Writing Characters Outside the Box

Fisheye Scorn - You're in Deep TroubleI hate stereotypes. I get why they exist; human brains like order. They process a lot of information, so they want to sort things into boxes and get on with the day.

But we—individual people—are not tick boxes on a form. We are not the sum of the things people claim we are. We are not X, Y, and Z because our skin is a certain color, or our grandparents were born in a particular country, or because of whom we love.

When I think about how stereotypes apply to writing, I keep coming back to an amazing author and professor I studied under years ago, who cautioned women writers never to write from a man’s point of view. It’s a topic I’ve tackled before but it still applies to so many situations. Continue reading

Why Would Anyone Want to Read a Novel about Cancer?

Ballet-2When I write the first draft of a novel, I normally don’t think much about marketing. I tell the story that falls into my head, the one that has the most energy and won’t leave me alone until I finish writing. And then I think about how to sell it.

Even while I was writing Don’t Tell Anyone, which I’d titled The C Word at the time, I knew I’d face some serious challenges once I published it. But I still felt compelled to complete the novel and release it, hoping it would find an audience, secretly terrified that even if it came out well-written, thought-provoking, insightful or whatever good adjective you want to plunk on it, people would hear the word “cancer” and run. Continue reading

16 Uses for My Old Livestrong Bracelets

alg-troy-hair-jpgYeah. I bought into the whole Livestrong thing way back when. I rooted for the guy. When I was a health blogger, I even applied to become part of the Livestrong division on a website I will not name. And even though I knew more about omega-3 fatty acids and visceral massage than any civilian has a right to, I was turned down for lacking, I don’t know, something they called the “high Livestrong standards.” Yeah. Irony. But now I have all these Livestrong bracelets. Even though they’re made in China, I hate waste and I’m a recycling girl from way back, so if you’re in my situation as well, here are a few things you can do with them.

  1. Melt down and make new solidarity bracelet for Manti T’eo.
  2. Wear inside out until Tibet is free.
  3. Change to LOVESTRONG and give to marriage equality causes.
  4. Keep several pairs of socks together in the dryer.
  5. Physical therapy tool for relieving texting-induced tendonitis in thumbs.
  6. Pea shooter (Thank you, Carmy!)
  7. Fit over beverage container of choice to prevent slippage.
  8. Change to LIVESTRANGE and distribute in Woodstock and Portland. (Kidding. I love you guys.)
  9. Extra-strength exercise band to build up toe muscles.
  10. Secure hems of yoga pants so they don’t catch in the StairMaster.
  11. Bind together several dozen colored pencils or markers to make one big rainbow.
  12. Bring to the farmer’s market to keep the broccoli stalks from falling apart.
  13. Beauty pageant sashes for Barbie dolls.
  14. Change to LIVE LONG AND PROSPER and give away at ComicCon.
  15. Hairbands for Troy Polamalu.
  16. Mail them back to Lance Armstrong for a refund. And an apology.

The Fonts of Our Lives

Have you noticed a subtle shift in the use of typography in supermarkets lately? Probably not, because, like most people, you’re more concerned about what’s in the box rather than what’s on the box. Or, unlike me, you have not been indoctrinated by a career in graphic design into the habit of identifying every font that you see. This especially annoys people in movie theaters when I randomly call out, “Gill Sans,” or “Memphis Bold” when the opening and closing credits roll.

I’ve tried to stop doing that, even though I secretly wonder which is more annoying in theaters: hordes of people texting in the dark, errant ringing cell phones, or my typographical Tourette’s.

Let’s go back to the supermarket, shall we? Grab a cart. No, you may not have a candy bar. But take a look at that box of cereal, or crackers, or macaroni and cheese. We’re going sans serif. Serifs are the little “feet” that appear on the ends of the letters. Times Roman, for example, is a serif font. Helvetica is a sans serif font. Historically, and as measured by studies of ease of reading, sans serif fonts are often used for headlines and subheads while serif fonts are often used for body copy, as they have been judged more readable in blocks. Serif fonts are really cool, in my opinion. I love the grace note they put on a character, and how various shapes and flavors denote different periods of history.

But this is not a lesson in typography. I’ll save that for others who are currently working in the field, or for me, when I run out of ideas. This is more about what the Internet has been doing to our eyes, as well as our social discourse and our culture.

