Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing With My Own Voice

Lately I have been spending a lot of time sending queries to literary agents, looking for someone to represent my work. This means I've been spending a lot of time reading agents' websites, particularly what they are and aren't interested in reading; it's a waste of time and shows a lack of professionalism to blindly send out queries without doing your homework first to find out whether the agent is interested in the type of book you're trying to sell. A common thread I see among many agents, particularly those who represent young adult literature, is a desire to find #OwnVoices authors, meaning authors who come from a minority class and write books with protagonists from that same minority. Many agents will tell you to put the #OwnVoices hashtag in the subject line of your query email, with the promise that they'll give your query higher priority.

I have conflicting feelings about this trend. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with the motivation behind it: all readers, but especially children, deserve to see themselves represented in literature, both by the characters and the authors. We've had hundreds of years of western literature primarily written by straight, white, cisgender men, and it's vital for the health of our pluralistic society to make room for other voices. On the other hand, I'm a white cisgender man and (a) I also have stories to tell, and (b) many of those stories I want to tell are about people who are different from me. Of the two books I'm trying to sell right now, one is about a Hispanic Mormon girl and the other is about a straight black boy with a speech impediment. The next book I'm anxious to write features a Native American trans lesbian as the protagonist. I struggle with questions of authenticity--I have legitimate fears that Hispanic, black, or Native people will read my books and say, "Who the hell are you to represent my identity?" I include a rather self-conscious line in one of my books where one black teen accuses another of talking as if he were speaking dialog written by a middle-aged white dude, because my usual response to discomfort is making a joke of the thing that makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't want to be boxed into writing characters who are just like me. For me it's important that literature--whether I'm reading it or writing it--is as much a window as it is a mirror.

The real sting comes in the fact that I have a legitimate claim to minority status thanks to my sexual orientation, but I'm not capitalizing on it. As I mentioned last week, although I pretty much always include gay supporting characters, most of my protagonists are straight. Of the eight books I've written so far, only two have gay protagonists. This is partly because of what I was saying above, that writing characters who are different from me is important to me, but also, I think, because when I started most of these books ten to fifteen years ago, I was still in a place where I was figuring out what being gay meant to me. When I tried to write gay characters during that time, I found it extremely difficult because the subject was too raw to me--I didn't have enough distance to gain any perspective.


I'm in a better place now, though, and if writing gay characters will make me more marketable, then that's what I need to do. I'd feel cynical coming to this conclusion if it were really just about marketability, but it really isn't. Writing gay characters is very much in line with my personal mission as a writer, and I'm looking forward to exploring what it's like to be a gay teenager, now that I have some perspective. So I've decided the next book I polish and shop around to agents will feature a gay protagonist. I could polish up one of those two I've already written with gay protagonists, but neither of them is speaking to me at the moment. I could write a brand new book--honestly, I could claim #OwnVoices with the trans lesbian book I've been plotting, especially since her two best friends are a couple of gay Mormon boys--but it's important to me to polish up and sell the books I've already written, so that I don't end up spending my life writing rough drafts and never finishing anything. My husband suggested I just make the protagonist gay in one of the two books I'm shopping around now, and I considered it, but it doesn't feel right for either of those. But that made me think of the next book I was planning to revise, and making that protagonist gay works quite well. He already has a girlfriend and a gay best friend, so I just need to switch their relationships so that it's a boyfriend and a female best friend. And his coming out process will fit quite nicely with the existing themes of the book.

And if, at the end of the day, all those years of gay teenage angst pay off in making me a more marketable author, I won't complain. I deserve something for going through all that.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My Catalog

I don't love talking about writing. It feels so pretentious to talk about myself as an author when my publishing credits include only a handful of short stories, personal essays, and scholarly articles. I fear I come across as some delusional dreamer with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. One thing that separates me from the average Joe who calls himself a writer but hasn't actually written anything is that I have written quite a bit--I think more than most unpublished authors--but that claim begs evidence to back it up, and I despise talking about things I've written even more than talking about writing in general. My stories are so close to my heart, and attempting to sum them up in short taglines invites scrutiny that I'd rather avoid; I fear that no matter how good the actual book is, my attempt to describe it will just sound dumb.

