The Eleventh Surround Sound

Okay, so today during Jeff's launch week, we're talking audio books. There are so many different ways to get your books these days: Kindle, Nook, iPad, hardcover, paperback, iTunes, and yes, audio book.

My husband swears by them. Has a monthly subscriptions to Audible. Our own Beth Revis has often said she "reads" while she's cleaning her house or doing home improvements. She does this by listening to audio books.

People listen to books while they commute--and I will say that I've done this once. I listened to THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS by C.S. Lewis on my mini-commute of 15 minutes. It took a few weeks. Our family often gets audio books for long drives to Vegas. We've listened to ALCATRAZ VERSUS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS (by Brandon Sanderson), ERAGON (by Christopher Paolini), THE CRY OF THE ICEMARK (by Stuart Hill), and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (by C.S. Lewis) on our family road trips.

Audio books are fascinating beasts. There are several things that enhance the reading experience:

1. Music. Audio books often have music! It's a lot like movies, where the scene can be set with scary music, or happy music, or tense music. I find that I like the added drama music can provide.

2. A voice. Obviously, audio books are read out loud. I'll admit that sometimes the voice artist distracts me. They speak in an accent I didn't imagine, or they speak different character's dialog in different voices. I suppose this doesn't really bother me, it's just not the way I "read."

Because audio books are a whole new type of reading experience.

And THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE is also a whole new type of reading experience. You can listen to the first chapter by clicking below. You can buy the audio book here.

The Eleventh Plague - Chapter One by Scholastic Audio

No matter how you experience it, make sure you get your hands on a copy of THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE this week!!

What are your feelings about audio books? Love them? Hate them? What's your favorite book on audio?

It's The Eleventh Plague Week!

Eleven words to describe The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch.


Now - for my mini-mini-review...

Jeff’s writing immediately took me into the world after the Collapse, after P11 - the eleventh plague. I don’t want to say much, because I’ll just devolve into spoilers and I DO NOT want to spoil this book for you! I actually started this book with more than a bit of trepidation - I can do the dystopian thing, but not so much the post-apocalyptic - or so I thought! Until I read The Eleventh Plague!

It’s a roller-coaster ride of setting and emotion and it makes you think - really think.

As soon as I started it, I was hooked! Couldn’t put it down! I suggest that you get yourself a copy & set aside a goodly amount of time, because I’m guessing you won’t be able to put it down either!

Thanks, Jeff, for writing such a great book!

Interview with Jeff Hirsch, author of THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE

We're so excited here at the League to celebrate the launch of our last League member, Jeff! HURRAH! To kick off his launch week, we're sitting down with Jeff for a few questions today, then rounding out the week with reviews, features, and even some special surprises (and PRIZES) for you! So stick around all week as we celebrate Jeff's launch of THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE!!

We can read all about your life from your bio in the jacket flap of your book. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?

I’m a fairly decent, thought rusty, fire-eater and can escape from a strait jacket while hanging by my ankles from the ceiling.

As a kid, what was your favorite book? Have your tastes changed since growing up?

Without a doubt it was The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. That entire series absolutely hypnotized me. I wouldn’t say my tastes have changed so much as expanded significantly. I still love comics, sci-fi, horror and paranormal stuff but I’m also a big fan of non-fiction and adult lit writers like Tim O’Brien, Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Chabon. I’ve basically become a person who will read anything.

It's the inevitable question: what inspired THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE? 

Just an image actually. The opening image of the book—a father and son burying someone late at night on a hill overlooking the ruins of a mall—popped into my head one day. I got intrigued by the idea and spent some time wondering who these people were, what they wanted and what their world was like. The book came out of trying to answer all of those questions.

For me, THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD—which is about the best compliment I can give to a writer! Were there any works of literature that influenced your story in any way? An author who influenced your style?

Thanks! I think if there was any book I was thinking of the most it was Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. I just love the simplicity of it and its intense focus on one character and the way the book deals with his environment.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE, what would you want it to be?
I’d have to say it would be hope. Despite human’s propensity for screwing things up on a titanic scale I do think that we can eventually get our act together and make things better. Not that there won’t be a lot of pain along the way, I just think it’s possible.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?

This entire thing has been and continues to be a surprise. I got my Masters in Playwriting back in 2003 and struggled for years after, working crappy jobs and writing play after play that no one was interested in, wondering how long I could tell my friends and family I was a writer while having no objective proof of it. My wife can attest to some anxiety fueled nights when I thought that maybe this whole writing thing wasn’t for me at all. I literally could not imagine it ever going anywhere. And then everything stared to change. The fact that an agent and a publishing house and now the actual public seems interested in the book never fails to surprise.

Beyond the typical--never give up, believe in yourself--what would be the single best advice you'd like to give another writer?

