Tuesday, November 27, 2012


The movie Life of Pi is coming out in theaters soon. I won’t be a spoiler monkey but every time I see the trailer, I’m just reminded of the “jk!” moment at the end of this book. The author pulls you in to his increasingly fantastic tail, and then he pulls the rug out from under you at the very end.

Let’s call this the “jk” effect. There’s actually a lot of debate these days about whether or not adding “Lol” or a winky face at the end of an insulting sentence takes all the sting out of the words that preceded it. Kids accused of cyber-bullying are even pulling “the emoticon defense”—the premise of which is that it’s okay to say something horrible as long as you put a J after it.

This defense isn’t holding up too well in court, which is sort of comforting, I suppose. But what about the jk effect in stories? Sometimes the entire story is based on pulling the rug out from under the reader. For example, we just read Saki’s classic short story “The Open Window” in my ninth grade class, and that story is built on—literally—a jk moment. The character of Vera convincingly spins a frightening ghost story for a stranger, and sets him up to be scared nearly to death—all for her own amusement. It’s an old story, but one can very easily imagine this girl with a cell phone in her hand, Instagramming a picture of the poor dude’s face as he runs away screaming.

In YA, the jk effect might considered alongside the “To Be Continued…” effect. You’re reading, and you think you’re going to find out what happens to the MCs by the time you reach the last page, but…just kidding! Book II coming in May 2014!... ;)

Sometimes the jk is really well done: I’d cite the central relationship of City of Bones as an example of an effective one. Again, I won’t spoiler it for anyone, but I think Cassandra Clare gets a lot of mileage out of the mistaken identity, making the moment when things are straightened out that much more powerful. This one is more of a “wow” or an "I knew it!" than a “jk.” What’s the difference? It's completely subjective...but...that moment in the new Breaking Dawn film, when Jacob dismisses the events of the previous three films with one sentence? (Everything you thought you felt was because of Nessie, Bella!). That felt like a jk to me. Then again, that film is actually predicated on an even bigger jk.

A cruel jk is a major part of the plot in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but this time it’s not the author pulling the strings, but a character. One of the Wills (the lower-case one) is devastated when he finds out that the boy he’s had an online relationship with is actually his friend Maura messing with him. The internet is probably the birthplace of the true jk moment, actually, because it’s the perfect place to have an unreal relationship. Online we all hide behind avatars and screen names, and it’s all too easy to publish a lie and call it the truth.

That one's less a jk than a betrayal—but I think worst-case scenario, an author’s jk can become a betrayal. For example, imagine if Harry Potter book 7 had ended with Harry waking up in the Dursely’s, realizing it was all a dream.

The just kidding moment is probably part of our culture at this point, though. We’re post-post modern these days: we like our superheroes jaded and nearly broken (witness the latest installments of Batman and James Bond). The true jk moment involves twisting a knife—figuratively, at least—at least a little. I’m not an emoticon expert, but if there’s a snarky smirk-face emoji, that’s probably the face of the jk. In a world of instant and constant communication, we feel collectively free to say whatever we feel at every moment. The thing is, when I was a teenager, those fleeting moments of venting weren’t posted online—they weren’t going to be accessible, in print, forever. And some things you say can’t unsay with all the smiley faces in the world.

Maybe the true test of the jk, in art or in life, is whether or not it ends with a smile (or a wow)…or a L. Once you’re in on the scam, you want to be impressed with the ingenuity it took to lure you in. Not feel like you’ve wasted your money or your time. Or like an idiot because of an imaginary tiger. (Jk? ;)

Monday, November 19, 2012


I’m re-reading City of Bones now, mainly so that I can picture the MCs as I please one last time before I see the movie next summer. And after seeing Jamie Campbell Bower’s over-the-top vampiric glaring in Breaking Dawn 2, I’m definitely going to finish re-reading the series.

In both these series, the sidekick gets the supernatural short end of the stick, and I realized that almost always happens in these epic YA stories. Poor Jacob, whose fate I have lamented before, ends up imprinting on a tiny baby (in the case of the film, a creepy CG baby—but kudos to Taylor Lautner for keeping the creep factor to a minimum here. Give that boy some kind of award). But if you think about it, the only reason Jacob even had to turn into a werewolf in the first place was because he was hanging out near Bella. Her torrid love affair with Edward is what kept the bad (non-vegetarian) vampires from just passing through. If James hadn’t caught a whiff of old Bella, poor Jake would never have had to figure out what to buy his ten-year-old girlfriend for Christmas.

Clary’s BF, Simon, also gets the shaft when he gets bitten and turns into a depressed vampire. That poor schmuck would never have been messed up in the supernatural world if he hadn’t been besties with a Shadowhunter. Not that Clary knew what she was—in another common trope, the bel inconnu, Clary only thought she was a regular girl—her special secret identity was hidden from her until that fateful first day at Pandemonium.

A lot of these series have both these character archetypes: in The Vampire Diaries, Elena thought she was a regular girl, albeit one who had a thing for vampires, but, no, wait, she’s a Doppelganger! And her best friend also gets drafted into the supernatural game—Bonnie’s a witch—who knew? In Elena’s case, her other bff becomes a vamp, her brother’s now a vampire hunter, and she’s even a vamp herself.  

The witch-best friend has been done before on Buffy, of course (and Buffy is a perfect example of the regular girl—not really! theme). The Scooby gang also got supernaturalized: everyone but Xander was a witch or a werewolf, ex-demon or Key. Eventually the writers started to give Xander the power to “see”—but it didn’t last...(see heartbreaking Nathan Fillion eye-gouging scene!)

