cmartell (jfreedan) wrote,
cmartell
jfreedan

Good fiction for boys and the lack of it

As a writer, one of the things I want to focus on is writing stories that will appeal to boys. I have nothing against girls and I do hope my stories appeal to girls too, but it's boys that I really want my work to appeal to.

The reason? It's simple, really.
There is not enough good fiction for boys coming out today.

Do some Googling for "fiction for boys" or "Stories for boys" or any combination of "boys" and "fiction", and you'll basically come up with the Mommy List of boy's fiction. 

Hatchet.

Where the Red Fern Grows.

Maybe Catcher in the Rye.

The Hobbit.

The Chronicles of Narnia.

Harry Potter.

And a whole lot of books about learning manners, the value of friendship, walking away from bullies and always being respectful to your parents no matter how much of a jackass they are.

Occasionally they offer the toilet humor book as if all guys really want to read a book of fart jokes.

What all these stories have in common is that with the exception of The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, I didn't read these books when I was a boy. Harry Potter I likely would have read had it been published when I was still a boy rather than an adult. And The Catcher in the Rye is exceptionally boring for a young boy because it was written for people that are old enough to be drugged out and disenfranchised with society, or at least have friends that are.

What did I read when I was a boy? I leaned toward the stories that had action-y storylines in them.

I loved Redwall. I think that was one of the best stories I ever read as a child.

I loved the Indian in the Cupboard, and I liked the sequel, too.

I read many comic books, too. I loved Spider-Man, but I read so many series I couldn't even list them all here.

I also read licensed LucasArts books; The Young Indiana Jones Adventures and some of the Star Wars books. I also read some of the teen oriented Star Trek The Next Generation books (I forget what the series was called). I did read a few of the Goosebumps books. I enjoyed these books, but they never had what I really was looking for; action!

It's so simple if you think about it. It's the reason we wasted hours in front of a Nintendo, staring at crudely drawn 8 bit characters beating the hell out of each other. We like action. We want to live through an adventure where we have power.

I think that desire-- to have power-- could be a reaction to society trying to cut our balls off constantly.

My Life Story and How It Determined What I Read

When I was a kid, my parents divorced. I ended up with a stepmom that zealously protested all the videogames I played because they were so "violent" (Double Dragon! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Mega Man! OMG!). I bought a Dungeons and Dragons boxed set from a garage sale once, and my stepmother threw a fit, claiming it was satanic. My father threw it away into the trash. They didn't want me to watch PG-13 movies, and heaven forbid anything rated R. I also wasn't allowed to go any fucking where for fear I might get hurt, and I was never allowed to take up the sports I was interested in (such as wrestling or martial arts) because they didn't want me to learn "violent tendencies".

I basically couldn't be a boy.

As an adult I can forgive them for being absolutely stupid people that bought into every moral panic alarm from the religiously eccentric psychologists that campaigned against everything in the 80s, but I'll never forget that my parents were absolutely stupid people or that many parents continue to behave the same way mine did.

In comparison, when I visited my mother on the weekend I watched pretty much anything I wanted to, played anything I wanted to and went into the woods to play with neighborhood kids. When I turned 14, I decided I wanted to live with my mother and after a difficult court battle between my parents, I moved in with my mother where I was finally allowed to play football and study Tae kwon do.

What is my  point in telling this story? My point is that a young boy in America is one of the most powerless people you will ever encounter. There is a huge part of society that is constantly trying to shut us down and force us to be little mindless Lemmings that never do anything more interesting than talk about our feelings. Aside from sports, girls are allowed to express themselves in more physical ways than a guy is. In school, a girl can slap and kick the crap out of a guy, but it's never okay for a guy to make any kind of physical contact with a girl for any reason at all, even so much as a damn hug. I still remember my middle school dances, and they were lame. Teachers breaking up kids from grinding, hand holding and kissing? I admit, I lived in a small town then but I'm certain this sort of thing continues across the country because I read about the resulting lawsuits in the papers.

