extribulum

Posts Tagged ‘where ideas come from’

Hobbyhorses

In Uncategorized on September 19, 2014 at 10:00 am

Writing a weekly column about writing is hard.

And I know this, because I subscribe to other weekly columns — or I used to, until I realized a lot of them, like me, struggle with not just saying the same thing over and over again. I mean, once you have your message across, how many ways are there to say it?

My buddy R, who is a man of letters in the strangest of ways, has a name for the phenomenon of artists engaging in mental masturbation: “Actors talking about actors.” His other favorite is “Directors talking about directors” but he does not limit his skepticism of ego stroking to one industry or indeed to the creative arts; my favorite was the time he drily groaned “The English talking about being English” in response to Downton Abbey. (His grandparents were Irish.)

I try not to ride just one hobbyhorse, but of course, having a single hobbyhorse is what most of blogkeeping in the professional sphere is about. Pick a thing and talk about it; find a demographic and feed it; that’s branding. It’s not bad advice, just somewhat limiting, after a while. It’s why so many of these posts are reactions to news articles — at least it’s something new.

I’m rummaging around in my “wordpress essays” file for new subjects to talk about, so the coming weeks should be interesting. There will also likely be a hiatus in November as I recover from surgery — but then again, given how much time I’ll have off and how well painkillers loosen the tongue, there may be a flood. At any rate, if you have questions about writing or topics you’d like to hear me talk about, now would be an exceptional time to suggest some.

Otherwise it’s back to the creaky hobbyhorse of selfpub and crowdsourced editing…

Where Has All The Reading Gone

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

It was a running joke in my grad school theatre program that nobody had much time for pleasure reading. We were all academics, and we read a lot, but very rarely did we read anything other than plays and theatre pedagogy. I remember encountering one of my fellow students and telling her I was reading a novel, and her sighing dramatically.

“I remember novels,” she said, mock-wistfully.

Her reaction — she was a third-year at the time, and I was a first-year — inspired me to be sure I made time for books. As an undergraduate, I’d seen an article about how theatres and graduate programs weren’t just looking at what your experience on your resume was — they were asking what shows you’d been to see recently, because theatre professionals are infamous for working a lot of shows but not seeing a lot outside of what they work on. So as a theatre kid I committed to seeing a lot of theatre, and when I transitioned into a more literary field, I committed to reading a lot of books. I’ve kept that commitment for many years, and while I don’t quite hit the magic “fifty two books a year” which seems so pleasant and symmetrical, I usually manage to read twenty to thirty.

So far this year I’ve read six, and that’s counting two that I read in very late December of last year. Mind you, I’ve read a lot of comic books, at least a few novels’ worth, so perhaps this year will simply be the year of comics. And the books I have read have been fairly intense: heavy political commentary, literary historical fiction, Lovecraft. Still, time to get back into novels.

As an adult, with a job (really two jobs) and a plethora of transitional events this year, from surgeries to moves to promotions, it’s easy to say that I don’t have time to read because I’m a little busy managing my actual life, but that’s also an excuse that will be valid forever; everyone has a busy life. It takes time and energy to commit to what in the corporate world is called Professional Development — keeping up skills, learning new ones, and understanding the trends and advances in our chosen field. In my case, professional development includes reading, both for pleasure (to remind myself what is pleasurable about literature) and as a form of continuing education. It means you make time for it, even when that’s difficult to do.

To be a writer, particularly a writer who wishes to speak to a culture or from a culture, you have to be a part of the culture, to understand what you can of it. Reading isn’t the whole of that but it is a significant piece, and it’s the easiest to achieve — all you really need is time, and either money or a library card.

Time to get back into it.

 

 

Murder, He Groaned

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Please note: there are spoilers in this essay for Rise Of The Guardians and the novel Dracula. If you do not like to be spoiled, please go watch the movie and/or read the book and then come back, because you’ve been missing out not doing that before at any rate.

There’s been a trend in media lately that I can’t say I’m on board with; the concept has been around forever, but it’s been on the upswing lately, and I kind of can’t wait until it’s back on the downswing.

I blame George RR Martin, and not just because his blog on LJ is more popular than mine.

There’s a pervasive idea in both professional writing circles and in fan circles when discussing writing, the idea that death automatically equals both immediacy and relevance. The fact that any character can die at any time means that as a reader, you are uncertain; you can never be sure anyone in a perilous situation is safe, or what will happen next.

