Jack O'Lanterns of AWESOME

I had a whole other post done up...but then I saw this:

And what with Halloween being yesterday, I figured I couldn't possibly miss up an opportunity to share the  nerdiest coolest pumpkins I could find!

For those of you not in the know, the pumpkin above is a Dalek from the awesomest BBC show ever, Doctor Who.

There are quite a few nerdy pumpkins out there. The majority seem to be from Star Wars:

From this site, which has tons more awesome Star Wars themed pumpkins.

Apparently, this is the result of an awesome family pumpkin carving night.

Despite the fact that Star Wars has such a hold on the nerdy pumpkin market, there are others:

From Preditor. Also, this guy makes AMAZING carvings.

From my husband's favorite game: Space Invaders.

Cylon, anyone?

How about some classic book nerd love?

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy! This site, by the way, did a Literary Pumpkin Showdown.

And I'm going to save the best for last...zero points to you if you can't figure out what classic movie it's from...

Source here.

The Future Shouldn't Have...

Okay, so we've spent some time discussing what we'd like to have in the future. Cool tech gadgets, amazing replicators, new ways of travel, etc.

But what could we get rid of in the future?

For me, I think there should be some way to get rid of mud. I know it sounds lame, but I really don't like mud. The smell, the squelching, the disgustingness of it. There ought to be some kind of absorption pellet or something we can sprinkle on the ground so that mud is not made.

In a more serious realm, I think it would be awesome to have a future without illnesses. Think of all the things that wouldn't be needed if people didn't get sick. Entire professions would be eliminated: doctors, pharmaceutical reps, nurses, hospital administrators, pharmacists, etc. With no sickness, there'd be no doctor's offices, no hospitals, no nursing or medical schools. Just eliminating one thing can really impact the future society.

Just think what we wouldn't need if we didn't have cars, if we could teleport instead of drive. It boggles the mind (or maybe just mine). But I find it fascinating to think about what we'd like to get rid of and how that would impact our lives.

What do you think? If you could, what would you like to eradicate? How would that change our society?

The Kick-butt Women (and Men) of the Otherworld

Since it’s nearly Halloween, let’s talk paranormal fiction.  I am a fan, but a picky one. I like strong female characters.  Not simpering victims or mooning lovers.  So, I was thrilled to discover Kelley Armstrong’s  books a few summers ago.

The Women of the Otherworld series and her YA series—The Darkest Powers—share the same universe. All the supernatural races—werewolves, vampires, witches, shamans, necromancers, etc.—exist secretly alongside our world.  The sorcerers have even organized themselves into family-run Cabals, something akin to a corporate mafia.

In the Otherworld series, each novel is told from the point of view of a strong female supernatural (No vampires, though.) as she kicks butt and/or sleuths her way through some mystery or intrigue.   Elena, the werewolf, is by far my favorite narrator. The others are no slouches, though. Paige, the witch. Jamie, the necromancer. Hope, the half-demon. The latest books of the Otherworld series are from Savannah, a witch, who has grown to young womanhood since the third book.  The 12th Otherworld novel comes out next year.

The first three books of Armstrong’s YA series are told from 15- year-old Chloe’s perspective. Because of their budding powers, she and several other teen supers find themselves in a half-way house for kids with psychiatric problems. I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t read any of the books. The fourth—the Gathering—comes out next Spring.

What I love about Armstrong is that she doesn’t sacrifice strong men for the sake of strong female characters.  Although there may be a few chauvinistic holdouts, her male and female supers are on equal footing.  Armstrong has written several short stories about the Otherworld men, which were anthologized in Men of Otherworld. 

Any Armstrong fans out there? Who are some of your favorite paranormal authors or series?

Writing Wisdom of the Ages

Some of you may have caught my reference to this on Twitter this weekend, but I'm so excited about the whole thing I wanted to mention it again. 

I was happy to learn that just recently The Paris Review opened up their legendary series of author interviews online for free. It's a huge list stretching back to the 50's and the reviews themselves are absolutely exhaustive. I can't seem to stop reading them.

The archive is here I've posted a few of my favorite quotes just to give you all a little taste of what's waiting. I'd love to hear some of your favorite writing quotes in the comments!

Jonathan Lethem

"You’re not fighting the other writers—that Mailer boxing stuff seems silly to me. It’s more like golf. You’re not playing against the other people on the course. You’re playing against yourself. The question is, What’s in you that you can free up? How to say everything you know? Then there’s nothing to envy. The reason Tiger Woods has that eerie calm, the reason he drives everyone insane, is his implacable sense that his game has nothing to do with the others on the course. The others all talk about what Tiger is up to. Tiger only says, I had a pretty good day, I did what I wanted to do. Or, I could have a better day tomorrow. He never misunderstands. The game is against yourself. That same thousand-yard Tiger Woods stare is what makes someone like Murakami or Roth or DeLillo or Thomas Berger so eerie and inspiring. They’ve grasped that there’s nothing to one side of you. Just you and the course."

