Spooky Reads for Halloween!

[insert obligatory post on spooky reads for halloween here]

C'mon, I know it's cliche, but I've got to do it!

This isn't your typical spooky ghost story--there are no ghosts, for one. But it's properly creepy, starting off with an eerie scene in an abandoned building that I visualized a little too well at 2am. In this story, Mara is a witness to a horrific accident...but it was not what she thought it was, and the consequences of that night aren't leaving her alone.

I sort of thing you should buy this one for Halloween based on the cover alone.

If that's not enough for you, how about this: ghosts, revenge, death. There. Go buy it for Halloween.

This is another one that's not a typical Halloween book--but there are ghosts--or at least the fear of them--and what I like is that this book also combines history, race, and relationships in with the ghost story.

What spooky reads are you checking out this Halloween?

Also--a little bit of a self plug, but I'm giving away 19 signed YA books here to prep for the next holiday--Thanksgiving!

Adding Suspense To Your Post-Apocoalyptic (or any!) Novel

Okay, so adding suspense to a novel is difficult business. And as science fiction and dystopian authors have a little bonus--they can use their sometimes scary and tense societies to build suspense. (There is the added drawback of having to develop and explain such societies too, so we don't have it totally easy!)

Here are a few tips for adding suspense to any novel, science fiction or not.

1. Chapter endings. Now I've heard people say to end them on a cliffhanger, but I actually don't think that's entirely true. You don't have to have an explosion at the end of every chapter, or a gun going off for it to be impactful.

The best advice I've heard is to end the chapter in one of two ways: a high or a low. And it can be a plot high or low, or an emotional high or low. Both bring the urge to turn the page, and build the tension for the next chapter.

Some examples:

Plot high, from THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson: "I gaze unbelieving at my nurse, amazed at the speed with which she moved, wondering why recognizing the life in my navel would sentence a man to death."

Emotional low from VIRTUOSITY by Jessica Martinez: "The black night, white stars, and yellow house lights glimmered like fractured glass, poised above me and ready to fall with one more shake of the kaleidoscope."

Notice I didn't have to use sci fi/dystopian titles for the examples. Any reading you do, identify the high/low at the end of the chapter. Use what works for you.

2. Shorter sentences. When I'm building up to a reveal, or writing a particularly fast-paced scene, I like to use shorter sentences or paragraphs. I find myself using repeats and echoes a lot, as I think this draws out the tension before the big reveal.

The white space allows breathing room, and the shortness of the text means the reader can read really fast.

All of that adds to the tension of the reading experience, in my opinion.

3. Evil villains. I think one of the reasons Harry Potter was so engaging is because Lord Voldemort is truly evil. He's scary whether he's on the page or not. I think every book can be benefitted from having a really evil villain.

Of course, if you're not writing fantasy or science fiction, there often is no huge, overarching villain. In cases like these (see VIRTUOSITY example above), rely on the emotional impact of your story.

What techniques do you use to add suspense to your novel?

Top 10 Scary Movie Futures

Forget vampires, werewolves, and crazy guys with a saw fetish. What could be scarier than a bleak and/or twisted future?  Here’s some of my faves—in rough order of livability.

Idiocracy (2006)

The dumb inherit the Earth.

Private Joe Bauers, the definition of "average American", is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he's easily the most intelligent person alive. (Source: IMDb)

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s vision of Phillip K. Dick’s story is a bleak, noir-ish world.

Deckard, a blade runner, has to track down and terminate 4 replicants who hijacked a ship in space and have returned to earth seeking their maker. (Source: IMDb)

Brazil (1985)

On the other hand, Terry Gilliam’s world is delightfully bizarre but an administrative nightmare.

A bureaucrat in a retro-future world tries to correct an administrative error and himself becomes an enemy of the state. (Source: IMDb)

Dark City (1998)

The IMDb blurb describes this fantastically dark vision pretty well:

A man struggles with memories of his past, including a wife he cannot remember, in a nightmarish world with no sun and run by beings with telekinetic powers who seek the souls of humans. (Source: IMDb)

Soylent Green (1973)

It’s people.

