Why I Chose Boston Public Schools

In a few weeks, my youngest child will graduate and I will be able to say I sent three children through the Boston Public Schools.

Since I am a middle-class (holding on by my fingernails!) white person, I hear a LOT of people talk about how they "have" to move out of Boston "for the schools."

(There's a lot to unpack in that statement, but I'm just gonna leave it packed up for now. )

To people who say stuff like this, my decision to stay in the city and send my children to public school here is incomprehensible. So I'd like to explain it. Here, ladies and gentlemen and everything in between, is explanation of why my wife and I chose the Boston Public Schools for our kids: 

In elementary school, you want your kids to learn to read, write, and do basic math. Guess what: they're gonna learn that stuff. Especially if you're reading to them and what not. So what else do kids get out of school in the elementary years?  A whole lot of socialization. 

It's certainly possible to live in a bubble in this country and have no idea that not everyone lives the kind of life you do. I did not want my kids to live in such a bubble. I wanted them to meet, and share space with a whole bunch of different kinds of people in different circumstances in hopes that they would grow up open-minded and empathetic. Of course you can be open-minded and empathetic no matter where you go to school, but you're going to be inherently less open-minded if you've never met anyone who doesn't fundamentally live the same kind of life you do.

When I named my older daughter Rowen, some of my friends who lived in the suburbs asked if I was worried about her being teased for her name. This literally never happened in Boston Public Schools, where a diversity in names is the norm. I was a high school teacher for ten years, and when I taught in urban schools, my height (or, more accurately, my shortness) was never an issue. When I worked in the suburbs, I was teased about being short every day. Now, I'm not sensitive about this: I know I'm short. It never comes as a surprise to me when it's pointed out.  But the relentless reminders that you don't fit the mold do begin to wear on one.  

All of which is to say, there's a lot of acceptance of differences baked into the Boston Public Schools experience. My kids had white kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids, black kids, and mixtures of all of the above in their classes. They had classmates from at least four different religions and classmates who were born on four different continents.  They had classmates with single moms, moms and dads, two moms, two dads, grandparents...just about every permutation of family situation you can imagine seemed normal to them because they knew someone in that situation.

A lot of people don't want to send their kids to Boston Public Schools because they feel like they'll have to be extra vigilant, work hard, and be involved. As an antisocial and lazy person, I sympathize with this point of view. But here's the thing: there really isn't such a thing as a Crock Pot school system that's just "set it and forget it." No matter where you go, you're going to have to get involved. And if you have a child with special needs, that's especially true. People I've known with special needs kids in suburban school systems have had to fight especially hard with intransigent administrators in order to get their child's needs met.  This happens in Boston too, of course. It happens everywhere. All of which is to say, not wanting to be an active parent is a bad reason to not choose the Boston Public Schools.

A final note: my kids have had a handful of fantastic teachers in the Boston Public Schools. They've had a handful of horrible teachers. And they've had mostly competent teachers. That was pretty much the spread in my education at both Cincinnati Public Schools and the private middle and high school I attended. It's been the case in every school where I worked.  

So, if the amount of excellent, good, and bad teachers are more or less the same everywhere, what exactly do we mean by "good schools?" I have my suspicions about what most people mean by good schools. But for my family, the Boston Public Schools were good schools.


Anarchy in the YA

A lot of the conversation about young adult lit these days seems to focus on rules for what you as an artist (sorry--gonna use the a word throughout this post) are allowed to do.

You are not allowed to write characters who do not share your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin tone, and Meyers-Briggs Personality Type.

JK, actually you are allowed to write characters who are not you, but you must immerse yourself in VERY SERIOUS RESEARCH first.

Unless you are writing a character not like you who is not wholly and inarguably good. Then your work is problematic.

JK, your inability to write a complex, multifaceted character who is not like you shows that you should pretty much only write characters who are you.

Oh, and by the way, you must be very careful about what "messages" your art is conveying because THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

The hell with all this. Let me tell you something about art:

There are no rules.

Anybody telling you what you must or must not do in your art is inherently wrong.  Do whatever you want. 