I’ve written before on what turns me off about people’s websites, and some of those reasons have to do with typographical choices. But I never thought that the Internet itself, and our reading habits, could change typography. For instance, when using white text on black background (which is a total bitch for anyone who no longer has twenty-year-old eyes), serifs tend to melt into the page and disappear. They also disappear on certain types of screens. Clever marketers, studying the various screens of our lives, have seen a pattern. Extrapolating into a two-hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation unveiled at a conference in an undisclosed location (Akron, Ohio), they have deemed sans serif fonts to be old-fashioned, frumpy, and altogether the domain of “losers” who still gather their information from words printed on dead-tree pulp and would not deign to purchase an electronic reading-type device unless the price dropped below a certain level or they received one as a gift. (Or so I’ve been told. Now that I’m out of the field, I’ve been blacklisted, and even had to return my pica pole and vow to erase the secret handshake from my memory.)

Therefore, packages of crackers and cookies are now devoid of serifs, those nasty, dated, printers’ nightmares, and now sport a clean, modern design, and what has been shown in focus groups to be a younger look. Never thought that buying a package of saltines can make you look younger, did you? Skip that four-hundred-dollar face cream and the Botox injections and just fill your grocery cart with Saltines and Oreos.

I feel younger already.

Books and the City

Had a great time at the Book Blogger Convention in New York on Friday. I’ve become acquainted with a few book bloggers during the pre-release promotion for The Joke’s on Me. But what an awesome opportunity to meet a whole lot of them at once! While it’s unfair to generalize about any group, these bloggers, mostly younger women, displayed one distinct quality: passion for the written word over nearly all else. Or, as one blogger put it, “I have books; what else do I need?”

They love books. They breathe books. Even with stupendously busy lives that include (in some combination) college, motherhood, partnerhood, writing their own novels, and multiple jobs, they regularly read and write about books.

As part of the convention, I participated in an event that was a kind of “speed dating” between authors and bloggers. It was the first year the BBC had done this, I was told, and it got a bit chaotic, as way more authors showed up than anticipated, and far more young adult book bloggers chose to partake than adult-book enthusiasts. But I got a good chance to circulate among several tables of very engaged book-lovers. Like most things in life, turns out I was some people’s cup of tea, but not others. I appreciated the direct yet tactful way these women have learned to say no to what’s not in their wheelhouse. (If only I had that skill when I was younger; I could’ve saved myself a lot of problems.)

We authors, too, got to mingle throughout the day, swapping war stories, swag ideas, and business cards. Most of the authors I met have books that have either just been released or are on the cusp of dropping. From them I learned important lessons: bring an ample supply of swag to book events, drink plenty of water to keep from losing your voice, and your ranking on Amazon is like your weight: don’t check it too often because it will make you crazy.

All in all a great day. Regrets? That I hadn’t been able to get to the four days of the Book Expo that preceded it so I could get books signed by some of my fave authors, like Jeffrey Eugenides, Erica Jong, and Dave Barry, and meet celebs like Jane Lynch, Florence Henderson and John Lithgow. And that I hadn’t brought one of those cute little rolling backpacks to carry the books I’d collected. Hey, I live and breathe them, too.

And now a question for you: Besides the book, what kind of giveaway goodies do you like sticking in your swag bag at literary events?

Why I Won’t Follow You on Twitter

As the publication date of my book draws near, I’ve been spending more time on social networking, mainly on Facebook and Twitter, keeping my friends updated and making new ones. On Facebook, it’s fairly easy for me to learn about the people I want to friend and those who want to friend me. (Did you ever think you would live in a time when “friend” would become a verb?) But Twitter goes faster, has less space (although it’s surprising what you can fit in 140 characters) and can be more abstruse.

Since I am meeting more people on Twitter, I’m getting more follows. I want to follow you back. Really, I do. So many of you post tweets that are entertaining, inspirational, and often so funny I have to avoid drinking coffee while I read them, lest it end up on my screen. But in the couple of years I’ve been on the site, running three different accounts, I’ve learned how to parse out the good from the life’s-too-short.

Here’s why I won’t follow you:

1. I know nothing about you. Twitter gives you 160 characters for a bio. If you leave this blank, I’m less likely to follow you. Tell me something about yourself. Unless you have something to hide.

2. Your avatar is Twitter’s default “egg.” Adding an image tells me that you care enough about your social presence to put a face on it.

3. You follow a lot of people but no one is following you. This tells me that you’re selling something not a lot of people want-it could be a link to a pornographic website or spam. I’m not going there.

