Thursday, July 28, 2016

Do Tell

Yesterday we were discussing trends in the Young Adult genre, and how the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games may have sparked a trend in YA fantasy featuring a tough, kick-ass young girl caught up in magic and court intrigue. Specifically, the rise of the teenage female assassin as the protag in a book aimed at teen girls. I decided to pick on the Throne of Glass series just because it was popular, and available in my local library. Except somebody had checked out the library’s copy, forcing me to do a speed-skim of the book in question in our area Barnes & Noble.

Well, it’s a year later and I finally got hold of a library copy and actually read the thing. Here’s my impression of Celaena Sardothien, the most proficient and feared assassin in her particular Middle-Earthian world: what a total dickette.

Picture a stereotypical head cheerleader. Let’s give her the whole package: blonde hair, blue eyes, flawless skin. Whatever she wears, whether it’s a prom dress or gym clothes, it always fits her perfectly and looks spectacular on her. All the boys are in love with her, including your boyfriend. She’s arrogant, judgmental, and carries an air of entitlement like a designer purse because she knows she’s the best. She never passes up a chance to tell you so.

Now give this girl a sword. That’s Our Heroine.

In addition to being unlikable, Celaena commits the cardinal sin of a fictional main character: she doesn’t do anything significant. Oh, but she could. The narrative is constantly telling us just how good she is. She could escape any time she wanted just by doing such-and-such. She could kill that guy over there with a rolled-up napkin and a butter knife. She’s faster, tougher, more skilled and more successful than any other assassin EVAH. It says so, right here in her press release. She watched the opening fight scene of Deadpool, snorted loudly and went, “Amateur.”

And what does she do in her introductory book to justify all this hype? Well, ummm, okay, she’s pretty good with weapons. She wears a lot of lovely gowns. She gets both the prince and the captain of the guard to fall in love with her, even though she treats them both like dirt. She does beat up one guy, and she kills a monster from another dimension with a magic sword she found earlier in the book. Supposedly she’s racked up a body count, but in this book, which runs over 400 pages, she does not kill a single human being.

This is supposed to be a book about the best and most feared assassin in her world. Shouldn’t the star of the show, um, y’know, assassinate somebody?

It gets worse. At least three times people walk right up behind this fearsome killer-for-hire and take her by surprise. Good thing they weren’t assassins. In the climactic battle we still don’t get to see her fighting prowess because she’s drugged right before the fight starts. Guess it never occurred to her the woman who hands her the cup of wine, who’s made it clear she’s Celaena’s sworn enemy, might slip something into her drink. The price of arrogance, folks. In what should be a scene showcasing all those lethal skills we’ve been hearing about for 300-odd pages or so, Celaena stumbles around, gets beat up, and has to be rescued by a ghost. I kid you not on that. The captain of the guard ends up killing the designated bad guy. Four hundred pages, and the hero of the book does pretty much jack, with a side of squat.

This is the opening book of the series. Not an auspicious debut for this particular character. Pity, because it’s got a smooth and readable style. The author is certainly capable of telling a good story. Shame she chose to tell it instead of showing it.

I’ve heard the series gets better. Consensus on Goodreads says the second book reads as if the author took note of all the complaints about the first book and then fixed them. I hope so. I’ve just started reading the second book. Celaena’s working as the king’s designated assassin. But she doesn’t like the king, so instead of killing her targets she fakes their deaths and helps them escape. So she still isn’t killing anybody. What exactly is it this girl does for a living again?

# # #

Which brings us back to one of the other points I brought up in the previous blog. This is a Young Adult novel. It’s being marketed to teens and pre-teens, girls in particular (which would explain all the emphasis on pretty clothes and the romantic triangle). Hunger Games and Divergent featured tough female protags and made a ton of money. Fine. We’ll make our heroine a badass assassin, whose very name makes grown men shudder in terror. But she’s still a teenager, so we can’t show her killing anybody, just in case one of those impressionable young readers starts getting ideas in regards to that bitch at school she doesn’t like. And acts on it. Then her mother reads the book, and lawyers get involved. That’s how you make grown men shudder in terror here in the modern world.