Even if your art is aimed at young people. Maybe especially if your art is aimed at young people.  You do not have a responsibility to be didactic or morally correct in your art for young people. Young people live with ambiguity all the time. They can handle it.  By the time you're a teenager, you've already noticed that bad people frequently prosper, that good people do bad things, that love is complicated, that hate is complicated, and that people are complicated. You know people who have done terrible things. You know people who have had terrible things done to them. 

And, you have a very good bullshit detector. So you don't require art that tells you how the world is supposed to be in order to shape your delicate mind.  Art that tells you how things should be rather than how they are can be comforting, and so go for it. But you also deserve art that reflects the world in all of its messy horror and glory. 

When I was young, there was a big anti-art push from the right. Google Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, or W.A.S.P. if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Now, the anti-art forces are also coming from the left.

But here's the thing: the urge to dictate terms to art is a totalitarian impulse, and it sucks wherever it comes from. Art requires you to think for yourself. People who want to regulate art through actual lawmaking or through the internet shame patrol are fundamentally against you thinking for yourself.

Regular readers, both of them, know I am an advocate of real criticism; if something sucks, say it. After you've read it. That is your right, and, I would argue, your responsibility as a reader.

But you don't get to tell artists what's permissible. You don't get to make rules for what artists get to do or for which artists get to do what. 

One reason art matters so much to so many of us is that making or consuming art is one of the only times we can really feel free. Don't let anybody take that from you. There are no rules.

Some Thoughts on Rejection

Well, in my second decade as a professional writer, I am becoming very well acquainted with rejection.

The other day I was pondering one of my latest rejections, in which an editor said some of the elements of my book felt "too familiar." My initial reaction was, "the fuck are you talking about? The shelves at bookstores are groaning with familiar!" Seriously--take a stroll through the YA section in any bookstore and check out how publishers go out of their way to ape the titles that have already been successful.

I had a similar moment when my middle grade adventure novel was rejected by an editor for having too much adventure. She wished I had written a book about two girls getting to know each other in middle school rather than a book about two girls getting to know each other in a nonstop rollicking adventure where they save their town from the machinations of an evil ape.

That's a bit like saying, "this coffee is okay, but I really wanted it to be hot chocolate."

So:  the reasons I've been rejected are bullshit.

But, fellow writers, it isn't just me! Your rejections are also bullshit! You can tell because they're contradictory:  "too much like other books on our list" is followed directly by, "we don't see a market for this kind of thing."

"I couldn't connect with the characters," says one editor. "I loved the characters but the plot just never came together for me," says another.

Here is what it all means: I didn't love your book.

That's all.  They can give you reasons why they didn't love it, but the reasons don't matter. Because love is irrational.  And, I mean, fair enough, right? Do you love every book you read? If your job were championing books, would you champion one you didn't love if you didn't have to? Of course not.

I would say this: if you're getting the same feedback from everybody, you might want to look at that element and revise it. But if  you're getting wildly contradictory and/or nonsensical reasons for your rejections, that's good! That doesn't mean your book sucks! It means that the ten, or twelve, or however many people you've sent it to don't love it.  And no book is going to be loved by everyone.

Of course the business of publishing is incredibly frustrating. Because if you like your book, I guarantee someone else will too. Probably a lot of people.  Even if it's only 0.01% of people who will like your book, in a country of 350 million people, that's an ass ton of readers. But it's really hard to find those people and get your book into their hands. This is true even if you do get your book published.

(Example: my  profane, snarky memoir of my sucky experience during my late wife's cancer treatment is definitely not for everybody. But it's probably for more than 6,000 people, which is about how many people have bought it.) (You can pick up the ebook or the audiobook, and if you like swearing and music, you'll probably be glad you did)

Rejection sucks. Take it from somebody who has been rejected a lot in the last five years.  But it doesn't mean your book isn't good or  you aren't a good writer.  It just means the right people don't love your book. Yet. Maybe someone else will. Or maybe they'll love the next one.  


Bad 90's Rock March Madness

The Premise

If you were a teenager in the 90's, I am going to tell you something that will shock and disturb you.

If you were not a teenager in the 90's, you already know this, but stay with me.

