Monday, November 2, 2015

How To Encourage Kids To Write

There are many ways in today’s world to encourage a child to write. There’s internet communities like Wattpad and Figment, where they can post their writing, there’s subcultures of writing like fanfiction, there’s poetry contests, genre clubs and keeping of personal journals. Stories posted on websites like Wattpad by writers as young as thirteen years old have gotten millions of hits, and while it may not make that young writer a household name, it gives them encouragement to write. There’s a whole world of writing today, and many avenues to publish for young people in non-traditional forms, but how does one get a young person to write in the first place? A kid who writes will have better skills for their future college essays, their current school essays and better skills in general for current and future tasks, which have to do with communication. However, what do we do to encourage young people to write now? There are many avenues that could be taken.

I feel the first important avenue isn’t having the child write off the bat, but having the child read. Finding a genre to get the child to read, and one they would really like is the first step. A young person who reads a lot of fantasy, might want to try to write fantasy themselves, while a teen who has gotten into realistic teen fiction might want to write fiction reflecting their own experiences. Fiction writing is a great way to encourage children to write, because they can embrace a genre and idea that may sound slightly like a book they read, but also be completely different. Even adult fiction writers draw from the genres they like to read.

However, not all kids like fiction, and that’s where another avenue comes in. Young people might want to write non-fiction, and this can come in the form of journalism, creative non-fiction and poetry. Poetry has always been a popular form for young people, as it’s emotional and often reflects how they feel about anything from a crush to something pretty they saw outside. They may also want to write for a school newspaper, reporting on the local events at the school. This provides them with a constant way to write, be instantly published and a social group around that paper. Another thing young people who don’t like writing fiction may feel they want to write is essays on topics they are interested in. If a young person really likes costumes, for example, and also likes anime, they might want to write an article on Cosplay, the art of dressing up as Japanese characters, and offering advice on a blog they set up.

Blogging is another creative option to encourage young people to write. Though, the young people should be careful, as they don’t want to spill out their life on the web, they might want to write about their knowledge concerning a topic they know a lot about, like reviews of books, movies, music or anime.  Another way to encourage young people to write is fanfiction, which in a way, is a way to write about a topic but a bit different, as it’s fiction itself but about a topic.

A lot of these websites including Wattpad, Figment, and the originator of fanfiction on the web,, offer places for young people to post fiction of their favorite existing media. “Harry Potter” is known as the biggest fanfiction topic on the web, but fanfiction dates back to fanzines, which is a fan produced magazine or newsletter, of “Star Trek”.  Fanfiction offers a creative way for young people to write, and also express their love for a book, movie, TV show or band. A big misconception of fanfiction is it’s poor writing, as a lot of it is often well written.

Encouraging a young person to write can take time, as not everyone wants to sit down and write. They may feel they have had enough of this in school, and feel it’s like extra homework to them. However, if you make writing exciting for them, and make it feel like they are contributing to a community, whether it’s an online fiction community, an writing group which meets in person, a blog or a school newspaper, then writing can become an outlet and a good way for them to become more well rounded people.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What To Do When The Idea is Cool but the Book Sucks?

You see the new plot to a book. It sounds like the coolest idea ever. You decide before you go spend twenty dollars, you should go to the most honest book review site ever: Goodreads. You are surprised to see that everyone says the book is awful and not worth your time. This begs a lot of questions. I find this is true most with YA novels. The idea is incredibly cool but the actual book doesn’t know how to handle it. This is a problem a lot of writers have. The idea is so cool, and I think most writers get really excited when they come up with the coolest idea since Harry Potter, but then have to stretch it to two hundred plus pages, it becomes a real drag. The writer doesn’t know how to execute it. There’s a lot of skill that goes into the coolest idea for a book ever. There’s world building and there’s backstory and there’s characters that still need to be great. It needs humanistic characters the reader connects to despite this being the coolest idea you ever had.