Ray Bradbury

"I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual. "

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry....Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. And as Proust, I think, said, it takes ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I never have done any carpentry but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you."

Joyce Carol Oates

"One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I've found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. "

Michel Houellebecq

"There is a need for intensity. From time to time, you have to forsake harmony. You even have to forsake truth. You have to, when you need to, energetically embrace excessive things. Now I sound like Saint Paul...'Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.' For me the sentence would be 'Now abideth beauty, truth, and intensity; but the greatest of these is intensity.' " 

David Mamet

"The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.  

People only speak to get something...That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective. "


Jeff Hirsch
The Long Walk Home
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch

A little link for your dystopian pleasure.

Dear Readers (see me going from future to past! O.o)

I am deep in the writing cave, but am emerging long enough to point you to a great article entitled, 10 Dystopian Predictions That Actually Came True.


Maze Runner Winners!

Ack! I'm late in posting!! Here, let me make it up to you by giving you prizes! Seems like the lucky letter to have this time around was "M"...

Winner of the hardcover copy of THE MAZE RUNNER:

Winner of the paperback copy of THE MAZE RUNNER:

The Maze Runner Review and Giveaway!

Wow, this week has been fabulous, with discussions on language, tribal communities, the use of gender, and the outstanding pacing of THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner. I hope you've enjoyed the discussion as much as I have.

In celebration of this title, we're giving away two copies! A hardcover and a paperback! All you have to do is comment on this post by Sunday, and Beth will announce the winners on Monday morning!

Since the others have done such a great job of bringing up the talkable aspects of the book, I'm just going to give you one of my twitter reviews.

THE MAZE RUNNER in 140 characters or less: Running through a maze, trying to find a way out. Can Thomas find the exit b4 becoming Griever food? And time is running out for everyone... (So I abbreviated before. Sue me. It fits in exactly 140 chars!)

Characters: All boy society--at least until "the last one" comes. Thomas: fearful yet courageous; loyal. I really liked him, and was rooting for him. (3 characters left over. Whew.)

Plot: Find a way out, stat. Worldbuilding was done well; Dashner gave me what I needed right when I needed it. Consequences: high. Ending: wow. (Again, 3 characters left. Do I detect a pattern?)

My favorite part: When Thomas goes to the cemetery. I don't know why, but I really found that part touching. I connected to him in that moment; I cared. (6 characters. Dangitall. There goes my patterning.)

What do you think? Have you read this book? In 140 characters or less, tell me what you thought!

I bought THE SCORCH TRIALS the day it came out. I haven't read it yet, but it's at the top of my TBR pile. I can't wait to see what James Dashner has in store for Thomas!

The Lost Boys in the Maze

In THE MAZE RUNNER, Thomas wakes up to find himself in the Glade, a LORD OF THE FLIES meets ENDER'S GAME kind of experiment where boys fight monsters and try to solve the maze, all without adult supervision—or girls. Thomas soon gets the hang of the place, learns a few things, and positions himself to be one of the elite, a Maze runner.

Then surprise, surprise, a girl is introduced into the Glade—and everything changes. And that’s exactly what she tells the boys just before she slips into a coma: “Everything is going to change.” And clutched in her hand is a piece of paper that says: “She’s the last one. Ever.” Her arrival signals the end of the Glade. The Maze stays open all the time, and the monstrous Grievers can enter the Glade and pick off the boys as they sleep. Thomas and the others realize it’s time to get out.

This whole scenario has a Wendy and the Lost Boys flavor—except that the Glade is not an idyllic place. In PETER PAN, introducing Wendy into the land of never-ending boyhood results in many of the Lost Boys wanting to grow up and leave the island. Can the same be said of the introduction of Teresa into the Glade? I’m not sure. The Gladers generally want to leave already—though some may enjoy the relative freedom of the experiment. They may be trapped in this horrific Neverland, but no adult is telling them what to do.

Dashner's target audience does seem to be middle grade and up boys.  And boys, as Jeff pointed out yesterday, do love a good tribe--which often excludes the opposite sex. So I can see the appeal . However, from an internal story logic standpoint, I don't quite get why girls weren't included in the experiment in the first place. (Granted, I haven't read the Scorch Trials yet, and all may be revealed by the third book.)

So here's my question--actually questions--for you guys.  

What do you think about the role of girl(s) in THE MAZE RUNNER?  If we're writing for boys, do we need to exclude or downplay girls? (I don't mean this as a criticism of Dashner's work, but just as a general question for us writers of YA/MG fiction.)