In an overpopulated futuristic Earth, a New York police detective finds himself marked for murder by government agents when he gets too close to a bizarre state secret involving the origins of a revolutionary and needed new foodstuff. (Source: IMDb)

Children of Men (2006)

The children won’t inherit the Earth if they’re not being born.

In 2027, in a chaotic world in which humans can no longer procreate, a former activist agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea, where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of humankind. (Source: IMDb)

Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

Right-wingers take over—and they’re having trouble procreating, too.

In a dystopicly polluted rightwing religious tyranny, a young woman is put in sexual slavery on account of her now rare fertility. (Source: IMDb)

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

We’re all living underground because of Brad Pitt. (Actually, it was the other guy, the one from St. Elsewhere.)

In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet. (Source: IMDb)

Matrix (1999)

We’re basically batteries with a fulfilling fantasy life.

A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. (Source: IMDb)

Zombieland (2009)

There’s just Woody Harrelson and bunch of zombies left. Rule 1: Cardio.

A shy student trying to reach his family in Ohio, and a gun-toting tough guy trying to find the Last Twinkie and a pair of sisters trying to get to an amusement park join forces to travel across a zombie-filled America. (Source: IMDb)

The Road (2009)

Not much of anything left.  I haven't actually seen this one, but the book painted the bleakest imaginable future--with only one faint sliver of hope at the end.

A post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive by any means possible. (Source: IMDb)

Also rans:
  • The Day After Tomorrow 
  • I am Legend / Omega Man
  • 1984
  • Brave New World
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Boy and His Dog
  • The Day After
  • Road Warrior
  • Minority Report
  • Metropolis
  • The Day After
What are some of your favorite movies with scary futures?

101 Uses for a Brick (Or a Ghost)

Hi all! I'm coming off a pretty intense few days of book events and have now caught myself a bit of a cold. But before I finish up my tea and put myself to bed I wanted to put together a short Halloween related post.

If you haven't seen it yet, Nova Ren Suma (Imaginary Girls) is doing a great series of Halloween themed posts on her blog. Mine will be up there later today. By all means give it a gander. But I also wanted to talk about one of the other posts in this series that went up last week. Nina LaCour (Hold Still) wrote up an awesome true life ghost story that, in addition to being supremely creepy, illustrates an important writing principal.

From here on out there are going to be SPOILERS so before we go any further, read the whole story. Don't worry it's short. I'll wait....

Read it?

Ok. Wow, spooky right? A few nights after I read this I flew into Los Angeles late at night and as soon as I got myself settled into my big empty hotel room this story came rushing back to mind and I got properly freaked out.

Now about the writing principle I think this illustrates. For me, this story works so well because of the twist at the end, where Nina theorizes that it wasn't some kind of ghost taking the pictures but the girl herself waking up in the middle of the night as this malevolent "other person" and taking the pictures. There's just something so chilling and unexpected about that interpretation. That there's this other person living inside you that lives to terrify and undermine you. Nina could have easily left this story as just a creepy occurrence, maybe it's a ghost, maybe not, and it would have worked perfectly fine. That she takes this extra step to come up with a novel interpretation of the event is really what does it for me.

One standard test of creativity is to ask someone to list as many different uses for a brick as they possibly can. You know, you can hold a door open with it, you can crack a walnut with it etc etc. Generally when people do this the first few uses they come up with are the most obvious ones and then the longer they go the more outlandish and surprising the uses get. The idea is the more credible uses you can come up with for a brick the more creative you are. To me, this is what LaCour did so well with this story. She didn't stop at the most obvious explanation for the occurrence, a ghost, she kept going until she found something that had the shock of surprise. She found a new use for a brick.

This is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I work on my new book. If a character needs to get out of a tight spot, I don't want to stop with the first gambit that comes to mind, I want to come up with as many options as possible and pick one that feels fresh and surprising. It's the same thing when it comes to interpreting a character's behavior, or exploring their point of view, or describing a feeling or an image.

Our first idea is not always the best, often it's simply the most conventional, but if we keep pushing we can get somewhere really surprising and, in this case, scare the hell out of people.

What about you all? Do you make a point to push past your first ideas and find new ones?

A short story for Halloween.

Disclaimer - I am not a short story writer. I'd like to be at some point... here's my first effort.

