Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sound-Off Sunday (1): The (Dreaded) Love Triangle

"Sound-off Sunday" is a new weekly blogging event hosted by Zabet of Reading Between Classes to incite discussion about various topics relating to books, the YA genre, popular trends, and the like. This week's topic: love triangles.

You just groaned a bit, didn't you? Yes, love triangles. Mention them to anyone who's familiar with young adult literature, and you're certain to elicit either heated debate or a few choice comments about how love triangles ruin books. As for me, I'm somewhat torn: I don't like to read or write love triangles (I actually have a fairly strict "no love triangle rule" with my novel drafts), but I've thought on the subject so much over the past few years that, in a twisted way, I can sometimes understand why writers inject love triangles into stories.

If you think of any popular YA property in the past five years, it's hard to think of one that didn't have a love triangle somewhere within the story. But why are they so popular? Even if I, as a reader and writer, don't see the appeal, surely there must be a reason why these pesky scenarios have become so prevalent in YA.

The obvious answer is that these love triangles appeal to the typical teenage girl's psyche. How thrilling it must be to have two hot guys who have eyes only for you! How much more exciting might life be if you yourself could have two boys pining for you, wishing the best for you, and thinking of being only with you? There's definitely allure, perhaps even a sense of power, for the teen girls who read these books. And that's all the more power for the writer to potentially ensnare the readers' imaginations.

Of course, certain YA authors have addressed the issue more deeply and claimed that the love triangle is, in fact, very much a metaphorical way for a heroine to decide who she is and what she wants out of her life. (Carrie Ryan, author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and its sequels, probably wrote the most mentioned blog post about this view on love triangles.) I understand this perspective, I do, but my problem is that, as deep as that idea is, many YA authors don't write about it quite as deeply as I (and likely other readers) would prefer. No one wants the heroine's life to be "determined" by the boy she chooses, but still there needs to be that torn dilemma where the heroine really struggles with deciding not because of how hot the guys are and how good they are to her...but how her decision will affect not only her life but theirs as well. Lately, I haven't seen that "torn" love triangle (as angst-ridden as it can sometimes be), but I miss it compared to the typical "Girl and Boy1 are in love, Boy2 loves Girl, Girl never seriously considers Boy2" love triangle.

The other obvious reason for a love triangle in a story? Conflict. So many writers choose the way of the love triangle simply because it adds conflict to a plot that, on its own, may not be all that compelling. Honestly, I've seen a few novels pop up where, by the time readers get around to discussing them, all the talk *is* about the love triangle (or related to the romantic elements). I can't say those kinds of novels don't annoy me because, let's face it, unless you're writing for the romance genre you really should have more draw to your story than the conflict of a love triangle and the angst associated with it.

One of the sad things, I think, is that -- out of every love triangle I've read in YA thus far -- I have yet to see a love triangle end with the girl simply walking away from both of her suitors. Truth be told, I think it would be a powerful move, one of independence and choice, for any heroine. Then again, writers would risk the backlash of "Team Boy1/Boy2" fans, and I'm certain some wouldn't want to risk that even if such a development might lead to a deeper story overall.

To be honest, my frustration with a lot of love triangles is that very rarely do we see a change-up to the "one girl and two boys" formula. Where is the boy caught between two girls, the boy caught between two boys, or the girl caught between two girls? The far former is rare enough in today's YA market, and I have yet to see the latter two done in any YA novel. (We could also get into the fact that also very rarely do you see non-white characters in love triangles...) Still, as awesome as "diverse" love triangles sound, it remains up in the air whether or not YA writers could actually do these ideas justice (and, of course, there is that pesky matter of whether or not publishers would welcome such love triangles).