Sloppers, Med-Jacks, Track Hoes and Maze Runners

Speaking as the resident dude around here I can tell ya, boys love putting themselves into tribes. When I was a kid we gathered our buddies, gave ourselves a cool sounding name, and then established rigidly observed rules and hierarchies. The tribe could have been based around anything. Kids who play Dungeons and Dragons, kids who play tennis, kids who live on this block but not that block. The reason for the tribe wasn't really important, it was belonging to one that was. This behavior starts super early and for boys ends sometime around, well, never.

There are a lot of reasons for this, some good, some not so good. I think it has alot to do with that early struggle to establish an identity, to find a place and create a sense of safety and belonging. All good things of course until later when it edges into High School cliques, to exclusion and rigid hierarchies. Harmless play calcifies into Us. vs. Them. A shame.

I was thinking alot about this while reading Maze Runner. Just like in Lord of the Flies which partially inspired this book, the boys in Maze Runner very quickly ordered themselves into tribes of Sloppers, Med-Jacks, Baggers, Track-Hoes and at the top of the pile, the ones with the hardest job and the most prestige, Maze Runners. Newt says that all this order helps keep them sane in a terrible situation, and I'm sure that's true, but I did found myself struck by the seeming rigidness of the system and the council that called the shots. Did anybody elect these people? Can a Slopper dare to dream that he'll one day be a Maze Runner? Or is that once you're in your group your future is set? My feeling is that you're kind of stuck and I think some, I guess typically American, part of me is troubled by that.

Obviously this isn't exactly a driving force in the book but it's one that really got me thinking. It seems to me that this kind of tribal determinism plagues us everywhere we look (look no further than any High School lunch room) and it's often reflected in YA novels. Sometimes it's questioned, sometimes it just is.

What's your take on this? What do you think Dashner is saying with the groups portrayed and the governing structure in the book? Do you think the way the book ends is a comment on it? Do things change?

Also, what's your experience with High School tribalism? Do you think we can ever be without it? Should we try?

Jeff Hirsch
The Long Walk Home
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch

The Maze Runner - Ramping up the tension

Wow! I almost felt like I was running the maze, escaping Grievers myself. From the first few paragraphs, James Dashner grabs hold of you and doesn't let go, dragging you, pulling you and pushing you from one catastrophe to another. In The Maze Runner, the tension isn't just ramped up - it never stops.

Most novels give a person a break, a quick stop to catch your breath - but not this one. There is barely page that doesn't force you to turn to the next one, often it's a paragraph that demands you read the following one.

How does Dashner do this? Unanswered questions! All of the characters are in the dark, including Thomas. From the very start, when he comes out of the box and asks, "Where am I?" he is continually asking (or being asked) questions that only lead to other questions...

"You ain't never seen her before?"
"Could it hear him? Smell him?"
"Settles what?"

In thinking of other thrillers that I've read, of course, they all have unanswered questions - but, The Maze Runner seems particularly rife with them. And, since everyone seems to be working on clean slate memories -- there's obviously something that has done this to everyone. Unlike other stories where the mystery becomes clearer as the main character unravels clues - things seems to become more muddled in TMR as more questions surface.

I can only think of a couple of other books that, for me, were full of heart-thumping and/or non-stop action that occasionally made me have to set down them down just so I could catch my breath.
Deathly Hallows was like that for me and
an adult book called The Charm School by Nelson DeMille.
Oh, I think I could put Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

How about you? What books keep you on the edge of your seat non-stop until they careen to an unexpected end?

The Maze Runner & the Evolution of Language

All this week we're going to be talking about THE MAZE RUNNER, the NYTimes bestselling dystopian by James Dashner.

Today, I'm going to talk about the language Dashner uses. In the first chapter, it's evident that Dashner developed a new slang language for his characters.

For me, this is very realistic. The base of change in language is slang. It's the first thing to change, and typically has the most dramatic change. In my day, something awesome was "cool." My students said it was "beasting." My parents called it "groovy."

And, of course, there are curse words. I think the potency of curse words evolve. In the Middle Ages, "zounds" was rather harsh, but "piss" was common. A Victorian lady wouldn't stand to hear anything as offensive as "damn." Whether you think it's right or wrong, "WTF" is certainly doing it's part to make the "f-word" more acceptable in daily use.

Language evolves based on location, too. When I took my students to England, I warned them that "Sorry," implied you'd passed gas, and to not use it when you bump into someone on the Tube. And the two-fingered peace sign means something completely different in England.

What Dashner did so well with his evolution of language was create words based on past words. "Shuck" seems to have replaced the obvious rhyme, and "clunk" is another word for, erm, poo. And while the new language may be a bit off-putting at first, it does have a logical progression for why it exists. Shuck has the rhyme--our words do tend to evolve based on sound--but clunk seems (to me) to have been the sound of, well...I imagined metal bed pans or similar...