So the writer’s left walking a narrow ledge: introduce a lethal, tough-as-nails heroine, tell us what a kick-ass babe she is, and then never show it. Because she’s the heroine, and the heroine has to Stand for a Higher Purpose. She can’t go around killing innocent people because That’s Bad. If she’s too despicable she won’t sell books. Even worse, she won’t sell books to the parents, who are the ones actually buying the books. That’s how you end up with Throne of Glass, and the writer telling us all about her character instead of being allowed to let the girl go out and do something. For instance, if she was half as good as we’re constantly told she is, she could have easily killed the king halfway through the book and escaped. But then we wouldn’t have a series, would we?

And remember: Luke Skywalker never defeated the Emperor, and he only sort of defeated Darth Vader. Darth redeemed himself by killing the Emperor while Luke, the hero of the trilogy, just stood there. Then George Lucas monkeyed with the SFX to make it look like Han Solo didn’t shoot first when everybody knows he did. Han’s a hero now. He has to be Upright and Moral because all those little kids (and their parents) are watching. At least Celaena’s in respectable company.

All of which leads me to wonder: why is it Wolverine can go around killing people willy-nilly and everybody loves him? I’m going to think about that one. If I come to any conclusions, I’ll post them here next week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Retro Post: Making A Killing in YA

This post originally appeared last year on another blog. I'm reposting because I finally read the book I talked about and have some bones to pick, which I'll detail in a follow-up blog. It also semi-relates to last week's post about alleged children's lit that you might not want your (younger) children reading. And why does Wolverine get away with killing people when other heroes can't?

But first, the rerun:

# # #

Having learned nothing from my last foray into young adult literature, I've decided to try it again. As part of my prep, I'm raiding the library for the current popular sellers, to see what I'm up against. Ye godz. I am seriously going to have to up my game if I want to compete in this market.

For the moment, it appears the Twilight/paranormal and Hunger Games/dystopia fads have run their course. What I'm seeing a lot of now is otherworld fantasy, sort of Game of Thrones lite with a bit of the X-Men thrown in (the kids in some of the books have superpowers). This makes reading them like old home week for me. I grew up haunting the Science Fiction section of the bookstore, which is where these would have been shelved back when I belonged to their target demographic. In those days books for tweens and teens consisted primarily of contemporaries and mysteries. Those of us with a penchant for weird read Lord of the Rings, and Stephen King when he showed up. Then Harry Potter and Twilight came along, and all of a sudden YA was a thing. And here we are.

So I'm in Barnes & Noble skimming through Throne of Glass (somebody else got the library's copy) and I notice something interesting: the protag, a young woman constantly referred to as the best assassin in her world and a total badass, never seems to kill anybody. Come to think of it, the whole point of Hunger Games was two dozen teenagers turned loose in a huge arena to kill each other. How many did Katniss kill? One, I think. She may have shot some guy. Mostly she ran and hid and let them kill each other. Katniss was not a killer, and no fool.

The publishers of these books, however, I have to wonder about.

In following the Game of Thrones formula of intrigue and nasty doings in a high fantasy setting, coupled with the call for kickass ladies fueled by Hunger Games and Divergent, publishers are putting out stories of teenaged assassins and swordfighters and rebels against the (adult) government and presenting them in a light that makes them look heroic. Maybe not the best of ideas. I have to question the marketing strategy of glamorizing killing to a segment of the population known to take deadly weapons to school and bully classmates into suicide.

Somebody else must have brought this up at a board meeting, because these teenage killers don't enjoy what they do. It wasn't even their choice: they were forced into it by evil adults. Even though they've been trained from childhood to kill, they usually don't. The greatest assassin in her world spends a lot of her time knocking people unconscious. As soon as they can, they leave the profession and become—I dunno, maybe a housewife. All these chicks have boyfriends, killers like themselves.

