Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Hero(ine)’s Quest For Books Without Genders

This will probably come across every bit as shocking as my six year-old stating that he likes macaroni and cheese, but I like fantasy books. As far as I can remember, I’ve pretty sure I’ve always like fantasy books. Or, at least, I have going back to when I was, I don’t know, 8 or something and my slightly older neighbors showed my big brother and me their brand spanking new Dungeons and Dragons guide books for the very first time.  It was magical, wonderful moment that…that…

Well, that’s actually a pretty long story that I should probably not get into at the moment or we’ll never get anything done.  So I’ll go ahead andy reel myself in a bit before Triple Lindy-ing my way into a 1200-word diatribe about how gaming is an awesome gateway into genre books, especially for the imaginative middle grade reader. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go off on that tangent, but that’s another post.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, I’m a middle-aged reader now, but time has done little to temper my love for fantasy stories. Especially middle grade ones, because no matter how old I get, the twelve year-old that lives inside me is always going to hunger for another story to give Midlife Crisis Me the same feelings I had when reading one of the chronicles of Prydain or Narnia.

But I’m a dad now, too, and much of the way I think about middle grade these days is either informed by or filter through my kids.  So it should probably come as no surprised that I’ve done what I can to instill my own love for middle grade fantasy adventures in them. Of course, tastes vary, and just as I’ve got one son that would eat mac and cheese for every meal and three times on Saturday if we let him, I’ve got another that would rather eat salad.

No, seriously. I’m not kidding.

In that same way, not all of the kids love fantasy adventures the way I do. But they do enough, and that makes me happy.

What makes me less happy, though, is when I realized just how hard it is to find a MG adventure yarn filled with hunting for McGuffins, vanquishing evil, and generally swashing and buckling all the live-long day that isn’t predicated on a boy getting out of the village and learning to hero. That makes me unhappy for a lot of reasons, including that a) I have a daughter who has every right to think of herself and other girls in the world as a potential hero as opposed to just a potential “Damsel Prize” at the end of a quest, and b) there’s no reason to raise my sons thinking that girl characters are only important in books with pink covers.

Of course, my fellow MG-Minded blogger Jamie said pretty much everything that needs saying about why gender-labeled books are kinda not the best idea in the world in a post a couple of weeks ago. If you want to consider that a bit more, make sure you check out that post.  For now, though, I’m content to say that it bothers me that we live in a world where finding books about girls on an adventure-filled quest is just about as rare as finding the mutton in the vegetarian root stew in the common room of the King’s Bunion Inn.

Which got me wondering if maybe I just wasn’t reading the right books. Maybe there are MG novels out there that aren’t specifically girl books yet still have rockin’ girl main characters. So I asked my kids if they’d read any books with female leads that weren’t pink or about taking their place as the long-lost princess.

I’m sad to say, these were short  conversations. They didn’t have much to offer me. We did, however, settle on a couple of stories where ladies do the heavy lifting in the narrative and yet don’t convey the feeling they’re dreaded “girl books”.

Charlotte’s Web –  While not exactly an adventure, it’s still one of my all-time favorite books. And you’ll be forgiven for thinking the protagonist is Wilbur, Zuckerman's Famous pig. Put bluntly, Wilbur is little more than a wailing, cringing set of potential side dishes for someone’s future Magnificent Seven breakfast, obsessed with saving his own, well, bacon.  He does very little to actually move the story forward himself, instead letting Fern and Charlotte do the work of keeping him alive while he relishes the occasional buttermilk bath.  And if you really believe the protagonist hero here isn’t Charlotte—the spider who gives everything she has to save this pig, which includes a vocabulary better than most American adults, spun in silk from her backend—well, that makes me a sad little piggy.

Hook’s Revenge – I mentioned Heidi Schulz’s Never Land adventure story in my last post about lady authors who were damn good at being funny. And after today she’s probably going to start getting a little concerned that I won’t shut up about her book and am maybe on my way to becoming that crazy guy who tries to help a little too much and only succeeds in demonstrating his compatibility with the Addams Family. But the fact is that Hook’s Revenge is exactly what the world of MG needs more of: a gender-neutral adventure that’s fun, funny, filled with pirates, and driven by a female protagonist who’s a character rather than a set of stereotypes.

So that’s two, but two is appallingly short of the mark, if you ask me. There are hopefully lots of other middle grade novels out there with girls as the main character that aren’t burdened by a gender label. I’d love to hear of more, if for no other reason that to make a recommendations list for my kids (and, I’ll admit it, me too).  So if you’ve got one (or more) in mind, please share it with class.  The comments are below. You know what to do.