The Fifth Floor

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing here... 
On the elevator ride, I thought of everything wicked I'd done, from the very first time I ever lied (to Grammy about swigging maple syrup directly out of the bottle), to earlier this very day when I’d stuck that pen in my bag before I left work. I mean, come on... I know stealing is stealing, but it’s just a measly rollerball. It came in one of those annoying mailings where the contents rolls around inside and somewhere between origin and destination, the envelope gets torn because of the stupid pen bulge. Well, no matter... let me tell you and you see what you make of it.
My day was pretty normal. Uneventful even. Although, as I think back, there was the odd moment...
Like the incident after our requisite 1:15 meeting with the boss. Leaving the conference room, I’d nodded to him, as always, and for half a second I thought his eyes were red. Not red-rimmed from crying because sales were down in the basement; he wouldn’t cry about that anyway, he’d just yell at the sales team. Nope, those eyes had looked like glowing red embers. I’d chalked it up to the lighting. I remember he’d said, “Later.” Definitely more than the usual grunt, but, I’d shrugged it off as his sorry attempt to be cool.
Come to think of it, there were a lot of things that had seemed “off” at the office. (No pun intended, well... yeah... But, seriously, how can I joke at a time like this – right?)
When I say work had been normal, it was in that half-a-degree to the left sort of way. My eyes were constantly adjusting to the lights being too bright or too dim. (Which validates my theory about the boss’s weird eyes, doesn't it?) My co-workers were their usual combination of annoyingly cheerful and painfully dull, except for the nagging sensation I’d get upon passing them in the hallway. That prickles-up-the-neck feeling of being scrutinized, in a totally unpleasant way. But, when I’d turn around to see if they were looking at me, they were blithely going about their business, or so it seemed.
Then the whole pen-in-the-mail thingy. I’d only just glanced at the accompanying insert. The pen was included so the recipient could notate some kind of choice. I do remember thinking it odd that a religious organization had sent something to a business. Of course, being the lowly admin assistant, I get all the junk mail and stuff addressed to “occupant.” But, funny... now that I recall, the envelope had been addressed to me, Mary Blaize. Huh...weird. Oh well, I guess that means I didn’t steal the pen.
When I left work, I distinctly remember the receptionist saying, “goodbye,” not her typical, “Have a great evening.” It had kind of creeped me out with its ring of finality. If she noticed my questioning look, she’d done a great job of ignoring it. 
I was nearly home, the front porch was in my sights, a glass of red wine in my near future, when two unfamiliar people approached me. I figured they wanted directions. I was wrong. 
The events following, “Good evening, Miss Blaize.” are blurry. There was movement, maybe even traveling. How? I can’t really say. But I ended up in the lobby of a building I’d never seen before, in front of the elevator. I was wearing the dress I’d worn to the company Christmas party two years earlier and had stuck in the back of my closet, never to be seen or thought of again – until now. 
The woman stuck a bouquet in my hands and the man punched the elevator button. “Get off on the fifth floor,” he said. 
When I got on the elevator there were already three people inside. As the doors closed, I reached over to press 5. There were only four floors. I'm going to have to go back down to the lobby and these people are going to think I am so stupid, I thought. Paying me no mind, the occupants exited on the fourth floor, Two other people entered and, although it felt like the elevator was going down, when it stopped, the indicator above the doors lit up 5. We all got off.
The two people, a man and woman, bustled me through a busy office. In the adjacent hallway, the woman appraised my appearance and made miniscule adjustments to my hair and the skirt of my dress, then positioned me front of a door. 
I know who’s behind that door. Don’t ask me how, I can’t tell you. But, I definitely know. 
Standing there, sweaty palms around that pathetic bouquet you'd think I’m scared (well, yeah, I am... just a little.) But mostly, I'm wondering – is the devil’s due really a nosegay of painted daisies and forget-me-nots?

Classic Teen Reads for the YA Sci-fi Reader

Today at the League, we are pleased to welcome Phoebe North! Phoebe is a sci fi writer herself, and co-founder of the sci-fi review blog The Intergalactic Academy. If you're not already reading and following The Intergalactic Academy, then you absolutely must click over to it now. As their website says, "it’s your online source for everything YA sci-fi, from reviews of new book releases, to rereads of teen SF classics, to interviews with your favorite authors and nifty tech-link round ups."

