Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Back To School, Sort Of (Alternatively Titled: "At Least It's Not Underwater Basket-Weaving?")

After three years out of high school, my brain is finally able to entertain concepts like graded essays, lectures, and literary analysis without melting in the heat of conformist academia. At the behest of a friend, I have signed up for a free online course through a lovely company called Coursera.

Of course, it helps that the syllabus this particular course involves reading some of the best and most influential science fiction and fantasy novels of the last hundred and fifty years or so. For the next 11 weeks, it's all about "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World".

I swear it's not as fluffy as it sounds. When it comes to reading for pleasure, I average about 2 books a month, and this course requires either a novel or collection of short stories a week. I'll have to write an essay of about 300 words on each unit. A book report alone isn't enough, I also have to make a unique and brilliant observation about some aspect of the text. I'm slightly nervous about this. After all, what is the worth of a speculative fiction writer without an interesting perspective?

Although I won't get college credits for this, I will get a signed certificate by an actual respected professor at an actual reputable university if I perform well enough. I don't imagine I'll acknowledge it in future author bios, but the accomplishment should be at least as satisfying as winning NaNoWriMo.

I do have some reservations. My English major aunt says nothing ruins a good book like literary analysis, and I've personally experienced people seeing things in my writing that I simply did not put there (intentionally). I was lucky, in that their interpretation made me seem a lot more insightful than I was; however, anyone who's listened to someone with too much time and too many degrees discuss the political landscape of Middle Earth knows that some theories can become offensively far-fetched. Just once, I want to see an Important Author of the 20th Century raise their hand during a three-hour lecture on their work and say, "I'm sorry, what?"  

But I am a good student, and I'm here to learn with an open mind. I'll try my best to behave.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Societal Norms and Maureen Johnson's "Coverflip" Challenge

You know back in the old days when manly things were good/strong/smart things, and all those things women did were...not quite as good/strong/smart? That's still a thing.

Maureen Johnson is a Young Adult (YA) writer who's books often involve supernatural monsters, brutal murders, dysfunctional relationships, and other unpleasant things. Despite her themes, her book covers most often feature a combination of pretty girls, sassy poses, pastel backgrounds and cutesy fonts. In a word, they're girly.

She recently tweeted: I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, 'Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy"

Afterwards, she put forth a challenge to her almost 80,000 followers: redesign the cover of a popular book based on how a marketing team would envision it if the author were of the opposite gender. The results were a fascinating look into how society interprets "masculine" and "feminine". I found the re-imagining of Lord of the Flies especially hilarious. It shows a tiny plastic piglet held in cupped hands, reminiscent of the now-iconic Twilight cover.

Although I don't write YA, as a female fantasy writer, I have to put up with similar nonsense. There's a lot of overlap between the SFF and gamer community, of which I'm also a part. A shockingly large percentage of the fanbase still treats their hobby/interest like a sort of boy's club that girls wouldn't understand, and even if they did, they aren't allowed anyway. Like other male-dominated professions, female gamers and authors have to work twice as hard to prove they're as good as the men, and when it's time to divvy out the accolades they still get half the recognition they deserve.

Since this is an issue that's getting more attention as time goes on, I try to be optimistic about my own future as a published author. It's hard. Decades after the feminist movement, I see how far we still have to go, and I worry.

My protagonists are considered the Other by 99% of the people they meet, whether it's because of their race, their skin color, their culture, or their abilities; however, even though they are a decided minority, and their background isn't at all Euro-centric, at the end of the day they are still fairly attractive white people.

I have nightmares of covers depicting Elestyne lying prone in a White Dress Not Appearing In This Novel that's torn in all the right places, while a barechested Kortesh saves her from the other pit fighters with the brazen might of his penis sword. Also, both of them are now blonde.

This isn't the 80's, so I doubt the sexism would be that in-your-face. It's 2013. We're more likely get the split screen view, with Elestyne on one side staring at the reader, empty-eyed with her lips slightly parted - the signature Mysterious Sex Kitten expression, but it's not objectification because look, she's got a penis sword! You can't objectify someone with a penis sword. (Curse this Freudian keyboard.) Meanwhile, on the other side, Kortesh is glaring broodily as the lighting effects emphasize every chiseled feature, so the reader knows that he's hardened by his experiences with the cruel, cruel world. Get it, ladies? Hardened.