Hopefully just in time for a little fun weekend reading.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Should you blog?

I think you should blog if you've got something important or entertaining to share with your readers and only if you've really got the time to do it.

I wanted to blog, really, but the fact is, I'm primary caregiver to seven beautiful little souls. My children are 12 and under and I'm currently homeschooling the oldest five. And while I do find the time to write, I've missed two appointed blog post times in the past three months. That's unacceptable.

My peers at MGminded do an excellent job of writing informative and often funny posts. Thanks for teaching me and including me in the team, MGminded, but now I need to get out of your way and get back to my kids and my manuscripts.

Perhaps I'll be back with a guest post now and then, but right now, it's 5:27 a.m. and somebody'll be awake and calling for food soon. Besides, there's other voices I keep "hearing", and they need attention too.

God bless,


Friday, April 24, 2015

I'm a dude...writing as a dudette. Writing in the Opp. Gender, and AVOIDING stereotypes

You can call me, The Dude. I usually sit around at home, staring at a blank template, sipping on my White Russian, waiting for words to fall out. As the Dude, it's my job to ensure all my characters are as realistic as possible. Originally, my latest book posed a bit of a challenge. One of my main characters who basically splits time with the other, is a dudette.

Now, I know what you're thinking, "What's the big deal?". Well, there really isn't one, now, especially since I decided to stop OVER THINKING the fact that I've never been a lass before. Always a lad. When I first started writing, I thought to myself, "Is this honestly the lady frame of mind? Or am I stuck in my testosterone filled brain?"

There used to be a point when I was writing and I'm like "Whoa whoa whoa. This is becoming way too stereotypical."

Okay, I'm making it sound a lot worse than it is. But here's the thing, writing in the opposite gender CAN be a challenge. Especially when writing for a MG genre. Heck, girls and boys go through VERY different emotional states during this time of their lives, and both act very differently. Sure, you can get the tomboyish girl, but that doesn't mean they are THINKING like a boy. But there is one key to overcome this.

Here's the trick to it, and I'm going to put it very simply. Don' That's all there is to it. Your characters are supposed to come to life the moment you write them, and the instant you create their backstory. That is the true judge of their character, and their mindset. Toss out the gender stereotypes, and ignore they even exist, and your characters are going to pop out of the page regardless of the gender.

Go in pretending that your characters are basically neither male or female. Let their stories create their actions and their voice. Why do you need to base it solely upon what sex they are? 

You're supposed to make your characters seem real. If you're just focusing on the stereotypes, well, then your reader isn't going to connect. I'm certainly not the "stereotypical male" nor is my wife the "Stereotypical female". Hell, I don't know anyone who follows a stereotype.

Except my mom..she's a stereotypical obsessive mom lol. And my dad...he's a stereotypical dad. Crap, they were pulled straight out of the GOLDBERGS (good show, watch it)

Ahem, back to what I was saying. If you're afraid of writing in the opposite sex, don't be. What is there to be afraid of? You're writing about their character and their experiences, not their gender. Let them come to life on their own, and don't let what's in their pants guide you. Unless your story is about what's in their pants, and in that case, it may not be Middle Grade. :)

What do you guys think? Do you find it challenging writing in the opposite gender? Do the stereotypes seem to follow your characters? What advice do you  have for writers struggling to conquer the opp gender voice?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Inspiration from (mainly) inside of a car

This past weekend, my wife and I took a mini-road trip west. Three hours. One hundred fifty-five miles. All for a comedy show.

Was it worth it?

Yes. For so many reasons.

But it wasn't just because of the ridiculously funny routine we got to see. We'd barely started our trip--I'm talking before my bladder even started getting the too-much-morning-coffee tingle--when certain writerly things started falling into place in my head. I figured I'd share some of my revelations (some new, some just reinforced) with you today.

1) Music and movement. It helps. Pumping the tunes into your head is great, but don't forget to get the blood pumping, either. There's science involved, but I don't want to bore you with the information I'd have to Google to bore you with, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

2) Scenery. It helps. Simply changing your view can create some immediate inspiration. Needless to say, the scenery from east Tennessee to middle Tennessee doesn't change a great deal, but even seeing different buildings, trees, vehicles, or weather can help shake loose an idea that's been stuck in your head for a while.

3) Talking. It helps. Jackie (my wife) or I would see something on our drive and that one little piece of visual stimulation would inevitably transform into some kind of story. She'd start it and I'd build on it and hand it off to her so she could add in more what ifs and maybes. Before long we'd have an entire back story and journey plotted out for something as uninspired as an abandoned baseball cap. Spoiler: it's a love story with rabid groundhogs.