Sometimes I love an idea for a book that already exists so much I just want to re-write it. I can already criticize and come up with all the cool places that this idea could of went. However, it’s really not that simple. The poor author who is getting savaged on their Amazon page and Goodreads is already feeling the pain of their cool idea not really working. Now, I’m not saying it’s entirely not their fault. Of course it is. Some ideas really work better as short stories and are not meant to be stretched into a whole book. Sometimes you read a book that is clearly meant to be a series and the second book never comes out at all. I won’t mention any first books here, but I think you can guess them.

This is very true in YA, as there are two types of YA writers. The YA writer who really is passionate about writing for young people and the YA writer who just wants to share in the millions of dollars a YA series can bring them. The first kind of YA writer is the best at stretching an idea because they care about their characters, young people, as more than just wizards, clones, robots, vampires, zombies or whatnot. They care about them as young people first and foremost. The other kind of YA writer just thinks a cool idea is enough to make them a cool writer. They don’t think deeper than kids with magical powers is cool.
However, this happens in adult books too. Like the character, Richard Stark, in Stephen King’s “The Dark Half”, a literary writer writes a series of books under a pen name about a serial killer who is really good at what he does. Those books sell a ton of copies. Also note “Misery”, as Paul Sheldon is a similar character. He writes cheesy romance novels, which makes him millions, while putting off his literary works. This illustrates a problem with a lot of books (and lets be honest, screenplays too). The shiny idea is so freaking cool, you get excited over it but than once you try to stretch it to a full work, you find it falls apart.

I’ve had my share of really cool ideas. I’ve tried to stretch them. J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, Suzanne Collins and Rich Riordan are masters at stretching out a cool idea. Yet many really good YA writers have tried to stretch out a lot of their ideas outside of their comfort zone and see it fall apart. You can’t write a cool idea without having good characters readers can connect to, to lead them through their story. What I mean by this is the character is equally important to the idea around them. There is a term for the cool idea, more precisely. It’s called “high concept,” and that means it’s an idea that’s not realistic but you are going to give it your all.

Harry Potter is high concept, for example. It’s not the boarding school from a John Irving novel. It’s the boarding school with magic, but she was smart in not making her characters too high concept. Despite the magical setting, the actual characters are really kids, for the most part. However, the high concept trend is starting to go out of fashion. John Green writes about kids in realistic situations, and basically, it’s a cycle. High concept trends but realism often stays.

So, what do you do when the idea is cool but the book sucks? Well, it’s really tempting to want to re-write the idea in your own fashion and try to make it better. I am tempted to nitpick all the time. I want to take that cool idea and totally change it up to make it better. However, even if the book sucks, you have to give the writer credit for trying to make something work that’s totally interesting in the first place. If you are passionate about your creation and the world you built, go for it. We all need escapes into something we don’t see everyday.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Some Thoughts on Genre

When I look at the fiction I write, I really have to say it’s clearly magical realism. I don’t have the intense enough attention to detail for fantasy, and I get bored with the purity of it when I write. However, I do love to read other people’s fantasy. The question becomes what genre should one write? I love science fiction, but I don’t know a lot about science. The best science fiction, to me, has some element of science in it. A lot of good science fiction has really no elements of science in it, but the best has some element of science. I love the idea of magic happening in the real world but the reaction being mundane at best. Some say that magical realism is a fancy way of just saying you write fantasy, however I don’t think that’s true. Fantasy has more of an element of surprise, and I think the success of books like “Harry Potter” work because of that combination of fantasy and magical realism. In my stories, things happen, that are magical, that are unbelievable, yet everyone’s reaction seems to be that they are ordinary. A lot of the best Twilight Zone episodes are magical realism, because of the way the people react to these weird situations like they are no big deal. Of course, genre goes hand in hand in a lot of other areas. Genre goes hand in hand with audience. “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is erotica and obviously isn’t being written for teenagers. However, “Fifty Shades of Grey” started out as a fan fiction of “Twilight”, which some has classified as erotic in nature but obviously Edward Cullen isn’t going to do the things to Bella Swan that they do in the books of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