Despite my conflict, I know one thing for certain: love triangles won't be going away any time soon, so I guess we'd better learn to bear them or hope that writers learn new ways for their stories' romantic dilemmas to enrapture us as readers.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Critical Thinking (and Viewing): Why We Need It

This morning I came across a post by Laini Taylor about the recently released movie John Carter and critics in conjunction with that. After I read the post, I sat there with a frown on my face because I honestly couldn't agree with everything I had read. Don't get me wrong: I love Laini Taylor and her books, but there's just something that irks me when an artist of some kind says something akin to "Why must everyone be a critic?" To me, I can't help but think it synonymous with "If you like it, gush about it; if you hate it, shut up."

I can understand that art-bashing is bad, but why the critic-bashing? Critical readers and viewers are getting a bad rap these days.

My view: critics and their views help ensure that we don't just receive low-quality books and movies. If not for them, we'd probably be on the receiving end of too much fluff and not enough substance. One of the functions of critics is that they push artists to do better work than otherwise might have been done. (We won't get into the critics who gleefully rip apart anything that comes their ways because, in many ways, those people's continual criticisms become empty. To be a true critic, I believe you need to be able to see both the good and the bad within a work and be able to comment on both.)

Sure, artists have their grand ideas and visions on their own, but sometimes I think some artists would "settle" if not for the reminder that an audience (and a mish-mash of praise and criticism) were waiting for them beyond the door of their creative landscape. Some artists will buckle under that kind of pressure, but many will flourish even in spite of it and soar beyond even their own expectations.

As a reader and viewer myself, I like the power of being able to think critically of anything I read or see, to deconstruct and pick apart the things that I like and the things that bother me. Art may be able to be admired by just seeing, but that seems empty to me. Where's the depth if you just take something at its face value and accept it for what it is? You can't do that with people -- expect a lot of a heartache if you do -- so why should you do that with art, the product of people?

Of course there's a place for popcorn flicks and fluff reads -- but can they seek to enrich and enlighten you in some way? Or will they just be consumed and forgotten?

I've been a regular visitor on the book site Goodreads since 2009, and I have to say that many of the critical reviews there have helped me to think more in-depth about my own writing endeavors. Not everyone likes the "quick fix" read or a "dime-a-dozen" story. Some people want more than that, something they can savor and think about later, something that's memorable instead of forgettable. Rather than write a mass appeal story that'll be forgotten almost as soon as it's released, I want to write the kinds of stories that stay with those people, and I want them to be able to deconstruct and pick apart my stories to their hearts' content.

Let them be critics: I welcome it. I'd rather they pick apart what I write and hate it than eat it up, plaster a smile on their faces, and tell me it was perfect the way it was. The kind lie may be less painful, but the cruel truth is what will lead to growth and betterment. And that's what all we artists should strive for: to better our crafts and, through those mediums, better ourselves as well.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Warning About Modern Plagiarism

Yesterday, I noticed in my Goodreads feed that one of my friends had brought to attention that a Goodreads member (and book blogger) had been plagiarizing various other members' reviews. I followed the news throughout the day, reading through the comments and being horrified by how much content one person had stolen for reviews that were supposed to be personal opinions and thoughts!

Then finally, after a fit of morbid curiosity, I thought, "Has this happened to one of my reviews?" At first, I was afraid to look. After all, once you know something, there is no unknowing it. And I knew that, if I found any plagiarized content, I wouldn't just let it slide. I couldn't. Plagiarists and cheaters alike are high on my "despicable" list, so to ignore it would go against my principles.

A half-hour of digging through the member's reviews in question, I found that two of my reviews had had content lifted from them and into this person's reviews. Now, you might say, "Oh, that's not a lot. What's the big deal?" Think of it in regards to time. Those reviews likely took me an hour each to write. (Yes, I'm picky and slow at formulating my thoughts for my reviews.) What did this member have to do? Merely sift through the most popular reviews on Goodreads, pick out a handful of sentences they liked, and then mash their own thoughts around the plagiarized text. That isn't fair to me or anyone whose words were plagiarized.