To remember that there is no one path to being a writer and there is no one timeline. There are great writers with advanced degrees and those without, those who’ve been writing all their life and those who haven't. There are tortured writers and well-adjusted writers. There are writers who have things happen for them very quickly and those whose careers take a very long time to get going. Literally any personal story you may have can end in being a successful writer. You don’t have to be anyone other than yourself.

Is This A Kissing Book?

Dude, how can you not read a post with that title? Impossible. Also, if you know the movie it comes from, you get two gold stars. If I had some gold stars... Sadly, I don't. What I do have is another fabulous guest blogger! Heather Anastasiu (author of the forthcoming GLITCH) is here to talk romance!


SO, full confession time: I love Twilight. I read it before it got big and I love, love, loved it. It’s the only book I’ve re-read this decade, and I’ve read it about 7 times.

Yes, there are problematic things in it as you examine gender stereotypes and troublesome relationship elements that, if translated to the real world, could be bad (hello creepy stalker boyfriend who follows you everywhere without your knowledge and spends all night outside your bedroom watching you).

But. BUT! There is something about those books that are so compulsively readable, a fantasy so delicious it just makes readers want to relive and relive and relive it. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out HOW Twilight does this. In my Master’s in Literature program, I wrote several papers about it, trying to figure it out. I’ve looked at from a psychoanalytical standpoint, looked at it as a hero myth, as lush escapism, as a means of comforting oneself about structure and order in a chaotic world.

But from a writer’s standpoint, looking at Meyer’s engaging style, I wonder if a big part of it isn’t because she just spends so much time letting us peek into this extraordinary relationship. There’s so much talking. The talking and scenarios have tension to be sure—Edward might lose control and drain her dry at any moment—but you know how in movies the camera will zoom out and/or do a montage of different times where the couple is talking and laughing and getting to know each other? Well, Twilight lets you watch it all without much fast forwarding. There’s not a lot of fade-to-black “and then they talked all night” summaries.

And I love it. I love some of those conversations. I go back and re-read them. Books that follow a standard romantic formula tend to skip over this part—the part where the lovers actually get to know each other! It’s all: he was so handsome and muscular and looked at her darkly/hungrily/lustily and the girl’s all: muscles! Love at first sight! Soul mate! Bad boy I can save!

Ahem. Ok, ok, so that’s just a particular type of romance pattern, but the immediate intense eternal love thing without bunches of talking and getting to know each other—I don’t like it. I don’t like it when action in a book eclipses these emotional talking moments either. The parts of my own book that make me happiest are the talking/getting to know each other moments. Thank God for my agent who’s always nudging me: maybe some more action here, oh, and maybe we could make something explode now? *winks at Agent Charlie* (and yes, my dystopian debut Glitch actually DOES have a lot of action too).

Because in the end, Twilight had TOO LITTLE action—or it was weird, forced, inorganic, and in the end (especially in Breaking Dawn), ultimately unsatisfying. I like a little sacrifice to be involved in happy endings, otherwise it doesn’t seem real, not hard-fought enough to be satisfying.

So yes, I like action books, and I like kissing books *shout out to Princess Bride* But I like them best when there’s talking too, where characters seem to genuinely get to know each other and connect.


Wow. I don't know if I'm more awed by Heather reading Twilight 7 times or that she wrote papers on it, or simply the pure fact that she's absolutely right! What do you think?

Thank you, Heather, for being here! And dude, GLITCH is a dystopian you're going to want to keep your eyes on...

About Heather: Heather Anastasiu is the author of GLITCH (St. Martin's Press/Spring 2012) Glitch in three words: Dystopia, Superpowers, & Love :) Check out her website for more info, news, and updates.

Where Good Ideas Come From

When I was preparing for a workshop I gave for local teens on story ideas, I came across this amazing video by Steven Johnson. He's the author seven books on science and technology--including WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM (2010)--as well as a founder of FEED magazine and a contributing editor at Wired.


Book Trailer for The Eleventh Plague!

Wow, just over one week now until we release the Eleventh Plague! I just have one more cool thing to share with y'all before the big launch week here on the blog....the book trailer!

Thanks so much to all the awesome folks at Scholastic that put this together!

What I really would like to see!

Many years ago, I was walking through Maiden Lane in Chicago's Old Town and I heard music from the record store - a new band. I was so impressed that I immediately went in and bought their album - Led Zeppelin. It did not disappoint! A few years later, they released a song that is considered one of the best rock and roll songs ever made.

I use this as an example of starting at "great" & evolving to "greater" (& hopefully even greater!) And also - because the song itself talks about what I'm thinking about today. A Stairway to Heaven...

