“Serial”, The Intercept, and the absolutes of American media

I spent most of November and December engrossed in the drama of “Serial,” the 12-episode podcast that investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. If you listened to podcast, then you know how redundant that last sentence is. Of course I was engrossed. You were, too.

But a little background for the uninitiated: On January 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School, disappeared. Her body was discovered in a shallow grave on February 9. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was arrested and charged with first-degree murder a few weeks later. In February of 2000, Adnan was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

“Serial” reopened the case. For 12 weeks host Sarah Koenig brought listeners along as she fact-checked the state’s case against Adnan. She talked to friends who knew the couple, examined cell tower pings, contacted witnesses, tried to recreate the state’s timeline of events and attempted to find some kind of certainty in Adnan’s guilt or innocence. She found neither.

I loved that she found neither. Maybe this is just me and too much exposure to Facebook and Twitter, but I feel like we live in a time that demands you see the world in black and white. Teams aren’t just limited to sports or love triangles in YA fiction — you’re expected to pick a side for every issue and they are all mutually exclusive. Absolutes abound. Now, if you venture over to Twitter or Reddit, I’m sure you’ll find a few Team Adnan or whatever, but I don’t think “Serial” intended this. There were no absolutes in Koenig’s narrative. With every ‘what if’ and ‘well, maybe…’ Koenig made it almost impossible to say with certainty, “Adnan did it” or “He’s innocent.”

If you’ve fallen down the Reddit rabbit hole, then you also know that even though “Serial” is over, the story has gone on. At the end of December, Jay — an accessory to the murder, a key witness in the state’s case against Adnan and the ultimate “Serial” enigma — spoke to The Intercept about the crime, the podcast, and Koenig’s reporting. This week The Intercept released another exclusive interview with another major player — Kevin Urick, the prosecutor in the state’s case against Adnan.

I read the interviews. The first made me mildly uncomfortable, but the second left me so bothered that I won’t read the conclusion — not even to find out if Urick answers the million dollar question and tells us how Jay got such a sweet plea deal. The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by these follow-up interviews. It’s not just the 1,000-word editorializing or the “he said/she said” style of reporting. It’s that their very existence seems to undermine what “Serial” was trying to do in the first place.

“Serial” explored the grey areas of a black and white system. (Seriously, what is more absolute than a guilty verdict and a life sentence?) It asked the hard questions — Could someone who seems so wholesome murder his ex-girlfriend? But if he’s innocent then why can’t Adnan remember where he was that day? And really, what is the deal with Jay? These questions aren’t so much answered as they are examined — over and over again. It’s left up to the listener to answer them, or at least to acknowledge their possibilities and what they mean for Adnan’s innocence or guilt. Listeners looking for certainty were probably disappointed, but I was not. Life rarely has simple, certain answers. I was content to be on Team Who The Hell Knows? when the podcast ended.

So I’m bothered by the fact that these new voices have chosen to speak now, long after a good faith effort was made to include them in the story. The SF Gate blog put it best: “the people on one side of the case talk to one reporter, the people on the other side talk to another.” The message coming from the interviewees is simple and consistent: Serial was poorly reported, they say. They got it wrong, they say. There is no reason to look any deeper into this.

Put another way: Choose Team Adnan is Innocent or Team Adnan is Guilty. Either or. Find an absolute. That’s what I mean when I say The Intercept undermines the principle of “Serial.” Instead of being an objective exploration into the justice system, it’s become the voice for the other “side.”

That The Intercept has taken this position is disappointing, but not really surprising. More and more it feels like political parties aren’t the only ones pandering to a base — all our information outlets are. Whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC or whomever “the liberal news media” is at the moment, people can pick their information from who is on their Team. And the black and white world keeps turning. Issues become more and more polarized to the point that everything must be an absolute.

Personally, I like to live in a world that’s a little less black and white and where people embrace the shades of grey.

Team “Serial”. All the way.