Plagiarism is serious. Those who scoff and say, "They're just words," obviously have never had their own words, thoughts, ideas, and hard work stolen from them. If it weren't serious, then why would various colleges and universities equate plagiarism as an offense requiring expulsion? Plagiarism is a pandemic in higher learning, but for those who get caught the consequences are often more than just a slap on the hand.

On the internet, however, plagiarism is much trickier and sketchier. There are no "punishments" (unless you're dealing with "professional material," which is a whole different ball game), and even with accounts deleted and blogs shut down you always have to wonder if the plagiarist in question will return under another pseudonym. After all, the thought persists of "once a plagiarist, always a plagiarist."

With the rise of the internet, you need to be vigilant if you write reviews, blog posts, articles, or fiction. Copyright laws will only take you so far and, given how difficult it is to control content online, it really only protects you in word alone for the most part. I advise care especially to aspiring writers and publishing hopefuls who share their work online: once you press that "upload" or "post" button, the internet seizes it. It's not under your control anymore, and any pair of eyes can see it. And, out of all those people in internet land, all it takes is one sneaking thought, "Oh, I like this line/phrase/paragraph. I wonder if I should use it?" before plagiarism happens.

Given how frazzled I am about this (about rampant plagiarism in general, really), sometimes I wonder why I even bother with the internet. But, as a someday (maybe, hopefully, crossing-my-fingers-it-will-happen) author, I can't be afraid of putting my words, opinions, and thoughts out there in the public sphere. It would go against the very nature of what I hope to reach. Necessary (and unnecessary) evils aside, I will put my (written) voice out there...even if people try to steal the words once they're out of my (figurative) mouth.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011 (A Recap)

(Excuse me for a moment while I lament my complete, utter idiocy that would have resulted in my not having officially achieved a NaNoWriMo "Winner" status despite the fact that I had my 50,000 words done well before November 30th. What happened? I didn't know that we had to by copy and paste our drafts into a "word count validator" to make sure we were honest about our word counts. Before that smirk curls on your face, cut me some slack: this was my first year, so I was a bit okay, very much of a newbie with the technical details of NaNo. But I prevailed!)

It's the eve of November 30th where I live, and with it comes the end of my first NaNoWriMo in which I tackled the (seemingly impossible) task of writing a coherent 50,000-word novel draft. I don't know how I did it (there was probably some pixie dust and self-bribing involved somewhere), but I succeeded at my goal of writing a rough novel draft during the month of November. Though I'd written a few novel drafts before, this experience was different because I actually had a challenge of crunching the words out as fast as I could. As much as I love stories and characters, I am a procrastinator extraordinaire most days, self-doubt often crippling me and doing nothing to help me with getting my ideas on paper. But NaNoWriMo allowed me to push aside the self-doubt (well, some of it, anyway) and work laboriously at an idea I felt was worth writing.

Whatever critics have to say about NaNoWriMo (and the debate about whether anyone can ever really write a fair novel draft in a month's time), I will say this for the challenge: it's a good way to get rid of your inhibitions as a writer. Any type of writing challenge can do this, but it helps that NaNoWriMo prides itself on being more about quantity than quality. "Just get the ideas out there," NaNoWriMo entreats. "You may make a mess, but you can clean it up later."

And, boy, did I make a mess with my novel draft. Though thankfully I can't say I flung words at my word document with the reckless abandonment of a child, I didn't really pay attention to the things I normally stress when working on a novel draft ("pretty prose," likable characters, a twist-and-turn plot, etc.). Instead, here's what I managed to do: I explored my world, my characters, and the circumstances surrounding them. Normally, such a process would take me months to do, but NaNo allowed me to do it in record time (for me, at least). Hints of the overarching plot revealed themselves, and I did my best to draw them out, however sloppy my execution. After all, first drafts (again, for me) are the fun part, the act of discovery in which the skeleton of the outline and ideas finally begins to stir with life and gain flesh with every word written. At 50,000 words strong, my novel draft is still weak compared to "real novels," but it has every potential to grow into a strong hero, slaying my doubts like the evil dragons they are and maybe even winning the hearts of fair readers.

