About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Lines

They say you should write what you know. Though I grew up with brothers, a father, and many uncles, and have had a number of guy friends over the years, I don’t pretend to know how guys think. Half the time I looked at my brothers as alien life forms when we were growing up. (Okay, yes. They felt the same way about me.) So whenever I have authored or coauthored a nonfiction book for boys or with boys as the main characters, I have had to do some research.

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a middle grade novel. Framing the personality of one character, a boy who makes life miserable for my female main character, has proved challenging. I don’t want to strike the wrong note with this kid—i.e., making him a one-dimensional bully. We’ve seen plenty of those, haven’t we?

Some writers suggested using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help shape a character’s personality. I took the test as if I were my character and gleaned the ESTP designation—“Extraverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving (Extraverted Sensing with Introverted Thinking)” according to the Personality Page website. If you follow this blog at all, you might remember that I wrote a post on how I felt about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator awhile ago. (Click here for that post.) So I don’t have to tell you that the ESTP designation didn’t really help me understand my character any better. (Well, I guess I just told you.) The results felt too much like an armature without clay or the blueprint for a robot. Please don’t take offense if you swear by Myers-Briggs. Using this personality scale simply didn’t work as a character builder for me.

While I realize that a character is empty until I fill him or her with whatever personality I can provide, I needed my character to go “off the grid” a bit—to have less of a “ready-made” personality. In that way, he would feel more “alive” to me.

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Not this or this . . .

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. . . but this. Real. Alive.

I started by mining my memories for interactions with my brothers, male cousins, friends at school, enemies at school (like boys I’d fought in middle school), and boys in the neighborhood who were just acquaintances. Of course, back in the day, we didn’t have texting, social media, group videogame play, and other ways of communicating that kids today have. But our interactions had some similarities with those today: hanging out in parks; playing sports together; working on theatrical productions; serving on projects; being bullied.

That’s why I’m glad I have kids in my life: nephews; the children of friends; kids I’ve taught in Sunday school. They share their experiences with me even as we talk about videogames, movies, books, etc. For example, I once talked to a kid for over an hour about every Zelda game ever made. Because of that conversation, he felt he could trust me enough to tell me his worries about school.

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Other than the fact that they annoy their parents and siblings from time to time, the kids I talk to are basically nice kids who are not the bullying types. But in some ways, that suits my purpose. They help me to remember that sometimes people show different faces to different people. A kid who bullies others at school might not be thought of as a bully at home, especially if he’s nice to his grandparents and always takes out the trash.

As I continued to research, I cast my net wider: listening to kids in public places like malls, movie theaters, and museums. But you can see the limits of that tactic already. I run the risk of looking stalkerish. Yet watching them throw tantrums, laugh loudly and disruptively, and behave like, well, normal, has been helpful.

So imagination has to bridge the gap. (You knew I’d get to that eventually.) Imagination, free writing scenes that will never appear in the book, and soliciting feedback from beta readers all help to put clay on my character’s armature. The beta readers (which include some of the guys I mentioned in the first paragraph) are especially helpful, because they point out clichés and other blind spots.

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Not the betas I mean.

But in the end, it all comes down to spending time in the skin of my character, even when he behaves unpleasantly. I don’t have to agree with his actions. I just have to make them plausible. Going beyond the stereotype helps me remind readers that everyone is more than what he or she appears to be on the surface.

What’s the most challenging aspect for you about writing a character who is the total opposite of you?

Wooden art figure from polyvore.com. Robot from I, Robot found at irobot.wikia.com. Tween boys from howtoparentateen.wordpress.com, thehabarinetwork.com, and thelipkinsgroup.com. Bettas from worldofcutepets.blogspot.com and life.umd.edu. Scarecrow from commons.wikimedia.org. Link from dan-dare.org.

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Do You Speak Geek?

Recently I had tea with some friends who live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but are in the States on a visit.

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As is usually the case with the people I know, the conversation turned to Marvel movies. Pretty soon we were off on a discussion of various subjects: Comic-Con; Joss Whedon; Firefly; Harry Potter (books and movies); Lord of the Rings (books and movies); The Hobbit (book/movies); Hunger Games (books and movies); X-Men movies; Doctor Who (and the various actors who have played the Doctor); Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series; anime in general; Wujiang (where one of the friends and I taught English years ago); Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki films—you name it. All in the space of 75 minutes.

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A guy sitting at a nearby table stared, then shook his head in an amused way as he listened to our conversation. Perhaps it sounded weird to him. Or, perhaps he could relate to it.

That same day, I had dinner with another group of friends. We talked about linear algebra (don’t worry—I didn’t have much to say on that subject), physics, Half-price Bookstore, videogames, the gathering and dissemination of information; middle grade and young adult books; graphic novels; writing science fiction and fantasy; grad school programs; indie publishing; and other subjects.

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By now, you might be thinking, So what. Why are you telling me this? Well, let me take you back to my high school years, where bullying took place inside and outside the school walls. Just the mention of any of the above subjects would have earned me the label of geek—not exactly a plus back then. You see, being called a geek was the first step to being bullied. So like other people who tried to fit in and avoid being bullied, I learned to downplay “geek speak” and bring up subjects that the cool people spoke about. Yet trying to blend in could not exempt me from being bullied.

In college, to fit in, my geek speak turned to Greek speak. The cool people pledged fraternities and sororities. Once again, to fit in—to gain those three Greek letters—I pledged a sorority. But I was miserable. I had yet to realize that the advice my parents gave me—“Be yourself”—was actually good advice.

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These days, I celebrate conversations like those mentioned above as the gifts they are. I can do that because I lived through that experience and was able to move on. But some who have been bullied in high school aren’t alive to celebrate their freedom to be who they are. It grieves me to think of the countless teens who dread each day thanks to those who make life miserable for them. They live under the weight of labels and other hurtful words. Some don’t see any way to escape the pain other than to end their lives. I wish they knew the truth the bullies would deny them: that they are precious.