Imagine a real stairway to the heavens! Or rather... an elevator/escalator! That's what scientists and students do in all kinds of competitions to build viable systems that are able to carry rocket ships, etc. through and beyond the atmosphere - thereby saving vast quantities of fuel and wear & tear on the ships that happens at launch & during the journey to beyond earth's gravitational pull.

I, personally, love thinking about this stuff! I am not a scientist, so I doubt I'll be building any stairways to heaven myself - but I contemplating the future - knowing it can be great & greater... and that things only imagined right now will someday become reality.

What sorts of future items are you anticipating? I'd love to know! :D

Things that Go Bump in the Night

While I eagerly await new episodes of DOCTOR WHO, the BBCA channel has graciously been airing commentary-heavy replay shows reminding us of why we love the Doctor so much. Last episode? All about the monsters of Doctor Who.

It reminded me of all my fave monsters on the show--the Weeping Angels (pictured left) that can only move and attack you when you're not looking (so don't blink!). The Silence, that makes you forget about their presence and uses the power of suggestion to control you. The Cybermen, who can take over our bodies and use us like machines.

But more than those specific monsters, the show also reminded me that the thing that fantastical literature does--be it dystopian or sci fi or fantasy--is to embody our most primal fears. The Weeping Angels tap into the fear of the dark, the Silence makes us worry about the unknown, the Cybermen remind us that the loss of freewill can be the most terrifying thing.

Dystopians (and sci fi and fantasy) have the ability to make up monsters we would otherwise not know, but what this episode of Doctor Who reminded me was that the very best monsters are not necessarily the big, bag, hairy, gross monster rising from the depths. No--the very best monsters are the ones that scare us by using something we already fear. They touch on the basest, more primal parts of our psyche. As sensible adults, we know there's no monster under our bed, or bad guy lurking in the dark--but the best monsters of the sci fi would remind us that there might be.

Speaking of scary--have you seen the trailer for the new Daniel Radcliffe movie? Chills!

So, what do you think? What are the best monsters of the dystopian, sci fi, or fantasy world?

Villains: Cardboard Cut-outs Need Not Apply

Today we have another fabulous guest blogger, Gennifer Albin! She's got a great book, CREWEL, coming out next year, and she's here today to help you take your villains to the next level. Take it away!


Ever watched a movie and found yourself secretly rooting for the villain? Sometimes those heroes can be so damn good, but a villain says the outrageous things or is brooding or has a pretty good argument. The thing is a good villain can steal the show right out of goody-two-shoe-hero-boy's hands. So while I don't advise making your main characters so Mary Sue that everyone loves the villain more, I do think your readers should feel torn.

Consider this:
Does your villain secretly make you feel a little naughty? Can you imagine someone delicious like Colin Firth or Robert Downey, Jr. or Angelina Jolie playing the part?


Does your villain make a good point? Is his/her argument not only persuasive but as well-reasoned as the protagonist's? Don't get me wrong the villain can still be wrong, but he should at least be somewhat right


Is your villain hilariously funny with a dry wit and the perfect comeback for every situation?

The sad truth is that we spend a lot of time as writers developing our protagonists. We give them backstories, emotional arcs, love interests, and our villains? They're only around to foil our lovely well-developed hero.

Recently, I enjoyed the kids films MegaMind and Despicable Me (don't judge, I have a 4 year-old!). Both movies are all about the villain and how flawed and funny and misunderstood they are. I'm not saying you have to rewrite your book from the villain's perspective or even spend so much time making them sympathetic, but could you do those things if you had to? Do you know your villain well enough to write the book through their voice?

Here's one of my favorite exercises for rounding out a villain:
Give them layers of logic. Ever villain has a reason for what they do. But how can you make the stakes of their actions even higher? Think of something and right it down. Got it? Good.

Make it even more important that their plans work. Fate of the world important. Think about it. Take your time and write it down. Got it? Good.

Take it up another notch.

Do this until your mind is bleeding with the amount of effort you have put into this.

Now figure out ways to organically include this in your text. Don't just write out a monologue and plop it in. Hint at it. Make your protagonist recognize the truth of the villains words. Get your villain to the point where even you believe him. Make your readers love him or love to hate him, but give him that third dimension. It makes all the difference.

Gennifer Albin has a penchant for villainy, but don't tell anyone. Her debut novel, CREWEL, the first in a trilogy set in a world where Spinsters weave the fabric of life, will be released in Fall 2012 by FSG/Macmillan. She blogs about the publishing and writing tips for moms at Authorize ( You can also tweet with her at!/GenniferAlbin.

Dystopic landscapes all around us

Abandoned places litter many a dystopic landscape.  An old amusement park in Uglies. The ships in Ship Breaker. A casino, McD’s, and a Starbucks in Eleventh Plague.  The future isn’t necessarily going to be all shiny and new.  And you only need to look around our world to see what a dystopic / apocalyptic future might look like.  I’m not talking about ancient ruins of pyramids or Greek temples but rather modern ruins, places abandoned, decaying, and eerily vacant in the midst of civilization.