The 1990's were rock's worst decade. The absolute nadir of the sixty-year history of rock and roll, including the current decade in which rock has joined jazz as a largely dead genre drawing old people to listen to even older performers.  And yet even this sad current state of affairs is preferable to the 90's, when a number of factors came together to produce a decade that is an embarrassment to rock and roll. 

Why is this? Why did this decade cough up bad band after bad band? Why did its awfulness infect bands that had been good in the 80's? 

My theory is that when the mainstream finally conquered punk in this country, it just opened the floodgates for the boring, mediocre, 2nd-raters to take over.  Because with few exceptions, being boring and mediocre is the way to sell a lot of product. You have to inspire people who don't buy a lot of music to buy your music, which means sanding off the hard edges and burying all the interesting parts.

Of course, there had always been boring rock. But 90's boring rock is even worse than earlier boring rock. I believe this is because of the pseudo-punk aesthetic that infected corporate rock. So while earlier boring rock--let's take Foghat's "Slow Ride," for example, but we could just as easily go with Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" or, like, any Loverboy song--was at least celebratory in nature, praising rock's holy trinity of sex, partying, and rock, 90's boring rock, aiming at faux authenticity, did away with fun and swagger and celebration and left us with the dogs beginning to smell her.

And yet because there are such a large number of people who were teens in the 1990's, the myth persists, at least among them, that the 90's were a great musical decade. 

Stuff and nonsense.  That is why I have created this bracket: so that those of us whose adolescence came either before or after the 1990's can at last have our say and crown the worst rock act of the worst decade of rock.

The Methodology

I toyed with a 64-act bracket, but I ultimately decided that this was going to force me to include a lot of bad acts, but ones that weren't bad in a specifically 90's kind of way.  So the jam bands are out because no one who is not currently high will argue that any of them are any good. The annoying singer-songwriters are out, because they are squarely in the tradition of annoying singer-songwriters that dates back to the first generation of Dylan imitators. Also, history has largely forgotten them. (Let us take a moment to pity Tori Amos, once a big star, now not even first on the list of annoying red-haired musicians associated with Neil Gaiman.)

I've chosen acts that achieved some level of popularity in the 90's and that are, for better or worse, associated with the 90's.  So Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, both of whom were good in the 80's, are included here because they rose to megastardom (and fell to shittiness) in the 90's. I toyed with the idea of including Aerosmith, since Get a Grip is one of the worst rock albums ever, but they did release Pump in the 90's, and that's hilariously horny, so they're out. 

I have not chosen one-hit acts that are easy to shit on because nobody liked them all that much even then. So your Eve 6, your Seven Mary Three, your Three Doors Down, and the rest of the one-hit wonders of the 90's are not included. They've been punished enough.

I have included many sacred cow acts here. This is not simply to troll 90's kids, although that is fun. I genuinely believe these bands are terrible, and I will be happy to explain my choice in the comments if you wish to question me. (Remember though: this is a safe space, which means I brook no dissent from my views. Just kidding. But I will delete you if you're abusive but not funny. Abusive and funny is fine. Encouraged, even.)


The Bracket

Screenshot 2016-03-28 at 7.04.00 PM

(Sorry it's a little hard to read. The "fillable PDF" kept saving as a blank, so I had to do a screenshot.  So yes, I am old.)

If you prefer it in non-graphic form:

  1. Nirvana vs. Rage Against the Machine
  2. Pearl Jam vs. Sublime
  3. Bush vs. Third Eye Blind
  4. Red Hot Chili Peppers vs. Weezer
  5. Hole vs. The Black Crowes
  6. Radiohead vs. Foo Fighters
  7. Primus vs. Blues Traveler
  8. Alice in Chains vs. Metallica
  9. The Wallflowers vs. Garbage
  10. Dave Matthews Band vs. Barenaked Ladies
  11. Liz Phair vs. Smashing Pumpkins
  12. Oasis vs. Toad the Wet Sprocket
  13. 311 vs. Live
  14. Stone Temple Pilots vs. Blink-182
  15. Jane's Addiction vs. Tool
  16. Green Day vs. The Offspring

How to Vote

You may vote in one of two ways: through the comments here (please just include the number of the matchup and your winner.) I will put up a new post with the first round winners filled in on March 30, 2016, and you can vote on 2nd round winners there.

