Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Justin Ordonez - Sykosa - Guest Post

Guest Post
Cross-Gender Writing Sucks; Now Let’s All Do It Anyway

Writing teenage girls sucks, and it sucks because it’s difficult. We all know the over worn clichés about women’s emotions, menstruation, driving, and rabid shopping. I’m not here to relive those. I’m here to state a truth about writing characters. It’s that while, in general, women are hard to fully form in the written word, the hardest subgroup is teenage girls. Nothing’s harder to get right, and—this is a big “and”—nothing’s easier to bomb. Alicia Silverstone described this dilemma better than I ever could, when she surmised the best teenage girl move ever Clueless.

“I think that Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it is true lightness."

Silverstone was chastised for this statement, attacked for being an airhead and awarded the “Foot in the Mouth Award” for “Most Baffling Statement” in 2000. Here’s the thing, though. If you can’t understand Alicia’s words, and not only understand her, but live it, think it, philosophize it, and build a lifestyle around it, you have no business writing teenage girls. Because here’s what you probably won’t believe, Alicia’s statement is 100% correct, and it’s not only 100% correct, it makes 100% perfect sense, and no one will ever speak on this subject more clairvoyantly or poignantly than Alicia did.

So what did Alicia mean?

Let me do a little trick us writers like to refer to as “storytelling.”

Being 29, I don’t spend time with teenage girls, as doing so would be disturbing. Not all writers feel this way. In order to properly understand the motivations of his heroes and heroines, author Tom Wolfe went deep undercover for his book I Am Charlotte Simmons, making his way across college campuses to familiarize himself with the modern flavor of youth. I suppose you can admire this dedication, but only if you can somehow overlook how, between finding sixty different ways to modify your name so the word “Viagra” is in it, you’re gonna get nicknames like, “Old Dumb Short Bald Dude” and, “The Pervert Grandpa,” assigned to you, and the best joke everyone’s gonna retell for decades is the time when, [enter name here], the sweet, innocent, gullible girl of the group broke into hysterical crying after being asked to envision your old, droopy balls.

Straight up player.

I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I could do it.

Look, I believe in authentic writing, I do, and think it is important to do some character study. I also like having my pride, so I know, being not entirely old myself, to stay away from these kids at all costs. They’re young, they’re good looking (even the bad looking ones), they think they’re never going to die, and years of education across a multitude of subjects has made them moderately proficient at most topics, so they can embarrass you academically even though, in reality, they don’t know anything and would crawl up into the corner, crying and sucking their thumb at their first encounter with one of life’s big, adult challenges!

(Or so I tell myself desperately every night before I go to sleep).

“I’m still young. I’m still young. I’m still young. I’m still young.”

You need to get inspiration another way.

And by “you,” I mean, “me.”

Sometimes, life just obliges.

It’s May 2011.

Sykosa—my forthcoming novel—isn’t finished. In fact, I’m a bit lost. I know I’m close to finishing it, but how long it will take to finish “close” could be three weeks or three years. I need a holiday badly. I’m about to get one. My sister lives in New York, specifically in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is a happening place since Lady Gaga lived there before going megastar. It’s a little neighborhood neighboring the more well known Greenwich Village, and it’s full of old buildings and young, spirited, unconsciously sexy people. My sister shares an apartment, which probably violates every zoning code in any city of America but New York, and being the size of a 1 bedroom apartment, and once again it being the city of New York, she shares it with a friend from her college days. Being the room mate introduction, it’s nothing fancy. I meet her after she comes from work, my sister and I relaxing after touring Grand Central Station. Being a writer, I can tell instantly I’ve changed their dynamic. While my sister and her friend want to make me feel welcome, it’s clear their routine after work is to drink wine and banter about who’s hooking up with whom, who wants to get married, who is scared to get married, who just needs to get their stuff together, and while they try to include me, the more time passes, the more they divulge into side conversations about their lives and circumstances.

This might be boring for me, but something keeps coming up.

Let’s see if you can identify it.

“Did you hear that so and so… Awkward turtle!” – “Oh, my God, I heard that! That was so Awkward Turtle!” – “Was it like the time…? You remember when…? Awkward Turtle!” – “That’s so crazy. It’s so Awkward Turtle whenever they’re around.”

Awkward Turtle.

Now, I’ve listened to this conversation patiently, expecting that, given a certain number of examples, its definition will become contextually obvious. It doesn’t happen. Eventually, I have to stop them, and I do. At the edge of the couch, I say, “I have to know, what exactly is…” And in the most serious, least humiliating way I can think to do it, and this is difficult considering I’m 6’4”, 230lbs, and I have the frame and a look that once inspired a random stranger to spontaneously shout, “You look like one of those assholes who rows crew at Harvard,” I put my thumbs at my forehead, extending my fingers like they were antlers, but bent so my fingertips touch fingertips, making a somewhat lazy triangle, and say, “Awkward Turtle?”

Wait a second… I’m reconsidering this whole “crew” thing.

What results is the kind of laughing that almost lacks reason. Like spectacle laughing—what happened isn’t even funny, it’s just laughing because that’s what you do when you see the asshole who rows crew at Harvard being an asshole or something. You laugh. The problem is its become contagious between my sister and her friend, as they croak and spit, each failing to reenact my too serious impersonation while assuring me, “I swear,” LOL LOL LOL HAHAHAHAHAHA! “We’re not laughing” LMAO! LMAO! LOL! HAHAHAHAHA!!! “At you—I swear, I swear!” Which becomes ever less likely as their faces turn ghostly white, and their eyes go empty, having laughed so hard they’ve dislodged their aortas, turning their insides into spinning lawn sprinklers of internal hemorrhaging and poetic justice!

