the best muses make nests in your brain.