It's not just our behavior that they try to control. It's even the clothes we wear.
"Don't wear this shirt with this band's name on it!"
"Don't wear your pants like that!"
"Don't wear these kind of shoes!"
"Don't wear trenchcoats!"
"Don't wear this, and don't wear that!"

Boys are oppressed. Sure, no one is holding an uzi to our head, but it's still oppression when what you are allowed to read, think, feel and wear is restricted to a narrow list of choices intended to choke out your individuality and discourage bravery. Even with a fight, my principal would tell me that, "It takes two to fight." to justify suspending both boys, when in reality, no, it only takes one asshole that wants to beat the living shit out of the other.

Option A) Defend yourself and retain your individuality, self-respect and your life. But you'll be suspended from school.

Option B) Allow someone to beat the shit out of you and you'll lose self-respect, eyeballs, broken bones and anything else that is destroyed by their shoes kicking and stomping you in the face when you fall to the ground. You can come back to school when you get out of the hospital.

Yet somehow option B is the one the school faculty wants you to choose.

So where is our escape? For everyone who isn't fortunate enough to make it onto the football team, it's games, television shows, movies and books. Living through a fictional character that is powerful and courageous enough to resist the forces that oppress them, if only for a brief moment-- and maybe, just maybe, we'll learn how to be brave in our own lives through these fantasies. I truly believe one of the reasons I was able to stand up to my father and leave his household was because I wanted to be like the heroes I admired.

What Boys Really Want in Stories

What do boys really want? The Japanese get it. Look at boy's manga stories, like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece or Naruto. Young men resisting against the powers that try to hold them down. That's really the heart of the story, and that's really what makes them so popular. But they have lots of action too, and action is one of the clearest ways to feel powerful.

So what if Goku is extremely unrealistic flying through the air as he blows up planets with fireballs?

Sometimes, that's the way boys want to be.

Sometimes we want to see the world blow up, and having that safe way to see the world blow up helps us deal with all our complicated emotions before they explode inside us.

If more books were written like a comic book or a videogame and less like a soap opera, boys would read more. I guarantee you that, because I still remember exactly what it was like to be a young boy and I've never forgotten what I wanted. I wanted the action, because there was so much to gain from it. But it's the action that is sorely lacking from the majority of young adult books these days.

There are exceptions, of course. But as I walk through a bookstore where the YA tables are almost exclusively filled with books promising a story that can be summarized with the tagline " a teenage girl and those guys she is interested in dating", they are the minority.

There are lots of girl books published these days, but hardly any boy books. Where's the balance?

What goes on in the mind of publishers? What kind of boy do they think wants to read about the young girl who all the pretty boys want to date because she's just so damn cute, and if any action occurs it is given less description than the wallpaper of a bedroom (Oh sure, you can spend a paragraph writing about the damn grass and how the sun shines on it, and what it smells like, but a fight boils down to a sentence or two?). Or the focus is on using clever MacGyver tricks to defeat the villain like the the crew in Scooby Doo, which really leaves you feeling empty and wondering "Was justice really served?"

I didn't enjoy those stories when I was a kid (I did read several of them via the Babysitters Club series- please don't ask why-- and they made such a deep impact in my young mind that I can't remember a single thing from any of them), and I doubt most boys want to read them now when the action is so much better on television.

In truth, many of the greatest stories for boys are in the form of videogames. Chrono Trigger, Xenogears and Final Fantasy 6 & 7 come to my immediate mind. If there were books that were written like those games, I'm certain they would be best sellers.

There Are Exceptions, But To Be An Exception Means To Be A Minority

Now, like I said before there are exceptions. The Percy Jackson series and the Artemis Fowl series are two recent additions to the fiction genre that come to mind. If I was a little boy again, I'd read those. My point is that there is far more girl-oriented fantasy coming out than boy-oriented fantasy as if that is the only thing agents and publishers want to print and anything not starring a female lead has a difficult time getting through the ranks.