This dilemma—we wanna read about tough teenage girls, but kids killing others is wrong—can lead to absurd and even frustrating situations, like the assassin mentioned above. If she doesn't off somebody, she's liable to look like she's all talk. But do you really want your 14-year-old daughter "watching" a 17-year-old slicing people up? Getting the idea that's a good thing? We must protect The Children!

That's one way around the problem. When these kids do kill, it's justifiable. Nobody's going to blame Harry Potter for magically blasting Voldemort. On the other hand, Harry was 17-18 years old by Book 7, pretty much an adult. Also, his weapon of choice is a magic wand, something harder than a gun to pick up on the street. In the Percy Jackson series, Percy's only 16 in the climactic novel. He doesn't kill the bad guy. The secondary bad guy has a change of heart, offs the major bad guy, and then dies a hero. In Throne of Glass, Celaena finally does kill somebody, but it's an otherworldly monster. She'll be over 18 by the end of the series, so maybe she'll be allowed to graduate to human victims.

It helps that these books are set in fantasy or future worlds that have nothing to do with our modern reality. Different worlds, different times, different societies. Same old sexist attitudes, but that's a different blog. It's okay for kids to be trained killers in these books because the stories take place somewhere else and not in middle America. Don't try this at home, kids! Or at school.

As for the hundreds of innocent techs, scientists, military grunts and support crew who perished when twentysomething Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, it's best we don't think about them. They destroyed Alderaan; I suppose they had it coming.

For the book I'm fiddling with, I won't have to worry about any of this. My story is set in modern America, so showing kids who kill is out of the question. My protag doesn't need to kill. She's a shapechanger. She can knock grown men out with the best of them. My biggest problem will be matching the quality of the writing in similar YA books currently on the market. I've definitely got my work cut out for me.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Think of the Children

Well, the genie’s out of the bottle now. His name is Deadpool, he’s a superhero, and his movie got a pile of rave reviews and made an even bigger pile of money. It was also rated R, and for a slew of good reasons: over-the-top violence, nudity, sex, adult situations, and swearing out the yin-yang. Not the kind of movie you want to take the little kiddies to, though their mid- to late-teen siblings would probably get a kick out of it.

Deadpool is hardly the first superhero movie to earn big bucks at the box office, and it’s not the first R-rated superhero movie. (I’m not sure what that was. Punisher: War Zone? One of the Blade movies? I don’t think it was Watchmen.) However, as far as I know, it was the first superhero movie to be both popular and earn massive moolah with an R rating attached. And with Hollywood involved, we all know what that means: more, more and even more of the same, as Tinseltown rushes to cash in on what they think made Deadpool so profitable. Which means we’ve got a tidal wave of R-rated superhero flicks looming in our movie-going future.

I can think of a couple comic-book characters that could handle and even benefit from the adults-only treatment. Wolverine, for starters. Let’s be honest: Wolvie’s shtick is that he goes into berserker rages and guts people. That’s what the claws are for. Check out this scene from X2: X-Men United. This is the Wolverine we know from the comics. This is the scene we wanted to see in the first X-Men movie but had to wait for. Wolverine is beloved by fandom. Put him in a film with no ratings restrictions and people will line up around the block.

I’ve already mentioned the Punisher and Blade. If the upcoming Suicide Squad isn’t rated R, there is no justice in the world. We deserve to see Harley Quinn in all her psychotic glory. Batman? Not necessarily. His is a whole other breed of nutzoid, and doesn’t require ratings restrictions. The Joker? Definitely. DC is releasing an animated version of The Killing Joke graphic novel, and it’s rated R. Yes, you heard me. A cartoon based on a mainstream comic book has been given an R rating. If you’re familiar with the story, you know why.

There’s talk the recent Superman v. Batman should have gone after the R. I think the Blu-Ray has added scenes that bump the rating up a notch.

Whoa. Superman? Are you telling me Superman belongs in an R-rated movie? No. Just no. No way, no how. Superman and Spider-Man are where I draw the line.