Classic Teen Reads for the YA Sci-fi Reader

By Phoebe North

As blogs like this one show, young adult science fiction is undergoing a fantastic resurgence. More writers are looking at the world through a speculative lens than ever before. But there are some great predecessors to modern YA sci-fi that are often overlooked. Though these "teen" books might be a bit slimmer than what passes muster in YA these days (word counts back in the pre-Harry Potter days were much lower), here are three titles that are still worth a look by any YA sci-fi reader or writer:

The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts

Katie Welker is used to being alone. She would much rather read a book than deal with other people. Other people don't have silver eyes and other people can't make things happen just by thinking about them! Sometimes Katie even enjoys playing tricks on people.

This early-90s speculative classic is a beautifully-written story about a girl who is different from her peers. Katie's tale will appeal to anyone who has ever felt a little bit freaky--and maybe, secretly, hoped that this freakiness really meant they have superpowers. It's recently gotten a rerelease with a gorgeous new cover.

The Tripod Series by John Christopher

(The White Mountains/The City of Gold and Lead/The Pool of Fire/When the Tripods Came)

Long ago, the Tripods--huge, three-legged machines--descended upon Earth and took control. Now people unquestioningly accept the Tripods' power. They have no control over their thoughts or their lives. But for a brief time in each person's life--in childhood--he is not a slave. For Will, his time of freedom is about to end--unless he can escape to the White Mountains, where the possibility of freedom still exists. The Tripods trilogy follows the adventures of Will and his cohorts, as they try to evade the Tripods and maintain their freedom and ultimately do battle against them. The prequel, When the Tripods Came, explains how the Tripods first invaded and gained control of the planet.

This trilogy (followed by a prequel in the 80s) shows what happens after your classic alien invasion. The White Mountains opens in a seemingly-idyllic, quasi-Medieval world--until you learn that the "caps" that are placed on children's heads when they turn twelve are really a type of mind control executed by their alien masters. There are a few places where the original trilogy volumes show their age (mostly through some weird, dated racial descriptors), but it's otherwise fantastic, particularly the second volume. In The City of Gold and Lead, Will infiltrates an alien city. His alien Master is creepy, gross, and skin-crawingly sympathetic.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien

A gripping, thought-provoking story about life after a nuclear holocaust, by a Newbery Medalist. 

Ann Burden is sixteen years old and completely alone. The world as she once knew it is gone, ravaged by a nuclear war that has taken everyone from her. For the past year, she has lived in a remote valley with no evidence of any other survivors.

But the smoke from a distant campfire shatters Ann's solitude. Someone else is still alive and making his way toward the valley. Who is this man? What does he want? Can he be trusted? Both excited and terrified, Ann soon realizes there may be worse things than being the last person on Earth.

Forget The Road. Z for Zachariah is easily my favorite post-apocalyptic tale. Rather than telling the story of a Mad-Maxian band of wanders, like most post-apocalyptic stories, Robert C. O'Brien weaves a tale of a much more likely survivor--Ann, alone in her family's isolated country home. But when a visitor arrives, Ann must figure out if she can trust him--and if her solitude is worth protecting. Haunting and mournful and above all very real, Z for Zachariah is a great read for any post-apocalyptic fan.

Phoebe North is a 20-something writer from New York State. She reviews young adult science fiction--and writes about all sorts of YASF stuff--at the The Intergalactic Academy

Post-Apocalypse Survival for the One Percent

For Jeff's release week, I blogged about how to survive the collapse. Well, I have an addition to the list--for those of you who aren't among the 99% of us with less than few million dollars jingling in our pockets. As I was leafing through a back issue of Popular Science (doing a little research for a new book), I stumbled upon the Terra Vivos Underground Shelter.  When I read the article, I thought, oh, this is sounds very reasonable (and pop science-y)--all about modular, luxury emergency shelters like this below.