Hell, I read about situations where an author was asked by their agent to change the main character from a boy to a girl (interestingly enough, in one case this change would also make the story a lesbian romance).

In my quest for publication, I research agents that handle fantasy and I look at what stories those agents are selling. Do you know how common a story with a male protagonist is among their sales? Really? Do you really want to know?

There are entire agencies where every agent is female, and the only stories they seem to accept are stories with female protagonists and by female authors since those are the only stories they have sold.

Is this a mere coincidence? 

I probably won't get any brownie points for saying this, but I find it statistically improbable that over the past several years, an entire agency of agents that specialize in young adult fantasy is unable to find just one story they like which has a male protagonist-- or is even written by a guy.

It just seems there is at least a bias toward stories that are for girls and resistance against stories for boys.

Some of these agencies do represent a few male authors, or at least one of the books features a male protagonist. That doesn't change the overwhelming majority of fantasy they represent are stories about girls and their romance with some supernatural creature. I query them with my story, but it's more out of desperation than anything else (there does not seem to be many agents that accept unsolicited submissions for fantasy). But I know they will reject the query because it doesn't sound like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan-fic, and I'm never surprised when they reject my query without looking at any sample pages.

These agents often make the argument they can reject by query because "it's the same as a reader in a bookstore reading the blurb!".

I say no. I say it's not anything like that all because first of all, you're NOT a reader in a bookstore. You're an agent who is trying to find and sell marketable books to publishers. You're confusing yourself with a consumer when you are not a consumer.

You are a salesperson.

Does the electronic store salesperson need to be in love with every DVD Player and TV they sell to a customer? Or do they only have to find the product the customer is looking for? I lean toward the latter.

I worked at a Halloween Store for a few months during college. I can tell you right now, I did not locate costumes for customers that I personally wanted to wear. I found them the costumes they wanted, and if they didn't really know what they wanted, I suggested some things based on what they liked.

They liked, not what I liked.

Agents should be looking for books they know have a market, not books they personally want to read.

And acquisition editors are clearly guilty of this same thing since they seem to be putting little pressure on agents to find something that appeals to boys. Maybe they just don't know how to market books to boys and are under the mistaken impression boys do not read? I'll talk about this later.

Back to the query and blurb comparison: let's be honest here, our queries aren't blurbs. Agents are far too picky about queries for them to be anywhere close to a blurb. I don't think I've ever purchased a book because of a blurb. I've always read the first chapter, and if I made it to the end, then I skim through the pages to see if this author is one of those "talk about the surrounding area for 5 paragraphs before anything actually happens" authors, if the book is primarily about the immature ramblings of a teenage girl, and if they can write a decent action scene. I rarely purchase books for myself these days because few books pass my standard checks.

But I have purchased books as birthday presents for teenage girls. I can at least recognize they like that sort of thing without needing to be a teenage girl myself.

Back to blurbs: I rely on the blurb to tell me minor things: the genre of the story, who the main character is and what they are going to do in the story. I've rarely encountered a blurb that accurately described the whole story. 

As for the emphasize on romance: Sure, I wrote a story where the protagonist has a growing romance with a unicorn princess, but that isn't the focus of the story. I actually put that into the story because I thought it would be funny and different.

If You Want Buffy Back, Fine. But Let Us Have Our Heroes Too

I'm positive the urban fantasy YA "Buffy wannabe who falls for supernatural dude" books must be making some money, else the agents wouldn't be in business. However, I think more money would be made if more agents were more open-minded about different types of stories. Reading pages and pages of a teenage girl's inner most thoughts about how she is crushing on some guy might be exactly what most girl readers want, but it's the very last thing most guy readers want.

I read many of the blogs of these agents. They talk about how these stories must make them fall in love with the story, and even if something seems like it has a market, they'll pass. Is that truly a good way to do business? There are a lot of television shows, books and films out there which I find completely uninteresting--like most reality shows-- but these stories do have mass appeal and a large market. I just don't exist inside that market, and I can recognize that. Why can't agents recognize the market for a work without needing to be part of that market?