Aren’t you people forgetting something? All these big-budget blockbuster flicks are based on comic books. Once upon a time, comic books were disposable entertainment for kids. Little kids. Interest in comic books generally waned around the time puberty hit, when girls became more interesting than musclebound guys in tights. But until hormones kicked in, comics were something to keep kids quiet on rainy afternoons.

All that began to change in the 1960s, when Marvel Comics discovered their reader demographic was mostly college students and older, and adjusted their sights accordingly. Also, the comic-book readers of yesteryear had grown up to become the comic-book pros of the present. They wanted to tell stories for the people they were now, not the children they’d been. So the storylines began to skew upward, into more grown-up themes.

Then Watchmen came along, with its deconstruction of standard superhero tropes, and showed violence, nudity, heroes having sex, and “heroes” who were flat-out wacko. It was hailed as ground-breaking. It made a lot of money, which meant from that day forward all heroes must be violent emotional basket cases. If you’re sick to death of all the “grim and gritty” comics that have clogged up the stands since the 1980s, go blame Alan Moore.

Or maybe not. In Back Issue magazine #79, artist/co-creator Dave Gibbons had this to say: “The message that was perceived by a lot of creators was, ‘Oh yeah! We gotta get really dark! We gotta make all our characters mentally ill and emotional wrecks.’ We didn’t ever intend that to be the case and we felt very sorry for all the depressing comics that came in the wake of Watchmen.”

What he said.

There should be room in the market for a little of everything, but comic books for pre-teens seem to have gotten squeezed out. Bad enough we’re now paying $4 for a flimsy pamphlet we can read in ten minutes and we don’t even get a full story. Those stories aren’t even aimed at the kids that were once comics’ primary market. Publishers like Harvey, that catered to little kids, aren’t around any more. Archie Comics, for decades a cartoony bastion of all-ages comedy, recently revamped its line into a more realistic style, with teen-centric realistic stories. And now kids can’t even go to the movies based on these comics unless they’re 18 or older. Where’s the audience of tomorrow going to come from, if there’s nothing for them to get hooked on early? Will nobody think of the children?

That’s why I feel Superman needs to be exempt from the grim-and-gritty grownup world. He was the first. He epitomized what used to be the traits we wanted our kids to aspire to. The alien being from another planet showed us all the heights a human could achieve. And you want to make him a scowling, psychotic jerk who solves all problems with punches? Batman already is a scowling, psychotic jerk, and even he stops short of killing people. We don’t need another one.

Ditto Spider-Man. He was the first teen superhero who wasn’t somebody’s sidekick. He was a geeky science nerd who couldn’t get dates and was bullied by the football team. Even those of us without spider powers could relate. Spider-Man taught us “with great power comes great responsibility.” And he did it without going dark.

Ease up, creators. Give Superman and Spider-Man back to the kids. We took all the other heroes away from them. They should get to keep the icons. If you want to make an R-rated superhero movie, then show us Wonder Woman in all her 1940s glory, with the bondage and the fetishism intact. I’ll bet Deadpool himself would pay big bucks to see that.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


But first, an update. As you’ll recall, I posted word about Carina Press and their current open calls for material, which includes five anthologies and a short-term call for proposals for stories of any length. Here’s where we stand:

The proposal call ended yesterday. I got one in at near the last minute, so I’m covered. It was one of my anthology contenders; I pretty much had the mandated three chapters already written. My synopsis didn’t quite make it to the required five pages, but I hope they don’t hold that against me. They’ve assured us we’ll hear back within the next twelve weeks. That gives me three months to write the thing, just in case I get the nod. I was going to send a second proposal, but time ran out. That one’s still going toward the anthology open call. So that’s two of the anthos accounted for. The other three …

Nope. Maybe if I was a faster writer. There are authors out there who have a new e-release—and we’re talking 40K-50K words and up novellas, not short stories or flash fiction—every month or so. Somebody else must be doing the housework. I’ll bet I could get more done if I didn’t have go out and buy groceries. Or write blogs. I’ve tried setting priorities and working on my time management, but it’s a struggle. I’ve got decades of bad habits to dismantle. I’m sure the problems will sort themselves out the lower my savings start dropping. I was hoping writing would supplement my income. Not if I don’t do it, it won’t.