Take Detroit (or Cleveland).  Detroit has lost 25% of its population since the 2000 census, leaving parts of the city abandoned.

Packard plant interior
Police station

These photos are from Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre's RUINS OF DETROIT, which is both a book and an exhibit.  Check out the rest of the images. There are so many.

Other collections of modern ruins:
  • The Accidental Sea. A short video tour of the abandoned towns around California's Salton Sea. (btw, the film is by Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.)
  • 9 Ghost Towns of the Recession.  Victims of the burst housing bubble.
  • Ghosts of Shopping Past. Abandoned shopping malls and big box stores. Oh my.
  • I09's Modern Ruins column.  Great pix and videos of abandoned amusement parks, ghost towns, off ramps to nowhere, etc.
  • Abandon in Place:  A photo exhibit of abandoned space program structures. (btw, Abandon in Place is a real NASA term. It's stenciled on structures that are no longer maintained. We also used to joke that certain civil servants had that stamped on their behinds.)
I could go on (particularly about space stuff) but I'm beginning to depress myself. ;)

My point is that our world has plenty of modern ruins so don't forget them when you write about the future.  And, those modern ruins could also inspire your own dystopic landscapes.

What "inspiring" modern landscapes have you seen or heard about?

1st 4 Chapters of The Eleventh Plague

Hi everyone! Apologies if you already caught this elsewhere, but I was so excited I just had to share again. Below you'll find the first four chapters of The Eleventh Plague. You can read right here on the site or click though to read full size on Scrib'd.

I hope you enjoy the sample! And if you do I sure would appreciate it if you would tweet about it or otherwise share with others.

We debut authors need all the help we can get!
The Eleventh Plague-Sample

Robots on the loose!

Not going to waste your time with writing - this is the coolest thing ever!

So - what do you think? OMG! I love it!!!

Kids These Days

My mom is a fifth grade teacher, and she recently shared an article with me that has had me thinking. In the article, the writer essentially said that kids today spend so much time inside--online, watching tv, playing video games--that the outside world is alien to them, and they're often frightened of things that kids who grew up even a decade ago aren't afraid of.

This led to a big family discussion of kids these days. My father mentioned that many kids can't read analog time--they're too used to digital. My mom pointed out that cursive writing is often not even taught to students--they just learn typing. And don't get my husband started on the latest fashion trends.

I find this kind of talk interesting--because, of course, my mind starts whirring with possibilities. Kids scared of the outside? Imagine a pod world, where everyone stays inside their own pods--and then what happens when the pods break down? No ability to read analog time? Let's throw those futuristic kids into the past, where they have to deal with all the old stuff we've moved on from. Cursive writing is indecipherable? How cool would it be if the code language was just regular ol' cursive?

I'm a reactionary writer--I write "what if" and I spin my worlds out of control. But I also find it interesting to think about what really will happen if our world keeps going the way it does. Will cursive writing fade out of existence? Will we lose our love of the outdoors?

What will happen to kids these days?

A Brief History of Fictional Cyborgs

Today, we have a sensational guest blogger, Marissa Meyer, author of the forthcoming CINDER. She's here to talk about Fictional Cyborgs, and man, I can't wait!

My debut novel, Cinder, is a take on the classic Cinderella fairy tale . . . except it’s set in the future, and my Cinderella is a cyborg. When I tell people this, I usually get one of two reactions.

Either: “What’s a cyborg?”

Or: “That’s awesome! I love cyborgs!”

Because who doesn’t love cyborgs? Although modern science has made the potential for cybernetic organisms very real through the use of prosthetic limbs and advances in neural engineering, we still tend to imagine cyborgs as being superhuman. Once-normal people who’ve been retrofitted with super strength, super intelligence, high-tech weapons and gadgets concealed beneath titanium plating . . . and with each new scientific advance, our cyborg expectations only go higher.

Here are seven fictional cyborgs, going as far back as the 12th century, that demonstrate our very human fascination with people who aren’t entirely human.

Nuada of the Silver Arm
From: Irish Mythology
Timeline: Written records pre-date the 12th century, actual story is much older
The story: After losing an arm in battle, a king is forced to abdicate his throne due to a law that states only whole men can rule. He later has his missing limb replaced with a working silver one and reclaims his throne from an oppressive enemy.
How cyborg?: Though mythology is rife with limbs and even whole people made out of precious metals, the idea that the silver arm was functional (rather than just a placeholder) makes Nuada the earliest cyborg I’ve come across. (Thanks to LiveJournal commenter Roseaponi for introducing me to this tale!)