But then I checked out the company's web site.  Vivos is building a network of shelters, which you can buy into for $10K. (Kind of like a survival co-op.) Or you can build your own for substantially more. That doesn't sound like that batshit of an idea. But ...well, their goal is to complete construction of this network before 12/21/12. Just in case. Yep, the supposed end of the world according to non-existent Mayan prophecy. And if you poke around the website a little more (and watch a few videos)  ... Let's just say, had I not read about this in Popular Science first, I would have thought Vivos was either an elaborate joke (ala the Yes Men) or a cult. Or both.

Okay, I still think it's a bit culty. Vivos even refers to itself as the new Genesis. Plus they talk about the Quickening, 2012, and Glenn Beck thinks this is a good idea. Yikes.

Release Month Adventures!

Well, here we are, just a little over a month after the release of The Eleventh Plague. It's been a pretty crazy month with events in Decatur, New York, Virginia and Chicago. Highlights so far?

Sept.1 - Release Day! - My wife Gretchen and I head over to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and quickly find out that there's a company policy against taking pictures of books in the store. Who knew? Things got a little tense with one very rule oriented B&N employee until Julia Sarcone-Roach, picture book author and and B&N bookseller (below picture at left), swooped in and rescued us. She overruled her co-worker, let us take pictures and then had me sign all their stock. Thanks Julia!

Afterwards Gretchen and I hit Craft for dinner. If you're a Top Chef fan, this is Tom Colicchio's flagship restaurant. The dinner was out of this world. One of the best I've had. If you're in the neighborhood don't miss it! Also made for many good posing opportunities.

Sept. 3 - Decatur Book Festival - This was an incredibly well run event in a lovely city. It was in no way diminished by the fact that it was roughly 8 million degrees out when I was here. The highlight was definitely meeting, doing a panel with, and then drinking beer with fellow Crowe's nester Jonathan Maberry. It was quite something for this newbie to see a real pro at work. I definitely made a lot of notes to self while watching him do his thing. 

Sept. 17th - Fountain Books in Richmond VA - Headed back to the old hometown for a store visit and my, gulp, 20th High School reunion. The folks at Fountain Books were awesome, very welcoming and super knowledgable. I got to sit around with their also very knowledgable customers and just chat about books. What could be better? I also got to met the delightful Susan from Wastepaper Prose and took what is so far my favorite tour pic yet!

The reunion was good too. Odd, in the way that I imagine any HS reunion is odd, but a good thing to have done. It was pretty amazing looking at all of these adults and seeing the ghosts of the adolescents I knew. 

Sept. 24th - Anderson's Book Conference - I was pretty nervous about this one. Not because of the conference itself but because this would be the first time I would do school visits. Guys, I was an assembly. Just me. Turns out I had nothing to be nervous about. The teachers and principals and librarians were amazing and the kids…oh the kids. They were just great. I was lucky enough to talk to a about 150 high schoolers then 200 7th graders and another group of 250 8th graders. They were energetic and interested and super smart. I learned a lot from them about how to do these sorts of things. Mainly, to keep your presentation focused, fast paced and interactive. Also, if the school gives you the option of being up on a stage, behind a podium and talking through a mic? Avoid it if at all possible. I found that it was great to be down on the kid's level and as close up as possible. It seemed to keep it friendly and intimate.

And then at the conference itself I
 got to do panels with Ilsa Bick and Lisa McCann and meet Michelle Hodkin, Elizabeth Miles and many awesome librarians and book sellers. Also hung out with folks like Patrick Carman, Coe Booth,Sarah Darer Littman and publicist extraordinaire, Lauren Felsenstein. 

Oh and! In the hotel in Chicago? Dude! TV in the mirror in the bathroom!

Crazy, right?

All in all this has been an amazing month. Couldn't imagine a better way to launch a book! And there's more to come. In the next couple months I'm heading out to Redondo Beach CA, Connecticut, Miami, Chicago and Texas! You can see all upcoming events on my brand spanking new website!

Did we read the same book?

I did a library talk last night with the fabulous Saundra Mitchell for Teen Read Week. A teacher had brought one of her classes who had all read XVI together for class. The kids (all high school seniors) were engaged, asked lots of thoughtful questions, and had fabulous comments to make. (Can I just say it was the best night ever?!!!) And, one of them explained what the teacher had done with the assignment. They had to read 3 chapters a night and they had questions they had to answer every day. These were not the typical "why did so-and-so do this thing? what's the hidden meaning?" Nope, they were questions more along the line of what do you think this character was thinking when this happened? Did you agree with what he/she did? Etc.