This is such a frustrating business. Whether you are published or not has less to do with the quality of what you have written and more about the reading habits of a handful of people so out of touch with the current generation that they consider book marketing to be to laying books on tables inside a book store and making announcements on sites only read by industry professionals and wannabe authors.

A More Sensible Way of Marketing Books to Boys

You know how I would market books to teenage boys?

Firstly, I'd hire comic book / manga artists to design the covers and interior illustrations. One would think this is so obvious, but again, they are out of touch.

I really want to stress this point. I'm sorry to say, but most artists drawing YA book covers are better suited to other endeavors than appealing to the minds of teenagers-- especially teenage boys.


Let me give you an example of what I mean,



Harry Potter. Most popular children's novel in the history of the world.
Terrible cover artwork.



Kingdom Hearts for the PS2. Now that's a cover that will appeal to kids.
Hell, I like it and I'm 26 years old.

Okay, so that's children stuff. What about teens?




Twilight. A highly popular vampire novel.
It has someone holding an apple on the cover.
Seriously, what the hell does apples have to do with vampires?
When I think vampires, apples are not what comes to mind.



Castlevania: Curse of Darkness for the PS2.
This is a vampire game. And guess what? It looks like it.
You can tell by the sad looking man in tight leather pants with demonic wings coming out of his back all artistic-like.

Hell, just look at any of the latest Castlevania covers for how to market vampire-themed stories.










But what do publishers use instead?



Right.
A 20 minute photoshop job.

There is no excuse for terrible cover artwork in this day and age.
Let me show you what I mean.




This is a concept cover I designed and hired an artist to draw.
I think I paid her about $50 dollars.
And look at it.
I bet you that a book with this cover would grab kid's attention.
I'm confident they would pick it up and at least look through the pages.

(I may end up using this cover if I give in to frustration and self-publish, but at least I can find solace in knowing whatever stores my book is in, kids will look at it and think, "I need to check this book out." and that they will know what the story offers by just glancing at the cover)


Moving on.

I'd have ads on game magazines and websites that used this comic book / manga artwork. If it works for webcomics, comic books, films and movies, I see no reason it won't work with books if the artwork is able to catch their eye.

I'd get my authors to make guest appearances on G4 shows, and even web shows like The Angry Videogame Nerd.

I'd try to get a game publisher to put paper inserts into game boxes that talk about the books and where they can be ordered. Maybe work out some kind of deal where the back of the book has an ad for their games, and exchange marketing that way. A deal like that costs them nothing and only costs me slips of paper. Gamers are already used to ads coming to them this way. They are always trying to sell game figurines, magazine subscriptions and t shirts with paper inserts packaged with the game manual.

I'd design a 2.0 website that encouraged readers (versus aspiring authors) to go to the site to read and play games worth playing.

I have a lot of other ideas too, namely ones that make it fun for readers to become involved with the book franchise. I'm a game designer, so creating fun things is sort of my thing. The only reason I haven't self-published and done my own marketing thing is because I realize the monetary investment. I don't have the funds to do it properly. The only reason I want a publisher is to cover the marketing, because marketing is what drives sales. It's odd to say that, but it's really what things have come down to.

I may have a lot of faith in my ability to entertain, but I'm not alone. I have a growing fanbase for my work, and I've yet to put any real effort into marketing. Someone at G4 recently asked me for permission to feature one of my videos on a new show. I have the most popular user-submitted fiction on Tokyopop.com, and the chapters I uploaded are extremely rough draft. I've had a very good agent look at my manuscript and he left me with the impression if I had written something in a genre he handled, he would have taken me on.

I admit, I'm frustrated with the publishing industry-- in both what they publish and how hard it is to break into it. The only way to improve what is published is by getting published yourself. But trying to break into this industry is like trying to stick your head through a Cheerio.


Oh, and just in case some agent or publisher reads this and wants to pass me off as just being bitter, I'm not alone in my opinion.
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