When writing works of the future, I do think it's important to consider language. In my own novel, I altered slang and dialect to differentiate between the people from the past and the people from the future. It's based on what we currently have--with a few new words thrown in.

Another good thing to think about in language isn't just slang and curses words. It's also catch phrases. We all use crutch phrases when we talk--some people overuse "like" or "just" or "you know." In THE MAZE RUNNER, a common phrase the characters use is "good that." It's equivalent to everything being kosher or being agreeable with something.

This is also, by the way, a feature that I loved about FIREFLY. In Joss Whedon's world, English and Chinese speaking cultures became strongholds, so many Chinese words (particularly curse words) slipped into daily English language. This blend of two languages is likely. Consider how easily Spanish, Yiddish, and French words have integrated into our daily use.

FIREFLY (have you noticed how much I love that show?) also uses a progression of language. "Gorram" and "rutting" have obvious root words in our own language.

When we work on stories about the future, I think it's important to also consider language. It shouldn't overwhelm the story, but, much like a pinch of salt can make a dish perfect, a touch of language can make the story sing.

So, are there any stories you can think of that use a new type of language?

Unpredictability Factor

Okay, so we've been talking scary this week. Horror. Ghost stories. All that jazz. I am so out of my element in this, because dude you guys, I am the biggest wimp on the planet. I do not like scary things. At all.

I do not like haunted houses. I do not like horror flicks. I do not, dare I say it? I do. I do not like Halloween. *ducks* *hides* There are many reasons for my almost-hatred of Halloween, but one of them is the fact that I do not like being scared. On purpose. For fun.

That is so not fun to me.

I do, however, really enjoy suspense. Tension. Think THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS and THE FORGOTTEN and KNOWING (especially KNOWING).

I like smart suspense in movies and books that take me on a twisty road I can't anticipate. I like that. I like going, "No WAY!" at the climax. I like being right there, on the edge, but I'm not into the blood/guts/gore/jumping out from behind a bush with a chainsaw type of scary.

I do enjoy reading ghost stories and the like, but as I said earlier, for me, it's more about the twist, the unpredictability than the actual fear factor. What about you? What gets your heart racing?

My Kind of Horror

Okay. I’m going to seriously date myself with these next words.  I used to rush home after school to watch one thing:

Dun dun dun .... (Cue atmospheric music.)

Dark Shadows.

And, before you say it. No, I’m not that old.  I watched Dark Shadows in syndication in the mid-to-late 70’s.

Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera (how could you not love the concept?) that originally aired weekdays on ABC from 1966-71.  Even though it was dark and atmospheric (and vastly different from any other soap opera at the time), the first  year of the show was a little slow. Young governess goes to spooky New England mansion to work for rich eccentrics with a troubled son.  A touch of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  Yet it was admittedly dull, which is probably why the first year wasn’t syndicated until the 1990’s.

Things really pick up, though, when Cousin Barnabas shows up at Collingwood (the Collins family mansion)—and turns out to be ...dun dun dun ...a vampire. At this point, the show became wildly popular, and next thing you know, ghosts, werewolves, monsters, witches, and every kind of paranormal being start popping up in the story lines.  The denizens of Collingsport, Maine even dabble in time travel and parallel universes.

My favorite part, though, was how the writers stole shamelessly from the classics. Story arcs were ripped right out FRANKENSTEIN, H. Rider Haggard’s SHE, Henry James’ TURN OF THE SCREW, Tennessee Williams’ THE MENAGERIE, and Oscar Wilde’s PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.

Let me give you an example of a story arc. (This was one of my favorites.) In 1969, young David Collins is being harassed by the ghost of Quentin Collins. So, cousin Barnabas—temporarily cured of his vampirism--uses the I Ching to travel back to 1897, where he meets the very much living Quentin, who was cursed by gypsies—something to do with Count Petofi’s hand, I forget—and is now a werewolf.  Barnabas has a painter do a portrait of Quentin, which cures his lycanthropy ala the Picture of Dorian Gray.  The painting of Quentin turns into a wolf at the full moon. Incidentally, Quentin doesn’t age at all and therefore can’t become a ghost to haunt David in the future. Still following me? His work done, Barnabas I-Chings it back to 1969—only to find an ancient race of Lovecraftian beings waiting to nab him. Begin new story arc.

That’s my kind of horror. Camp. Literate. Byzantine. And just plain fun. (Did I mention the dreadful camera work and silent-screen-worthy acting?)

Here's a little taste:

You thought I kidding about the I Ching, didn't you? And did I forget to mention Barnabas goes back to being a vampire in 1897 because he was one back then.