These poor sidekicks always get sucked in, sooner or later. They are the ones we readers identify with. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been specially chosen for anything much—and I’m pretty sure I have no latent magical gifts. But the Simons and the Xanders are my way in to the story. Like Simon, I’d be listening to Jace describe Shadowhunters and portals and runes and going, “What?” But, once they’ve served that purpose for us, given us our way in, they do tend to get sucked in to the supernatural craziness. Sometimes it’s so they can help out, sometimes it gives them a reason to keep hanging around the madness.

 So here’s to the sidekicks—the ones who aren’t chosen for anything special, who are never the coolest person in the room, but they show up anyway. They follow their friends into the fray, and sometimes they don’t make it out in one piece. It’s hard to be chosen—but it seems to me it’s even harder to be the chosen one’s best friend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Random Amazon Penguin

So there’s been lot of tweeting lately about the Penguin-Random House merger (and some sad commentary, mostly on Tumblr, about the fact that the new company would not in fact be called Random Penguin.) O brave new world that has only three or four companies in it…that’s where we are heading, according to most of the smarty-pants people who read a lot more about the state of the economy than me. 

The new company will have a quarter of the publishing market—a quarter. And I’ve read recently that other major houses are considering consolidation, and that the expected outcome is just a handful of mega companies will control all our entertainment options.

Of course everyone on down the line is watching, concerned. Fewer buyers will of course impact the sellers. But in the case of YA, what about the kids for whom those books are written? I think of these things because I am a selfless and practically angelic individual. Actually, I’m a teacher, and it’s more like a habit. But in all seriousness, if there are only a handful of publishers (or, gulp, one publisher)…how will that affect the options the next generation of kids find when they walk into a bookstore? (okay, probably when they log on to a bookstore…) Will AppleGoogleiBooks make sure there’s a title out there for everyone? Will titles which might appeal to a niche market be taken on when there are so many demands for cross-marketing and product placement and brand synergy?

The answer could, of course, be ebook self publishing. There’s room for everything in that model. But the danger there, I think, could be too many titles, too much information in a disorganized sea. We are already swimming in those random information-without-context waters online: anything can be posted, and it is. As a teacher today, it’s very challenging to convince my students that something posted on line might not true. It is very easy to “publish” information today. In this sense, it becomes very important as a consumer (of information, leaving money aside) to be selective and to pay attention. A hastily cobbled together, unedited story uploaded on a whim could be “displayed” beside a carefully crafted and engaging indie novel. In that scenario, if the consumers can post reviews, we readers can work together to cut through the clutter.

That’s an advertising term: clutter. I know from (trying to) teach my students to be savvy consumers when we study marketing and propaganda and the like. And for a world that’s heading toward five gigantic companies, this world’s awfully full of clutter. I had a very confusing moment last night while trying to watch the latest episode of Revenge. A completely weird and seemingly unrelated scene took place, and I was confused for a full ten minutes, until I realized that scene had been an adverstisement, acted by the series stars, shot on the same film, in the same style as the series. Better yet: it was an ad for a partnership among Neiman Marcus, Target, and, of course, Revenge. For all I know Disney owns all three of these companies, not just the TV network.

So these ads kept coming up all through the freaking show, and it confused my DVRing, at the end of a tired day, because the faces were the same as the actors on the show. Which was, of course, all part of NeiTarvenge’s diabolical plan. It did not, however, make me want to go to Neiman Marcus (and it even made me sort of mad at my beloved Target)—so I’m pretty sure their plan backfired at my house, at least.

The ironic part about marketing is that the more they put out there, the more they add to the clutter, the greater the lengths they have to go to get our attention. Until the day in 2032 when probably Mark Zuckerberg makes one last merger and then we can all just sit back and enjoy the synergy. 

What does that even mean?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mass Hysteria

Last week we were studying the history of Halloween in my Humanities class, and we watched a History Channel film which pointed out that the ritual and traditions surrounding Halloween make it okay to decorate your lawn with severed body parts, for example. The fact that a lot of other people are doing it makes it not only okay but even kind of cool.

There have been a lot of posts this past week about the NaNoWriMo—how and why once a year a whole bunch of people all jump in and do this crazy thing: commit to writing a 50K word novel in just thirty days. The notion of telling the inner editor to shut the hell up for a month is one great reason, of course. But I think the idea that a lot of other people are sharing the experience with you, at the same time, makes this crazy idea not only okay but also really cool.

When I first heard about it, I was like, November is just too busy a month. They should move it. But then I realized that as a teacher with more than one job, there is no such thing as a non-busy month. It might as well be November—and in fact I’m guaranteed to have two days off, then, and even though I’ve got some extra shopping to do, and at some point a turkey pan to clean, that’s still not nothing. Now, on my third NaNo (one win, but fingers crossed for this year) I’m starting to appreciate the fact that the event happens ever year, at the same time—a ritual that a lot of us participate in. Not because we have to, any more than it’s required that every American put a plastic zombie on their front porch. Those of us doing this illogical and busy-life defying feat are in it because we love stories. And win or lose on the word count front, we are all part of that process this month.

This year I’ve talked my AP Lit class to participating along with me. We have spent two class periods noveling, everyone engaged in his or her own silent work, but we were still all part of a group, all working toward the same goal—a completed story. I’m not sure how many of us will make it to the finish line, but I really believe that writing the first novel is the only way to become a writer of novels. I still plan to revisit and revise my first book (which I finished a long time ago) one of these days—but even if I never do, I credit that book with teaching me how to write.

It’s also how I learned how to type really fast.

For everyone out there with a full-time job or two, with kids, dogs, cats, papers to grade, home improvement projects—with no time to write—in November: write anyway. There’s never going to be a non-busy month. There will never be enough time. Write anyway.