Rut, Kick, or Growth Spurt?

General writing wisdom holds that writers need to read. It’s like cross-training for the brain, I guess, working muscles that support the muscles we use to write. New stories fill the well, give us new ideas, make us think about different ways of telling stories. And I’m totally behind that advice—I love reading, and I’ll probably be reading books long after I stop trying to write them.

The really ambitious wisdom-giver might also tell writers to read outside of their chosen genres: the sci-fi writer should read mysteries, for example, to give them new ideas of how to build suspense. Thriller writers should read romance to learn how to use emotional connection to enrich character development.

That’s all well and good. Grand, even.

But what happens when a little healthy cross-training becomes an obsession?

For the last six weeks, I have been reading almost exclusively Regency romances. And not, like, artistic, historically accurate Regency romances. We’re talking anachronistic, sex-with-strangers, totally trashy Regency romances. The kind with gorgeous, glistening men on the covers, or sometimes with lovely women in three-quarters profile looking wistfully out at the sea. The kind they sell in airports and at grocery stores. Those romances.

It started innocently enough. It was almost Christmas. There was an anthology of Christmas-themed Regency romances on sale on Amazon. I bought it. Some of the stories were good. Some of them were appallingly bad. One of them I couldn’t finish.

Somewhere around the third story, though, I was hooked. Right around that time, writer of extraordinary, artistic-contemporary-romance-erotica-all-around-badass writer Tiffany Reisz tweeted about a Christmas Regency romance she loves, one she said was filled with hate sex. 

I couldn’t not buy that, now could I?

So I bought it, I read it, and by that time I was a goner. And I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve become so obsessed. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the stories, and the guarantee of a happy ending. Maybe it’s the escapism of a world where a prostitute can marry an earl and then be accepted by “society.” Maybe it’s my own need for low-pressure, commitment-free reading that asks no comparison to my own work. When I was a teen, I spent a month or so around finals reading Danielle Steel novels (I’m so ashamed), so apparently this is a lifelong pattern. With great stress comes the need for bad reads.

Christmas has come and gone, and I’m still reading the darn romances. I’m not using the added seasonal element to excuse myself anymore. I have better things I should be reading, friends’ books I should read, fantasy books I’ve been meaning to read. Hell, I have books own my own to read, edit, and even write.

But I’m not going to stop. I’m going to ride this rut until I crash. I spent months in 2015 not reading at all, simply because I didn’t have the mental energy to pick up a book or follow a plot, and I didn’t have the psychological energy to invest in anyone else’s troubles, fictional or otherwise. The fact that I’m reading now is a very good sign, regardless of what I’m needing. Writers and readers alike sometimes need the mental vacation that comes with consuming lighter media. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And who knows. Maybe I’m learning something, growing as a writer. If the general wisdom says it’s true, I can believe it, right?

Bouncing Back From Burnout

Burnout.

Rarely spoken of but universally experienced, burnout is probably the reason the statistics about writers look so bad. Hundreds start writing, dozens make it to submission, and only  a few end up getting published—and much of that elimination process is actually self-selection: the “strong” survive, while the “weak” gradually fade from the pool.

It’s that binary there that’s sticky, though. What makes one writer strong, while another writer is weak? General wisdom says that writers write, and a successful writer is one who never stops writing, not even for birthdays and national holidays. And if you get sick? Well, sit down, shut up, and write about it, because writers write, damn it, and that’s how you can tell who is serious about this work. If you’re not serious, well, you’d better go home, because you won’t make it if you don’t treat it like Serious Business.

There’s some truth in it. Publishing is serious business, and if you don’t recognize that, you probably won’t get very far. But the ‘never complain, never quit’ attitude might be hurting us as much as it helps us. In the last year, I’ve seen several writer friends disappear off the face of the internet. I’ve had friends leave publishing altogether. I’ve had others get seriously sick or seriously depressed, and I’m sure there are still more I don’t know about because they haven’t publicly admitted that they’re struggling.

I’ll say it here: I’ve struggled.

The last year has been incredibly difficult for me, career-wise. And it was no picnic in the six months before that. I stepped back from blogging, I went quiet on Twitter, and I started wondering if all this heartache and struggle was what I actually wanted.

It is, but it’s taken me awhile to realize that. And recovering from burnout is a process, not an event: I have yet to magically wake up one morning and say, “Ah-ha! I feel good about my creative life once again!”

But I’m reaching the point where I want to write again. I realized recently that I miss writing, and I found myself thinking about a new character’s life choices, wondering why she wants to make the choice that will instigate a whole new book. In short, I was tending tiny plants that will, one day very soon, become a towering tree of a project—and I’d planted the seeds, without knowing it, in the dark winter of my burnout.

So how did it happen? Well, I’m not an expert, and I’m certainly not fully recovered yet, but I have noticed a few things that have helped me start to recover.