Frankenstein’s Creature
From: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Timeline: 1818
The story: A doctor pieces together human remains fresh from the grave, along with materials found in “the dissecting-room and the slaughter-house,” to create his own horrific creature.
How cyborg?: The doctor uses galvanism, a method of applied electricity, to animate the creature. Though Shelley doesn’t go into detail, I suspect some Energizer batteries were at play.

John A.B.C. Smith
From: “The Man that Was Used Up” by Edgar Allen Poe
Timeline: 1839
The story: A narrator goes to speak to a much-admired Brigadier General, only to find his many parts scattered across the floor. Turns out he was mutilated by Native American warriors and now his servants have to piece him back together every day before he’s fit to be seen in public.
How cyborg?: False teeth, a glass eye, and any number of other prostheses needed to complete him. Supposedly the prostheses are quite life-like, though probably not when they’re strewn across the living room.

Nick Chopper (a.k.a. The Tin Man)
From: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, and other Oz books
Timeline: First appeared in 1900
The story: Once an ordinary man, poor Nick’s downfall came when the Wicked Witch of the East enchanted his axe and it started to chop off his limbs, one by one. Nick continued to replace each limb with a tin prosthetic until there was no organic tissue left.
How Cyborg?: He gradually goes from all organic to all synthetic. After Dorothy comes along, he at least gets his heart back.

Steve Austin:
From: “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series, based on the book Cyborg by Martin Caidin
Timeline: 1974 to 1978
The story: After nearly dying in a plane crash, former astronaut Steve Austin is rebuilt using bionics. He spends the next four seasons defeating bad guys and kicking ass.
How cyborg?: An eye that includes an infrared filter and a zoom lens, legs that make him crazy fast, and an arm with super strength and the ability to detect nuclear radiation. Pretty much, he was the first cyborg to take advantage of how awesome cyborgs are!

Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader):
From: Star Wars
Timeline: 1977 (Episode IV) to 2008 (Episode III)
The story: After a slow descent into the dark side, Anakin Skywalker is left for dead on the volcanic planet Mustafar, but rescued by Darth Sidious and given a life-sustaining suit and his own cape.
How cyborg?: “He is more machine now than man.”

The Borg:
From: Star Trek
Timeline: First appeared in 1989
The story: A humanoid alien race assimilates other species and cybernetic technologies in search for physical and mental perfection.
How cyborg?: Not only one, but an entire species of interconnected, assimilated beings? It’s about as cyborg as it gets. Resistance is futile.

This is only a small sampling of hundreds of cyborgs that have entered our culture, particularly in the last thirty years or so, with everything from “The Terminator” to “Cowboy Bebop” employing the potential of man-machine superstars.

Do you have a favorite fictional cyborg that I’ve left out?

Marissa Meyer is not a cyborg, unless you count a newfound dependency on her iPhone. Her debut novel, CINDER, is the first in a four-book series and will be released on January 3, 2012. Follow her escapades at or on Twitter: @marissa_meyer.

How many ways can you structure a plot?

Plotting isn’t always my favorite thing, but I do like books and movies with nonlinear plots.  So I was trying to think of all the different ways you can structure a plot. Here’s the list I came up with:

  1. Chronological.  Straight forward, one plot point after another.
  2. Circular.   The story comes full circle in some way.  Ground Hog Day would be an extreme example. Usually, there’s some element that ties the end back to the beginning.
  3. Disconnected.  The story isn’t told in one continuous stream.  The narrative jumps forward, flashes back, but the seemingly disconnected scenes come together to form a whole story in the end. Think Pulp Fiction or The Time Traveler’s Wife.
  4. Nested / framed .  There’s a story within a story (maybe even within a story).  Adaptation (2008) is the best example I can think of. It’s a movie about writing a movie based a book about real life Orchid thieves.  The outer story—Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) struggling to adapt the book—gets intertwined with the inner story about the subject of the book.
  5. Wandering / tangential.  Think Family Guy. One action leads to another in a wholly unexpected direction or consequence. Brian and Stewie may start off showing a pig at the county fair, but they end up in an alternative universe where Brian is human.  But it all works.

Can you guys think of any other plot structures or examples? 

Winner of the "Writing YA Fiction for Dummies" Giveaway!

Last week we did a fun interview with the Deborah Halverson, editor, head honcho over at and author of YA novels like Honk if You Hate Me and Big Mouth. You can check out the whole interview here.

We also did a giveaway of her latest work, Writing YA Fiction for Dummies. This is a great book focusing on the fundamentals of writing YA fiction and all the twists and turns of the publishing game.

Now the Random Number Generator has spoken and the winner is.....


Sally is a writer and blogger over at . By all means hop on over and check her out.

Sally, I'll be in touch directly to get your address and send you your book!

