Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I'm A Recluse and I Like It

Today, I gave a presentation to all my coworkers. The weird thing is that I actually volunteered to do it. We have weekly lunch meetings, and once a quarter or so, an employee gives a presentation on a book they've read or something they've learned that might benefit everyone else.

There were about thirty people listening. I had twenty minutes. The book I read was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

(If I were ambitious or responsible or something, I'd put in footnotes with references to pages in the book. But since no one ever reads footnotes—heck, no one even reads my blog—I'll just put in an asterisk (*) where I use info from the book. If you really want the page number to one of them, just ask and I'll look it up for you.)

This quiz is from Susan Cain's book. (Actually, the one in the book has twenty questions. I typed it up and handed it out for people to look at.) The more questions you answer as true, the more of an introvert you are.

I scored eleven out of twelve.

What does our culture think of introverts?

The Oxford dictionary says an introvert is "a shy, reticent, and typically self-centered person." Or, "PSYCHOLOGY: a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things. Compare with extrovert."

Okay, I'll compare with extrovert: "An outgoing, overtly expressive person. PSYCHOLOGY: a person predominantly concerned with external things or objective considerations."

Dang. Can I change my answers? I mean, who wants to be self-centered and mostly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings? There are also studies showing that extroverts are generally happier than introverts.

And then there are the words used to describe introverts: quiet, shy, reserved, reclusive, few friends, aloof, loner. Sound familiar? Like the same words they use to describe the guy who shot up the movie theater in Colorado? Or every other shooter—ever? Reporters paint the same comfortable picture every time: this guy was mysterious. He kept to himself. We never had a clue he would do something like this. (Well, duh. The ones who go blabbing about their plans never get far enough to carry them out.)

We tend to lump serious, real psychological problems with introversion. What if you'd rather stay home and read than go to a party? You're anti-social. You have a hard time making small talk? You're shy or have social anxiety disorder. You don't speak loudly to voice your opinion in meetings? You lack initiative. You burn out or get distracted by a noisy work environment? You're unmotivated or lazy.

Our culture holds extroversion up as the ideal personality type.* Parenting magazines run articles every month about how to cure your kids of their supposed shyness and get them to play with the group. School desks are organized into pods, and kids are expected to work together on everything from math to creative writing. And workplaces are moving the same way. Cubicles? Noooo. We can't isolate our employees in little boxes. That's demeaning. They need to see each other, interact, share ideas and brainstorm!

This is where Mel stops me. (We have an open layout at work, so this was a bit of a jab at the boss, Mel. And no, he didn't stop me.)

It wasn't always this way. Back before the beginning of the twentieth century, self-help books emphasized character instead of personality. Heroes were modest men like Abraham Lincoln, whom Ralph Waldo Emerson said did not "offend by superiority." They encouraged attributes like "citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners, and integrity."*

But then the industrial revolution hit. People moved en masse from the countryside, where they knew all their neighbors, to cities where they were just another body among the throngs. The ones who stood out, who impressed people, and who best made their way in this new environment were the ones who spoke loud. They were the extroverts.*

The ideal shifted away from being a man of character to one of personality. Self help books changed from having titles like Character: The Grandest Thing in the World to How to Win Friends and Influence People. And the new heroes were great salesman. The new qualities you needed weren't even things you could easily cultivate. They were described by words like "magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, energetic."*

And Madison Avenue rode this wave like masters, painting the wares they pedaled as the only way to achieve the personality necessary for happiness and success.*

And today, what do we have? No one is magnetic enough, strong enough, cool enough, manly enough, thin and pretty enough. And the biggest share of the pharmaceutical market is held by anti-depressants and antacids.

Now, I propose that maybe introverts aren't the crazy ones after all. Take, for example, these famous extroverts: Richard Simmons, George Bush, Bill Clinton.

Cheerleaders in general.


Scout camp staff. Now that's a funny one, because I just got back from a week of scout camp, and I could tell a good number of those staff members weren't the extroverts they were trying to be. They'd smile and talk and do their embarrassing and sing their silly songs and it was just killing them inside. But how can you survive on scout camp staff if you don't do that stuff? You wouldn't be a team player. You wouldn't be a good leader. It's not enough to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, which are all things an introvert can be. Indeed, they're mostly things that introverts excel at. It's just that Scouting has slowly bought into the extrovert ideal over the past hundred years, just like everyone else.