1. Put a timeline on it. Tell yourself, “I’m on vacation from writing (or a particular project, or a friendship that’s troubling you, or WHATEVER) until X date. I won’t do it, think about it, or feel guilty about not doing it or thinking about it until that time.” And then hold yourself accountable. Whether that date is one day or one year from now, give yourself that time to actually recover. Don’t spend your free time worrying about how much you’re not getting done.

2. Cultivate another part of your identity. One trouble with recovering from writing burnout is that, as writers, BEING a writer is such a big part of our identity. It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. And if we’re not writing, we’re not just failing as a writer, we’re Failing with an emphasis on that capital F. We’re neglecting a vital part of our selfhood, so that when we do take time off, we feel adrift. But the truth is, each of us is much more than a writer: we’re friends and lovers and painters and bikers and who knows what else. Take your time off to develop some aspect of yourself that makes you happy. Discover another side of yourself.

3. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for not writing. And don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up about writing. The key here is to cherish yourself in your time off. Take time to do things you might not do when you’re not on vacation from writing: take a bubble bath when you get home from work. Do yoga in the morning when you’d normally be writing. Go to a movie on Saturday instead of staring at a blank white screen. Actually use the time you now have to recuperate and relax, and don’t just use the time to make yourself feel worse.

Those are the things that have helped me. Have you experienced burnout? And if so, how did you recover?

When NaNoWriMo Eats Your Soul

Since it seems like several of us Scribes are participating in NaNoWriMo, and hopefully by now we’ve all crossed the halfway point and entered the OH NO WHAT COMES NEXT danger zone, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what happens when the words turn on you and NOTHING comes next.

You know that feeling. You’re staring at the blank white page and suddenly it starts staring back at you. Maybe you have an outline, maybe you don’t, but you find yourself wondering how on earth to get your character from doom and gloom to heroic cat-saving antics. Maybe you’re wondering why you thought anyone would ever find this protagonist funny or sexy or impressive. Every sentence you’ve ever written seems like crap, and you realize you have absolutely no idea how to word any more.

You, my friend, have had your soul eaten by NaNoWriMo.

Hey, it happens. And sometimes there are legitimate reasons for the implosion: you got sick, you got busy, life got in the way. But other times, it’s just the fear talking, the gaping hole where your sanity used to be leering up at you like an oozing, sulfurous hellmouth that leads only to self-doubt and despair.

Whoa. Maybe NaNoWriMo ate MY soul.

So how do you get past it?

Clearly Buffy failed NaNoWriMo.
Clearly Buffy failed NaNoWriMo.

If you want to win NaNo and pave over that terrible stress-ripped maw in your psyche with shiny new feelings of confidence and glorious creativity, you have to learn to grapple the formless, ever-expanding fear that eats away at your ability to write. While there are loads of ways to do it and not everything works for everyone—and this particular writer has fallen victim to the soul-eating fear and doubt more than once—a few simple tricks seem to help most people.

1. Pursue another creative endeavor. Draw, paint, sculpt, knit, create papier mache dolls and sew little outfits for them, do what you need to do. Hell, grab a coloring book and some crayons and just color out your feelings, man. Sometimes occupying the lower (higher?) functions of your brain with a creative hands-on task can free up your mind to work out plot kinks or even just rest. It’s like yoga for your brain. I knit like a madwoman, and every time I pick up my needles, I feel like each stitch sews a piece of my exhausted mind back into place. Try it.

2. Give yourself an actual day off. This means actually taking mental time off from writing: don’t think about how you’re not writing, don’t recalculate how many words per day you’ll need to finish. Go do something completely different, and let yourself feel no guilt about taking some personal time. You’ll feel rested and refreshed when you return to the keys the next day, and I promise that will help you leap across the hellmouth of doubt.

3. Read something you love. Read something new. Read anything with a plot and characters. Read poetry! Read. Read. Read. Genius inspires genius, and there’s no scenario in which reading someone else’s words doesn’t help. Go read.

4. If you absolutely must write, try something completely different in your work: change your angle of approach. What’s the worst thing that could happen to your characters? Figure that out, and make it happen. What’s hanging you up about where you’re currently at? Can you skip it, and go on to another scene? Sometimes we just get into a rut, especially when working on a long, intensive project like a novel. Shake up your creative process by making things happen. (Bonus: if you’re bored, there’s a good chance your readers would be bored, too. Explosions are always an acceptable plot device.)

5. Change your scenery. Some of my most productive days happen when I go write at my library or a coffee shop. Taking your work out into the world means the world gets to influence it. Maybe that cute girl with the nose ring will be an extra in your next scene. Maybe the gorgeous old building across the street will be the scene of a crime. Maybe staring blankly at a different wall will inspire you in ways the walls in your house can’t. Be a part of the world, and let the world be a part of your work.

So there you have it: tips for fighting your soul-eating, word-blocking demons. What do you do when the great black hole of doubt threatens to consume your creative existence?