Aside from the fact that several of the kids said XVI was the first book they'd ever read all the way through (how great did THAT make me feel?!!!) -- one thing that was obvious was that even though they all read the same book - it meant different things to each of them! Here are some examples:

1. One girl said a lot of girls she knows are already having sex and she doesn't feel ready to. She really identified with my MC (Nina), since that's Nina's thing -- in a world where being sexual at 16 is the norm, Nina's not ready to do that.

2. One guy identified with the book's portrayal of the police. He even commented that cops had come to his house once after a robbery and they left it in similar shape to how I portrayed Nina's house after the cops searched it.

3. Several of the audience identified with XVI's "Big Brother"-type government portrayal.

So - they all read the same book - but it was definitely individual to each.

Now, this is not a new thing - that the reader reads the book they want to, not necessarily the book the author wrote - but I loved seeing it up-close & personal!

Have you ever read a book and discussed it with someone else who'd read it and you've both come away with different ideas of what the book meant?  I wonder...

Dystopian and Sci Fi Short Stories

Because I'm wriggling my way into a couple of anthologies, I've had my eyes peeled lately for short stories, particularly YA and sci fi/dystopian short stories.

Short stories are a whole different structure from novels. A short story is no more a little novel than a child is a little adult. Short stories include different elements from novels, different tropes, different styles.

If you're like me, looking for more short stories and soaking them up, then here are a few good places to go:

Lightspeed Magazine is a digital magazine that only costs about $3 per issue. Since it's online, it doesn't shy away from longer stories (the issue I'm currently reading has a short story by Geroge R.R. Martin and while it is technically a short story, you guys know the size of his novels, right?) and it actively explores current and past writers, with stories varying from steampunk (an excellent one by Cassie Clare shares the same issue as an interview they did with me), sci fi, and more. It also--and this is what I find even more appealing--includes interviews and non-fiction articles.

You can read Lightspeed Magazine on an e-reader, but it's also available on, for example, your Kindle app on your computer. Since everything inside is short, even if you don't have an e-reader, the content is still digestible on your computer.

Of course, when I think of short stories, I tend to think of anthologies. For a current anthology focusing on paranormal, may I suggest Enthralled, edited by Kelley Armstrong and Melissa Marr (available in print or e-book)? This anthology is huge, full of stories from some of the hottest authors right now--Kami Garcia, Carrie Ryan, Jerri Smith-Ready, and more. With sixteen stories in all, you'll be sure to find something you love.

So: I want to know--where are you getting your short story fix?

Horror & Dystopian

Okay, so we're nearing the witching hour (Halloween), and October is the perfect month to talk about horror.

Now, I'll admit that I'm a huge wimp. I don't watch a lot of horror, because then I can't sleep at night. And my definition of horror is like, the 20/20 episodes about serial killers. I seriously make my 13-year-old son check the closets if the doors are closed and I don't remember closing them.

Watching movies and shows are much more impactful for me than reading, but I still don't read a lot of horror.

Unless you count the horror in dystopian novels. Because let's face it, dystopian novels aren't all sunshine and unicorns.

Let's examine:

THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE by Jeff Hirsch. All we have to do is look at the first sentence on the jacket copy.

In an America devastated by war and plague, the only way to survive is to keep moving.

Sounds horrific to me. Yet it was one of my favorite reads of 2011.

BLOOD RED ROAD by Moira Young. This time, it takes two sentence for me to feel the shiver of fear down my spine.

Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from.

Actually, the thought of a "dried-up wasteland" doesn't sound that appealing. And in BLOOD RED ROAD, there are some gruesome scenes that are simply brilliant. Horrific? Definitely. And I loved it.

THE PLEDGE by Kimberly Derting. Again, only one sentence.

In the violent country of Ludania, the language you speak determines what class you are, and there are harsh punishments if you forget your place—looking a member of a higher class in the eye can result in immediate execution.

I haven't read this yet, but I'm dying to be deliciously horrified.

THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner.

When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank.