And that's backwards. Reading Cain's book was affirming and all, and made me feel like I wasn't really alone in who I am and what I like, but the very fact that someone had to write a book about how it's okay to be an introvert leaves me feeling separated out.

Now, instead of defining what makes an introvert, let's play “you might be an extrovert if...”

You recently convinced a bunch of people to walk on hot coals and give themselves second and third degree burns. (Tony Robbins)

You were one of those people getting burned.

You wiped out $200 billion of stock value buying AOL because it gave you a dopamine buzz. (Ted Turner*)

You destroyed the company you were supposed to be running. (Jeffrey Skilling*, probably many others)

You got so excited about making tons of money from collateralized debt obligations that you brought the banking system and the entire world economy to its knees in 2008. (Numerous bankers*)

Maybe it's not fair to blame the collapse of the world economy on extroverts. But those bankers made a lot of mistakes—stuff that introverts, who tend to be cautious and risk averse, just don't do, even if it will make them more money. Cain cites numerous studies showing these differences, and how when introverts make a mistake, they slow down and analyze what went wrong. Extroverts actually speed up, looking ahead to the next success.*

Yes, if introverts ran the world, it would be a much safer place. We still need extroverts, of course. But we shouldn't all try to be extroverts. We need introverts to keep things sane.

Indeed, there are entire regions of the world where the extrovert ideal doesn't exist. Asia, for example, tends to hold up quiet dignity and profound respect as the ideal behaviors. They don't see speaking as an end unto itself. They actually worry about saying something stupid.*

Take Finland, for example. How do you know if a Finn likes you? He's staring at your shoes instead of his own.*

(Here, I showed the last part of Cain's TED talk, from 15:30 to the end. The entire thing is embedded below.)

(I skipped this part in blue when I gave the presentation. Time was running short.) What's in my suitcase? It probably won't surprise you to learn that it's writing. I love to write. I love it so much that I don't just do it here, I do it at home. This is my fourth complete novel. I'm currently revising it. I have a fifth in the planning stages. The third is in the hands of literary agents whom I hope will want to try and sell it to publishers.

Someday I'll sell a book, and like Susan Cain I'll have to go out and interact more, speak for groups, do book signings. It's not my arena, but if it's to serve something I love—the stories I write—then I can do anything. The key ingredient is passion. Extroverts are naturally outspoken. They can put their energy into almost anything. They have it easier, in a way. Introverts have to be pushed from within by deep caring. Think of people like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Gandhi. Find your niche.

These days I'm happy to be an introvert. And I see much of myself in my own children. I want them to grow up knowing that whatever the world around them might say, it's fine to prefer reading to playing with friends. It's okay to be smart. It's natural to want to work alone.

When I interviewed for this job, I remember Paul asked me if I'd describe myself as more of a jock or a nerd. I didn't have to think twice. I'm a nerd. And I knew that was the right answer even after only a few minutes in that old shed. I like working here. I've stayed here and been happy to because of the culture we have here, the atmosphere. We're all nerds, but that's not all we share. We dislike conflict. We think before we speak. We respect each others' thoughts and listen to each other. We're mellow. We're quiet.

And that's an asset.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why Not YA?

That's a reference to a post I wrote long, long ago called "Why YA?" At the time, I was working on what I thought was a YA novel. But the words Young Adult infer a range greater than the genre actually encompasses.

Notice I called it a genre instead of a category. This is based in part on the sense I've gotten from reading blogs, reviews, articles and other flotsam on the internet. It's also based on responses I got from an #askagent question on Twitter. (Okay, so I only got three responses from agents, but two of them said genre. One said age group. The non-agent responses were evenly split.)

The expectations for YA fiction have less to do with age group and more to do with the type of story you might expect to find in that corner of the bookstore. If it were strictly an age grouping, it would include a broad range of fully-fledged genres. Instead, it includes sub-genres that resemble their non-YA counterparts, but also have certain hallmarks qualifying them to be YA. What are those hallmarks?