I knew I was biting off more than I could chew when I announced I was aiming for all five anthologies. So I’m backing off. The proposal’s been sent so that’s on the table now, along with the story for the SF anthology. Two out of five isn’t bad, especially given the word count (25-40K words for the antho stories) and my glacial writing pace. I’m okay with that.

The reason for my backing out is positive, for once: I got hit with an idea for an Evernight Romance on the Go and I’ve been going great guns with it all week. Those max out at 14K, far more doable for me. Besides, the two longer stories I’m concentrating on are M/M. I’m confident I can find homes for them elsewhere if Carina says no. The M/F shapeshifter story I’m not sure about, even if I found time to get to it. The other two were only vague ideas. I’d rather concentrate on the ones I feel good about, rather than dash off some half-assed glop in order to meet a deadline. At least with the three I’m working on, I know how they end.

That clears my plate from an intimidating pile to something more manageable. I should be eating smaller portions anyway.

# # #

Years upon years ago, our local paper ran a profile of a budding young neighborhood author. I’m not sure what she wrote. Given her age, which was somewhere in her 20s, I’m guessing literary fiction. If you’re going to write the Great American Novel, you’ll do it in your 20s. By the time you hit 30 you know better. At any rate, she said something along the lines of, “If you’re going to be a writer, you have to devote all your time and energy to it.”

Which immediately caused me to wonder: Who’s paying your bills, honey?

Somebody had to. Clearly somebody, either parents or a boyfriend/husband, was providing her with living quarters, food, electricity and medical coverage so she could focus all her time and attention in pursuit of her Art. Writers may live in our imaginations, but we still have to function in the real world, which includes such mundane distractions as eating, staying healthy, paying taxes, and hopefully interacting with the person or persons who bring home the paycheck that’s letting you live your dream.

I wanted to be a writer, too. I also wanted a car, a place to sleep and regular meals. Nobody was there to provide them for me. I fit the writing in between cleaning the house and yard, grocery shopping, face time with family and friends and a full-time job so I didn’t have to pursue my Art under a bridge. I had a few minor successes, but nothing I could live on because it came sporadically. You try being creative at the end of an eight-hour work day. More often than not, the writing was forced into the corner while I worked at supporting myself.

Some writers do this with kids added on. God bless ‘em all. Or maybe they had kids to create a built-in work force to look after the house, yard and laundry while Mom pounds out her latest opus. Damn, I should have thought of that.

Now that I’m semi-retired I’ve got more time for the Art, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. As I alluded to above, those years of putting off writing while I worked a job left me with some bad procrastination habits. I’ll just have to plow on through. The rent won’t wait for me to feel inspired. Then there was that bout of explosive diarrhea that hit me Sunday night, which dragged on for almost two days and brought new meaning to the term “pain in the ass.” If you’re going to work for yourself in a home-based business, don’t forget to plan ahead for sick days. Or carry a notebook or tablet with you so you can write while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. Most of the magazines are crappy anyway.

Wish I could remember that girl’s name. I’d love to Google her and see if her single-minded pursuit of her dream yielded literary success. Something tells me she revised her lofty views as soon as she got married or, at the latest, pregnant. Or maybe she taught her kids to type and dictates her books to them while she’s doing the dishes or folding clothes. I just her name wasn’t E. L. James, because if it was I’d be totally pissed.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Guys' Grocery Games

Hit a dry spell at the blog well this week. I was this close to fishing a rerun out of my files when I read a blog by a fellow writer that sparked this, well, not quite rebuttal because for the most part I agree with her. I think I may have a solution to the problem she posed. Maybe someone can even make money from it.