Coming soon: SDCC 2014

San Diego's Gaslamp District during SDCC

San Diego’s Gaslamp District during SDCC

Judging by the questions I get asked when I announce I’m going to San Diego Comic Con (no, I do not dress up), the greater public seems to think it’s all about costumes and blockbuster movies and celebrity spotting.

Yes, I’ve spent a large portion of time in the line to preview Marvel’s new movies in Hall H and possibly even more time stalking Nathan Fillion (harmlessly, of course!), but there’s so much more to Comic Con, particularly for readers and writers. Here’s a sampling of what I’m hoping to attend next week:

  • Wonderbook: Writers on Creativity and Inspiration
  • Beyond Cliches: Creating Awesome Female Characters for Film, TV, Video Games, and Novels
  • Diversity in Genre Lit
  • Publishing 360: Building a Bestseller
  • Fictionalized Nonfiction: The Art of Combining Fact and Fiction
  • Publishing preview panels with Penguin and Simon & Schuster

I’ll be taking notes and will try to recap most of the writing content here, but I make no promises. If there is one truth to the SDCC perception, it’s that it is a chaotic mess. But you can still follow along. Here’s where I’ll be posting:

I’m part of Team NerdProm on tumblr, where we post photos, recaps, and out-of-context panel quotes. On Twitter, we’re using the hashtag #omnomsdcc.

Over on Instagram I’ll be replacing cat pictures with costumes, toys, and other interesting stuff for the duration of SDCC. (Username: chicklit)

My friend Karin Kross will be blogging the experience at Tor.com. Her articles and recaps are excellent. Check them out.

Please follow along with the madness and I’ll try to keep it interesting for ya!

 

Could You Point Me To the Real Literature Shelf?

Like most young-adult fiction writers I know, I spent a good deal of last week thinking about a certain Slate article that claims adults should be embarrassed for reading YA fiction. Hereto that article shall be known as It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked.

Many writers and readers have already pointed out the flaws in the piece, for instance, that the author makes sweeping generalizations about the YA genre. Or that genre-shaming is frequently aimed at books for women and children. (And, for that matter, written by women.) That adults can benefit from reading about teen-age experiences. That marketing, rather than quality, defines what is or isn’t YA. And, of course, that no one should be telling anyone what to read.

And then there’s my favorite response to the idea that adults should be embarrassed by what they read:

firefly-lmao

It’s not like we haven’t had this dust up before. I can recall at least one heavily publicized tirade against YA books, and chick lit has been getting genre-shamed since Bridget Jones first cracked open her diary. Every few years, someone climbs upon the literary high horse and decrees that we should be reading Real Literature, not Crap.

Of course, what is and isn’t Real Literature is anybody’s guess.

There’s no Real Literature shelf in a bookstore. Believe me, I’ve looked. As a writing graduate student, I was encouraged to read Real Literature. Assigned readings included classic novels and contemporary critical darlings like Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. There didn’t seem to be room for the books I loved and wanted to emulate – Bridget Jones’ Diary, for instance. Or any of the women’s fiction that was racking up sales at local Barnes & Noble. I read both the Real Literature and the commercial entertainment. I’ll admit that sometimes the distinction between the two categories was obvious, but most of the time it wasn’t.

I’m no more the wiser when it comes to the YA / Real Literature divide. Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful, emotional book with a fourteen-year-old protagonist. Despite her age, or the fact that it’s a coming of age story, you’ll find it on the fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble. Why? Is it the page count? The typography? It *is* kind of small print, honestly, but shouldn’t that mean it’s better for younger eyes?

It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked claims the differentiation between YA and Real Literature lies in the pleasure of reading, the satisfying ending, relatable protagonists. All of these are qualities of the “inferior” young adult novel. They are also the qualities of the not-YA Tell The Wolves I’m Home.

