Six played-out teen contemporary tropes (most of which I’ve used)

I recently saw a teen film, The Duff, which is about this girl who realizes that in her girl posse she's kind of the ugly one. The movie was charming, as I expected, but what I did not expect was how many teen movie tropes it played completely straight (as in, without even blinking an eye about how used-up they were). Now I am probably the last person who ought to write about this, because I too have used many of these tropes. Bum going too anyway, and I hope this criticism will be taken in the gentle spirit in which it's intended.

  1. Antagonist is a bitchy girl who's mean for no reason - Yeah there're plenty of people in high school who're mean just as a form of asserting their own dominance. But in this day and age, you've got to go deeper than that. Mean Girls is 12 years old! If Mean Girls had had a baby, she would be about to become a Mean Girl herself. At this point the bitchy girl thing just seems a little lazy. Also it can border on sexist, since you're kind of just saying, "Welp, some girls are like that!"
  2. Makeover montage - Lots of teens dress like total slobs, and lots of teens would look a lot better if they dressed more nicely. What was actually nice about the Duff is that they didn't pretend her montage had made her an order of magnitude more attractive. This isn't like the Princess Diaries or She's All That, where the heroine goes from nerd to stunner. And in her montage, the focus was more on loosening her up and making her act more naturally and more confidently. But still, the makeover montage feels tired. There's got to be a better way of showing us that this person is changing.
  3. The midpoint of the movie centers upon some sort of public humiliation -- In so many movies, at around the midpoint or two thirds point, something will happen: the teen will do something embarrassing that's caught on video. Or they'll mess up while in a play. Or they'll accidentally get broadcast over the PA saying something pathetic. And it'll destroy they're reputation. This is also really understandable. Teen movies are usually centered around very private stories: one person's hopes and dreams. Putting them at the center of some broader fiasco is a way of putting the stakes and making their problem seem more important. But it often feels like a way of sidestepping the core conflict of the story. Here the problem is that this girl, the protagonist, feels like a core part of this trio of friends, but to the rest of the world she's only an adjunct. Any way of upping the stakes ought to somehow involve that disparity between self-image and public image. But what happens (the bitchy girl shares an embarrassing youtube video of her) doesn't really seem to matter, because it doesn't involve her two friends at all. It's a way of waving your hands and making conflict in order to power the book. OF course, this is also something that I did at the midpoint of MY book, Enter Title Here, so I am completely guilty of this one.
  4. Tired cultural commentary about social media -- In The Duff at one point the protagonist breaks up with her friends by unfollowing them from a bunch of social networks. At another point, the principal tries to make some statement about cyberbullying. It's all a little bit shopworn. Sure, kids use social media a lot. So do adults. It's a vehicle for story, but it's not STORY itself. What matters should be the things they do or say online, not the fact that they're happening online. It's like if there were a bunch of movies from the fifties where kids were like, "Let's do things in our cars! Because we have cars! And cars take you places fast! Cars can be dangerous, you know!" Like, alright, we get it. They have cars now. They didn't used to. But it's not a particularly interesting point.
  5. The climax of the story is a speech or article or video or underground newspaper released by the protagonist -- Again, I am very guilty of this. The climax of my novel is a speech that Reshma makes at her commencement. But it still should not be done! Mostly because of the way this statement can't help but feel preach and overpackaged. Almost always it takes the themes of the story and puts them into a trite, condensed form (adult movies, particularly comedies, do this all the time: see this year's Bad Mom's.) Like, come on, movies need to find subtler ways of telling us that their protagonists have grown up.
  6. Too much focus on the annual rituals of the average American public high schoolThe big third-act focus  of The Duff, we always knew (because it was heavily foreshadowed), was going to be the Homecoming dance. Where, of course, the selection of the Homecoming King and Queen proves to be a major setpiece. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. I suppose Homecoming is really important to plenty of high schoolers. But after awhile it becomes visually boring. We've all seen enough wavery lights and teen girls dancing in wedge heels and short dresses. There's no new take on the Homecoming dance. One of the things I was happiest about in my book was that I left out Prom and Homecoming. What's funny is that there are other rituals which almost never show up. Like you rarely see the Senior Prank or the Senior Skip Day. And you rarely see a movie that dares (as did Dazed and Confused, for instance) to just invent a tradition.

[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I'm a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn't already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then...I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can't put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith's A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, "Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that's apparently what I write now!" So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, "Oh, okay, I'll read the great works of modernism." And I read Jacob's Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn't continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, "Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I'll read a bunch of german novels now!" And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I'd spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn't want to do it...