Happy Wednesday everybody! How's everybody's writing and readying going lately? I just started Lev Grossman's The Magician King, the sequel to his awesome book The Magicians. So far the sequel is really great. Check it out!

Learning from other sources...

Last week was the annual SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in LA. I was fortunate to go last year - had to miss this one - and I'm sorry I did. Their line-up of keynotes was kid lit at it's best - including, Henry Winkler (OMG! The Fonz!), Judy Blume (to die for!), Richard Peck, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Gary Paulsen among them!!! I mean, it was a smorgasbord of who's who and who's unbelievably amazing!!! Okay - I will stop swooning & get to the point.

I followed the conference via Tweets and got a definite flavor for it. One thing (among many) that stuck with me was Gary Paulsen saying, "Kill TV."

Now, Gary & I are, more or less, on the same page about TV. I turned off my cable a couple of years ago & gave away the (antiquated) TV set I had. But, there is one show I watch (online) because it's stellar story-tellling, and that is Masterpiece Mystery.  (Okay, I love Alan Cumming, too!)

This past weekend, I indulged in the 1st three (and hopefully not the last!) episodes of ZEN, starring Rufus Sewell. (What is not to love about this man?!!!)

Anyway... (must stop staring at Rufus Sewell *fans self*...) Okay, the point is - Zen (based on the novels by the late British writer, Michael Dibdin) had a bit to teach about telling a good story!

I am a huge fan of good mysteries - but they have to have some depth and can't be one-dimensional. Zen did not disappoint! There were multiple levels to the crime(s), a catch-22-like predicament for our hero, romance (which, by the way, had some of the sexiest clothes-on scenes ever), and a good dose of humor. Plus, some honestly heart-pounding suspense that had me on the edge of my seat!

I intend to track down the books & read them (since BBC isn't committing to any more in the series - fingers are crossed that ITV, or someone else, picks it up) because the story-telling was so good and I've already learned a bit more about doing it well by watching these three episodes. (Which I highly recommend you do - they're online through most of August on the PBS website linked above.)

Back to Paulsen's statement about killing one's TV. A good idea, for sure - but, I suggest that if yours is still alive, and you are watching anything - be sure it's good and don't hesitate to glean what you can that will enrich your own ability to tell a tale!

So, peeps, from what other sources do you like to gather information on telling a good story?

What are YOU reading?

Guys, I'm sorry! I'm swamped right now--I'm getting back from tour, wrapping up Book 2, and starting Book 3.

But--I wanted to ask you. What is your favorite current book, or favorite book of 2011? I've had so many lately--DIVERGENT kept me awake at night, WITHER made me cry, HOURGLASS wouldn't let me go. What are you reading?

(And sorry for the bit of a cop-out today; I promise to be intellectual next week!)

Writing Tips: How to Start Your Novel

Okay, so recently, I turned in a novel I'd written to my agent. She read it (loved it--phew!) and gave me some feedback. Her only comment? It's going to blow your mind. Are you ready? Mind-blowing tarp all set up?


She said: "It starts too fast."

Okay, stop the pony. Starts TOO FAST?? Isn't that what we're always told? Toss the reader into the action? Grip them with the first word, the first sentence, the first scene??

Now, I'll admit that I'm very sensitive about the way my novels start. I don't like it when someone tells me to start my novels in a different place. Since I don't write in order, I don't write the beginning first, and I feel like I have a really organic process for finding the opening scene of my books.

So my agent told me this particular book was opening too fast. I re-read my first chapter, and saw her point. So I read through it. Made some light edits, etc. Could not for the life of me see a different way to start it. So I did what any writer would do: I opened a blank document.

I was going to write a new first chapter, dang it!

And I did. Like 10 times. They all sucked. None of them were right. Or even close.

I could feel the haze coming, the need for sour patch kids and bacon and a good long vacay from writing.

Then the fabulous girls in my critique group gave me a book that changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE.

I think they were skeptical that I would actually read the book. But I proved them wrong! Ha! I even filled out NOTE CARDS and MADE A FREAKING STORYBOARD.

That's right. Believe it (picture proof, FTW!). Now, those of you who've been here a while know that I simply don't do this. I don't outline. In fact, the mere thought of it makes me shudder and throw salt over my shoulder to ward off evil spirits.

Well, guess what? This book that changed my life? It showed me how to outline in a way that makes sense to me. MAKES TOTAL SENSE!

I know by now you're all screaming: How?! What book??! Spill, Johnson!!

SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It's about screenwriting--and there's something magical about relating outlining and story construction to movies. I can "see" it. I can watch a movie and "see" everything laid out in only a matter of hours. I can't do that when I read.

So I read SAVE THE CAT, and voila! Just like that, I realized the missing piece of my book: Beat One.