It would be fascinating to go behind the scenes of the publishing houses and get the editors and marketers to explain the distinctions they use to categorize books. I’d love to know why one book ended up in one part of the bookstore while a similar book is in another. But I fear that the answers would be so widely varied so full of caveats and exceptions that the answer would be just as murky as it is now.

Which makes me wonder: why have them at all?

Three beloved books on one shelf at BookPeople -- North of Beautiful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Three beloved books on one shelf at BookPeople — North of Beautiful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

My local independent bookstore, BookPeople, has a large, well curated Teen book section. I’ve been browsing it for years and have watched it grow and change. The teen section is not only stocked with books that are arbitrarily designated by the publisher as Teen or Young Adult. Within it you can find 1984, The House on Mango Street, The Life of Pi, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are cross-shelved in both the teen section and graphic novel section. And it isn’t just that books are cross-shelved into the teen section. As I was browsing the fiction shelves I was pleased to spot a face-out stack of The Book Thief.

Anytime there’s another war of words over which books one should or should not read, I think of BookPeople and how we’d all be much better off if books weren’t judged by what section of the bookstore they’re shelved in. I’m not so radical as to suggest that we do away with labels completely. They’re handy for describing what you like (or what you write, for us writer types) and bookstores would be chaos without them. But many, many books cannot be neatly pigeonholed into just one category. We frequently talk about books that have cross-over appeal — books that appeal to readers of multiple genres. What harm is there in cross-shelving a book in both General Fiction and Teen if it would appeal to both audiences? When books “cross over,” let them actually cross the bookstore.

And then wouldn’t it be interesting if readers like the author of It-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Linked got the opportunity to browse those mixed up shelves? She might pick up a book, read the description, and find out it is the critically lauded, experimental piece of Real Literature that she’s always dreamed of reading.

And it might be YA.

Sucker Literary Writing Process Blog Hop

I was tagged by Shelli Cornelison to participate in the Sucker Literary Writing Process Blog Hop. She wrote about her writing process here. At the end of my post, I’ll tag another writer to share their process and the fun will go on.

1. What am I working on?

I am very close to finishing a draft/revision/something of a young adult historical novel. Historical should probably be put in quotes since the novel is set in 1992 and I am not yet ready to concede that 1992 qualifies as historical. On the other hand, it was before iPhones and texting. To teens these days, that might as well be the Dark Ages.

The story is about sensitive, 14-year-old Lucy who is stuck in the small East Texas town of Balentine while her mother cares for her dying great-grandmother. She has no one but her bickering aunts and her gossipy cousin for company until she befriends the town loner, a troubled boy with a reputation for being a devil worshiper.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Are there a lot of novels featuring accused teenaged Satanists? I’m guessing there aren’t because every time I give the elevator pitch to someone, they go, “huh.” To be honest, I’m not sure if that’s a “Huh. Interesting.” or “Huh. I should back away slowly.”

Seriously though. . . I’m not really sure. I’m not even sure I could name exactly what genre my work belongs to. For marketing purposes this book is young adult, but I think it has a nostalgia factor that would appeal to adults. If I could invent a brand new category for this book I’d call it contemporary historical. The story may be set 20 years ago, but the themes are universal and contemporary. The stuff that the protagonist is dealing with is stuff we deal with throughout our life — grief, loneliness, injustice.

3. Why do I write what I do?

The short answer is: because I can’t help it. If a character or a story calls to me, I have to write it. I don’t set out to write a historical YA or a literary short story. I write what I write and then people tell me how to categorize it.

I feel like it’s also somewhat uncouth for a writer to admit this, but I write what I do because of my experience.  My work is not autobiographical, but I draw from my emotional well to create characters and situations. I don’t know how else to write. I admire writers who can dish up a story completely from their imagination, but I don’t work that way. In order to get characters with even a hint of authenticity, I have to put a part of myself into the work. It’s also a bit of what makes the work unique, I hope.