I’m not the only one who still loves Dark Shadows.  (Actually there are lots of fans and conventions even now.) Earlier this year on BBC’s Jonathon Ross Show I saw two of my favorite collaborators announce what one of their next projects would be after Alice in Wonderland.  Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are working on… (dun dun dun)…a Dark Shadows movie.   (It should come out after Depp does Pirates 4.) Yes, that means Johnny Depp will play Barnabas Collins. The last I read, the screenplay will be written by Seth Graham-Smith of zombie book fame. How's that for a combination?

Any other Dark Shadows fans out there? How about the '90's revival starring Ben Cross? He was certainly a better looking Barnabas, but the remake just kind of missed the point of the original. Sometimes it's really good to be bad.

The Lincoln House Ghost

This all happened back when I was an undergrad at James Madison University. It was my sophomore year, which turned out to be my last year there though I'm not sure I had decided that at the time of this story.

I was studying theater and the program wasn't quite as rigorous as I had hoped. Also I had no friends. Seriously. No friends. It takes me awhile to get comfortable with new people, something I've made peace with at this point, but back then I hadn't and it just made me uncomfortable and standoffish, which pushed people even further away. I was far from home for the first time in my life, unhappy and isolated.

Who knows, maybe that even played into what happened that night.

The picture above is of Lincoln House. It was torn down in 2006 to make way for a shiny new state of the art theater center, but back then it was the theater department's costume shop. Like most theater departments, JMU took a multidisciplinary approach to theater and that Fall it was my time to do a tour of duty on the costume crew.

That night, we were at the theater integrating costumes into a show for the first time. We were kind of overstaffed so I was standing around backstage with not much to do until the costume designer threw me a set of keys and asked if I would take the van over to the shop and pick up a load of costumes someone had forgotten in the drier.

If you've ever been involved in college or high school theater you know what it's like back stage leading up to a performance. The place is packed with the high energy collisions of attractive and creative young people. There's flirting to do, cigarettes to be smoked, parties to plan. An astonishing amount of backrubs. Faced with that sort of thing at a painfully introverted time in my life I was more than happy to leave.

It was early evening when I climbed into the van and started it up. The street between the theater and the costume shop was empty, lined with the shadows of trees. A rapidly fading sunset was on the horizon, all orange and yellow. It was short trip to the shop, not more than a few minutes. When I got to Lincoln House I pulled the van around to the back and walked up the drive to the front door.

That's when I remembered that the costume shop was haunted.

I don't remember who was supposed to be haunting it, or why, only that it was. No big surprise though, is it? I mean, look at the place. Of course there are stories that it's haunted. It would be more shocking if there weren't.

By the time I climbed the small hill out of the parking lot the sun was gone and it was fully night. Still and empty all around. If you look at the picture above, I would have been walking from the bottom left corner up and around to the front of the house. You can also see in the picture that on the left side of the house, a gable sits peaked at the roofline with its one window looking into the house's attic.

I knew the building was empty, the entire crew had left together and locked the place up, but as I walked up that drive I became convinced that if I were to look up at that gable on the roof I would see an old woman standing silently in the window, watching me as I made my way to the front door.

Even as a deep dread settled in my stomach, I dismissed the idea as a product of my over active imagination, and refused to look up and feed into it. I'd get this over with and get back to the theatre.  I took the stairs, fishing for the keys. My hand shook a little as I unlocked the door and felt blindly inside for the light switch.

The light settled into what would have been a parlor back when the place was built. Old ladies would have gathered there in the afternoons to drink tea and play bridge, but now it was crowded with dress forms and piles of fabric. Racks of hats and lines of shoes. Directly ahead of me was a narrow corridor that led back to what would have been the kitchen, but was now the room where they dyed fabrics. Beyond that lay the laundry room.

To my right a large mahogany staircase wound up into the darkness of the second floor and, beyond that, to the attic. I stood there for a moment looking at. The heavily polished wood shone. The bannister curved like a collarbone, graceful and smooth.What would happen if I followed it up, I wondered. Part of me wanted to, felt drawn to it and whatever I'd find at the top.

I pushed that aside and made my way through the debris in the parlor and into the corridor. It was cramped inside, not much wider than my shoulders and on either wall were corkboards covered with a forest of index cards, sketches and scraps of fabric, each one secured at the top with a pushpin.

I reached into the kitchen, fumbling until I hit the light switch. There was nothing inside but an old table covered in spatters of paint and dye. Piles of fabric. Two windows sat above the stained sink, closed and painted shut. I crossed the kitchen in two big steps and made it to the laundry room. I didn't even bother to turn on the light. I darted in, threw the squat drier open and grabbed the warm pile that lay inside.

As I stepped back into the kitchen something cold brushed against the skin of my arm.