Book Lovers’ Heaven

After Sirens Con, a big group of us went to Powell’s Books in Portland, which turned out to be heaven on earth. I’d never been before, and it was so hyped that I just couldn’t conceive of what it would be like. And then…

powells

It was freaking awesome. I didn’t actually manage to take any photos in the store (the first time, anyway—we’ll get to that!) because I was running around going, “Look at this! Nooo, look at this! I have to buy this! No, I need to buy THIS.”

 

Brian's books!
Brian’s books!

I had a list, you see. Every time someone mentioned a book that sounded interesting, I wrote it down in a little notebook I carry just for random book recommendations, sudden plot ideas, and spontaneous note-taking. The list was… well, it was long. Especially when I told my husband that I wanted to start venturing into sci-fi (specifically sci-fi written by women or with female main characters) and the list suddenly doubled.

It got longer when it occurred to me that Powell’s would probably have a giant manga section (which it did, incidentally). If I’d thought to add cookbooks, historical biographies, or knitting books, the list probably would have been long enough to make Christmas tinsel out of.

My head just about exploded from excitement.

Our group swarmed the sci-fi/fantasy section, making recommendations, searching for used copies of books several of us wanted, generally having a righteous book party. It was, no joke, one of the coolest afternoons of my life.

Emmie's purchases. See mine below!
Emmie’s books!

For our first round of purchases, Spouse and I kept it under control. Ish. We bought mostly used books, we (almost) kept it to things we knew we wanted and wouldn’t find elsewhere, like odd manga or used paperbacks, and we tried to limit our purchases so the shipping cost wouldn’t double the total money spent. I culled a few titles I knew I could get elsewhere, and that was it.

We checked out, we gave the nice clerk our address, and we told our books farewell, knowing we’d meet again in Indiana. But then… I felt oddly bereft. I wanted to cuddle and caress my new books, to bond with new characters, to fall in love with new writers. I had a new book idea, and I wanted to read some sci-fi IMMEDIATELY, not X-number of days after we got home.

On our final day in Portland, we just magically happened to be near Powells again. (Totally an accident, by the way. Yeah. *shifty eyes*) And look what happened:

Oops. These books just crawled into my basket!
Oops. These books just crawled into my basket!

We didn’t ship these. In fact, we may have had to rearrange our suitcase twice to get these (and the others we bought that day) into our luggage without resorting to another checked bag. Cordelia’s Honor actually made it into my carry-on, and when I fell asleep on the plane, Spouse was rude enough to tug it out of my unconscious grip and spend a 45 minutes reading MY book. The nerve.

My souvenirs from Portland were almost all books, and I have no regrets. To spend an afternoon with other writers and book lovers, talking books, holding books, sniffing books, loving books, was to spend a tiny part of my mortal life in heaven. Look at all the adventures we’ll now share, all the discussions we’ll have about all these titles. Look at all these huge worlds and wonderful people, flattened on the page but alive in our imaginations.

Look at my heavens.

The books that made it home with me.
The books that made it home with me.

The End of an Era: Saying Goodbye to The Hollows

Don’t worry: this little piece of nostalgia will be completely spoiler-free for the last few Rachel Morgan books. I know many of my fellow Scribes read The Hollows series and aren’t caught up yet, and I don’t want to ruin anything for them!

20140911_132354About nine years ago, give or take a few months, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were talking on the phone and he mentioned this book he was reading. “It’s about a witch. She has a pixie for a sidekick and she lives in a church with a vampire. She has a boyfriend who was once a rat, and she accidentally made him her familiar!”

Cue record scratch. Kristin’s ears perk up. “What on earth is this book, and where can I get it?”

Turns out, it was The Good, the Bad, and the Undead by Kim Harrison. (Being less obsessive about doing things in order, now-Husband started with the second book. I put in a request at my local library for the first one, Dead Witch Walking.)

At the time, there were only three books out. Can you imagine, Hollows fans? Three books! I fell hard for the first book and ended up buying all three. I spent my summer living and breathing The Hollows. It was a memorable summer, all on its own: my parents had moved to Wisconsin from Texas while I was abroad in Rome, and I was living in a new place, working a new job, dating a new guy, and everything in my life was topsy-turvy.

But reading about Rachel Morgan reminded me of one thing that had always been constant: I wanted to write. Kim Harrison’s books inspired me and reminded me that fantasy, my genre love, could be fresh and exciting. The Hollows were the first books to expose me to urban fantasy, if you don’t count Harry Potter as UF, which no one seems to. Witches in a modern setting, using spells to hide their freckles and bring down the bad guys? GET OUT.

In a small way, my life changed in a very big way from that moment.

Since 2005, I’ve grown and changed a lot, right alongside Rachel. I’ve made some big mistakes (maybe not quite so big as trying to let my best friend drink my blood or pissing off an entire bureaucratic coven of witches), but Rachel and I have both learned to accept our mistakes for the brave, ballsy, greedy-for-life adventures they were. And we’ve both learned that even if our lives don’t look exactly like what we expected, if they’re filled with love and laughter and doing our damnedest, then they are lives absolutely worth having.