I don’t like this idea, admittedly, in large part because I do not cope well with death. I won’t apologise for that; I want my favourite character to live, and I have a strong enough anxiety reflex that if I don’t, for example, know if the dog will live, I can’t enjoy the story. All I can do is worry about the dog. Or horse, or child, or what have you. When I watched Catching Fire recently, I got worried about whether they’d forgotten the goddamn spile.

In part it’s also that they keep killing my favourites. When I watched the children’s film Rise Of The Guardians last year, I picked a favourite very early on, and sure enough halfway through the movie, they offed him. (Spoiler: he got better, and my rage was assuaged.)

But a huge part of it is the arrogance of the statement, that somehow if you don’t support the killing of characters you are shallow, or lesser, or immature for forming emotional attachments and having a negative view of death instead of embracing its supposed beauty or pain or whatever, I cannot even be bothered with that bullshit. And this arrogance is all the more grating because it’s really a thin membrane of bravado suspended over a vast sea of insecurity and laziness.

Yeah, you heard me, laziness. Because if you can’t make your writing compelling without resorting to random murder, that’s lazy writing.

Recently a friend of mine read Dracula, and she was talking about how enjoyable she found Bram Stoker’s prose. She said to me, “It’s not like I didn’t know how it was going to end; everyone knows Dracula doesn’t win. But there was a chase down a mountain on horses and it was so exciting and I kept turning the pages like I thought the ending my be different if I didn’t read it hard enough.”

Nobody who has ever re-read a book gets to talk to me about the positive effect of unexpected death in prose. Because the truth is, while there are books I’ve read to find out “what happens next”, they are usually not the books I re-read. Because I now know what happens. The books that I return to, over and over, are the ones with compelling prose, with characters I love and wish to reconnect with, with plots that are intricate where I can see something new each time. Sometimes those are also “what happens next” books, but they have a depth that lasts beyond it.

I’m not saying you should never kill anyone in a book. Sometimes death is necessary. But you shouldn’t use “being interesting” as an excuse to do so — even if your prose is excellent, even (especially) if your story doesn’t need all that death. If you’re good enough not to kill, don’t kill. Death matters less when a story is full of it; death matters more when it is the absolute last resort of a writer who has poured the rest of their heart into making their prose live.

Why Wiki Walk

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

Back in January, when I was writing about going “too deep” when researching for fiction, I referenced Wikiwandering, a term so new I’m still having to explain it to a rough fifty percent of the people I talk to about it.

Wikiwandering or Wikiwalking is what happens when you access an informational website and, during the course of researching one thing, end up researching multiple others when you follow links in the text. It’s not confined to Wikipedia; it is infamously associated with TVTropes, where most people, once linked, can get lost for hours. It also surfaces frequently when using sites like Cracked, full of informational lists.

I decided I wanted to do a piece on Wikiwalking, which would ironically involve a lot of research. But it turns out very little has been written about it, or at least, very little that I could find.

What I was looking for in specific was a psychological or biological (or both) theory as to why we do it — why we find new information linked from known information almost irresistible. My own personal theory was that it had to do with acquiring new data; evolutionarily speaking that’s quite a good thing, and now more than ever we are socialised to want data.

I thought it might relate to the idea of uncovering secrets; when you see a link in an informational article, you don’t know what the link means, so clicking it gives you a sense of unveiling and discovery (this is worse in TV Tropes because the links usually have funny but not informative names). Really, discovering a secret and acquiring new data are very similar, however, and neither is necessarily an explanation. Why do we want to know secrets? Why do we want to learn so badly?

When I opened the floor for discussion on tumblr, I got some interesting suggestions. Some thought that perhaps the compulsion is linked to “continuity of definiton” — that the links answer questions which arise in the course of reading — or to tailored learning, because you control precisely what information you access, and that control is particularly easy to exert on heavily crosslinked sites. “Reward schedules” were also suggested: “Wiki gives you something of interest (a reward) just often enough, with just unpredictable enough of a schedule to increase reward seeking behavior.” But why do we consider new knowledge a reward?

Storytelling is a very low-risk way of providing/acquiring new data, as I’ve discussed, and while you may learn more by “doing”, the ratio of payoff to risk in “other people doing” is much lower. I’ve never seen much written on how to make nonfiction interesting, but most people are aware that conveying data in an entertaining fashion is more likely to keep people engaged. Sites like Groupon and Woot make “interesting” copy their stock in trade, occasionally to the point of obscuring actual necessary data (a complaint I will make in detail at some future point, probably).