All this absurdity, and my characters are still better off than if they were non-white. They are likely to befall the same fate as Ged, the protagonist of Ursula Le Guin's groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged has yet to have an actual brown person portray his character in an audio-visual adaptation of his story, and most of the many editions of the novel have a pasty white dude on the cover.

Society whitewashes things for the same reason they sort books, toys, professions, and everything else under the sun into "boy" and "girl" categories. They're all trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. They want the highest sales potential. They keep it up because it's proven to be a smart, safe marketing decision, but the backlash is becoming more and more difficult for them to ignore.

Sexism doesn't hurt girls who want to play sports as much as it used to. For that I am grateful. We still need to do something about the boys who feel like they can't read a book because there's pink on it, and the girls who look down their nose at "chick lit" because they're too smart for that shallow fluff. Maybe, in my lifetime, we'll progress to the point where we stop separating books into "general fiction" and "women's fiction", as if 50% of the population and 80% of the readership still need a special place just for them. We could put books written by non-white, non-Europeans all over the bookstore, instead of sticking them in the "international" section where fewer people will find them.

In some exterior, superficial way, most people in the world are different from us. That time when men were men, women were women, and everyone who looked/spoke/dressed/believed differently from us were separated by thousands of miles of land and sea? It never existed. We tried to write our history to make it seem that way, but the blinders are coming off.

Slowly but surely, we're realizing that being ignorant of the Other and limiting their representation so we can convince ourselves that our tribe is the only one we need to understand is a pretty jerky thing to do. We're learning that when we limit others, we limit ourselves.

Monday, May 6, 2013

On Comparing Yourself to Others

Part of the reason why I don't enjoy reality talent shows is because I don't think it's funny to watch people embarrass themselves. All through the audition stage, all I can see is the pain, and often genuine confusion in their eyes when the judges tell them things that might be true if they weren't so mocking. Worst of all is when the same people audition year after year, never becoming any more aware of themselves. After all, "You shouldn't compare yourself to others," the sages say. I see these people, and as bad as I feel, I breathe a sigh of relief, because I narrowly dodged that same bullet.

Had I not compared myself to my peers, a lot more time would have passed before I realized I wasn't born to be a professional dancer. A large part of it is because my body simply can't do what the pros do, but my lack of success isn't just because of inherent genetics. See, that was where the comparisons ended for me for the longest time, and it sent me into a downward spiral of self-pity and resentment. The truth is, although I gave 110% in class, my work ethic never extended outside the studio. I could blame it on a lack of open space at home with the right kind of flooring, but I knew dancers who made it happen without those things.

My approach to academics was similar. I never studied for tests because I never needed to, and one year I actually got in trouble for not turning in homework, even though I was acing all of my subjects. Floating through school on raw genius (hur hur) ended up biting me in the butt my senior year, when I got a C on my first psychology exam. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, as was the rest of the class, who were apparently used to doing the same thing. One student was spared this harsh lesson in reality. She got an A. She actually studied.

I didn't want to experience the same hurt with writing, so I started making comparisons early. At first it was hard to look deeper than, "This author writes more in a day than I manage in a month!" That way madness lies. I know myself. I'm never going to be one of those writers that can, say, put out multiple books a year while juggling a family and a full-time job. That's okay. I don't have to do all that to be considered successful in my field.

The trick was in comparing our processes, not our results. What do all accomplished dancers, test-takers and writers have in common? Hard work, sure, but it goes beyond even that. They're all pro-active about their own improvement. 

I have a passive personality, and it shows in every aspect of my life. I'm a fast learner, but when I hit a wall, I "react" by doing the same thing over and over until someone finally taps me on the shoulder and points out what isn't working. (Or until I fall hard enough for it to hurt.) All my momentum is lost because I don't lay the proper groundwork to keep moving forward.

So I'm keeping a writing journal of sorts. I'm figuring out what methods will keep me the most focused and result in the highest quality words. I'm being gentle with myself if I cut more than I keep in a day. At this stage, the amount of words in the document isn't necessarily proportional to what I've learned about the craft.

I think it's the gentleness that's key for me. Instead of treating each writing session like a battle in the protracted war against my own laziness, I see it for what it is: a chance to make something and understand the world, others, and myself better through that creation process. Sure, some days the words feel like they're bled rather than typed out, but either way, I'm putting a part of myself into it.

I don't compare myself to others to measure my shortcomings. I do it so I can learn what makes me do my best.