Boys and Reading – Is There Any Hope?

Boys and Reading – Is There Any Hope? – NYTimes.com is a great article about the issue of getting boys reading in an industry dominated by women from top to bottom. I recall in high school where one of our English teachers (a middle-aged woman going through menopause) made us all read The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence (about a middle-aged woman going through menopause reflecting back on her life) which as you can expect all we 15 year old boys completely related to. We related to it so well that it (and being forced to read books like it) literally drove me and many of my classmates from reading novels for years, and I didn’t get back into it again until University. (And this was before the Internet was there to distract us!)

Also from the article:

But I think it’s also about the books being published. Michael Cart, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, agrees. “We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become,” he told me. “In a commercially driven publishing environment, the emphasis is currently on young women.” And then some. At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-­quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires.

Naturally, authors are writing for this ready group. The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from M.F.A. programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers. It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.

He makes it almost sound like a conspiracy, which of course it isn’t, it’s simply how the industry has shaken out, since they’re making most of their money from a female audience. On the educational side, male teachers and librarians are sadly uncommon at the elementary and middle-school levels these days, so there is a gap there in connecting with boys as well. (Ironically, during the most critical time for making that connection!) So the boys get shortchanged and don’t always get directed to the stories that they will connect with the most. (Which isn’t helped by school book collections that are woefully ancient in their topics and selections.)

This is especially sad when you consider the high divorce rates and nature of modern families often mean there aren’t fathers around to direct young boys and show them that reading is something for men as well. They see their sisters reading, and reach the decision that reading is something girls do, and decide to shun it in favor of X-Box and sports. (Well, those boys who actually play sports, anymore…) Only the more nerdly of boys seem to gravitate towards reading, instead of a general audience who would benefit from it.

A sad state of affairs all around.

Rob

Feeling a Little Evil? – Method to the Madness has been Unleashed!

The long-awaited handbook that belongs on the shelf of every world conquerer has finally been released upon the world!

Want to know the in’s and out’s of supervillain fashion? It’s in there!

Want to know about care and feeding of your minions? It’s in there!

Want to know how to decorate that new lair just right? It’s in there!

Want to know about how a real supervillain handles a public relations crisis? It’s in there! (And I should know, I wrote it!)

The world’s 24 worst villains were asked to provide their best tips and advice, and now these secrets will be shared with you!  Each copy been scanned for nanotech zombie plagues and hypnotic commands to bark like a dog, and found to be completely safe! (And if not- you won’t remember anyway!)

So, shamble on over to Amazon, Smashwords or visit the kind folks at Five Rivers Publishing and grab your copy today! (Remember- The early bird who hesitates gets wormed!)

Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters – Medical Daily

Behold! The power of reading!

Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.

via Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters – Medical Daily.

Time to Stop Reading Song of Ice and Fire (#GameofThrones)

Tonight, I watched the final episode of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, and with it, I have reached the conclusion that I need to stop reading the books.

(Spoilers for Season 2 of the TV show and book!)

In an earlier post, I stated that I found the first episode of this new season rushed, and wondered sincerely if it was going to be intimidating for new viewers. Well, now that I’ve seen the season, and Game of Thrones has become the most downloaded TV show of the year online, I think I can safely say that viewers have flocked to the show in droves. If anything, it’s more popular this season than it was last season.

Not that I think this season was without flaw- the whole season felt to me like the producers were tripping over themselves to tell the story as quickly as they could, and to cram a much larger story into a very limited time. There was almost no time for anyone to even breathe this season, as events just piled on other events, and the whole thing rushed towards its fateful conclusion.

I’m not too worried about that next season, however, as the producers have decided to break Book Three into two seasons, and give themselves and the story room to maneuver- a very smart decision.

Regardless, as Book Two closes, I have reached two conclusions:

1)      The television version of Game of Thrones is actually superior to the prose version.

2)      I’m going to stop reading Book Three, which I’m about a third of the way through at the moment.

As a writer, it pains me to say that the written version is inferior to an adaption, but in this case I truly believe that to be true. This show has taken Martin’s original story and gotten rid of almost all the fat (of which there was apparently quite a bit), and tightened it up in ways that make it truly superior.

Take Arya’s storyline, for example. In the book, there must be at least a hundred pages spend on Arya running around, getting captured, becoming a servant, and her eventual escape. But, in the book this was very much a solo story, and it only served to further Arya’s character. In the TV version, the pre-capture version of the story is cut down to a minimum, and when she does become a servant in Harenhall she’s the servant of Tywin Lannister.