I will also be posting all the matchups as Twitter polls. You can just head over to https://twitter.com/bhalpin and cast your vote there. Twitter polls stay open for 24 hours, and I'll start posting tonight.

Against Grit

If you spend any time in educational circles at all, you will hear something about "grit." 

If you want a lot of information about what "grit" is, you can google it, especially in conjunction with its foremost proponent, Angela Duckworth. She has a TED talk about it because of course she does.

But maybe you don't want to do the research. In which case, I'll break it down for you:  "grit" means perseverance. It's your ability to stay focused and work hard toward a goal and keep going rather than giving up in spite of obstacles.  

Seems like something nobody could possibly object to. In fact, it's in huge vogue in education right now. You can't make a rubric without somebody wanting to throw grit on it. Especially when you are working with disadvantaged students.

Because "grit," it turns out, is a handy way to blame people in bad circumstances for their fate.  

This plays right into the myth that the United States is a meritocracy, which people cling to stubbornly in spite of the evidence. So if you're poor, it's not because the deck is stacked against you. It's not because of the fact that even the low-achieving, incurious children of the rich clog up the top rungs of the career and educational ladder. Nope--it's your own fault because you're lazy and you give up too easily!

This, of course, is why the big money forces of education reform love grit. 

Indeed, when I worked in a charter school, we subscribed to this idea even though Angela Duckworth hadn't given it a name yet.  We used to start with 70 9th graders and end with 30 12th graders. And when a kid left, we would shake our heads and bemoan the fact that they'd given up, that they just didn't want it bad enough.  (We didn't examine our own pedagogy or disciplinary practices because it was obviously the students' fault for giving up. No excuses!)

Even as I write this, people are wringing their hands, wondering how they can teach grit. Because that will solve poverty. People are giving demerits to students for their failure to show grit. Because showing grit is the only way Those People will ever succeed. 

Grit is all about blaming people for their own circumstances and denying the role of luck, race, and money in people's success. But there are two other problems. One, as Alfie Kohn points out, is that measuring students' grit based on what they are or aren't persevering at in school ignores the question of whether that particular thing is worth persevering at.  It allows educators to not examine their own practice and just blame the kids. 

But there's another problem that I haven't seen a lot of people writing about (though someone probably has): grading someone else's grit is incredibly presumptuous.

I worked for seven years with a post-secondary student population who by and large had not done well in high school. And I did a personal essay assignment with them. And many of them would choose to write about something horrible they had been through. Reading these essays would wreck me every time.  And it's what really turned me against "grit." Because you never know what kinds of horrors people have seen and endured. And how much grit it takes them to just get out of bed in the morning. 

Many, many students wrote of sexual abuse they had endured as children, and the shame they felt and how it had broken their ability to trust anyone, how they could never feel safe. Many students wrote of the trauma of witnessing or experiencing violence. Students had been shot or stabbed or watched a loved one gunned down in the street.

And you're going to presume to judge the grit of someone who's been through that kind of experience? 

How dare you? 

It's arrogance of the highest caliber to think you can put someone's character traits on a rubric and give them a score based on what you know of them.  And we put poor kids through this all the time.  Can you imagine how this must feel? What must it be like to summon the effort to leave the house after you were abducted off the street and tortured for three days and then have someone tell you you're not showing enough grit? Does anyone on earth deserve this kind of humiliation? Does anyone on earth have the right to judge anyone like this?

Grit is not a helpful concept. It's not innovative. It is, in its current application, sickening and shameful.


Revealed: The Right Thing To Say

Talking to a dear friend who got life-changing bad news the other day, and she was complaining about all the stupid things people say when they learn that something terrible has happened to you.  Having had some terrible things happen to me, I knew exactly what she was talking about: people don't seem to know what to say, so they say something stupid and offensive.

So as a public service, I am going to reveal what you should say when someone tells you that something incredibly terrible has happened.

"I'm sorry."  You can add "so" in the middle if you like. You could also tell the person that you love them.

That's it, folks!  

Now you may be thinking, "But Brendan! My friend has cancer! (or whatever terrible thing just happened) Those words are completely inadequate!"