However, I know that time of becoming a hero, a legendary novel in its own right, may be a long time coming for this NaNo novel of mine (if it ever comes at all). In the meantime, I'll put it to the side and let it (and my mind) rest; only time away will be able to give me clear insight into whether the novel is worth continuing and sustaining. In December, while other NaNo participants edit and rewrite their novel drafts, I'll be starting my next project. Without NaNoWriMo's challenge hanging over my head, I doubt I'll be able to do the pace I set for myself with NaNo, but hopefully now I'll be able to win more wrestling matches with my doubts. 

After all, NaNoWriMo taught me something valuable: for better or for worse, I can no longer deny that I am a writer at heart. My doubts may try to tell me otherwise, and I may never see a novel of mine published in my lifetime...but these stories and characters are no accidents. And, filled with every shade between beauty and pain, they are mine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writer Fears: Do Ideas Have Shelf Lives?

Today was an off-day in my writing because I had one of those experiences I rarely like to have: after a burst of inspiration, I revisited an old idea of mine that has been sitting on a shelf in my mind and collecting dust with all the years it's been since the characters first came to me. Even though these characters were very familiar to me and the words came easily as I wrote about them, I started to wonder. Is revisiting old ideas healthy? After an idea has already proven to be an incomplete short story or novel, is it worth the time to pick it back up and try to reinvent it in some way? Or is doing so just another form of procrastination?

When I think about it rationally, I don't know how I should feel about revisiting old ideas. None of my ideas are ancient, but some are bordering on the five-year mark. Sometimes I wonder if I should just let them go and forget about them if, like a bad relationship, they just aren't working out. After all, I have dozens of ideas swirling in my head, and I know that only a fraction of them will be written (and even fewer published, if I ever get published at all) within my lifetime. Sometimes I think it might be best to trim the excess, both in my mind and computer files, with those ideas that can be revisited all I like but will probably never become the stories I want them to be. (Yes, I'm a pessimist on many levels, so I know that notion may seem harsh and hasty to some.) But something always stops me. Maybe it's simply a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can make all of those ideas and incomplete drafts work someday.

The optimistic side of me likes to think, "There's a time and a place for everything," and I like to apply that to novel drafts when I'm experiencing my darkest days as a writer. Maybe the idea that isn't working now will be different in a few months' (or years') time. Maybe some ideas are like puzzles: you need to take time away from them before you can come back, sit down, and put them together, slipping the pieces together as if there was never a problem in the first place. But then the pessimistic side of me (cunning little minx she is) whispers, "Some puzzles aren't meant to be finished."

I already know that some of my ideas have shelf lives, whether by my own hand or circumstances I can't control. For instance, I have a vampire novel draft I was working on two years ago; it has since been shelved indefinitely even though I still love the premise and characters so much that I feel an ache in my chest when I think about leaving that story behind forever. Why did I shelve it? The market was crammed to the breaking point with vampires, and I knew that mine would just be lost in the crowd if I tried to release it out into the world. Readers tire of trending concepts, and many begin to avoid those same trends, no matter what good novels may come of them. By the time I started working on the vampire novel, agents were already sending out signals to "stop with the damn vampires already." It didn't seem wise to continue with something that would just be shot down before it ever had a chance to fly.

Then there's the thing I dread most: when I query agents, what will happen if my manuscript doesn't stir any interest and incurs flat-out rejections all around? It's a bit painful to think about even in my imagination. Does that mean I should edit and rewrite and do more work on the novel, or should I shelf it and work on something new? What to do in such an instance? A part of me says to "trudge on and make it work," but people who want to be commercial authors oftentimes don't have the luxury of continuing work on that manuscript they love. Sometimes they have to move on, no matter how much it hurts.