That said, a necessary step toward becoming a published author is selling my work--to literary agents, publishers, and eventually readers. To do that I need to be able to describe it, to catch people's attention with a very short pitch. So, as an exercise in learning to sell myself, I give to you my catalog of unpublished novels (each is complete beginning-to-end, but some are more finished than others):

  • Temporal Integrity (2002- ). Sixteen-year-old sci-fi geek Mike learns that until a time travel accident massively damaged the timeline, he was actually in his twenties, married to a beautiful woman, and working alongside her as an agent of Temporal Integrity Maintenance and Enforcement, whose mission was to prevent just this type of disaster. Or, possibly, he's just crazy. 
    • This was the first novel that I finished. With that in mind, it wasn't great, but I loved the story enough to rewrite it from scratch in 2012, approaching it as a more experienced writer. This will be the next one I polish and shop around to literary agents. 
  • Don Quimby of BYU (2002-2006). College freshman Adonis Quimby becomes convinced that he has superpowers and drags his roommate, Santiago Pérez, along for his quixotic superhero misadventures. 
    • I wrote this with a Mormon audience in mind but had no luck with LDS publishers. I still think it's a fun book but I doubt I'll ever put in the effort to rewrite for a general audience. 
  • The Posthumous Adventures of Charles Dickens (2003-2005). The ghost of Charles Dickens visits his descendant, fourteen-year-old Joey Dickens, and dictates to him the sequel to one of his most beloved works: The Posthumous Adventures of David Copperfield. The book is good enough and Joey's claim about its authorship controversial enough to propel Joey toward fame, until Joey has to decide between claiming that fame for himself or standing by the truth he knows. 
    • This novel was my master's thesis for my creative writing degree, which means you can find a copy of it at the BYU Library
  • A Little More Than Kin (2004- ). While directing his high school's production of Hamlet, Rick Sorensen devises a plan to get revenge on his uncle-stepdad Hal for supplanting Rick's father at home, at church, and in the community. 
    • I haven't touched this one in ten years but I think it has potential so I'll likely return to it eventually. 
  • Xscape (2004-2017). Remy Johnson is the only powerless child of the Johnson Five, a family of teen superheroes who rose to fame three decades ago. When Remy's uncle J.J. is killed in action, Remy embarks on a quest, along with his superpowered cousins, to discover the truth behind J.J.'s death--and his life. Along the way, Remy will also uncover secrets about himself, and learn whether he has what it takes to be a hero, with or without powers. 
    • This is the book I most recently polished, and now I'm shopping it around. 
  • Sacred Fall (2005- ). While on a Boy Scout camping trip, Jacob gets lost in the mountains of north Oahu along with one of the Scout leaders--who Jacob happens to be in love with. 
    • Pretty much all my books have gay characters, but this is the only one so far with a gay protagonist. (EDIT: Ha ha, that's totally a lie. Kenji from Freerider and Boost below is also gay.) We'll see if I feel inspired to return to this unpolished draft after returning to Hawaii this summer for my high school reunion. 
  • To Zion: A Love Song (2006-2017). Dora Pérez wants nothing more than to sing on Broadway. When Dora’s little sister Toto stows away on her trip to New York, Dora gets swept off on a cross-country adventure in search of Olyvia Zion, a reclusive pop idol Dora’s never heard of, and before she knows it she’s part of a hip-hop/metal/folk fusion band and competing in a nationally-televised talent competition.
    • Recently polished and currently shopping around. Incidentally, Dora is the little sister of Santiago, one of the main characters in Don Quimby above. I like the idea of my books existing in a shared universe. 
  • Freerider and Boost: The Beginning of the End (2008-2010). After discovering an ability to telekinetically control--and talk with--his snowboard, Kenji Nakayama joins a cult of superheroes preparing for the end of the world. 
    • This is meant to be the first in a five-book series, my personal Harry Potter. After polishing it I shopped it around a bit, but gave up pretty quickly. I should probably try again, but feel like I should do another revision first, since I'm a different writer now than I was seven years ago. 
  • Alice's Restaurant (2017- ). This one doesn't belong on this list because I haven't written even a rough draft yet and I'm not ready to talk about the plot, but it's the first new concept I've been excited about in years. I've been plotting it for almost a year now and I'm anxious to dive in to writing something brand new, after focusing so much on revision lately.  
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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World, Redux