Her blog was a good-natured rant of sorts against letting men go to the grocery store unattended. Why? Because, simply put, they suck at grocery shopping. The writer remarked on all the bad behavior she’s seen: men leaving carts in the middle of the aisle while they search the shelves for something that may or may not be what their wives sent them for; their inability to read a shopping list; their inability to find anything anywhere, even though the aisles are clearly marked (remember, men never ask for directions); and, if they brought the kidlets along, their tendency to bribe the little darlings with cookies and candy just to shut them up. Yeah, there y’go, guys. Load up the kids with processed sugar and then wonder why they can’t sit still. You just want to eat those Oreos yourself on the drive home, and the kids are your excuse. I know how your primitive minds work.

I was on the verge of protesting this sad portrait of male behavior, because I’ve seen women commit almost every one of these sins, especially the cart in the aisle thing. I know this has happened to you: you’re trying to get to the pureed tomatoes, but Mrs. Lambert just ran into Mrs. Gilhouey and has to tell her all about little Janey at the spelling bee, and they stand there yakking in the middle of the aisle while you get totally c-(cart)blocked. Thank God for the mini-carts. They’re easier to maneuver around obstructions than those traditional wire war wagons. Though the big ones are good for ramming into Mrs. Lambert’s fat ass while you go, “Oops, sorry, didn’t see you there.” Bonus points if you then ask her to pass you the pureed tomatoes. Don’t forget to smile.

Yes, I was going to protest … until I recalled a time I was at the supermarket with both my parents. Mom sent Dad off to get bread and milk while she and I hunted for cereal. About ten minutes later Dad returned, with a loaf of bread in each hand and no milk. I remember the befuddled look on his face. He knew he’d been sent out to get something, but the details had faded the minute he moved beyond my mother’s radius. Well, at least we had bread, though we had to get the milk ourselves. This is a man who drove across the country to get my brother to his wedding in Oregon, but who couldn’t find his way to the dairy case. Oh-kay.

He couldn’t cook either, even though he said he’d been a short-order cook in the service, and he didn’t know how to run a vacuum, though he never had a problem with the lawn mower. Mom and I weren’t allowed to touch the power mower. Machine, y’know. Man stuff. Hey, a vacuum’s a machine too, but operating one seems beyond the capabilities of anything with a Y chromosome. It’s kind of a selective helplessness.

I think I know what the problem is. It’s the persistence of old-fashioned ideas. There’s men’s work, and then there’s women’s work. Men fix the car, clean out the gutters, change the storm windows, mow the lawn, take out the garbage. Women cook, clean, buy the groceries (with the money earned by the man) and raise the kids. These categories do not overlap. A woman is permitted to do men’s work if there’s a game on, but the man absolutely does NOT do women’s work of any sort. Not even when no one can see him. If a man starts doing womanly tasks, like laundry or buying and preparing food to feed his family, he might start turning into a woman. Can you imagine a fate worse than that?

Therefore, if confronted by “women’s work,” their brains shut down in self-protection. The man who can head unerringly for the power tools at Home Depot gets all turned around in the juice aisle. Give him a shopping list and he forgets how to read. Send him out for one thing and he’ll return with ten, not one of which is the thing you sent him to get. Because his brain is trying to save him from the horrors of becoming chickified. If he screws up enough times, you’ll get fed up and stop sending him to the store. Crisis averted.

Now I’m wondering how the hell men survive between the time they leave home and the time they get married. Maybe that’s why living together became so popular among the Baby Boomers.

This is where someone good at computer coding stands to make a mint. Create an app that acts like grocery GPS. Grocery stores provide maps of where they keep everything. Guys download the info and their phones take them right to the bread and milk. It's not chick work if you're using your iphone, because that's a computer and computers are boy toys. Bonus points and a ton of money to the coder who turns this app into a video game. Guys can go on a virtual seek-and-destroy and shoot zombies to win their way to the cocktail wieners. Trust me, it won’t take long for women to get driven out of grocery stores entirely.