This is actually the first series (again, aside from our friend HP) I’ve read from beginning to end, seeing the main character in myself, growing alongside her, swearing when she made the wrong choices and smiling to myself when things finally fell into place for her. I went from being younger than Rachel to being older than Rachel, but my love for her never really changed.

Book 13, The Witch With No Name, came out just a few short weeks ago.  For nine years, I’ve been reading each new installment in the series eagerly, and this would be the last time. I wanted to do it right. I looked up the tour dates and saw that Kim would be in Indianapolis the day after the book came out. I said to now-Husband, “Unless there’s a freaking tornado, we’re going!”

And we did. It was, in fact, a dark and stormy night, but it was a fantastic one all the same. The lovely Kim answered questions, bantered with her husband, and was all around lovely and totally adorable. She signed our books, smiled for pictures, and was exactly what I wanted her to be: my inspiration, still.

I’ll miss Rachel Morgan, yes, but I’ll read Kim’s next series happily, and I’ll treasure The Hollows for being the series that moved me, encouraged me, and reminded me to never stop fighting for what I believe in.

What series have shaped your lives, even in a small way? Have you ever followed a series from beginning to end?

20140910_195710

 

A Golden Age of Smut

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of smut. What do I mean by smut, you ask?

You know, erotica. Romance novels with no fade-to-black. Lady porn—though I’ll ask you not to call it that, please and thank you. I call it smut with great affection: most of the books I’ve been reading, I view as the readerly equivalent of chocolate candies. They’re delightful while they last, but they have little nutritional value. More than bubble gum, say (you know the bubble gum books), but less than the kale smoothies that we sometimes have to read for classwork.

I go through smutty reading phases every year, and this latest one can, as so many things are, be blamed on my bosom friend and fellow Scribe Emmie Mears, who recommended to me Abigail Barnette’s The Boss.

“Try it,” she said. “It’s FANTASTIC, a great alternative to 50 Shades of Abusive Assholery. It’s a D/s relationship in a similar vein, billionaire dude, not-billionaire woman. But she is independent, intelligent, has agency and real thoughts, her character is FUNNY and insightful.”

And I thought to myself, “Self… you deserve some chocolaty goodness.”

Reading erotica allows us to explore our fantasies, even if those fantasies are something we’d never want in reality, and it gives us a safe space to be purely sexual creatures in a world where women especially are often discouraged from thinking of sex as an arena for play rather than competition. In other words, chocolaty goodness allows us to fully realize our capacity for delicious taste sensations.

So I promptly bought, devoured, and enjoyed all three books in Barnette’s series. And afterward… I wanted MOAR. Goodreads lists with titles like, “Smut for the Smart,” “Taboo Reads,” “Hot List.” Buzzfeed lists. Google searches. I plunged in with wild abandon. I’ve been reading Tiffany Reisz’s The Original Sinners series, which has been on my to-read list for ages, and I may take the leap and try out The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by Anne Rice, writing as A. N. Roquelaure.

Yep, there’s a theme to my smut reading. We’ll get to that.

It got me thinking about how lucky we are to be reading smut right now, at this moment in publishing history. Self-publishing has lowered the gates, and the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Yawn has paved the way for festishism to go mainstream.

It’s a new era of sex positivism, and I think that’s fantastic.

I see a few contributing factors. One is the gatekeeper thing: self-publishing has allowed more people to put work out there, and women are eating it up, perpetuating a healthy cycle of growth. But let’s look at some of the factors more closely.

1. E-readers make it possible to read whatever the hell you want without judging eyes seeing a half-naked man/woman/vampire/alien on the cover. When we don’t have to worry about others think, we feel confident exploring our fantasies, even when those fantasies are taboo. Although some people worry that e-readers and digital books are eroding the quality of published work generally, I think digital reading devices are an excellent “power place” for skittish readers: they allow us to read what we want without having to make a public statement about it by brandishing a cover at whomever is sitting opposite us on the bus.

2. The 50 Shades Phenomenon (arguably an offshoot of the Twilight phenomenon) has proved that women (and men!) want to read loving, graphic, sex-positive stories about female characters who aren’t afraid to own their own sexual needs and desires. While the publishing industry made 50 Shades a financial juggernaut, women are the ones who responded to what it offered: it wouldn’t have made umpty-million dollars without an eager audience. And the fanfic that launched a thousand similar novels, despite its own less-than-great quality, is in itself a fantastic thing because it opened the door to legitimizing that audience’s desires.

3. The resultant glut of erotica on the market in the wake of 50 Shades has provided for audiences a veritable smorgasbord of fetishes, fantasies, and filth. (Sorry, I had to.) Once publishers and writers realized audiences wanted these types of work, the market exploded with new material. While some might point out that it’s difficult to choose among these many options—the chocolatey goodness is spread too thin, if you will—I say it’s great because there’s something for everyone, and that helps to normalize sexual desires someone might otherwise be reluctant to explore. Because of the popularity of the genre, I’ve been able to find a number of D/s stories that are well-written and portray well-rounded individuals in healthy (and occasionally troubled) relationships. And because it’s fiction, just words on a page, the threat levels are lower than they would be in life or even pornography.