Wonder Woman opens in theaters this weekend and I'm excited for a number of reasons: Gal Gadot was the best part about Batman v. Superman, so an entire movie devoted to her sounds fantastic; early reviews suggest that the DC Cinematic Universe finally got one right on their fourth try; and this film leads us toward this fall's Justice League, which I've been waiting for since I was twelve. Above all, however, I'm excited for Wonder Woman because, nearly forty years after Richard Donner's Superman and nearly thirty years after Tim Burton's Batman, it's about damn time the boys stepped aside to let their female counterpart shine.

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I haven't always called myself a feminist, mostly because I wasn't sure I had a right to the title. I read Xavière Gauthier in college and applied her theories to feminist critiques of Batgirl comics and E.M. Forster novels, but in my mind I was an outsider borrowing ideas from someone else. When a feminist critic publicly attacked me for perceived misogyny in essays I published in 2005, I was flabbergasted because gender equality is a concept so deeply ingrained in my value system, but still in defending myself I didn't dare to call myself a feminist, for fear of being called out on my ignorance of the full body of feminist literature. I didn't understand at the time how diverse feminism is, or that not even the most educated feminists have read all the literature. 

I don't remember how or when, but eventually I came to realize that, despite the fact that I'm a man and despite the fact that I don't know everything that every feminist theorist has ever said, I can still be a feminist. To me, being a feminist means that I believe men and women should be treated equally, and that I recognize the many ways we are not treated equally. It means when I see injustice I speak out and do what I can to change it, even especially when that injustice favors me. It means I question the assumptions we as a society and I as an individual make about gender. 

At some point in my process of coming to identify as a feminist, I published an essay that I'm still quite proud of, "Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World." At the time I was in a mixed-orientation marriage and, ever since that feminist critic had attacked me five years earlier, questioning how my decision to marry heterosexually would be perceived by others, particularly my daughters. I was worried about inadvertently sending a pro-patriarchy message when that was the opposite of my intent, and concerned that my life was too enmeshed in patriarchy to successfully teach my daughters anything but. In the comics, Wonder Woman was raised on Paradise Island among the Amazons; how could I raise girls to be strong like her in my world of men? 

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THIS is not the version of Wonder Woman I wanted to raise.

Seven years later, I can't say that my home, headed by my husband and myself, is any less of a Man's World. We do our best to teach gender equality and oppose patriarchy, but at the end of the day it's two men calling the shots. Nonetheless, our daughters and our son seem to be doing pretty well when it comes to understanding the wide range of options available to them. The conclusion I came to in my essay still holds true: I do what I can, and where I fall short others step in. My children have a number of great female role models, between my ex-wife, my husband's ex-wife, aunts, grandmothers, school teachers, music teachers, dance teachers, church leaders, and friends. And now they have a kickass live-action Wonder Woman to look up to as well. We still have a long way to go, but today is a good day to be a feminist. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lighting a Lantern for Mom