I stopped dead in my tracks. The house was quiet. Still. My skin prickled.  I felt it again, like a cold wind blowing from the laundry room out towards the parlor. I turned and looked up. There were two windows, both high up on the wall of the laundry room. Each one was shut tight and locked. There was no door. No gap in the wall or crack in the ceiling.

Was I imaging it? Where was this coming from?

The wind blew again, lightly, and then I had it. I had left the front door open and it was simply drawing air out of the house, creating what seemed to be wind. I nearly laughed at myself, relieved, and then turned to go, fixing my eyes through the corridor and on to the front door.

It was closed. There was a big window just to the right of it and it too was closed tight. Pinpricks of fear tingled along my arms and back.

The wind kicked up again, stronger this time, crashing into my back and over my shoulders.Who cared where it was coming from? I just wanted out.  I blundered past the Ritt stained fabrics and into the corridor. As I did a sound, like playing cards being shuffled, was at my back. It grew louder, like it was gaining on me. I was halfway through the corridor when the it overtook me and I watched, horrified, as the loose corners of those hundreds of scraps of paper rose in the wind and began slapping fitfully against the corkboard. Convulsing. For a split second I saw them not as notecards but as a flock of birds pinned to the walls, all of them thrashing their bloody wings, desperate to escape.

The wind was howling through the whole house now. Beyond the front door were streetlights, headlights, the lights of the school. All I had to do was make it through that corridor and this whole stupid thing would be over. I would be backstage again, surrounded in tile and linoleum and people.

But I had become convinced that I'd make it through the corridor, but just as I stepped into the parlor I'd see the old woman from the attic descending that mahogany staircase just out of the corner of my eye, moving slow and dreamy, but in the twisted physical logic of dreams, still fast enough that she would catch me at the bottom before I could escape.

I surged forward and my hand found the doorknob. I threw the door open and stumbled down the stairs and along the driveway to the van. The black rectangles of the house's windows rushed past out of the corner of my eye. I had to fight the desire to turn and look. It was like I was standing at the edge of cliff and there was a tiny part of me that wanted to lean forward just a hair too much, that wondered what it would be like to go tumbling down into the darkness and never come back.

I don't remember getting into the van or starting it up. I just remember pulling out of the driveway and onto the road, heading back to the lights of the campus and that theater full of people, all of them dancing on the tips of their toes as they prepared to throw themselves as one into the stage lights.

I thought of them and I thought of how I would go to bed that night, and likely move through the entirety of the next day, without saying a word about what had happened to anyone. After all, who would I say it to?  I was surrounded by people, but I had managed to make myself as fleeting and transparent in their eyes as a sudden breath of wind. A ghost.

So that's my story. 100% true! How about you guys? I know one or two of you must have a good ghost story to share. Let's hear 'em in the comments! Happy Halloween!

Jeff Hirsch
The Long Walk Home
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch

"They're here already! You're next!

Those are the terrified words Dr. Miles Bennell yells into the camera near the end of what I consider to be one of the scariest movies ever - Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956.)

I am not a horror movie fan. Honestly - I get too scared! I was the kid at the movies who ducked down under the seats, squinched my eyes shut, plugged my ears & told my friends to let me know when the scary part was over. (It so does not count that I'd peek between the seats!)

Perhaps, because they were filmed in black and white - the movies I saw as a kid seemed more scary than any horror movies today. Actually, those old B&Ws still DO scare me. I mean, what is not to be terrified of from movies like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers?"

How the heck would you feel if if you knew that aliens were taking over the bodies of everyone, and there was no way to figure out who was human and who wasn't? Then, when you finally get away, no one believes you.

The original ending of this movie was to be Miles watching truckloads of pods passing him on the highway. The studio thought things should be a bit more optimistic and changed it, so there was at least a chance that the pod people could be stopped.

Have you seen the 1956 version? Did it scare you? Aside from the hokeyness of this trailer, I've gotta say - it still terrifies me!

Spooky, Horror, and Halloweeny: I AM LEGEND

ACK! I'm so freaking excited about October! It's totally my favorite month of the year--not only does it contain my birthday, but the weather's finally decent, and there's Halloween, a holiday dedicated to candy.

...and horror, tricks, scary, and spooky.

So, all this week, we're celebrating the best of scary: scary stories, scary experiences, scary movies.

Today, I'm going to talk about I AM LEGEND. Now, let me say first that I liked the movie rather a lot. I don't want to ruin it for anyone who's not seen it yet, but a few points:

1. I cried at the dog scene. (I wept at the dog scene.)

2. The ending was beautiful.

3. Will Smith is a brilliant actor, even when acting with only himself and some mannequins.

4. This movie was wonderful, but the book was better.

And that's what's I'm really going to talk about today: the book. I AM LEGEND is by Richard Matheson, and is short enough to be dubbed a novella. It is vastly different from the movie.