I can't think of anything more horrifying than waking up and remembering absolutely nothing. I think our memories make us who we are, and it would be difficult to even know where to go or what to do moving forward.

A fantastically horrifying read.

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota-and hopefully live to see another day.

I don't know about you, but I'm not just trying to live to see another day. This novel has its fair share of violence, and it fits the world perfectly. But I was horrified--in the best way possible.

So I think I actually read a lot of horror. Maybe not blood and guts and people crawling through TVs, but still.

What do you think? Are dystopian novels horrifying?

Tell Me a Ghost Story

Actually, this is from Lexington's
ghost tour.

This weekend some friends and I are going on a Ghost Tour of Roanoke. I've been on touristy ghost tours of places like the French Quarter, and I happen to be watching Ghost Hunters as I type this. I'm a huge skeptic but still utterly fascinated with the subject of ghosts. I think 90+% of paranormal phenomenon can be explained in terms of things like electromagnetic sensitivity or infrasound (vibrations below our ability to hear) or overactive imaginations. However, there's that 10% (give or take) of the yet unexplained that gives me pause. 

Have any of you had experiences with ghosts? I haven't, so I want to live vicariously through you. ;)

Seasonal Favorites

So as we creep closer and closer to the best holiday of the whole entire year all I can think about is scary books. What I'm noticing though is it's not so much that I want to read any scary book it's more than I want to go back and read old favorites. For me that means Stephen King in general and It in specific. It isn't really King's best novel (for my money that's either The Stand, The Dead Zone or Misery) but it's the one that freaks me out the most and the one I seem to want to go back to every year around this time.

That made me start thinking about other seasonal books. Old favorites we go back to at some particular time of the year. For me it's It around Halloween and A Christmas Carol around Christmas. (original, I know) Now there are the obvious connections to the seasons in these books, but it also occurs to me that these seasonal favorites are generally books we read first as kids. As great as Christmas and Halloween are now, we don't really approach them with the awe we did as a kid. We don't believe in them as much. I think perpetually returning to these books and movies is a way to recapture a bit of what these holidays felt like when we were younger.

So I'm curious, do you guys have any seasonal favorites? Halloween books? Christmas books? Summertime books? What puts you all in the spirit?

Changing of the guard - swift or slow?

This morning I was thinking about how hard it is to change the powers that be – both in real life and in books. In books, overthrow/change has to be plausible, effective, and within the realm of possibility for the main characters.

History lends a hand in creating believable scenarios. A couple that immediately come to my mind are:

King Henry the VIII – without his powerful position, and his desire for a male heir (a goal of a living male heir to the throne was never attained), the Church of England would not have been started. Henry was willing to buck the Pope, get excommunicated, and start his own religion – all so he could divorce and remarry at will, in his quest for a male heir.

Hitler – I don’t want to dwell on this one. But, it must be noted that his rocketing rise to power and the horrific influence he had is worth studying – not only in the pursuit of writing a similar character, but in creating a credible timeline for change.

So – my question for y’all is… Do you pay attention to the time element in your sci-fi/dystopian worlds? Does it bother you if something happens in light speed when logically /historically it’s taken much longer?

What do you think?

What Story Do You Want?

One question that I keep getting a lot is: What book do you wish you had when you were a kid?

I grew up with some great classics: I had ENDER'S GAME and Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, and CS Lewis, and Patricia Wrede, and so many more.

But there's no denying that there are a few books I wish I had back then.

  • Harry Potter. I was in college when I started reading (the third book had just come out, and so I read all three at once, then started the wait for Book 4). And while it was so much fun reading those book--and I love how I got to anticipate them and go to the midnight buyings, etc.--I do wish that I could have had the magic of those worlds as a kid.
  • ELLA ENCHANTED by Gail Carson Levine. That book is brilliant--but what I love the most is the end, and how Ella has to make a hard decision...and does. That's a book I could have used when I was younger.
  • 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES by Maureen Johnson. Ginny, the main character, is scared--but she goes out on an adventure anyway. She did the things I wanted to do when I was younger, but was always afraid to do. I wish I could have read about how she did them first.
  • RAMPANT by Diana Peterfreund. Young me would have loved the concept of killer unicorns, but I think a lot of the underlying message of the books would have been just as important to young me, whether I knew it or not.
What about you? What are some books that you wished you had when you were younger?