Yep. Because that's the thing. Life-changing bad news is too big for words. Words can't help.  You can't be the one to make the person feel better because nobody can make the person feel better. Whether you're acting out of compassion because a person you care about is hurting and you want the hurt to stop, or narcissism because you want to be the one who utters the magic words that help, just stop it.

Because while your words can't possibly make the person feel better, they can actually make them feel worse. 

So that's it: "I'm sorry."  Try it next time someone tells you something terrible. And never  say you don't know what to say again.

So You Want to Work in a Charter School

Here in Boston, charter schools are expanding. Which means they'll be hiring new teachers! Actually, they started the hiring process before they got the okay to expand from the state. It's almost as though they knew what the outcome was going to be before there was a public meeting and vote!  Weird!

So they're hiring. Maybe you'll work there. But if you don't wind up at one of those schools, don't worry: charter schools are always hiring. You'll definitely find a job in a charter school if you want one.

Having worked in an urban charter school, I thought I'd give you a taste of what your experience will be like. This is a composite portrait based on my experience and that of others.

First: the indoctrination. Regular public schools are the enemy. In fact, those hacks who have devoted their entire professional lives to working with urban students are not just clueless; they're evil. There is simply no other way to describe the way they fail the children they are supposed to serve.  Fortunately for the children, they have you.

Are you on board? Well, you're going to be working VERY long hours AND a longer school year than those public school hacks, AND you'll make less money. All of which will prove your virtue. You do this work not for the perks, like those union dinosaurs, but because you want to save children's lives.

And you care. And everybody around you cares. You all care really hard and you work really hard, and you'll probably go out and get hammered with some of them a lot because you don't have any time for your other friendships and nobody who doesn't work with you wants to hear you talk about work all the time.  You'll get close with them, in the way only people who are going through something incredibly difficult together do.

So you'll be working really hard, but so will the students. You're all in this together.  A lot of the students will stay very late. "They just don't want to go home," one of your colleagues will say with a mixture of sadness and pride. Sadness that they have to live in these situations--who knows what kind of horrors go on in those neighborhoods! (Not you--you didn't grow up there, and you don't live there now.) And of course they don't want to go home: if that family knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be poor! Nobody at your school will say this out loud, of course, but they won't have to. 

Sometimes you'll feel bad about the extremely punitive disciplinary policies. But, you'll tell yourself, shaking your head, such policies are necessary in order to have a school that works. Without them, you have the anarchy of the evil regular public schools. And this school has to work. You owe it to the kids.

Well, you owe it to the kids you can serve. Sadly, you're just not set up to serve everyone, so even though it's painful to sit through those meetings with the kids who are getting "counseled out" because of their special needs or lack of English proficiency, it's the right thing to do. You've got to sacrifice these kids for the sake of the ones who actually have a chance of being saved.  

Still, it will feel a little weird when you sit there in the meeting with the administrators talking about the great special ed program they have for kids like this at one of those evil regular public schools. You might start thinking that those evil regular schools might actually be better if schools like this that aren't set up to serve everyone weren't getting so much of the public money and most of the private money.

But you'll shrug that off because you're just too busy, and there are kids who want your help, kids with grit who are prepared for the rigor of your classroom who need your help.  So you'll put your nose to the grindstone.  

And sometimes you might stop and think, "was my high school like this?" And you'll realize no--you had a bunch of sports options and some arts and maybe even music classes, and being able to succeed in those areas really kept you going when the academics were tough. But, sadly, those kind of "enrichment" activities are frills. And you've got no time for frills. Your students are behind (thanks, evil regular schools) and they'll just have to do twice as much work as their wealthy suburban counterparts.  Not fair, sure, but it's tough love. It's what they need.

One night you'll be working really late, trying to help a kid who's having trouble, and the kid will just be such a ball of stress, and you might find yourself wondering, as you sit alone in the room after they go home, "is this worth it? Is there any joy at all in this place?  Is joy really a frill that we can't afford to give these kids?"

But you'll brush those thoughts aside, because you've got kids to save.