Last week on Mother's Day, I flew to Seattle for business. The business I was there for didn't actually start until Monday morning, so Sunday evening I visited my alma mater, the University of Washington, and walked from there to Green Lake. I walked around the lake, taking pictures of the gorgeous sunset. And then I happened upon something unusual: A group of four women releasing floating lanterns into the sky above the lake. It was such a beautiful sight, I couldn't help watching and taking photos. But then I felt creepy for photographing these people I don't know doing something that appeared to be some kind of intimate ceremony. So I approached them afterward, apologized for taking photos without permission, and offered to delete the photos and/or share them. The women gratefully accepted my offer to share the photos with them. They explained they had been sending the lanterns off in memory of their mother, who had passed recently. I told them that my mother had also passed recently, about a year ago, and they unexpectedly offered to let me light a lantern for my mom. I was touched by their willingness to share this experience with me, and thankful for the opportunity to participate.


As I watched the lantern float away into the sky, I thought happy thoughts about my mom and imagined those positive feelings going out into the world, my mom making the world a slightly better place through me and others she touched for good. I remembered laughing with her, I remembered how she worked hard as a waitress and single mother to support me and my siblings, I remembered how she gave me her love for learning and for music.


After I thanked the women and started walking away, another take on the experience occurred to me: Sending that lantern into the sky could just as easily be symbolic of me letting go of the more negative effects of my relationship with my mother. I won't detail my mom's shortcomings here because that's not my purpose, but I will say that in many ways she was not emotionally equipped to raise children. I believe she did the best with what she had, but I have spent much of my adult life realizing how abnormal and deficient my childhood was, and how unhealthy my relationship with her was. My life can be split into three parts: The first eighteen years I spent unable to distinguish my mom's emotional needs from my own, the next eighteen years I spent slowly separating myself from her emotionally, and now since she passed I finally feel free to be myself completely, with my own needs and all. In the past year I have come into my own more than I ever managed to before. From that perspective, letting that lantern fly away was cathartic, like releasing the baggage that my mom left me with.

I am not ungrateful for all my mom did for me and all she gave me. I love her and I miss her. I also feel relieved to be free of the more difficult aspects of our relationship. No human relationship is all good or all bad. Perhaps the contrast between the good and the bad in my relationship with my mother is more stark than in most. Regardless, it was nice to say goodbye to Mom--both the good parts and the bad parts--one more time. She is part of who I am, and now more than ever I'm happy with the person I've become.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Frequency

Recently, my husband and I have become connoisseurs of quality music videos. At least that's what I tell myself to feel better about how much time we waste on YouTube. Sometimes we feel like watching something but don't want to commit to a full-length movie or even a TV episode, so we've been building a playlist of music videos that we enjoy watching over and over. Randon has even written a computer program that downloads new videos as we add them to our list, so that we can watch them offline and without ads (and without paying a premium for ad-free viewing). The list is about half Mika videos, with the other half from a variety of artists ranging from Janelle Monae to Pentatonix to Scissor Sisters to OK Go. The best videos have great music, of course, but they typically also have visual appeal, make an interesting point, or tell a good story.


Take, for example, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Same Love." We have several Macklemore videos on the list because most are hilarious, but this one has a different appeal. Or, I should say, different appeals, plural. The song itself sounds great, between Ryan Lewis's masterful production, Macklemore's smooth rapping, and Mary Lambert's beautiful chorus. The lyrics argue for gay rights and marriage equality, which makes the song personally meaningful for me. The video tells the story of a gay man from birth to death, including his difficult coming out process and his joyful wedding, which is a story I can relate to. And to top it off, the cinematography is top-notch, with nearly every shot a delight to view.

The other day we were watching Adele's "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)." We've watched the video before with friends and have discussed what a technical feat it is--for the choreographer to come up with multiple dances that look good when overlaid on top of each other, and for Adele to learn those multiple, similar-but-not-quite-the-same dances well enough to pull it off. And whoever chose that dress knew what they were doing; the intricate design adds a complexity to the overlaid images that makes it even more fascinating to watch. So as we were watching the video the other day and I was thinking of these conversations we've had about the technique behind it, I thought, "It's a shame most people who watch this don't realize what must have gone into making it." And then I immediately thought, "That's stupid. In the first place, it's pretentious to assume that I, with no training in choreography or cinematography, am capable of understanding anything 'most people' wouldn't, and in the second place whether or not you are conscious of the effort that went into making great art, you can still appreciate the end result."