The thing about I AM LEGEND the book (as opposed to the movie) is that it's scary in an entirely different way. The movie was brilliant in that edge-of-your-seat what-will-happen-next way--you worry incredibly about what will happen to Will Smith, what will happen to humanity, what will happen to the dog.

I AM LEGEND the book creates a whole different worry.

I don't want to ruin it for anyone--despite the movie's popularity, the book isn't as well read as it should be.

I'll just say this: the ending of this novel still haunts me, two years after I first read it.


It's not scary because you think a vampire is going to jump out and get you.

The scariest part is the end, when you find out what the title actually means, and you wonder if it's possible.

Where You Get Your Geek On

It's come to my attention that I am not nearly science geeky enough. Sure, I love Star Trek like the millions of other Trekkies (did I even spell that right?) out there. But I would never dress up and go to a convention or anything.

Sure, I've seen some movies, watched some TV (although I'm really into reality TV, not so much science fiction...), read some books. So. I need you to tell me: Where do you get your geek on? What movies should I be watching? What TV shows? What books should I be reading? Where should I be geeking out on the Internet?

Help me get my geek on!

The Turkey City Lexicon

Nope, it’s not a new Michael Chabon or Stephen King novel. Or a travel guide to the Near East.

The Turkey City Lexicon is a brilliant little primer put together in the ‘80s by an Austin writer’s group of the same name. I've run across the Lexicon in numerous workshops and classes. It provides a memorable shorthand language for discussing problems (mostly) typical to science fiction and fantasy stories.

So, for instance, you could quickly diagnose a work as suffering from a bad case of Dennis Hopper syndrome. Can you guess what that is?

Dennis Hopper in Waterworld

The list covers everything from word choice to plot structures to tropes. You can check out the entire Lexicon on the SFWA site, but here are a few of my favorite terms:

Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight)

The Cozy Catastrophe
Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo- Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off. (Attr. Brian Aldiss)

The Shaggy God Story
A piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-fictional “explanations.”

Mrs. Brown
The small, downtrodden, eminently common, everyday little person who nevertheless encapsulates something vital and important about the human condition. “Mrs. Brown” is a rare personage in the SF genre, being generally overshadowed by swaggering submyth types made of the finest gold-plated cardboard. In a famous essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” Ursula K. Le Guin decried Mrs. Brown’s absence from the SF field. (Attr: Virginia Woolf)

In a workshop setting, I was once told a story of mine had a lot of Eyeball Kick, which, as it turns out, is a good thing. What flaw (or desirable quality) have you been guilty of? Have you seen one of these lexical baddies in a story recently?

For your viewing pleasure, I've included a classic Shaggy God story:

Twilight Zone episode "Probe 7, Over and Out"
It's actually an Adam and Eve story, a subset of the Shaggy God Story.

Your Cake and Who You Bake it For

This is a great article in the NY Times by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours. His main point is about the experience of having his book translated into another language and how ultimately all writing is an act of translation, since what we write is always an approximation of what he calls the "cathedral of fire" we initially construct in our heads. All very interesting and well worth a read, but there was one section in particular that grabbed me.

"I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space."

Honestly, I think I would have answered that question he posed his students much like they did. I write for myself. Self expression is the driving force behind what I do. I think it's a popular answer to the question. And not an altogether bad one. The reality is that writing is tough and uncertain so if you're not ultimately writing for yourself, for your satisfaction, then it's going to be a heck of a hard road.

And yet that image of a cake you make to eat all by yourself kind of stops me in my tracks. If you acknowledge that you're making a cake to be enjoyed by others, you have to ask how that changes what kind of cake you make and how you make it.

More than maybe any other genre, YA authors know their audience. Teens and young adults. We know they're meant to be our readers, but I think it's important to step back regularly and ask ourselves how are we serving them? Why, in a world of TV and movies and video games and myriad online distractions, should they give us their time? How do we justify what we're doing?

Me? I guess I want to show kids that the imaginative act of reading is just as fun and, at it's best, a far more immersive entertainment experience than any other. For me that's the foundation. I want to entertain.

I'm also just foolish enough to hope that I can communicate something deeper than that as well. Maybe something that will lighten their load a little bit. Something about hope and how they're not alone along with an understanding of how hard the process of becoming who you're meant to be really is.

Anyway, this idea isn't groundbreaking or anything, but I think it's a good one to come back to regularly.

What do you guys think?

Who are you writing for and how does that change what you write? How do you balance your need for self expression with your audience's needs?

Jeff Hirsch
The Long Walk Home
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch

Asimov, Sankai & RDJ

In 1950, Isaac Asimov published a collection of short stories in a book titled, I, Robot.

In 1968, Yoshiyuki Sankai was in the 3rd grade. He read Asimov's book, again and again.