That's right. Out of 15 beats, I was missing the first freaking one! And since The Fabulous Blake Snyder tells you what should have in each beat, I could suddenly "see" how my book needed to start.

I wrote the first chapter the next day.

SAVE THE CAT people. It will save your sanity. Buy it for all your crit mates. Get it yourself. Read it. Love it. Cherish it.

And I made my own Blake Snyder beat sheet for novels using the resources Blake has on his website.

Do you have a book on writing that changed your life? Do tell.

**I'll admit that this is a recycled post from my own blog. Sorry! I'm under edit deadline. :)

Writing Tips: Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters (and directors) in my humble opinion. He wrote and/or directed (among many, many others) Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, Lost Weekend, and my fave, Some Like it Hot. 

Here are a few of his writing tips:

  1. The audience is fickle.
  2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
  3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  4. Know where you’re going.
  5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.
Most of these are highly applicable to any form of writing. Number 9 recently helped me fix (hopefully) the end of my second book.   For instance, the end of Some Like It Hot--which by the way is one of the greatest movie endings of all time--is triggered by the mobsters showing up in Miami (as well as by actions of both couples).  And, by the way, the ending will make Wilder's epitaph even more meaningful--and funny.

* From Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe

Interview and GIVEAWAY with Deborah Halverson

I'd like to introduce Deborah Halverson. Deborah is the award-winning author of  Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time.  She is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website and freelance edits fiction and non-fiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals.

I met Deborah back when I was living in San Diego and desperately seeking feedback on the novel that became The Eleventh Plague. I can honestly say that the criticism Deborah gave me went a long way to getting that book where it is now. Trust me, if anyone is qualified to give you the low down on how to write for Children and Young Adults it's Deborah.

To celebrate Deborah's publication of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies,  we're going to do a GIVEAWAY of the book. Comment on this post to enter a drawing for a free copy of Writing YA Fiction for Dummies. 

And now for a little interview with the lady herself!

So Deborah, what do you think distinguishes a YA novel from one written for adults? Do teens want something out of a reading experience that's different from adults?
Teens are reading to see their own lives and to figure out the world and their place in it. They want stories that reflect their situations and concerns and that validate their experiences. They’re also looking for empowerment, which they get from reading about kids their own age who solve their own problems.

As an editor, what are the top writing pitfalls you see writers falling into?
Cliché characters remain the bane of aspiring writers. One way to skirt this pitfall is to mix-and-match your characters from the beginning. Here’s a way to do that: Write down the names of three very different people in your life or from your Favorite Book/Movie/TV Characters list. Then pick one trait from each of those people: a strength from Person A, a flaw from Person B, and a thematic dream or goal from Person C, such as the desire to fit in or to find love.

You’ll be as intrigued to see what your amalgam does when you plug him into your plot as your readers will be. He should grow well beyond the foundation you gave him.

How do you explain the recent rise in YA literature?
Right now the young adult literature category is performing better than most in the battered book market. A number of factors play into this, but we gotta give a lot credit where a lot of credit is due: Hollywood. Have you been watching the play-by-play coverage of the casting for The Hunger Games movies!? This and other high profile film adaptations have been raising mass awareness of the young adult category for the past decade, and lately the cinematic interest has been particularly intense. The great thing is, moviegoers who enter the YA realm through one title, one series, or one genre tend to discover further interests once they get here—and then they stick around as YA fans.

Do you have a list of YA novels and writers every well-read aspiring writer should be familiar with?
The more we’re exposed to great writing, the more we understand about what makes a piece of writing great. Give these great examples a read:

Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass . An outstanding example of world building—as well as of characterization, voice, plot, setting . . . you name it!
Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice . See spectacular characterization from the very first sentence, as well as the influence of local community and culture on the plot. Cushman is a character-driven writer, and you can learn a ton about writing intriguing, real, and memorable characters from her books.
M.T. Anderson’s oeuvre. Yep, anything by Mr. Anderson—as many books as possible, in fact, so that you can see how a single writer can change it up. Anderson’s got sci fi and fantastical historical fiction and silly, high action chapter books on his shelf. Read his books with an eye toward how he shifts the voice, sophistication, and tone for each story.
The “It” Book of the Moment. Whatever that is at any given time. Writers aiming to be published need to understand why something is hitting big. Don’t read the It book so that you can jump on that bandwagon, and don’t read it to agree or disagree with the public’s choice. Rather, read to understand what about that book is connecting with people.