Some kids will leave during the school year. Usually after the date in February when the state counts the students to figure out the funding, but before the date in March when statewide testing starts.  A lot of those kids will be the ones who are struggling academically. What a strange coincidence!

And it will not have escaped your notice that your graduating class is about half the size of your incoming class. Because, it turns out, you can't save everyone. Not everyone is worth saving. Only those with the grit to persevere deserve the middle-class life you're promising. Inexplicably, a lot of kids choose mediocrity when you offer them excellence.  You wonder what is going on in their minds, but you probably don't reflect on what, if anything, this says about your school.

Because you've got kids to save. Kids who deserve saving.

And there will come a time when a student you've worked really hard with will fail. Either they'll fall behind academically, or they'll selfishly want to graduate on time when the sad reality is that most of these kids need five years in high school to catch up to their peers. Or maybe they'll run afoul of the many picayune rules and regulations and be kicked out of the school for disciplinary reasons.  And you'll mourn, of course, because consigning a smart kid to the regular public schools is the equivalent of killing his future life, but also you'll be angry and resentful. Didn't he see how hard you worked, how much you cared? How could he throw all that away over the refusal to tuck his shirt in?  Why can't these people get that you can have all the opportunity in the world if you simply do what you're told?

This may pull you up short. You may find that you've betrayed one of your deepest values.

On the other hand, you may find that you've just reinforced one of your deepest values.

You will leave, of course.

No one makes a career of teaching in a charter school. The hours are too long, the demands are too great, and the pay is too low. You probably won't examine what your failure to continue says about your own grit. You probably won't think about the fact that a student who attends charter schools for their whole academic career will be working this hard for twelve or thirteen years, and you couldn't even do five.

Where you go next depends on what sense you've managed to make of the gap between what you say is going on here and what actually goes on here. 

If you are still, in spite of the evidence, a true believer, you may become an administrator.  There's always room at the top, and even if you've only got three years of teaching under your belt, well, that's one more than you actually need to be an ed reform expert.

Or maybe, armed with your two or three years of teaching experience, you can now go become Senior Director of Teacher-Bashing, East Coast Region at some hedge fund manager's nonprofit--something like, Parents And Children United For Totally Awesome Education For All.

Or maybe you're burned out on education. Screw that. You put your time in. And now you put your law or business school application in.

Or maybe you still want to teach in spite of your experience here. In which case, it's off to the suburbs for you. You'll join the union, get a raise, be treated like a professional, and continue teaching for years. Sometimes you'll think about the regular urban public schools you used to disdain and wonder how those teachers do it for so long. Maybe, you'll think, they weren't quite the evil hacks you thought they were.

Well, that's about it. A bunch of you are about to get hired. Contact me in a couple of years and tell me if I'm wrong.

(If you'd like to read about my experience teaching in suburban, urban, and charter schools, you can check out my memoir about the first nine years of my teaching career .  You can also get it on audio. And if you'd like to know what it's like to put three kids through regular  urban public schools, just ask me or my wife.)

YA Tries to Have it Both Ways, and So Do I

Here is a thing that happens a lot:  some clod who clearly knows nothing about young adult fiction writes some dumb thing about how some big-name author has deigned to write young adult fiction for the first time, and the author of the book and/or the author of the article make a bunch of ignorant generalizations about YA, and then YA Twitter goes nuts for a few hours.  (Note: sometimes the article is not about a writer trying YA for the first time, and is more like, "I read 3 YA books, and here's my think piece about the problems with YA").

This will happen again soon. And I have two thoughts.  Thought one: who cares what some ignoramus says? If you're going to run around the internet reacting every time someone you've never heard of says something ill-informed and offensive, you're never going to have time to do anything else.  Also, you keep linking to these things and provoking lots of hate reads, and editors don't care if those are hate reads or not; they're just thrilled to get all those eyeballs on their page, and so not ignoring this kind of stupidity ensures that it's going to keep happening. 

Thought two: if you really crave the "respectability" that the larger culture confers, you're going to have to start saying something is crap when it's crap. YA has a reputation for being a supportive community, and for the most part it is, unless you piss off certain cliques of either authors or bloggers, and then THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU. I've seen many bloggers say they only want to review books they like, and authors generally don't want to say anything bad about another author's book because what if you meet them at a conference or something. And I think a lot of people feel protective of YA books, like to point out their shortcomings is to agree with the people who unfairly dismiss the entire category.