4. You tweet in all capital letters. This is obnoxious, shouty, and difficult to read.

5. You BEG me to follow you back. BEG and BEG and BEG. Your desperation scares me off.

6. You are clearly only on this medium to sell me something. Yes, we all have something to sell, even if your only purpose on Twitter is to have fun. You’re selling your personality. But if you are hawking a product or service, the hard-sell approach will make me delete you. The soft sell (some media experts recommend never even mentioning where you can buy your brand-new book, for instance) works so much better. Let me get to know you before you offer to change my life, make me rich, or show me how to drop ten pounds of stubborn belly fat.

7. Your auto-responder is overtly spammy. Have you ever gotten one of these: “Thanks for following me! Come buy my product at XYZ.com right now! You’ll lose 30 pounds in a week!” While it’s nice to get a direct message after you follow someone, as it can be more personal than simply a blank follow, keep it short and simple. If you are meeting someone for the first time face-to-face, would you immediately leap into your sales pitch, or would you exchange a few pleasantries first?

8. Your tweets are awash with hashtags. I appreciate that you want to get indexed everywhere, but this makes your message sound like William Shatner is reciting it.

9. You tweet too damned much. Okay, a few at a time are fine. But I get frustrated when I have to scroll past your dozens of tweets about where I can get a free iPad before I can find my friend’s daily haiku. Unfollow.

Are you on Twitter? What makes you hit “unfollow” faster than Rhianna changes her hair color?

Baffling Ads In Men’s Magazines

Through some aberration in the fabric of the universe, my husband has begun receiving a year’s subscription to GQ. As my spouse’s normal attire is a pair of old jeans and a gray Champion hoodie, and his cold-weather-to-warm-weather transition is to switch from long sleeves to short sleeves, this gift in our mailbox is akin to Elton John receiving a subscription to Juggs. (For the record, I’m no fashion plate either.)

But since I cannot resist a peek into what poses as a male-oriented periodical when I’m tossed into the same room with one (my favorite is Maxim), I started reading it.

I thought women’s magazines were bad! Holy crow. I couldn’t get past the advertising. These two guys in the Calvin Klein spread (above) look like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the guy on the cover of Atlas Shrugged. The guy on the right’s intent stare could melt glass, and there is so much product in vertical sculpture of his hair that he better not get too close to an open flame, lest he reenact Michael Jackson’s Pepsi ad. The dude on the left looks like he’s having a very intense discussion with himself about whether he left the iron on.

There’s an entire novel going on in the Gucci spread. Sorry, I couldn’t find the full image in all of its ambiguous glory, so you’ll have to take my word for it. A clean-shaven young man with knife-edged cheekbones has his eyes downcast and leading off the page. Perhaps he is holding back tears. Apparently, these tears are because the dramatically-posed stick insect of a female model standing in the center of the spread does not return his intense feelings of love. She presses one hand to her temple as if she has a horrible headache. Perhaps this was caused by the overzealous aesthetician who removed all the hair from her head. A finger covers an eyebrow. Maybe the waxer got to that one before she decided the Sinead O’Connor-meets-Mona-Lisa-look was probably not the best career move for her head shape. At the right is a man in a tightly fitted, shiny suit, sitting cross-legged in a way that tightly fitted, shiny suits do not normally permit. Another woman, who has hair on her head but apparently is wearing a horse’s mane as a top, leans over him and whispers in his ear. What that is we may never know, but this guy isn’t having any of it. He continues to stare at the shiny fabric covering his left calf as if it contains the secrets of the universe and the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s remains.

But what really made my day was this Dolce & Gabbana spread (top). As I’ve said, I’m tragically out of the loop when it comes to fashion, but I didn’t see anything in this ad that resembled fashion. It’s a black-and-white spread featuring seven guys involved in a very intense game of tug-of-war. We do not see against whom they are tugging. Maybe the guys in the Calvin Klein ad. They look like inmates from a Turkish prison, and all have varying degrees of facial hair and lengths of fabric torn off their white pants. The one in the front looks vaguely like Barack Obama scolding John Boehner. They dig their feet-all wearing oxfords, some without laces-into the sand. At the bottom left of the spread, looking off the page, is a small black dog that looks seriously underfed. I do not understand the significance of the dog, and this disturbs me. Meanwhile, I draft in my head a novelization of the ad, a cross between The Great Gatsby, The Dirty Dozen, and Midnight Express.

This intense focus on creating a context for the products confuses me just about as much as the context itself.  I know what the ads in women’s magazines are trying to express-they’re attempting to make us feel uncomfortable and insecure about our bodies and beauty so that we will continue buying their products and the magazines. I don’t know what the hell the GQ ads are trying to do. Maybe you men out there can help me. Do you buy these magazines? What do you think about the advertising? And what is the point of the dog?