4. Finally, the work of previous generations of writers and educators has culminated in a new generation of women (writers AND readers) who are able to partake of these new resources with discernment and creative synthesis. Women of my age have grown up in an environment that says we can do and be whatever we want, even if we have to fight to make it happen. Because of a previous generation’s work, we’re mentally equipped (empowered, if you wish) to own our desires and our choices. We recognize that those choices help to shape the world when we vote with our dollars or our vocal support. Further, though, we’ve cultivated in ourselves a capacity to separate our fantasies from our politics: just because a given woman wants to be dominated in the bedroom, it doesn’t mean she wants to be submissive in life.

All combined, these things have added up to a market for erotica that means we can pick and choose literary treats that suit our tastes, feel safe reading them, and explore our sexuality in a healthy way.

What do you think, dear reader? Have you read any good smut lately? What do you think of the current trend for fetish erotica? What do you think has contributed to that trend?

Virtual Hoarding

I was, I suppose, a semi-early adopter of Pinterest. I heard about it, checked it out, played with it. And yet, I never really got it. I pinned things I liked for the wedding: gorgeous dresses, pretty bouquets, decoration ideas. I thought it might help me develop a mental picture of the wedding I wanted to have, and that might help the florist and event staff with the decorations.

wedding pins
My cake was similar. Sort of. And the shoes…

It didn’t.

Really, the florist designed my wedding, and she did a fantastic job. But my carefully curated collection of online images really contributed nothing beyond keeping me busy for a few hours every week. And even then, I wasn’t sure what the point was.

When the wedding was over, I stared at my pins, closed the website, and moved on with my life. I’d hear people talking excitedly about pinning things, finding great ideas for crafts and cooking, and I’d try it again halfheartedly, creating a new board, putting three things on it, and moving on again. It just didn’t captivate or distract me the way it seemed to do for so many women my age.

I was puzzling over my lack of the virtual hoarding gene on Twitter one day, when several of my fellow Scribes told me they used the site to create “inspiration boards” for their works in progress. This intrigued me. As a teenager, I made giant collages on my walls and notebook covers, cutting and pasting photos and phrases from magazines that inspired or moved me, and I would look at those pieces every day to lift me up when I experienced the inevitable teen lowness I regularly felt.

So the thought of a digital collage just for one of my books? Well, you can bet those $700 boots you pinned last week that I wanted to give that a try. So in investigated the boards of my fellow Scribes, and I thought to myself, “Self. This looks like fun.”

I started off slowly, with the actors who looked like my characters. Then I added a protagonist’s gun, and some photos of San Francisco. And that was the beginning of the end.

pinterest
Just a few of the things.

From book boards, I moved on to fairy garden boards. Then it was gorgeous or adorable animal photos, followed by ideas for steampunk cosplay. And now that we’re about to be homeowners? It’s all about the home decor.

I’ve even gotten my husband hooked. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone or we might scare him off.)

So what’s the deal? What changed, to make me finally “get it?” Is Pinterest just virtual hoarding, as I said, a concentrated form of browsing that allows you to save images and links for no real reason? Or is it something else, a type of creative outlet that helps you simultaneously brainstorm new ideas while also sorting through your existing thoughts? A little from column A, a little from column B?

What do you think? Do you use Pinterest? Is it part of your creative process, or just a way to kill time?

Why Friends Ended Up Kicking HIMYM In the Pants

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t like sitcoms), last week saw the long-anticipated end of How I Met Your Mother’s nine-year run.

why god gif

And it sucked. It blew major chunks. It bit monkey butt. It died kind of like—

Oh, wait. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want spoilers, STOP NOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. HERE BE SPOILERS FOR BOTH HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER AND FRIENDS. Though if you don’t want to be spoiled on a show that ended a decade ago, um, well, just go somewhere else.

Okay.

So, HIMYM ended with the eponymous Mother dying (offscreen no less) and the show writers undoing nine years of character development for not one, not two, but THREE characters. What started out as a grand deconstruction of the sitcom ended up being a mockery of viewers’ expectations and a cliched perpetuation of the boy-meets-girl-and-traditional-moralities-win scenario.