I guess it all comes back to this: write the stories you love. But sometimes you have to be logical and wait a little bit for certain stories. I'm impatient, and I want them to work now. Deep down, however, I know that I'm not ready. After all, if I were, would I have written this fear- and doubt-filled blog post?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Musings on "High-Concept" Ideas

This is old news, but I came across a lengthy article detailing the Full Fathom Five/James Frey "High-Concept Media Factory" and I couldn't help devoting a post to something that James Frey (and others such as Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, etc.) wants when it comes to media: high-concept ideas.

High-concept. It's a term I've come to consider and contemplate often, especially since I'm an unagented writer who hopes to be published sometime in the next decade. If you're like me (someone who stalks scours author and agent blogs), you've likely come across the word "high-concept" quite a bit. What does it mean? Why is it such a "must-have" to garner hype for books, movies, and television shows?

A quick look on Wikipedia told me the easy definition to "high-concept": it is "used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily described by a succinctly stated premise." But is that all it is? Really? Aren't most writers told when they're querying their manuscripts to agents that their novels should be able to be described in a few sentences at most? Yet likely only about 20-30% of those manuscripts would be considered "high-concept." What's missing here in this equation?

Then I came across this article called "High Concept Defined Once and For All," which outlines "five requirements" for a story to be considered "high-concept." Numbers one and two on the list are these: (1) "your premise should be original and unique," and (2) "your story must have mass audience appeal."

When it comes to books, one that immediately comes to mind is Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. (Some may argue on the "originality" requirement, given that Koushun Takami's Battle Royale tackled the idea of "kids in a battle-to-the-death scenario" years before Suzanne Collins even had the inspiration for The Hunger Games...but I think execution must be taken into account as for the "originality" of a premise.) Not only did the novel intrigue many readers with its take on the dystopian genre and the notion of oppression, but it also gave an "Everyman" character in Katniss Everdeen, a flawed girl who can be either brave or despicable in her choices and actions. The novel also led to a revival in dystopian novels, particularly those in the young adult genre, with writers and publishers trying to capture some of that allure and success in another dystopian premise.

Actually, something I think many successful high-concept ideas have in common is this: they somehow appeal to the curiosity in all of us and make us face some aspect of ourselves, our society, or our fears within the "safe landscape" of fiction. For instance, the movie The Sixth Sense showcased the reality of what seeing ghosts would do to a person's psyche and how such an ability could be both a gift and a curse. "High-concept" does not mean that great ideas, themes, and meanings can't be handled and displayed alongside the initial attention-grabbing premises. (Yes, there are some exceptions to this idea of mine. After all, do you think movies like Transformers really hold any room for deep contemplation other than "It's time for another summer blockbuster romp with action and EXPLOSIONS!"?)

As enticing as writing high-concept stories sounds, however, "notoriety" will never equal "quality." Yes, many writers have the fantasies that entail large advances, huge sales, and movie deals, but "high-concept" doesn't promise anything. You could have a high-concept manuscript, but success isn't determined by ideas alone. The execution and meaning have to be there as well. That's why I will always tell myself to write good stories with meaningful words, intriguing plots, and unforgettable characters before I start to grab at the "most high-concept ideas" that may garner me publishing status faster. I don't want to write that story that you'll read in a day and forget within a week: I want to write the one that haunts you, makes you lose sleep at night, and stays in the back of your mind long after you finish reading. My greatest endeavor as a writer will be to write something that I unconditionally love and that an audience will come to love because that's what really matters at the end of the day: stories that creep into people's hearts and never leave.

An Intro (of Sorts)

Pure Fictional Intent will hopefully be the blog I've always wanted to have: one mixing book gushing and haphazard reviews, writer woes and purple prose, thoughts on creativity and ideas in general as well as the many media surrounding them. Okay, I kid a bit (since I would never subject people to purple prose, lest it bruise their minds), but I've tried this blogging thing quite a few times before (note: I've deleted most past blogging endeavors, so don't think you can go digging for them)...and it never quite works for me.

But Pure Fictional Intent will be different (I hope). So stay tuned for the idea spewing the inspirational and enlightening posts to come!