Plotter vs. Pantser

A couple of weekends ago, I presented at a SCBWI regional conference. During an authors' roundtable, the topic of plotters vs. pantsers came up. That is, do you outline your novel or write it by the seat of your pants? I forget how many raised their hands for each, but the bottom line, we decided, was that you really do the same amount of work either way.  Plotters do the majority of work up front; pantsers do it in the revision process.

I'm decidedly a plotter when it comes to writing novels. (I do pants short stories, though.) However, as I was listening to how some other authors approached the business of getting published, I realized I had been a complete pantser in that regard. One particular author (cough, Beth, cough) talked about her very methodical approach to querying. She had an actual plan and goals!

I, on the other hand, have to admit I sold Memento Nora by the seat of my pants. After I'd written (and workshopped) it, I attended the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI regional conference and then subbed MN to three of the four editors who'd been on a panel. My current editor was one of those panelists. Don't get me wrong. I love working with her and the good folks of Marshall Cavendish. I just mean that I totally lucked out!  But then I had to do some work (play catch-up) in regards to getting an agent and learning about the business.

So moral of the story is that whether you're a plotter or pantser--in writing or business--you still got to do the same amount of work, just at different stages of the process.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? In which areas?

Is Your Talk Better Than Your Walk?

You may have seen this quote around lately, but in case not, this is from This American Life's Ira Glass and it just kills me, it's so perfect.  I don't think I've ever read anything that more succinctly states the problem for people just starting out in the arts.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Sure, what he's saying about perseverance is fairly common but what really grabs me is the stuff about how your taste, your ability to discern good work from bad, develops much sooner than your ability to create your own work. Essentially, we can all talk the talk way before we can walk the walk and that is the source of a lot of people's frustration. You're discerning enough to know your work isn't good enough before you have the ability to do anything about it. So all the work we do, all the writing and re-writing, is about practicing so much that we eventually close that gap and, as Glass says, make your work "as good as your ambitions."

With just one book to my credit, I definitely think of myself as some one just starting out and I know for me, I know my work isn't as good as my ambitions yet. What Glass is talking about is without a doubt my biggest frustration.  I guess it's nice to hear someone put it so succinctly and show that it's perfectly natural and a state we all go through.

What about you all? Is your talk better than your walk? Does it make you as nuts as it does me?

UFOs - what do you think?

Apparently August was a busy month for UFO sightings.


And - there have been recent discussions on the internet about whether aliens would be friendly or just come to enslave and/or eat us all. (I bet we taste like chicken.)

Of course, there have been numerous books & films made on both sides of the fence... some of my favs are:

The Brother from Another Planet

And, my personal favorite,
Men in Black

I have to admit, I did not personally spot any UFOs in my star-gazing this past August. But, what about you? Ever seen a UFO? Or ever wanted to see one?

Whatcha Reading?

Er.... it's 2pm here, and it's my day to post. Ooops. My only excuse: I just got back to the East Coast yesterday, and let's pretend everything is three hours earlier, ok? :)

Let's also pretend that I didn't spend all morning with my nose in a book so good that I forgot to do my online duties... (The book, btw, is FRACTURE by Megan Miranda and will be out this upcoming January!)

I've been reading a slew of post-apoc and spec fic lately, actually:

  • THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER by Michelle Hodkin: A creepy read perfect for Halloween. Read it now and get in the mood of October! It's about a girl who is the sole survivor of a horrible accident that killed her friends...but as time goes on, you learn it wasn't exactly an accident...and the girl may be more involved in it than even she knew...
  • SHATTER ME by Taraheh Mafi: Out soon, this novel is about a girl with the power to kill those she touches, a la Rogue from X-Men. It has a very unique writing style, incorporating the cross-outs that the title has on the cover.
  • FEVER by Lauren deStefano: The sequel to WITHER, I begged, borrowed, stole this novel. Just started it, but I can tell that it's going to be just as awesome, if not moreso, than the first book, about a world where people die much too young and a girl who's been kidnapped in order to procreate.
So: what have you been reading?