The day after the finale, I promptly turned on Friends, which, as it turns out, is the last great sitcom. And here’s why:

friends hug

1. The overall plot and character arcs remained fluid over the course of the show. The ultimate problem with HIMYM’s was the show runners’ commitment to an ending they wrote and filmed five years before the show actually ended. At the end of season 2, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided that the best, most desirable ending was for future-Ted to say, “Psych! This is the story of how I met your mom, she died pitifully, and I told you I wanted to hook up with your Aunt Robin.” While viewers might have been happy to hear that at the end of season 2, when we knew and loved Robin but hadn’t even learned a single damn thing about Tracy, the mother we would come to know and adore. On the other hand, Friends developed story arcs year by year, and, with the possible exception of the Ross-Rachel ending, cultivated endings that worked both for the characters and the audience. Which leads us to…

2. The writers worked to please the audience without compromising the show’s integrity. When Rachel and Joey finally kissed, fans hated it. HATED IT. So what did the writers do? They walked it back. The characters realize that the obstacles complicating their relationship (friendship, history, and lack of chemistry) make them better friends than romantic partners. By contrast, when Monica and Chandler hooked up, fans LOVED it… because that relationship worked and made sense. Although that relationship was intended to be short-term, the show kept that plotline because of the fan response. Generally fans ship or don’t ship for a reason, and when we hate a relationship, it’s because it either doesn’t work or it just isn’t believable. If, in season 2, HIMYM fans wanted Ted and Robin to end up together, we had seven more years to advocate for Robin and Barney, and Ted and “the mother,” a character the show made us love. Things change, and so do fan opinions.

3. Character development was gradual, believable, and sustainable. It takes Chandler six years to become a man who was willing and able to date a woman like Monica. Through a succession of gradually improving relationships, he matures into a stable man who not only wants a relationship, but also works to make it as good as he can. Unlike Barney, he never undergoes a lightning-bolt moment of change—and, on the other hand, when he ends up committing to Monica, the show never undoes it. Barney wasn’t, in the end, capable of sustaining a monogamous relationship, but HIMYM didn’t prepare us for that U-turn. The end of Robin and Barney’s marriage was, perhaps, inevitable and realistic, but we had no reason to believe that in the build-up to the end. The divorce came like a slap in the face, and all to serve the writers’ desired ending.

ass

4. Rather than marginalizing “supporting” characters, the show built up and eventually equalized the treatment of the entire cast. While the network pushed for a “primary” plot line with two characters, and some viewers might argue that the Ross-Rachel story is the most important, most fans will argue (alongside the producers and the cast) that the show is a true ensemble. Late in the show’s run, the actors even entered collective negotiations on contracts to ensure that the “lesser” characters’ actors were receiving the same amount of pay and prestige as the “primary” actors. Joey and Phoebe ended up getting as much air time and as serious stories as the rest of the cast. HIMYM, however, had to rush to wrap up the secondary plots in the finale: Robin’s success in her career was marginalized by her sadness over losing Ted, and we never even see the mother of Barney’s child.

5. Characters were challenged but not undermined. Monica and Chandler can’t have children. Career-woman Rachel gets pregnant. Offbeat Phoebe realizes she wants to get married and breaks up with the man she loves who doesn’t want marriage. While, ultimately, this is a sitcom and everything ends happily, characters face realistic challenges along the road to reaching their individual happy ending. While HIMYM did a fantastic job with this at times (Robin’s infertility, Lily’s lack of fulfillment with motherhood and teaching, the death of Marshall’s father), in the end, the things the characters stood for ended up not mattering that much. Ted’s years-long battle to get over Robin? Apparently never happened. Robin’s desire to not be a mom? Doesn’t matter, if they’re not her kids. Barney’s gradual realization that monogamy is pretty okay? Goes away as soon as he and Robin get divorced. Why build up a character’s needs, wants, and desires if you’re just going to undo that growth in the season finale?

long hard day

6. Although the show does perpetuate a few more traditional stories (hetero-romances ending in marriage, babies, and a house in the suburbs), it also showed less stereotypical lifestyles: Ross’s lesbian ex-wife and her marriage, Joey’s continued single life, Rachel’s choice to be a single mom AND a career woman. Yes, all ends happily, with three of the six main characters married and two in a committed relationship. But the show never forces bachelor Joey into marriage or commitment, as HIMYM did for Barney (and then brutally undid in the finale). And while Robin is a successful journalist, we don’t even get to see her feeling happy or fulfilled by that life: all we see is her sadness over losing Ted. And while HIMYM showed Barney reverting back to his, erm, promiscuous ways after his divorce, his character immediately becomes prudish Super Dad Man after his daughter is born. It’s sweet, and NPH did a terrific job with that scene, it’s hard to swallow. HIMYM does get kudos for Ted and Tracy’s decision to have kids and live together without getting married until, well, they do. Ten points for realism there.

7. Friends had a satisfying ending. In spite of everything I’ve said above, the most important reason why Friends kicked HIMYM’s ass was the top-notch, heart-warming series finale. The show manages to refer back to earlier episodes without regressing, and it also includes new developments and characters (Paul Rudd as Mike, anyone?!). It tugs on the heartstrings, but not in a manipulative way (“And that’s how your mom died: OFFSCREEN!”). The finale gave us a chance to not only see our beloved characters reach happy endings, but also to say goodbye to them in a satisfying way. No one was jerked out of the world, no one suffered beyond the normal sadness of farewells, and no one was neglected for having already wrapped up their story.

friends ending

Ultimately, the producers and writers of Friends bent over backward to create and sustain character development that was believable, and they incorporated fan reactions to story lines without ever crumbling into fan service. So… if you want to watch a funny, satisfying sitcom? In the end, sometimes the classics stay popular for a reason.