So it seems as though it may be as simple as the human instinct to gain new knowledge, facilitated by an easy interconnected structure (and, in the case of TV Tropes, encouraged by a certain level of “secret keeping” in the form of obscurely-titled links).

I have a secondary theory, however.

It arises from some self-analysis done by TV Tropes, because it is such an addictive site; they’ve adopted the term “Browser Narcotic” to describe “Any website that results in you opening a dozen tabs in a single session and using up hours of your time”. The term comes from the alt text of an XKCD comic on the topic:

“Cracked.com is another inexplicable browser narcotic.”

The key word here, I think, is narcotic.

A narcotic is an addictive drug, of course, but it’s also a self-medication, a soothing device (“Narcotic” in particular is clinically defined as a sedative compound). When I looked up WikiWander in a google search and got connected to a perhaps less than scientific definition I found what I think is another indicator: “Not only do you learn a lot, but it motivates you to do lots of things on a boring day.”

No it doesn’t. Wikiwalking teaches you a lot, but you don’t actually do lots of things. You do one thing: you learn.

But it feels like doing lots of things, which is the crux of the matter. When you research via Wikiwalk, you feel like you’re getting a lot accomplished because your brain is very active. You’re not “doing” a lot but you are “acting” a lot — opening browser windows, closing browser windows, switching back and forth between different kinds of learning as you move through different subjects. And who doesn’t feel a little ping of satisfaction when they can close a browser window, having wrung every ounce of knowledge from it?

“Browser narcotic” websites are self-medication — they make us feel accomplished even as we do very little. Part of that is undoubtedly because of all the learning, but I think part of it is because our brains are lighting up without us having to move around a lot.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. God knows, everyone needs a little self-medication now and again. And soothing through learning is a very low-risk, high-yield form of “wasting” time. But I’m satisfied with the thesis that browser narcotics are so addictive because they provide a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge attached to an extremely low-expenditure, low-risk activity.

Evolutionarily, we were made for Wikiwalking.

And just because I’m a cruel person, you can read more about Wiki Walking at TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life.

The Fun Stuff: Being A Better Writer, Part Three

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Today concludes a series of articles on becoming a better writer of original fiction, which came out of a post I did on the topic in 2011. Today is all about inspiration, which for me is the most fun part of writing.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Most writers disdain the question “Where do you get your ideas?” and have come up with a number of cutting and condescending replies. That is because writers are

  1. insecure,
  2. often unconscious of their own processes, and
  3. very frequently douchebags.

Like many artists, the vast majority of writers are terrified of the threat that one day they won’t have any more ideas, or their writing will be no good, or nobody will like what they do. Especially for professional writers, whose livelihood and identity are wrapped up in Being A Writer, this is a dreadful thought. Neil Gaiman neatly inverted this in Calliope, when he told the story of a man cursed by a muse to have so many ideas he can never write any of them down fully.

So writers don’t poke at their craft. They frequently don’t investigate where ideas come from or their process of writing, because they’re scared if they do the magic will go away. And those that do have an inkling of how Writing Happens are often scared that if they tell you how things work, you’re going to steal the magic. Or at any rate be better at it than they are, which is practically the same thing.

I am deeply insecure on any number of fronts, but fortunately not in this. I don’t think the magic is going to go away, and I’m not afraid of the day it might. A great deal of that is probably due to exposure as a teen to Alex Haley’s remarkable essay The Shadowland Of Dreams, which talks about the difference between vocation and identity. Even so, his essay about not defining yourself as “a writer” still encourages creatives to depend only upon their creativity, which can make a person defensive.

Writing is only a part of my identity. I have a day job. I also like art, and theatre, and cooking, and when people ask me what I “do”, I don’t say “writer”. Maybe that makes me less of a writer than I could be, but I don’t think so; in many ways, writing on my own time and self-publishing the results frees me to explore channels that contracted writers can’t. I get to rummage in all the scary places most writers won’t go.

So here is the secret of the magic: IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE, and you can have them all the time if you want.

The vast majority of our communication at any given time is composed of stories. You get dozens of them in the newspaper every day. You hear them as you pass people on the street. You can see them just looking at some people. I know someone whose mother likes watching commercials because “they’re like short little stories!” We talk in stories all the time. We live out stories every day. The trick is to know how to turn an experience into an idea — to think, if this were a story, what would happen? What is that person’s story? What can I take from this? And that’s just a matter of habit.