Now, suddenly, we have her story intersecting with a largely neglected character from the books, and we get two stories out of Arya instead of one. Not only that, but her exchanges with Tywin are some of the best bits of the season, and we grow to respect and fear him in a way we never really feel about the mysterious senior Lannister in the books. (At least not by the beginning of Book Three.)

And it doesn’t end with her, boobies aside, some of the best material of the season was material written for the show that bares only a slight resemblance to the original books. John Snow’s storyline with Iirgit now makes much more sense, and plays out in a more natural and interesting way than the original book’s endless natural trail adventures.

Even Dany’s tale is more interesting, developed, and just plain deep than the plodding, wandering story that it’s based on. And this is saying quite a bit, as I dislike Dany and consider her and her storyline a waste of screentime!

So, based on this, and a desire to actually experience the show as something other than a reflection of the novels, I’ve decided to put my copy of Book Three on my shelf and let it sit there unfinished. I might finish it someday, but it won’t be until long after the seasons based on it have aired and I’ve gotten to enjoy the show as a fresh experience like those who haven’t read it have. Perhaps I will never touch it again, and that’s okay too. I don’t seem to be missing much, and if anything, I might be gaining by not reading the books.

There is another reason, of course. I also know that Book Four and Book Five are, to put it mildly- a mess. I’ve heard Book Four is basically what all the boring characters spend that period of time doing, and Book Five tells what the people we actually care about did during that same overlapping period of time. Rather than have to plod through that, and not knowing when Book Six may come out (if ever), I think it’s better to let the TV show producers sort it all out and serve it to me on a golden platter.

Sure, the show may get cancelled before then. But, if that happens, I’ll just read the books.

It’s win-win either way!

 

Rob

What Writers can Learn from Fanfiction(.net)

About once a year I make a point of visiting the website Fanfiction.net, which as the name might suggest is a giant trove of fanfiction, perhaps the largest on the internet with 6.6 million titles as of March 2011. Fanfiction, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a special form of writing where you take existing characters, settings and situations from media and write your own stories with them. So, for example, if you were a fan of Harry Potter (as a few people are), you might choose to write stories about Harry’s other adventures, or even your own adventures at Hogwarts. The field is wide open, and the only limit is that it must be tied to an existing work of media fiction in some way.

It is of course technically illegal, since these writers are using copyrighted materials to produce their own works, but as long as nobody tries to directly make money off it the tradition of the rights holders has been to turn a blind eye to fanfiction. This is actually very smart, since fanfiction itself acts as a form of advertising for the different media properties and there are many fans whose first taste of a story may in fact be a fanfiction written by their friends. Seeing how passionate the story has made their friends, people often look into the original stories, and so new fans are created. (All at no cost to the original rights holders.)

Thus fanfiction.net, a place which is technically a giant repository of intellectual property theft, exists and will continue to exist as long as the bills are paid.

Now, I mentioned I try to visit fanfiction.net at least once a year. Why do I do this?

Well, it’s not because I’m a reader of fanfiction (I haven’t been in some time), nor am I a writer of fanfiction (as I’ve publically stated, I think it’s not good for writers who have any longer-term prospects), but I do think the site is an extremely valuable tool for writers to be aware of, and I’m going to tell you why.

Simply put- fanfiction is what happens when stories make readers so passionate that they want to create more of them. Some aspect of that story has struck a chord with readers/viewers to the point where they not only want more, but must have more, and want to share it with others.

So, based on this, fanfiction.net is a treasure-trove of pure hard data about what stories are actually resonating with readers. This isn’t stories that have been “liked” on some website, reviewed, or “voted most popular”, this is unfiltered data about what has actually struck a primal chord with readers. Not only that, if you were to really examine it, it would show you what elements of stories really worked with readers as well. Who did the readers really connect with? What part of the story did they like the most? What things do they tend to ignore when they remake their own versions?

The possibilities for data-mining are endless, but unfortunately few people have the time to do that much digging, and this is especially true for writers, who have to, you know- write.

The other issue is of course that not everyone writes fanfiction, nor does it apply to both genders equally. Charles Sendlor, on his fascinating blog Fan Fiction Statistics, was able to get actual data from fanfiction.net on users for the year 2010, and discovered (to sum up) that 78% of fanfiction.net users were female, and that the average age of fanfiction writers on the site was 15.8 years of age. (With the very vast majority of users being between 12 and 21 years old.)