That's the thing about great art--it appeals to many different people because it has multiple layers of appeal. When I was a library science student at the University of Washington, I took a class from Nancy Pearl where she talked about the different ways books appeal to readers: through plot, character, setting, and language. Her point was that different books have different appeals--some have strong characters, some have beautiful language--and so we can find books people will enjoy by understanding what appeals to that particular reader. As I thought about it, though, I realized that the books with the widest appeal are strong in all four aspects. The Harry Potter series, for example, has a captivating plot, memorable characters, unique settings, and clever language. Some would argue that popular literature is a very different thing from good literature, and I agree that the two are not necessarily the same thing, but I would also argue that the two are not mutually exclusive.

As far as I'm concerned, the best art appeals to the masses as well as to us snobs who are interested in the craft behind the art, in uncovering deeper layers of meaning. As an artist, my goal is to communicate. If I can appeal to different types of readers in multiple ways, then I am simply using multiple frequencies to broadcast my message. Whether you are listening with AM radio, FM radio, or broadband internet, if I connect with you on your personal frequency then I've succeeded.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Inked

It took me two years in this house before I started painting it to make it my own. It took me thirty-seven years in this body. For much of my life I had no interest in tattoos, but in the past year or so I've become more and more intrigued by the idea of transforming my body into a canvas for my art. It wasn't until this past February that I came up with a design that I wanted to put on my body, and then I waited three months to be sure this wasn't a passing whim. I now have two tattoos and I love them.

As I thought about what kind of tattoos I'd be interested in, I knew that the design had to be my own--I wasn't going to point at someone else's tattoo and say, "I want one of those." The whole point of it for me is artistic expression. I also knew I wanted something bright and colorful. Most importantly, whatever I put on my body needed to have meaning.

I came up with a pair of complementary tattoos for my two shoulders:


On the left shoulder I have the Justice League. More specifically, I have the Justice League shield with the emblems of what I consider to be the most iconic members of the League: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Green Arrow. There are few things so intrinsic to my core identity as my love for superheroes. I realized last week that April was the 25th anniversary of my first superhero comic, so I was happy to get this first tattoo done before the month ended. Originally I drew the design in Paint just as a mockup, but I decided I really liked the imperfectly-proportioned, assymetrical, cartoony look. To me that captures the fun, youthful energy I was going for--I didn't want a tattoo that took itself too seriously or looked like I was trying to be a badass. The color palette was also important to me; I went with magenta instead of red in Superman's shield because I wanted bright pastels, and I chose purple for Hawkman's emblem even though it's traditionally red because I wanted all the colors of the rainbow. It's my way of showing gay pride without something as obvious as a rainbow flag or an equality sign (although I considered both).


On the right shoulder I have a heart-shaped, rainbow-colored globe. Again, I went for cartoony rather than realistic, and kept the same color palette as the other shoulder. The globe represents my love of travel; as I travel to new countries and continents over the course of my life, I plan to add dots to those locations in the tattoo. The heart shape is a cheesy reference to global unity, peace, love, granola, all that. The seven continents also remind me of the seven most important people in my life: my husband, our five kids, and myself. I intentionally included myself there because sometimes I need a reminder to love myself and to value myself as much as I value others, so now I will have that reminder every time I look in the mirror.

I couldn't be more pleased with the work Chris Corvi at My Pride Tattoo did. He took my design, stayed true to my vision, and improved on it. I love the shadows and the gleam he added to the blue backgrounds--both were elements I'd crudely represented in my mockup, and he made them look fantastic. I love that I have art on my body now. I'm already starting to think of what I'll do next.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Batman and Me

Twenty-five years ago I bought my first superhero comic book. The cover date was April 1992, which means it was actually published in February 1992, for reasons that are unclear to me, but I'm going to go ahead and call April 2017 my 25-year superhero anniversary. The book was Batman 476, and the cover featured Batman revealing his secret identity (gasp!) to Vicki Vale.