I think to pick a genre, you have to look at the kind of story you have. Genre is very important to the success or failure of a book. Sometimes it works when a book doesn’t have a genre, but mixes them up into something new. Sometimes a solid genre really helps a book connect with an audience. It’s obvious that Stephanie Meyer pioneered paranormal romance in popularity and it connects with young female readers. It’s also obvious that J.K. Rowling pioneered the popularity of young adult fantasy and it connected with all sorts of people as an escape. I write in multiple genres, but my last few stories have all been magical realism. In some current stories I have written, things that are fantastical have happened, but what I like about the genre is the reaction to it. In the universe created in a magical realism story, the idea that something unusual is happening isn’t treated as a big deal as it might be in a fantasy novel. Magic just seems like a part of everyday life.

Dystopia has become a big deal in publishing lately, and it’s not all that new of a genre. Suzanne Collins “The Hunger Games” has taken off and created a whole new interest in dystopia. The problem with a lot of authors and genre is they often find a niche in a genre. There’s nothing wrong with that, as it helps the author put out a lot more content. However, sometimes that can get an author stuck in one type of story. Stephen King has been criticized as recycling by some critics. Dean Koontz has been praised for being able to bend genre, often mixing more than one genre into one book.

However, sometimes an author shouldn’t leave their genre as much as they want to. I tried to read J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” and I admire her for trying something new. However, the problem with the novel wasn’t that she was trying something new. It was that she threw out what made her novels so successful in the first place. The quirkiness of her style was gone. Instead, it was mostly unlikeable characters trying to deal with depressing thoughts. Sometimes an author shouldn’t go too far from their genre or style, up to the point they are unrecognizable to the reader. However, that’s what pen names are for.

My favorite genres of books are young adult, middle grade, magical realism, horror, non fiction, science fiction, cyberpunk, coming of age, romantic comedy, dystopia and good old stories about people simply being people. I find that magical elements are fun to write about but also combining it with stories about people who are mundane is also an appealing aspect to my fiction writing. The question becomes how does one pick a genre? My advice to pick a genre you feel comfortable in for one’s first outing as a fiction writer.

Also, let me say if you want to write in a genre, also read that genre. Don’t read a ton of horror novels and than turn around and try to write a romance. That wouldn’t make sense. Often this can be hard for an uneven reader, such as myself, because we can’t stick to one kind of book and read a lot of genres, creating a reading list that is all over the place. That’s why often the best fiction writers are very into one kind of genre. If you read a lot of fantasy, and have some kind of writing ability, you might be able to write in that genre. However, that’s why sub genres as they are called are good, because they are under the umbrella of a bigger genre. Magical realism is under the umbrella of fantasy, and thus you can borrow elements of fantasy and use it in a more common story without it overpowering it. So, pick wisely.

Things to remember when picking a genre for your story

-Your audience
-What lends itself to a single book or a series?
-The type of situation you are writing about?
-What type of things should happen in the genre? (For example, you aren’t going to have a sex scene in the middle of a young adult fantasy novel).
-The age of your characters and what kind of situation they are in? (Kids on a magical quest are a different genre than a couple of adults trying to figure out who was the one who murdered another person!)
-And your premise, which really applies to both audience and genre, as some premises do not really lend themselves to an adult book and some do not to a kids book. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Wizard Meets World

If kids in the 2000s had “Harry Potter”, then kids in the 1990s had “Boy Meets World”. When I sent out that observation on Twitter, it got retweeted quite a bit. Not to make us feel old, but “Harry Potter” is currently celebrating its 15th anniversary.  J.K. Rowling was on the Today Show, celebrating the occasion. Meanwhile, TV writer Michael Jacobs has been doing some celebrating of his own, with the spin off “Girl Meets World” in the works, and a reunion of the cast at ATV Television Festival in Texas. It’s hard to believe that “Harry Potter” is 15 years old and “Boy Meets World” has been in continuous reruns for 20 years. This brings up some points. For example, what other TGIF shows have been in syndication for 20 years? The reruns of “Family Matters” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” have floated around cable, but what was the last time someone mentioned “Step by Step”? “Harry Potter” has had the same staying power, constantly on the bookshelves in reprints at Barnes and Noble, and constantly selling.