High school is the first one that comes to mind. The characters have to be in high school or at least in some situation vaguely like high school. They must be of high school age.

The protagonist must be in a romantic relationship by the end. Love triangles are common.

The plot and the stakes, however grand or perilous, must not outshine the protagonist's personal life and dilemmas.

The protagonist is usually female. The author is usually female. The readers are usually female.

Probably some others.

There are, of course, exceptions for every one of these. Early on, I was misled by some books I found shelved with YA that seemed quite different. But for each of these, there are ten or twenty that fit the mold perfectly. Also, these books are mostly by well-known authors whose careers began before the rise of YA as a genre. Others were written for adults and changed to YA by the publishers, (who know that it's mostly adults reading YA anyway.)

If you want to write YA, it's not enough to simply write for an audience of young adults. You have to write for the YA audience, which does not include most young adults. (As I've said before, if I were sixteen, I wouldn't be caught dead in the YA section of a bookstore.) There is no age grouping for teenagers and young adults in general.

And maybe that's the way it should be. Good storytelling is good storytelling. There's no good way to divide books into age groups. Some of my favorites are considered middle grade, and I've been an adult for at least a couple years. They have broad appeal. They fit into a genre, (usually fantasy,) but not an age group. And how young is too young to read Ray Bradbury? Nothing he wrote was aimed at juveniles, yet that's usually when we fall in love with his writing. And when we're grown up, we can read it again and see things we missed before. And while I was reading—I mean critiquing—Krista's middle-grade manuscript, I entirely forgot that it was middle grade. It was just good. Anyone of any age could love it.

Books is books. And I don't actually write YA. I just write. Look for my books in the sci-fi/fantasy section. (In a few years.)

p.s. I'm not very widely-read in YA and certainly not an expert. The opinions expressed here are those of myself at the time of writing and not necessarily those of my past, current, or future self. Mileage may vary.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

SF is in My Blood

...like an alien entity.

So, I had a novel idea. (Meaning it was an idea for a novel, not a unique idea. Though it may be that, too. I don't know.)

It was about a kid who pretends to be possessed by an alien intelligence as a way of overcoming the deficiencies in his own personality. It was going to be a good, straight book with no actual aliens or possessions, only nice normal things like middle school and social pressure and how hard it is to be an introvert. You know, what they've taken to calling contemporary because everything has to have some sort of genre label.


Did you notice I said was? That's because no matter how I tried to put together a plot, I couldn't get excited about it. I mean, it's a great premise. A premise with promise, you might say. (But probably wouldn't.)

Also, I actually did pretend be an alien when I was a kid. I have a journal entry to prove it. It only lasted a day, but you might say I have some personal experience with this crazy notion.

Thing is, this novel was based on a short story that I based on my personal experience, but in that story, the kid actually did switch places with an alien.

I wasn't going to go there again. But honestly, I don't think I'm capable of writing a book about normal old middle school. I write for fun, dang it, and I just can't write something that doesn't grip me and drag me in. I can't write something I'm not passionate about.

Still, it seems silly to be passionate about aliens, doesn't it?

But when I think about the other books I've written, the passion doesn't lie in the plots. It lies in what the characters face: dreams and doubts, suicide and love. They're things faced by ordinary people living ordinary lives, and there are plenty of writers writing books about those lives. They do a good job. But that's not how I tell stories. And those aren't the kind of stories I fall in love with.

It's nice to see people in extraordinary circumstances facing the same things I face. It's kind of fun to watch people with superpowers or magic or warp drive struggling with the same weaknesses I struggle with. And I love turning the mundane into the amazing and vice versa.

Why? It's in my blood, I guess. I've always gravitated to speculative fiction. I love those what if questions.

What if you invented an imaginary persona to help you through difficult situations?

What if that persona became a voice in your head?

What if that voice was part of a plan to take over the world?

What if you didn't even mind being used because all the girls suddenly liked you?

And what if the voice in your head was being hunted by an enigmatic and dangerous stranger?

So now my novel idea really is novel. It's Cyrano De Bergerac meets Dr. Who, where Cyrano exists only in Christian's head.

Oh, and Cyrano's the bad guy.