Two examples:

  • While I was writing this, a reader commented to ask me what the hell one does with turkey tails, because they just received four of them and don’t know how to cook them. I don’t know either, but what a marvelously absurd predicament to be in. Adventures in Turkey Tails. That’s a humorous blog entry at least. And the research! You google turkey tails, you’re going to get stories. And really delicious-sounding soul-food recipes, it turns out.
  • The other day we were discussing a news story about a stolen religious relic in California, and that got me onto Napoleon’s infamous severed penis, and someone else linked me from there to the holy prepuce. Do you know how many stories about damaged or venerated dicks I now have bouncing around in my head? At least three, and that’s not even counting the student I once had who broke his dick. How would one unite the stories of Napoleon and Rasputin’s penes with the Holy Prepuce? Well, what if you were an expert in historical genitalia, and one was stolen, and you had to find out who did it? That’s a novel. (One which incidentally I might write, so nobody nick the idea, ok?)

The best way to “get ideas” is to read, to go out and look at stuff, to research things that are interesting to you, to have fantasies of any kind you like, and all the while to be thinking, how is this a story? What makes it interesting? How does this speak to the way I feel, or the way I think? Would it do the same for others? Is this funny or tragic or both? Why?

Ideas are all around you all the time, and there’s no real magic to having them. Just observation and habit. It’s not easy at first, but it gets easier.

And that is the secret of Where Ideas Come From. I feel so much better for having gotten this off my chest, you have no idea.

In Conclusion

Conclusions are suppose to summarise and restate one’s thesis, so let’s see. These are the things I believe make people become better writers:

Be committed and patient. Understand that work is sometimes necessary. Study your chosen masters. Think critically, and understand criticism. Learn the tools of your craft and fit them to your needs. Don’t fear the end of creativity. Train yourself to see the stories all around you.

And don’t worry too much about conclusions.

If It Be Not Now…

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked, back when I was soliciting for essay topics, was this:

Something I like to ask all writers is how do they get ready to write. Do you do a lot of research first? Create an outline, if so, how detailed? Do you use index cards? A white board? Or, do you get an idea and run with it, flying by the seat of your pants? How much of your process is done with actual paper and pencil and how much on the computer?

(Thank you Evaine at livejournal for the question!)

It made me think of a Hamlet quote taken badly out of context:

If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. — Hamlet V.ii

Hamlet’s basically raving there, but as ever, he knows a hawk from a handsaw, and there’s a grain of truth in it. Readiness usually is the best skill to cultivate, and the most difficult.

None of my novels or even my long fanfics have been what you might call prepared for in advance. They just sort of took me, sometimes at very inconvenient moments, like Christmas, or grad school. (There is no good time at grad school to do anything other than grad school, but tell that to Sweet Home. As for Christmas, I refer you to Charitable Getting, which was written in a single December.)

I am, generally, a fan of the author being in control. I’ve inadvertently caused drama and offended people by stating and defending the idea that the writer controls what is written. There are writers who like to claim that their muses control them, which would be harmless if “I was just following my muses, idek” wasn’t often used as an excuse for poor work. I’ve found that it pays to be wary around people who claim no control in the artistic process; generally they also take no responsibility for its results.

That said, the decision over when and where a story hits, a story that really grasps me and makes me want to write it every hour of the day, that’s sometimes out of my hands. I wish it were otherwise, and I make sure that I never use it as an excuse for a poor finished product; I can write a story without that moment of brightness, and often do. I court the moment, which is why I have so many ideas but so few books, because not every idea will catch fire. But my best work has always followed a thunderclap, and I’ve learned to obey it.

The problem of course is that if you do get struck with the story and you’re suddenly in the middle of it, you may not have had time to plot more than a few pages in advance or work out what the climax is or why this character is even here, character what are you. And then you’re back to the worrying land of “it’s not my fault this is a winged, fanged mess”.

So what I learned — and I learned this in fandom, before I was writing original fiction, so one more point to fandom for being awesome and tolerant — is to be Ready. When it hits, to be self-aware to know that you’re in for a long haul on this one, and to start working out in your head what the end game is. (As well as how you’re going to keep clean dishes and edible food in the house for the next month or so. I am heavily dependent upon paper plates at times.)