So yeah. I speak geek. And I’m glad to do so.

Today, what, if anything, can you celebrate about yourself? What would you say to someone who is afraid to be who he/she is because of the harsh opinions of others?

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I named this photo “Bee Content” to remind me of more good advice: be content to be myself.

Chiang Mai map from wildabouttravel.boardingarea.com. Sigma from prestochangodecor.com. Hello Kitty/Jordie photo and bee photo by L. Marie.

Check This Out: The Arf Thing

Today, I’m talking about short stories with another friend from VCFA, the awe-inspiring Val Howlett, whose story, “The Arf Thing,” has been published here at Lunch Ticket. Val’s story also won a coveted scholarship at VCFA in 2011! So go on. Read it, then return here!

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El Space: Congratulations, Val! Please tell the readers about yourself.
Val: I have lived in five different states in my adult life; I studied fairy tales in college; I’m very close to my three younger siblings; and my girlfriend is also a writer.

El Space: How about a brief synopsis for those who haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing”?
Val: “The Arf Thing” is about the “bullying” of a boy named Adam Mavis, told through the perspectives of seven people at Adam’s school.

El Space: What inspired you to write it?
Val: I wrote the story in late 2010/early 2011, when a string of “gay” teen suicides started a conversation about bullying in the media. I put “gay” in quotes because in some cases, we don’t know if the victims were gay; it was more that much of the harassment they experienced were attacks on their sexual orientations.

I remember being frustrated by the simplicity of the media rhetoric following those tragedies. There was a lot talk of our nation’s “bullying problem” and our schools’ tolerance policies for bullying. Not that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for prohibiting harassment in their classrooms—they absolutely should.

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But I think harassment is more complicated than that. Particularly in this case, when the very media that discusses our country’s “bullying problem” is at the same time perpetuating the cultural assumption that homosexuality is shameful and attack-worthy by portraying gay and trans people as caricatures or not portraying them at all.

I should probably stop and get to your other questions. Clearly, I could go on about this for a while. But all that stuff was bubbling up in my brain as I wrote “The Arf Thing.”

El Space: Understandable. What’s challenging or exhilarating about short story writing?
Val: The room for experimentation is exhilarating. A lot of narrative techniques that could grow tedious over the course of a novel are exciting and interesting in a short story.

What’s challenging is there’s no room for excess—you want every element of your story to serve the effect you’re trying to create at the end. I’m long-winded, so my short story process is to write a lot, and then cut, cut, cut.

El Space: Which authors get you pumped up?
Val: Francesca Lia Block and Kelly Link. Also Laini Taylor’s story “Goblin Fruit” in Lips Touch: Three Times. All three are young adult writers whose stories are full of juicy prose and strange otherworldly tones. And they all deliver those punch-in-the-gut, tears-in-your-eyes endings that great short stories are famous for.

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El Space: In an article in Publishers Weekly entitled “The State of the Short Story,” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated:

[W]hy do so many readers and critics today seem to divide their time between novels and essays—those first cousins of the short story—and leave short fiction alone?

What can be done to draw more attention to the short story?
Val: It’s no secret that a very small percentage of our population reads short fiction. I am fully aware every time I am working on a short story that I am shrinking my potential audience. It makes me a little sad!

I’m going to gear your question to YA short fiction in particular, because that’s the kind of story I have experience writing and trying to submit.

One problem with YA short story visibility is there are barely any journals that publish specifically YA content. I can only think of six journals off the top of my head. And you have to wonder how many actual teenagers read those publications.

So there need to be more publications that feature YA short fiction. Also, more attention should be given to those publications by educators and librarians—possibly in the form of yearly short story awards, like the awards offered in the scifi/fantasy community.

El Space: Great ideas! Stein also stated: “You can’t relax and lose yourself in a short story. Short stories bring you up short. They demand a wakeful attention.” Would you agree or disagree?
Val: I think Stein does a pretty good job of discussing that elusive, nebulous concept that short story writers and critics have been trying to explain since Edgar Allan Poe: that the experience of reading a short story feels different than reading a novel.

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While I definitely have “lost myself” in short stories—forgotten everything around me, became immersed in the story’s world, all that good stuff—I like the idea of “bringing you up short” as a way to describe that jolt you feel at the end of a good short story, the way it leaves you thinking about the whole piece for an hour or for days.

El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Val: I keep returning to the advice my VCFA advisor, A. M. Jenkins, gave me last year, which was to not compare yourself to other writers because it’s a waste of your finite writing time.

As a slow writer, it can be tempting to watch my grad school colleagues submit their novels and see it as a sign of weakness that I’m not doing that yet.

But then I admonish myself in a Jenkins-esque way, saying—probably out loud because let’s be honest—“You could use the time you’re spending thinking you’re not good enough to actually write something! And you should be writing, because you’re slow!” Seriously though, everyone’s process is different. It’s good to remember to accept your process and give it hugs every once in awhile.

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El Space: Any advice for those who want to tackle the short story?
Val: Don’t assume that just because it’s a short story, it’ll take a shorter amount of time to write. It took me four full months to write a draft of my most recent story. And that draft was a radical revision of a story I wrote four years ago.

El Space: What do you plan to tackle next?
Val: My goal for the summer is to finally pump out a full draft of the novel I’ve been working on forever, called Underdog.

Thanks, Val, for being an awesome guest!

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If you haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing,” don’t miss out! Click here. Questions for Val? Please comment below.

Book cover from Goodreads.com. Poster from zazzle.com. Poe photo from Wikipedia. Book hug from cathryno.global2.vic.edu.