4. How does my writing process work?

There’s a reason I called my work-in-progress a draft/revision/something back in question one. My process, especially on this manuscript, can be best described as “all over the place.” I fast drafted this novel about three years ago and promptly stuck it in a drawer because I was in the middle of another revision at the time. I dragged it back out last summer. So it’s partly a revision, in the sense that the story idea was written out once, but it’s also very much a draft, since so much has changed from the original.

I’ve been working with a mentor on this project, which has made me a little more aware of my writing process. For me, the first stage of writing is exploration. I try different plot ideas, characters, dialogue. etc. In the next stage I build on the stuff of the first stage. I bring the characters more into focus, make sure the plot is plausible, layer on more setting and emotion. The last stage is fine tuning: weeding out clichés and improving prose.

Lest you think I’m a really organized writer, let me assure you that these stages are not consecutive. In the finished draft/revision/thing, the first third is probably in its final stage, while the last third is still in the first stage. The process is like waves on the beach. I need to write, explore, and see where my mind takes me. But at a certain point, I feel like I’ve gone too far. I lose the voice. I lose a sense of my character. That’s when I need to go back and reread and revise. After I feel like I have my footing again, it’s back to stage one as I forge ahead in the story. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

. . .

And that’s it for my writing process. Next up is writer and illustrator and fellow Austinite Salima Alikhan. Enjoy!

Linkage: Rejecting Rejection

I have a guest post up at the Writing Barn blog. I talked about how badly rejection hurts when it comes from your family and how I found my voice after a four-year writing hiatus. The post is part of the Rejecting Rejection series, which has included some really fantastic stories about writers facing and overcoming rejection.

I was a little hesitant to put this story out there. Not only is it a deeply personal story that still stings from time to time, but also the story is not quite over. The director’s cut version is that ever since  the thesis incident I haven’t been able to talk to my family about my writing. They ask me polite questions when we get together and I answer them if I’m able, but we don’t delve too deep. The few times those boundaries have been breached, it’s resulted in frustration and hurt feelings all around.

But despite my hesitation I wanted to share my experience because there has to be other writers that struggle with feeling rejected by family. It’s a sucky feeling to be expecting support and congratulations and instead get rejection. If it’s happened to you, please know you aren’t alone. I only wish I could offer better advice for dealing with it, but it’s a learning process.

. . .

In other news, I’m close to finishing a draftrevisionthing of a new book. Look for real updates coming to this site soon!

2013: Making it through

It’s that time of year when people are posting their recaps of 2013. The highs and lows. Milestones. The goals accomplished and the resolutions surrendered. I wasn’t going to write a recap. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance to 2013 and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

But then the other day, my husband and I were driving out to his parents’ house and a Paul McCartney song came on the radio. I asked if it had been one we’d heard when we saw him live.

“Was that this year?” my husband asked.

I counted the months in my head. “Yeah,” I answered. “May.”

“That feels like forever ago,” he said.

“It was before July,” I pointed out.

And that pretty much sums up 2013 for me: Before July. After July.

Before July was pretty good. I started the year with the publication of my short story, “Weddings for Grown Ups” in the Black Fox Literary Magazine. My husband and I traveled. I took an advanced writing workshop with Sara Zarr, through which I met several good friends and writers. I started strength training and completed the New Rules of Lifting for Women (something I never imagined myself doing). I took a stand for women’s rights by attending protests and filing testimony. I went to concerts and comic cons. I met Andrew McCarthy and Rob Thomas and Jason Dohring. I talked to Community creator Dan Harmon about story structure in a comedy club parking lot at midnight. I saw the Dixie Chicks, The Killers, and the legendary Paul McCartney.

It was an amazing year. And then Blanco got sick and died.