So, if you’re trying to find out how middle aged women feel about James Patterson thrillers, then this is not the place for you. However, if you are trying to figure out what sells to young adults, step right up! Because this is where you will learn exactly what appeals to them!

So, how do you find this information?

Well, there are two things you should be looking for: popularity, and titles written.  You can access both of these easily by picking one of the nine major categories on the site and then selecting Sort by Popularity from the options at the top. (Unless you’re looking for specific titles, in which case you have to do it the hard way.) This will then show the different titles in the category by order and alongside each in brackets will be the number of titles (stories, not chapters or parts) which have been written about that particular story.

For example, let’s look under the “Books” Category for today (May 20th, 2012):

  1. Harry Potter (593,840)
  2. Twilight (199,947)
  3. Lord of the Rings (46,365)
  4. Percy Jackson and the Olympians (26,092)
  5. Hunger Games (18,950)
  6. Maximum Ride (15,783)
  7. Warriors (12,746)
  8. Phantom of the Opera (10,278)
  9. Chronicles of Narnia (9,522)
  10. Gossip Girl (9,169)
  11. Song of the Lioness (8,116)
  12. Outsiders (6,974)

I’m sure most of these top 12 surprise very few people, although there are a few curve-balls in there. Phantom of the Opera has over 10 thousand stories written about it? And the Outsiders, a book written in 1965 about teen gang members, is #12? It’s interesting what sticks with young people, even over time, isn’t it?

The “youth” of this list is clearly showing as well. These are almost all “coming of age” stories of some kind, with elements of fantasy or teen angst thrown in for good measure. Definitely a list you can see teenagers reading, especially teenaged girls.

But if you go further afield you will find this isn’t always true, the top twelve for the TV category today isn’t entirely a youth-oriented list:

  1. Glee (72,383)
  2. Supernatural (61,999)
  3. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (44,290)
  4. Doctor Who (37,517)
  5. NCIS (30,811)
  6. CSI (26,248)
  7. Stargate: SG-1 (25,828)
  8. House, M.D. (20,508)
  9. Criminal Minds (20,316)
  10. Bones (18,198)
  11. Stargate: Atlantis (17,785)
  12. Gilmore Girls (16,115)

I’m almost tempted to read GLEE fanfics just to find out how they handle the dancing and singing elements, aren’t you? But, the rest of that list is basically right off the Neilson ratings, with a few little geek twists. (Doctor Who for the win!) Although for all its popularity, it’s interesting that Star Trek didn’t make the top 12. (This may be because there’s other Star Trek specific fanfiction repositories elsewhere on the web, though.)

Similarly, most of the Movies list isn’t likely to surprise anyone:

  1. Star Wars (28,331)
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean (19,553)
  3. High School Musical (18,139)
  4. X-Men: The Movie (14,696)
  5. Star Trek: 2009 (8,285)
  6. Labyrinth (7,455)
  7. Newsies (7,020)
  8. Camp Rock (6,857)
  9. Transformers (5,106)
  10. Batman Begins/Dark Knight (4,950)
  11. Inception (3,477)
  12. Matrix (3,173)

But again, there are anomalies- Newsies? (A 1992 musical about paperboys!) What the heck? 1986’s Labyrinth is also an interesting one to find on the list. I also feel this list is much more male-centered, and I would expect to find many more young male writers in this category as well. (As I would with the Video Games section.)

Also note the lower numbers for the movie list compared with the other two. Nice to know that the print medium is alive, well, and kicking ass in its own ways. Maybe this is because books are a co-operative form of storytelling, and so much of the story is already in the reader’s heads. (Or insert joke here about movies having very little story to begin with…)

In any case, my final thoughts, having looked at the different categories, are these- What teens want (despite the Twilight Vampire romance boom) are stories about group dynamics and finding your place in the world. Seems obvious, I know, but at least it has hard data to back it up now.

At least, that’s what I took from my casual survey. Your mileage may vary!

Happy hunting!

Rob

Anxious publishers watch Indigo makeover – thestar.com

Ahh, capitalism in it’s purest form. Take a good idea, pump it up, and run it into the ground after you’ve destroyed all the competition.

Say what you will about government regulation of industry, it promotes stability, whereas capitalism promotes chaos and short-term profits over long-term benefits.