But there are certain things you've gotta put up with if you're going to read a lot of YA, just like if you read a lot of epic fantasy, you're gonna read a lot of stupid names.  To wit:

Didacticism. I think a lot of authors and/or editors underestimate the YA audience, and so there's very often a part where the first-person narrator applies the sledgehammer and tells you exactly what you're supposed to make of the story. I have to tell my beginning writing students to stop doing this all the time. Trust your writing, I tell them. Trust your audience. A lot of YA authors have trouble with this.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu-ism. For those not familiar with the terminology, this is when the main character is the author's painfully obvious wish-fulfillment fantasy.  This comes out in the romance a lot. So the mini-Lizzie Bennets, all sarcasm and bookishness, always find their mini-Darcys, with great hair and abs, troubled enough to be attractive, not troubled enough to be actually dangerous.  And the geeky, always-ready-with-a-quip boy main characters seem to wind up with assertive, improbably-hot girls who are inexplicably drawn to geekiness and sarcasm. (I am totally implicating myself here, BTW. No need to go through my catalog and point out all the examples of this.  Actually, what I mean is, I am totally above this! Go ahead and buy and read all my books and try to prove me wrong!)  I'm just gonna go out on a limb here and say those of us who are good at making up stories in our head were not exactly killin' it on the romantic front in high school. But maybe we can put this one to bed.

Clunky exposition. Gawd, this one drives me nuts.  It may be because the convention in YA fiction is to have a first-person narrator, but the first ten or fifteen pages of a YA novel are often a struggle for me, because the narrator explains EVERYTHING.  "There's my popular best friend. She keeps saying I'm too much of a bookworm, that I should get out more. But ever since Mom died, I just don't have patience for going to parties and talking about stuff that doesn't matter. Although I do get tired of taking care of my little brother, what with dad's drinking and all."  This kind of thing is endemic.

And they show up not only in the work of also-rans like me, but also in the works of the titans of the category, the people whose books we shove at people and say, "Oh, if you think YA is crap, try this!"

Now, to be sure, people regularly mock YA tropes. I am by no means the first, or even thousandth, person to mention these things.  But it's usually "in the family" kind of stuff. It's affectionate mockery by fans for fans, but if someone outside the community raises these issues, we circle the wagons. 

I'm torn here. As a writer, I want people to show unreserved enthusiasm for my books, to cheerlead for them, to press them into people's hands and say "you HAVE to read this!"

 But as a reader, I want people to say, "I really enjoyed this book, but the exposition is clunky," or "we've seen this kind of romance before." I just feel like authors--especially those authors who are Big Names--are not being held to a high enough standard. It's not treasonous to point out the shortcomings in a book you liked. It's not disloyal to point out that your favorite author appears to be repeating her/himself. 

But, then again, chasing respectability will only break your heart. I see this happen with science fiction and fantasy all the time: if people who aren't fans find themselves enjoying a book in those genres, they either insist the author isn't really a science fiction writer (Margaret Atwood), or the book "transcends its genre." (Too many books to name.)

Welp. I've written myself into a corner here, so I guess it's time to sign off.  I guess I'll just end by saying I wrote a YA novel that could really use some unreserved enthusiasm, and the ebook is currently on sale on a pay-what-you-want (including nothing!) only on this particular site. Or if you prefer hard copies, you can snag one cheap here.


My Big Fat Dickensian Life

Hi folks! Without going into too many details, lemme just say two things: 1) nobody in my family has a life-threatening illness and

2) otherwise, my life has taken a turn for the Dickensian lately.

Which is to say, if I were to list all the shit that's happened in the last six months, you'd be like, "nah, that's a bit over the top."

Or, possibly, "how can I help?"

So, here's how you can help. Buying my books, of course, but more specifically, I sell my the ebooks whose rights I control on Gumroad.com. They pay the highest percentage to the author and also pay faster than any other site.  Which turns out to matter quite a bit in the current circumstances.