I was twelve. I had always loved Batman, whether on reruns of the 1966 Adam West TV series or on Super Friends. When I was little I'd had pajamas featuring Batman and Robin, and another set featuring Superman. My older sister had made me a reversible cape that was Batman on one side and Superman on the other. When the Michael Keaton movie came out in 1989, I got special permission from my mom to see it even though it was rated PG-13 and I was only nine. That movie kicked off a renewed phase of Batmania in American culture, and I loved that it transformed a beloved character from my early childhood into a kickass character my pre-adolescent self could appreciate.

I don't remember what inspired me to pick up that Batman comic. I know I was fascinated by the cover of this particular issue because of the seemingly seminal moment it portrayed; was I getting in on Batman comics just as he was going to reveal his most guarded secret to the woman he loved? As it turned out, no, I wasn't--the story shows Batman imagining what it would be like to reveal his secret identity, but he doesn't actually get around to doing it.

Despite the mild disappointment of the cover fake-out, I was hooked. The gorgeous art by Norm Breyfogle portrayed a sexy, muscular, dynamic Batman. He wore the familiar blue and gray colors that recalled the campier Batman of my young childhood—as opposed to Michael Keaton’s black rubber suit—but Breyfogle made that costume look cool with its long bat ears, pupil-less white eyes, and skintight fit over an athletic physique. Breyfogle remains my favorite Batman artist to this day. The story itself, written by Alan Grant, was dramatic and exciting in a way that connected with me, even though it was the final part of a multi-part story. The story felt very grown up to me, compared to the Batman of my early childhood, and that made me feel grown up. Like Breyfogle, Grant also became one of my favorites.

Batman was a gateway drug for me. From there I quickly branched out to the Justice League, the Teen Titans, and every other DC character I could afford to follow with my meager teenage income. I loved the brightly-colored costumes (shocking, I know) and the perfect male physiques (also shocking), but more than anything I loved that these characters had fifty years of history behind them, and that history was continuing to unfold in a shared universe. You never knew when a Batman story might reference a Superman story from a decade prior. I spent the rest of my adolescence digging through back issue bins to fill in the gaps of that history that I couldn’t fill in at the library. I spent lunch recesses in the school library, reading and rereading the few collections they had there. I took frequent bus rides to the state library to check out their collections, as well as a superhero encyclopedia I checked out so many times I may as well have owned it.

I could psychoanalyze my reasons for diving so deeply into the world of superheroes. The universe these characters shared was a fantasy I could fully immerse myself in when the real world sucked—as it did for me through much of my teenage years. The characters became friends I could connect with at times that I was afraid to connect with real people. One of the primary conceits of the genre, the secret identity, was something a deeply closeted gay Mormon kid could relate to. And so long as I was unwilling to let myself fall in love with real men, being in love with fictional characters was a safe outlet. (One of my sisters once expressed concern that I was attracted to men because all those scantily-clad, large-breasted women in my comic books had desensitized me to female beauty. All I could think was, Do superheroines have large breasts? I hadn’t noticed.)

(Yes. Yes they do.)
Honestly, I don’t know why I fell in love with superhero comics, and I don’t know that it matters. I’ve been following these characters through twenty-five years of ongoing stories. I’ve seen favorite characters die and come back to life, grow old then get retconned young again, get married and unmarried and married again, and have children who’ve grown into new favorite characters. I’ve been through three Robins in my comics-reading life and have gotten to know three others through the back issue bins. I always thought I’d eventually grow out of this thing, but twenty-five years later that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s just that my reasons have changed—as a teen the stories made me feel grown up, but as an adult they make me feel young again.