Choose Friends.

Choosing Your Teammates

Historically, I am known for being TERRIBLE at asking for help. One of my journalism professors used to lecture me at least weekly on my need to ask my colleagues for tips, connections, or leads. And I never did. It’s not because I’m proud, exactly, or because I didn’t want to share. No, I tend to not ask for help because I think I should be able to do it all on my own. Asking for help feels like a failure, for some reason, like I wasn’t good enough to do whatever it is I need help with on my own.

Sometimes your team helps you climb mountains... literally.
Sometimes your team helps you climb mountains… literally.

That’s not really the point of this post, though, so we can leave that for Dr. Freud to deal with. Because over the years, I’ve come to realize that reporting, writing, and, hell, even life require us to have the support of a dozen other people, friends and family and mentors, business associates, competitors, acquaintances, all the people who help us turn our wishes and dreams into goals and reality.

Last week, I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the newest installment of his Stormlight Archives series (which, if you like epic fantasy and you aren’t reading, you need to pick up RIGHT NOW), and, naturally, I started with the acknowledgements. I like to see who writers rely on, who helps them and supports them and loves them… and for a book like Words of Radiance, a veritable army of teammates supports the writer himself.

It got me thinking about how my own team has expanded in the past few years. When I first started writing more, and taking myself seriously as a writer, I tended to write in the wee hours of the morning, after my husband had gone to sleep. I was still working as a reporter, and often those dark hours were the only times I had to really let go of my reservations about fiction. I hoarded my words, both proud of them and oddly embarrassed by them, and I neither asked for support nor let anyone support me.

I finished that book, but it took years… and I’ve never reread that work.

Lately, though, my team has expanded. My husband, of course, is my partner and my “alpha” reader, the only person to see rough drafts and the primary person who holds my hand and tells me I don’t suck. Then there’s my bosom friend Emmie Mears, my critique partner, who also tells me I don’t suck and gives me valuable feedback on my books. These two are also indispensable for moral support. I also rely on Team Awesome and the ladies of Spellbound Scribes, who keep me going, encourage me, and generally help me to be better than I would be on my lazy lonesome.

It’s mostly public knowledge by now, too, that I’ve recently changed representation. I’ve learned in the last year just how important it is to have an agent who is as enthusiastic about your work as you are, who is willing to dig in and get her hands dirty helping you make your work as good as it possibly can be. And I’ve found that with the amazing and dedicated Jes Negròn.

I’m a pretty lucky writer, it turns out. And that’s just counting the folks whose friendship bleeds into my working life. I’m also blessed with amazing friends who occasionally drag me out into the sunlight and remind me that there are real people out in the world, as well as imaginary. I have friends who let me cry to them, but then take me out and get me drunk and make me laugh so hard I squeak. I have friends who know when to listen and when to turn on Doctor Who. I have family who believe in me no matter what.

Sometimes your team helps you see the funny when the caterer drops your wedding cake on the floor.

Opening yourself up to that kind of support can be tough, though, because you have to admit that you’re vulnerable before anyone can even attempt to help you. You have to loosen your grip on those precious words or dreams or wishes, and let someone else breathe a little life into them. While some writers (J.D. Salinger, anyone?) can live without teammates who don’t mind that you leave tea bags and saucers in the bedroom or that you occasionally don’t call for weeks, most of us need people who can put up with those little quirks and, more importantly, support the dreams those quirks represent.

So what makes a good teammate?

For me, a good teammate not only holds my hand and tells me it’ll all work out eventually, but he or she also challenges me to be BETTER. She encourages me to do another sprint or to write another new opening chapter. She never accepts that I’ve done my best until I can say, definitively, “YES, I have met my goals and lived up to my own potential!” And the greatest part of all? She trusts me when I say that. And she takes me out to celebrate when I do. And when I can’t quite get there, she pours me a glass of wine and tells me that I will, and that it’s okay if I can’t right now. Because she never stops believing that I’ll get there.

Sounds like a perfect person, yes? The nice thing about these folks is that they do these things for me because they expect no less. And I do the same for them. In these relationships, the love and support, the encouragement and uncompromising belief in me, are simply as natural as breathing. It’s what we do.

So who is on your team? How did they get there? How do they help you?

Anime and Me

For what feels like most of my life, people have wanted me to watch and like anime. First it was one of my best friends in elementary school with her abiding love of Sailor Moon. Then it was my first roommate in college, the one who was obsessed with… um… well, frankly, I didn’t care and can’t remember what particular shows she enjoyed. We didn’t get along, and I have less than fond memories of her slurping ramen noodles and donkey-laughing at whatever show she was watching… at three a.m.