Before I talk about the power of coming of age stories to stick around, lets talk about the differences and similarities of  “Boy Meets World” and “Harry Potter”. Lets start with the obvious. Mr. Feeny is Dumbledore of the 90s. Okay, Mr. Feeny couldn’t preform magic, but like Dumbledore, he always explained the lesson of the episode to Cory and his friends. He also stayed with them, pretty much through all 7 seasons. He was a trusted adult, father figure to Shawn and Topanga and a constant voice of enlightenment and reason, just like Dumbledore.

Another similarity is the obvious two boys and a girl. Corey, Shawn and Topanga were the three main characters. In fact, only Corey and Shawn appear in all 158 episodes. In the Q&A at the reunion, Rider Strong (Shawn) revealed that there was supposed to be three boys, but they constantly kept changing the boy character, until they noticed that Danielle Fishel had great chemistry with Ben Savage and Rider Strong. They decided to keep her on as the third member of that core group.   

Now, consider this. Harry and Ron had Hermione. Topanga and Hermione have a lot in common. Hermione and Topanga start out the same. If you remember the earlier books of Harry Potter, Hermione is a nerd that the guys really don’t look at. In the later books, she becomes a girl the guys want. Topanga is a nerd, in the early seasons, and a bit of a nerd in the later seasons too. She goes nuts when she doesn’t get straight A’s. So does Hermione. However, Topanga becomes more normal, in the later seasons. In the earlier seasons, she was considered weird.  Hermione, in the earlier books, was also considered weird. In the later books, she is considered attractive and more mainstream.
Ron Weasley is Shawn Hunter. J.K. Rowling hints in the books that Harry Potter has more money than Ron. Ron isn’t poor, up to the level of Shawn, from “Boy Meets World”. However, Ron does show some jealousy towards Harry. Him being a star and having money left over from his parents will. We also say Corey is Ron, because Corey wants to be as cool as Shawn, but isn’t. Despite everything, Corey and Shawn are best friends, just like Ron and Harry.   

The differences, of course, are pretty obvious. Corey has a good family, unlike Harry Potter. He has Alan and Amy Matthews. Alan Matthews is one of my favorite characters on Boy Meets World, because William Russ did a wonderful job playing him. He also has his older brother, Eric and a younger sister, Amy. Harry Potter is an orphan, with a horrible family, the Dursleys. I’m not making the case that Harry Potter and Boy Meets World are exactly the same, but they do have some striking similarities.

Another similarity is the way the shows and books are structured. Boy Meets World ran each season as a year in the life of Corey Matthews, as each Harry Potter book was a year in the life of Harry Potter. Corey and Harry have such wide appeal, because they aren’t very special, and I don’t mean that as a knock. Harry and Corey are very every kid. Harry is famous in the wizardering world, and that subplot is an obvious difference from Boy Meets World. Boy Meets World is about the regular world. However, the bigger point is both have staying power because of the coming of age storytelling.

Both have this strange power of being really re watchable and being really re readable. Both audiences for Boy Meets World and Harry Potter re-read or re-watch the episodes and books over and over again. I’m not saying Boy Meets World or Harry Potter is perfect stories. Many say Harry Potter is stretched out too long, and Boy Meets World was obviously stretching out too long towards the end of the series. The whole Topanga and Corey get married in college plot was a bit over the top but hey; Hermione did marry Ron at the end of Harry Potter. The later seasons of Boy Meets World became a bit too obsessed with the whole Topanga and Corey relationship. While they did have great chemistry, keeping them as simply long term boyfriend and girlfriend would have been more believable than a full marriage. However, let me point out: isn’t that why people hate Twilight? Don’t they hate the overkill of the high school relationship between Edward and Bella, ending in marriage, even though they are kind of young? That’s another essay.