It doesn’t work for everyone; some people can lay out a plot on a chart and follow it, and honestly, I envy them. I am a little compulsive, so I get wrapped up in the details of the chart and in rearranging all the little bits of it, and tend to give up the story in favor of the clean, simple Ikea quality of the outline. I’m pretty sure the amount of research that The Dead Isle required, and the way I organised that research, is what killed it the first time I tried to write it.

So the readiness I have learned is a coping mechanism, a way to write fast when inspiration hits but keep discipline despite not always 100% knowing where I’m going. A willingness to excise what no longer works, to change the history of the story, to give up on a character who has wandered off and quietly remove them. Plotting out ahead of the story still works, it’s just something I have to do in the document, writing little scenes that will eventually join up with the main body of the work or even just sentences like “Climax goes here; car chase with giraffes”.

(I should write a story that culminates in a car chase with giraffes. I’m not sure if it’s a chase with giraffes in the cars, or driving the cars, or it’s actually a giraffe chase scripted like a car chase, or if they’re just peripheral, watching it all happen, but it’s an intriguing thought to be going on with, no?)

So most of what I do to prepare, and most of what I do while writing, happens in my head. Most of just about everything I do happens in my head, so at least I’m well-practiced. Next to nothing happens with pen and paper; I can’t write as fast as I can think, but I can type nearly as fast, so writing in longhand is a last resort if I’m not near a computer. (I used to do a lot of it in math class in high school.)

As for research, well, knowing how to research is important, but most of mine gets done as I go along. It’s easy to fall down the research rabbit hole — but I think that particular aspect of writing perhaps deserves its own essay.

So yeah, for me, the only thing I really do to prepare for writing a novel is to poise myself in readiness for when it mows me down like a giraffe in a mini cooper.

A Fine Tuned Sense Of The Ridiculous

In Uncategorized on April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

I was on the phone with my mum the other day, discussing the impending upheaval in my life — not only a potential new job but a definite move of house, whether it comes with the new job or not — and I realised that despite the very serious nature of the choices I’m facing this year, we were both laughing an awful lot. It made me think about why I spend so much of my time amused at basically everything that happens to me. One of the things I often hear from people, both in brickspace and online, is that I’m capable of making ordinary things funny. It’s something I prize, because I’m not what you would call a funny person, but I can see things as funny. And I think that’s a huge key to my writing, as well, which I didn’t work out until, well, just now.

I don’t know when my sense of absurdity developed or how, not like I know other things. I know when I found my work ethic (college — late but at least lasting) and I know where my aesthetic sense comes from, because my family gave me that, between my gran the painter and my parents who took me to tons of museums and performances when I was young. I don’t know how I learned to find the ridiculous in the ordinary.

I wasn’t a class clown as a child, and the way in which I express my view of the ridiculous isn’t necessarily spontaneous. It comes through in my writing because I sit and think about how to frame things. Some of it is turns of phrase picked up from here and there, but that’s just dressing to the essential viewpoint I have on the world. I didn’t necessarily believe my high school English teacher who said good writing comes from honestly expressing the way we see the world, but I do now, because I’ve done it.

The next story I’m hoping to work on, called Tunnel, primarily concerns the way in which families interact, and in real terms concerns the structure of Chicago, the way it’s built on Other Parts Of Chicago, and the way we have this massive underground network of passages that nearly nobody knows about. Really, the latter part came first; I wanted to write a story about the underground, and the sibling issues came out of that (and, admittedly, out of my own issues with my brother). But there’s an aspect of the story which keeps trying to take over, and it’s the ridiculous aspect: I call it Bob And The Dragon.

Because see, in this world, there’s a dragon living under Chicago. The dragon is a fun fantasy element; the ridiculous part is that very few people ever encounter the dragon, and the only one who seems to care about him is a guy named Bob. Bob is incredibly ordinary, he’s just a dude in a suit and he doesn’t have much life drama or any ambitious aspirations, but in his spare time he is a dragon tamer. Bob is the one who rescues people from the dragon and buys it expensive sushi and hugs it when it eats people he doesn’t like. Bob is ridiculous. Even the other characters think so.

And I don’t know where that ten-degrees-off-normal viewpoint, which allowed me to produce Bob in the first place, comes from. Possibly from the fact that I wasn’t an especially funny child; I spent some of my childhood and most of my teen years angry, because I was smart and could see that I was surrounded on all sides by bullshit. I can remember my mother telling me it’s not bullshit, it’s just hoops to jump through, and not thinking that was particularly better, but it’s true: much of life, much of the time, is a series of hoops. Some are fun; some are just tedious, and would be unnecessary if more people either saw them at all or called them out when they did. Dress codes, for example, are 1% necessity and 99% ludicrous. I like wearing suits and I still think it’s stupid to make me wear something less comfortable and less efficient to move in for the sake of appearing “more professional”.