Any thoughts on self-publishing? Do you think it's a viable alternative for writers just starting out? The end of the world as we know it? Any pitfalls you can help people avoid?
Self-publishing is an attractive idea because it cuts out the middleman and puts you in the driver’s seat. But its viability for you depends on the kind of books you’re writing. Self-pubbing right now isn’t the strongest alternative for the average fiction writer. Writers of genre fiction for adults (mystery, sci fi, etc.) may have more opportunities to reach their readers because the authors know where their audience lurks and can talk directly to them. But writers of general fiction and fiction for young people are at a disadvantage because the average Joe doesn’t have the money or resources or quite simply the access to reach readers efficiently, effectively, and in big enough numbers. The audience is too big, too wide, and too unfocused to target...

Self-publishing certainly has its success stories—some of them being BIG successes, such as Amanda Hocking’s. Those are enticing, absolutely. But it’s important to note that those stories are the exceptions, and that many of those authors end up signing with traditional houses anyway because the work involved in self-marketing a self-published book is extreme.

What would you like to see more/less of in YA fiction going forward?
I’d like aspiring YA and MG writers to rediscover the power of setting in a story. I’m not talking leisurely, lilting descriptions of meadows and forests. I’m talking about using setting to enhance and illuminate characters and to push the plot forward. Setting is more than just a place to be, yet so many of the manuscripts I’m seeing aren’t taking advantage of that as they focus on answering the call for action and dialogue. Writers are missing wonderful opportunities! Use setting props to reveal your character’s mood or personality. Use setting changes to quicken or slow the pace of the plot. Use setting elements to push the character out of his comfort zone and take action he’d otherwise not take. Activate all five of your readers’ senses and score a richer read for your efforts.

Thanks Deborah!

Don't forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Writing young Adult Fiction for Dummies! 

Writing tips: Suffering from Unfinished Manuscriptitus?

Several months after I started writing, I found myself surrounded by notebooks - suffering from Unfinished Manuscriptitus! An idea would pop up and - fast & furious - I'd dive in, like a new love affair. But, eventually, and long before writing "The End," that idea would lose its shine and a new, brighter, more compelling idea would come along. (Not unlike the new guy who starts to seem so much more appealing than the current boyfriend when reality sets in and you realize current guy is not Mr. Perfect.)

Many writers suffer from this malady and never get beyond it, and I was pretty sure I was terminal. But - I was fortunate enough to attend a writers' conference where two ladies gave a breakout session on writing your first draft in 30 days (not unlike NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month.) Well, I had tried NaNo before - more than once even - and had failed - miserably. But, I went to this session, hoping these ladies had a secret, something that would cure my ills. And... they did!

What was it? Well... aside from the hard copy calendar that I posted over my writing space & filled in with my daily word count goal -- (and aside from insisting that instead of chasing Shiny New Idea, I jot it in a notebook, not to be looked at until 1st draft WAS completed) -- they suggested telling people that I was writing a novel. But, not just any people... they said I needed to tell that one person who would look at me when I didn't finish it and say, "Huh. Is anyone surprised you didn't finish? I could've told you you'd never do it."

Yep - tell the one person who would revel in your failure. Aaack!!! (Of course, I'm good at taking direction, so, I did tell that person.)

Uh... 16 days. That's what it took for me to complete the 1st draft of a MG ghost story I'd been thinking about for over ten years. Those 16 days even included a major set-back of losing 8K words during a thunderstorm. But, I persevered - had a 3-day weekend in the mix - and finished! Yay!

That same year, in November, I tried NaNoWriMo -- again. The result of that NaNo ended up being XVI.

So - what might work for you, if you suffer from Unfinished Manuscriptitus, is
  • a calendar with space for word count tracking
  • setting a daily goal, and then
  • telling your worst friend you're writing a book!
Feel Better!!!

Writing Tips: What I Wish I Knew

I get asked one question a lot, especially from fellow writers:

What did I wish I knew about writing when I first started out?

And there's a lot of different answers for this--because I knew nothing, and there's a lot of things I really wish I had known. Some things are basic: don't query too early, get a crit partner, do your research before you send queries, learn how to format a manuscript. Some are more complicated, things like how to pace, how to plan a story arc, how to create interesting characters.

But if there was one thing that I wish I had known before started this whole thing, it is simply this:

It is unreasonable to expect your first manuscript to be published.

Sure, it happens. But honestly, you shouldn't expect it. I wish I'd known this--and believed it--before I even started to try to seek publication.

Here's the thing. You don't expect an artist to sell his first painting for a million bucks. You don't expect a singer to get a record deal based on one song. And while yes, it does happen, you shouldn't expect it.

But if I had learned that lesson, I think I'd add another lesson at the end of it.

Treat every manuscript like The One.

Because yeah, not all of my early manuscripts were worthwhile. But I believed they were--and I put in the work on them. I edited, revised, rewrote. And that's what taught me to get better. If I'd known the manuscripts I wrote before would never sell, I wouldn't have worked so hard on them. And if I'd not worked so hard on them, I never would have gotten better.