Fast forward to 1998, where the now "Dr." Sankai has invented the Robot Suit 'HAL' (Hybrid Assistive Limb®)

Here's a youtube of 'HAL' in action.

How cool is that?

Aside from the obvious aid for people with physical disabilities - it's awesome!

See what reading Science/Speculative Fiction can do for you? Yeah!

Of course, when 'HAL' shows up at my house - I'm expecting him to look like this!

(As a little aside - I have a Hal in XVI. He's a robot. But, his Hal stands for Hall Access Limiter.)

Go forth & read more SF! 

Technology: Imagine the future

This blog post is being written on my phone.

Take a minute to imagine that.

I remember ten years ago getting my first cell phone. It was a tiny flip phone, and I was amazed at the ease of text messages, tapped out on the keypad before LOL was an abbreviation. Now I'm writing a whole blog post with Swype, a program that lets me just run my fingers over the keys and the words pop up.

When I taught world literature, one of the lessons I taught my students was how quickly time moves. I remember my first CD player (6th grade; first CD I bought: THE BODYGUARD soundtrack). Now, it's all about mp3s. My parents had 8-tracks (I've never seen one, come to think of it) and LPs.

Think about this: my father didn't have indoor plumbing in his home until he was 8 years old.

My grandmother was born two years after the Titanic sank.

My mother remembers seeing the first man on the moon; now we are almost at the point where we have a manned space station.

Technology moves so fast. One of my favorite novels growing up was THE DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis. When I re-read it recently, I noticed that people in this supposedly futuristic society that have the power of time travel were all at the mercy of pay-phones and land lines--no cell phones in sight. Before that, I'd never thought of how a futuristic science fiction novel could be...well, dated.

One of my fondest memories when I was young was seeing my grandmother's watch. She wore it every day, and when she died, it was passed down to me. I never wear it. I've not worn a watch in at least a decade. When I need to know the time, I look at my cell phone.

Technology changes--and it brings other changes with it. Will we one day have one electronic device the replaces our cell phone, our wallet, our books, our music players? The iPad is close to that. Will our children take class notes on a tablet screen, or pen and paper? Will our grandchildren mock our huge, bulky cell phones? Or will cell phones have been replaced by something else?

As dystopian sci fi writers, it's our job to try to imagine the future. Sometimes it's a dark future--but we have to write a book that will, hopefully, not be dated 100 years before it was set.

And me? I'm still waiting on my flying car.

So: what do you think the future will hold, technology-wise? What do you wish would be invented?

Banned Book Week: A Wrinkle In Time

Okay, I'll be the first to admit that I didn't read this book until last summer. I know, I know. Don't throw Coke cans. I had no idea it was one of the most challenged books from 1990 - 2000. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why.

So I did some research. Here's what I found:

“Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, winner of a Newbery Award, was challenged at a Polk City, Florida elementary school (1985) by a parent who believed that the story “promotes witchcraft, crystal balls and demons.” It was challenged in the Anniston, Alabama schools (1990) because of the book’s listing the name of Jesus Christ together with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists and religious leaders when referring to those who defend earth against evil. It has been challenged for “sending a mixed signal about good and evil.”

This fascinates me. I'll admit that I rarely read for more than pleasure, and I actually enjoy books that make me examine my own views about good and evil, right and wrong, etc. I believe books can provide a safe place for such exploratory thoughts to begin.

A few words about censorship of books. I do believe that parents have the right to shield their children from anything they believe their child isn't ready to see/read/hear/taste. I work with 800 different kids on a weekly basis. Some of them can handle what others cannot. Parents have the right to screen the entertainment their children are exposed to, including books.

That said, I do not believe those same parents should be able to tell me what my children can or cannot be exposed to. I should get to make that decision myself, using my own belief system, my own set of values.

And that's where the line blurs.

I read A Wrinkle in Time and loved it. The crystal balls that are supposed to signify witchcraft. The time travel. The mixing of the name of Jesus Christ in with artists. I didn't even give it a second thought.

It's a great story. I passed it along to my 12-year-old. He read it. I don't think it shook his religious foundation. I don't think it made him question the line between good and evil.

But if it did, wouldn't that be a great way for us to have a conversation about what we believe? About what we believe to be wrong and what we believe to be right?

And anything that can get kids talking to their parents is a win in my book. And to me, that's what banned book week is about: The courage to have hard, gut-wrenching conversations with your children. Or within yourself.

The great thing about using books to do this is the situation feels removed. It's not something that happened to you, or to them. It could. But it didn't. And that allows for conversation, reflection, and evaluation of one's life.

That's why I celebrate banned book week.

What about you? Have you read a book that opened up a conversation with someone? What book? Have you read something that made you stop and examine something in your life? A belief?

And aren't those good things?