This what I think of your ramen and your creepy schoolgirls: BLECH.

So I made it to adulthood without ever gaining a foothold on the genre*. The strange story lines, the bright colors and alien appearances, the focus on teens and children, the often unintelligible plots that just didn’t translate into English culture, let alone language—all of it turned me off. But when I met my husband, who likes anime and whose recommendations I have a harder time ignoring, I was systematically presented with a veritable universe of characters, stories, and artwork to try on for size. Drew knew I would find something to like in a category that contains more variety in stories and subject matters than most small-town public libraries, from historical fiction to sci-fi to middle-school drama.

After a few mishaps with giant robots and creepy schoolgirls, I set him a few guidelines, meeting at least two of the three following criteria:

1. The artwork needs to be pretty.

2. The cast needs to include strong female characters OR, at the least, the male characters can’t all be sexist a-holes.

3. A fantasy or fairy tale element is preferable, but not strictly necessary.

Mushisi: Gorgeous, fantastical, and non-sexist. Too bad it once made me hurl.

With the help of these guidelines, Drew introduced me to xxxHolic (pronounced simply, and oddly, “holic”) and Mushishi, both of which are fantasy, have a few strong female characters (though their portrayal isn’t always what I’d call the feminist ideal), and have a strong connection to Japanese myth and folklore, which I can dig. We watched xxxHolic from beginning to end, though main-character Watanuki’s shrieking hysteria nearly drove me away many times, and we made a good start on Mushishi, though an incident with an entire bottle of wine and an episode about an ear-worm monster ended badly and I haven’t *gulp* managed to return to the show yet.

Enter Revolutionary Girl Utena. We told our manga-loving friend Amy about my staunch indifference to most anime, and she told me I needed to watch Utena, because the show had taught her so much about feminism and had honestly changed her life. She thrust the DVDs into our hot little hands, and we gave it a whirl.

Utena: If you get it, please email me and explain. Seriously.

On its face, Utena sounded perfect for me. Female lead wants to be a prince (better translation: knight?) and sets out to rescue “Rose Bride” Anthy from what appears to be a secret society at their school. Sounds like it makes sense, right? Pretty straightforward girl-rescues-girl! Until girl seeks mystery prince, other girl betrays girl, secret society seeks heaven, other girl has incestuous relationship and her brother, other-other girl has incestuous relationship HER brother and, well, I have no idea. Remember what I said about unintelligible plots? This show is so incomprehensible, so opaque that even Drew eventually admitted defeat, and then only after arguing that it was all alchemical metaphor for, uh, something.

Whomp-whomp. Anime fail.

kitten fail

After that, er, mishap, we returned the DVDs to our friend, and nothing more was said about anime.

Then, last week, I came home from an errand and Drew said, “You know, I just tried an episode of anime you might actually like. It’s about otaku girls—you know, the uber-fans? Well, the main character is an otaku who loves jellyfish, and she lives with a bunch of other otaku girls. It’s sort of about how they feel like they can’t fit in, and I think you might actually identify with it!”

Hmm. When I type that out, it sounds kind of insulting, but it totally wasn’t. I swear.

Anyway, it sounded interesting, so we gave it a try and… *drumroll*… I loved it!

Princess Jellyfish tells the story of a group of otaku women who live in the lone holdout building in a neighborhood targeted for gentrification. The story actually manages to parallel the women’s feelings of awkwardness and isolation with their love for the “retro,” eccentric old building they inhabit, and their push-pull relationship with the outside world is crystallized in their reluctant friendship with a “Stylish” who has acceptance problems (and secrets) of his—I mean, “her”—own.

“It’s looking at me! Oh god! Go limp!”

And how did it do with my criteria?

Well, it’s not fantasy, and the artwork isn’t notably beautiful, so it actually rather failed. But it tells (to me) a real story about real women, and I absolutely identified with the characters. My little rules ended up getting me shows that alienated me for other reasons, and because I was so bound by my own expectations of anime as a category, I eliminated whole swathes of stories and refused to acknowledge entire groups of characters.

So floored by how much I actually liked Princess Jellyfish, I wandered into the manga section at my local bookstore recently, and the ENORMOUS selection there completely overwhelmed me. Serials about Greek gods? Check. Romances? Check. Sci-fi epics about assassin girls? Check. Fairy stories? Check. Stories about anything and everything that might possibly interest me, told with every technique from gorgeous pencil sketches to comic book-style drawings? Oh yeah.

In the end, I learned my lesson. Anime is absolutely not a well-defined term that means “silly, garish cartoons about girly superheroes and giant robots.” Rather, it’s a medium filled with rich worlds, diverse characters, and thought-provoking stories. Check it out: you won’t regret it.

Just be sure not to set yourself any silly rules… and remember that not every “Stylish” is what he—I mean, “she”—appears to be.

*Anime is more accurately called an art form or style than it is a genre, but it’s very often CALLED a genre by folks who don’t quite understand what it is—like yours truly, until very recently.