It’s odd, though, isn’t it? This show and this book series seem to be coming of age stories that have been in constant reruns or re-reads or finding new audiences for a long time now. They aren’t one hundred percent the same but they are similar in their goals, of not just entertaining, but educating and telling a coming of age story. Now, Boy Meets World, while dealing with some serious issues, did not have wars or death. It was a Friday night kids sitcom in the 90s, so of course not. An obvious difference is Boy Meets World doesn’t have a villain while Harry Potter has Voldemort.

The 1990s and 2000s are different in the way they are structured. I think the 1990s type of stories that Boy Meets World reflects are simpler than the magic based stories that Harry Potter reflects. The thing I am saying are Boy Meets World and Harry Potter having very much the same core, though. The coming of age story told well through 7 books and Boy Meets World through 7 seasons. Of course, Harry Potter was ended by J.K. Rowling while ABC probably canceled Boy Meets World. There was no way J.K. Rowling’s publisher wanted the series to end. Boy Meets World even joked openly in their show about ABC changing their time slot in one episode. The kid Cory and Topanga babysit yells they are trying to kill his favorite show.

That’s another thing Harry Potter and Boy Meets World have in common. There’s a lot of Meta humor in both of them. Harry Potter has winks to the audience from J.K. Rowling that kept the adults from rolling their eyes but the time they got through 700 pages about wizard kids. Same with Boy Meets World, which made a lot of jokes openly in their later seasons about some of the more nonsensical elements of their show.

That being said, the thing that Harry Potter and Boy Meets World have in common the most is they have really good characters that grow and change, and are in the great traditions of coming of age stories. The stories one grows up with, over a series of books or episodes, seem to stay with one and when they come on in reruns or are found on the bookshelves, one likes to revisit those stories. They have staying power, and I’m sure TV writer Michael Jacobs and author J.K. Rowling will be making money for a long, long time, if not forever from reruns and book sales. We all know J.K. Rowling is a billionaire, and it’s safe to say Michael Jacobs is probably a millionaire.

So, Boy Meets World and Harry Potter have obvious differences but also have a lot in common. I can’t say J.K. Rowling watched Boy Meets World, but I know when I write young adult fiction, I think a lot of both series. Maybe I think of Boy Meets World a bit more, because I grew up with that series, but I also think of Harry Potter. My favorite scene in “Boy Meets World” is in the finale, actually, when Corey has a hard time saying goodbye to Shawn, and Shawn goes “Are you nuts? We have to say goodbye for a hour!” That’s the way many people feel when they grow up with a book series or television series. The core elements of Boy Meets World and Harry Potter the same, forgetting the magic or the normal environment.
For a coming of age story to work, the elements are almost always the same. The growing up part is a formula, almost, that always works in a story if it’s done well. Now that’s I’ve written this essay, I expect a Harry Potter/Boy Meets World crossover fan fiction craze to start on the web. No, I don’t only expect it. I demand it. Now, get writing and make me Internet famous.
On a more serious note, though, at the reunion of Boy Meets World cast, Michael Jacobs made a good point that there is no television that really speaks to kids anymore. He said it's a audience he cares about. He is right about that. The closet show I think that speaks to kids in that way is The Big Bang Theory, which in it's self, is a coming of age story. The Big Bang Theory is a coming of age story for late bloomers, because the elements the characters experience in that show are pretty much the same  the characters experience in Boy Meets Wold. It's just they happen to be older and smarter. It speaks to a lot of younger people, because a shoe like that provides a safe place were they don't feel ashamed, because if those older guys can experience it, so can they. I think television is a important medium, and he's right. I also see, though, that a lot of the charm of Boy Meets World has moved to the book medium because of the charm of Harry Potter.