4) Friends. They help. We stayed with an amazing writer, Jeff Zentner (his book, The Serpent King, comes out next spring) and spent quite a bit of time talking books, movies, life, and annoying neighbors. It's amazing how inspiring it is to just hear other people talk. To listen to their stories. Seeing their expressions, watching their gestures, understanding their own three-dimensionality can do wonders for a character you're writing. And if you don't have friends? Use your pet, it works just as well.

5) Kids. They help. Jeff and his wife have the world's most interesting five year old. No joke. It's incredible to watch what makes a child laugh and what doesn't make a child laugh. Yeah, their kid would giggle when someone dropped the word "butt" into a conversation, but he'd also think through a more complex joke. He'd actually try to get the punchline, and when he did, he loved it. Not to say all of my funnies got a good laugh. I got a few squints and shrugs as well. What can I say? The kid's no fool.

6) Comedy. It helps. Even if you're not writing comedy, let yourself be entertained. Allow yourself to be amused and embrace the side-splitting pain when you can't contain a laugh. We spared no guffaws for Nick Kroll and John Mulaney that night. I sprayed the poor guy's hair in front of me with plenty of Ha-Ha spittle, I'm sure, but he didn't notice and I was too busy trying not to pee my pants to care. And when I left the show, body in one giant ache from laughing so hard, I felt good. No, great. Ready dive back into my WIP with a renewed energy.

Our trip was short. We spent about as many hours on the road as we did talking to our friends and being entertained by comedians. Leg cramps were had, bad gas-station coffee was consumed, road rage was witnessed, time was gained and lost through different zones. But would I do it all again? For me? For Jackie? For the characters in my current project and the ones in projects not even started?

Heck yeah. In a heartbeat.

Happy writing!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What if "he" were a "she"?

Sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. They work. Who doesn’t love an ugly duckling story? A damsel in distressed saved by prince charming? They’re some of the most classic stories out there (and haven’t we heard that there’s “nothing new under the sun”?) 

But sometimes they’re just stale. Done before. 

That’s when tropes become stereotypes. 

Sometimes the way to come up with a cool new story is just twisting around a trope and making it new. How about switching he for she? (or the other way around.)
Why does the prince always have to save the princess? Why is it always a girl getting the makeover to win over the cute boy? Why is it always the boy who’s from the “wrong side of the tracks”. What would happen to these classic stories if we switched them around?

Normal girl who loves a “monster”

What if Bella had been the vampire? Would she have been the same? Awkward, shy, somehow still standout beautiful? Would Edward still be mysterious and protective? Their power position affects their character.

Bella as a vampire would be strong and beautiful. She’d be the one hiding. Edward would be shy, and… well I’m not sure what else. Could he still be mysterious? Over protective?
Ugly-Duckling-girl becomes beautiful

What if the loser boy had a makeover to make him cooler and win over the girl? 

Again, it would likely change the personality of the characters. The girl would have to be confident, not shy. The boy would have to be insecure. The girl would have the power.

There is one example I thought of as I was writing this post, of a story that swapped this trope and made it work: Can’t Buy Me love. I'd love to see more of it.

Lady’s man

This is the guy who snaps his fingers and has a line of girls waiting. Occasionally unhappy, but is still looked up to by other men. So what would happen if you switched him out with a beautiful women who had men wrapped around her fingers? Does she become a slut? A mean girl? Or respected like her male counterpart?
Innocent girl

This is the girl next door that does everything right. Probably a church girl, follows all the rules and guys either think they can’t get her or they think she’s too boring.
What if it were the guy who was shy and innocent? Too good for his own good? Unattainable?
Evil Step Sisters/Mom

Why is it always the step sisters and mother that are evil? Step fathers can be just as ruthless and what about brothers? How would this change the story? Well, I guess that depends. A lot of open room for this one. First, the evil step sisters/mother always seemed to be jealous of Cinderella’s beauty making them very vain. With men, it would likely be something else that makes them hate the child. Would they still be jealous? Of what? Or is there another reason for their evilness?
Damsel in Distress

 Actually, there are quite a few strong women characters out there now a days which is very refreshing. Some female heroes are quite nice. But I still don’t recall them having to save a boy very often. They might fight alongside a boy, but the boy isn’t usually the one thing they have to go out and save. How would this change things? Would the boy be embarrassed to be saved by a girl?

There are many ways you can change classic stories, these are only a few examples. Have you ever written any gender flipping stories? Read any recently?
What stereotype would you like to see flipped and how?