When you see how much bullshit you spend your life putting up with, and the rituals you have to undergo — for me, at the moment, all my annoyance at the interview process is coming to the fore — you can either laugh or get angry. I’m too damn lazy to spend my entire life angry, so I suppose, at some point, I chose to laugh. Very likely the novels of Terry Pratchett had a huge influence on this decision as well, since he’s especially good at laughing at bullshit. However it happened, it is the base I stand on to write my stories.

Writers build worlds — it’s a necessary part of what we do. Even if your world is a realistic one, even if it’s nonfiction, you have to re-construct reality within your work. If your world’s not realistic, or if it’s only loosely based in reality, you have to do more. Personal viewpoint influences how that world is built to a massive degree. You don’t have to see a laughable world; you can be angry at what you see and want to change it, or you can see the world in shades of fantasy, or any other viewpoint you happen to have. But having a firm and critically thoughtful view of the world, knowing what you see and what you think of what you see, is absolutely necessary. Until you have that, writing for other people is a struggle that will fight you. Writing, and fiction in particular, demands every part of you, and it’s difficult to give it so much if you don’t know what you’re handing over.

In my case, what I tend to give my writing is laughter; either with the world or at it. Both are effective in their own way.

The Touchiest Of Topics

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 10:26 am

This post builds a little bit off a previous post about sex in literature, and also a little off my earlier series on how to define a YA Novel. It’s about a hot topic in the literary world right now: YA Lit and Sex.

I think that the topic is hot because YA Lit is increasingly prominent in our culture, and because sex in literature is as well. There’s also been a lot of talk lately about how dark YA Lit is becoming, but even with books like the Hunger Games series, which is held up as the ultimate symbol (if not the only one) of dark writing for kids, sex isn’t often something that comes up. At least, I assume; I figure I’d have heard about it by now if all the starving kids were also having sex. And, in part, publishers are realising that literature aimed at young adults isn’t just being bought by young adults. They’re now working to satisfy the adult desire for something a little steamier. There are a lot of great reasons for adults to read YA; I personally used to pluck random YA novels off the shelf during exam time in college, because they were easy on the brain and could be read quickly.

But, yes. For all of these reasons and others, as well, sex in YA Lit is becoming a forefront discussion.

Sex was an issue I faced when I was writing fanfic, especially Stealing Harry and Laocoon’s Children, two stories that rewrote the Harry Potter novels within an alternate universe. Because I was writing fanfic and not trying to sell anything to children, I had more latitude than a pro-published writer would; I was already including sex scenes between adults even when I was writing about Harry Potter as an eight year old. But as the kids I was writing about got older, I wanted to reflect what everloving horndogs a lot of kids are in their teens. So I was glancing off the idea of teens engaging in romantic and sexual situations; I didn’t want to write kiddie porn but I did want to be honest about how teens behave. I lost my virginity in high school; presumably it wasn’t unlikely that a tightly-knit group of friends would have similar experiences. It’s not that I feel kids ought to, it’s just that I feel like whether or not they ought to, a lot do.

I never got there, because that story fell by the wayside, but it has stayed with me, the idea that people in their teens do have sexual urges and sexual encounters. It’s a tricky place to go, because most writers (quite rightly) don’t want to use underage people as devices for sexual titillation, and more importantly they don’t want to be accused of doing it whether or not that was their intent. And I don’t want to add to the weird societal pressures surrounding sex, the conflicting “Have sex now or you’re abnormal!” and “SEX ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, IT’S A SIN.”

I believe that people shouldn’t be ashamed of having sex, of choosing their partners and the number of their partners, as long as said partners are consenting and capable of consent. I believe people should be told that they’re supposed to enjoy the sex they have, and if they aren’t, they should be encouraged to stop what they’re doing and seek alternatives, be that different partners or different kinds of sex or no sex at all. And one of the things I discovered while exploring the nature of YA Literature is that it is predominantly about adults who have a message they want to convey to young people — like what we think about sex and how we deal with it as adults.

There’s a fantastic quote by a fellow WordPresser, fozmeadows, discussing adolescent sex in YA:

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember.