The second half of the year seemed marked by loss. I lost July to a black cloud of grief, regret, and anxiety. I lost a member of my family, who I’d cared for and loved every day for more than 15 years. I lost the innocent belief that our little family would always be together. As the months rolled on, I dropped out of book groups and dinner groups because I couldn’t face the idle chit-chat. Long-time friends slipped away. I drawered the manuscript I’d worked on for nearly seven years because my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. The cloud that came when Blanco died slowly covered the rest of the year until I couldn’t remember anything but loss.

After that conversation in the car, I was feeling sorry for myself so I tried to list all the good things that had happened since July. For one thing, my husband and I adopted two Siamese kittens and watching their escapades has cheered us up on several occasions. I put my heart into a new manuscript. I started working with a kind and encouraging mentor who took on my crazy writing process letters (ie. therapy) without judgement. I found more writing friends. I did another advanced workshop, this time with Francisco Stork and got re-inspired to write.

But it was only after I’d made the list that I realized that my biggest milestone of 2013 was that I made it through.

You know how there are those with whom we just can’t imagine life without? It might be one person. It might be several people. It might be your cat or dog, your career, your home. Who or whatever it is, you feel like the day you lose it will be the day your world will end. That was the way I felt about Blanco. Who would I be if I wasn’t taking care of him? What would my life be like without him in it? I didn’t want to imagine it when he was well and then when he got sick, I couldn’t think of anything but. It scared me.

That day came. It was awful and hard. The next several days and weeks were not much better. The house was emptier and someone important was missing, but the world kept spinning. Things got a little better every day. I’m changed, but I’m still me. I made it though.

And that’s the thing I’m holding to as I usher 2013 out the door. There will be other challenges. There will be other awful and hard days, but I’ve been through it once and I came out the other side. Whatever the future holds for me, I’ll remember that.

Happy new year.

On Not Writing

Blanco died on July 25th. It was awful and sad. The weeks that followed were also awful and sad, but I don’t want to write about that right now. I want to write about not writing.

After B was diagnosed with cancer, a lot of people advised me to write. Some suggested it as a distraction. Other writers encouraged me to use the emotion. A therapist, upon learning I was a writer, assigned me to write a poem or tribute to him for our next session, so I chose not to have a next session. It’s not bad advice; it just wasn’t the right advice for me at the time.

By the time I was hearing a lot of this, I’d found that the best thing I could do was rewrite sentences and rearrange words. I could be analytical. I could be an editor. For the life of me I could not free up enough energy to create. Even the last blog post took days to write.

I spent the weekend after Blanco died in a grief stupor. I watched Gilmore Girls. I played Tiny Wings and Tap Words and Running With Friends until I was sick of them. And I beat myself up about not writing.

When you’re a writer, especially one with the goal of publication, you feel the pressure of writing all the damn time. Of using every experience to fill the emotional well of your fiction. It’s drilled into you by teachers, writers, and even cheesy tumblr memes. I know very few writers who willingly take a vacation from writing, which is why I was back at the computer after a long weekend, staring at a deadline and feeling bad about wanting to immerse myself in Stars Hollow instead of the novel I should be revising. During that time I read an interview in Texas Monthly, wherein one of my favorite writers, Benjamin Alire Saenz recounts how, during a terrible time of his life, writing Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club saved his life. You read something like that and you think, well, gee, I should really get back to that manuscript. And maybe I could if I wasn’t so sad.

Sometimes I think the hardest part of being a writer is recognizing when it’s okay not to write. It took some time and a couple of conversations with friends for me to admit that it’s okay if the writing does not pick up this week or this month. It’s okay if I need to push words around for a while and it’s okay if I need to do nothing but read.

I went back and reread some stuff I’d written just before Blanco died. It was pretty awful. Stilted and boring and well, you could just tell that neither my heart or my mind was in it. I know some writers that say push through at all costs, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. Otherwise, I’d be scrapping a whole first act today instead of a few measly paragraphs.

It’s been almost three weeks and I’m just now getting to the point that I even want to think about writing or revision in a serious way. I’m not quite okay with that, but I’m learning to be.