In case you’re wondering what I’m babbling on about- the Chapters/Indigo bookstore chain here in Canada more or less destroyed our entire small bookstore ecosystem a number of years ago (London, where I live, had 20+ independant bookstores in 1990, now it has one.) and now their new CEO had determined that they’re going to start getting rid of those icky books that keep them from selling “lifestyle” products in their stores.

Read it and weep, I did:

Anxious publishers watch Indigo makeover – thestar.com.

Authors I Wish I’d Read As a Teenager- H. Beam Piper

Today I finished reading Four Day Planet by H. Beam Piper, which is the fourth of Piper’s novels that I’ve read. He was a pulp sci-fi writer who wrote prolifically for the magazines back in the 50’s and 60’s and I have to say he’s probably one of my favorite writers of the period, so much so that I wish I’d read him much earlier in my life.

There are a couple reasons I say this.

The first reason is because his stuff tends to be of a young adult vein, and is sincerely focussed on helping to really bring the wonders of the universe and its possibilites to the reader. Piper is great at bringing his settings to life, and really revels in detailed characters and settings. Four Day Planet, for example, is essentially a story about a whaling village set on a world that’s largely oceans with a single large port-city. The details he goes into are exquisite, and while many things now seem quaint (he was writing in an age before computers were a part of daily life) it all seems very logical and functional. Not only does he give you the life on Fenris in incredible detail, he makes you the reader a part of it, and makes it all alive and interesting.

I think if I’d read Piper back when I was a teenager, I would have developed a love for science fiction earlier than I did. To me, science fiction was TV Sci-Fi, and the stuff not on TV or in movies was boring. It was actually anime and manga that opened me up to other possibilities, and Piper would definitely have cured me of that idea, and made me read a lot more of the sf classics at an earlier age.

Another reason I wish I’d read Piper earlier was because I didn’t know how influential he was on the stuff I was reading and involved with! Back as a teenager I was really into Role Playing Games (the pen and paper kind) and while I ran and played some of the science fiction games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, Spacemaster, and Mekton I had no idea just how much of what was in them was right out of Piper’s works! Mekton (which was an anime-style giant robot game) was actually less anime than it was H. Beam Piper! Piper is mentioned as an influence in the rulesbook, but now that I’m reading his works I can really see how the whole setting in the book is really based on Piper’s Federation setting more than it is any anime world.

Now, not everything is rosy in Piper’s work, he does have his issues from my perspective.

1) Piper is a gun fetishist. Not a fanatic. A real fetishist- you get the feeling that if he didn’t have multiple weapons within reach he’d feel completely naked. He worked guns into everything, and did it with the loving detail some authors devote to swords, or cars, or whatever their hobby of choice is. So his stories tend to have a real space western feel to them because everyone is packing heat, and there’s always some shootouts. Not lasers, either, always ballistic firearms.

In fact, he even wrote a whole murder mystery novel called Murder in the Gunroom, which sounds like it should be about a killing aboard a ship, but refers to a gun collector’s room. The book, which I’ve read, is like a course in gun history and gunsmithing and gun collecting all rolled together and bound up by a murder mystery plot which actually isn’t interesting enough to hold the whole thing together. I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you like guns a lot, or you’re really curious.

2) Piper definitely has issues about women. (If you read the wiki entry I linked to above, you’ll quickly see they were major issues.) I wouldn’t say he seems to hate them in his work, it’s more like he ignores them. I’ll give an example from Four Day Planet, he gives us the names of pretty much every man we come across in the story, but when there’s a group of women at one point in the story he literally just told the reader they were the wives and girlfriends of the men and that was it. A lack of female characters seems to run through his work that I’ve read so far, which is neither good nor bad, but it can get a little odd sometimes when it seems like the whole worlds he builds are all composed of men. It may simply be that he’s a man of his time, and that I’m looking at it from a modern perspective (both of which are definitely true) but even Asimov and Heinlein had female protagonists.

Despite these two odd points, I really do have to say the quality of his work really outshines anything negative I could generally say about it. His science fiction books are just pure, well-written fun and I do wish I’d read them earlier. Four Day Planet is a good read, but his best I’ve read so far is Space Viking and I can’t recommend that one enough. It’s about a man seeking the killer of his wife in the ruins of a collapsed space federation. (Interesting note- the main bad guy’s ship is called the Enterprise, and the story has many Trek-like elements despite having being written before Trek aired!)

Piper’s works are almost all public domain now, and available at Project Gutenberg, so go check them out!

So, what authors do other people wish they’d read as Teenagers or discovered earlier in life?