Which is why my YA superhero noir Enter the Bluebird and Seamus Cooper's Lovecraftian comic adventure The Mall of Cthulhuand EC Comics-style paean to the Jersey Shore Terror at the Shore are now all on sale on a pay-what-you-want basis. This means you can have one for free (and if you're tapped out, feel free to grab one for free! Maybe slide me a positive Amazon review if you want to help out, because those help too), or you can kick in any amount larger than a buck.

I am hopeful that the current difficulties will pass quickly, but, in the meantime, we're up against some pretty tough deadlines in the next couple of weeks, and anything you want to pay for any or all of these books will be a big help.  As will spreading the word for me if you've already read and liked any of these.  



The Power of Giving Up

We kind of fetishize persistence in this country.

Just keep going, we say. Never give up, we say. JK Rowling got rejected a lot! Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team! Never give up!

What pernicious crap this is.  Because, like all our positive thinking bullshit, it implies that if you never became a professional basketball player, IT'S YOUR FAULT BECAUSE YOU GAVE UP. You know, you should have just worked really hard like Michael Jordan and believed in yourself and stuff, and then you could have been an NBA star! Superstar, even!

But the thing is, almost nobody makes it to the NBA. Here's some data from the NCAA on men's basketball:

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 8.31.05 PM

So three out of every ten thousand high school basketball players will play professional basketball. So, if you get cut from your high school team, giving up on that NBA dream is probably a good call. Indeed, even if you don't get cut but you are not the best player in your league, you should probably give up on the dream of going pro.

Ever watch the painful first few episodes of American Idol?  I followed one season, and the thing I really liked was in those painful auditions when Simon would tell the people who came in and completely couldn't sing, "this is not your thing. You should stop doing this and do something else. This is not where your gifts lie."  

Simon Cowell is famous for being a dick, but this always struck me as a great kindness. What good advice! What a refreshing antidote to the "don't give up ever because all it takes to succeed is wanting it bad enough" bullshit that pervades our culture!

In the educational realm, kids are now being asked to show "grit." What this means in an educational context is "continuing to work really hard on something even after you realize it's stupid bullshit."

Now, this is a skill that most employers value, to be sure, but it's not a character trait. But they pitch this kind of relentless obedience as a character trait. And then they penalize kids for not showing this. Because apparently you have to be persistent, even when the thing you're supposed to be persisting at is manifestly a waste of time and energy. (Shoutout to Alfie Kohn for this piece, which destroys the "grit" fad.)

Some people even carry this obsession with persistence into their personal lives. But despite what rom-coms would have you believe, you can't pester someone into liking you back. When your interest and/or affection aren't returned, don't persist. Give up and go find someone who will actually like you back.

Now obviously some things are worth working hard at and sometimes persistence is rewarded, but sometimes there's great power in giving up. It allows you to take charge of where your energy is going and perhaps pursue a different goal than the one you keep not achieving.

I'm thinking about this because I have given up on having a bestselling novel that becomes the basis for a hit movie. I'd like to have those things, and I spent years wanting those things really bad and even building up a substantial credit card debt against the gigantic payday that I believed was around the corner. (Because I really wanted it! How could "the universe" not grant my wish?)  But in something like this, wanting it doesn't matter. Hard work doesn't matter. You need a certain baseline level of talent, but after that, it's pretty much all luck.

Indeed, one publishing professional said of a guy with a few bestselling novels and a successful movie based on one of them: "He's not any better than Brendan. He's just had better luck." So, great. I could continue to beat my head against that brick wall until I die, but giving up on that dream was actually quite liberating.  Because then I didn't have to worry as much about what other people thought. I could write stuff that pleased me instead of worrying about how stuff was going to sell. I was able to make room for goals and dreams I might actually be able to achieve. And I was able to focus a little bit more on the stuff in my life that really matters. 

I haven't given up on writing because I like it a lot. But I gave up on longing for bestsellerdom, and, as a result, I've had more fun writing and I'm way less bitter--okay, okay, marginally less bitter--than I was before.

So if you've been wasting a lot of time and energy pursuing something that's just not happening, instead of redoubling your efforts, maybe consider giving up. It can really improve your life.