Fozmeadows is speaking primarily about the way young women are treated both in the world of YA lit and within the books that compose it, which is entirely appropriate given, well, how young women are frequently treated in YA Lit. But it has a broader application as well: the idea that imbuing the concept of sex into a YA book automatically gives the reader just a little more agency and ownership than they had previously.

It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

It’s true, too — even books that discuss teens committing complicated crimes in an adult world, like the Heist Society series, shy away from teens committing sexual acts. What really hit home for me about that second half of the quote, however, is the concept of not putting an actual sex act into the book: not having to write explicit sex between underage partners — just the legitimate, unflinching potential for sex to occur, or the mention of it happening. Even the desire for it to happen unhampered by the usual “am I ready?” self-flagellating self-examination that media aimed at teens generally includes (almost exclusively with the eventual answer of “No” at the end) would be refreshing. And Fozmeadows is right: it is enough to show readers that they get to control what happens to their bodies and when, without necessarily baring everything.

I think this is important because even authors writing for adult audiences have trouble with sex scenes, as I talked about last week. So understanding that sex in literature is something that people look for and something that can positively influence the way young people see their sexuality (and those of others) is important. But it’s just as important for writers to know that there is space between “never talking about it” and “explicit sexual description” — that wanting sex and experiencing desire can be just as important as the sex that actually happens. It’s not just teenagers who could use a higher comfort level with discussions of sex and sexuality, after all.

One More Story I May Never Write

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

I went down to St. Louis a few weeks ago, and on the train (I love trains!) I caught up on a lot of reading and viewing and learning. One of the shows I watched was a documentary called “Inside America’s Money vault”, which wasn’t so much about a specific vault as it was about the way money is created, regulated, and stored in the United States. They talked a bit about the national mint, and the anti-fraud measures it takes on its bills, and the way bills are treated, possessing an intrinsic value above the material.

Then I flipped over to a TEDtalk by Noah Charney; Charney is an art history expert specializing in art crime who runs a fantastic blog on the topic. Having done a bit of studying in the subject myself — and having read Charney’s writing for some time — I found he wasn’t saying anything I personally didn’t already know, but he was saying it in a different context to what I’d had before.

As Charney says, and as most people who study art crime for any length of time know, most art heists aren’t done by clever gentleman thieves or on commission of secretive billionaire collectors. Most stolen art that isn’t stolen for political reasons eventually — sometimes very quickly — ends up in the hands of organized crime, where it is used as collateral, loan, or payment in various illegal financial dealings.

One thing Charney said struck me in particular: the reasoning that art is used because it leaves no cash trail. And it occurred to me that while paintings are a good way to buy and sell cashlessly, the fact that you truly can’t sell them for their full value on the black market (usual black market price is about 10% of their legitimate worth, I believe) and that they are bulky and require specific care — not that I think crooks often bother — makes them more trouble than they’re worth.

Except in some specific cases (most notably Chinese antiquities, at the moment) illegally obtained works of art are like dollar bills: they do not in themselves have the material worth of the value they represent. They are symbols of value.

So I thought, why not simply mint one’s own currency? Be clever enough about it and nobody would even notice what it was, outside of the circles in which it was used. Why shouldn’t some enterprising crook create the national criminal mint?

In real practice, of course, it’s a ridiculous idea. I know that. There’s no way they could keep it under wraps forever, and anti-fraud measures would be more trouble than handling paintings. Besides, it’s not like some crooks haven’t all but done this anyway; reach a certain level of wealth, and you can open your own bank to launder your money. Apparently this happens in Russia a lot. I’ve done research profiles on Russians who used to be “goods importers” of dubious provenance and now own a bank.

Theoretically, however, it’s a damn fine story. You could even make a short-term profit off minting criminal coin: buy up all the stolen paintings you can find with your minted money, which gives the “crime dollars” value, then ransom them all back to their owners. Insurance pays the ransom (this is apparently a relatively common con), the owners get their paintings, and you get a cut more than you paid for them.

Frankly, I’m also a bit worried for Noah Charney. He’s one of the most vocal agents for art crime education, and he’s very prominently pulling the curtain back from the way art theft and organized crime interact. Narratively, if you had some clever, attentive art history professor who assembled all these re-ransomings into a grand theory of art theft and money minting, who knows what organized crime might risk to keep him or her quiet.

It’s a seductive story. I’m not sure I’m up to writing quite such a Dan Brown-esque thriller, but perhaps one day.

So many stories to write, so little time…