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc...)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don't even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and...well...I've pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don't know. I've been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you're actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don't watch myself, I'll stop reading "difficult" books. But I don't know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it's readable...but it's also a book that's repulsed me in the past. So we'll see. Maybe this time next year I'll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

Thinking about moving away from writing novel-length adult science fiction and fantasy

Me, after I go literary

So, the thing that I didn’t mention in my post about getting an agent is that Greenhouse Literary specializes in children’s lit. At one point, that would’ve given me pause. During my initial rounds of querying, I only considered authors that repped adult science fiction as well as YA. However, my next adult SF novel didn’t really work for me. I lost interest in it halfway through the revision process. And the one after that (the novel draft that I completed a few months ago) was another YA novel, this time a contemporary (i.e. non-speculative) YA novel. For a YA writer, that’s fine—it’s totally normal to move between the subgenres of YA. But if I’m an adult SF writer who dabbles in YA, then that’s a bit off: it doesn’t really fit the narrative.

So I more and more like the idea of being a YA writer. The field feels a bit more active (although these things can change pretty quickly). But it also feels a bit more accepting. YA novels can have a number of different structures and plots and types of conflict.

SF, on the other hand, feels like it’s very limited to the standard adventure plot. Even very sophisticated and high-concept SF (stuff like the work of Brian Francis Slattery or Jeff Vandermeer or Cory Doctorow) kind of has these adventure plots. And I feel like I’m a bit over that. The part of the story that I’m most interested in is the rest of it: the situations, the characters, the settings—I resent every page that I have to waste on action scenes.

Of course, action is not mandatory in adult SF. Some of my favorite SF novels (Beggars in Spain, Speed of Dark, Farthing, A Scanner Darkly, 334, Flowers for Algernon, Stand on Zanzibar) have no action. Actually, Stand on Zanzibar might have some. I can’t remember, since I still have no idea what the actual plot of the book was.

So you can write non action-oriented adult SF. But…you’re kind of a marginal figure. I realized this when I was looking for books to review for Strange Horizons. The vast majority of books that come out in SF are series fiction: trilogies about fantasy heroes; never-ending series’ about paranormal detectives; books about spaceships shooting at each other with lasers. And all of those things are great! But if you don’t write those things, then you’re kind of at the fringes of the SF world.

In YA, that’s not true. Although dystopian / SF / Fantasy novels are popular, they don’t necessarily need to have these adventure-hero plots. And, furthermore, there’s the whole contemporary subgenre, where you pretty much never have that kind of plot. It’s not that there’s more freedom, it’s just that there’s more of a possibility that the thing you produce while being free might actually, you know, sell some copies. In SF, the most sophisticated writers either settle down to writing (very sophisticated) fantasy trilogies or detective novels or space operas, or they accustom themselves to being left out.

And that’s not what I want for myself.

The problem with YA is that, even though I like writing it, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing entirely about the lives and problems of 15-19 year olds. I do, at some point, want to write about adults.

But I’m seriously considering going all literary. Literary fiction isn’t a very big sector, but (in terms of sales) it’s about equal with SF (both are about 6% of the total book market; and both are dwarfed by mysteries, which are, in turn, dwarfed by romance). It feels like in literary fiction, just like in SF, people are primarily looking for more commercial stuff, but their definition of “more-commercial” is way different. They just want some high-concept lit-fic that actually has a plot. And I can do that. Plot is in my DNA. I’m never gonna write a novel that doesn’t move.

So yeah, I have an idea for a literary fiction novel (i.e. no speculative elements at all). I already produced a novella (27,000 word) version of it, and I am seriously pondering how to expand it to 60-70,000 words. I can’t speak to where my sense inspiration will take me, but I’ve found that my sense of inspiration tends to be very closely aligned with my professional self-interest. And, professionally, I think it’d be a pretty good career move to polish that thing up and try to make it my first-published adult novel. That way, even if I wrote more-speculative work later on, I’d be firmly established as a literary writer.

And yes, part of this is just I sort of just want to test out the correctness of my theory re: how one can get into the New Yorker =)

But of course, all of this is just dreaming. Generally speaking, it’s pretty difficult (for a number of reasons) to plan this sort of stuff out.


Oh, and as a final note, none of this will affect my short fiction output, of course. I love the SF short fiction market. It’s way more fun and vibrant than the literary fiction market. I honestly think I’d rather publish in F&SF than in McSweeney’s.