(I may have imagined that last part).

Once the hilarity settles, an explanation comes. Apparently, “Awkward Turtle” is only one designation of what is a multi-leveled, hierarchically ordered classification system built to assign value to the severity of life’s awkward moments.

That’s not a joke. That’s what it is.

The dorks have a methodology to the whole thing.

(I have to call them dorks. They laughed at me for, like, five minutes).

Basically, a level of awkwardness is given an animal designation that’s paired with a hand signal at your forehead. If you’re awkwardness wasn’t too weird, it’s “Awkward Kitty.” A little worse? You get the most commonly designated one. “Awkward Turtle.” Something extremely awkward? “Awkward Shark.” Something even worse? “Awkward Hippopotamus.” What’s the top level? What’s reserved only for the type of awkwardness so bad that all social graces fail and you’ve frozen everyone in your immediate vicinity in such shock they may be contemplating whether or not spontaneous combustion is the best option for you? “Awkward Hippopotamus Out of the Water.” None of this makes sense, but my sister, who cannot stop laughing, looks at me like, what’s the matter with you, don’t you get it? and says, “Have you ever seen a hippopotamus out of the water? It’s looks so awkward and uncomfortable!”

They look fine to me…

What’s my point of this story?

I’m glad you asked.

My sister works for one of the largest consulting firms in the world. Her friend works for a major pharmaceutical company. Sure, they’re acting girlish, but it’s temporary, and when the time comes, they’ve got serious jobs and serious responsibilities—things giving them depth, character, arches, and these things make women like my sister and her friend easier to write than five years before, when they were making these stupid jokes, but had no jobs, no steady boyfriends, no place of their own or even cars. Yet, at the time five years ago, my sister and her friend were full of as much depth, as much character, and as many arches. Without the easy to navigate, agreed upon identities of the adult world, how would someone know how to draw those out? How would you construct metaphors, analogies, and have them be ones that weren’t condescending and pretentious?

To this we turn to Alicia Silverstone.

“I think that Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it is true lightness."


In order to draw meaning from young female protagonists, we need to look to their lightness to understand their depth, and if we do this, the depth we will discover will feel genuine to both the writer and reader. You need to ignore the fact that my sister and her friend were laughing at me and focus on the joyfulness of the laughter itself, then focus not on my sister’s explanation of, “Have you ever seen a hippopotamus out of the water?” and pay attention to the look she gave me, the, what’s the matter with you, don’t you get it? glare. In this lies the soul, purpose and heart of young women, especially teenage women, and this lives in us all from time to time, place to place, and it does not in anyway require—to the disappointment of male writers the world over—hanging out with, getting to know, or secretly hoping you score nineteen year old coeds.

The older we get, the more we become “adults,” “professionals,” “men and women,” “husband and wives,” “fathers and mothers.” We accept these labels and wear them like badges of honor. They become a mantra we bring into our work places, our social circles, and the voting booth. Unfortunately, with each passing day, we forget, and we lose, part of that lightness—that place where identity is self-determined, and drawn from the metaphysical thing which happens when you’re around people you really love, like all-out love. Some of us hang onto some of it, many of us vaguely recall it, lots of us surrender totally and pathetically to what can easily and ironically be described as the child-like, vapid pool of adult decision making. Of this we must all be careful, and if you’re a writer even moreso, because before you realize it, you’re not only not understanding what Awkward Turtle is, but you’re so embarrassed you’re not even bothering to ask, and instead of engaging and learning about the world, you’re smugly handing out an award about how it’s the Most Baffling Statement of 2012, all so you can, in the most vain of vain attempts, feel better about yourself—and it’ll work, you will feel better about yourself, and you’ll feel certain of your place in this world, but go back and look at your writing, really look at it and dissect it and question it…

What do you feel now?

Hey! Justin Ordoñez wrote a book called Sykosa. It’s about a sixteen year old girl who’s trying to reclaim her identity after an act of violence destroys her life and the lives of her friends. You can find out more about Justin at his blog. You can also find Sykosa, the novel on Amazon.

About the Book

Sykosa (that's "sy"-as-in-"my" ko-sa) is a sixteen-year-old girl trying to reclaim her identity after an act of violence shatters her life and the life of her friends. This process is complicated by her best friend, Niko, a hyper-ambitious, type-A personality who has started to war with other girls for social supremacy of their school, a prestigious preparatory academy in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. To compensate, Sykosa has decided to fall in love with her new boyfriend, Tom, who was involved in the act of violence.

Propelled by survivor guilt, an anxiety disorder, and her hunger for Tom and his charms, Sykosa attends a weekend-long, unchaperoned party at Niko's posh vacation cottage, where she will finally confront Niko on their friendship, her indecision about her friends and their involvement in the act of violence, and she will make the biggest decision of her life — whether or not she wants to lose her virginity to Tom.

Paperback Price: $12.95
Genre: Young Adult
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780985424312
Publisher: TDS Publishing
Release: March 2012
Buy Links:  Amazon, Barnes and Noble

About the Author

Justin Ordoñez was born in Spain, raised in the mid-west, and currently lives in Seattle. He's nearly thirty years old, almost graduated from the University of Washington, and prefers to wait until TV shows come out on DVD so he can watch them in one-shot while playing iPad games. For fifteen years, he has written as a freelance writer, occasionally doing pieces as interesting as an editorial, but frequently helping to craft professional documents or assisting in the writing of recommendation letters for people who have great praise for friends or colleagues and struggle to phrase it. Sykosa is his debut novel.

Links to connect with Justin:
Web site

Click here to follow the Sykosa blog tour.

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